Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.
Population: 127 million
Currency: Japanese yen
Phrase to Know: Arigato (thank you)
Fun Fact: Japan was the first country to develop cube-shaped watermelons, which farmers mold into their distinctive shape by putting transparent boxes around the fruit as they’re growing. Square watermelons are easier to ship and fit better into Japanese refrigerators, which are often small.
We Recommend: Spend the night in a Buddhist temple on Mount Koya. By night you’ll enjoy vegetarian meals with the monks and sleep in simple tatami rooms; during the day you can explore an ancient cemetery and visit a rock garden.
12 Best Japan Experiences
Have you been to Japan? What was your favorite spot?
– written by Sarah Schlichter
As if we ever really need a reason to travel to Europe, the year 2015 nevertheless gives us several good excuses to shell out the money for a plane ticket across the pond.
In addition to a dramatically improving exchange rate — which means the U.S. dollar will go farther than you’d expect — England, Lithuania, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany are among the countries that offer excellent justification for a European sojourn, from celebrating important moments in history to commemorating a significant contributor to modern culture.
Here’s why you should consider visiting Europe this year.
England Celebrates the Creation of the Magna Carta
The document known as the Magna Carta, first written in 1215, was one of the first attempts to limit the power of a ruling entity and provide some level of freedom to “the people.” Over the years, the Magna Carta has inspired subsequent efforts, including the Constitution of the United States.
Six two- to four-day tourist itineraries have been created as part of the 800th anniversary celebration. Each “trail” covers a different aspect of the history of the Magna Carta and takes visitors to cities including London, Salisbury, Kent and others. Additionally, London’s Temple Church will be offering free London walking tours from June 1 to September 20. And for those who want to see copies of the original Magna Carta, there are four which will be displayed in various exhibits throughout the year.
13 Best England Experiences
200 Years Ago at Waterloo Napoleon Did Surrender
History and war buffs take note, one of the world’s largest battle reenactments will take place over two days this June in commemoration of the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo. The battle saw the end of Napoleon’s reign and brought peace, at least for a little while, to much of Europe. More than 5,000 people, 300 horses and 100 cannons will be used in the reenactment, and all are welcome to come participate or simply watch. Can’t make it to the battlefield on the exact days? Onsite guides offer a several tours (including those designed for slow walkers) of the battlefield seven days a week. Several museums are also available including the visitor center on the battlefield site, the Wellington Museum in Waterloo and Napoleon’s headquarters on the main road nearby.
In Memoriam, 125 Years: Vincent Van Gogh
July 29, 2015, will mark 125 years since Vincent Van Gogh died. Exhibits celebrating his life and body of work will be offered to the public in cultural institutions and art museums all over the world. Some of the most impressive exhibits will be in the Netherlands, Van Gogh’s birthplace. At the Kroller-Muller Museum, located in the Hoge Veluwe National Park, you’ll find the Van Gogh & Co exhibit between April 25 and September 27. The exhibit will concentrate on art styles popular at the end of the 19th century — still lifes, vistas, cityscapes and portraits — and will include more than 50 works by Van Gogh, as well as several pieces from his contemporaries. From September 25 to the middle of January 2016, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam will feature Munch: Van Gogh, which compares and contrasts the works of Van Gogh and Edvard Munch through the use of their paintings and drawings. One beautiful attraction to check out will be the Keukenhof Gardens, which in 2015 will have a theme of “Van Gogh, 125 Years of Inspiration.”
9 Best Netherland Experiences
Germany Celebrates 25 Years of Unity
Last year Germany threw a party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This year, the country honors the 25th anniversary of the legal reunification of the country. The largest celebrations will take place on the Day of German Unity (October 3), but you can be sure the country will be raising a beer stein throughout the year.
Lithuania Makes History, Joins the Eurozone
Lithuania will become slightly less off-the-beaten-track in 2015 when the country becomes the 19th nation to join the Eurozone and adopt the euro as its national currency. The country’s entry into the Eurozone means that exchanging money will become simpler and credit card use will become more widespread, both of which make visiting the country easier.
12 Best Germany Experiences
– written by Dori Saltzman
It’s that time of year again: Halloween! If you’re like most people in the U.S., you’ve carved jack-o’-lanterns, hung cornstalks and purchased candy in preparation for the adorable costume-clad beggars who will likely be knocking on your door dressed as witches and skeletons and ghosts. That’s the ideal scenario, but you might instead find yourself dealing with scantily clad teenagers who demand goodies and then egg your home when they’re turned away.
If you’re hoping to get out of Dodge for this potentially horrifying holiday, take a peek at how four other countries handle Halloween.
Ireland is considered the birthplace of Halloween, which is based on Samhain, the annual Celtic festival that acknowledged dead walking among the living and marked the end of harvest season. Although Halloween in Ireland is now celebrated in much the same way as it is in the U.S., activities like bonfires and parties are generally front and center, especially for children, who can win small prizes like candy and coins by playing themed games.
In Mexico, locals celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) over a two-day period that begins on November 1. Festivals, parties, food and themed activities mark the occasion, which coincides with the Catholic religion’s All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Skeletons have become synonymous with the holiday, which celebrates the lives of the departed rather than mourning their deaths.
Learn More About the Day of the Dead
Teng Chieh, China‘s version of Halloween, finds participants lighting lanterns to help guide the spirits of dead relatives, for whom they also leave refreshments. Some locals also choose to make paper boats, which are then burned to release the souls of those who have died but haven’t received proper burial.
If what you actually want to do is escape Halloween altogether, plan a trip to France. Although it becomes more well known there every year, thanks to North American influences, the holiday is still generally obscure and not widely celebrated.
Trick or Travel: The World’s Most Haunted Destinations
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
After recently spending a week at the home of a family friend in Grenada, I was a bit surprised to find that I had taken a vacation in the Caribbean and come back with not only a wicked tan, but also an education. An island in the West Indies, Grenada is a bit of a palimpsest, with traces of British and French roots visible in rusted fleur-de-lis fencing and cannons from another era. Although every country (no matter how small) can claim its own culture, Grenada stood apart with such a distinct identity that I’ll never make the mistake of confusing it for “just another island in the Caribbean” again. Here are five reasons the Spice Island left such an impression.
Grenada has won the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show 10 times, and when you step foot on the island you’ll immediately see why. Look left, look right, and spot countless species of blooms and trees crowding the landscape. Nature trails run in conjunction with numerous waterfalls, providing harmony among the elements and also convenient flower-gazing under a single entrance fee. Particularly pretty is Annandale Falls, where this photo was taken. Seven Sisters Falls, one of the top-ranked attractions in Grenada, is located within Grand Etang National Park, a rain forest preserve located high up in the island’s interior.
A nickname like the Spice Isle comes with a reputation, and it holds up. Enjoy the flavors of Grenada’s famous nutmeg, cocoa and cinnamon in dishes prepared across the island (or sprinkled in rum punch). Take advantage of the variety of fresh fruit — and juice — while you are there (packing mangoes wrapped in your dirty laundry is frowned upon by the TSA) and experiment with your tastebuds by trying flavors like golden apple, tamarind, soursop and even sea moss. Spice up your knowledge by talking to vendors about which products — jams, jellies, syrups and powder — come from which part of the nutmeg (yes, there are multiple parts!). Look also for popular treats like chocolate tea and homemade ice cream.
Learn the real story behind the American invasion of Grenada, see the ruins of gorgeous cathedrals still devastated by Hurricane Ivan, snorkel for underwater statues inspired by Grenada’s slave trade and learn the story behind the tragic Leaper’s Hill (which includes the final resting place of the first known patient of sickle cell anemia). The assassination of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop (whose name was given to the international airport) took place in recent history — 31 years ago this past Sunday (October 19) and the bullet holes can still be seen in the deteriorating Fort George. The island’s history is rich, and it’s worth taking a moment to understand the pivotal events that have shaped it.
Take a Dip
Grand Anse may be the island’s best-known stretch of sand, but anywhere that seems safe for a swim is fair game in Grenada. From local favorite Bathway Beach, which has views resembling a Caribbean-style Cliffs of Moher, to the hideaway of Petit Anse, just behind a hotel’s bar and restaurant, it’s not difficult to find your own secret beach (and the water is typically warm and ripe for swimming). Particularly picturesque is Carriacou, a neighboring island just a ferry ride away. Aptly named, Paradise Beach is a bumpy taxi ride down back roads, but offers almost total seclusion and a view that makes it difficult to catch the 3:30 ferry back to Grenada.
A place can be the most scenic, culturally significant, accommodating destination with haute cuisine and diversions for every day of the week, but for me, it always comes down to the people. In Grenada they were friendly, welcoming and eager to show us their island (or to sing us a tune). I had the great opportunity to live locally and to stay with a family, but ventured out on my own using local buses and a little direction. It’s always slightly unsettling exploring somewhere new for the first time and learning your boundaries, but by the fish fry in Gouyave on our last night, when we ran into practically everyone we met on the entire trip there, the sense of pride and community wasn’t just obvious — it was infectious.
Six Quick Tips for Planning a Last-Minute Vacation
Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?
– written by Brittany Chrusciel
Next Tuesday marks the first official day of fall. As we mentally prepare for the autumnal equinox and the many glorious accouterments that come along with it — pumpkin spice everything — we’re bringing you our suggestions for some of the best places to enjoy the brilliant colors abroad. Read on for our picks.
Tuscany, Italy: Tuscany is romantic enough on its own, but when you throw in jaw-dropping colors (mid-September and October) and the crisp chill of fall, it’s a great place for anyone hoping to relax — particularly with a nice glass of wine.
11 Best Italy Experiences
Honshu, Japan: During November and December, this island bursts with fall colors, particularly in Kyoto, where fiery leaf hues surround local temples and koyo celebrations abound.
12 Best Japan Experiences
Nova Scotia, Canada: September and October are key months for this leaf-peeping destination. Set against picturesque lakes, the leaves there offer a worthwhile experience for travelers seeking an autumn respite closer to home.
11 Best Canada Experiences
Bavaria, Germany: Couple bright, leafy landscapes with grand castles and mountain backdrops, and you’ve got a recipe for stunning autumn views. The best time to catch them is in October.
12 Best Germany Experiences
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
On a recent trip to Norway, a member of the country’s tourism bureau told me that the number of U.S. visitors to Norway increased by about 40 percent in 2014 due to “Frozen.” That’s right — an animated Disney blockbuster for children boosted the number of travelers to the region by nearly half. That got us thinking about other movies that have spurred visits from loyal fans and, in some cases, even tours that feature the places where the actual filming took place. Read on for a list of some of the most notable ones.
Set in the Norwegian fjords, this story takes Anna, a princess, on a journey to find her sister with the help of a snowman. It sounds quirky, but Disney is now offering official “Adventures by Disney” tours of the region, which include stops in Bergen (on which Arendelle, the movie’s fictional setting, is based), as well as activities like rafting, hiking, fishing, dancing and fjord exploration.
“The Lord of the Rings” (New Zealand)
This famous fantasy series, shot entirely in New Zealand, had many filming locations within the country, including Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury and Fiordland, among others. Several companies like Lord of the Rings Tours offer guided excursions to various places seen in the movies, but you can also easily organize your own tour with the help of New Zealand Tourism’s resources.
I’ll Take a Large Popcorn and a Ticket to Paris
“Anne of Green Gables” (Canada)
The classic novels and their made-for-TV counterparts still draw lots of visitors each year to Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, Canada. While there, you can get a feel for the place Anne called home and even tour Green Gables, the house that was used in the TV/film series; it has been decorated to look just like what you’ve imagined from the books.
“Memoirs of a Geisha” (Japan)
Set in Kyoto, Japan, a “Memoirs of a Geisha” tour — like this one offered by Japan for You — will take you to several of the movie’s shooting locations and expose you to Japanese food and culture through performances and trips to shrines, restaurants and tearooms. You’ll also have some free time to explore on your own.
The Top 5 Airlines for In-Flight Entertainment
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
Greenland is the world’s largest island, but it’s also one of the most remote, with most of its 836,000 square miles buried under a massive layer of ice all year round. Exploring Greenland requires warm clothing and a sense of adventure. You’ll also need a bit of extra money; because roads don’t connect the isolated towns and villages here, your only transportation options are expensive flights and ferries.
The most convenient choice is to visit Greenland by cruise ship. That’s what I did on a recent trip aboard the Fram, a 256-passenger expedition vessel run by the Norway-based Hurtigruten line. I chose the “Glaciers and Ice” sailing from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, one of several summer sailings from Hurtigruten. (Another itinerary later this summer includes the rarely visited North East Greenland National Park, which is frozen over for all but a few weeks of the year.)
During my 11 nights onboard, I had plenty of time to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Hurtigruten experience in Greenland. Here’s what worked well — and what could’ve used a little improvement.
The Itinerary: The ship only made one call in Iceland, but it was a good one; the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is quintessentially Icelandic, with sheep and horses roaming green hills, fishing villages dotting the coastline and a volcano brooding over the whole scene. Then we reached Greenland, where the fjords glittered with ice and brightly painted houses provided the only splashes of color in a stark, rocky landscape. It’s a fascinating part of the world that few travelers get to explore.
6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise
Local Experiences: In Itelleq, our last port of call, Hurtigruten offered a couple of memorable chances to interact with the 120 Greenlanders who live in this small settlement. All of us got tickets for a kaffemik, a visit to a local home for coffee and pastries; then we had the chance to join (or watch) a friendly soccer game between Fram passengers/crew and the residents. We shared little common language, but sports and smiles managed to bridge the gap.
Enrichment: Except for the busiest days in port, most daily programs included at least one or two lectures by members of the ship’s knowledgeable expedition staff. Topics included the natural world — ice, polar bears, whales — and the history of Greenland, from the earliest nomadic peoples to Vikings such as Erik the Red. These helped us better appreciate the towns and landscapes we were visiting onshore.
Staff: From the expedition team to the waitstaff in the bar and restaurant, Fram’s crewmembers were nearly all friendly and multi-lingual. During one hike, our enthusiastic guide switched effortlessly from German to French to English, depending on which passengers he was speaking to. At dinner, our waiter quickly learned our drink preferences, and the housekeeping staff always greeted us with a smile in the halls.
Missed Calls: We were unable to make four of our 11 scheduled port stops due to excessive fog and ice. (Ours was the first Greenland sailing of the season; such significant ice is a little less likely on cruises later in the summer.) It was a reminder that expedition cruises to remote parts of the world always come with a little unpredictability. Our extra days at sea were filled with lectures and afternoon snacks in the lounge — interesting and fun, but not quite enough to make up for the experiences we’d hoped to have ashore.
Buffet Meals: Dinners onboard alternated between plated meals served at the table, which were generally quite good, and buffets that too often didn’t live up to the same standard. Some dishes were lukewarm or overly salty, and the fixings at the salad bar began to look awfully familiar after a few days of seeing the same ones at both lunch and dinner. (Unlike larger ships, Fram offers no alternative restaurants.)
Internet Access: During our 11-night sailing, I only managed to get online twice via the computers in the ship’s Internet cafe, and I couldn’t connect at all on my own laptop (though I tried daily). When I did get online, the connection was agonizingly slow. One crewmember told me that the staff couldn’t connect either and that Hurtigruten is working to get the issues fixed. Of course, not everyone wants to get online during their vacation, but if you do, for now you’ll have to rely on your phone or be out of touch completely.
See Our Latest Cruise Deals
– written by Sarah Schlichter
A few years ago, I considered my first solo trip (to Austria). Though I’d flown to Europe alone several times in the past, I’d always met familiar faces at the airport. This time around, I knew I’d want a similar kind of security — and that’s when I discovered Monograms through a travel agent.
Monograms — which operates in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia/New Zealand — helps travelers spend less time on trip planning by organizing hotels, airport and city transfers, and suggested itineraries. It also provides insight and help from trusted locals, should you want it. But as a traveler, you’re supposed to feel as though you’re on your own — not on a tour group vacation — the whole time.
I never took that trip to Austria, so when I recently received an opportunity to experience a Monograms vacation package — this time in Italy (the company’s most popular destination) — I happily accepted the offer. Read on to see what I loved about the trip, as well as didn’t work quite as well.
Convenience: Monograms packages include accommodations and complimentary breakfast at a centrally located hotel; a Local Host, who essentially acts as your personal concierge; organized sightseeing opportunities; and transfers between cities. Airport transfers are also included if you book your flight via Monograms. Shortly before the trip, visitors also receive an information packet with a (loose) itinerary and useful tips about the destination, such as electrical outlet guidelines, customary tipping procedures, emergency phone numbers and a weather forecast.
9 Things to Do When No One Speaks English
Independence: As mentioned, select sightseeing opportunities are included in Monograms packages (though they’re certainly not mandatory), and are typically offered in half-day sessions. This allows plenty of free time to go it alone; in fact, you’ll feel like you’re on your own most of the time. Other excursions (like a gondola ride in Venice, for example) are available for an additional fee.
Local Insight: The most valuable feature of Monograms is the Local Hosts. While they can handle trip logistics and answer questions, they’re also a great resource for recommendations and inside tips. For instance, our Local Host, Igor, directed us to the best place to beat the crowds and view Venice’s Rialto Bridge (Campiello del Remer). Upon request, he also gave us a few history lessons via a spooky tour of the city at night. Local Hosts are helpful from a safety perspective as well — if you get in a bind, they’re just a phone call away.
Special Privileges: By traveling with Monograms, you can skip lines at attractions included in sightseeing tours. For example, I was allowed immediate access to St. Mark’s Basilica, Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Museo del Vetro (Murano Glass Museum) in Venice. Since the lines for these landmarks can get excruciatingly long, especially during the summer months, this is a welcome perk.
Group Sizes: Monograms doesn’t really limit the number of people who book vacation packages at one time, and some travel dates are just more popular than others. In this case, Monograms might split a group for sightseeing tours, but in the event it doesn’t, you’ll likely be walking around in a giant group like other tourists, headset in ear and all.
Tourist Trap-Heavy: To that effect, most of the sightseeing options included in Monograms itineraries are popular attractions, a k a tourist traps. While some are certainly worth the visit (I’m not sure who’d pass up a tour of the Eiffel Tower), many travelers might prefer to bypass the big names and spend their money on an entirely off-the-beaten-path getaway.
Tourist No More: 3 Secrets for Traveling like a Local
By the way, I still plan to visit Austria, and when I do, it’ll more than likely be with Monograms.
– written by Amanda Geronikos
There’s no better way to get to know a new place than by meeting up with a local friend or family member who can show you all the secret hot spots that first-time visitors usually miss. Alas, even the most well-connected travelers can’t possibly have friends everywhere — and that’s where a site like Tripbod.com can help.
The site, founded in 2007 and recently acquired by IndependentTraveler.com’s parent company, TripAdvisor, bills itself as “your friend at the other end.” It helps travelers connect with local experts called Tripbods who can provide trip planning advice, put together a personalized itinerary, or offer unique experiences such as a photo safari in London or lunch in a Moroccan souk.
In some respects the site is like a modern version of a travel agent. One typical listing from a Tripbod in Guayaquil, Ecuador, offers “Skype conversation, emails, advice in how to make the most out of your time, best restaurants, budget hotels, and local operators so that you can develop your own detailed itinerary” for 23 GBP (about $38 USD). For travelers who enjoy planning their own trips, it’s an ideal way to get information and guidance without having to be led around by an actual guide at all times.
Tourist No More: Three Secrets for Traveling Like a Local
If you do want a guide, the site offers that too. There’s an enticing array of experiences and tours ranging from meeting indigenous populations in the highlands of Mexico to cycling through rice fields in Yangshuo, China.
Of course, there are a few caveats. Some of the experiences are on the pricey side — such as a homemade Icelandic dinner outside of Reykjavik featuring lamb, potatoes, salad and dessert for 75 GBP per person (more than $125 USD). I also encountered a few search glitches. When I looked for tours in Wellington, New Zealand, the site turned up results almost everywhere but (New Delhi, San Salvador, Glasgow, Muscat …). And while the site offers a space for past travelers to review each experience, none of the ones I clicked on had received any reviews yet, making it tricky to decide whom to trust.
Still, as a traveler who’s eager to meet locals and find experiences beyond the usual sights, I know I’ll be checking out the site before my next trip.
20 Ways to Blend in with the Locals
Would you give Tripbod a try?
– written by Sarah Schlichter
The date may mean nothing to you now, but December 13 of this year is already getting a ton of hype at hotels and resorts around the world.
Why? Because it’s 12/13/14, and people love unique dates. Remember November 11, 2011 (11/11/11)? And get ready for March 14 (3/14/15, also known as the first five digits of the numeral pi). In fact, this week is being called Palindrome Week as all of the dates (4/12/14 – 4/19/14) read the same forward and backward.
With only 365 days in a year, it’s hard to avoid the cliche holiday proposals, stereotypical wedding dates and other event planning faux pas that make your special day overlap with that of countless others.
That’s why, according to CNBC, popular destinations such as Las Vegas are gearing up special hotel and vacation packages for this milestone — the last sequential calendar date this century. (The next won’t be until 01/02/2103.) Luckily for marrying couples and party throwers, 12/13/14 falls on a Saturday.
16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel
According to the CNBC article, many of Las Vegas’ renowned chapels are already fully booked, with some accommodating couples who wish to exchange vows at exactly 12:13:14 on the clock. Some resorts and spas are offering full and exclusive rentals of their entire property on December 13, with price tags upwards of $115,000.
Other hotels and casinos are getting creative with pricing; MGM Grand is offering a package from $1,400 with a commemorative certificate to mark the calendar occasion, while Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa in Austin, Texas, is offering a special rate of $1,213.14 for its luxury Crenshaw Suite to any couple who books their 12/13/14 wedding at the property. To top it off, the married-couple-to-be will also receive complimentary weekend stays for their 12th, 13th and 14th wedding anniversaries — it’s the date that keeps on giving!
On the flip side, many share the same idea of tying the knot or making a statement on an iconic date, so it may not be so unique after all. According to a David’s Bridal survey, around 3,000 U.S. couples were set to marry last year on 11/12/13, a Tuesday, and even more six years earlier on 07/07/07 (a Saturday).
Have you ever used an iconic date for a wedding, a retirement or just an excuse to get away? Let us know in the comments!
– written by Brittany Chrusciel