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globe woman world travelWhat do Cape Town, Christchurch and Calgary have in common … besides all starting with the letter “C”?

They’re all on the New York Times’ annual Places to Go list. This year the much-anticipated list numbers 52 places, up from last year’s 46 recommended destinations. And they’re all pretty phenomenal.

Examples include the Albanian Coast, which the Times says combines the rugged beauty of the Dalmatian Coast with Greece’s ancient ruins and the easygoing nature of rural Italy (No. 4 on the list); Fernando de Noronha, a 21-island archipelago 330 miles off the coast of Recife, Brazil, that boasts 250-foot black cliffs and peach-sand beaches and to which only 246 visitors are allowed per day (No. 14 on the list); and Chennai, one of India’s cultural capitals, home to several dance and music schools that offer regular performances around the city (No. 26 on the list).

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Several of the places on the list matched up with IndependentTraveler.com’s Top 9 Destinations for 2014, including two exactly: Nepal (No. 45) and Iceland (No. 30). Others fell within broader destinations we picked for 2014. The New York Times, for instance, includes the Arctic Circle (No. 38), while IndependentTraveler.com chose the Far North (defined by us as anywhere you can see the Northern Lights).

The Places to Go list is a great resource for discovering new must-visit destinations — I added five items to my bucket list including the Albanian Coast; Krabi, Thailand (No. 28); the North Coast of California (No. 3); Varazdin, Croatia (No. 48); and Xishuangbanna, China (No. 32) — and reaffirming that several places already on my bucket list really are worth visiting, like Namibia, the Seychelles and the Arctic Circle.

Another thing I love about the Places to Go list is ticking off places I’ve already been. Of the 52 places suggested for 2014, I’ve already visited seven, though I’m dying to go back to Cape Town (No. 1), Perth (No. 9) and Scotland (No. 16).

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How many of the 52 places have you been to? How many are already on your bucket list? And how many — and which — new places did you add to your list?

– written by Dori Saltzman

space balloon capsuleTwo things have been holding me back from signing up for a trip to space: a susceptibility to motion sickness and a decided lack of millions of dollars. Now a new company has emerged with a possible solution to both of my issues.

World View Enterprises recently revealed plans to use a helium balloon to lift eight customers in a pressurized capsule to the brink of space, nearly 100,000 feet (just under 19 miles) above the earth. According to the Washington Post, the trip would last about four hours, with a 1.5-hour ascent and two hours spent hovering at the edge of outer space. From that height, participants would be surrounded by the intense darkness of the sky and able to see Earth curving beneath them.

The company hopes to launch its first customer outing by 2016.

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Because the capsule, which would protect occupants from the harsh dangers of the upper atmosphere, would never actually get into space, require G-force speeds or reach zero gravity, the risk of motion sickness would be minimal as compared to other space travel options.

The price tag is also significantly reduced from other forms of space travel … but in the way that a Vera Wang dress on sale at 50 percent off still costs a mint. Half off sounds great, but 50 percent of $50,000 is still a whopping $25,000.

In this case, the difference in price between Virgin Galactic’s $250,000 proposed space jaunt and World View’s edge-of-space offering is a massive 70 percent. And compared to the $50 million price tag for Space Adventures’ trip to the International Space Station — the only currently available option for space tourists — the World View offering is an absolute steal.

But it’s still $75,000 for a four-hour trip, which puts it solidly outside of my travel budget.

Are you tempted by the new company’s offering? Is $75,000 closer to what you’d pay to get near to space, or would you rather use the same amount of money to explore more of the planet you’re already on?

9 Places to See Before the World Ends

– written by Dori Saltzman

merida independence day grito de doloresImagine how many insights travelers to the United States would glean about the American character if they visited during our Independence Day celebrations on July 4.

They’d pick up some of our essential values, such as patriotism (flying of flags), love for family and community (reunions, BBQs, hometown parades), distrust for institutional authority (setting off fireworks, both legal and illegal) and occasional stupidity (ER visits because of the aforementioned fireworks). Not to mention all of those sales (pursuit of happiness?).

Of course, we’re not the only country that celebrates an Independence Day. So when I found out that I’d be traveling in Mexico over its holiday (held on September 16 — not Cinco de Mayo as many people think), I saw it as a chance to dive a bit deeper into our southern neighbor’s national psyche.

My trip to Merida, a colonial city in Yucatan that’s popular with expats, also reminded me that visiting countries during their holidays can require a few schedule (and attitude) adjustments. Here are some tips I picked up.

Read up. Before you go, it helps to learn about the country’s history. A bit of research taught me that Mexico’s struggle for freedom from Spain was just as arduous — if not more so — as our break with Britain. For one thing, the war lasted 11 years, from 1810 to 1821, compared to our eight. And Spain had been in control of the colony since 1521, establishing dominance for nearly 300 years (talk about fighting the power).

The centerpiece of Mexican Independence Day is called the Grito de Dolores, a symbolic re-creation of the beginning of the revolution. It’s broadcast nationwide from Dolores, the small town in central Mexico where it all began. On the night of September 15, crowds gather in city public squares throughout Mexico to ring bells and watch fireworks. Having a little knowledge about the first Grito, issued as a call to arms by a Roman Catholic priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, made the event more special for me.

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Expect crowds — and closures. I arrived in Cancun on September 14, the Saturday before the holiday. The airport was even more packed than usual, with Mexicans arriving from overseas to celebrate the holiday at home or taking advantage of the three-day weekend to go on short trips outside the country.

Once I arrived in Merida, I learned that some attractions I’d planned on visiting, such as the Noche Mexicana, a folk festival usually held on Saturday evenings, would not be taking place. Some roads were also closed to through traffic, which meant taking a cab to the Plaza Grande was out of the question (luckily, it was a short walk from my hotel).

Tip generously. Not everyone has Independence Day off, of course. Because of the increased crowds, the day was business as usual — and then some — for people who work in the hospitality industry. If you know that you are keeping your driver, tour operator or server from being with their families on their national holiday, it’s a nice gesture to make your tip a little more special. After all, wouldn’t you want visitors to the States to do the same?

merida independence dayTake part. After checking with my concierge to make sure it was safe, I headed out to the Independence Day festivities around 10 p.m. Sunday night. The streets were packed with revelers, mostly families, and the restaurants on the Plaza Grande were full. After grabbing a mango sherbet at Sorbeteria Colon, which has been serving sweet treats since 1907, I positioned myself on a bench to people watch (the giggling teenagers with the fake moustaches — a tribute to the bushy revolutionaries — were particularly entertaining).

I didn’t have long to wait. After the Grito at 11 p.m., the crowd erupted into cheers. “Vivan los heroes que nos dieron patria!” the chant started, before naming some of the country’s founding fathers. “Viva nuestra independencia! Viva Mexico! Viva!

At the end of the third “Viva Mexico,” fireworks shot into the sky. The national anthem started to play, and the people around me started singing. I found myself moved by their obvious love for their country, and realized that patriotism — as opposed to its more sinister cousin, nationalism — is a beautiful thing to watch, regardless of your passport.

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– written by Chris Gray Faust

globe woman world travelThe over-the-top Huffington Post headline immediately caught my eye: “30 Epic Places You Absolutely Must Visit Before You’re 30.” As it happens, I just turned 30 earlier this year, so I clicked on the link with interest. I’d consider myself reasonably well traveled — so how many of these amazing, “must-visit” places did I manage to knock off before hitting this milestone age?

Alas, just one: the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain. (And while it was a perfectly pleasant square, I’m not sure I’d call it “epic.”)

To be fair, I’ve also been to Paris and Las Vegas, but not to the specific cafe and nightclub the author recommends. And I’ve walked around the Washington Monument in D.C. — I just haven’t gone up to the observation deck (which has been closed to the public since the city was rocked by an earthquake in 2011). You can read the full list here.

At first, reading through the list and seeing so many places I hadn’t been made me feel like a bit of an underachiever. But frankly, this list is absurd. Few travelers make it to Antarctica in their lifetime, let alone by the time they hit 30. (Dedicated Antarctica cruises typically go for $10,000 or more per person.) Bhutan is also too rich for the blood of many 20-somethings, with its “minimum daily package” requiring that all tourists spend $200 – $250 a night per person. And how many of us are going to make it to tiny, remote Palau, where the airfare alone will set you back $1,800 or more?

The Amazing, Expanding Bucket List

To put this in perspective, IndependentTraveler.com’s staff ranges in age from 23 to 50+, and in our collective decades of travel we’ve still not covered everything on the list. I guess if you’re a 20-something with an open schedule and a bottomless wallet, you just might manage it. As for me — well, at least I’ve got plenty of inspiration for my 30’s and beyond.

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How many of the places on the Huffington Post’s list have you visited? Share your thoughts in the comments below! (Don’t worry. We won’t make you reveal your age.)

– written by Sarah Schlichter

supermarket aislesNext year I’m going to Liverpool, England, for a friend’s wedding. My husband and I plan on staying five or six days with my friend and then venturing out for three to six days. Though I’ve been to London, I’ve never ventured outside the British capital.

Inspiration for trip ideas has been easy to come by. While looking for a few really cool experiences in the Liverpool area, I checked out IndependentTraveler.com’s 13 Best England Experiences and have already added the Magical Mystery Tour to our list of things to do.

But I need more than just ideas for things to do and places to see. I need to figure out how to plan my trip as inexpensively as possible.

So how am I preparing?

I plan to consult a long list of resources, ranging from the official Liverpool and England tourism websites to asking various British friends. And, of course, I’m checking out the advice we’ve compiled here at IndependentTraveler.com. Between the various articles on money, packing, international travel and more, I’ve already started putting together a list of must-dos.

For instance, one of the best ways to save money on a trip to England, where their currency is stronger than ours, is to get the best exchange rate that I can. In Buying Foreign Currency: Get More Bang for Your Buck, Mark Rowlands, sales director at currency provider Covent Garden FX, advises shopping around before leaving home. Additionally, he says to prepare ahead of time by checking the money market. I shouldn’t trust suppliers to tell me what the current rates are; instead, I should pre-check them myself with a website like XE.com.

“You can’t buy from a wholesaler, but knowledge is power. If your supplier is adding 5 percent — which is not unusual — walk away.”

Travel Budget Calculator

Furthermore, once I’m in England and need more currency I know to stick as much as possible with credit cards and ATM withdrawals, thanks to Get the Best Exchange Rate.

Another area we might be able to save money is transportation. Do we rent a car or do we stick to mass transit?

If we rent a car, Traveler’s Ed author Ed Hewitt recommends looking at smaller rental car players, like Europcar, and not just sticking to the big names. In Car Rental Secrets We Bet You Don’t Know, he also advises using an aggregator like Priceline to find the best price:

“As I have written numerous times in different contexts over the past 15 years, the best place to get a great rental car price is Priceline. It posts prices for the majority of rental car companies.”

On the other hand, if we stick with mass transit, we’ll have to hit the rails, at the very least to get from wherever we land (Manchester, hopefully) to Liverpool and back again. According to Getting Around England: Flights, Trains and More, we’ll need to check out Virgin Trains, which offers a range of inter-city routes, like London or Manchester to Liverpool.

Customizable Packing List

If you’ve got any suggestions for me, please stop by my Liverpool and Surrounding Areas thread on the IndependentTraveler.com’s members’ forum.

– written by Dori Saltzman

naples italy Along with our slideshow of the 11 Best Italy Experiences, this post is part of an ongoing effort to help independent travelers make unique memories in both popular and undiscovered destinations around the world.

For Italian politicians, Naples sometimes seems like a problem that’s best left alone. It’s a tangled ball of social inequalities — a wriggling can of economic worms that, once opened, threatens to squirm out, all over one’s pristine Armani chinos.

For travelers, as well, Naples can seem like a place that’s better avoided than engaged with. Even we’re guilty of it. On IndependentTraveler.com’s recent roundup of 11 Unforgettable Italy Experiences, Naples lost out to neighbouring Sorrento, which offers a small slice of southern Italy without the bad attitude that Naples has (perhaps unfairly) become associated with.

But sometimes the most rewarding relationships are the ones that require the most work — and with this in mind, my travel companion and I set off for the south.

We boarded the high-speed train from Rome to Naples and sat down across from a surly-looking rail worker in mucky orange overalls who pretended to be asleep for most of the journey. We had plenty of time, while watching little terra cotta villages and impossible-to-reach green mountains fly past the window, to think about everything we knew about Naples.

Our guidebook was hysterical. Everyone we met in Naples, we were advised, was out to rob or shoot us. We should treat anyone approaching us as either a “hood” or a “swindler.” I think our guidebook had been written by a 1950’s cardsharp. I pictured him sweating in his zoot suit at the very thought of the mean Neapolitan streets, battering away at a typewriter in a dimly lit tenement building, waiting for the call from Bugsy.

Unfortunately, this seems to be where many people’s perceptions of Naples are stuck. But what else did I know about Naples?

It’s the third largest city in Italy — after Rome and Milan. It is also one of the poorest places in Europe, with an unemployment rate of almost 11 percent. Its Italian name, Napoli, is derived from the Latin Neapolis, meaning “New City.” Its historic city center, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, has long been renowned for its beauty, with generations of poets and artists coming from all over the world for inspiration. It also has an enduring and unfortunate association with organized crime.

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One of my brother’s friends claims that upon visiting Naples for the first time, he witnessed a fatal shooting before he’d even left the train station.

This kind of thing has shaped Naples’ reputation — a reputation that gives visitors a kind of thrill. Naples has a sheen of danger that reassures travelers that here they are experiencing something real, something that hasn’t been laid on for them by the tourist board.

So what was Naples actually like?

The first thing we noticed was not the danger but the heat. Naples is definitely hotter than other major Italian cities like Rome. The streets seemed more humid, and despite the sun, there were fewer people wearing sunglasses. Everything, even the escalators, seemed to move at a slightly different pace.

We enjoyed the ramshackle mix of architecture and the blue sea in the bay. It is often said that Rome is Italy’s heart and that Naples is its soul. I can’t say whether you should be frightened of Naples or not, but I do know that you should visit it if you can. Keep an eye out, of course — as you would anywhere — but don’t go expecting trouble.

Trip Review: Naples

The guy in the orange overalls that had been sharing our table got his things together in a rucksack and made his way off the train into the crowded streets. He looked as though he was on his way home, along with the hundreds of other people who had made the hourlong commute from Rome. The city is eminently accessible — there really is no reason to be put off visiting.

Naples has a charm of its own, completely separate from that of bustling Rome and cosmopolitan Milan. Despite its distinct character, and despite what our guidebook may have had us believe, Naples is not so alien as to be impossible to negotiate. It is not, as it may sometimes feel when reading about it, a whole world apart.

For more trip ideas, see our 11 Best Italy Experiences.

– written by Josh Thomas

hemingway home catHi, my name is Ashley, and I’m a crazy cat lady.

Okay, I like to think I’m not too crazy, but I did adopt a fifth cat last weekend. Of course, I still love to travel, so I got to wondering where my fellow crazy cat ladies and I might go on vacation if we wanted to indulge our passion. Assuming we’re not seeking a fur-free escape, here’s a small list of possibilities.

De Poezenboot (The Cat Boat), Amsterdam, Netherlands
Located along the Singel Canal, this floating cat sanctuary is home to up to 50 cats at any given time. Started by Henriette van Weelde in 1966 when she took a family of stray cats into her residence, De Poezenboot quickly expanded to a barge and then a house boat as the number of cats in need of homes continued to grow. You can stop in to see the kitties, make donations and buy souvenir T-shirts from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. daily, except Sundays and Wednesdays, at Singel 38 G.

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Tashirojima Island (Cat Island), Ishinomaki, Miyagi, Japan
Years ago, when silk production was at its peak there, the island’s inhabitants used cats to keep the mouse population to a minimum. (Mice are a threat to silkworms.) Stray cats now outnumber the island’s 100 residents. You can access the island via ferry from Ishinomaki City.

Hemingway Home, Key West, Florida, United States
This one will appeal to crazy cat ladies and literature buffs alike. Home to the late author Ernest Hemingway, this historic building — also a museum — has between 40 and 50 cats in residence. All of the felines are polydactyls (or carry the polydactyl gene), which means many have paws with what appear to be tiny, furry thumbs. It’s said that many of these cats are descendents of Hemingway’s original pet cat, Snowball, who was also a polydactyl. Tours of the house are available every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 907 Whitehead Street.

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The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas, United States
A landmark that housed missionaries in the 1700’s, the Alamo is most famous for its role in the Texas Revolution. Resident cats have roamed the area before, but perhaps the most famous is the Alamo’s current feline, Clara Carmack or C.C. (named after Clara Driscoll and Mary Carmack, who played important roles in the building’s preservation). Visit for a dose of history and a possible C.C. sighting every day, except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at 300 Alamo Plaza. (Read about one IndependentTraveler.com reader’s quest to see C.C. the Alamo Cat!)

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

the trip tribeEver been stuck on a bus tour with a group of fellow travelers that you have absolutely nothing in common with? (Is that why you usually avoid bus tours in the first place?) A new travel site is hoping to make this dilemma a thing of the past.

TheTripTribe.com offers members-only vacations that let you see the profiles of other travelers who are already booked on each trip, including their age, home town and travel preferences (such as what level of exertion they prefer, ranging from “sleeping on a beach” to “expedition to North Pole”). The site is still growing, but eventually hopes to match members with recommended trips based on their personality and interests.

The site lists both “live trips” (which can be booked) and “crave trips,” which are in the planning stages but won’t actually happen unless enough members show interest.

Most of the live trips cost between $1,000 and $2,000 per person, not including airfare, and emphasize outdoor adventure or fitness. One that caught our eye was the Everyday Paleo Italy Adventure, a six-night trip featuring accommodations in a castle overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Hosting the trip will be Sarah Fragoso, author of “Everyday Paleo” (about the popular diet emphasizing lean meats and vegetables). Activities during your stay include truffle hunting, hiking, yoga on the beach, a tour of the nearby medieval town of Petritoli, wine tasting, workout sessions with Fragoso and more. The trip departs June 1, 2014, and starts at $1,790 per person when you book by August 31. (After that, the price jumps to $1,990.)

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Current “crave trips” include a journey to Easter Island, an Antarctica cruise, a trekking safari in Tanzania and a yoga retreat in Bali.

Want to try it out? We’ve got an exclusive bonus for IndependentTraveler.com readers! Join the site via this link and you’ll get a $50 credit to use toward a future trip.

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– written by Sarah Schlichter

pompeiiAlong with our slideshow of the 11 Best Italy Experiences, this post is part of an ongoing effort to help independent travelers make unique memories in both popular and undiscovered destinations around the world.

I’d heard a lot about Pompeii before I went there. Some people called it a tourist trap. One of my colleagues actively avoided it on a hiking trip to Vesuvius. And, of course, I’d read about the plaster cast corpses that supposedly littered the city’s pavements like garbage bags on collection day.

I worried that the casts would be everywhere, as I’d seen on TV, still taking up the spaces that they’d claimed more than a thousand years ago. I wasn’t sure I was ready to meet any of them just yet. Pompeii was, however, just one of those places I felt I had to visit. To be in that part of Italy and ignore it would have been awkward.

As my companion and I inched closer to the ticket office in the sweltering heat, I kept looking at something gray and huddled that lay farther up the dusty road. It was quite a long way away, but I could see the crowds parting around it like water.

We paid for our tickets and began the walk up to the city’s walls. The thing lay right in the gateway to the city, humped over in defeat as though it had just failed to escape the ashy labyrinth that Pompeii’s streets must have become upon its destruction.

The thing was, in fact, a traffic bump.

And that was the closest I came to seeing a petrified corpse in Pompeii. TV had misrepresented the place. The ruins, the faded murals, the mosaics and the quietly lurking mountains were all very obvious. TV hadn’t lied about those. Vesuvius was there, looking kind of guilty and shy, but we saw no evidence of the casts. Instead of being scattered all over the city, they were all gathered in one place — somewhere that we, without a map, couldn’t find and, in the heat, weren’t inclined to investigate further.

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I wondered what else I didn’t know. I looked at the small, terraced houses and wondered what it might have been like to live here. I thought about the heat, which was intense, and the sun, from which there was very little shelter. The whole city seemed to be raised up, and the surrounding mountains formed a ring under the blue sky, like we were under a huge magnifying lens.

Then I saw a lizard.

lizard pompeiiPompeii, it seems, is absolutely filled with small, vivid green, furtive-looking lizards. They lie around in the sun on someone’s old front steps, climb in and out of cracks in the crumbly walls, and run away when you try to take their picture.

I wondered whether the lizards would have been there when Pompeii was a thriving city. The climate hasn’t changed drastically since then, and neither has the terrain, so I imagine that they would have been. For some reason, this made me think about Pompeii in a very different way.

I imagined Pompeiian bakers opening their shops in the mornings and chasing the lizards out of their shops with brooms, or Pompeiian theater goers delicately shooing them out of their booths. I imagined Pompeiian people sitting, just as we were, with nothing much to do, simply watching the lizards lying out in the sun.

I wondered whether any of the lizards had been caught out in the blast and turned into little, lizard-shaped paperweights.

Like any city, Pompeii has parts that are popular with visitors, as well as quiet parts, surprising parts and parts that you wouldn’t expect. We didn’t see any of the famous casts, it’s true. But meeting the lizards made us feel a little closer to the people that must have once lived in Pompeii. They might have been a little part of normal people’s everyday lives — a part that’s, perhaps, too small for most people to consider.

For more ways to see Italy’s most popular destinations from a fresh perspective, check out our 11 Best Italy Experiences.

– written by Josh Thomas

Earlier this week, we offered our picks for the 13 Best England Experiences, including activities like learning to paint in the Lake District and sleeping in a New Forest yurt. While all of those experiences are truly unique and memorable, we also thought it would be fun to find a few off-the-wall activities to check out in England. Below are three bizarre events happening this summer or fall that just might be worth adding to your England itinerary.

Gravy Train
Why simply eat gravy when you can wrestle another human being in it? Locals will do just that later this month at the annual Gravy Wrestling competition in Rossendale, Lancashire, on August 26. Per the official Web site, “Contestants must wrestle in the gravy for two minutes whilst being scored for audience applause, and various different moves.” Well, at least it’s tastier than mud. Check out the video below to see samples of past performances.


Go Conkers
Most Yanks have no idea what the heck a conker is, much less that there’s such a thing as the World Conker Championships — so allow us to enlighten you. More commonly known in the U.S. as buckeyes, conkers are the fruits of the horse chestnut tree. The game of conkers is popular with British schoolchildren, and involves boring a hole in the conker to tie a string through it, and then swinging it from the end of the string against another person’s conker until one of them is destroyed. Sounds like high drama, no? You can catch the action at the World Conker Championships on October 13, 2013, in the town of Southwick — or just view highlights from a past competition below.



Pants on Fire
Back in school, were you the kid who vexed your teachers with increasingly creative excuses for not doing your homework? If so, you might be a good candidate to enter the World’s Biggest Liar competition, held each November at the Bridge Inn in Cumbria. The contest — part storytelling, part stand-up comedy — is a longstanding tribute to Will Ritson, a 19th-century publican who was famous for his tall tales (he once claimed that the locally grown turnips were so large they could be used as sheds for cows). This year’s fib-off will be held on November 21. According to VisitEngland.org, “Politicians and lawyers are reputedly barred from entering, as they are considered to ‘have an unfair advantage.'” To get the flavor, listen to this competitor from a previous year spin a yarn about trying to catch a nine-foot fish:





Photos: 13 Unforgettable England Experiences
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– written by Sarah Schlichter