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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.

Our Favorite Hotels in Amsterdam

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.

Learn More About Key West

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.)

11 Best Italy Experiences

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.

8 Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours

– 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.

Our favorite Hotels in Rome

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
7 Strange Foods from Around the World

– written by Sarah Schlichter

berlin wall graffitiIt took two trips for me to find the beauty in Berlin.

On my first visit, my husband and I made it our mission to see as many 20th-century historical sights as we could in our limited time in Germany‘s capital. We took a World War II walking tour, strolled along the graffiti-laden remnants of the Wall at the East Side Gallery, checked out Checkpoint Charlie and read every solemn panel at the Topography of Terror.

By the time we got to the Jewish Museum Berlin, one of the largest and most moving collections of its kind, we were wiped out. The city’s bleak past had crushed us with its enormity, to the point where I couldn’t wait to leave.

When a conference called me back to Berlin this year, I vowed to give the city another chance. While you can’t ignore the horrors of the Nazi and Cold War eras, Berlin has so much more to offer travelers, particularly those interested in art (and those on a limited budget; Berlin is a bargain among European capitals). Plus I had read that the city’s culinary reputation was on an upswing.

To save money, friends and I rented a two-bedroom apartment through Airbnb on the Ku’damm, the main boulevard of the former Western portion of the city. We knew the neighborhood of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf was upscale, but we didn’t realize how much until our taxi deposited us at a building opposite Gucci.

Although not as trendy as Berlin’s Kreuzberg or Prenzlauer Berg neighborhoods, Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf still offered plenty to do and see within walking distance. The city’s public transportation system is reliable and covers most of the city (the Berlin WelcomeCard makes getting around even easier), and most Berliners speak enough English for non-German-speakers to get by.

12 Best Germany Experiences

On this visit, I made it to Museum Island, the center of Berlin’s State Museums complex that’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of the five buildings in the middle of the Spree, I chose the Pergamon Museum, primarily so I could see the famous Pergamon Altar, an acropolis that dates back to the first half of the second century. While it was indeed impressive, I was more blown away by the Ishtar Gate, part of the ancient city of Babylon that’s been reassembled. As with any ancient treasure, it’s debatable whether it belongs in Berlin — the British Museum in London faces similar ethical issues — but for now, it’s the pinnacle of German archaeology.

After viewing ancient masterpieces, I went more modern with my next museum. Helmut Newton is one of Germany’s more famous — and notorious — photographers, and I remember his sexy photos of celebs like Madonna from the 1980′s. Many of his more ambitious works are permanently housed at the Helmut Newton Foundation, which also hosts regular exhibitions. (If you go, leave your Victorian sensibilities at the door; his photos can be explicit in nature.)

Our Favorite Hotels in Berlin

On my first Berlin visit, I tried — and disliked — currywurst, the city’s most popular street food (while others love the combination of curry and ketchup, it didn’t sit right with me). Berlin’s culinary reputation has grown in the subsequent years, however, and the city now has 13 restaurants with Michelin stars. While I didn’t have the budget or the wherewithal to make reservations at a place like Fischers Fritz, I did experience a better class of cuisine with a stop at KaDeWe, a department store food hall that rivals Harrod’s in London. We found plenty of delicacies — think cheeses, pates and Rieslings — to fill our apartment refrigerator.

Eager to prove that Berlin boasts international cuisine, a local friend took me to 3 Minutes Sur Mer, a French restaurant in the newly trendy Torstrasse district. On the menu were escargot, fish and other brasserie-style dishes that defied the German stereotype of heavy food. Between that and the emphasis that I saw on local and organic produce, Berlin seems to be shedding its stodgy reputation — good news for foodies.

12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies

I left Berlin with a lighter spirit and a better appreciation for the city’s comeback. A thriving tech scene means that the more young people from across the E.U. are setting up shop here — and I’m eager to go back and see how a vibrant 21st century uplifts a place that’s had more than its share of tragedy.

– written by Chris Gray Faust

amsterdam harpsichordAmsterdam has a lot going for it — like the Anne Frank House, boat rides along its storied canals, the Van Gogh Museum and cycling amongst the tulips (or green fields in less glamorous seasons than spring).

Visiting these places via a guide or a pre-arranged tour can certainly offer insights you might not otherwise get, but as an independent-minded traveler, I find usually them slow-moving, frustrating and — okay, I’ll say it — sometimes quite dry. So it was a big surprise to me that on my last visit to Amsterdam, a guided tour led to the best day I’ve ever had in that city.

Our Favorite Spots to Stay in Amsterdam

I’ve always been fascinated by the houseboats on Amsterdam’s canals, but the closest I’d ever gotten to visiting one was the city’s Houseboat Museum. And while I appreciated the history I learned there, the experience didn’t give me a true feel for life in Holland today. I found that instead on a walking tour offered by Van Aemstel Productions, which enabled me and other visitors not only to go inside local homes but also to meet their residents.

The locals were as interesting as their houses. One was a children’s book writer, another a television producer, a third a retired tour guide. One revealed the unique challenges of living in a houseboat — like the limited space; the patio that, while adorable, is visible to every tourist walking by; and the need to move out completely every few years so the boat can be brought into dry dock for hull inspection.

Another local welcomed us into his narrow 17th-century canal house, gamely maneuvering his broken leg up a set of ladder-steep steps to his top-floor apartment. Once there, he gave us impromptu concert on a harpsichord (on which he’d painted a gorgeous seafaring vista). Like the houseboat resident, he was willing to put up with a more challenging lifestyle in order to live in an atmosphere that was special, unique and central to the character of his city.

Van Aemstel Productions, it turns out, specializes in the kind of guided tours meant to give travelers insights into contemporary life, not just history. Perhaps on my next trip there I’ll check out its tour of the Red Light District, led by a former cop who walked that beat.

8 Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours

That tours could offer more than just history lessons was a revelation to me, and since then my antenna has been attuned to experiences in other cities that offer a sense of what’s real there. In San Francisco, for instance, Vayable.com offers a chance to learn about the city’s homeless issues via a tour with a gent who, indeed, is homeless; you can also forage for your own seafood with a local fisherman. Visitors to Buenos Aires might initially put a tango lesson or a visit to Eva Peron’s mausoleum on the top of their sightseeing lists, but personally, I love the sound of Vayable’s “In the footsteps of dictators” experience, which traces the city’s dark history. (Learn more about Vayable in Tourist No More: Three Secrets for Traveling Like a Local.)

I’ve become a guided tour convert — how about you? Share your favorite guided tours below!

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

Stuttgart Library You’re in a new city and you have the near-unavoidable checklist of sights to see and things to do. Let’s review here: Museums, national parks, historic sites, art installations, so-and-so says this is the home of the world’s best wiener schnitzel — the list could seemingly go on forever.

And while many attractions are simply a case of beholding them (it’s free to stare at the Eiffel Tower but not to climb), entrance fees and related costs add up over the course of a vacation.

So what destination is available in just about every city you’ll visit, is a great porthole into local culture, offers spectacular people-watching as well as potentially free Internet access (handy in a foreign land) and is always free to visit? Libraries! I’m not just talking about Washington D.C.‘s Library of Congress (on many actual to-do lists), but any community building for book loan. You probably grew up visiting your own, from time to time, and never even considered it as a tourist attraction. Admittedly, that’s because some libraries are a tad more impressive than others — not in what they stand for, but perhaps how they stand (picture a repurposed industrial complex in Germany shaped like a Tetris block and filled with books).

Flavorwire recently put together a slideshow of 15 standout libraries from around the world — including one in Denmark featuring a giant mouth that recites poetry aloud, as well as reading nooks resembling birdcages in an eco-retreat at a Thai resort.

Editor’s Note: Slides one and nine represent private, home libraries and while awe-inspiring, are not recommended for your next sightseeing list!

What Not to Do in a New City

While attending college in Poughkeepsie, NY, I was drawn to study in the library of my friend’s alma mater, Vassar College — not for the millions of pages at hand, lying dormant in their many tomes, but for the Gothic architecture: the marble touches, hidden staircases and stained glass windows. This didn’t improve my grades as much as fuel my wandering imagination, and solidify my appreciation of libraries that appear as grand and mysterious as the knowledge within.

If the library you find doesn’t resemble a cathedral or a giraffe, don’t fret. The volumes you find abroad may not always be in your native tongue, but the communal library experience is guaranteed to be shared. Libraries are often used as a space for community announcements and events, so take advantage of tapping right into the source — find a bulletin board or events calendar (if you can read it) to get a pulse on the area.

12 Great Museums You’ve Never Heard Of

What’s the best library you ever visited at home or abroad? Share your experiences in the comments below!

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Did you know that the first Wednesday in April has been declared National Walking Day by the American Heart Association? Well, now you do.

While the AHA aims to encourage more physical activity among those of us who spend hours upon hours sitting at a desk, we couldn’t resist putting a travel spin on the day — because let’s face it, most of us walk much more when we’re off exploring a new place than we do when we’re at home.

We recently asked our followers on Facebook to name their favorite city or neighborhood for strolling — and the list of places we got in response would inspire just about anyone to hit the pavement. Following are a few of our favorites:

“Assisi, Italy … peaceful, quaint & beautiful!” — Tracey Pino

assisi italy church



New York City — especially Broadway from Columbus Circle to the 80′s” — Beth Glass

central park new york city dog walking



“Old City in Jerusalem” — Rose Kemps

old city jerusalem souq souk market



“Definitely Sydney — from the Rocks all the way around to the Botanical Gardens” — Gill Harvey

botanical gardens sydney



What Not to Do in a New City

Which city tops your list of favorite places to walk?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

kiribati beachThe deserted beach. The pristine nature trail. The hushed art gallery. The view of a spectacular landmark unspoiled by crowds. It’s something many travelers dream of having: a magnificent travel experience all to oneself.

Considering that more than one billion tourists traveled internationally last year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), it’s a lot more likely that you’ll find yourself standing in long lines, sitting shoulder to shoulder on the beach and jostling fellow travelers at overcrowded museums — unless you travel to one of these 25 countries.

Gunnar Garfors, globetrotter and CEO of Norwegian Mobile TV Co., used UNWTO data to compile a list of the 25 least visited countries in the world. While the most popular destination for tourism, France, sees some 79.5 million visitors a year, the countries on Garfors’ list see numbers in the thousands, or even hundreds. Taking home the honors as the least traveled spot is the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, which was visited by a measly 200 people in 2011.

Sweet Spots to Stay in Paris

Like Nauru, many of the countries on the list are there because they’re small and difficult to get to (Tuvalu, Kiribati). Others have faced recent violence and are generally considered unsafe for tourists (Somalia, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone). Still others aren’t so much difficult to get to as difficult to get into (Bhutan and North Korea, where visas are required and travelers must arrange for a guide rather than touring independently). Yet Garfors has visited 21 of the 25, and returned with fascinating tips and stories to share.

Personally, I’m only one for 25. I’ve been to No. 25, Dominica, the sleepy Caribbean island that’s better known for its lush rain forest trails and waterfalls than for its beaches. It was worth the trip — my partner and I took several hikes without seeing another soul. As for the other 24 countries … well, I’d better get traveling.

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

How many of the least visited countries have you been to?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

seattleIf I can offer you only one piece of advice for traveling to Seattle it would be this — dress in layers.

While never too cold or too warm, and, of course, famous for an almost daily drizzle, the weather in Seattle is nevertheless hard to predict, especially in late winter/early spring. And weather forecasts aren’t always helpful.

Prior to jetting off to Seattle for a recent four-night visit, I checked Weather.com to see what I should expect. Heavy rain storms and cool weather were predicted, so into the suitcase went several cold-weather items. But then my overpacking gene took over and, despite the ugly forecast, I threw a few warm-weather options in as well. Thank goodness I did.

As it turned out, three out of four days started out foggy and cold, but then turned warm and sunny, before ending crisp and cold again. Because I had thrown in some tees, a light sweater and a zip-up sweatshirt, I was able to put on and take off layers as needed.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

Care for a second piece of Seattle travel advice? Rent a house or apartment.

I was in Seattle for a cousin’s bat mitzvah; with me and my husband were my parents, and my sister and her family, including my 3-year-old niece. We looked at hotels at first, but the cheapest rates we could find (in a decent hotel) started at about $140. That wasn’t bad, but the necessity of eating out would add to the cost. Then my dad looked on VRBO.com for short-term rentals. Prices, when split three ways, were slightly less than the per-night hotel rates, plus we would all be together and could cook meals in the house and share grocery expenses.

Not only did renting a house bring down the overall trip price, but we got a great location right on Green Lake, within a 20-minute drive of everywhere we wanted to go.

The last tidbit I picked up during my short stay in Seattle involves parking near Pike Place Market. If you’re planning to drive to the Market, try and wait until Sunday. Parking on 1st and 2nd Avenues is free that day, though you’ve got to get there pretty early to snag a spot. Otherwise, don’t park in a lot within three or four blocks. The first lot we pulled into on 2nd Avenue would have cost about $40. A lot just two blocks farther away, on the corner of 3rd Avenue, cost $12.

Our 6 Favorite Seattle Hotels

– written by Dori Saltzman