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beachAlthough there’s still a few hours of December 21, 2012 left, we’re fairly certain the world isn’t coming to an end and thank goodness as there’s still so much more traveling to be done! In this week’s Friday Free-For-All, we want to get your travel-related fill-in answer to this sentence:

I’m grateful the world didn’t come to an end because now I’ll have the chance to _______.

To get you started here’s what a few people in the IndependentTraveler.com and CruiseCritic.com office had to say.

I’m grateful the world didn’t come to an end because now I’ll have the chance…

…to see the aurora borealis while dogsledding in the Arctic Circle. — Dori Saltzman, News Editor

…to chant “Eviiita” in front of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires. — Ashley Kosciolek, Copy Editor

…to reserve a table in Munich for Oktoberfest and catch an All Blacks game in New Zealand. — Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor, CruiseCritic.com

…to visit all the National Parks I’ve never been to with my son and hit my seventh continent on a cruise to Antarctica. — Erica Silverstein, Features Editor, CruiseCritic.com

So, why are you grateful the world didn’t come to an end?

12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place


–written by Dori Saltzman

Prague One of my favorite ways to see and learn about a new place is with local tour guides. Nobody knows a place like locals do. They know not only the beaten path (about which they can often reveal little-known facts), but also those gems I’d never find on my own. But most important for me, they offer cultural insights into a community that only someone who lives, sleeps and works there could possibly know.

Today, I stumbled upon a new twist on the local tour guiding concept – guided tours from the homeless. This adds an entirely new layer onto what visitors can learn about a place, its people and culture. And the best part is, not only do visitors gain a new perspective on life in the destination they’re visiting, but they’re also supporting people who need help.

My introduction to the concept came care of the Prague Daily Monitor, which reported on a tourism project that employs eight homeless people as tour guides. According to the article, the guides offer “the narration of less known stories and visits to special interesting places,” in both Prague’s center as well as on the outskirts of the city.

Prague Travel Guide

The guides use their “long-lasting experience with living in the street” to choose the places they want to share with visitors. One book-loving guide, for example, takes tourists to lesser-known bookshops where second-hand books are available.

Other guides take visitors to the places homeless people and squatters inhabit.

Prague is not the first city to offer such tours. A quick Google search turned up similar tours in London, San Francisco and Amsterdam.

Some, like the London tours, visit tourist favorites, where guides point out the usual as well as offer insights into what it’s like to be homeless there. Others, like the San Francisco tour, take visitors to the “invisible” spots like homeless shelters, soup kitchens and workplace training programs.

Eight Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours

Would you take a tour led by a homeless person?

– written by Dori Saltzman

Today, during my usual lunchtime sanity break, I peeled myself from my desk and ventured outside in search of food. The wall of hot air that greeted me was stifling. To the chagrin of several women in the knitting store across the way, I immediately stripped down to my underwear. Okay, not really — but I did seriously consider it as I watched a small child attempting to fry an egg in the parking lot.

The latest heat wave here in the Northeastern U.S. has brought temperatures in the 90’s for the past several weeks, and it’s constantly got me wishing I were anywhere but here — anywhere that’s cooler than here, that is.

Take a peek below for four places and activities that I’ve been dreaming about almost daily of late. If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel cooler just looking at them.

Visiting Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

glacier bay national park



Swimming at Dunn’s River Falls, Ocho Rios, Jamaica

dunns river falls jamaica



Skiing in Queenstown, New Zealand

queenstown skiing



Touring the (air-conditioned!) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

metropolitan museum of art new york



Where would you like to cool off right about now?

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

On a Mediterranean cruise with six port calls in seven days — essentially the tapas restaurant version of European travel — you might only have 10 hours in port to get it right. Ironically, in many ways the half-day visit requires more researching and planning than a lengthier, more stationary stay.

Unless you have a local friend. Or the next best thing: a guide.

If you’re a fan of Julius Caesar, Augustus or Caligula (you weirdo), there’s nothing like Rome, near which our ship docked for the day (in Civitavecchia, a 12-euro train ride away). It’s an easy capital to visit in the sense that it’s eminently walkable. Just wear comfortable tennis shoes and stay hydrated via the fontanellas, the public fountains found in almost every square. But it’s a challenge in that its history is as dense as the Pantheon’s walls, and, as in other epic destinations, tourist traps sprout like barbarian hordes around the 2,000-year-old monuments.

rome


As a wanderer, my previous experiences in the Eternal City comprised just that: ambling for what sometimes seemed like an eternity until I reached a Renaissance-era church or second-century ruin, not knowing what either really meant. This time — my shortest visit — would be different.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Rome

Our group of three met Teresa, a U.S. expat turned Rome tour guide for Love Holidays (and a long-time friend of one of our fellow passengers). She took us through mini-tours of the Colosseum, the Pantheon and San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter’s Chains), and brought us to a low-key cafe filled with Italians enjoying sandwiches and salads. Bouncing questions off Teresa — did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned? Should I get the raspberry or apricot gelato? — went a long way toward making me feel like I wasn’t squandering my time.

“What do you guys want to do?” (followed by 20 interesting options) was a welcome conversation starter on more than one occasion.

11 Best Italy Experiences

Finding yourself such a guide, of course, is the trick, but it’s increasingly easy. TripAdvisor reviews, message board recommendations and friends with a penchant for gladiators can all steer you in the right direction. And a private guide isn’t necessarily that expensive; split among a party of four or five, you can expect to pay about 100 euros each (plus museum entrance fees, public transport and tip) for a full, eight-hour day. That’s less than cruise lines charge for the “panoramic” motorcoach tour — you know, those excursions that often leave 40 passengers in that hazy space between sleep and reality, heads thudding against windows at regular intervals.

For more information, see When Do You Need a Tour Guide?

– written by Dan Askin

Most tourists flock to Seattle Center to check out the view from the iconic Space Needle or to rock out at the Experience Music Project (EMP) Museum. But now there’s a colorful new reason to visit the Emerald City’s popular entertainment complex: Chihuly Garden and Glass.

This long-term exhibition of Dale Chihuly’s vibrant art-glass sculptures opened last month on a 1.5-acre plot next to the Space Needle. Chihuly’s distinctive style is familiar to many from his installations in places like the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas and the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia. Visitors begin inside, where darkened galleries display large-scale Chihuly installations like “Mille Fiori” (a garden made of glass) and a Persian ceiling where luminous hues bloom overhead. In another gallery, a boat laden with fancifully colored balls seems to glide across a black mirror lake.

chihuly garden and glass boat seattle center


chihuly garden and glass persian ceiling seattle center


Learn More About Seattle

Once you step outside into the garden, living plants and flowers mingle with Chihuly’s creations — tall, skinny stalks that look like birthday candles; sinuously curving vines and bulbs; and a spiky, brilliantly green sculpture that stretches toward the sky as though to mimic the Space Needle behind it.

chihuly garden and glass greenhouse seattle center


chihuly garden and glass seattle center


Standard adult admission is $19, with discounts for seniors and children 12 and under. Joint admission to the Space Needle is available. You can also pay an additional fee to come back to Chihuly Garden and Glass after dark, to see the outdoor exhibitions lit up against a night sky.

Our 6 Favorite Seattle Hotels

– written by Sarah Schlichter

seaweed brittany franceIt was a hot day, and people walked for hours along a narrow, rocky path because there were no roads to where they were going. Everyone was walking together by the sea, which was very still and calm. They all seemed happy — because they were on their way to a seaweed festival!

The Fete du Goemon, or Seaweed Festival, takes place each year in the western Brittany region of France on the last Sunday in July (mark your calendar for the 29th). Drawn by a small poster in a shop window, I stopped by the festival to watch people drying seaweed in stone troughs, demonstrating how to extract iodine from it and how to use the rest in recipes or as fuel. There was also a band, long trestle tables laden with food and drink, and a stall selling such dubiously useful items as a seaweed comb and seaweed sandals.

Seaweed was once a tremendously important factor in this part of Northern France’s economy, but the money isn’t what it was and the demand for fuels has gone elsewhere. Now the old seaweed stations are mainly grassed over and draw only a yearly crop of curious people like me.

Sound strange? There are even weirder festivals out there! Below are some of the odder ones I found while planning this year’s activities. Hopefully they’ll inspire the more inquisitive among you to go and find your own unusual customs and bizarre gatherings.

Air Guitar World Championships: Oulu, Finland
Forget standing around watching a holographic Tupac flickering onstage. On the 22nd of August, you can watch some of the world’s most extroverted proponents of air guitar plugging in their imaginary instruments and taking to the stage at the 2012 Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland. The city, home to mobile phone giant Nokia, has been troubling the air waves this way since 1996, with the festival becoming a huge forum for ax men and women around the world to prove their mimesmanship (actual term). Current Finnish champion Puccini Vibre will be looking to continue his current form with a win at the festival, though many eyes are on the 2011 U.S. Air Guitar Champion Nordic Thunder (real name Justin Howard), who is expected to take the crown.

One Summer Festival That’s Not Worth the Trip

Naki Sumo: Tokyo, Japan
A crying baby ought to be bad luck. Not so in Japan, where a yearly festival seeks to oust evil spirits through babies’ tears. Every year, more than 100 babies are brought by their parents to the steps of the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, where they are made to cry by huge sumo wrestlers, who hold the babies up in the air above their heads. Weirdly, the babies usually seem unperturbed by this and, to avoid the bad luck that would be brought by the babies not crying, the sumo wrestlers end up pulling hideous faces and gently shaking them, with the temple priests even doing their bit to frighten the children with masks. This festival takes place every year at the end of April. Entrance is free.

The Best Places to Stay in Tokyo

Spam Jam: Waikiki, Hawaii
Waikiki draws big crowds to take part in surfing festivals, but those in the know come to check out Spam Jam, one of the biggest street festivals dedicated to Spam in the world! According to the Spam Jam Web site, Hawaiians eat more Spam than anyone else on Earth, and the springtime event aims to celebrate this with great food, dancing and family entertainment on two stages. There are Spam plays and Spam dancers and opportunities to pick up Spam t-shirts. The whole thing is in aid of the Hawaii Food Bank, a non-profit organisation that provides food for people in need. Start thinking about your plane tickets if you’d like to get involved with Spam Jam 2013, which will begin on the 27th of April.

Our Favorite Honolulu Hotels

– written by Josh Thomas

When you’ve only got one day in a new city, what do you do to make the most of it?

Maybe you pick one or two must-see attractions and concentrate your time there. Or you throw the itinerary out the window and let yourself wander from neighborhood to neighborhood, soaking up the atmosphere. Or maybe, as I did on a recent trip to Brooklyn, you take a tour.

In fact, I took two. As an independent traveler, I tend to avoid big coach tours — you know, the ones that have the canned narration over the P.A. system and only let you off the bus for two minutes at a time. I opted instead for two small-group tours that each focused on a particular aspect of the local culture — because even though my time was short, I still wanted a true taste of the place from a local’s perspective.

What Not to Do in a New City

In the morning, Matt Levy of Levys’ Unique New York led a “Graffiti to Galleries” tour with an emphasis on street art in both Williamsburg — Brooklyn’s latest “hot” neighborhood — and Bushwick, where crumbling factories are being reclaimed as canvases for young artists. The tour took us to places I’d have never thought to visit on my own.

street art bushwick brooklyn



street art bushwick brooklyn



Brooklyn native Dom Gervasi, founder of Made in Brooklyn Tours, focused his tour exclusively on homegrown shops and galleries, and the people who run them. We heard the stories of Dewey Oblonsky, who started her own colorful candy shop after being laid off after decades working in the fashion industry, and Lori Fields, who creates custom-designed sweatshirts at a place called Neighborhoodies. Forget the ticky-tacky tourist shops. For travelers who love to support small businesses and come home with souvenirs they couldn’t buy anywhere else, this is the tour for you.

olga guanabara brooklyn dumbo



dewey's candy dumbo brooklyn



Levys’ Unique New York offers customized tours for individuals and groups. Rates vary widely depending on the size of the group, but generally cost about $50 per person per hour for a private tour. Made in Brooklyn Tours cost about $35 per person for a half-day tour.

Want more ideas for exploring your next destination in depth? Check out Eight Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Every traveler I know has a must-visit list a mile long. Back in college, I actually wrote mine out on multiple pieces of paper, with destinations neatly separated by continent. (Yes, I’m a nerd. Why do you ask?)

Honestly, there are few places I wouldn’t go if given the chance. But there’s a handful of destinations, trips, experiences that I can’t seem to get out of my head. Some of them I can’t afford — yet. Others are just waiting for me to make them happen. For your inspiration (and mine!), here’s a sampling.

Tibet, for spectacular mountain vistas and a gentle Buddhist culture:

tibet lhasa



Uganda, to see gorillas in the wild:

gorilla



Jerusalem, for its rich culture and centuries of history:

jerusalem souk



Antarctica, for otherworldly landscapes and unique wildlife:

antarctica penguins



Prince Edward Island, Canada, to satisfy the young girl inside me that still loves the “Anne of Green Gables” books:

prince edward island beach boardwalk



9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

I’ve shown you mine — now it’s your turn. Which places and experiences top your travel bucket list?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

duct tape super heroWe all know one person who makes the yearly trek to, say, the Philadelphia Folk Festival or Burning Man. They wouldn’t miss the opportunity to pitch their tent in the Schwenksville mud or the Black Rock City dirt. It’s all about the music at Old Pool Farm or the — um — art in the Nevada desert.

However, we can’t quite wrap our heads around the Avon Heritage Duct Tape Festival in Ohio. Duct tape? Sure, it’s great for travel mishaps, such as securing a broken piece of luggage, and we’ve all used it around the house. We’ve even chuckled at the creativity of folks who fashion a wallet or dress out of the sticky stuff. But a three-day festival? Stick me to my seat! There’s even a parade that starts at the high school and ends at the cemetery. We might need a six-inch piece of the stuff to tape our mouths shut so we don’t scream.

The World’s Weirdest Museums

If celebrating duct tape is your thing, the ninth annual Avon Heritage Duct Tape Festival will be held June 15 – 17 in Avon, Ohio, the home of Duck Tape brand duct tape. The Father’s Day weekend event claims to draw more than 40,000 duct tape enthusiasts, likely helped by its lack of admission or parking fees. The first 500 attendees will even receive a free roll. (We’re just a bit concerned how that roll might be used by the end of the day when festival goers get tired and cranky with each other.)

The theme this year is Duck Tape on Safari, so there will surely be liberal use of the company’s zebra- and leopard-patterned tapes on the parade floats and at the crafts table. There will be a free animal show (live animals, sans tape). And to make the festival even more irresistible, an artist will display his duct-tape portraits of Bob Dylan, Mother Teresa and other celebs. We can’t make this stuff up.

If you’re looking to add a few more quirky events to your calendar, consider these equally intriguing festivals. The SuperHero Street Fair is held in San Francisco in August. Just imagine donning your Spider-Man jammies and joining all the other boys and girls in their Batman codpieces and Super Woman bustiers. We certainly hope they secure all rooftop access doors to prevent overzealous leaping of tall buildings in a single bound.

No super powers? Visit the Gilroy Garlic Festival in nearby Gilroy, California, and you’ll be able to repel people in a single breath. Or try another natural repellent by waiting until October for the Alabama Butterbean Festival. Either may come in handy at the Great Texas Mosquito Festival in July.

16 Ways You Know You’re Addicted to Travel

How about you? Is there an annual festival you never miss? One you’ve always wanted to attend?

– written by Jodi Thompson

I’m from Wales and I’m used to people not knowing where we are. We’re the geographical equivalent of your car keys. They’re around somewhere — in your trouser pocket? Down the side of the sofa?

So often, I’ve heard Wales described as being that bit in between England and Ireland or — worse still — just a part of England itself.

Ireland, England and Scotland are all popular destinations for travelers and have a lot of very different things to offer. But here are some reasons I think you should consider doing something different by visiting Wales instead. It’s not just the U.K.’s smaller brother — it has a lot of unique things to show you of its own!

snowdonia national park wales hiker


Culture: The National Eisteddfod
March 1st is Saint David’s Day. Not many people outside Wales know that. Saint David (or Dewi Sant in Welsh) is our patron saint, and we like to celebrate him by wearing leeks and daffodils pinned to our clothes. It is a traditional day for holding Eisteddfods (cultural festivals and talent competitions), with Welsh poetry, literature, music and arts being exhibited.

A larger, National Eisteddfod is usually held in the summer, showcasing talent from the country that brought the world Dylan Thomas, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Roald Dahl and, erm … Tom Jones.

History: The Castle Capital of the World
Wales has a rich history that’s reflected in some of the architecture that remains. Sometimes referred to as the “castle capital of the world,” Wales had, at one point, more than 400 castles. The Welsh’s reputation as a bit of a handful for occupying forces led to fortifications being put up by everybody from the Norman invaders in the 11th century to the English in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Copying this trend, Victorian businessmen commissioned their own “castles” such as the beautiful Castell Coch (the Red Castle) to impress their friends.

The World’s Coolest Castles

Wales was also home to the Romans for a time, and it has the ancient architecture to prove it — such as the 2,000-year-old amphitheaters, baths and barracks in Caerleon, South Wales.

caernarfon castle wales


Sports: Surfing the Severn Bore
Every year, a tidal wave sweeps up the river Severn, attracting surfers, kayakers, paddle boarders and other lunatics from all over the world, who attempt to pit themselves against the river’s tidal range (often cited as being the second largest in the world).

But if that isn’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of unrivaled hiking routes through the Brecon Beacon mountains or Snowdonia National Park, as well as some of the best rock climbing and abseiling in the U.K., to get visitors closer to the dramatic landscape.

Have a Welsh Cake!
And, while you’re over, have a Welsh cake. You won’t regret it! (They’re similar to scones.) And tucking into a bowl of lamb cawl (stew), a plate of lava bread (seaweed) or some fresh seafood might provide you with an excuse to tackle Mount Snowdon head on.

welsh cakes


Scenery: Land of Contrasts
And the landscape itself? Wales offers mountains and waterfalls in the north and famous valleys in the South, carved out by thousands of years of glacial activity, with pristine beaches, forests and reservoirs in between.

12 Spots to Fall in Love with Travel

Even aside from the noted spots of outstanding natural beauty, such as the Pembrokeshire coast, Snowdonia National Park and the Lleyn Peninsula, Wales is a place where you are never too far away from something to see, do, eat or listen to.

three cliffs bay wales


Have you been to Wales?

– written by Josh Thomas