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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

monterey kayak


In this month’s winning review, a traveler lives out an animal lover’s dream: “On my bucket list: [kayaking] in Monterey Bay to observe wild sea otters up close,” writes Jill Weinlein. “This desire started last year after a trip to the Monterey Aquarium. The sea otter exhibit melted my heart. These playful furry mammals have a brown, thick coat that is the densest in the animal kingdom. They are most comfortable living in the ocean attached to kelp.”

Read the rest of Jill’s review here: Kayaking with Sea Otters in Monterey. Jill has won an IndependentTraveler.com sweatshirt.

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

In December we introduced you to a couple who quit their jobs, loaded their possessions into an Airstream travel trailer and set off to visit every national park in the United States. Stefanie Payne and Jonathan Irish are now halfway through their all-American adventure, capturing it in real time on their Facebook page and sharing more in-depth stories and photography on their website, The Greatest American Road Trip.

Their current location: Zion National Park. We checked in with them to see how the trip is going.

grand canyon national park hiker


Independent Traveler: Six months on the road, and you both still sound so upbeat and enthusiastic! How are you faring?
Jonathan Irish:
Personally, I feel as though we are living an exclamation point. Everything seems to be punctuated with the extreme. We are so tired from the constant moving, so energized by the beauty of the parks, so grateful for the opportunity to see these beautiful places, so humbled that we are touching so many people with memories from their own park experiences as well as inspiration to get out and keep exploring. It’s everything all at once. It is definitely the best year of our lives.

Stefanie Payne: It seems like an obvious answer, but we are having the best year. We’re enjoying every minute … even when it’s tiring. To be truthful, this is a really hard project in a lot of ways. Keeping up with producing and editing content is literally a round-the-clock job. And some days you just don’t want to hike eight miles up a mountain! But the desire to make the most of this opportunity and create meaningful content that people (and we) enjoy fuels us in a way that makes fatigue fall away.

IT: Tell us about some of your favorite moments so far.
SP:
Some of the highlights for me have been the big hikes — the Subway at Zion, Grand Canyon Rim to Rim, a hike to the ancient Bristlecone Pines in Great Basin, Nevada.

JI: I love the early morning photo explorations, when the rest of the world is sleeping and the world is just coming to life. During these outings, I always find myself in beautiful locations, walking in the woods or in the mountains, the sun just starting to rise.

I also love the big hikes we’ve been doing, where we’ve challenged ourselves. The Subway hike in Zion, the Rim to Rim in Grand Canyon, the Panorama Trail in Yosemite. These are great memories for me.

big bend national park jonathan irish


IT: What has been the hardest part of this trip — something you didn’t expect to be challenging?
SP:
Just keeping up with editing. That is the monster on this project. We put out a thorough snapshot from each park, I feel, but there is so much we’re creating that we simply don’t have time to work through. For every photo, memory, idea, there seem to be 100 more unshared and unsaid.

JI: I second Stef’s answer. It’s one thing to travel to the parks, but another to put out great content that people will want to come back to. It takes a lot of creative energy, which is very hard to keep at a high level all the time. Luckily, the nature in the parks renews us every time we feel drained.

IT: And what was easier than expected?
SP:
The task of finding and making a great experience in every park. Somehow, we always seem to manage to capture a park in a way we’re satisfied with.

IT: We saw you on “Good Morning America” recently and caught a glimpse of the inside of the Airstream trailer. Is it hard living in such a small space?
SP:
We’ve been living in a small space together for many years so we didn’t expect it to be difficult. But it is helping us to improve how we communicate. Any bickering has to be pushed through pretty quickly. There just isn’t time to not get along. And we’re both pretty happy.

JI: Being a full-time RVer has been easier than I expected. We love our Airstream and have gotten very used to living in it. In many ways, it is bigger than a lot of NYC apartments! And we love the fact that we are mobile. I could get used to this RVing life!


IT: What have you learned about yourself from embarking on this road trip?
JI:
This kind of trip tests one’s resolve and energy. We’ve found that we always have more of both than we thought, which has been really satisfying.

SP: We have more energy in ourselves than we might think. The trick is to apply it to something you love doing, surrounded by those whom you love doing it with.

National Park Vacations: Top Tips
6 National Parks We Want to Visit Around the World

— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

With the U.S. National Park Service celebrating its centennial this year, national parks are in the spotlight — not just here in the States but around the world. We love national parks because they protect a country’s natural scenery and unique wildlife for all of us to enjoy, whether you’re driving through in a car, hiking a trail or camping in the backcountry. Check out these six national parks we want to visit around the world.

grand teton national park


Grand Teton National Park, U.S.A., offers magnificent mountain vistas.

elephants in etosha national park


On safari in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, you’ll spy lions, elephants, zebras and much more.

waterfall lamington national park


Located in Queensland, Australia, Lamington National Park encompasses miles of lush rain forest.

horses torres del paine


Torres del Paine National Park protects some of Patagonian Chile’s most stunning landscapes.

komodo dragon


Komodo National Park in Indonesia is home to the endangered Komodo dragon, along with a variety of marine wildlife.

northeast greenland national park



Northeast Greenland National Park is the world’s biggest national park, but it’s so difficult to reach that very few people actually visit it.

Planning an African Safari
National Park Vacations

Which national park tops your must-visit list?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Check out the travel stories you may have missed this week.

canyonlands national park hiker


National Parks: Ken Burns on Why They Were America’s Best Idea
With the 100th birthday of the U.S. National Parks coming up in August, USA Today sits down with filmmaker Ken Burns and his partner Dayton Duncan to discuss the importance of the parks — which Duncan calls “the Declaration of Independence expressed on the landscape.” They also reveal their favorite parks.

Visiting Museums Like the Louvre Is Terrible, and There’s No Fair Solution
A Washington Post columnist bemoans the crowds that mob the world’s great art museums, making it difficult to experience works such as the “Mona Lisa” and Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” without having to see past waving cell phones and cameras. (Our best solution: Travel during the off season and come early or late in the day.)

The Multi-City Flight Trick May Soon Be Ending
Conde Nast Traveler reports that American, Delta and United have closed a fare loophole that once saved crafty fliers some money. Before you could connect multiple nonstop tickets to create your own cheap connecting itinerary, but now you won’t be able to do that unless you purchase each ticket separately.

Update From Ecuador: What Travelers Should Know About Visiting Right Now
Following a strong earthquake in Ecuador last Saturday, Travel + Leisure reached out to the country’s Minister of Tourism to learn how its main tourist areas were faring. The Amazon and the Galapagos Islands were unscathed, while the port city of Guayaquil and other areas along the coast faced varying levels of damage.

10,000 People on the Waiting List to Try London’s New Naked Restaurant
Hmm, how appetizing does this sound? Lonely Planet profiles a London restaurant called Bunyadi, where you can dine naked in a “secret Pangea-like world” while perched on wooden stools. (Gowns are provided to put between your bare skin and any possible splinters. Whew!) The restaurant will only be open for three months this summer.

31 Secrets About Travel Insurance Only Insiders Know
Even we learned a few things from this GOBankingRates.com slideshow on travel insurance — like the fact that many plans come with concierge services, and that they also offer at least 10 days to cancel for free.

Where Marrying a Local Is Forbidden
BBC Travel profiles the remote Palmerston Atoll, a South Pacific island home to just 62 residents (all of whom are related). Foreign visitors are immediately adopted into a local family and can join the island’s daily volleyball game.

Speaking of the South Pacific, this video captures mesmerizing footage from Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Cook Islands and more.


12 Great Museums You’ve Never Heard Of
Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare

— written by Sarah Schlichter

A young British gal caused quite a stir in the mid-1800s when she finally admitted that she, a mere female, was the author of the popular book “Jane Eyre,” not the man whose pen name she had assumed. The book then landed on everyone’s must-read list, and novelist and poet Charlotte Bronte became a massive success.

bronte parsonage museum haworth england


In just a couple of weeks, England — and all of the literary world — will mark the 200th birthday of Charlotte Bronte. Here are a few spots that were important in her life, many of which will be commemorating the anniversary on April 21:

Thornton, England: Most of the Bronte children, including Charlotte, were born in the village of Thornton in West Yorkshire, England, at 74 Market Street. Visitors can see remains of the chapel where Charlotte’s father preached just opposite the village’s current church on Thornton Road.

Haworth, England: When the Bronte sisters grew up in Haworth, a village in Northern England, it was a congested industrial town where most residents barely survived into their mid-20s. Today Haworth is a charming mountain village that celebrates the lives of its most famous family. The surrounding region is now nicknamed Bronte Country, and their home is now the Bronte Parsonage Museum, run by the Bronte Society, one of the oldest literary societies in the world. A special exhibit commemorating the anniversary opened in February.

New York, United States: If you don’t have the opportunity to see the special Bronte exhibit at the Bronte Parsonage Museum, you can learn about her life and work at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, which will host “Charlotte Bronte: An Independent Will” from September 9, 2016 through January 2, 2017.

Banagher, Ireland: Charlotte and her husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, didn’t venture too far for their honeymoon. They spent it among the bogs and castles of Banagher, in County Offaly in the Irish midlands.

Brussels, Belgium: Charlotte lived in Brussels twice, both times working as a schoolteacher. She resided at an ordinary pension on the Rue d’Isabelle. Nothing remains of the original structure, but an arts center called the Palais des Beaux Arts commemorates the site with a plaque. And nearby are remnants of cobblestone streets that Charlotte and her sister Emily once walked.

London, England: The Brontes had one brother, Branwell, and he fancied himself an artist. He created a portrait of Charlotte with sisters Emily and Anne — a piece that was folded and hidden in a wardrobe. The National Portrait Gallery obtained the piece and is displaying it, along with other works of art, in the exhibit “Celebrating Charlotte Bronte.”

9 Great Authors and the Places That Shaped Them
Photos: 13 Best England Experiences

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

We’re celebrating the start of spring by daydreaming about … what else? … travel. Feast your eyes along with us on these incredible spots to see spring flowers around the world.

netherlands tulips windmill


Tulip fields bloom each spring across the Netherlands.


flowering trees nami island south korea


Flowering trees line a path on Nami Island, South Korea.


poppies california coast


Poppies add a dash of color to the California coast.


lupines lake tekapo new zealand


Lupines create a vibrant carpet beside Lake Tekapo, New Zealand.


tuscany italy spring flowers


Tuscany’s rolling hills are blanketed with spring flowers.


jefferson memorial cherry blossoms washington dc


Cherry blossoms wreath the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C.


Where should you travel this spring? Take our new quiz!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Among the world’s busiest airports, Seoul’s Incheon International Airport and Singapore Changi Airport provide the best customer services and amenities, according to a new survey from Airports Council International (ACI).

The two Asian airports provide modern amenities and entertainment options for travelers, including Incheon’s ice skating rink and Changi’s butterfly garden. Amenities like those make for a better traveler experience, an ACI representative told Skift.

singapore changi airport


The Airports Council International, a trade association for the world’s airports, interviewed 550,000 passengers at more than 300 airports around the world, asking them about such topics as checking in, cleanliness, security, airport facilities, food and beverage, and retail offerings. Seoul and Changi tied for first place among airports handling more than 40 million passengers a year.

Indianapolis International Airport was ranked the top airport in North America for the fourth straight year. The airport, which sees more than 7 million travelers annually, has 2,000 acres of protected land surrounding it. Researchers study bats there, and last year, conservationists added an apiary to breed honeybees. The airport is also home to the largest solar farm at any airport in the world. Inside, the airport is filled with art and local eateries.

Five North American airports tied for second place: Grand Rapids, Tampa, Dallas Love Field, Jacksonville and Ottawa.

The best airports in other regions, according to the survey, are:

Africa: Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport in Mauritius

Europe: A three-way tie among three Russian airports — Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International, Pulkovo International in St. Petersburg and Sochi International

Middle East: Amman Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan

Latin America/Caribbean: Jose Joaquin de Olmedo International Airport in Guayaquil, Ecuador

The Best Airports for Layovers
9 Ways to Make the Most of Your Layover

Which airports do you think provide the best overall customer experience?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

March 1 marks the 80th anniversary of the completion of the Hoover Dam — the engineering marvel on the Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada. Aside from its primary job of preventing floods and providing water to millions of people, the Hoover Dam is also a major tourist attraction. Some 7 million visitors tour the dam annually.

hoover dam


Aside from the Hoover Dam — which, in my opinion, is far more interesting than actually spending time in nearby Las Vegas — here are five other dams that are attractive to travelers:

Luzzone Dam, Switzerland: Adventurists flock to this high-altitude, 540-foot-tall dam on the Swiss-Italian border for one reason: to conquer one of the world’s tallest artificial climbing walls. A German company affixed one side of the dam with hundreds of climbing bolts and holds. The YouTube video below shows what the acrophobic climbing experience is like.


Grand Coulee Dam, Washington, U.S.: Nightly summertime laser light shows projected onto the dam’s wall make Grand Coulee, about 1.5 hours from Spokane, a fun destination for travelers. The surrounding Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area is popular for boating, swimming and camping. The free light shows run from Memorial Day through September 30 each year.

Aswan High Dam, Egypt: Threatened by floods, more than 20 temples in the vicinity of Lake Nasser had to be removed and painstakingly rebuilt elsewhere to make way for this Nile River dam system, which controls flooding. UNESCO supervised the moves, and several of the temples were relocated to other countries that supported the effort. The best known is the Temple of Dendur, which is now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

grand dixence dam


Grande Dixence Dam, Switzerland: Another high-altitude Swiss dam, this one, in the Val d’Herens Valley, is a popular starting point for hikers. This is considered the world’s highest gravity dam, and its reservoir is completely fed by melting water from 35 glaciers. Guided tours and cable car rides are available.

Almendra Dam, Spain: Also called the Villarino Dam, the Alemendra Dam is one of Spain’s tallest manmade structures at 663 feet high. It provides hydroelectric power to a great wine-growing region known as the Douro River Valley, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s worth a quick photographic detour when visiting the charming university town of Salamanca.

The World’s 9 Most Gorgeous Gardens
The Best Cities to See Cool Public Art

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

van gogh bedroom airbnbNo surprise: A real-life re-creation of Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting of his bedroom, which was listed for $10 a night on Airbnb, sold out for the first month within hours of its promotion.

The Art Institute of Chicago commissioned the creation of the one-room rental — modeled precisely after the trio of paintings the Dutch artist made in the late 1880s — to help promote its new exhibit “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms.” One of the bedroom scenes is in the Art Institute’s permanent collection, and the other two are on loan for an exhibit that runs through May 10. It’s the first time that all three paintings are on exhibit together in North America.

The tiny rental room is located in a historic building in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. “This room will make you feel like you’re living in a painting,” the Airbnb listing says. “It’s decorated in a Post-Impressionist style, reminiscent of Southern France and times gone by.”

Airbnb will accept bookings for March stays during the last week of February. Monitor the Art Institute’s Facebook page or Twitter feed to find out exactly when the rooms will open up. (We assume they’ll book speedily too.)

For those who couldn’t land a night in the twin bed with the thin red blanket, the Art Institute exhibit includes a life-size replica of the room, where you can listen to period music and snap selfies.

And if Chicago isn’t on your travel itinerary for now through May, you can have a similar experience at the 42-acre Grounds for Sculpture park in Hamilton, New Jersey. Not only can you go into a room modeled after the bedroom, but you can also step inside three-dimensional replicas of other famous paintings, including Pierre Auguste Renoir’s 19th-century “The Luncheon of the Boating Party” and Edouard Manet’s “Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe.”

Chicago Travel Guide
5 Reasons Airbnb Is Better Than a Hotel

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

While friends of mine spent their recent snowed-in weekend reserving their summer vacation rentals and booking flights to Florida, I took the opposite approach: I looked through photos of some of my favorite snow-covered destinations around the world.

longyearbyen svalbard


Svalbard, Norway: As I bemoaned my cabin fever this weekend, I thought about how the hearty residents of one of the world’s northernmost towns would laugh at my whininess. The archipelago of Svalbard — and specifically its main city of Longyearbyen — was my first experience in a faraway Arctic outpost where people eke out a living year-round. I visited in July, when the temperature was a balmy 25 degrees Fahrenheit and the streets were clear of snow. We weren’t allowed to walk alone, because polar bears often wander into town.

ice zodiac svalbard norway


From Longyearbyen, we then sailed throughout Svalbard for 10 days aboard a cruise ship with a strengthened hull that could cope with the slushy waters. We took daily excursions via Zodiac landing crafts, getting splashed by the frigid water the whole time. But the natural ice sculptures that surrounded us at every turn took my breath away and I barely noticed the cold.

Photos: 9 Incredible Animals to See in the Arctic

polar bear churchill manitoba


Churchill, Canada: A November trip to Churchill, Canada, put me in close proximity to polar bears. Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world, as the bears congregate there waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze so that they can hunt.

Following a three-hour flight from Winnipeg, I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac and was immediately whipped in the face by 50-mile-an-hour winds. It was the coldest weather I had ever experienced — negative 41 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill.

churchill manitoba sunset


The cold was worth it, though, with close-up views of polar bears (from the safety and warmth of specially outfitted and heated polar rovers) and sunsets like the one above.

11 Best Canada Experiences

grand teton national park wyoming


Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, U.S.A.: Yellowstone National Park is a marvel, but neighboring Grand Teton National Park is a gem in wholly different ways. Even in June, the Tetons were still covered in snow during my visit, making for a lovely backdrop as we went kayaking on Colter Bay.

Like Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park is accessible only half the year, and most of the lodging is closed in winter. Snow cover makes it virtually impenetrable for most travelers.

National Park Vacations

birds in alaska


Southeast Alaska, U.S.A.: Sailing in a small vessel through the Inside Passage of Alaska left me cold to the core, even in the middle of summer, thanks to a bone-chilling rain that fell on us nearly the whole time. But the gray skies created atmospheric backdrops for photos, and I got to see calving glaciers for the first time.

Planning a Trip to Alaska

What are your favorite cold-weather destinations? Post them in the comments below.

— written and photographed by Elissa Leibowitz Poma