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Snow may be lingering in the forecast, but spring is fighting its way into the air. Soon there will be something to show for it, when plants begin to bloom from every nook in the seasonally halcyon days of histamine.

Among the fragrant indicators of warmer weather, none is as iconic as the cherry blossom tree. A Japanese tradition, cherry blossom or sakura festivals take place each spring when the trees reach peak bloom (typically in early April). This became a U.S. tradition over a century ago, when Japan gifted us with more than 2,000 trees as a symbol of friendship and good will in 1912, and 3,800 more in 1965. Since then, cherry blossom tourists have primarily flocked to our nation’s capital, where these trees flaunt their annual pinks and whites.

While Washington D.C.‘s National Cherry Blossom Festival is a gorgeous spring display and celebration of international relations, it’s not the only festival of its kind. In fact, it’s not even the largest in the country. Check out these four alternative cherry blossom festivals living in its shadow; you may be surprised by their locations.

branch brook newark new jersey cherry blossom essex county

Branch Brook Park: Newark, NJ
With more than 4,300 trees to its name, Branch Brook Park — in the unlikely city of Newark, New Jersey — is home to the nation’s largest collection of cherry blossoms. It’s the Garden State, after all! Each April, more than 10,000 people gather in the Essex County park for its spring festival of events including a 10K run, a bike race and Bloomfest, which hosts Japanese cultural demonstrations, food, music, a crafter’s marketplace and plenty of children’s activities. The grounds are sprawling, so it’s the perfect setting for a picnic — or hanami — under the pink awning of the trees. This year’s events kick off on April 5 and culminate with Bloomfest on April 13.

Macon Georgia cherry blossom festival carriage children

International Cherry Blossom Festival: Macon, GA
The self-proclaimed cherry blossom capital of the world, Macon, Georgia, is host to a number of year-round events celebrating the cherry blossom, in addition to its annual international festival and parade. With a whopping 300,000 – 350,000 Yoshino cherry trees around Macon, it’s no wonder the town revels in all things cherry tree — they can’t escape them! Riding tours like the Cherry Blossom Express offer relaxing tree-peeping trips as you visit the most unique places around Macon. For a bit more excitement, check out the Tunes & Balloons Fireworks Finale, which caps off the festival’s celebrations. There are a number of events scheduled this year, but the parade takes place on March 23 and the season concludes with the fireworks finale on April 5.

Photo used and shared under the following license: GNU Free Documentation License. Original photo copyright Wikimedia Commons user Macondude.

shinto shrine pond brooklyn botanical cherry blossom

Sakura Park/Brooklyn Botanical Gardens: New York City, NY
Many people recognize Washington D.C. as the home to Japan’s generous gift of cherry blossom trees, but not as recognized are the 2,000 trees from the same gift living in a small park in Manhattan. Sakura Park isn’t host to any huge parades or festivals, but blooms quietly each spring along the northern tip of Morningside Heights. Close to Grant’s Tomb, it’s in a peaceful and historic section of the city, making it the perfect escape for urbanites on a springtime afternoon.

Nearby, a tree grows in Brooklyn — well, make that multiple trees. The cherry blossom display at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden includes a Shinto shrine and pond. Sakura Matsuri is the BBG’s annual cherry blossom festival that offers more than 60 events and performances celebrating both traditional and contemporary Japanese culture. The festival is typically in late spring, as it marks the end of the cherry blossom season. This year’s events take place April 26 and 27.

geese schuylkill river cherry blossom philadelphia

Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival of Greater Philadelphia: Philadelphia, PA
Encouraging you to “visit Japan without leaving Philly,” the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia is host to the area’s Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival, a collection of Japanese music, art, food and culture, right in the City of Brotherly Love. Events and demonstrations span martial arts, flower arranging and even a sushi competition. With cherry blossoms as the backdrop, immerse yourself in Japanese culture with a Dine Out Japan restaurant week and taiko drum performances. All the festivities lead up to Sakura Sunday, held at the Horticulture Center in Fairmount Park. This year’s events begin on April 2 and conclude on April 13.

For more ideas, see our Top 10 Stunning Spring Destinations.

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two warm-weather adventures.

Would you rather…

… hike to a secret waterfall in Kauai, Hawaii, or …

kauai waterfall

… go snorkeling in Tahiti?

snorkel snorkeling tahiti

Here in the Northeast, we’re sick of ice and snow — which is why we chose two warm-weather experiences for this week. The first picture captures one of the many waterfalls on the Hawaiian isle of Kauai; known as the Garden Island, it’s a haven for hikers and nature lovers. In the second photo are snorkelers enjoying the unspoiled undersea landscape off the coast of Tahiti.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week’s shot captures a vivid sky over Monument Valley, Utah.

monument valley utah

Photos: 9 Easy Hikes That Will Take Your Breath Away

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

The Lure of Revisiting a Familiar Place

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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!

drayton hall charlestonIn this month’s featured review, reader Ben Szweda pursues his quest to visit every U.S. state with a trip to South Carolina and Georgia. “On my third day in Charleston I headed to Drayton Hall (plantation) for a guided tour of the house,” wrote Ben. “This property is just one mile away from Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. I chose however to visit Drayton because after visiting two plantations in Louisiana I had been disappointed that they were so made up. Unlike Magnolia, Drayton Hall advertises to be just the opposite: ‘preserved, not restored.’ There is truth in the advertising slogan and I therefore thoroughly enjoyed my tour.”

Read the rest of Ben’s review here: Exploring the History of the Southeast. Ben has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

hiking trail skagway alaska forestAlaska is … green? Are you kidding me?

Yes, it’s true. Recently I took my first cruise to Alaska, only to discover that much of it is green, not covered in ice and snow. I was flabbergasted.

Maybe others know pretty much what to expect when arriving at their destination, but man, was I taken back. I had expected glorious white topography. Not a rain forest.

“You idiot,” some might say. “It’s summer.”

Sigh. Now I know.

It would be one thing if this was the first time this had happened to me. Sadly, my list below shows eight times I was caught off guard when arriving in a new place. Some surprises were bonuses; others were just plain weird. One day I’ll learn about this thing called the Internet and do more research.

Or maybe that surprised feeling is just the reason I love to travel!

8 Travel Surprises
1. Dominican Republic: I expected paradise. I found a handful of near-death experiences. (Santo Domingo is a very frightening place to be lost. See Drama in the DR: Lessons from a Series of Unfortunate Events for more on this topic.)

2. Chicago: I expected a city, not a beach. Bonus!

3. New York: I expected world-class shopping and dining. I smelled like kabobs and roasted nuts by the time I found either of these things.

4. Aruba: I expected tropical. I found a desert — except for the lawn-watering resorts.

5. Seattle: I expected Pearl Jam. I found sushi.

6. New Orleans: I don’t know what I expected, but not that smell. Bourbon Street at night puts the smelliest college parties to shame.

7. Boston: I expected chowdah. I found food trucks! (Don’t miss the SoWa food trucks in the South End throughout the non-frigid months.)

8. Vancouver: I expected outdoorsy attractions. I found crazy hockey fans.

Poll: What’s the Most Delightful Travel Surprise?

As I came up with this list, I started to wonder how many other travelers have gone somewhere only to find out their expectations came from the ether. How many knew that the star-studded sidewalk in Hollywood would be lined with shady characters selling some really weird swag? How many expected to be able to buy a T-shirt while checking out the Sphinx? Share your story of mistaken expectations in the comments!

— written by Matt Leonard

greenwich village apartment buildingsAirbnb, the social website that connects travelers with locals who are willing to rent out living spaces on a short-term basis, scored a big victory in New York last week. The back story: Nigel Warren, a New York-based Airbnb host who had rented out his bedroom while he himself was traveling, was fined $2,400 for violating local laws that make it illegal to rent out a home for less than 30 days.

This matter potentially had massive ramifications, not just for Airbnb but also for travelers, who have flocked to the site to find value-priced lodgings with a local feel and ambience, rather than high-priced hotels. Airbnb hosts rent out apartments, houses and spare rooms.

In support for Warren and other hosts in New York, Airbnb worked with Warren to appeal the fine. A clarification by the New York City Environmental Control Board was handed down last week. The ruling articulated that hosts can rent out rooms as long as a permanent occupant of the home is in residence (in Warren’s case, his roommate, who was also on the lease, was present).

“In the appeal, we and Nigel argued — and the appeal board now agrees — that under New York law as long as a permanent occupant is present during a stay, the stay does not violate New York’s short term rental laws,” wrote David Hantman, Airbnb’s Head of Global Public Policy, on the company’s blog.

Airbnb and Beyond: Tips for Safe, Legal Vacation Rentals

The bottom line for New Yorkers: It’s still okay to rent out a spare room if you’re present at the time, and it’s still illegal to rent out an apartment that you don’t live in. But the news is that as long as some permanent occupant is there, even if you as the host are not, your rental is legal.

The battle’s not fully over yet in New York, as this new development does not protect those who rent out empty apartments. (There are currently more than 1,000 such listings on Airbnb.com.) Still, it’s a start — and Warren gets his fine refunded.

All eyes now turn to a similar battle now playing out in the Los Angeles community of Silver Lake. Stay tuned.

— written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week’s shot captures evening at the Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago, Illinois. This Millennium Park institution is affectionately nicknamed “the Bean.”

cloud gate bean millennium park chicago

Our Favorite Windy City Hotels

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Photos: The Best 9 Cities to See Cool Public Art

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

hudson valley autumn leaves windowIn 5 Signs You’re Not a True Traveler, I declared that you should travel to experience new things, and that you shouldn’t always take the same vacations again and again. While I stand behind the notion that resort vacations alone aren’t traveling in the truest sense of the word, everyone should have one of those special places that take us away but make us feel at home, all at once.

Call it a weekend getaway, or call it the Griswold Family Summer Vacation — a good ol’ stand-by vacation spot, by any other name, is just as sweet.

When I was a child, my parents would wake me up in the pitch-darkness before dawn to jump into the car (in full pajama regalia, clutching stuffed compatriots) and head to Montauk, Long Island. We did this every summer, which was a tradition that I later found out my father had started in his mid-20’s. With a sense of legacy, and miles of beaches, village shopping centers, farmer’s markets, winding roads and harborside restaurants, there wasn’t any element that “got old.”

Photos: The 8 Best U.S. Road Trips

In college I moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, and within a short time I was initiated into the cult of leaf-praising, harvest-loving, pumpkin latte-drinking and apple-picking worshippers of fall. The Hudson Valley came alive during the autumn months, and I was intoxicated by the bucolic rolling hills, small-town festivals and flavors that marked the season.

It’s because of four years spent roaming the grounds of the Vanderbilt Mansion and strolling the streets of Rhinebeck that I became a fan of New York’s Hudson Valley for life. In that time I learned important distinctions of the area — most notably, do not confuse Dutchess County for “upstate” … it’s not the same thing!

Vote: Do You Enjoy Revisiting Familiar Places?

Every October, like clockwork, some inner leaves rustle and I’m drawn back to the familiar world of my old stomping grounds. What some people remember most about their time away at college is the parties or the sorority pals. But for me, that period of my life offered a lifelong gift: the opportunity to know a place and to revisit it with new eyes every time the autumn wind blows and the Valley comes calling.

Where’s your home-away hideaway? Is there a place that you visit continually and couldn’t imagine never seeing again? Post yours in the comments.

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

airport time fliesThis is the first post in a new series called Time Flies, highlighting unique ways to spend your down time at airports around the world.

Every day that I fly starts the same way. It begins with the inevitable balancing act of figuring out the exact time to leave home, fight traffic, arrive at my local airport, pass security and make it to my gate in a timely fashion. And by “timely fashion,” I don’t mean simply making my flight.

The real goal behind this exercise is to have as little unnecessary airport-sitting time as humanly possible, without missing my flight. It’s my version of risk management. I’m just not a fan of the awkward leatherette rows of chairs rife with computer cords, people in too-comfy-for-public-consumption clothes, rogue bags occupying seats so someone as offensive as me can’t sit nearby, receiving the occasional stray kick from passersby (apology accepted) or just simply staring at the random cast of characters across from me. Who, by the way, I’m certain feel exactly the same about me.

So I want to applaud the airports that recognize this and have kindly displayed a level of ingenuity that makes me want to fly from them, by providing innovative ways for travelers to use their down time. To show my appreciation, these thought leaders will get the showcase they deserve in a monthly blog series called “Time Flies.”

The first airport we’ll feature is Dallas/Fort Worth International, with its new hands-only CPR kiosk.

Who doesn’t want to learn CPR in their downtime? I absolutely do. I can imagine seeing someone running for a plane and not thinking they’ll make it, physically. Using this kiosk at DFW, which the American Heart Association is placing in Terminal C for the next six months, I can learn CPR and know that if that moment comes, I’ll be fully armed with the ability to do what’s needed — without having awkward and potentially germy mouth-to-mouth contact. Brilliant!

Before learning about this kiosk, I had no idea that simply pressing on someone’s chest can be as effective as doing the whole nose-squeeze/pseudo-kiss thing. That, in itself, is a public service. But it gets better.

The short video at the kiosk is set to “Stayin’ Alive,” the classic Bee Gees disco hit, which apparently has the perfect tempo for hands-only CPR. Think of John Travolta hovering over the stricken individual. He unleashes a strong chest thrust at the bottom end of his infamous disco maneuver, rendering the poor soul saved. For that brief moment, any one of us could be John Travolta.

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So I thank you, DFW, for your commitment to being one of the nation’s healthiest airports and your outside-the-box thinking. All kidding aside, this is a valuable service and something worth checking out the next time you’re in Dallas.

Have you seen a zany airport idea or had a great experience while waiting for a flight? Share it with us in the comments!

— written by Matt Leonard