Thursday, March 31, 2011

5 Best Places to See Cherry Blossoms (besides Japan)

With the recent tragic events in Japan, there aren't many tourists making the journey to Sakura and Kyoto for the cherry blossom festivals there. Many people don't know, however, that there are other cities that have spectacular displays of pink blossoms each spring, and events and festivals to go with them. Here are a few of the other best places to see cherry blossoms:

San Francisco – California’s best city for pink flowers, San Francisco hosts a cherry blossom festival every April. The best places to go are Golden Gate Park, and the San Jose Heritage Garden, which is a little out of town but has an entire field of cherry blossom trees.

Vancouver – Vancouver is Canada’s cherry blossom capital. Their events run from mid-March through the end of April. The best streets to see the flowers is 7th Avenue in Mount Pleasant, but the city offers a cherry blossom viewing map that you can download here.

Honolulu – Hawaii has its own tradition of cherry blossoms, which bloom in Honolulu, and Waimea on the Big Island. The best place to see them is in Church Row Park, where the cherry blossom festival is held. Hawaii’s cherry blossoms bloom early though, so this event is usually held in February.

Seoul – If your heart is set on going east, South Korea has spectacular displays each April. The best place to go is Seoul, which has beautiful pink and white vistas at Mount Namsan and Seoul Forest. For a real treat, visit Children’s Grand Park, which lights up its more than 1,000 cherry blossom trees each night.

Washington DC – Outside of Japan, Washington DC is the place to go to see cherry blossom trees. The landscape positively explodes pink everywhere you look, and it becomes nearly impossible to take a bad picture. It all stems from 3,000 cherry trees given to the US by Japan as a sign of goodwill, and each spring the city hosts the National Cherry Blossom Festival. The best place to see the cherry blossoms is in Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park.

Image by katmere.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Travel Movie: Seven Years in Tibet

Seven Years in Tibet depicts the relationship between a German mountain climber Heinrich Harrer and the young Dalai Lama, over the period when the Chinese occupation of Tibet began. The 1997 film helped to launch Brad Pitt as a movie star, and the did much to raise awareness of the occupation and what it meant for the Tibetan people.

The Chinese government predictably protested the film, which is very respectful of Tibetan culture and depicts Chinese authorities as arrogant. Pitt was banned from ever travelling to China.

The movie was widely criticised for slow pacing, and glossing over Harrer's past as a Nazi SS officer. Brad Pitt's accent was also listed as the third worst in movie history by Empire. As a travel movie though, we can only complain that most of the footage was actually shot in Argentina. Only 20 minutes of the film is actually showing Tibet. Granted, they had to do that bit secretly.

Verdict: Skip it. (and rent Kundun instead)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Does Your Hotel Have Bedbugs?

The last thing anyone wants is a great night's sleep in a beautiful hotel, only to wake up covered in itchy red blotches. Yuck! The recent bedbug crisis in New York City has many travellers worried that they'll be unknowingly sharing their pricey hotel room with unwanted bedmates.

So before you book a hotel in the US or Canada, check it against the
Bed Bug Registry, where previous guests can report incidents of bed bugs.

If you do end up with being bitten, the best thing you can do is apply an antiseptic cream. There are natural remedies for bedbug bites using herbs like lavender, mint, and black walnut; and applying ice can help to calm the itchiness.

Remember to wrap your luggage and clothing in plastic bags and leave them in the sun for a couple of days to prevent hitch hikers, as bed bugs can't endure extreme heat.

Image from here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Word Travels Forum Round-Up #17

It's Monday, so here are the travel questions people have been talking about on the Word Travels Forum this week:

Got any questions of your own? You can ask them on the forum and our local experts will find an answer for you!

Image from Erik Charlton.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Win a Trip to Zanzibar!

Okay South Africans, this one's for you! You can win a trip for two to Zanzibar from Travelstart!

More info here.

Image from here.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Top 5 Travel Songs

It seems like most songs these days are written to inspire people to fall in love (or lust!), have a good time, or feel better about a break-up. There are some songs that just make you want to hit the road, however, whether they're about a certain place, or just driving nowhere in particular. Here's our list of the top 5 songs about travelling:

Cruisin' - Originally by Smokey Robinson, I first heard this song in the little-known karaoke movie Duets, where Gwyneth Paltrow accompanies Huey Lewis. Now both versions hold a certain nostalgia for me, and it makes me itch to take a road trip.

Route 66 - This classic from Nat King Cole name-drops towns like rappers name kinds of booze. It gets your foot tapping so much you'll be planning the drive from Chicago to LA in no time flat.

Sail Away - The sultry sounds of this song tempts even the hardest heart to jump on a boat and sail into the sunset, especially with that special someone. Far more inviting than that Enya thing.

Leaving on a Jet Plane - Who hasn't hummed this song to themselves while being dropped at the airport? Ironically, John Denver died in a plane crash, but this song remains one of his greatest hits.

Roam - This has got to be the most cheerful ode to getting your travel on that I've ever heard! It's inspired women around the world to get up and go, whether they have a travel partner or not. And as it reminds us, many trips begin and end 'with a kiss'.

Image from Laura Evans Music.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Travel Movie: Once Upon a Time in Mexico

The top news in Mexico these days is all about drug lords battling the authorities in the streets. The 2003 film Once Upon a Time in Mexico, like its prequels (Desperado and El Mariachi) depicts this perfectly (almost prophetically).

The other thing it gets right however, is the brilliancy of the dust-covered colours and the underlying beauty of the country beyond the smog of Mexico City. Each scene is composed like a postcard, and at the end of the movie you're rather wanting to hop on a plane, despite the violence. Filmed in Guanajuato, Querétaro, and San Miguel de Allende, it leaves behind the seediness of Tijuana and plastic resorts of Acapulco and shows you a taste of the real Mexico, with a soundtrack to match. A little over the top? Sure. But fun.

Verdict: Rent it

Image from here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Impact of the Japan Earthquake on Travel

The devastating earthquake in Japan has sparked a chain reaction that shows no sign of stopping: first a tsunami, then a nuclear crisis, contaminated food exports, etc. The impact the Japan earthquake has had on the travel industry is huge as well, with shockwaves spreading throughout Asia and the Pacific Ocean. Here's the lowdown on how the earthquake has affected travel:

First there's the obvious. Travel to Japan is just not happening right now. Most governments have evacuated their citizens, and all are advising against non-essential travel to Japan at this point. It's not just about traveller safety, though; there is a scarcity of resources as more then 200,000 people have lost there homes and basic services like water and electricity are scarce. Business and leisure travel has ground to a halt, and even those who want to help are discouraged from going unless they speak Japanese and are associated with an aid organisation. Most cruise lines, including Oceania and Royal Caribbean, have cancelled port calls in Japan, and many airlines have reduced the number of flights, especially to Tokyo's Haneda Airport.

Then there are the ripples: Japanese tourists are a huge market for destinations like China, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Guam and Hawaii. Many Japanese tourists aren't going anywhere at the moment, and are cancelling planned holidays. Thailand, as an example, has seen a huge number of cancellations over April and May, when they usually rely on large numbers of Japanese tourists. Hawaii is expecting losses of tens of millions of dollars from missing tourists from Japan.

Image from

Word Travels Forum Round-Up #16

Happy Tuesday! Yesterday was Human Rights Day in South Africa, so I was out contemplating human rights... in bed. To make up for it, here's the hot topics on the Word Travels Forum for this week:

Remember you can ask your own questions on the forum, and our local experts in hundreds of worldwide destinations will find the answer for you!

Photo by JD Hancock.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Win a Trip to the Royal Wedding!

Didn't score an invite to Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding? No fear! You can win a trip to the Royal Wedding in London from CNN! All you have to do is send a short video convincing them that you would be the perfect correspondent!

More info here.

Image from Reuters.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

5 Things You Didn't Know About St Patrick's Day

Happy St Patrick's Day! Are you wearing green? Here are five things you didn't know about St Patrick's Day:

The first St Patrick's Day parade wasn't in Ireland. It was held in Boston in 1737, but that was more of an impromptu we're drunk and Irish let's march down the street sort of thing. New York City had the first planned one in 1762. The first parade wasn't held in Dublin until 1931.

The Irish government once banned drinking on St Patricks Day. They passed a law forcing pubs to close in 1927, and until 1961 the only legal place to drink on March 17th was the RDS Dog Show! They even banned advertising on the holiday, in an attempt to focus on traditional Irish music and religious services. Luckily, the drinking ban was repealed in the 1970s.

St Patrick was originally associated with the colour blue. Light blue was the traditional national colour of Ireland, and 'St Patrick's blue' ribbons were used for the Order of St Patrick medals. No one is quite sure how it switched to green. Some feel it had to do with the saint's use of the three-leaf clover as a symbol of the Holy Trinity, while others attribute it to the independence movement of the 18th century. Green ribbons were reported at St Patrick's Day parties as early as 1681, however.

St Patrick's Day is a public holiday in Montserrat. The tiny island is known as the 'Emerald Isle of the Caribbean' because it was founded by Irish refugees from St Kitts and Nevis. The holiday commemorates a failed slave uprising that took place on March 17th, 1768. St Patrick's Day is also a public holiday in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

St Patrick was not Irish, and not named Patrick. The Catholic Church says he was born in Scotland in 385 AD. He was captured and sold into slavery, but escaped. He was ordained as Patrick (or Palladius) in France. According to some sources, his original name was Maewyn Succat.

Photo from here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What Pilots Want You to Know

There's a lot we take for granted when flying, so here are a few things that pilots really want you to remember on your next trip:

If you’re going to recline your seat, for God’s sake, please check behind you first. You have no idea how many laptops are broken every year by boorish passengers who slam their seat back with total disregard to what’s going on behind them.
John Nance

The smoothest place to sit is often over or near the wing. The bumpiest place to sit is in the back. A plane is like a seesaw. If you’re in the middle, you don’t move as much.
Patrick Smith

Why can’t you use your cell phones? What can happen is 12 people will call someone just before landing, and I can get a false reading on my instruments saying that we are higher than we really are.
Jim Tilmon, retired American Airlines pilot

We ask you to put up the window shade so the flight attendants can see outside in an emergency, to assess if one side is better for an evacuation. It also lets light into the cabin if it goes dark and helps passengers get oriented if the plane flips or rolls over.
Patrick Smith

The glory days of aviation are long gone. Airline companies are cutting wages and conditions wherever they can, and the crew are expected to do more than they once did. As aircraft get more fuel efficient, we fly longer distances than in the past, often with minimum rest, working at hours when most people are asleep.
Airline pilot based in Sydney

How tired we are a lot of the time! We can go away on a five-day trip and start work at 5am daily, waking around 3.30am, and then fly four or five sectors over a ten- or 11-hour day, dealing with inclement weather, passenger delays, mechanical problems, tight schedules and no proper meal.
Qantas pilot

Read the rest at

Photo by jurvetson.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Updates

As the devastation from the Japan earthquake and tsunami unfolds, we'll keep you updated with what's happening in Tokyo, Sendai, Fukushimi and other areas of Japan at the moment.

Tokyo: there has been major infrastructure damage, and train and subway schedules have been reduced to save power. Service to Narita airport has been suspended. There is a shortage of electricity, food and water. There are continued aftershocks that could reach as high as 7 on the richter scale. Tokyo is at the moment... (read more)

UPDATE: Here's an updated article about the effect of the Japan earthquake on travel.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Word Travels Forum Round-Up #15

It's Monday! Here are the busiest questions on the Word Travels forum for this week:

Remember you can find many travel-related answers on our busy forums, and ask your own questions as well!

Photo by mlinksva.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Win a Trip to San Francisco!

Attention chocoholics! Ghirardelli is giving away a free trip for 4 to San Francisco with all the sugar-laden trimmings imaginable!

Open to US residents over 21. Enter here.

Photo by hiimniko.

PS - San Francisco was named one of our Top 5 Chocolate Cities!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

4 Things You Didn't Know about Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras is well underway in New Orleans, so for those of us that didn't make it to Louisiana, here are 4 things you didn't know about Mardi Gras:

What are krewes? Krewes are the groups that organise parties and parades around Mardi Gras. They meet in secret throughout the year, then appear in masks on their floats. Rex and Zulu are the most famous, but each has its own style and traditions.

Why is everything green, gold and purple? The traditional Mardi Gras colours were inspired by Russian royalty. Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff visited New Orleans in 1872, and the Rex (the original Mardi Gras krewe) liked the combination so much they incorporated them. The colours symbolise justice (purple), faith (green), and power (gold).

What's the deal with kingcakes? Kingcakes have been a symbol of New Orleans since the 18th century, when French and Spanish colonists. The dough is braided before it is baked, and then filled with Bavarian Cream, apple or strawberry jam, and a trinket that one lucky person will find. Whoever finds it is responsible for hosting the next party!

Why do they throw beaded necklaces? One of the krewes dressed up as Santa and threw beaded necklaces at the crowd in the 1880s, and it was so popular other krewes started copying them. Back then the beads were made of glass. It was in the 1970s that they were replaced with the cheap plastic necklaces thrown today, which is about the same time women started flashing to earn them.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Inspired by Iceland

Now this is how you promote a country. Check out this great video from Inspired by Iceland.

Travel Movie: Roman Holiday

This classic 1953 travel film practically invented a genre. Since then Gidget, Lizzie McGuire, and even Sabrina the Teenage Witch have all had their own Roman Holidays. In fact, there are over 60 films set in Rome, not even counting ancient sword-and-sandals epics.

But this is the original Rome-antic comedy. Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck fall in love while whizzing around the city on a Vespa and taking in sites like the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, the Trastevere, and other iconic Roman attractions.

The movie introduced Audrey Hepburn to American audiences, and won her an Oscar to boot.

Verdict: Buy it

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Congo Safari Blog

You can write a blog about your day in Paris, or your week in China, but if you're doing a hard slog straight through the heart of the Congo it takes a few more words.

Belgian travellers Josephine and Frederik (pictured above) did just that when they drive their Landcruiser from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa. They chronicled the journey on this forum thread, and it makes a fascinating read with tales of breakdowns, endless bribe attempts, paperwork and permits, and locals they encountered, all with a tireless enthusiasm and a much-needed sense of humour!

It's 79 pages long, but worth a read!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Word Travels Forum Round-Up #14

The forum at Word Travels has been buzzing this week! Here are a few of the most popular topics:

There are hundreds more threads with topics of all sorts, so the answer to your travel question may be waiting... visit the forum now and see!

Photo by orphanjones

Friday, March 4, 2011

Win a Trip to Peru!

Want to trek Machu Picchu? See flamingos? Bushwhack the Amazon jungle? Take a dip in the most inappropriately-named lake of all time? Pet a llama?

Then click here and enter to win a 10-day trip to Peru!

Picture by Alex E. Proimos

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Top 5 Places to Travel in March

You've got some vacation days saved up, and it's time to use it. What are the best places to travel in March? We've found them for you:

Colorado - One of the best times to go skiing in Colorado is March when most of the tourists have left for the season. The prices are significantly reduced, not only in hotels and lodges, but also ski lifts, food and even shopping. With heavy snowfall, blue skies and moderate temperatures, carving through the silky powder down soft white slopes is enough to make any traveller weak at the knees. From Telluride and Steamboat to Aspen and Vail, there are plenty of resorts to enjoy some spring time snow.

Rio de Janeiro - Always a party destination, Rio de Janeiro kicks things into high gear in March with the famous (or infamous) Rio Carnival. Dazzling bright colours, hot samba music, elaborate costume balls and thousands of people having a great time are the order of the day. You can also enjoy Rio's other attractions, like Ipanema beach, the iconic Christ the Redeemerstatue, and a trip to Iguaçu Falls.

Cambodia - Cambodia’s dry season is by far the best time to visit this land off the beaten track. From majestic ruins in Angkor to temples in Phnom Penh and beautiful beaches and islands, Cambodia is a treasure trove of delights just waiting to be discovered. Spend a few days cruising the Mekong River from Phnom Penh taking in the Cambodian landscape along the way. Pass through Kompong Chhnang to visit the market and pottery village, marvel at Southeast Asia’s largest lake, Tonle Sap, and shop at the largest floating village at Kompong Luong before descending on Siem Reap and the World Heritage Site of the Temples of Angkor.

Thailand - While Thailand is a popular travel destination at any time of the year, March hits the sweet spot of low season and you'll benefit from the smaller crowds and lower prices. March can be warm, but not as warm as April and May. Take advantage of the ideal weather by sunning on a beach in Phuket, exploring the nightlife of Bangkok, and soaking up the culture of Chiang Mai.

Ireland - When one thinks of Ireland, there’s only one month that springs to mind: March 17th is St Patrick’s Day, which has become synonymous the world over with all things Irish. Although the weather may not be the best, the atmosphere and energy is electric with much revelry, Guinness and craic surrounding the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations. Dublin is always heaving in March when the biggest and best St Patrick’s Day Festival sees thousands of visitors flocking to the Irish capital. For a 100% authentic Irish experience, head to Galway or Cork to enjoy some traditional dancing, a single malt whiskey and a hearty meal.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Travel Movie: Leap Year

Sending the favourite redhead of the moment on a wacky rom-com odyssey across Ireland to succumb to the charms of a local lad and his irresistible accent sounds like a great movie, but unfortunately Leap Year fails as both a rom-com and a travel movie.

Boston native Anna (Amy Adams) is every obsessive and prim leading lady every written, but with red hair. She desperately wants her doctor boyfriend to propose, but he flies to Dublin for a conference instead. Conveniently, it's nearly February 29th and Anna's drunken father reminds her that it's apparently 'permissible' for women to propose on that date.

So Anna jets off to Ireland, but doesn't quite make it to Dublin and washes up on shore in Dingle, where she meets pretty but surly bar owner Declan (Matthew Goode). She hires him to take her to Dublin and hilarity ensues. Guess who she marries?

Aside from the predictable plot, Leap Year plays fast and loose with Irish geography. Many of the views depicted as Dingle were actually shot in Inishmore, Dublin doubles for Boston, and the geographical logic of taking a boat from Wales to Dingle boggles the mind a bit.

Oh, and the beautiful castle ruins pictured above? With the romantic story? Mostly CGI. It's actually the Rock of Dunamase and look like this:

Verdict: Skip it

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

5 Surprising things that are illegal in other countries

Over the weekend, a rather dim Canadian tourist was arrested in Berlin. His crime? Giving the Nazi salute while posing for a photo in front of the Reichstag. While he had to know that his pose was in poor taste, it's true that most tourists don't know that it is illegal to do the salute in Germany.

It pays to do a little research before you visit another country, or you may find yourself in a lot of trouble for something you didn't know was banned. The website has some rather funny examples, but there are a few that you might want to know about. Here's our list of 5 surprising things that are illegal in other countries:

Driving a car shirtless in Thailand. If you rent a car on your holiday in Thailand, better remember to throw a top on after you leave the beach or you may find yourself in a prison uniform.

Kissing on railways in France. So much for the city of love! While I'm sure this silly law gets broken all the time, it's probably best to restrain yourself on the Paris metro. Funnily enough, it is legal to touch a woman's breasts on a train (with her consent, of course)!

Valentine's Day in Saudi Arabia. If you want to be romantic around February 14th in Riyadh, best find a non-traditional way to do it, as red roses, wrapping paper, teddy bears and hearts are removed from the shelves by authorities. Oh, and remember not to kiss or hold hands in public either.

Publicly removing bandages in Canada. We know Canadians are polite, but apparently they're also squeamish. Although maybe they do have a point... who wants to see that? Do it in private.

Flushing the toilet after 10pm in Switzerland. The Swiss just love regulating things. They have rules about when you can hang your laundry, mow the lawn, wash your car, and also flush the toilet. This law applies to anyone staying in an apartment or flat. Oh, and guys? You can't urinate while standing after 10pm either. Love to know how they enforce that one...

Photo by Stewart