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Flight: booked. Hotel: reserved. Language podcasts: Completed. What else do you need to prepare before jetting off on vacation?

Most of us would probably never think that feeding pigeons in parts of Venice could get us fined as much as our plane tickets there cost. Likewise, while we always leave a substantial tip after dining at a restaurant in North America, the practice is a foreign concept to many international visitors. Needless to say, very diverse cultural customs abound around the world. Here are a few quirky ones that we love and think are useful to know for preventing cultural mishaps abroad.

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Parmarth NiketanKnown commonly as the “yoga capital of the world,” Rishikesh sits on the banks of the Ganges river surrounded by forested hills that lead up to the snow-shrouded Himalayas. Considering that it’s a quick flight from New Delhi, any spiritual seeker or outdoor adventurer should consider adding the town to their broader India itinerary. Here’s why: Read more

Skellig MichaelBarcelona has its Sagrada Familia. Sydney has its white-hooded Opera House. And other places? Well, they’ve got steps – lots and lots of them. As the examples illustrate below, epic staircases aren’t just a way to reach higher ground. They can be major attractions unto themselves. From the fabled Ha’iku Ladder in Hawaii, to Norway’s never-ending Flørli Steps, these jaw-dropping ascents aren’t for the faint of heart. But once you get to the top, we think you’ll agree the views more than make up for the effort. Read more

tacos 1On vacation, we tend to keep different schedules. That’s why, at 1 a.m., with all the regular restaurants closed and the bar having stopped serving food, you may decide you’re ready for dinner number two. Offering unique insight into local culture, late-night eats can enhance your travel experience as much as they can satisfy your craving. For a few bucks, you can fill up on local dishes like tacos, oyster omelets, and crepes, and get a candid glimpse into a city’s after-hours culture. Every country has a specialty; here are the best bites served past midnight in cities all over the world. Read more

move.shetland.orgLast month we gave you a pictorial run-down of 11 Otherworldly Snow and Ice Festivals Around the Globe. Now, in honor of the brave folks who are dealing with the snow and cold that’s cutting directly through the northeast, we bring you another slideshow that’s a little toastier: Fire Festivals from Around the World.

Included are festivals from Scotland, to Japan, to Guatemala. A few of these festivals are celebrated to mark the beginning of spring – such as Iran’s Sadeh festival, which honors fire and light over darkness. So settle in, warm up, and remind yourself: there are less than 40 days until the end of winter.

Yoga Retreat in Costa RicaPlenty of resorts promise to leave you feeling “relaxed and refreshed,” but none are as likely to recharge your batteries as thoroughly as a body-and-mind-centering yoga retreat. Against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, or the beach, or, heck, the Chicago skyline, gorgeous surroundings can help boost your inner calm. And plush accommodations and endless options for indoor and outdoor activities don’t hurt either. To help you sort through the pile, we’ve narrowed down the list into two categories, “splurge,” and “save.” Now, breathe in, and say “Ohm…”

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RarotongaReady to spend some of your holiday money? If you’re looking to get some overseas R&R, two airlines just announced sales, right in time for the New Year.

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Keibul Lamjao GuideMats of dense aquatic grass in Loktak Lake create the appearance of a floating park in India’s Keibul Lamjao National Park. The 25 square-mile park, located about six miles from the Moriang Bazar in the Bishnupur district of Manipur, has a variety of different ecosystems. Sangai, a species of brown-antler deer, live among the almost five-foot-thick phumdis, or floating vegetation islands, and green forest. They use the Pabot, Toya and Chingiao hills within the park as shelter from dangerous monsoons during the summer months. In 1951, the Sangai were labelled as extinct; in 1975, though, 14 deer were found within the national park. Two years later, in 1977, the area was declared a sanctuary for the deer. Read more

Great Rann of KutchSo you’ve seen the world’s largest salt flats, but the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, India, is the world’s largest salt marsh and desert! What’s a salt desert? During the monsoon season, the Rann plains are flooded with water from multiple rivers and sea water that’s blown in. But, come winter and dryer seasons, the water evaporates creating the salty desert that almost seems otherworldly.  Read more

Valley of FlowersNature lovers and avid gardeners will definitely delight in this amazing natural sight: The Valley of Flowers National Park high in West Himalaya, India. The park, nestled between snow-capped peaks, is blanketed in beautiful alpine flowers. The central valley of the park occupies around three square miles, and the lowest part sits at around 11,000 feet above sea level. It is inhabited by countless threatened species (like the snow leopard) and unique plant life.  Read more

The Taj Mahal may get all of the glory, but it’s India’s ancient Ellora and Ajanta caves – designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, dating back some two millennia  – that are the country’s true star attractions. These underrated archaeological wonders are brilliant examples of cave temple architecture, showcasing an artistic and architectural legacy brimming with exquisitely carved sculptures, magnificently detailed wall paintings, and ornately fashioned chambers, pillars, and facades, all painstakingly carved into cliff faces by devout ancient Indian craftsmen.

The caves have remained relatively undiscovered and under-promoted to foreign travelers (though the word is widely out to local Indian tourists, who swarm the place on weekends and holidays), but those willing to make the effort to access the far-flung site, set outside of the city of Aurangabad (a one-hour flight from Mumbai), can tap into their inner Indiana Jones at India’s best-kept secret.

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India is a veritable street circus of swerving cars and rickshaws; roaming monkeys, elephants, cattle, and more; belligerent beggars and touts hawking fare – a “ballet of chaos” as my beau took to describing it during our recent one-month stint there. For wide-eyed Westerners like us looking for a haven amidst the chaos, India delivers some wonderfully affordable homestay options that allow travelers to dip out of the mayhem, curtail the sterile hotel stay, and bunk down in area homes helmed by hospitable locals instead.

Reasonable rates get you more than just a bed, but a culturally immersive experience littered with local flavor, from personal anecdotes illustrating the lives of locals to savory home-cooked meals. These three family-owned and -operated Indian homestays come thoroughly vetted and highly recommended, with families who opened up not just their homes, but their hearts; we came as guests and left as friends. Read more

The colorful and chaotic frenzy that is India can quickly frazzle even the most seasoned travel vet. Happily, remedies to recover from India’s assault on the senses are well within reach in a nation that’s served as a fountainhead for such ancient wellness traditions for as yoga, Ayurveda, and meditation. I survived my recent month on the road there by setting aside some much-needed downtime at a handful of the country’s superlative spa hotels. Put R&R on your radar at two splurge-worthy mountain spa oases, where the resorts are worthy destinations in and of themselves, or try two great-value hub-city hotels touting top-notch spas aimed at helping you reboot while you’re en route.

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In my humble opinion, the Dalai Lama is just about the best darned human being roaming planet Earth today – if there’s such a thing as a holy man, he’s truly it (little wonder, considering he’s venerated by the Tibetan people as the 14th incarnation of the bodhisattva – or enlightened being – of compassion). I’ve long admired the affable Nobel Peace Prize winner’s steadfast support of nonviolence and basic human values (compassion, forgiveness, etc.), spiritual and political leadership of the Tibetan people, and promotion of inter-religious harmony while spreading the virtues of Tibetan Buddhism worldwide – all of which, despite a lifetime spent in the face of incredible adversity, comes delivered with an infectious laughter that can drive a chuckle out of even the most stoic of persona. Read more

Wilde Travels Launch 10-Perfect OffWhen you think of “Gay Travel” certainly gay cruises, circuit parties, or clothing-optional guesthouses come to mind. But what about the ancient city of Varanasi? The Zambezi or Victoria Falls in the heart of Africa? Or a spiritual retreat high in the mountains of Tibet? Newly launched Wilde Travels is set out to change that – and offer a 10 percent savings to first-time customers through August 31, 2012.

Following the Miami-based company’s soft-launch in April, owner Jacob Marek – a former marketing manager for the Kenya Tourist board and a Patagonian tour company – officially pressed the “Go” button on the luxury tour operations with an emphasis on gay and gay-friendly guides, boutique accommodations, and above all customization. No gay group tours here (for now).

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