10 St. Patrick’s Day alternatives to Dublin, Ireland

While travelers often think of Dublin, Ireland, as the must-visit place for St. Patrick’s Day, there are many other excellent destinations all over the world to celebrate the festivities. To help you decide where to spend March 17 this year, check out this list of ten excellent St. Patrick’s Day destinations.

New York

I’ve attended St. Patrick’s Day in New York many times and can honestly say it is something everyone should experience at least once in his or her life. Their annual parade down 5th Avenue (shown above), which will take place this year beginning at 11AM at 44th Street, has been happening since 1762 and is said to be the largest in the world. Although the parade does not allow floats, it is a festive event with over 150,000 marchers coming out to participate each year. For those who want a little culture and history, take a walking tour of the former “Little Ireland” in the Lower East Side, which in the 19th century had more Irish residents than Dublin. At night, choose what kind of atmosphere you’d like to enjoy. Whether in dive bars, Irish pubs, dance clubs, or upscale lounges, there are a myriad of specials and parties going on in every neighborhood of the city.

If you’d like to celebrate St. Patty’s in New York but want to stay away from the crowds and high prices, travel up to the state capital of Albany and partake in their annual “Kegs and Eggs” celebration. I’ve gone four years in a row and can vouch that it is definitely a festive time. Warning: This is only for those who are looking to get sloppy. The bars open at 7AM and before that you can find myriad parties happening from 3AM on. You can also enjoy their 62nd annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, which will take place this year on March 17 at 2PM starting at Quail Street and Central Avenue.Holyoke, Massachusetts

While many people assume Boston is where the party’s at, Holyoke actually boasts having the second largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the entire United States. In fact, last year they had over 400,000 attendees as well as notable visitors like Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough and the Irish Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Collins. This year, the procession will take place on March 18 and is expected to be just as big, if not bigger. The city is also well-known for its annual St. Patrick’s Day Road Race (this year will be their 37th one), a 10K running event where participants dress up in green and show their Irish pride through sport.

New Orleans, Louisiana

As one of the sexier St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, New Orleans takes on the holiday with a bit of a Mardi Gras twist, with the throwing of beads and the re-use of Fat Tuesday floats. To give it a St. Patty’s spin, Irish stew ingredients like potatoes, cabbages, carrots, and onions are also tossed from the floats into the crowd. What many people may not know is New Orleans actually has a large Irish population and, in the southern United States, holds the largest entry port for Irish immigrants. In fact, St. Patrick’s Day festivities in this city date all the way back to the 19th century.

Newfoundland, Canada

This island off the coast of mainland Canada is one of only two places outside of Ireland to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as a public holiday. Beginning in the 17th century, Irish people immigrated to Newfoundland and set up small villages and communities, which are now known as the Irish Loop. The area has a very strong Irish culture making St. Patrick’s Day celebrations span over 10-days. Visit the popular Irish pub O’Reilly’s for a pint of Guinness and tons of events, or wander to any of the other local bars, all of which are sure to be celebrating to their fullest extent.

Sydney, Australia

One of the best St. Patrick’s Days I’ve ever experienced was in Sydney, Australia, and I highly recommend that everyone find someway to at least enjoy one St. Patty’s Day in your life aboard a Sydney Harbour St. Patty’s Day booze-cruise. For about $75, you get three hours of unlimited drinks and food as well as a live DJ, festive games, and free admission to Cargo Bar in Darling Harbour. On March 18, you can also enjoy a giant St. Patrick’s Day parade, which is followed by a party in Hyde Park with Irish music, cultural dancing, and ethnic food stalls.

Dubai, Middle East

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in the Middle East may sound odd to some people, but Dubai actually really gets into the holiday, thanks to the Dubai Irish Society. This is also a great alternative to Dublin for people who would rather drink green beer on a beach than in the freezing cold. The Bonnington Jumeirah Lakes Towers is a 5-star Irish owned and operated hotel that not only flies an enormous Irish flag from their 11th floor, but also serves green beer and cocktails while lighting up the venue in festive colors. They also feature Irish dancing and cultural events. For a more laid back St. Patty’s experience in Dubai, head over to the Irish Village for live Irish music, family activities, and a buffet of Irish food fare.

Birmingham, United Kingdom

Not only is Birmingham cheaper than London, it boasts a bigger celebration overall. Thought to be one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day festivals in the world, the holiday lasts for five days and is jam packed with cultural and festive fare. Be sure not to miss the official launch party on March 9, which features Irish music, dancing, and a delicious buffet as well as the parade on March 11, which will take place at 11AM from Camp Hill.

Montserrat, Caribbean

Who wouldn’t want to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in the Caribbean? Montserrat is one of the only two regions in the world outside of Ireland to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as a public holiday and holds a rich Irish heritage. This, along with the coastline’s uncanny resemblance to Ireland’s, has given Montserrat its nickname, “the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean.” The territory boasts a full week of activities including festive parades, concerts, themed nightlife, and celebratory dinners.

Seoul, South Korea

Thanks to the Irish Association of Korea, St. Patrick’s Day is a festive event in Seoul. There is usually a massive parade (2001-2010 had a parade, 2011 just had an enormous festival), as well as a festival that includes Irish dance, music, and sports. Open air concerts, Gaelic football matches, and Irish jigs will get you hyped up during the day, while at night, the bars and clubs take on a St. Patty’s ambiance with festive decor, drink specials, and theme parties.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

March is a great time to visit Buenos Aires, not only because the weather is perfect, but because the city is alive with St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Argentina is actually home to the fifth largest Irish community in the world; however, most do not take part in the wild parties thrown for the holiday. If you’re looking to wear green and stay up all night drinking beer, head downtown to Reconquista Street where the dancing doesn’t stop until 8AM. Moreover, if you want a more cultural experience, many of the city’s churches hold events for the occasion.

[photos via Kelly McCarthy, Allen Gathman, Jessieonajourney, bongo vongo, Eustaquio Santimano]

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: where paid time off is taken seriously

After a long weekend, have you ever thought- ‘if only every work week lasted only four days?’ Flex time and four 10-hour day work weeks are becoming more common, but most of us are still stuck working at least five days a week.

I wouldn’t advise joining the Foreign Service solely because you want more vacation time and travel opportunities, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that these are two of the biggest perks of this career choice. Consider the benefits.

I’m talking long weekends, baby

Most Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) serve between 50-75% of their careers at embassies and consulates overseas where both local and U.S. holidays are observed. This means double the long weekends, or more in some festive locales. There are 10 U.S. federal holidays this year and some countries have even more. For example, the U.S. embassies in Sarajevo, Port of Spain and Port Louis will be closed for a total of 22 holidays in 2012. Bangkok has 21, and in Athens, Lisbon, Colombo, Berlin, Rome and New Delhi there are 20.

The Christmas season is a joy to behold in Orthodox countries thanks to the fact that the Orthodox, bless them, celebrate Christmas in early January. During the five weekend stretch between Christmas and MLK day, embassy employees this year had 4 long weekends.

Obviously many other posts have fewer holidays and in some of the more holiday-crazy countries, the embassy doesn’t actually close for every holiday due to U.S. government restrictions, which are intended to ensure that FSO’s spent at least some time at work each year.

In some fun-loving countries, the government will declare holidays as a spur-of-the-moment treat to boost their popularity. The pretext can sometimes be flimsy- the national handball team placed third in an obscure competition, or perhaps the country’s second favorite poet just croaked and everyone needs an enjoyable long weekend at the beach to grieve. In some developing countries, there may be no pretext at all, just, ‘screw it, we’re not working on Monday.’ But only a truly skillful U.S. Ambassador will find a way to close the embassy for spontaneously declared holidays.Any way you slice it, the benefits are great, but before you rush off to sign up for the Foreign Service Exam, I should mention that congressional delegations (CODELS) are prone to killing FSOs’ long weekends. FSO’s that are posted to places tourists want to visit can count on at least a few CODELS each year during long holiday weekends.

Why? Well, it certainly isn’t because Representative Cletus Bumblescrew and his trophy wife want a junket in Paris during their long weekend. Oh no, it’s because their constituents want them to know much more about the French trade union leaders and opposition politicians they’ll meet in between shopping trips and visits to the Eiffel Tower.

But wait, there’s more

In addition to the holidays, FSO’s get annual leave as well. For those with 3 years government experience or less, it’s 13 workdays per year; employees with 3-15 years service get 20 days; and employees with more than 15 years get 26 workdays per year.

Another nice benefit for the travel addicted is home leave. After the conclusion of each overseas tour, FSO’s get home leave, which accrues at a rate of 15 workdays per year, giving (in theory) FSO’s a very nice 6 week break at the end of a two-year tour and a very sweet 9 week holiday at the conclusion of a 3 year tour. Home leave is actually mandated by Congress and the intention is to hopefully help Americans who might have gone native overseas to re-acquaint themselves with American culture, and spend time with family members.

The State Department pays to send FSO’s and their families back to the U.S., but in reality, there is no one making sure they spend their time eating apple pies, attending baseball games and watching Judge Judy stateside. So if they want to hit Copacabana Beach in Rio, they’re pretty much free to do so. And here’s the really fun part: you can set up your home leave address pretty much wherever you want in the 50 states. FSO’s are supposed to designate an address where they have the most ties, but I know people who simply used the addresses of friends or relatives in Hawaii, because that’s where they wanted to spend their home leave time.

Now Cletus and his wife can’t take away home leave, but an annoying boss can. Many FSO’s don’t end up getting anywhere near as much home leave as they’re entitled to because their next post always wants them to arrive yesterday. Like many things in the Foreign Service, it’s all about how much values their career prospects. An FSO that really values travel and spending time with their family can usually take all or most of their home leave. But if they want the big promotions, they think twice about maxing out on it.

A look at vacation time around the world

In my opinion, FSO’s deserve all the leave time they get. In fact, I find it very odd that even in an election year when politicians promise voters the sun, moon and stars, none seem to advocate more vacation time for Americans. The U.S. is the only industrialized country with no government mandated paid vacation and Americans tend to take fewer vacation days compared to the rest of the world. Here are the statutory minimum vacation requirements in a variety of countries, according to a CNBC report in 2009.

30 days- Finland, Brazil, France
28 days- Russia, Lithuania, United Kingdom
26 days- Poland
25 days- Greece, Denmark, Austria
20 days- Switzerland, New Zealand
19 days- S. Korea
15 days- Taiwan
14 days- Hong Kong, Singapore
12 days- India (thought they have a whopping 16 public holidays)
10 days- Canada, China

Those figures are what’s required by law, but according to a 2009 Expedia survey, some workers taken even more time off. The French average a staggering 38 days; the Brazilians 34; the Swedes 32, the Germans 27; the Australians 19. And the Americans? A paltry 13 days.

With the American economy still a mess, no serious politician is about to propose government mandated vacation time, but I’m not sure that more leisure would hurt the economy. Think about it- when do you spend the most? Certainly not while you’re at work. 70% of the U.S. G.D.P. is based upon consumer spending, so more time off certainly wouldn’t hurt on that score. It’s not likely to happen, so in the meantime, if you want to party like the rest of the world, think about joining the Foreign Service.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Image via cdedbdme on Flickr.

Mutlu Yillar (Happy Holidays) from Turkey

Day has arrived, and here in Istanbul, it’s just another Sunday but you could be fooled by all the festive decorations. Much of the city is festooned with colorful lights and ornamented trees, but with a Turkish twist. Most of the population is Muslim, while unlike in more conservative countries, many families will roast turkeys, decorate trees, and exchange gifts on New Year’s Eve. Turkey was the birthplace of St. Nicholas, and now Santa Claus (or Noel Baba) can be spotted on many Istanbul streets, selling lottery tickets. The traditional Christmas tree is called a Yılbaşı or Noel Ağacı and can be found (real or fake) at large supermarkets, while holly-like kokina plants with red berries are sold on street corners and in flower shops. No matter what, when, or how you celebrate, you can say Mutlu Yıllar (Happy New Year) and toast Şerefe to a great 2012.


NORAD tracking Santa on your iPad and smartphone

As it has done every year for the past 56 years, NORAD is once again tracking Santa this holiday season. But for Christmas 2011, the military organization that watches the skies above North America, has added the ability to follow St. Nick’s progress on your iPhone, iPad, and Android devices as well.

The satellite tracking went live earlier today and has been following Santa’s sled as he’s made his annual rounds through the timezones where it is already Christmas Eve night. Even now, he is delivering presents to homes on the other side of the planet and spreading holiday cheer where ever he goes. You’ll be able to check in on his progress throughout the day today, and watch in anticipation as he nears your neighborhood as well.

Of course, many of us have full days of shopping ahead, not to mention gatherings with friends and families to attend, so we won’t always be close to our computers to track Santa ourselves. But never fear, as NORAD has released the NORAD Tracks Santa app, which is available in both the App Store for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, as well as the Android Market for the plethora of devices that run that mobile operating system. Through this app, you’ll not only be able to keep an eye on the Man in Red, you’ll also be able to play the amusing “Elf Toss” game too. If you’re old school, you can still track Santa in Google Earth too.

Be sure to add these apps to your device now. After all, you’ll definitely want to be home, and snugly tucked in your bed, when Santa comes to deliver your gifts tonight.

Skype offering free WiFi access in 50 airports this holiday season

Video conferencing service Skype is giving the gift of free airport WiFi this holiday season, offering travelers in the U.S. the opportunity to place video or voice calls to friends and family while on the go.

Starting tomorrow, December 21st, and running through Tuesday, December 27th, Mac, PC, and iOS (iPhone, iPad, etc.) users will gain access to third-party WiFi hotspots in 50 different airports across the country. Skype users only need to login to the service and then check their wireless network connection to see if they are on a supported hotspot. Or better yet, you can check to see if an airport you’ll be traveling through over the holidays is covered in the promotion by using the handy-dandy interactive map that you’ll find by clicking here.

Skype seems to have most of the major airports in the U.S. covered with this free giveaway, including Chicago‘s O’Hare and Midway, Atlanta‘s Hartsfield-Jackson, New York‘s JFK and LaGaurdia, and Denver International. A good portion of holiday traffic is likely to go through those airports alone, but there are a number of others, both large and small, that are part of the Free Skype program as well.

This might be a handy service to have if your flight gets canceled or delayed this holiday season and you want to reach out to friends or family to let the know. Additionally, when the inevitable holiday blizzard hits, and you find yourself stranded, you can still feel a part of the festivities, even if you have to settle for an airport hotdog while the rest of the family dines on Christmas ham.