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Experiencing the real Downton Abbey

Highclere Castle © Highclere Castle Enterprises LLP
Our Product Development Manager, Judy Poliva, traveled to London and Iceland as the tour leader of our Downton Abbey Christmas Ball passengers, and here is her account.

Being a true Downton Abbey fan, I didn’t hesitate to volunteer to lead our Downton Abbey Christmas Ball with London tour two years ago. In fact, the only hesitation I experienced was selecting my outfit for the ball. So many options! So many accessories to consider! After months of planning, and brushing up on my Downton knowledge, our departure day finally arrived.

On our way

The true Downton experience started right away, on the flight over the pond, with episodes from seasons 1 and 2 of Downton Abbey on the in-flight entertainment. What a coincidence! It felt like even the airline wanted to make our tour the memory of a lifetime. I got to experience great moments of the show again, like Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley meeting for the first time, as we made our way. During our layover, we all reminisced about our favorite scenes from the show, and of course discussed what we’d be wearing to the ball (a very common conversation on the tour!). The buzz of anticipation was palpable, and the common thread of a love for travel and Downton Abbey was on full display. I already knew it would be a great trip. Read more…

Singapore: Five Cultures in One

Singapore skyline © Singapore Tourism

The sun rises on Singapore, an island-nation only miles away from its neighbor, Malaysia. Morning rays reflect on breathtaking modern architecture, from gleaming towers to fascinating futuristic structures, dotted with glowing colored lights as day breaks. But beneath the rush of this 21st Century wonder there is a treasure trove of ancient cultures, each quietly thriving and making their mark on Singapore. As morning breaks, temple bells and bustling markets ready for the day.

Singapore, whose name is derived from ancient Sanskrit meaning “Lion City”, began humbly as a trading post for the East India Trading Company and was officially founded by British statesman Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. Though only 1,000 people were on the island when he arrived, the population quickly exploded—bringing commerce and industry to the relatively untouched land. The new markets for tin and trade brought Indian, Chinese, and Malay workers to Singapore, and cultural neighborhoods sprang up across the city. From the moment it began, multiculturalism has defined this island-nation.

Today, Indian, Chinese, Arab, Malay, and European elements are woven together in a rich tapestry of Singaporean life. From food and architecture to religion, and language—visitors are treated to a kaleidoscope of cultures.

Maxwell Food Center / Hainanese Chicken Rice © Singapore Tourism / © Jon Ashton

Cuisine

One doesn’t need to look much further than food to see the impact of Singapore’s melting pot. If you only have time for one meal in Singapore, you have to check out one of the hawker centers, which are open-air food centers serving a variety of fresh, traditional dishes at individual food stalls. One example is found in Chinatown, the Maxwell Food Centre, which features more than 100 food stalls! Hawkers sell hungry tourists and locals alike a plethora of signature dishes from Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken and Rice and Cantonese-style fish bee hoon soup to Shanghainese style tim-sum dumplings and Fuzhou oyster cakes. Last year, two hawker stalls, “Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle” and “Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle”,  were each awarded a Michelin star—one of the highest honors in the culinary world and the first time in the history of the guide that a star was given to a food stall! The star dishes cost about US$3.00 each—making Singapore the least expensive place in the world to enjoy a Michelin-starred meal! Across the city, hundreds of hawker centers and markets not only provide traditional Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian favorites but also provide a variety of scrumptious Halal options for those with religious dietary restrictions, as well as Turkish, Thai, and Mediterranean fare. (Check out our post on 10 street foods you must try in Singapore!)

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Singapore

Religion

Singapore is one of the world’s most religiously diverse nations. This diversity has created a striking juxtaposition which delights visitors with serene Buddhist monasteries, intriguing and colorful Hindu temples, intricately decorated mosques, and beautiful Christian churches. Found in Singapore’s Chinatown, The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple (a modern structure built in the Tang dynasty architectural style) displays thousands of artworks related to Buddha and Buddhism, in addition to the Buddha tooth relic. Wander through Little India to discover the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, one of the oldest Hindu Temples in Singapore, dedicated to the goddess and destroyer of evil. And no walk through the historic district of Kampong Glam would be complete without stopping to admire one of Singapore’s most prominent religious buildings—the Sultan Mosque. It’s soaring golden domes are decorated with glass bottle ends, donated by poor Muslims during its construction so that not just the rich could contribute!

What is "Shiok?"

Language

To facilitate harmony in this multi-ethnic destination, the Singaporean government recognizes four official languages: English, Tamil, Mandarin and Malay. Perhaps the most intriguing language spoken in Singapore though, is Singlish. This colloquial Singaporean English shares many similarities with pidgin varieties of English, and is a perfect reflection of Singapore: diverse, creative, and expressive! Colorful phrases like “anything lor” (a typical response if you have no idea what you want), “no link” (a Singaporean way of describing something completely irrelevant to the topic), and “shiok” (an exclamation of joy and excitement) can be heard from locals of all heritage and culture. And if you still don’t understand—try “catch no ball”, a Singlish phrase meaning “to not understand.” What did he say? I catch no ball!

From exciting cultural encounters, colorful people, and diverse cultures—experience all that Singapore has to offer and more on one of our exciting tours!

#FriendlyFiles: Denise explores Ireland!

Recently our Groups Manager, Denise Barnes, traveled to Ireland to meet with our partners on the ground there and experience all that the Emerald Isle has to offer!

Dublin Musicians © Tourism Ireland
I grew up in London, but this was my first trip to Ireland! I can’t believe I hadn’t made the trip before, and from the moment I arrived, I fell in love. Its diversity, people, traditions, and history—and yes, more shades of green than can be counted—made for an unforgettable trip. There were so many amazing experiences, but here are a few that stood out the most:
Epic Ireland, Dublin © Tourism Ireland

1 Epic Ireland: The Irish Emigration Museum, Dublin

Arriving at the Irish Emigration Museum was truly a 21st century experience. It was inspiring to hear and see the stories of millions of Irish emigrants who left for all corners of the globe (including the U.S.) on display as we wandered through this modern museum. With more than twenty exhibits, it helped me really understand more about Ireland and its colorful history—including how Irish emigrants have influenced and shaped the world both in the past and today!
Read more…

#FriendlyFiles: 5 Favorite Experiences in Havana

Recently Katie, Friendly Planet’s Cuba Program Coordinator, traveled to one of our hottest destinations: Havana, Cuba! Check out her top five favorite moments included on our Authentic Havana tour!

Muraleando Photo by Dan Lundberg

1 Muraleando

You can’t miss the building of Muraleando; its mural/mosaic artwork stretches out into the streets, extending its impact to anyone who passes by! Muraleando, literally meaning ‘mural-making’, was started by local artists Manuel Diaz Baldrich and Ernesto Quirch Paz with the intention of giving at-risk youth motivation to improve themselves and their community. Their workshop, originally an abandoned and rusty water tower, has become a beautiful public space through the collaborative creativity! Read more…

Four Seasons in the Land of the Rising Sun

CHECK IT OUT: Travelers often ask “when is the best time to visit Japan?” Everyone knows about the high and low season… but the truth is: Japan is amazing 365 days a year! From blossoms to snowfall (and every season in between!) there’s something unique to experience all year long.

Like a beautiful bonsai tree, we’ve spent years cultivating our classic Japan packages to give you the very best this ancient country has to offer—no matter what time of year you visit! Learn more about our packages.

Sakura along Chidori-ga-Fuchi, Tokyo in spring Read more…

8 reasons to see South Africa

South Africa is a truly exceptional travel destination. Few places on earth offer such an alluring variety of gorgeous scenery, historical relevance, modern cities, and world-class wildlife viewing. And we’ve found that while words can begin to describe the thrill of tracking game in a private reserve, or the peaceful moment at dusk as the setting sun silhouettes Table Mountain on a purple sky, it’s pictures that ultimately do the country justice (and visiting too!). If you’re looking for something to jump start your South Africa wanderlust, look no further!

Ready for your own South African adventure? We have South Africa tours for any style and budget. Join us!

Watching Cape Buffaloes on safari Read more…

#FriendlyFiles: 5 Questions for a Downton Abbey Super Fan

Liz, one of our Reservation Agents and a SUPER fan of the Downton Abbey show, shares a little insight on what it’s like to wine and dine at Highclere Castle, AKA the real Downton Abbey, during the very exclusive annual Christmas Ball!


Downton fans, I couldn’t be more excited to let you know—if you want to don your finest and celebrate the holidays at Highclere Castle, as I did (and believe me, you want to!)—well, you can. For the fourth year in a row, Friendly Planet is offering some highly coveted spots to the annual Christmas Ball, and they’re on sale now! Your invitation to the 2017 Downton Abbey Christmas Ball has arrived.

Highclere Castle © Highclere Castle Enterprises LLP

Read more…

Namibia in Photos

Zebras in Etosha National Park
Stretching from South Africa to Angola along Africa’s southwestern coast, Namibia is a large, wild, and relatively unknown land, often overshadowed by more renowned Sub-Sahara destinations. But while the country may be young (it only gained independence from South Africa in 1990), its treasures are truly ancient—a place of natural wonders and special encounters for those who pursue them. Here you’ll find expansive, other-worldly landscapes and bygone cultures found nowhere else on earth. It may be far-flung, but for those who make the trek, Namibia’s quiet beauty is endlessly rewarding. And short of seeing it first-hand, it is a place best experienced through photos.

Want to see it for yourself? Discover the Best of Namibia on our newest tour, and click below for some spectacular photos.

Read more…

10 street foods you must try in Singapore

Chef Jon Ashton samples Singapore's street food © Jon Ashton

When Chef Jon Ashton landed in multicultural Singapore as part of his 5-week-long food tour of Southeast Asia, he had exactly 36 hours to eat his way through dozens of hawker stalls. “I did the most eating I’ve ever done in that time,” he said. “When you get food that is so bloody tasty, it hits your lips and it’s like the best kiss you’ve ever had in your life. You just want more.”

So how did he do it? “I am a clever eater and I wanted to try everything,” said the British-born chef of working his way through Singapore’s legendary street food sold from stalls that line huge food court-like emporiums. Armed with a notebook and his brother filming Jon’s interactions, Jon simply asked at each stand if he could watch them cook and take notes. “I told them I had many other hawker stalls to taste that day and they understood,” he said, managing to only consume a few bites of each dish.

Eating was not the only purpose of his trip. As chef contributor to Parade magazine, Crystal Cruises guest chef for the past nine years, and the host of hundreds of live cooking events around the country, Chef Jon wanted to better himself as a chef.

“I want to evolve and grow my portfolio,” he said. “I wanted to cook in villages with ingredients I’d never seen. I want to have that integrity in my work. If someone is watching me on television or taking time to read a recipe I’ve written, I want that person to trust me. Ingredients are often expensive, so if you buy them, I want you to trust that they will work for you,” he said.

“One of the most exciting things about that entire trip was seeing the food stalls and meeting the people behind them,” said Jon. “Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world, and the most famous chefs in the world have restaurants there. But the inexpensive hawker stalls are where the excitement is; the food coming out of them is exceptional. You see the lady who is 90 years old who has probably been at that stall for most of her life.”

Always a fan of starting at the source, Jon urges one splurge while visiting the city-state island at the tip of the Malay peninsula: slipping into a seat at the Long Bar at Raffles Singapore Hotel to sip the national cocktail, the Singapore Sling, created right there in 1915. “It’s something you have to do, like going to Harry’s Bar in Venice,” says Jon.

What else shouldn’t you miss? Check out Jon’s list below, including tips on where to try most dishes.

See Jon in action at his website, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Read more…

Explore Ireland through its literature

Ireland by the book  © Tourism Ireland
Long before I tumbled into travel and began exploring the world for real, I did plenty of imaginary exploring through the eyes of my favorite authors, particularly the Irish. It would be many years between the time I discovered the poetic magic of WB Yeates and his stunning County Sligo, or James Joyce’s complex and magical Dublin, before I actually got to visit these places myself. Seeing Ireland with my own eyes clarified for me the lyrical beauty of its literature, which comes, in part, from the magnificent scenic landscapes everywhere you go. While there’s plenty of culture, music, history and nature throughout the Emerald Isle, the literary heritage of the country is part and parcel of the experience.

Read more…

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