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Archive for June, 2009

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Customer Testimonial: Taste of China with video!

We’ve had a flurry of customer testimonials come in, after a recent Friendly Planet Travel Taste of China tour. While we love getting feedback of all kinds, this one in particular caught our attention because the couple on the tour had made a short movie of their Taste of China experience, which I’ve included below. It’s a wonderful walk through some of the best China has to offer, and we hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we did.

“David and I loved the China Tour. We felt it introduced the different sites and sights in the best way possible. We actually did a movie on the tour: it is listed on YouTube (under the name of traveldudes2 ). It is named Friendly Planet China Tour. I hope you enjoy it. We tried to include our favorite sights. We will almost certainly take another Friendly Planet Tour. They are reasonable and have excellent guides. Ours was named Vivian. She was so informative and friendly. Check out our Video… Also our coverage of the tour on TravBuddy (under the name sylviandavid). Blessings, Sylvia
– Eureka, California”

Welcome Travel + Leisure readers!

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My journey through Vietnam (part 3)

Today marks the third installation of my Journey through Vietnam series. I’ve taken you from the bustling streets of Saigon to the captivating and impoverished life along the Mekong Delta.
After more demonstrations on candy and rice paper making, and some time to buy a few treasures, we got back on the boat and continued to our final destination. We were on our way to an old, elegant house originally built in the 1830s, tucked away in a village a mile or so inland from the river.
This house had been passed down from one generation to another, lovingly preserved and now operated by a great granddaughter of the original owner. She has opened a restaurant in the house where visitors to Vietnam can sample the cuisine of the Mekong Delta region.
If this woman were to come to New York and open a restaurant there, she would definitely hit it very big. But she’s not likely to leave her house (of which she is enormously proud) or her current thriving restaurant business.
On the day of our visit, she prepared a succulent lunch of no fewer than five courses, including baked elephant ear fish (a local specialty, freshly caught that morning), several varieties of spring rolls, shrimp and vegetable dishes, and the ubiquitous sauces that make Vietnamese cuisine irresistible.
All of this was prepared on four little burners in an immaculate kitchen that is missing most of the conveniences the average American house takes for granted. Yet, the lunch was served perfectly prepared, at the perfect temperature for each course, with every one of the 16 diners being served at the same time.
The main course, Vietnamese elephant fish!
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Our talented chef accomplished this culinary miracle with the help of four lovely young Vietnamese women, all of whom — despite the day’s oppressive heat — were dressed in the beautiful “long dress,” without a sign of discomfort from the heat which had the rest of us guzzling bottle after bottle of anything cold and wet.
The dessert was, of course, fruit from the trees in the garden of the house. The pineapple was just picked, as were the mangosteens, mango, papaya, melons, and bananas. Every piece of fruit was unbelievably sweet. There was never a need to add anything. Needless to say, I was in heaven, although I was so full I felt like I might have had to be carried back to the boat.
A closer look at the famous elephant fish. Yummy!
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Finally, we boarded our little boat, and sailed back to the spot where we’d left our coach. Driving back to Saigon, we passed more rice fields, fruit orchards, and fishing boats, and we began — ever so slowly and subtly — to understand that there’s more to life than we might have ever noticed or realized before. At least that’s how it is for me. It certainly made me eager to learn more about growing rice. ;)

The wondrous Greek Isles: Heraklion and Santorini

If three days of sailing throughout the Mediterranean just isn’t enough to take in all the wonders of Greece, there’s also an Athens and four-day Greek Isles cruise. The itinerary for the two vacations are almost identical, but on the four-day cruise, the M/V Aquamarine also docks at the most popular of all the Greek Isles, Santorini, as well as a stop at Heraklion, Crete.
Two Friendly Planeteers enjoying the breathtaking views of Santorini.
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On the four-day journey, after a day in Rhodes, travelers will enjoy a trip to Heraklion. Just five kilometers from the Heraklion city center lie the ruins of Knossos — the capital of Minoan Crete and today the island’s major tourist attraction — which travelers can visit on an optional shore excursion.
Other points of interest here include Heraklion’s Archaeological Museum — one of the finest in the Mediterannean — which houses exquisite findings from Knossos and other Minoan ruins, numerous Venetian fortresses, and fountains and loggias scattered throughout the city.
At the Historical Museum of Crete, Byzantine and folklore collections are on display. The island’s open air market is a must-see, where colorful and boisterous crowds buy, sell, and trade everything from goats and sheep to enormous cauldrons of freshly churned yogurt.
The next port of call is Santorini. This striking island, with breathtaking panoramas and rugged landscapes, is actually a volcanic crater slightly immersed in the sea. The island is famous for its whitewashed houses, narrow streets, open-air cafes, and glittering boutiques which cling to steep cliffs, accessible by foot, cable car, or mule. Like Mykonos, it is not only Santorini’s physical beauty that makes it one of Europe’s most popular destinations, but its dynamic nightlife as well.
The island of Santorini was formed by one of the largest volcanic eruptions on the planet, which destroyed the earliest settlements on what was formerly a single island. The Minoan eruption (sometimes called the Thera eruption) occurred approximately 3,600 years ago at the height of the ancient Minoan civilization.
Vacationers can enjoy an optional tour of Santorini that takes them up along the Caldera (volcanic crater). They can also drive uphill along the rocky sides of the Caldera and pass through many traditional villages to Oia, a village that brims with many fine examples of Cycladic architecture. At the end of the day, passengers return to the ship for a final evening at sea before returning to Athens.

The wondrous Greek Isles: Mykonos, Rhodes, and Patmos

On the third day of our Athens and Greek Isles cruise, vacationers head to Piraeus, a large coastal city just 10 km from the center of Athens, where they’ll board the M/V Aquamarine. Travelers can pass their time enjoying the sun, warm sea breezes, pool, and shipboard facilities while they sail to Mykonos.
The island of Mykonos is famed for its cosmopolitan character and energetic nightlife (some say it’s the best in Europe), as much as it is for its labyrinth of winding alleyways and whitewashed buildings, basket-laden donkeys, and cascading geraniums. Chic crowds flock to the island’s trendy restaurants, discos, and clubs each night, and vacationers sit seaside, sipping ouzo and watching the sunset while listening to traditional Greek music.
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The next day takes travelers to Rhodes, the stunning “Island of Roses.” Historically, Rhodes was famous throughout the world for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
In the heart of the island’s biggest city, also named Rhodes, is the largest inhabited medieval town in Europe, a fascinating web of Byzantine, Turkish, and Latin ruins. There’s no wonder why it’s been declared one of the few World Heritage Sites. Its mighty fortifications provide the finest surviving examples of defensive architecture of the time.
Lindos, with its dazzlingly white houses clustered beneath a soaring castle-capped acropolis, is Rhodes’ most picturesque village and most important Doric settlement because of its natural harbor and vantage point built 125 meters above sea level. Here, travelers can explore on their own, or take advantage of Friendly Planet Travel’s optional shore excursions.
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The following morning, the M/V Aquamarine docks in Kusadasi, Turkey. Just 10 km from the port of Kusadasi lies the ancient city of Ephessos, where travelers will find an archaeological site that ranks among the wonders of the world. The day’s optional tours include the the Great Theatre of Ephessos, which had a capacity of 25,000 people, and the Library of Celsus, dating from 135 A.D.
Vacationers will then sail to Patmos, Greece. The Aquamarine docks at Skala harbor, a lively atmosphere with whitewashed houses, flowered courtyards, tavernas, and shops. The Island of Patmos is famous in history as the place where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation. An optional tour takes you to the cave where St. John lived and the nearby Monastery, built on one of the island’s highest points, housing priceless icons and manuscripts in its Treasury.
From there, it’s back to Athens for a final few days in the Paris of the Mediterranean.

Your Bedroom Abroad: Titania Hotel in Athens, Greece

You wouldn’t buy a car without taking it for a test drive, so why would you book a vacation without first checking out where it is you’d be calling your home away from home? In my opinion, where you lay your head at night is sometimes just as important as the sights and activities you experience during the day.
No one wants to sacrifice cleanliness, luxury, or amenities to get a cheaper price for a vacation. That’s why we work extra hard at Friendly Planet Travel to get you the comfort and luxury you deserve at the end of the day for prices that would put you in a flea bag motel with most other travel companies. And it’s something that we’re incredibly proud of.
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As such, I’ll be introducing you to a number of the hotels we work with in various cities throughout the world, so you can see for yourself. Just like our “All Aboard” series, this “Bedroom Abroad” series will give you a little taste of the standards that we expect from our hoteliers.
In keeping with this week’s Greek theme, first up is the four-star Titania Hotel in Athens, Greece. The Titania is a true urban oasis, nestled in the historic and commercial center of Athens. Located between the city’s major squares, Syntagma and Omonia, the hotel has been a paragon of Greek hospitality for over 30 years. Recent renovations set this Athenian institution apart aesthetically, technologically, and functionally.
The majestic lobby with its marble floors and intricate mosaics depicting Hellenic themes, the comfortable and modern guestrooms, the award-winning restaurants, the newly renovated shopping arcade, and the unrivaled views of the Acropolis are just a few of the features that make the Titania Hotel one of the premier places to stay in Athens. Not to mention, Titania’s prime location in the heart of Athens puts the city’s historical sites, cultural attractions, shopping venues, vibrant nightlife, and public transportation within easy reach.
As for the Titania’s recently refurbished 385 guestrooms, they can best be characterized as comfortable, elegant, and functional.Tastefully decorated and thoroughly equipped with every modern convenience, all rooms feature air-conditioning, high-speed internet access, satellite TV, mini-bar, and safety deposit box. The luxurious en suite bathrooms come stocked with toiletries and a hairdryer. Non-smoking rooms are also available.
Onsite dining includes La Brasserie, a cozy venue serving lunch, dinner, and light snacks. For fancier fare, the Titania’s elegant rooftop Olive Garden Restaurant serves gourmet cuisine in an upscale, yet subdued setting. The award-winning Olive Garden Restaurant has won the admiration of food critics for its wide array of superb dishes from all over Greece and the Mediterranean, in addition to its exclusive international wine list.
For more information on the Titania Hotel, please feel free to contact anyone from Friendly Planet Travel, or have a look at the Titania Hotel’s Web site. I’d also be happy to put you in contact with a Friendly Planet Travel vacationer who has stayed at the Titania.

All aboard the M/V Aquamarine

In my last All Aboard blog post, I gave you a little tour of the M.S.C. Sinfonia. Today, let’s take a stroll down the deck of the luxurious M/V Aquamarine, the cruise ship that vacationers on our Athens and Greek Isles cruise have the opportunity to enjoy.
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The Aquamarine, a member of the Louis Cruise Lines’ fleet, is considered one of the best vessels for cruising the Greek Islands. Her sleek design and medium size make her ideally suited for navigating the waters of the Aegean Sea, while her upscale amenities and services create a comfortable floating base that makes it easy to explore the beauty of the islands.
With 525 spacious staterooms and suites, the Aquamarine has capacity for more than 1,200 passengers. Her 339 outside staterooms — most with large windows and some with balconies — and 186 inside staterooms — all above sea level — are tastefully decorated and fully equipped with an array of modern comforts. Cabin amenities include adjustable climate control, TV, radio, direct dial phone, personal safe, and private bathroom.
The Aquamarine also features two spacious, full-service dining areas and several comfortable bar and lounge areas for cocktails, coffee, and light snacks. As vacationers sail between ports, there’s an array of leisure facilities to enjoy, including a swimming pool, sun deck, fitness center, massage/sauna facilities, basketball court, casino, and more.
I have a feeling that if it weren’t for the beautiful sights and sounds of the Greek Isles to lure them off the boat, we’d have a hard time getting the passengers aboard the Aquamarine off the ship. The full list of amenities include:
Adjustable climate control
TV
Radio
Direct dial telephone
Personal safe
Private bathroom
Two dining rooms
Lounge
Bars
Disco
Pub
Casino
Beauty salon
Fitness center
Basketball/volleyball court
Swimming pool
Sauna
Massage
Internet corner
Duty free shop
Onboard medical assistance
For more information on the M/V Aquamarine or any of our cruises, please contact us. And stay tuned for the next cruise ship in our “All Aboard” series.

Experience Athens and the Greek Isles cruise

Plato once wrote, “every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.” And I am willing to bet that at the first touch of Greece, everyone becomes a lover. Because when you discover Greece, I swear your heart will sing.
In Athens, the past meets present and east meets west. With forefathers such as Plato, Sophocles, Socrates, Pericles, and Aristotle, there’s no wonder why Athens is considered the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy.
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Today, you can tour ancient monuments and works of art, such as the Parthenon on the Acropolis, amidst a city overflowing with Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman monuments, as well as modern landmarks from the 19th century Hellenic Parliament to the modern day Olympic stadiums.
Off the coast lie the Greek Isles, with some of the most resplendent and culturally rich coastal towns in the world.
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On our Athens and three-day Greek Isles cruise, you’ll see all of this, and more. Spend three nights exploring beautiful Athens, and three nights sailing aboard the M/V Aquamarine to the magnificent Greek islands of Mykonos, Kusadasi in Turkey, Patmos, and Rhodes.
The package includes flights, superior hotel accommodations in Athens for three nights, a Greek Isles cruise for three nights, buffet breakfast daily, all meals aboard the cruise, and all transfers. You’ll have the time to explore Athens and the islands on your own, or you can opt to take interesting and inexpensive tours, provided by Friendly Planet Travel guides. And best of all, now you can do it all for $999 per person. That’s if you book before July 17, with savings of up to $600 per couple.
Available dates for 2009 are Oct. 28 – Nov. 4, Nov. 4 – Nov. 11, and Nov. 11 – Nov. 18. And 2010′s departure dates include March 17 – March 24 and March 24 – March 31.
Got a little extra time? We also have an Athens and four-day Greek Isles cruise. Both trips cover the same ground, but the four-day cruise also hits Santorini, Greece’s most popular island. That’s nine days for $1199 if you book before July 17. That’s another sale price with savings of up to $600 per couple.
2009 departure dates for the Athens and four-day Greek Isles cruise have rapidly been selling out, but spaces are still available from Sept. 5 – 13, Sept. 19 – 27, and Oct. 10 – 18. Check out the Friendly Planet Travel Web site for more information.
You also have the option with either of these trips for an inexpensive and exciting four-day Classic Greece extension through Corinth, Mycenae, Olympia, and Delphi.

My journey through Vietnam (part 2)

Last week I started to tell you about my recent journey to Vietnam. Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of running my own travel company is the opportunity to travel to some of the world’s most beautiful and culturally rich countries. And my very first trip to Vietnam was no exception.
The snaking traffic of Saigon and the aromatic foods of the bustling outdoor markets were just the beginning of what would be an unforgettable trip through the heart of Vietnam. Our next stop was the Mekong Delta. That morning, I boarded our touring coach with our guide, Man, and the other eager travelers, and we set off on a long drive to our waiting boat.
Along the way, we passed seemingly endless rice paddies on both sides of the road. Whole families were out, weeding, tilling, and tending to the magic grain that fees this nation.
Popular author Malcolm Gladwell has written, in his best-selling book, “The Outliers: The Story of Success,” that to understand successful rice farming is to understand success. It takes a great deal of patience, precision, intelligence, and planning, to grow rice.
And while the people who live in the Mekong Delta are considered among the least prosperous in this generally poor country, the Mekong Delta dwellers themselves believe they are actually very lucky. With rice (which grows everywhere), fish and other seafood (which is pulled from the area’s many rivers, streams, and canals), and the extraordinary abundance of locally grown fruit, vegetables, herbs, and other edible plants, everyone thankfully always has enough to eat.
A small look at life along the Mekong.
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Our bus brought us right to our boat, a luxury vessel compared to the small fishing boats and houseboats we passed as we chugged along on our way to see some very special sites. Our first stop was a communal village where local villagers use some of the rice they grow to make products, such as rice cakes, for sale throughout the country.
All aboard! Our trusty crew was ready for our boat ride, one of the most memorable experiences from my entire Vietnam journey.
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These rice cakes aren’t anything like those available in the U.S., which are mostly consumed as bland diet food. Rather, these are made from freshly popped rice, mixed with honey and seasonings, and then formed into rectangular cakes. Once packaged, these sweet rice cakes are sold as treats throughout Vietnam. But more than the sweet taste, the process by which the rice is popped is what makes the treat well worth the calories for me.
The rice is threshed by hand, or sometimes (if the farmer is lucky to have one), by machine to remove the hulls. No part of the plant is wasted, as the hulls are gathered into a furnace to be used as fuel for a fire that heats a huge, wok-like pan filled with sand from the river. Once the hot sand — black from repeated heating — reaches its optimum temperature, the rice is poured in and stirred.
At first, I couldn’t imagine why the rice was being mixed with the hot, black sand, but it soon became abundantly clear. The rice begins to pop — just like popcorn — as the attendant stirs the black sand and rice over the fire. Soon, the white, fluffy rice has popped and is ready to be removed from the heat and separated from the sand.
An ingenious series of homemade filters does the job efficiently and elegantly. The first filter is made from fine chicken wire strung on the bottom of a wooden frame. The popped rice remains in the filter and the sand is sifted back into the wok. Then the popped rice is poured into a second filter made of much finer chicken wire, and the rest of the sand is removed. Now the rice is ready to be treated to the honey and other yummy flavors that make this such a popular Vietnamese sweet.

The entire process was mesmerizing and definitely hard work, as the temperature around the wok was most likely well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As we watched, we were served lovely lotus tea by the matriarch of the commune, a tiny Vietnamese grandmother. We chatted with this impressive woman who was unsure of her age, but believes she’s at least 75 years old. While we sipped our tea, her grandson minded the rice popping process. Every villager smiled patiently as we snapped pictures, even as we all jostled for the best camera angle.
That’s probably the operative thought from my trip. Everyone was smiling. It’s something you see everywhere in the Vietnam. There’s one particular rice farmer that stands out in my memory because I wish I had a more powerful camera lens to capture the large, sincere, and completely infectious smile that spread across his face as our coach passed his fields. And you can be sure that everyone aboard the coach was just as happy to smile and wave back to him.
Hello from one of the Mekong Delta children.
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Friendly Planet Travel’s Best of India and Nepal hits Budget Travel Real Deals

Imagine bustling outdoor markets, row upon row of brilliantly colorful cloth, the tinkling of bells in the early dawn, giggling school girls dressed in splendid saris, 100-pound sacks of pungent spices, fat baying cows, and towering architectural masterpieces that have been robbing travelers of their breath for more than 300 years. Imagine all of that, and maybe — just maybe — you’ll have an infinitesimal idea of India.
Our podcast with tour guide Rajeev Gulati earlier this week dug a little deeper into the wonders of India and Nepal. And yesterday, Budget Travel’s Real Deals featured our Best of India and Nepal tour.
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Have a look at the article to see how the Best of India and Nepal stacked up to Budget Travel’s discerning eye.
For more information on our 15-day tour of many of India’s most important and significant cities, including New Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Khajuraho, and Varanasi, as well as a trip to Nepal, at the foot of Mt. Everest, take a look at the Best of India and Nepal page on our Web site. And, if you book before June 26, it’ll only cost $2299, that’s a savings of $800 per couple.

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About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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