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Archive for March, 2010

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Thailand protests coming to an end

This post has been updated here.

It looks like this will be my final update on the political protests in Bangkok. Today we’ve seen only a few small gatherings and marches. My representatives in Thailand told me there are no major disruptions in the city. Their sense is these gatherings will fizzle out over the next few days.

If anything does change, I will update you here as I have been doing all along. But overall, the protests did not slow tourism down, and Friendly Planet travelers are happy to be in Thailand.

Thailand protests not slowing tourism

This post has been updated here.

Here’s the latest update from my representatives on the political situation in Thailand.

On Sunday, supporters of the former prime minister began protests, described as peaceful, in a small part of Bangkok. Sources estimate about 100,000 supporters showed up and the demonstrations continued through Monday.

As we anticipated, these protests did not affect tourism. The Grand Palace, Wat Po, other tourist sites, shops, restaurants, and businesses all remained open in Bangkok. Even traffic remained light, making access to the tourist sites very easy. Travel to other parts of Thailand has also not been affected.

Here at Friendly Planet, we did have a few travelers who opted for an alternative itinerary during the protests, and we were more than happy to oblige. Other than that, the balance of our travelers continued on their originally planned tour. Either way, it was fine with us!

Stay tuned to the blog for the latest news and updates on the Thailand situation for travelers.

A look inside Friendly Planet Travel’s Iberian Coasts Cruise (part 3)

A light snow fell upon the city in the early morning light as the Louis Majesty pulled into port at Barcelona on Feb. 14. Watching the snow fall as I sipped my tea in the Royal Observatory, I regretted my decision to leave my warm winter boots at home. But by the time my day’s tour stepped off of our bus later that morning into Barcelona’s Park Guell, I’d forgotten all about the chill in the air (well, almost).

MASTERPIECE: Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia

Part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, “Works of Antoni Gaudi,” the park is an incredible peek at the world of Catalan architect Gaudi. Here, his imaginative sculptures and visions for a divine community come to life.

Originally designed to be a housing development and worked on from 1900-1914, Gaudi proved to be too far ahead of his time (and somewhat mad) for current Barcelona standards, and the community failed. But today, the park is a step back in time and into the mind of an incredible artist and visionary architect. Rife with mystic symbolism and incredible mosaics, Park Guell is not only an awe-inspiring display of architecture, but it is a sanctuary from a busy city.

On a sunny day, it would be easy to lose yourself for hours among the tilting pillars and swirling mosaic sculptures. A sucker for color and avant-garde uses of outdoor spaces, I was absolutely mesmerized.

From Park Guell, our tour bus took us to Gaudi’s masterpiece, la Sagrada Familia. It’s not often in my life that I have been overwhelmed by the works of man, but this church took my breath away.

Besides the sheer enormity, the intricacy of the stonework was absolutely incredible. As we circled the outside of the church, our guide flexed his Gaudi knowledge as he pointed out detail after detail and entire Biblical stories unfolded before our eyes. I felt like I could have stared at a single turret all afternoon, and new elements would still slowly reveal themselves.

As the day wore on, we visited Barcelona’s historical district, which was actually my favorite part of the day. There is little else I enjoyed more while in Europe than winding my way down narrow city streets and taking in all the unique sites, sounds, and smells.

NOTHING BETTER: In Barcelona together

When we parted ways with our guide — whose passion for Barcelona shone through his incredible tour — my husband and I stopped for some tapas y cervezas in a sunny piazza with some fellow travelers.

There is perhaps no better way to understand a city than to enjoy a little food and drink in a crowded spot. The food was warm and delicious and the beers were crisp and refreshing. Is there anything better than that?

I did a little shopping on La Rambla on our way back to the boat, where, as one of our travel companions warned us, “they’ll steal your underwear without ever touching your pants,” so don’t be afraid to haggle! A beautiful urban space in a bustling city, it was easy to imagine the splendor of La Rambla in the spring and summer when the trees are in bloom.

When my husband and I finally arrived back on ship, the Louis Majesty housekeeping crew (constantly sticklers for detail) had decorated our cabin for our first Valentine’s Day as a married couple. And after a day like that, I don’t know how we’ll ever beat it.

Thailand political protests update

This post has been updated here.

I just got off the phone with our representatives in Thailand. Here’s the latest update. I told you yesterday that supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatrain were going to start protesting today outside of government buildings in Bangkok. I’m happy to report that there is, indeed, very little to report.

Sites where protests were scheduled had very little attendance. There have been no major disruptions in the city of Bangkok. In fact, there was barely any traffic today. Most people either stayed home from work or did not drive their cars into the city. And the roads that we anticipated were going to close, did not.

But this is only day one of the planned protests. I understand that more supporters will be arriving over the weekend, culminating in a large gathering on Sunday. Our contingency plans that I discussed for Friendly Planet travelers are still in place.

We’ll continue to monitor the situation very closely, but my representatives in Thailand feel confident that these protests will pass peacefully and not disrupt tourism. Stay tuned to the blog for the latest information.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

Update on the political situation in Thailand

This post has been updated here.

In the past I’ve told you about how we take care of our travelers when the unexpected arises. No sooner had I written that post did I get an opportunity to live up to it.

In my effort to keep you up to date with the political situation in Thailand, I wanted to let you know what is expected to happen this weekend. As I mentioned in my previous post, supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra were planning to hold a rally in mid March. Well, they made a public announcement that they plan to protest around Bangkok government buildings from March 12 – 14.

In anticipating these events, Friendly Planet is planning to reroute some itineraries for our travelers who are in Thailand. These protests could be large or they could be small. We don’t yet know. But either way, we’re taking steps to ensure that our travelers, no matter what, have a great time in Thailand, and are not affected by these demonstrations.

If the roads within Bangkok close due to the protests, travelers booked on tours to the Grand Palace, Wat Po, or Chinatown will be picked up at their hotels and taken to the nearest river pier. They will get to travel by boat to their destination, rather than drive through the city.

New tours will be offered to those who prefer to stay outside of Bangkok completely, at no additional charge. If travelers want to stay in their hotels and not tour, Friendly Planet will refund any of their prepaid tours.

All other tours in Thailand including Klong Tours, Ayuthaya Tours, and Amphawa Tours will operate as usual. As I’ve said before, we would never send our travelers into harm’s way. Safety and security are our prime concerns, and we’re taking these steps to make sure our travelers are well served and enjoy their trip.

If you have any questions or want more information, write to me directly.

Update your passport now, or it’ll cost you

While nothing has been set in stone, it’s very likely that the U.S. Department of State will increase fees for new passport applications and renewals, as well as other services. If you’ve been procrastinating getting a passport or getting one renewed, don’t wait. The increases are substantial.

Here’s what they’re proposing. The cost of a new passport will increase from $100 to $135 for adults and from $85 to $105 for minors. Renewals will increase from $75 to $110 for adults and from $60 to $80 for minors. Travelers who need extra visa pages could soon pay $82. Currently, this service is free.

While no formal implementation date has been given for the changes, the U.S. Department of State has indicated that it intends to implement the new fees once it has had time to consider public comments. The public comment period ends on March 11.

ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents) will be filing comments on March 11, urging restraint in fee changes. If you also feel strongly about the new fees, you can submit your comment on the U.S. Department of State’s Web site. Traveling is expensive. If we get a say in not increasing these fees, we should take that opportunity.

Morocco: What you should know before you go

STUNNING: Koutoubia mosque, Marrakesh

When I heard from Peggy that Friendly Planet was introducing a nine-day Treasures of Morocco tour, it brought back a flood of images from my trip to this exotic country.

I’ve never been anywhere quite as bizarre, exotic, and diverse as this North African country, the world’s oldest surviving monarchy, dating to AD 788. Here African, Arab, Berber, and French influences have produced a culture as ancient as Fez’s medieval walled city and as cosmopolitan as Casablanca’s Hyatt Hotel, where bar staff dress in costume from the classic film “Casablanca.”

This predominately Muslim country was a French protectorate from 1900-1956. The two cultures, and some 270 different ethnic groups, raise interesting contrasts.

One day I sunbathed at a Casablanca hotel pool with bikini-clad Europeans. On another, I explored Old Town Fez, a walled medieval maze where mules carry goods, and veiled Muslim women sweep through narrow passageways.

One magical night I found myself in a nomad’s tent in the desert, sitting on carpets around a huge, low table, eating aromatic lamb stew and being entertained by belly dancers and horseback riders.

A few days later I was shopping trendy boutiques in Casablanca. The namesake of the famous Humphrey Bogart film is also home of Hassan II Mosque, one of only a few that is open to Westerners.

To me, the excitement of Morocco culminates in Marrakesh’s market square, Djemaa el Fna. In its “Court of Marvels,” snake charmers compete with acrobats and musicians. A turbaned man threw a small chattering monkey on my shoulder for a photo op. A few coins were expected in return, a small price to pay for entering this enchanting world where so many cultures mingle.

Unlike visiting a homogeneous country with one language and one set of traditions, visitors to Morocco will need a few tips for navigating this complex culture. It might feel like a movie set, but there are some things to keep watch for.

Shopping
Bargaining is standard practice. Offer half the price and work from there.
Shops close at noon and re-open around 2 p.m.
Stick close to your guide in Old Town Fez to avoid getting lost in the intricate maze of passageways.
Reserve the word “imshee” (Arabic for “take a hike”) for overly aggressive vendors and unofficial guides.
Keep your bag or wallet secure and consider a money belt.

Dining
Eating is one of the great adventures in Morocco, where you can dine on elegant French or Mediterranean fare accompanied by fine wines in European restaurants, but I recommend trying the flavorful Moroccan dishes.
Try my favorite dish, the traditional lamb stew of raisins, garlic, ginger, cumin, and curry atop a bed of couscous.
Order the sweet tea as your drink. It’s served hot in a glass stuffed with fresh mint leaves.

Manners
Never eat with your left hand; it’s taboo. The left hand is the “toilet” hand in many African and Muslim cultures. Never pat a person on the head or take a photograph without permission. Be discreet drinking alcohol in public.

Hygiene
Bring some toilet paper in your purse. It’s optional in Arabic bathrooms, and you might be required to pay for a few squares.

Language
French is widely spoken, and so is Arabic.
Practice these helpful Arabic phrases:
Hello: salaam wa laykoom
Goodbye: ma’salaama
Please: afak Thank you: shukran
Where is the bathroom?: Ayna Al Hammam?
How much?: bish-hal?
That’s too much: ghalee
Take a walk/leave me alone: imshee

I had a great time traveling through this country, and I can assure you that it’s an experience you won’t forget.

A look inside Friendly Planet Travel’s Iberian Coasts Cruise (part 2)

I’m sure by now most travelers interested in cruising have seen ads for American cruises such as Royal Caribbean’s Oasis Of The Seas. Have you ever noticed that not one of these ads tells consumers where exactly the boat takes cruisers? Rather, the entire appeal of the cruise is the cruise itself. The destination is the boat.

While this is wonderful for those who want to plan a vacation floating around the middle of the ocean on a boat that more closely resembles a thriving metropolis, that’s not what Friendly Planet Travel had in mind when they began planning the Iberian Coasts Cruise (or any of its cruises, for that matter). Why would they, when there’s Italy, France, Spain, and Morocco to see?

WELCOME: Louis Majesty reception area

During my time aboard the M/V Louis Majesty, I learned that they do it a little bit differently in Europe. When I first stepped foot on the Louis Majesty, I was struck by the vessel’s understated elegance. Less of a traveling circus, and more of a traveling hotel, with all the luxuries you’ve come to expect from Friendly Planet Travel.

The style on board is redolent of the art deco made so popular in the 1920s, which helps you feel that when you step on board, you’re about to embark on an adventure that transcends both time and place.

Many of the sights, sounds, and smells of Europe and Northern Africa are much the same today as they were hundreds of years ago. And life on the ship, with elegant common areas and impeccable service from a staff who truly appear to love their jobs — from the officers to the wait staff — is a small step back in time.

The outside cabin, while not overly large, offers all the comforts of home, including — and as a relatively seasoned world traveler, this was quite a pleasant surprise — power outlets for both European- and American-style plugs.

Imagine tucking into bed after a night at sea, including decadent dinner at the Four Seasons Dining Room, a stroll around the ship’s upper decks, and a quick dance at the Louis Majesty disco.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Louis Majesty outside junior suite

Now imagine waking, the room still dark with a hint of sunshine leaking in from the curtains behind your bed. You pull back the curtains to let the sun pour in and before you lies Marseille, France. The homes, stores, and restaurants all different shades of muted pastel. In the distance, you can see the Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde overlooking the city, with the island of Chateau D’If not far off the coast.

This isn’t hard to imagine on the Iberian Coasts Cruise, because this is your view on your first morning aboard the Louis Majesty. With an entire day at port before me, I didn’t waste any time to get into town.

BEST VIEW: Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde

While Friendly Planet Travel offers a number of optional shore excursions at each port, I set out this morning alone with my husband, who was able to accompany me on this incredible journey. We spent hours walking up and down the cobblestone streets with a map in our hands. The February weather was chilly, but nothing to keep you from spending an entire day taking advantage of all there is to see in Marseille.

We walked up to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde, which offers a breathtaking view of the entire city and port.

From there, we walked on, snapping pictures and ducking into cathedrals. Marseille is a fascinating combination of ancient buildings and traditional French architecture mixed with a subtle new world cosmopolitan flare.

Of course, we had to stop for a fresh baguette and some cappuccino too. Then on we walked. And when we felt like we had taken enough pictures and walked down enough narrow, winding streets, we popped into a small bar overlooking the harbor and enjoyed a cold beer and some olives while we watched the busy city.

EXPLORING ON SHORE: Strolling the streets of Marseille, France

When the day had finally come to a close, our cabin was a welcoming sight after an entire day spent exploring on shore. Marseille was truly an unforgettable city, and tomorrow … Barcelona!

Large waves hit Louis Cruise Lines’ Louis Majesty

As many of you know, we work with Louis Cruise Lines and take our travelers on its Louis Majesty to cruise the Mediterranean. It saddens me to report that on March 4, abnormally large waves hit the cruise ship, damaging it severely and taking the lives of two passengers. Our hearts go out to the families involved.

We love this ship, and it is unfortunate that this unexpected force of nature disrupted, what I’m sure was, a beautiful journey for the travelers on board. Thankfully, no Friendly Planet travelers were on the ship.

The Mediterranean offers some of the best cruising values in the world, and we’ll continue to work with Louis Cruises. Friendly Planet travelers who are booked on Louis Cruise Line ships for later this year will not be impacted by the incident. If anything does change, we will update you quickly here on the blog and on our Facebook page.

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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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