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Archive for April, 2014

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5 amazing experiences you can only have in China

I remember my first trip to China. After 15 hours in flight, my jelly legs wobbled off the plane and I found myself smack-dab in the middle of Shanghai. I stood amid Pudong, Shanghai’s high-end financial district, in an endless sea of businessmen marching through the city’s metallic skyscrapers. The scene put New York to shame, and motivated me to uncover more about a nation seemingly plucked from the future.

As I ventured beyond the “Paris of the East,” I discovered the true diversity of the world’s most populous country. I journeyed to the water town of Zhujiajiao, glimpsed the barren Karst Mountains, and strolled among the gardens of the Forbidden City. My explorations helped me develop a truer understanding of the country — one beyond the metropolis of Shanghai. China is a dynamic nation, one rooted in the dynasties of the past while integral to our world’s future. It’s a nation composed of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and one of my favorite destinations.

In a country spanning nearly four million square miles, it’s impossible to view all of China’s wonders. For that reason, I developed my list of top five things to see and do in China to help travelers navigate this fascinating land.

1. Hike the Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is an obvious must-see for any first-time visitor, but the best way to experience the Great Wall is by hiking it, instead of just visiting and snapping a couple of pictures. The wall, which dates back to the Ming Dynasty, stretches more than 13,170 miles in length and is the largest man-made structure in the world. Obviously, no one can hike the entire length. Instead, try the three-hour walk from Jinshanling to Simatai, where hikers can experience the vast ruggedness of China’s wilderness and its lush farmlands.

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Friday’s Friendly Funny: Modern family travel

Check out this week’s Friday Funny from cartoonist Dave Blazek!

Friday’s Friendly Funny by Dave Blazek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at blog.friendlyplanet.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://blog.friendlyplanet.com.

Did you win our Great Greece Giveaway? Find out!

Greece is truly a destination of a lifetime, one filled with ancient marvels, world-class beaches, and warm and welcoming people. For that reason, I’m not surprised by the outpouring of excitement that we received around our Great Greece Giveaway. We collected more than 12,982 entries, and out of all of those submissions, one lucky traveler will win a free trip for two on our nine-day Athens & 4 Day Greek Isles Cruise tour!

The winner and a guest can spend a morning sipping Greek coffee in Athens’ Plaka district, and hike to the top of the ancient Acropolis in the afternoon. They’ll sail to Mykonos and wander a maze of winding alleyways and whitewashed villas, and stumble upon hidden shops and tavernas. After a stop on the island Patmos, where Saint John wrote the Book of Revelation, they’ll sail on to Rhodes to explore an island famed for its history, and visit the largest inhabited medieval town in Europe. Finally, the trip will end in Santorini where the winner will lounge under orange-striped umbrellas on black sand beaches.

The Great Greece Giveaway winner will experience all of that and more!

The randomly selected winner of our Great Greece Giveaway is …

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Friday’s Friendly Funny: The realities of virtual travel

Check out this week’s Friday Funny from cartoonist Dave Blazek! Also remember to enter our Great Greece Giveaway for a chance to win a free trip to Greece!

Friday’s Friendly Funny by Dave Blazek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at blog.friendlyplanet.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://blog.friendlyplanet.com.

Greece off the beaten path: 6 of the best less-known Greek islands

When you think of spectacular Greek islands, most people picture the black sand beaches of Santorini, the whitewashed villas of Mykonos, and the stunning landscapes of Crete. While Santorini, Mykonos, and Crete are spectacular, they’re not the only jaw-dropping islands Greece has to offer.

With more than 6,000 islands dotting the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, there’s no end to the number of sun-drenched isles waiting to pamper visitors with scenic beaches and quaint hillside towns. Here’s a list of some of my favorite lesser-known Greek islands.

Paros for adventure seekers

Located in the heart of the Cyclades, a group of Greek islands, Paros’ ancient villages, cobblestone streets, and bougainvillea-covered whitewashed villas make this island one of the most quaint in Greece. The island’s golden sand beaches appeal to families and honeymooners alike while the cool island breezes draw in watersport enthusiasts eager to kiteboard and windsurf. In the capital city of Parikia, visit Panagia Ekatontapyliani, the Byzantine “Church of 100 Doors,” to get a taste of the island’s history.

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Take a tax holiday — on Uncle Sam

Tax season is almost over! Now that filing is nearly complete, it’s time for many of us to start looking forward to our refunds. This year alone, U.S. taxpayers already received an average of $2,831 per person in refunds, a significant amount of money that could whisk you away on an exotic vacation!

For that reason, I came up with a few suggestions for how travelers can get the most out of their newly acquired cash.

If you’re on the more conservative side of the refund spectrum or want to pocket some of the extra money, here’s my list of tax-refund trips travelers can take for under $2,000, including airfare.

  • Explore Exotic Ecuador for $1,399: Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, boasting more than 300 species of mammals alone. Visitors can tour the natural hot springs in Baños, view the volcanic peaks of Cotopaxi National Park, and explore the world’s most biologically diverse rainforest — the Amazon. Journey back in time with a visit to Quito, the nation’s capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and explore the city’s Spanish colonial architecture dating back to the 16th century. A trip to Ecuador is like immersing yourself in the world’s greatest biology class, and one that visitors will never forget.

The flavors of Greece

Feta, olive oil, pita bread. Need I say more? Greek food is some of the tastiest in the world. As a peninsula with a warm Mediterranean climate, the Greeks’ access to fresh and healthy ingredients allows them to create the classic Greek fare prized by diners worldwide.

Greeks are fanatics about fresh-grown organic vegetables and herbs. They pluck their fish directly from the sea. They raise meats, including lamb and goat, on nearby fields to move meat quickly from farm to table. Then there’s the olive oil and the wine.

Greek olive oil is among the most pure, and believed to be the magic ingredient in the Mediterranean diet — the food regime shown to promote heart health and longevity. But I suspect the wines also have something to do with it. After all, what could better promote long life than drinking wine fermented from the fruit of hundred-year-old grape vines?

If that description doesn’t get you hopping on the next flight to Greece or, at the very least, running to your local Greek taverna, then my list of top Greek dishes surely will:

1. Moussaka (pronounced Moo-sa-KAH)

Moussaka is one of Greece’s most famous and traditional entrées. The dish begins with a layer of meaty eggplant, and is topped with a mixture of sautéed beef, tomatoes, and spices. Finally, the casserole is crowned with a thick layer of creamy béchamel sauce and baked until golden brown.

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Friday’s Friendly Funny: The favorite brother

Check out this week’s Friday Funny from cartoonist Dave Blazek! Also remember to enter our Great Greece Giveaway for a chance to win a free trip to Greece!

Friday’s Friendly Funny by Dave Blazek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at blog.friendlyplanet.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://blog.friendlyplanet.com.

Why now is the time to visit Greece: Q-and-A with our favorite Greek tour guide

Greece is a richly complex country, filled with unmatched natural beauty, antiquities, a warm and welcoming culture, and world-class cuisine. To truly appreciate the wonder that is Greece, I sat down with a long-time friend and awesome Greek tour guide, Aliki Karvelas, to discover, from the perspective of a true professional, what makes Greece a destination of a lifetime for tourists.

For more than 23 years, Aliki has been introducing English-speaking visitors to the people, history, and beauty of Greece. Her unmatched passion for the country makes her the perfect ambassador for this nation, which is now finally reemerging as a top European destination.

Here’s what Aliki had to say about the country she loves.

1. Friendly Planet Travel: How would you compare tourism in Greece before the 2010 and 2012 Greek protests, during the protests, and now? Do you think tourism is on the rise?

Aliki Karvelas: The Olympics returned to Greece in 2004, and the international attention spurred Greek tourism for the next few years. Then the 2010 economic crisis hit, sparking a wave of protests and demonstrations in Athens that generated a great deal of negative publicity from the international media. Yet much of the story was misrepresented. Few people realized that the demonstrations and protests only took place in specific areas in Athens, and the majority of demonstrations were very peaceful. Because of the negative publicity, Greece suffered three years of low tourism, drastically reducing visitor numbers. As a nation whose economy relies heavily on tourism, this decline bankrupted many restaurants, hotels, and stores.

Today, things are almost back to normal in Greece. We’re very optimistic about the return of our tourism sector. Last year alone, around 17.9 million people visited. For a country with a little more than 11 million residents, that’s a significant number. Visitor numbers are looking equally favorable this year, with experts predicting around 18.5 million people visiting Greece in 2014. If the tours I’ve already booked are any barometer, 2014 will be a great year for Greek tourism.

2. Why is Greece a fantastic destination for travelers?

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Friday’s Friendly Funny: Beautiful Greek islands

Check out this week’s Friday Funny from cartoonist Dave Blazek! Also remember to enter our Great Greece Giveaway for a chance to win a free trip to Greece!

Friday’s Friendly Funny by Dave Blazek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at blog.friendlyplanet.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://blog.friendlyplanet.com.
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