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.
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Any seasoned traveler will tell you how important it is to prepare for a trip abroad by learning the basics about your destination. One very helpful tip: learn to speak a few words of the country’s language. For Americans visiting South Africa, you can check this ‘to-do’ off your list! Though South Africa actually has 11 different national languages, you’ll find that English is widely spoken. But like English speakers in other parts of the world, South Africans have their own slang words that might leave Americans scratching their heads.
Our own Product Development Manager, who was born in South Africa, has compiled a list of South African slang words and their ‘American’ translations. Take this list along so you can preempt any confusion and even impress your new South African friends with your knowledge of what’s in.
Tapas are small savory dishes often served as a side dish to drinks, and they are ubiquitous in Spain. On our Discover Spain tour, we’ve built wine and tapas tasting into the itinerary. But you’ll also have free time on the main tour, as well as on our Barcelona extension, when you may want to venture out and try tapas on your own.
There are several theories as to the origin of tapas. The first is that the thirteenth century Spanish King, Alfonso X, was ill and had to eat small snacks with his wine between meals to maintain his health. After he recovered, he passed this practice as law to maintain the health of his kingdom. Perhaps a more practical genesis lies in the practice of farm workers eating small snacks during the day to tide them over between meals. Although most likely, the practice of tapas has a highly practical purpose. Throughout Spain’s history, bread or small plates of olives or pork were used to cover drinks and prevent insects from getting in, and this food was then eaten. The word ‘tapas’ literally translates to ‘lid’.
Whatever the origin, tapas are now a social mainstay of Spanish culture and a must-try for any visit to Spain. So we’ve compiled these three videos, courtesy of the Spanish Tourism office in America, to help you navigate some of the Do’s and Don’ts of tapas etiquette.
I’ve traveled to many places around the world and have had incredible cultural experiences, but one place that always ranks in my top five is Cuba. I’ve made several trips to Cuba since I first started going in 2011, and I find it remarkable in so many ways in spite of, and because of, the U.S. embargo, which has essentially frozen its ability to do business with most parts of the world. So Cuba has adapted, beautifully, in ways that you’d never expect. Here’s what I’ve observed:
In early June, we brought to your attention the Trailblazer Foundation and their mission: building wells to bring poor villages in Cambodia clean, drinkable water. The Foundation is in dire need of a new truck so they can continue to deliver well building materials to outlying villages.
Their fundraising campaign to raise $7500 is coming to an end on Sunday, August 7th. Trailblazer was actually able to sell their old truck for $1500 and put the money towards the campaign. They now only need $1830 to reach their goal. That’s only 92 people donating $20! Once Trailblazer reaches their goal, we will match a final $2500 so they can purchase a brand new truck and continue serving the poor of Cambodia. If you would like to help us and Trailblazer reach the goal, you can donate any amount to their campaign on IndieGoGo.
And if you haven’t already, read below to learn more about Trailblazer and their amazing work.
Meet Chris Coats, co-founder with her husband, Scott, of The Trailblazer Foundation. Friendly Planet has supported Trailblazer since 2007, when we first discovered we could pay to dig wells in the Siem Reap area and help provide clean, potable water for the villagers surrounding the World Heritage site of Angkor Wat—a site that we visit on our tours. We’re proud to support the Trailblazer Foundation, and through our own Friendly Planet Foundation, we look forward to working together to help improve the lives of the villagers of Siem Reap who so graciously welcome us into their communities. The Trailblazer Foundation is currently running a fundraising campaign to help buy an equipment delivery truck, which they desperately need to continue their mission. To help raise awareness of the campaign, Chris took some time to tell us a little bit about herself and her husband, and why they started Trailblazer. She said:
I recently returned from a press trip to Nepal, where I accompanied a small group of journalists to check out the country after last year’s devastating earthquake. While there, I got an up close and personal look at what it means to live in a country that depends upon tourism for its livelihood, and how crippling it is when the tourists stop coming. Like Nepal, Ecuador has just suffered a massive earthquake of its own, and while the effects of the quake in the major tourist areas of the country are not as significant in Ecuador as in Nepal, there is a real fear among Ecuadorians that travelers will cancel or simply not book trips to the country.
Like Nepal, Ecuador’s people are poor, and they rely on tourism in a big way. The country’s major tourism centers, Quito, Cotopaxi, Cuenca, the Amazon, the Galapagos, to name just a few, have been spared the earthquake’s devastation, which appears to have been limited mostly to the country’s central coast. In most of the country, hotels are functioning normally, airports are open, and touristic activities are continuing as usual.
Friendly Planet has an extensive program to Ecuador, and fortunately, none of our itineraries have been impacted by the earthquake. All of our partners in Ecuador are fine, including our passengers who were in Quito at the time of the earthquake, and our tours are proceeding as usual. I’m happy to report that despite dire predictions that tourism to Ecuador would crash after the quake, we have not had any cancellations, and reservations continue as usual.
If you’re planning a vacation to Ecuador and the Galapagos, please take a moment to read this short piece by Laura Dannen Redmen of Conde Nast Traveler.
One of the best things about international travel is just that: it’s international! You’re crossing cultures, you’re crossing paths with new friends, you’re crossing off that bucket list…but unfortunately, you’re also crossing time zones. And the last thing you want while exploring the ancient sun temple of Machu Picchu or absorbing the grandeur of the Taj Mahal is a bout of jet-lagged induced drowsiness dragging down your travel groove. So here are some of my best strategies for overcoming jet lag, gleaned from 35 years of travel to faraway time zones.
Without a doubt, Greece is comprised of some of the most beautiful islands in all of the Mediterranean. There are thousands of gorgeous islands to choose from, spread over just a few hundred miles. This makes Greece the perfect destination for island hopping.
What is an independent package?
Friendly Planet Travel is known for creating exciting small group international tours. But perhaps you sometimes prefer to travel on your own, with no itinerary and no schedule? You’re not alone! By popular demand, we’ve put our 30+ years of expertly creating package tour deals to work just as hard for the independent traveler.
With our Getaway packages, you can create your own custom travel experience. Ideal for those who want to explore without structure or limits.
- Freedom to explore
- No set itinerary
- Top-notch hotels
- Flights from 195 cities
- Pick your own dates & excursions
- All for incredible prices!
Why not just use Expedia?
Lots of other sites let you choose your own travel dates and hotels, but with our carefully curated packages, we’ve done the legwork for you of choosing the best prices and quality. In addition, you’ll also enjoy the same level of personal care and attentive customer service we provide to all of our Friendly Planet travelers.
Whether you’re visiting Paris or Prague, Venice or Vienna (or even Hong Kong), skip the hours spent figuring it all out, and just enjoy all of the exciting things you’ll want to do once you arrive! All you need to do is pick your departure city, travel dates and hotels and we’ll get you the best price possible based on our negotiated rates.
These getaways include flights from your selected departure city and hotels, with the ability to add optional tours and excursions.
- Easy & Flexible
Skip the hours of research, because we’ve done it for you! Choose your own travel dates, number of nights, and which U.S. city you’d like to fly out of. Our booking engine selects the best flights, hotels and transfers so you can build your own customized package.
- Great Hotels
Choose from a collection of quality hotels in each destination that we’ve pre-selected based on location, amenities, service and price. These hotels are conveniently located near tourist sites as well as shopping, restaurants and other attractions. You can even upgrade or change your hotel.
- Included Flights
Save with included airfare from the city of your choice from a wide variety of carriers. Tired of the trouble and expense of connecting through a few major cities to join a package? Now you can build your package with flights from your home city and get the best possible rates, with no surprises.
- Freedom to Roam
Create your own custom package with no set itinerary, take each day as it comes. No guides or escorts accompany you and there’s no touring schedule, so you you’re free to roam on your own. Or, enrich your stay by adding a variety of optional tours and activities available when you book.
- Same Amazing Customer Service
As always, whether you’re traveling on a group tour or an independent getaway, we care about our travelers like they’re our friends. If you ever need help during your trip, we’re just a phone call away, 24 hours a day.
See all of the exciting places where you can get away!
Want help planning or booking? Call now at 800–555-5765 to talk with a reservations agent. They’ll be happy to help you create the getaway adventure of your dreams.
Japan is a country of contrasts. While the society is 98.5% Japanese, it nonetheless encompasses a diversity of subcultures. Japan is home to some of the most densely populated cities in the world, while the great majority of the landscapes remain rural. The culture is quite conservative in many regards, while simultaneously light-hearted in others. Japan’s contrasts and contradictions make it an ideal destination for those looking to have a truly unique travel experience.
Here are 9 reasons to visit Japan:
In many respects, Japanese society is the pinnacle of metropolitanism. From ancient temples to futuristic architecture, Japan offers amazing urban experiences for the curious traveler to behold.
- Kyoto: Japan’s ancient capital, a garden-laden dream boasting some of the country’s most beautiful temples and shrines.
- Tokyo: Japan’s modern capital, a neon-lit metropolis boasting the world’s tallest tower, the Tokyo Skytree.
One of the biggest surprises about Japan may be how rural it is. Almost 75% of the land is covered by mountains and another 13% is devoted to agriculture. Just a short drive or train ride away from Tokyo, you’ll enter a completely different world, with lush mountains, large agricultural fields, and scenic coastal villages.
Some must-see examples include:
- The Arashiyama bamboo forest: a dense green jungle of towering bamboo trees.
- The Japanese Alps: a world-class skiing and hiking destination.
- The Tottori Sand Dunes: massive rippling sand dunes that will make you feel like you’re in a distant desert, not southern Japan.
- The islands of Okinawa: a tropical break with coral reefs, turquoise water and white sand beaches.
- Hot Springs (known as “onsen”): Created from water heated naturally under the ground. There are over 3,000 hot springs in Japan. Animal lovers will especially appreciate Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park to see snow monkeys bathe in the steamy natural springs.
From the snowy mountains to the tropical beaches, Japan claims a great diversity of habitats for a wide variety of wildlife species. Japan hosts approximately 130 species of mammals (including bears, foxes and wild cats) and 600 species of birds.
Here are some examples of some of the most interesting:
- The Macaque: a snow monkey that lives further north than any other primate (except for humans).
- The Wild Tanuki: a kind of racoon dog known for their mischievous nature. Statues of the Tanuki are often placed at temples to bring good luck.
- The Green Pheasant: a large black and green bird found only in Japan. The green pheasant and the red crowned crane unofficially compete for the title of “Japan’s National Bird”.
4. Temples & Shrines
Many important traditions in Japanese culture have grown out of the Shinto and Buddhist religions. Shintoism and Buddhism exist side by side in Japan, and the practices of both faiths are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.
One way to learn about these traditions is to explore some of Japan’s (Buddhist) temples and (Shinto) shrines. There are over 100,000 temples and shrines across the country, and they differ wildly in size and design.
Some examples include:
- Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto: this Shinto shrine features 10,000 crimson torii gates donated by business owners and shopkeepers in a bid for financial success.
- Kinkaku-ji -Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto: this Buddhist temple features the top two floors covered with pure gold leaf.
5. Festivals & Celebrations
Thousands of festivals are held each year across the country celebrating seasonal changes, the natural world, and the annual harvest. Wherever you are and whenever you go, you’re likely to find a festival happening nearby.
Some examples include:
- Rice Crop Art Festival in Inakadate Village: locals use different colored varieties of grain to skillfully depict giant images using rice paddies as their canvas.
- Saporro Snow Festival: at the core of the festival is hundreds of sculptures made from snow and ice.
- Miyako Odori in Kyoto: this geisha dancing festival translates literally as “Capital City Dances” as Kyoto used to be the capital. In English, the dances are often referred to as “The Cherry Blossom Dances”, because they take place in April when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
6. Kawaii & Anime
Kawaii is the word for a Japanese artistic and pop culture style that emphasizes all things “cute” using bright colors and animated mascots.
Anime is a Japanese style of film, TV, and video game animation. There are some magical anime films out there that are so creative that they impress even the serious adult (such as Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away).
Across the country, animated mascots adorn everything from food products to local monuments and even government agencies. One of the most famous mascots is Kumamon, a cheeky black bear who symbolizes a bullet train line in the city of Kumamoto.
Japanese cuisine (known as washoku) is so special that it’s been added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List, and it’s so diverse that it deserves its own blog post. The country offers a wealth of culinary experiences from the finest high-end restaurants to rustic food stalls, bustling seafood markets, and creative local sweets. Soup lovers will want to check out the Shinyokohama Raumen (Ramen) Museum.
8. Rail System
For more than 50 years, Japan’s impressive network of high-speed moving bullet trains (called shinkansen) has zipped travelers and commuters from one corner of the country to the other. The network is incredibly well-functioning, with no accidents involving the bullet train network, even though trains operate at speeds of over 200 miles per hour. The trains are also known for being on time, rarely having delays of more than 50 seconds per train.
All travelers to Japan should take advantage of this rail system at least once. The Japan Rail Pass makes this an affordable option to quickly get around the country.
The Japanese may seem reserved at first, but soon you’ll find them to be kind, considerate and warm, even to those they don’t know. They are hard-working, meticulous, proud of their cultural history, and always eager to help. In fact, the more you learn about Japanese customs (start with a friendly, respectful bow), the more quickly you’ll be welcomed into this amazing culture.
For a traditional take on Japanese hospitality, stay at a Ryokan (inn). Dating back to the 1600’s, a typical ryokan is constructed using traditional Japanese methods, has a communal entrance hall where guests and owners can sit and talk, and most also feature a communal bathing area using water from hot springs.
Japan is a country of contrasts. From ancient culture to modern innovations, from the cities to the natural lands, and from serious cuisine to cuteness and hospitality, a visit to Japan will almost certainly be an experience of a lifetime.