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Souvenirs don’t have to be tacky. Some can hold lifelong memories.

Every member of the Friendly Planet Travel staff has been bitten by the travel bug. Over the years, members of our team have gone soul searching in India; served in the Peace Corps in the Republic of Georgia; collected local art in Spain; returned to their roots in Ireland; and much more.

Each trip exposed them to a new culture and opened their eyes a little wider to the diverse world around them. To celebrate the unique experiences of our staff, I asked them to submit photos of some of their favorite souvenirs from their global travels. Here’s Friendly Planet Travel’s souvenir gallery.


Continue reading to hear a personal description about each memento.

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The 6 best beaches in Thailand

The summer months send American travelers flocking to local beaches. But if you’re in the mood for a more exotic beach getaway, where the water is a gorgeous azure, the sand is soft and powdery, and the people are incredibly friendly, why not venture to a country famed for its more than 1,800 miles of magnificent coastline — Thailand?

While the Thai military coup recently slowed tourism to the country, more travelers are returning to this hot travel destination as political turmoil settles.

Thailand’s tropical landscape and warm climate make it the perfect destination for a seaside escape, but with so many jaw-dropping beaches to visit, it’s hard to select just one. If you’re dreaming of an exotic Thai vacation, here’s my list of must-visit Thai beaches.

1. Patong Beach, Phuket

Venture south to Thailand’s largest island, Phuket, to visit the famed Patong Beach. Patong’s more than two miles of white-sand coastline make it a perfect location for long days spent sun bathing and lounging by the sea. The beach is popular with partygoers, since the nearby town of Soi Bangla is famed for vibrant nightclubs, restaurants, bars, and shops. Embrace the best of both worlds. Excitement and relaxation make for the perfect vacation!

2. Kata Beach, Phuket

Phuket island isn’t all about clubbing and nightlife. You can escape the hustle and bustle of Patong Beach by venturing just a few miles south to relax among palm trees and soft sand beaches. Visitors can choose between two beaches — Kata Yai and Kata Noi — and spend the afternoon sipping cool drinks under the hot Thai sun.

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Ever wanted to see Cuba legally? Now’s your chance!

Our team at Friendly Planet Travel has helped more than 5,000 Americans travel to Cuba legally through our licensed people-to-people programs, and according to a survey we conducted of travelers upon their return, an astonishing 81 percent would go back again if given the chance. People-to-people licenses were first issued to qualified tour operators by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in 2011, with the intent of developing a greater understanding between the separated nations, and since then, have proven to be a tremendous success.

These tours are not simple vacations. Instead, they’re life-changing events that allow Americans and Cubans to better understand each other through educational exchanges around such topics as art, music, literature, education, and much more.

Our present license — due to expire in September — has just been renewed for two more years! We’re extremely excited that we can continue offering these rewarding experiences to anyone with a desire to find out more about Cuba and its people. As a result, our team has been hard at work preparing the details of our upcoming departures, and we’ve just posted new dates through May 2015 for our three signature programs:

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Friday’s Friendly Funny: Speaking with the locals

Any big travel plans this weekend? Before you embark, 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.

The ultimate Christmas experience for every Downton Abbey fan

Few places are more beautiful than London at Christmas time. The city transforms from a bustling metropolitan hub to a winter wonderland: gentle snow falls on city streets, white lights illuminate store fronts, and children glide across popup ice skating rinks.

The atmosphere is alive with Christmas spirit, and for that reason, we’ve developed our newest, one-departure-only tour to introduce travelers to this regal destination.

The London with Downton Abbey Christmas Ball tour not only transports travelers to the heart of London for four nights, but as an added bonus, passengers will attend the exclusive Christmas Ball at Highclere Castle — the filming location for the hit PBS TV show Downton Abbey. Dress up in black tie, perhaps inspired by a favorite Downton Abbey character, and spend the evening touring the castle, sipping Champagne, dining on a decadent three-course meal, listening to Christmas carols around the tree, and reenacting life in the Victorian era.

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An insider’s guide to China

In a recent post, I drew from my own travels throughout China to share five experiences that you can only have in this incredibly diverse and mysterious country. The response was so strong that I decided to dive deeper and interview some of our Chinese tour guides to uncover their insider insights on some fantastic, yet overlooked, activities to enjoy while touring China.

1. Wander the Old Town of Lijang

Escape the hustle and bustle of contemporary Beijing and Shanghai to explore one of the last remaining ancient towns of China — the Old Town of Lijang. Framed against the Himalayas, this 800-year-old city located in the Southwest part of the country, in Yunnan Province, is the ancestral home of the Nakhi people, one of China’s most vibrant ethnic groups. The town, which was recently named to the UNESCO World Heritage List, is home to an array of quaint shops, canals, and winding streets. Visitors can shop for burned wood carvings among local vendors, sample fried yak meat, and purchase a handmade boat to sail down the city’s many canals. At night, attend the bonfire at the central plaza and join locals in traditional song and dance. A trip to the Old Town of Lijang transports visitors back in time, and introduces them to an unknown side of Chinese culture.

2. Hike the Yellow Mountain

Few sites in China are more beautiful than Huangshan — the Yellow Mountain, located in Anhui province in Eastern China. The mountain range, with peaks standing more than 3,250 feet high, seems to have risen out of legend. Visitors can stand at the base and watch the clouds kiss granite mountaintops and gaze at pine trees that extend to the sky. Travelers can spend a day hiking the more than 30 miles of footpaths that wind among the scenic landscape or hop on the Yugun cable car to ride to the summit and explore the forgotten Dawn Pavilion — an alcove that boasts an unforgettable view of the sunrise. The serenity and tranquility of the Yellow Mountain is not to be missed.

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Explore Tuscany and Barcelona through two new independent travel packages

Have you ever dreamt of visiting the rolling countryside of Tuscany or sipping sangria at a café in Barcelona? Well now you can for as little as $1,099! The new Tuscany Fly & Drive and Breathtaking Barcelona independent travel packages allow travelers to customize their trips based on their interests and experience the wonders of Italy and Spain at their own pace.

The best part? Our line of independent packages removes all of the guesswork from booking an international vacation.

It’s easy to find great travel deals on the Internet, but what’s difficult is ensuring the quality of the accommodations. Our staff has meticulously researched hotels and hand-selected properties that are well rated and located near tourist sites, as well as shopping, restaurants, and other attractions. We’ve also negotiated airfares and transportation to ensure affordable prices while promising quality accommodations and 24-hour customer support throughout the trip.

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How many of the most-pinned travel destinations have you visited?

I recently stumbled across a Mashable article highlighting the most-pinned places on Earth. As I scrolled through the list, I noticed that many of these Pinterest favorites are also destinations that we offer to our travelers!

I’m not surprised. Our Friendly Planet Travel team lives to craft once-in-a-lifetime tours to some of the world’s most popular destinations. Places like Italy, Greece, and Spain are not only beautiful in photographs, but engaging and authentic destinations that can change the way we look at the world.

While Pinterest is a great place to fantasize about exotic destinations — Friendly Planet’s Pinterest page in particular will make you drool — nothing beats the real experience of discovering the world.

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The true colors of Cuba: Part 2

Barry Ostrow recently recounted his first trip to Cuba on a Friendly Planet Travel tour. Barry glimpsed the 1950s cars lining the streets of Old Havana, met world-class dance students at Pro Danza, and listened to energetic salsa beats at a Cuban dance club — and that was only in the first four days! Here’s the final account of Barry’s Cuban experience.

Day 5: On the way back to Havana from Trinidad, we stopped at the former French city of Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos is a wealthy city thanks to the presence of Cuba’s oil refineries. Instead of the narrow, twisty cobblestoned streets of Havana and Trinidad, Cienfuegos’ main street is long, wide, and lined on both sides with large stores surprisingly stuffed with consumer goods. One of the highlights of the trip was the unexpected appearance of a band of revelers dressed in colorful Mardi Gras apparel, many on stilts, playing instruments, dancing, and pulling bystanders into their midst.

A few blocks away, we visited the art studio Grafica Cienfuegos. The studio’s business model blended old and new Cuban economics. While salaries were still set and paid by the government, the gallery had to sustain itself — buying paper, ink, and equipment — through the sale of its art.

That night, we returned to Havana and our hotel, the famous Nacional, which overlooked the Malecon and featured collages of all the famous people who had stayed there, including Myer Lansky and Frank Sinatra. The Malecon is a ribbon of sidewalk that runs for miles along the Atlantic waterfront. Since we were there on Valentine’s Day, the entire stretch was packed with young lovers.

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The true colors of Cuba: Part 1

Travel opens peoples’ minds, hearts, and souls, and allows them to form new, authentic opinions about the world. This sentiment couldn’t be truer than among our people-to-people program travelers who visit Cuba through our specially licensed program and experience a world that has been shut off to Americans for decades.

That exact experience happened to Barry Ostrow when he traveled to Cuba on Friendly Planet Travel’s Colors of Cuba tour. We caught up with Barry to get a personal account of his people-to-people excursion to Cuba. Here’s the first half of his story, be sure to check back soon for part two.

Day 1: On my first trip to Cuba, I legally arrived with 21 other travelers in Havana to begin my U.S.-sanctioned Friendly Planet people-to-people tour. The tour introduced us to the social, historical, and educational aspects of Cuba, and it certainly opened my eyes to life on the beautiful, yet troubled island. The narrative of the trip was frank with no holds barred. We saw all of the good things the island had to offer, as well as the bad.

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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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