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The Do’s and Don’ts of Tapas


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.

7 things that might surprise you about Cuba

© Jeremy Woodhouse, pixelchrome.com

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:

Welding a fire extinguisher into a muffler © Jeremy Woodhouse, pixelchrome.com

1 Cubans see the glass half full.

Cuba is the place that most exemplifies the “glass half full” mentality. Cuban people simply don’t understand the concept of “I can’t do it.” They’ve had to make do with such limited resources that this “making do” has fostered a spirit of innovation.

For example, you never see trash on the ground when you walk down the street in Cuba. You may see broken bricks, rubble, dust, but you never see scraps of paper. Paper is right up there with GOLD. Artists who use paper often have to create their own, that’s how precious the material is. Jeremy Woodhouse, a noted photographer on tour with us in Cuba, once saw a man welding a fire extinguisher next to a broken down mess of a car (of which there are many in Cuba). When asked what he was doing, the man explained he was building a taxi and he needed a muffler!

I also saw such ingenuity in gardening. People began cultivating small strips of earth between apartment blocks during the “special period” after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of aid massive aid to Cuba. And since they didn’t have (and couldn’t afford) fertilizer, they learned how to garden organically. These gardens have produced enough fruits and vegetables to supply small produce markets, where locals can get good (and inexpensive) organic food. These gardens got people through some very difficult times.

But that’s what life is like in Cuba. Creativity is everything.

A young guitarist

2 Cuba nurtures talent and culture.

Cuban kids don’t have PlayStations, iPads and smartphones. They often have to make their own soccer balls and baseball bats, and it’s rare to see bicycles. They really have to make do with almost nothing.

But Cuban families do give their kids plenty of cultural activity. Most children learn to play an instrument, attend art classes, learn classical, salsa, flamenco or other dance forms, play sports, take language classes, or participate in a neighborhood association.

One of the things I love to do in Cuba is visit music schools where you get to see students performing. Having so much exposure to culture really encourages and nurtures talent among the children, and the kids take it very seriously. On one of my visits, I sat in on a dance class at the Lizt Alfonso dance school. The dancing style merges classical ballet with flamenco and it’s amazing and mesmerizing to watch. The wonderful part of the school is that it gives all kids who are interested in learning to dance an opportunity to take classes, even those without enough talent to make it to the professional company that tours the world.

A paladar

3 Cuba is more capitalist than communist.

Cubans are entrepreneurs in many ways. Just walking down the street, you’ll see window ledges filled with all kinds of goods for sale—like baby booties I saw a grandmother crocheting and selling in her front window (to locals as well as tourists).

People pick up scraps of metal and re-purpose them into all sorts of useful objects. In a street market I saw a man selling a frying pan that he had made himself, smelting all the metals and piecing the pan together with screws of various shapes and sizes. The same vendor sold nails, straightened with plenty of elbow grease for reuse. Everything possible is recycled and repurposed. In Cuba, there’s a second life for just about everything.

But by far, Cuban paladars, private restaurants actually often inside peoples’ homes, represent the most remarkable of capitalist trends. In years past, the government typically owned all the restaurants in Cuba. But as travel to the island increased, there weren’t enough restaurants to accommodate all the tourists coming into the country. To fill the void, the government created a new policy of allowing Cubans to open restaurants in their homes as private businesses, employing their family members and others.

The paladar business exploded and soon paladars were springing up all over the country, growing to the point where the paladars began taking over the family living quarters. Some families moved into the back of the house while others found other places to live. It was worth a little uprooting and discomfort in exchange for the income the paladars provided and continue to provide. Today, tourists can find paladars all over Cuba, catering to all sorts of tastes and cuisines. Travel with us to Cuba and we’ll make sure you have a list of the latest and greatest to try during your stay.

There is also a shortage of serviceable hotel rooms, with an abundance of subpar accommodations that tourists just wouldn’t tolerate and not enough “good” hotels to answer to the demand.

Enter the casas particulares, which are private houses, much like bed-and-breakfasts in the USA. This has opened up another source of private enterprise for individual Cubans who can rent rooms in their homes and apartments and earn hard currency in the process. Cubans have been scrambling to renovate rooms (building materials are scarce, mind you), and to add rooms and bathrooms so they can rent to tourists. Many of the casas particulares offer private baths, and while the lodgings are typically very simple, they are very clean and much less expensive than a hotel.

Whenever I visit Havana, I love to stop by the used bookseller’s market, reminiscent of what you’d see along the Seine in Paris although much smaller. The first time I went to Cuba in 2011, the posters cost ten CUC, at the time about $13. The second time I visited less than a year later, the same posters cost twenty CUC, or about $26. The third time they were thirty CUC, about $39. The Cuban government may be communist, but the Cuban people are decidedly capitalist!

A tobacco farmer, Cuba © Jeremy Woodhouse, pixelchrome.com

4 Cubans welcome Americans to their country.

Cubans could not be more excited to welcome American travelers. The Cubans are incredibly gracious and welcoming, and they don’t hold our government policy against us. (Most Cubans will simply tell us to please go home and lobby to get rid of the embargo.) Obama’s historic visit to Cuba gave a tremendous push to the already robust flow of Americans to Cuba. This has created a great opportunity for Cubans to meet and really get to know Americans and discover for themselves that we are generally very decent and kind. Plus, Americans tip!

Colorful vintage cars, Havana

5 Cuba is not changing as fast as people think.

Record numbers of Americans are going to Cuba with the idea that it’s going to change next week, and they want to see it before everything is different. The truth is, nothing is changing quickly in Cuba. There’s a hotel in Havana that’s been under construction since 2011. I was in Cuba just a few weeks ago and guess what? Construction is still stuck in the same place it was back in 2011.  Anything like hotel construction is really difficult and time consuming in Cuba. It involves having the government as a partner—having someone in the government who can help you get access to the materials, the expertise and the infrastructure. Change takes time in Cuba. Lots and lots of time.

Consider another example.  Wi-Fi in Cuba is limited even if you’re staying at the Parque Central, the best hotel in Havana. During a visit, I went upstairs to the business center to sign up for the Wi-Fi. I discovered, much to my surprise, that I’d have to wait until the next day, until after they had checked out 40 rooms. Turns out the hotel only had bandwidth for 80 people to log on at once. If you’re number 81, you’re out of luck!

Touring Havana

6 Cuba and its people are accessible.

As a destination, Cuba is the perfect place for a real traveler to visit. It’s easy for Americans to get there, and it’s accessible once they’re there. Lots of Cubans speak English (at least in the cities), which they start learning at a very young age. Cubans allow you into their lives in ways not common in other cultures. They are very proud despite all the losing hands they’ve been dealt.

Yet, despite the poor access to wifi, the lack of all sorts of consumer goods, bad phone service and all the other issues that Cubans endure, there’s a lot of happiness and music everywhere you go. If you want to sit and have a Coke or an ice cream cone, you’re going to hear music! And you’ll have an opportunity to buy the musicians’ homemade CD to support them.

© Jeremy Woodhouse, pixelchrome.com

7 You could do Cuba on your own but you’d miss out on so much.

People often question whether or not they need to join a tour to get the most out of a visit to Cuba. The short answer is no, you don’t really need to go on a tour. But if you go it alone, you’re going to miss two important things:

  1. The deep connections that companies like Friendly Planet have with Cuba are what makes your visit unique and worth the time and money. There’s too much you’d have to research and make happen to have a similar experience.
  2. It’s a fantasy that you’ll save money. You could book a flight, get a visa, obtain the mandatory insurance and add up the cost of food, a guide and so forth. But the cost will be, if not more, certainly not less—plus you’ll have missed out on the most important thing: the inside view of Cuba.

As a traveler, I’ve worked to integrate my own rich and rewarding experiences into the People to People tours we offer at Friendly Planet. So come see for yourself.  Join us on our next Cuban adventure!

Miracles from pennies: the Trailblazer story

Scott & Chris Coats (2nd & 3rd from right) of the Trailblazer Foundation in Cambodia

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 have been involved in some sort of volunteer or community service work for most of my life. This has included projects with my church and as a foster parent. Eventually, this personal commitment led me and my husband Scott to turn a short-term visit to Cambodia into a long-term project to support the people of Siem Reap province.

When our daughter was ready to head off to college, Scott and I saw our soon-to-be empty nest as an opportunity to dive deeper into community service work, and we knew we wanted to do that work in an international context. I began researching volunteer opportunities and planning for a long term experience.

In early 2001, Scott closed the doors on his custom furniture business, and I left my job with the school district. We set off to be international volunteers for projects in Fiji, Western Samoa, New Zealand, Kosovo, Estonia, Vietnam, and finally, Cambodia. During the next two years, through these experiences, we learned a lot about which rural community develop strategies worked well, and which ones didn’t. It became clear to us that a grassroots approach that empowered the people, coupled with a hands-on participatory practice, was the most effective way to ensure the success and sustainability of any rural community develop project. We knew what type of work we wanted to do. Now the question was where?

Children in Cambodia

We first visited Cambodia in February 2002 while en route between volunteer placements in the South Pacific and Europe. We went as tourists to see the temples of Angkor Wat. The easiest way to describe what happened is to say we fell in love with the country and the Cambodian people. We could also easily see an obvious need for support, and Scott and I decided there and then that when we were finished with our existing commitments, we would return to Cambodia. We didn’t know what we were going to do when we returned or how we would make it happen. We simply knew there was a need, and we knew we wanted to help fill that need. We had the willingness to show up, the desire to work hard to help and the faith that we would find an important niche for our newly acquired skills in rural community development.

In 2003, we returned to Siem Reap with our daughter, to try and source out an established project to join, but we couldn’t find one we felt we could trust. Based on our previous volunteer experiences, it became clear to us that that in order to “do it right,” we would have to create our own organization. That was our impetus for co-founding Trailblazer Foundation in 2004.

In order to officially become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, we had to decide on a specific purpose and project. In May 2004, I returned to Cambodia, specifically to the Siem Reap province. There, I met with officials at the Angkor Thom district of Siem Reap province who told us that a village called Sras needed a school. Sras was one of the poorest villages in the District, and the officials told us that no other organization would help there as it was too difficult a place to work. Despite the warning, we committed to building the school, promising we would return soon to start construction. That was the Trailblazer Foundation’s first project.

Schoolchildren in Cambodia

Having raised enough money to start our new professional adventure, Scott and I returned to Cambodia in January 2005. From the earliest days of our work on the school project, we realized that the lack of clean water available for families living in Sras village was a bigger problem than not having a school. After all, without potable water, kids were getting sick and were unable to attend school. Immediately, we decided to drill two wells at the school site to help resolve this huge problem. During the remainder of 2005, we focused on getting the proper infrastructure set up, establishing agreements with the appropriate government offices, opening a bank account, and raising the $55,000 needed for the project. We also found and hired a local Khmer to help us source a construction contractor, manage the project, and act as translator.

By December 2005, right around Christmas Day, we broke ground on the school project despite the fact that contributions were coming in too slowly to pay for the project. In order to finish it, I had to cash out a retirement fund, but what might have been a major sacrifice at the time was actually the beginning of better luck. In February 2006, we met a representative of the organization GlobalMedic, who introduced us to the bio-sand water filter, which would make water from our new wells even safer to drink. GlobalMedic donated a construction mold for these water filters to Trailblazer, thereby kicking off what has become a staple of Trailblazer’s work: our water filter project

One of Trailblazer's wells in Cambodia

From a simple desire to help, and the faith to plunge ahead, Trailblazer’s programs in health, food security, education and economic development have evolved. From that very first school construction project in Sras village, Trailblazer has grown to become a successful organization helping thousands of people across fifty villages. It is an organization and a mission about which I am so proud.

And now, 12 years after we started, we find ourselves in need of a new equipment delivery truck, so we can continue to transport the necessary tools and materials to dig our wells and construct the pumps and filters in more villages. We’ve started a $10,000 fundraising campaign on IndieGoGo. If we can raise the first $7,500, Friendly Planet has agreed to chip in the final $2,500 to meet our goal.

The most important goal of this campaign is simply to raise awareness of the need for potable drinking water in Cambodia—if we do this, we have succeeded. However, if you can donate to our fundraising campaign, please visit our IndieGoGo campaign and find out how.

What you should know after the Ecuador earthquakes

Ecuadorian woman

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.

7 Surefire Ways to Beat Jet Lag

Beat jet lag

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.

 

1Overcoming jet lag begins in the days (or nights) prior to your departure. Even though it’s hard to be organized enough to be well rested before you depart, you should try hard to get quality sleep before your overnight flight. It’s easier to deal with jet lag if you’re not overcoming several nights of poor sleep before you’ve even begun your trip.

 

2Try to simulate your new schedule (the one you’ll follow at your destination) starting a couple of days before you depart. If you’re going east, try to have dinner and go to sleep an hour or more earlier than usual. If you’re going west, do the reverse and try to wait until later to have dinner and go to bed.

 

3Reset your watch as soon as you take off. This is a symbolic move toward your new time zone, and it will help set your perspective toward thinking later (or earlier). It’s a psychological “trick” that helps keep you focused on the time zone at your destination.

 

4Do not drink alcohol during your flight. Instead, drink water, and lots of it. Staying hydrated is very helpful to your body, which in turn is helpful in coping with jet lag.

 

5Try to sleep on the flight. Avoid the temptation to eat a heavy meal that is often served at 11 PM or even later, followed by a movie. Put on an eye mask, use your headset to listen to relaxing music and settle into whatever sleep you can manage. Every hour you rest during your flight is an hour you won’t miss when you arrive at your destination.

 

6When I arrive after an overnight flight and find myself 7 or 8 hours ahead of my normal time zone, I stay awake until it’s time for bed in my new time zone. This is really important, even though it’s hard to do. If you can make it until 8 or 9 PM on that first night, you’ll have taken a big step toward overcoming the jet lag that can spoil your trip for days. The next day, when you awake, you’ll be ready to explore and enjoy your adventure. If you typically have trouble staying asleep the first night or two when you travel, consider taking a mild sleeping pill. While it isn’t a good idea to rely on chemical sleep aides on a regular basis, they can be helpful in getting you through the first night or two without middle-of-the-night pauses.

 

7Eat lightly the first full day or two in your new time zone. Your body is expending lots of energy accommodating itself to the new time. If you eat unusual or heavy foods on that first day or two, you’ll be stressing yourself, and you’ll be facing middle of the night wakefulness rather than peaceful sleep.

10 Reasons You Should Visit Greece Now

Mykonos, Greece1Without 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.

 

Enjoying seafood in Crete2Foodies rejoice! In Greece you’ll find fresh seafood (and we mean fresh!), local produce and fruits, tender oven-roasted lamb, and the original feta cheese. And don’t forget the olive oil, wine and Ouzo!

 

Parthenon, Athens3History comes alive! Greece is the country that gave rise to Western Civilization and the birthplace of democracy, drama, art, science and philosophy. From the Acropolis in Athens, to Knossos Palace in Crete to the site of the first Olympic games in Olympia, Greece is filled with important historical sites and archaeological wonders.

 

Romance on Santorini4Romance is no stranger to Greece. Whether you’re planning a honeymoon, anniversary, or just looking for a romantic getaway, the charming island of Santorini is just one of the many perfect fairy-tale settings.

 

Meteora 5Greece is one of those destinations that truly has something for everyone (it’s also kid friendly). Whether you’re a history buff, adventure seeker, foodie, nature lover, or you’re just looking to soak up some rays on the white sand beaches, Greece is the place for you!

 

Canal D'amour Beach, Corfu6If you’re looking for breathtaking beaches, look no further! Greece has hundreds of diverse beaches to choose from for swimming, snorkeling, or just relaxing.

 

Sunset in Santorini7The scenery in Greece is second to none. From lush gardens filled with olive trees, to the picturesque whitewashed villages in Santorini, to the rocky view of Mount Olympus, you’ll put that camera to good use.

 

 

Greek Man with Donkey

8Greek people are some of the friendliest, happiest people you will ever encounter. Despite the hardships the Greeks have faced over the years, they’re still as warm and welcoming as ever.

 

Heraklion market9Right now traveling to Greece is more affordable than ever. Tourism also happens to be one of Greece’s main industries, so you won’t be the only one benefiting if you decide to travel to Greece.

 

Caryatids porch, Acropolis, Athens10If you ask us, Athens is one of the most interesting and unique cities in all of Europe! While it’s one of the world’s oldest cities, it’s also modern and cosmopolitan.

 

Independent Getaway Packages From Friendly Planet

Independent Getaway Packages

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!

Taking a selfie in GreeceWhy 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.

What’s included

Enjoy top-notch hotels, like the Kempinski Bristol in BerlinThese 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.

Exploring Venice by gondolaDiscover

See all of the exciting places where you can get away!

Independent Getaway Packages

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.

9 Reasons to Visit Japan

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:

1. Cities

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.

Shibuya Crossing, TokyoMust-see examples include:

  • 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.

2. Landscapes

Cherry blossomsOne 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.

3. Animals

Macaques at Jigokudani hotspring in Nagano  Photo by YosemiteFrom 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

Kinkaku-ji Temple, KyotoMany 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

Haari Boat Festival in Okinawa © JNTOThousands 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

KumamonWhile Japan may seem like a serious culture, they also have a soft spot for “cute”.

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.

7. Cuisine

Japanese sushi © JNTOJapanese 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

Shinkansen bullet train & Mt. FujiFor 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.

9. Hospitality

Mother & daughters in traditional KimonosThe 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.

Japan Tours and Packages with Friendly Planet Travel

 

 

 

6 Things to Know About the New Cuba Travel Rules

 

A new era in travel to Cuba has begun, with revised rules for U.S. citizens in effect as of January 16, 2015. President Obama’s December 2014 announcement regarding easing decades-old restrictions on travel generated huge interest and curiosity—but also some confusion.

In reality, it’s actually been legal for US citizens to visit Cuba since 2011, when new regulations were put into place allowing licensed travel under the proper conditions. Since that announcement, the unprecedented wave of calls and bookings is reflecting a poignant indication of the great interest among Americans in travel to the once-forbidden island.

We’ve reviewed and parsed the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Cuban Assets Control Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 515 (the “CACR”), so we can provide you, the traveler, a quick summary of the rules. (Updated Sept. 3, 2015.)

1. You’re still not allowed to spend a week lounging on the beach.

But educational travel is fine! In order to go there, you will still need to certify, by signed affidavit, that you’re traveling for one of 12 categories of authorized travel. You’ll need a full time agenda for each day you’re in Cuba focused on that reason, and you won’t find getting a tan at the beach on the list. “People-to-People” cultural exchange tours fit the new rules, and they will continue as usual. A tour company that’s experienced in Cuba travel can help you navigate all the details and make it easy.

2. You can now bring home cigars and rum legally.

Finally, you’ll be able to bring home $100 worth of cigars and/or rum. You’ll also be able to bring home another $300 in other purchases, for a total of $400 in souvenirs. Original art, music and educational materials such as books aren’t subject to the $400 limit, so if you find that amazing original painting (and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to do just that), you can buy it and bring it home legally.

3. Eventually, you’ll be able to pay with a credit card.

Now that’s a big deal. Travelers visiting Cuba have been forced to carry cash and exchange dollars for CUC’s, the Cuban currency. Once U.S. banks have set up the infrastructure in Cuba, you’ll be able to use your credit card to pay for incidentals at the hotel or even that amazing painting you want to hang in your living room. This will take some time to implement the new rules, since as of this moment, one small south Florida bank has officially begun working directly with Cuba. But it’ll be a huge convenience once truly implemented.

4. Flying to Cuba is going to get easier.

It will take a little time for the U.S. Department of Transportation to create the procedures and guidelines to make scheduled service from the U.S. possible. For the moment, no U.S. airlines are flying directly to Cuba with regularly scheduled service, although several are looking at the possibilities. JetBlue, through its association with Cuba Travel Service, a charter operator, is already operating flights from New York and Ft. Lauderdale. And United Airlines has announced that it will soon begin service from Newark and Houston direct to Havana. You can still fly to Cuba via Canada, Jamaica or Cancun, but those routes mean more travel time as well as cost. For now, charters, mostly from Miami, remain the least expensive and most convenient way to arrange the trip.

5. Cruises to Cuba are now legal.

It’s hard to believe that not so long ago, the idea of cruising from Miami to Cuba was a dream unfulfilled. Today, there are already several People-to-People cruises available. However, you’re not going to avoid the full-time educational aspect still required of U.S. travelers to Cuba. Whether they originate in Miami, Havana or Jamaica, these cruises all feature a schedule of activities designed to comply with OFAC rules, including on days at sea. One major advantage of these cruises is that they typically circle the island, taking travelers from Havana all the way to Santiago, and points in between, making it possible to see a lot of the island in a as little as a week. One major disadvantage is that these cruises cost a lot, due to the extensive programming and legal requirements involved in operating the educational program. Keep in mind, too, that you’ll be spending your nights aboard your ship, so dinners, while prepared Cuban style, won’t be in any of those awesome, privately-owned “paladars” that are run by a new breed of Cuban entrepreneur and flourishing thanks mainly to U.S. tourists.

6. Travel with a group is the best way to avoid a lot of hassle and keep the cost down.

According to the new rules, you will need a full time program of activities that comply with your signed affidavit of purpose. The best and least expensive way to adhere to these rules is to book into a group tour that has taken all the rules—and your best Cuban experience—into consideration. These groups book into the most appropriate accommodations for American travelers, and they include the experiences that are hard for travelers to arrange on their own. Considering the bureaucracy still associated with Cuba travel (new rules notwithstanding), having a full-time tour manager, in addition to the guide, goes a very long way toward smoothing out all the unexpected wrinkles and ensuring you have way more fun than you’ll ever believe.

While thousands of U.S. travelers have had amazing cultural journeys to Cuba, it’s still not yet ready for prime-time mass tourism. Until there is sufficient infrastructure, and a lot less bureaucracy, it is proving difficult to handle the growing numbers of general tourists that want to visit. For now, until more hotels are built, more guides are trained, and more restaurants are opened, established group tours operated by experienced tour operators with deep local contacts and plenty of guaranteed hotel rooms will remain the best bet for travelers who want to avoid problems and enjoy the authentic Cuba right now—before it changes forever.

Top 15 International Destinations for 2015

Every New Year’s resolution involves three key ingredients — the commitment to better one’s self, the passion to try something new, and the inevitable promise to venture beyond one’s comfort zone — and no one act accomplishes those goals more than international travel.

With 2015 on the horizon, it’s the perfect time to look ahead and seek new ways to discover the vast, wide world, and in the process, make changes for the better. But where should resolved explorers venture to achieve their New Year’s travel resolutions?

Here’s my list of the top 15 travel destinations for 2015, which includes countries that not only deliver unforgettable moments, but offer settings in which minds and hearts open and grow. This list was compiled by examining the growing demands of millennial travelers, new regulatory landscapes, the health of each country’s tourism industry, and the love affair that this writer has had with each of these destinations.

1. Thailand. Thailand saw a significant dip in traffic in 2014 after governmental unrest, but Thailand is sure to come roaring back in 2015, with industry predictions of29 million visitors by year end. These numbers aren’t really surprising, though, as Thailand continues to be one of the most beautiful, spiritual, and welcoming destinations on the planet.

2. Iceland. As more travelers seek authentic experiences which also reflect their worldviews, Iceland has emerged as a top travel destination. The Land of Fire and Iceshowcases the world’s natural beauty at sites like the famous Strokkur geyser, the natural hot springs of the Blue Lagoon, and of course, the contemplative wonders of the Northern Lights, while Reykjavík, the nation’s capital, offers plenty of great restaurants, night spots and northern culture.

3. Cuba. Everyone’s talking about this island just 90 miles from Florida’s coast that has been the forbidden fruit of travel for Americans for more than 50 years. With the recent announcement of the U.S. restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and a general loosening of rules regarding travel, there’s no better time to visit the island nation than 2015, before everything changes. Friendly Planet Travel has been helping travelers visit Cuba legally for the past four years, allowing Americans to gain a deeper understanding of a culture that seems to have been frozen in time. Travelers meet local artists, street-smart entrepreneurs, and everyday Cubans where they live, work and play. For the true explorer, Cuba is one of the most amazing travel experiences possible, and to enjoy the island as it is right now, you better hurry before the country is forever changed by Western influences.

4. Greece. Greece is back, and I couldn’t be happier. After years of a tourism downturn brought on by economic turmoil, visitors are finally returning in droves, ready and eager to experience the beauty, culture, and flavor of this Mediterranean paradise. While Athens is considered the crucible of Western civilization and definitely worth a visit, it’s the islands that lure visitors back again and again. These magnificent islands are every bit as gorgeous, romantic, laid back, and fun as any place you can find on earth. There’s Mykonos for romance, Santorini for breathtaking beaches, Crete for natural wonders, and so much more to discover.

5. Malaysia. A trip to Malaysia is like visiting two worlds at once. Peninsular Malaysia embraces Chinese and Indian influences resulting in richly spiritual, though thoroughly modern nation, while Malaysian Borneo — which is split from West Malaysia by the South China Sea — encompasses the country’s wilder side, with dense, mysterious jungles and ancient cultures living according to tradition. All of this, plus some of the absolute best cuisine on the planet, make Malaysia a 2015 must-see!

6. Croatia. Croatia is the hidden gem of the Mediterranean. Long overshadowed by its famous neighbors, Italy and Greece, it will continue to grow into its own in 2015 and transition into a true Mediterranean hotspot. Turquoise waters, sun-drenched beaches, and hundreds of quaint islands make it the ideal destination for any traveler who seeks leisure at its finest. Some of the most complete Medieval walled cities are found here, along with pristine forest, sparkling lakes, and incredibly friendly, welcoming locals.

7. Dubai. As the United Arab Emirates continues to develop into one of the world’s fastest growing tourism destinations, Dubai stands out as the ultimate international getaway for the world’s rich and famous. Yet, travelers don’t have to be international superstars to visit this luxurious city. In fact, Dubai welcomed 5.8 million visitors in the first half of 2014 alone. And no wonder. How many hot desert locations can you name where you can enjoy the beach (we’re talking hot weather) in the morning and then, spend the afternoon skiing at an indoor resort attached to a fabulous designer mall? That’s not the only thrill travelers will discover in Dubai. Try soaring to the top of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, to check out a view. Or, how about a visit the Burj Al Arab, among the most luxurious and expensive hotels in the world, where a fleet of 25 Rolls-Royces stand at the ready in the courtyard to chauffer guests about. It’s that kind of place, but you have to see it to believe it.

8. Vietnam. Vietnam has recently been named one of Trip Advisor’s Destinations on the Rise for 2015, with the port city of Da Nang ringing in praises from travelers across the world. But Vietnam has much more to offer than a beautiful coastline. Explore Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon), a city that perfectly unites the energy of a world-class metropolis with the quaint sophistication of a French village. Here, as in all of Vietnam, the preferred mode of transportation is the motorbike, and I’ll bet you’ll find watching the veritable river of traffic negotiating the road among your favorite attractions. Or sail through Ha Long Bay, an inlet with emerald waters and otherworldly limestone cliffs, known as karsts, protruding from the water in random patterns. In addition, Vietnam is foodie heaven. You can eat your way throughout the country, including the street food, enjoying cuisine that is amazingly fresh and delicious.

9. South Africa. The 2014 Ebola scare deterred travelers from visiting Africa, but as the panic has subsided and travelers have realized that South Africa is Ebola-free, tourists are once again eager to get up close and personal with the Big 5 — lions, African elephants, Cape buffalo, leopards, and rhinoceroses — while on an authentic African safari. South Africa is also one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, with a rainbow population, a gay-friendly attitude, townships like Soweto which produced Nelson Mandela, among the world’s greatest leaders, and cities like cosmopolitan Cape Town and historic Johannesburg. And by the way, among the finest wines in the world are found in South Africa, and you won’t have any difficulty finding great food to pair with those great wines, either.

10. Japan. More than 13 million travelers will have visited Japan in 2014, and tourism numbers are only expected to increase next year. Japan is a land built upon ancient traditions, but since its introduction to the Western world, the island nation has adopted an entirely modern persona while maintaining tradition. Travelers can visit the bustling streets of Tokyo — one of the world’s most modern metropolises — and then just as easily hop a high-speed train to explore the ancient pavilions of Kyoto. Some of the most spectacular scenery in the world is found in Japan, and when it comes to color, there’s nothing like the cherry blossoms that bloom in the spring. Japan’s a unique, fascinating cultural destination, and it will continue to grow in popularity in today’s interconnected world.

11. Costa Rica. Costa Rica is finishing up a stellar year for tourism, with some 27 million tourists visiting the country in 2014 alone, and experts are predicting visitor numbers to continue to rise in 2015. And it’s no surprise. Costa Rica is the jewel of Central America, one that boasts incredible ecosystems, including tropical rainforests, cloud forests, mountains, rivers, volcanoes, and coastline on both the Caribbean and Pacific. As a nation, it’s a pioneer in environmental protection, with a huge part of its land mass set aside and protected by law. The people, affectionately known as “Ticos” are amazingly friendly and welcoming, and you’ll be hard-pressed to resist joining them in their enthusiasm for their country. It’s the ultimate destination for those who cherish the purity of nature and are seeking a little adventure along the way.

12. Egypt. It’s been four long years since Egypt has been on our radar as a “must visit” spot, but now that the political situation has stabilized, tourists are returning in ever greater numbers to see the Great Pyramid of Giza, the mythical Sphinx, and King Tut’s tomb, plus other antiquities along the Nile. Egypt is one of those bucket list destinations that everyone plans to visit at least once in a lifetime, and for good reason. The historical and cultural treasures of Egypt are among the most important in human history. The Egyptian people are among the most hospitable in the world, and since Egypt is just starting to recover from a long touristic drought, the prices will never be this good again.

13. China. China is a land where the ancient past perfectly meets the modern present, where the most populous country in the world is rushing to pull its citizens into the 21st century in record speed. Between the glistening skyscrapers of Shanghai, the incredible Terra Cotta Army in Xi’an, and the formidable, imposing Great Wall near Beijing, travelers can experience the best of the old and the new. China is full of contrasts, which makes it such a fascinating destination. You’ll find plenty of sleek, expensive cars sharing the streets with bicycle rickshaws, formal Tiananmen Square, with its huge portrait of Chairman Mao, overlooking People’s Park where citizens practice Tai Chi, learn to play ancient instruments, have an ear cleaning, and enjoy a cup of tea. And there’s so much more to see, do and experience, making China one destination that many travelers visit again and again.

14. Peru. For the third straight year, Peru has been named a top culinary destination by the World Travel Awards, placing it on par with France and Thailand as one of the world’s greatest food nations. Peruvian cuisine takes advantage of the nation’s diverse geography, which consists of jungles, coasts, and mountains, and combines it with European, African, and Asian influences to create unmatched global cuisine. While Machu Picchu is Peru’s initial draw, Peruvian food keeps travelers returning again and again.

15. Australia. Australia has long been one of the world’s most popular destinations, and 2015 will be no different. The nation’s unbeatable nightlife, world-class beaches, and unparalleled natural beauty — from the Great Barrier Reef to the Australian bush — make it a must-visit destination for all worldly travelers. Australia is a long way to travel from the USA, but it’s worth every minute of the journey. And with English as the spoken language, it’s easy to get around, meet friendly folks and participate in life the Aussie way. Why not add it to the 2015 bucket list?

There you have it, the top 15 destinations of 2015. Are you ready to get out there and see the world?

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