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Chinese city spotlight: A traveler’s take on Shanghai, Beijing, and Xi’an

I’m not the only person at Friendly Planet Travel with a love for international adventures. In fact, many of us here at Friendly Planet have been drawn to our work by our love of exotic destinations, and we travel regularly to stay abreast of great new tour opportunities for our customers.

Kate Katubi, a member of Friendly Planet Travel’s reservations team, recently returned from our 10-day A Taste of China tour. As all exotic travel should be, Katie’s trip was life changing, and she wanted to share insights about her tour with us on the Friendly Planet blog. View the slideshow to see China from her eyes and read on to hear what she had to say about three of her favorite Chinese cities.

Exploring the “Paris of the East”

Shanghai, China’s largest city, boasts an array of cultural delights. During my time in the city, I explored timeless silk shops, dined on decadent pork dumplings, and gazed at bronze sculptures at the Shanghai Museum of ancient Chinese art. Within a city renowned for its skyscrapers, I still stumbled upon beautiful ancient gardens and quaint meandering canals. At night, I joined the hordes of tourists and locals at Nanjing road and the historical Bund, and admired the brightly lit streets and Shanghai skyline. This city is a perfect example of China’s growth in the last 20 years.

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The perfect Mother’s Day gift: International travel

It’s almost Mother’s Day, and as a mother and grandmother, I wanted to take a minute to share some motherly advice. While all moms appreciate the traditional Mother’s Day flowers, cards and the occasional breakfast in bed, the ultimate present has always been spending time with our children and yes, our grandchildren. I’ve watched my kids grow from wobbling toddlers to successful adults, and looking back over the years, the moments that bring the biggest smiles to my face are those spent enjoying time together.

With that in mind, I suggest rethinking the traditional Mother’s Day gifts this year, and consider giving Mom a present that will create lifelong memories for your family — a mother-and-child trip to an exotic destination that both of you are dying to visit and enjoy together.

In my more than 30 years in the industry, I’ve heard countless stories about how travel has built bonds and strengthened relationships. In fact, a lot of those stories are mine, having traveled internationally with both my own kids and grandkids. Not only do families learn about new cultures, they learn about each other and gain a new level of appreciation for one another. In case you haven’t discovered any mutual travel “must visits” of your own, here’s my Mother’s Day gifting guide to help you choose the perfect destination for you and your mom.

The first-time-traveler mom: Italy

Italy is a perfect destination for first-time international travelers. Your mom will fall in love with the welcoming Italian people and feel completely at home in the relaxed culture. Stroll through the winding cobblestone streets of Venice, a city that floats on water, and watch gondoliers serenade patrons as they glide along the city’s 177 canals. Travel to Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, and shop for gold, jewels, and art on the Ponte Vecchio, a walking bridge lined with high-end stores. Then gaze upon Michelangelo’s famous statue of David. End the trip sipping bold red wines at a café in Rome and wandering through the ruins of the famed Coliseum. Whether you and your Mom love cooking, art, music or just plain strolling, you’ll find boundless opportunities to make memories that will last a lifetime.

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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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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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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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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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Picture yourself winning our 9-day Athens & 4 Day Greek Isle Cruise grand prize!

If I had to choose one destination for the trip of a lifetime, Greece would rank high on the list of my all-time favorite places. Greece is as old as antiquity and as alluring as Aphrodite herself. With more than 6,000 islands, cast out like stars upon the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, Greece beckons with its ancient ruins, turquoise waters, fishing villages untouched by time, and whitewashed villas, crowned with bright blue dooms.

That’s why I chose Greece as the destination for our latest Facebook contest. One lucky Facebook fan will win a free trip for two on our nine-day Athens & 4 Day Greek Isles Cruise group tour. So visit our Facebook page, “Like” us, and enter your information in the Great Greece Giveaway tab for your chance to win this prize, worth up to $6,100.

If you win, what would you see? Where would you visit? I chose some of my personal favorite images of Greece to inspire your imagination. Scroll down to see what awaits:

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An American traveler in Cuba: Q-and-A with blogger Megan McIntyre

We’ve sent thousands of travelers to Cuba over the past few years through our people-to-people programs, offering Americans one of the few chances they’ll ever have to soak in the vibrant people, culture, and arts of this island nation. We found that these excursions not only open our traveler’s minds to the wonders of a diverse nation, but they return with transformed views of Cuba as a whole.

We recently interviewed Cuban traveler and blogger Megan McIntyre to uncover her take on her recent people-to-people cultural excursion. From visiting a primary school in Old Havana to exploring the urban farms of Terralismo to meeting Julio Munoz, known as the Cuban horse whisperer, Megan gained a deep understanding of a complex country that has been paralyzed by economic hardship, yet is still passionate about life and optimistic about the future.

Here’s what Megan had to say:

Friendly Planet: Why did you decide to travel to Cuba?

Megan McIntyre: My husband and I love to travel. We find no experience more rewarding than exploring different places, cultures, foods, and adventures. When choosing our most recent trip, we weighed the pros and cons of numerous destinations. Did we want a more active or relaxed trip? How far did we want to travel? Should we return to an old favorite destination or explore somewhere new? With these qualifiers in mind, we opted for an active, new experience that would minimize travel time. From that, there seemed to be only one logical option — Cuba.

2. What did you think about Cuba before your visit?

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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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