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4 magnificent things to do in Dubai

Once just a sleepy desert enclave, Dubai has emerged from the sand and transformed into a glittering modern metropolis. Falling at the intersection of the azure waves of the Arabian Gulf and the barren sands of the Arabian Desert, Dubai has quickly become a lavish oasis for the world’s rich and famous.

Almost overnight, Dubai transformed into one of the world’s hottest international destinations, with more than 5.8 million travelers visiting the Middle Eastern kingdom in the first half of 2014 alone. Tourist activity is only certain to pick up as more and more travelers, including Americans, discover the wonders of this lavish city.

If you’re dreaming of a royal getaway, one filled with sunset desert safaris, world-class shopping, and awe-inspiring architecture, Dubai is the destination for you. Here are just four experiences all travelers must have when visiting Dubai.

1. Experience traditional art, history, and culture. If you hope to uncover some of the true gems of Dubai’s past, visit the trendy Bastakiya district. This neighborhood was once home to the city’s textile and pearl traders, and has since been built up to house quaint art museums, cafés, and shops. Explore the Dubai Museum to learn about the history of this desert oasis; walk along the last remaining section of the old city wall, which served as a defensive barrier in the 19th century; and stroll among the paintings at the Majlis Gallery, Dubai’s first art museum. The Bastakiya district is the perfect place to experience the true essence of this Middle Eastern metropolis.

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Why save your vacation days for the summer? Travel during the off-season!

Forget springtime in Paris and summer in Santorini. Off-season is the new hot time to visit your favorite European destinations. More and more travelers are ditching their summer vacations and opting to visit their favorite cities throughout the winter months.

From November to March, Europe takes on an entirely new persona. Gone are the large crowds, humid days, and high prices — leaving only the true cultures, histories, and sights of each destination for you to enjoy. If you’re interested in experiencing some hidden, off-season gems of Europe, here are just some of my reasons why the off-season is the perfect time to travel.

Sightsee at a fraction of the price. It’s no secret that off-season travel often means lower prices. Not only will travelers save on airfares, tours, and accommodations, but they’ll often find that restaurants, shops, and bars in high-tourist areas are also less expensive. This can help significantly pare down a tight travel budget. Also keep a lookout for bundled tours that take place during the off-season. Tour operators often make the most out of seasonal pricing and share the savings with travelers. By saving on the essentials, travelers can splurge on extra special events, like enjoying a Champagne dinner at the top of the Eiffel Tower or taking a dip in Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon, making their trips even more memorable.

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What is your Icelandic name?

Among many of the wonderful eccentricities of Iceland are the names of the Icelandic people. The Icelandic naming system is unlike any other in the world. To create surnames, Icelanders take the first name of their fathers, and then add son for males and dóttir for females to show possession. For instance, if your father’s first name is Paul, and you are his son, then your last name is Paulsson. If you are his daughter, then your last name is now Paulsdóttir. Fun, right? Try it for yourself. My Icelandic last name is Samuelsdóttir.

Not only that, but strict rules regulate name selection. All new first and middle names must be approved by the Icelandic government, so there’s little chance of ever meeting a Gagasson or Gagasdóttir when visiting this island nation.

But there are plenty of other reasons to visit Iceland, a country that is quickly becoming a hot international travel destination. First and foremost are the worldviews of its people. It’s a land that sounds like it could be frozen in time, yet it’s remarkably progressive. Approximately 85 percent of the country’s energy comes from green sources, thanks to an abundance of hydrothermal and geothermal energy pools. Additionally, the nation has one of the lowest incidences of violent crimes around the globe, keeping in line with its peaceful and accepting perspectives.

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Want to get away this holiday season? Now’s the time to book a vacation!

Imagine spending the holidays lounging on a gondola in Venice, spotting endangered sea turtles in Costa Rica, or salsa dancing with locals in Cuba, all at an affordable price. Well now’s your chance. Our team at Friendly Planet Travel is offering special deals on 38 travel packages to destinations across the globe, all with travel dates over the coming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Travelers can save up to an EXTRA $300 on select tours, but you have to book soon — these special offers end on Sept. 25, 2014. To help you picture that perfect getaway, I wanted to highlight just a few of the vacations that you could be booking for this holiday season.

Discover Havana: Through our people-to-people license, the Friendly Planet Travel team has helped more than 5,000 Americans visit Cuba legally. Cuba is a nation only 93 miles from the continental U.S., yet remains largely untouched by American influences. In fact, visitors often describe Cuba as a trip back in time. Our Discover Havana people-to-people program introduces travelers to the culture and daily life of the Cuban people. Travelers spend three eye-opening days in Havana, where activities include a visit with Cuban schoolchildren, a performance by a local dance group, and a meal at a paladar — a private restaurant run by a local family. In addition, they venture into the countryside to explore the coffee plantations of Las Terrazas and Hemingway’s Cuban retreat in Finca Vigia. This trip is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that truly unites two cultures through the magic of travel.

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The world’s simplest guide to experiencing Barcelona

The following is a guest post from Kate Katubi, Reservations at Friendly Planet Travel.

If Madrid is Spain’s historic and cultural matriarch, then Barcelona is its eccentric second cousin. While the two cities share the same flag, they couldn’t be more different. Barcelona shrugs off traditional Spanish customs in favor of a more free-spirited and whimsical culture. The Catalonian capital offers a rich history of modern architecture, world-class cuisine, and sun-drenched beaches, making it the ultimate European getaway.

While I returned from my trip to Barcelona a few years ago, I still catch myself daydreaming about fruity sangria, joyous street music, and mosaic dragons. If you’re considering a trip to breathtaking Barcelona, let me share my simple tips on how to best experience this phenomenal, energetic city.

Walk, don’t run. Barcelona is a pedestrian’s paradise. The city encompasses a mere 40 square miles, with the majority of sites in easy walking distance. For instance, walk to the Plaça de Sant Jaume, the center of the old city of Barcelona. Then visit Barcelona Cathedral, the city’s 15th century gothic cathedral dedicated to a martyred virgin. Next, stop at the awe-inspiring Picasso Museum. Near the old port, Port Vell, you can marvel at the sacred spirals of the basilica Santa Maria del Mar. Finally, visit Ciutadella Park, which, for decades, was one of the only green spaces in Barcelona.

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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?

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!

PATONG BEACH: Experience the vibrant atmosphere and exciting nightlife

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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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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