Exploring Crete

Crete, the largest Greek island, and among the most storied, is where I started my recent visit. The colorful history, legends and mystique surrounding the island are tied to many sources including that it once was the center of Minoan culture, the earliest recorded civilization in Europe. For mythology fans, the island is said to be the birthplace of Zeus. An island whose recorded history is more ancient than that of the European continent, Crete has been written about by Homer, Plato and Aristotle.

You could easily devote a week to exploring just this one island, which is home to stunning beaches, pastoral hillsides of olive trees, and magnificent gorges. I had merely an afternoon, which I spent wandering the mysterious Minoan ruins of Knossos and the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.

Knossos, Crete’s largest Bronze Age archaeological site, is thought to be Europe’s oldest city, and for 2,000 years it flourished as a civic, economic and religious center. Today, there’s little left of that original grandeur, but on portions of the site there are reconstructions of what the original buildings might have looked like, assembled by archaeologists in the early 1900s.

What you will see during a visit is a series of workrooms, storerooms and living spaces surrounding a central square. The highlight is the complex’s royal domestic chambers. The most complete portion of the former palace complex, these rooms provide the best sense of Knossos’ past glory and sophistication. In the Queen’s Megaron (bedroom) for instance, there’s an elaborate, playful fresco of dolphins, while in the adjoining rooms there’s a bathroom and beyond that, the Hall of the Double Axes – a large, airy, elegant room that belonged to the king.

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Exploring Mykonos

mykonos

One of the most popular and bustling Greek islands, Mykonos offers everything from designer boutiques, to beautiful beaches, five star hotels and trendy nightclubs, all with a picturesque Cyclades island backdrop. In many ways it is an island to see and be seen, and party all night long, but it also offers much of the charm Greek island vacations are famous for.

Windmills in Mykonos

Mykonos Town is a warren of tiny winding streets, homes with colorful doors and tiny blue chapels that look as though they would barely accommodate one dozen people. The smell of freshly baked Baklava wafts from bakeries and lazy cats sleep in doorways. Three iconic Greek windmills stand watch over the town, and there is no better place to enjoy them or the ocean view, then from “Little Venice” – a charming quarter that seems to spill out into the Aegean, it’s bars and cafes built right up to the water’s edge, waves lapping at their foundations. But getting a seat here early is essential, because watching the sun set from Little Venice is on nearly every visitor’s agenda and tourism is Mykonos’ number one industry.

Little Venice, Mykonos

Beyond the reaches of cosmopolitan Mykonos Town, there are smaller and quieter coves and villages, including the charming Ornos, where it’s easy to while away an afternoon or an evening at a tiny restaurant, sipping on Ouzo and dining on freshly caught local seafood.

Also see:

Exploring Santorini

Exploring Crete

Cruising the Greek Islands

Santorini

The appeal of small ships

It’s safe to say I’ve never really been a cruise person, but 10 days cruising the Greek islands changed that point of view.

Sailing effortlessly from one colorful port to the next, visiting islands big and small, touring charming Cycladic villages, intriguing archaeological sites and sleepy out-of-the-way beaches, I suddenly realized the value, ease and possibility that comes with touring this way.

There is a certain delight in waking up in a new location each morning, the sun rising outside your cabin window to illuminate all the colors and sights of a new port. There’s also a comforting feeling each night as you drift off to sleep, knowing that the chore of traveling to a new destination will be taking place while you rest.

With thousands of islands large and small spread over only a few hundred miles, Greece is uniquely suited to island-hopping.

And touring the Greek islands via a small ship allows you to visit a long list of destinations in a compressed period of time. In some cases, you can tour one island in the morning and enjoy dinner on another that evening—without feeling rushed. Trying to coordinate visits to this many islands on your own would be logistically daunting, to say the least.

Halfway through my recent trip, I started thinking about Jackie Kennedy and her days sailing amid the Greek islands while being romanced by Aristotle Onassis. Suddenly this mode of travel took on a whole new meaning and historically glamorous appeal.

Syros

Island hopping

For my recent journey, I sailed with Celestyal Cruises, a Greece-based company. With small ships, Celeystal is able to access tinier harbors that the large cruise ships cannot — a feature that sets the company apart and allows its cruises to include charming, less frequented ports of call.

My island hopping was divided between two different cruise itineraries — one that focused on the iconic Aegean islands: Mykonos, Santorini, Patmos, Crete and Rhodes and a second that highlighted smaller, more idyllic ports and lesser-known islands like Samos, Milos, Syros, Kos and Ios.

I also appreciated the fascinating variety of pre-arranged, hassle-free excursions on each island. There were options for those interested in scenery, culture, fine dining or merely beach hopping, or a little bit of all of the above.

When touring the island of Kos for instance, the excursions included visiting local, family-run wineries and honey makers; spending the day lounging on remote, pristine beaches or touring the intriguing archaeological ruins of Askleipion, which date to around 400 B.C. Often, there were simply too many tempting choices to squeeze into a single day’s visit.

There was a similar variety of choices on Ios — including whiling away the day on the pristine Maganari Beach, touring the pre-historic ruins of Skarkos, and meandering through the charming Chora village, where picturesque white cube houses and narrow stone streets cling to a steep hillside and offer dramatic views of the bay below.

On Mykonos, I enjoyed dinner in an incredibly quaint and charming beachfront restaurant in Ornos that I probably would not have found were it not for the cruise company. The small community offered a quiet, idyllic place to dine and escape thecrowds of Mykonos Town. A smattering of kids played in the water a few hundred yards from my open-air table. Sailboats bobbed quietly in the cove before me, and lights from the houses cascading down the nearby hillside twinkled, as the sun slipped beneath the horizon.

Kos

Traveling with Relaxation and Comfort

After a long day exploring archaeological ruins or wandering down the winding, cobblestone streets of the many small villages we visited, I was ready for a little rest and relaxation.

Back on the ship I found the perfect antidote in the spa, where each afternoon I pampered myself as we sailed from port to port — choosing a facial one day, a pedicure, foot and leg massage the next. I also enjoyed lounging on the poolside deck as we cruised through the impossibly blue waters of the Aegean, observing the island scenery as we sailed.

And because I did not have to waste time packing and unpacking each day, I was able to focus more time on just relaxing, digging into a good book, or reading about our next destination. During our sailing time, Celestyal also showcased Greek culture with language lessons, dancing classes and mythology quizzes.

Celestyal Cruises Olympia

A trip I won’t soon forget

Visiting the Greek islands is easily a bucket list trip. The islands have long had a special glamour, mystique and allure associated with only a select group of other destinations. There’s a reason Jackie O, as she later came to be known, came back again and again.

And cruising from one island to the next, not worrying for a moment about how you will get from place to place, makes the experience all that much more pleasant. Instead of being distracted by any of the hassles of travel, I was free to focus on the many pleasures of vacationing in this fabulous part of the world.

What’s more, I took my trip amid the height of the Greek financial crisis. While news headlines around the world projected gloom and doom, and a descent into chaos for the country, the islands remained as they ever were: a quiet sanctuary from the cares of the world.

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 800555-5765 to talk with a reservations agent. They’ll be happy to help you create the getaway adventure of your dreams.

Bangkok: A Sensory Celebration

Grand Palace, Bangkok

You’ll never forget the first time you experience Bangkok. It startles all the senses, instantly tuning you into the hum of life in the “land of smiles.”

See

Petite women clad in chut thai wait on restaurant tables. Their long, straight skirts and matching tops of stiff Thai silk in vibrant hues shimmer with thread that’s golden like the spires of the temples scattered throughout the city.

Inside the walls of the Grand Palace you’ll step into a dreamland of the greenest lawns and trees. Thousands of tiny pieces of colored glass beads and porcelain, meticulously arranged piece by piece, adorn massive columns and spires, dazzling the eyes as sunlight sparkles off each one.

A long narrow boat with a rainbow-covered canopy takes us up and down the canals of Bangkok, past the houses on stilts sitting just inches above the river that overflows every rainy season. People wash and bathe, waving and smiling as our boat coasts by and we get a glimpse into their lives. Brightly colored spirit houses (miniature temples with offerings) brighten up the dull wooden shacks with tin roofs showing how important it is to give the spirits—bringers of good fortune and health—a more desirable home.

Hear

When Thai people speak, you can hear the smile woven into the soft chatter. Even the guy in the nightclub who’s had a little too much Singha to drink, slurs, “Welcome to Thailand…everything here no problem. Smile, be happy!” The zooming of cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks is a modern counterpoint to the traditional ways of life that still exist today.

Tuk tuk

Taste

The Royal Hotel is one of the oldest hotels in Bangkok and a significant building during the student revolution 30 years ago. The restaurant has a nice vibe and offers cultural favorites in the restaurant lounge, such as a nice bowl of tom ka gai (coconut milk soup).

If you like spicy food, you should know that spicy dishes served up in Thailand tend to be much more fiery than the ones we get back home. You can always ask for not spicy and the Thais will readily oblige.

In the street stalls you’ll have your pick of moo ping (grilled pork) and kai yang (grilled whole chicken) and delicious som tamthai  (papaya salad), an unripened papaya salad like coleslaw without the mayo but sweet and spicy.

Thais also like sweet things like koa nieow (mango and sticky rice) and kanom krok, a morning treat of coconut custard grilled in a special iron skillet with depressions like a small egg poacher.

Som tamthai

Smell

It’s not just a whiff; it’s the sweet hot air you experience in this city of golden temples and Buddhas. Unfamiliar scents from fruits and vegetables you’ve never seen before combine with the delicious aroma of spicy noodles sizzling in big woks on street corners, blending with incense burning in a traditional family shrine at a sidewalk shop. Olfactor-ily speaking, there’s nothing in our experience to even compare it to.

Touch

A great cure for jet lag is a visit to a traditional Thai massage school for an hour of stretching and kneading. Thai massage comes from India and China, an invigorating blend of yoga (with somebody else doing all the work) and strong pressure along the meridians (the chi energy points) of the body. For just under $12 you’ll walk away rejuvenated and ready for your next tuk-tuk ride.

Thai massage

Get out and shop early, as the first sale of the day is thought to bring more business for the shop owner and they’re more likely to take a lower offer to encourage the sales to keep flowing. We bargain for every souvenir but just keep smiling.

Women who want to do something you don’t usually do at home, get your hair braided with beads on Khao San Road where all the farang (foreigners) hang out—a global, cultural experience in itself.

Go!

Whatever you do in Bangkok, do it with open heart, mind and senses. In this city you’ll likely feel more alive than you’ve ever felt before.

 

Sustainable travel: taking the first step

Exploring a national park in Costa Rica

I’m Cameron, Friendly Planet’s web developer. And each year around Earth Day, I get a little edgy.

Part is my frustration as I watch companies large and small trot out their green credentials. It’s encouraging to see so many businesses taking earnest steps to reduce their impacts. But with so many of them—maybe even most—all I see is a thick layer of greenwashing over business as usual. And lately, it’s getting hard to tell the difference between the two.

The other part is my own introspection. Who am I to judge? What are my green credentials? Am I doing enough to reduce the impacts of my lifestyle? All my careful recycling, all those LED bulbs I shelled out for, all those trips by bike—am I really making a difference? Or just making myself feel better?

An eco-conundrum

My biggest eco-conundrum is that I love to travel. Nothing is more exhilarating. So I’m a lucky guy that I get to work for a travel company. I can probably blame my parents for my wanderlust. I was born in Australia to an American mother and a New Zealand father. Before I was three years old, we had already spent months hopscotching across the islands of the South Pacific. And once I was old enough, I began my own journeys. Wandering through the ancient streets and monuments of Istanbul. Gliding down the Ganges in a small skiff. Spending months becoming intimately familiar with London. Exploring an ancient, overgrown Mayan city in Guatemala. Watching the sun rise over the blue domes of Oia in the Greek Islands. Joining the locals in Carnival parades in a gorgeous Portuguese colonial town in Brazil. These experiences have been some of the pinnacles of my life.

So it’s quite vexing to know that perhaps the single biggest thing I could do to reduce my environmental impact would be to never set foot on an airplane again.

The impacts of travel

Case in point: last November, my wife and I headed to Australia, my first trip back since my family left in 1977. It was an incredible homecoming: I got to know the land of my birth, to rediscover the farm where I was born, and to meet up with cousins I hadn’t seen in 15 years. But yesterday, I ran the numbers on the carbon impacts of that trip. According to Sustainable Travel International’s carbon calculator, our round-trip flight from LA to Sydney produced 11.7212 tons of CO2—and that was just our share. Flights and driving within Australia produced another 0.68 tons. Grand total: 12.4012 tons of carbon emissions for a two-week vacation for two people.

To compare, I estimated the impacts of all our driving and home energy use for that same year, with the help of the U.S. EPA’s carbon footprint calculator. The total: 7.1304 tons. I was proud to see that our efforts to drive less and use more efficient lighting and appliances were paying off. But my heart sank when I realized that our short trip to Australia was responsible for 174% more carbon than all our driving, electricity and natural gas usage for the whole year.

I believe travel is one of the most valuable things a human being can do to appreciate other cultures and fall in love with Planet Earth. It’s difficult to understand how beautiful and fragile the whole thing is until you see it with your own eyes. Which is why some of the world’s most ardent conservationists are also some of the most well-traveled. So it’s ironic then that tourism is perhaps one of the more damaging human activities. According to various sources, tourism is responsible for about 5% of global CO2 emissions, most of it from air travel. And unlike things like eating and heating our homes, travel is a luxury that’s completely optional.

With that in mind—is there such a thing as sustainable tourism? There’s no shortage of so-called “eco-lodges” and companies claiming to offer green tour packages. But how much of this is simply greenwashing to assuage the guilt of first-world travelers like myself?

Steps for meaningful action

Here at Friendly Planet, this conundrum has been on our minds for some time now. Not only are we all travelers ourselves, but we want to be a force for good in the places we visit. That’s why we’ve worked for years on various philanthropic projects, such as providing clean water for villagers in Cambodia. We’ve tried to craft responsible tour packages that introduce our travelers to some of the more incredible (and threatened) ecosystems on earth—like Borneo, Costa Rica, the Galapagos and the Amazon. And it’s the reason we take our travelers to nature preserves and conservation projects that protect rather than exploit indigenous people and species, in places like Thailand, South Africa and Kenya.

Meanwhile, one incredible member of our staff is going much further. In her free time, 25 year-old Alyssa Ramos has founded a nonprofit organization, Schools for Sustainability, which is building a series of innovative learning centers in impoverished areas. Students obtain high school degrees while getting trained and certified in organic food production, water harvesting and purification, renewable energy, waste management, and more. The schools themselves will be built of sustainable materials and will serve as models of environmental stewardship. Development is already underway on the first school in Sabana Grande de Boyá in the Dominican Republic. Future schools are planned for Philadelphia, the Bronx, Tanzania, Haiti and Israel. Alyssa is an inspiration to us all.

With all that we’ve done so far as a company, we understand that it’s far from enough. That’s why we’re now working on a carbon neutrality initiative to mitigate the impacts of our tour packages and our office operations. We’re exploring possibilities including carbon offsets, renewable energy credits, and direct contributions to projects that reduce greenhouse gases. We’re certainly not the first company to embark on such a project. But as we follow the lead of other trailblazing organizations, we’re determined to offer our customers a way to travel that is both enlightening and responsible—a way to explore the planet while also doing less harm to it. Why? Because we want to live up to our name. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because we cherish the destinations we visit. And because we want to ensure they’re still there for our children to enjoy as well.

Solutions like carbon offsets and renewable energy credits are far from perfect. The best way to reduce carbon emissions is not to create them in the first place. But we believe there are so many overwhelming benefits to experiencing other cultures and places, and that offsets and credits offer probably the best solution right now to neutralizing the impacts.

Stay tuned for updates on our initiative. In the meantime, consider offsetting your own travel, using the Sustainable Travel International carbon calculator, or by purchasing carbon offsets through sites like the Carbon Fund, Native Energy or TerraPass.*

Cameron at a wildlife reserve near Brisbane, AustraliaI offset our Australia trip yesterday. And I’m feeling just a bit better today.

Cameron Clark has been Friendly Planet’s web developer and webmaster for over a decade, and is spearheading the company’s carbon neutrality project.

* These popular carbon offset websites are not necessarily endorsed by Friendly Planet Travel.

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

 

 

 

Japan: A Top Destination for Foodies

Japan. Beyond sushi: foodie heaven

SushiIf you live to eat and enjoy exploring food culture around the world, Japan should be at the top of your travel wish list.

In Japan, cooking is an art guided by centuries-old culinary traditions, but there are also modern chefs adding new twists to longtime favorites. The country offers a wealth of culinary experiences from the very high end to inexpensive day-to-day treats. Whatever you prefer, there are foods to excite every kind of eater.

Japanese chef © JNTOJapanese chefs train for decades to perfect the work that they do. And this dedication pays off: Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world, more than Paris and New York combined. Food is so important to Japanese culture that the United Nation’s cultural organization, UNESCO, recently added traditional Japanese cuisine (washoku), to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. It was only the second national cuisine to be given this honor, after France.

Japanese chefs use only seasonal and top-quality ingredients. Simplicity is key, and they do as little as possible to fresh ingredients to bring out the color and flavor. Umami, the rich flavor profile prized in Japanese cooking, is enhanced by using just a few ingredients including miso, soy sauce, mushrooms, seaweed, and bonito (fish) broth. The food is carefully plated and the finished dish often looks like a work of art.

In Japan, seafood is king and sushi lovers should take advantage of some of the freshest fish you will ever eat. But there is a lot more to Japanese food than sushi. Here are a few examples:

  • Yakitori © JNTORichly marbled Wagyu beef, often considered the finest in the world
  • Yakitori, chicken and vegetable skewers grilled over hot coals
  • Tonkatsu, deep-fried pork cutlet rolled in bread crumbs
  • Okonomiyaki, a batter pancake topped with meat, squid, shredded vegetables and garnished with sweet brown sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed and bonito flakes
  • Soba, udon, and ramen noodle soups

Japanese sweets © JNTOIf you have a sweet tooth, you’ll feel right at home in Japan. Each region has different styles of traditional sweets, known as wagashi. These delicate creations are often sold in convenience stores and train stations, and come in beautifully wrapped boxes because they are customarily given as gifts to friends and family. In the Kyoto area, look for yatsuhashi—thin, triangle-shaped sweet rice wrappers filled with red bean paste. Northern Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture is known for soybean production, so you’ll find edamame used in many local sweets, including ice cream and even Kit Kat bars!

Wine lovers will love trying sake, or Japanese rice wine. Sake has been brewed for over 2,000 years and the flavors vary greatly based on where it is made and the natural characteristics of the rice and water. Spirit and beer lovers should try local whiskey and craft beers, both growing in popularity.

Here are some unique food experiences to add to your list:

  • Kaiseki Ryori © JNTOKaiseki Ryori, a refined multicourse meal with a focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients. This is best experienced in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel where the meal is served in your room.
  • Kawadoko ryori, a unique summer dining experience where you enjoy your meal seated on a platform built over a flowing stream.
  • Shojin ryori, the traditional cuisine of Buddhist monks served in a Zen temple.
  • Traditional Japanese tea service, to learn the ceremonial ritual and art of hand-grinding matcha green tea
  • Visiting local markets: Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market is the world’s largest wholesale fish market that sells over 700,000 tons of seafood each year. In Kyoto, check out Nishiki Market, a centuries old gourmet market that lets you sample all the local specialties.
  • Browsing the food stalls in a Japanese department store. The lowest levels are dedicated to specialty foods and offer many unique items, including beautifully packaged sweets and prized varieties of fruits, including melons fetching over $200 each!
  • Mingling with locals after work at the neighborhood izakaya, a casual bar that serves small plates of food.
  • Sampling international cuisine and foods you know from home—Japanese chefs often find ways to put their own unique touch on international classics.
  • The most adventurous eaters can try fugu, a poisonous blowfish. The dish has to be expertly prepared to be safe to eat, but it’s one of Japan’s finest delicacies.

Kaiseki Ryori © JNTODishes vary across the regions of Japan, but wherever you go you are sure to find something unique and delicious. So pack your appetite and a willingness to try something new on one of Friendly Planet’s tours to Japan — you won’t be disappointed!

Cassie Kifer is a freelance travel & food writer from the the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s the founder of Ever In Transit, an adventure & culinary travel blog offering travel tips, stories, and photography from destinations around the world. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest.

Using your Cell Phone Abroad

traveling with your cell phoneSo you’ve booked your dream vacation and plan to get in as much down-time as you can. But you still want to stay connected with your family and friends at home, or just need to be reachable in case of emergency. Do you take your phone? Will it work? How much will it cost? Here are some helpful options and considerations.

Which option you select will depend on where you’re going, how long you’ll be gone, and how much you’ll be using your device. For example, if you just want to be accessible in case of emergency, using your current phone with international roaming is probably easiest. If you want to check in with your loved ones each night or keep up on email, using WiFi at your hotel might be your best bet. If you are a data addict or will be making a lot of local calls, getting a local SIM card or renting a phone locally could be the option for you.

1. Use your existing phone ($$$)

Taking your phone with you and using it as normal will often be your easiest and most expensive option. Your U.S. phone should work in Canada and most parts of Mexico and the Caribbean. But unless you have a ‘global ready’ phone (such as the iPhone 5s or 6 or Samsung Galaxy S 4 or 5), it may not work in other countries. Call your carrier before you go and find out whether your phone will actually work abroad—for both voice calls and other features. Ask about coverage areas, international rates for calls and data, and special roaming plans that you can enable temporarily while traveling. Here are some examples of international rates from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.

You’ll want to do everything possible to reduce your data usage abroad—see our hints below. Outside of major cities, don’t be surprised if your 4G device which is normally speedy at home falls back to much slower 3G or 2G speeds—or has no data coverage at all. You could be paying a premium for frustratingly slow data speeds or voice-only coverage.

2. Get a local SIM card for your phone ($$)

Inserting a SIM cardA SIM card is a small removable microchip that identifies your device to the network and associates your phone number with your phone. Most cell phones contain a SIM card, though some Verizon and Sprint phones do not. Replacing your SIM card with a local one transforms the identity of your phone, giving you a local number and local rates. (It shouldn’t have any effect on your contacts, photos, music, or apps.) It’s like getting a local phone, but with less hassle.

First, ask your carrier if your phone will actually work abroad and is compatible with the networks at your destination. Next, ensure your phone is unlocked—not restricted to a particular network. Most carriers will let you unlock your phone, but usually only after a certain amount of time has passed on your contract and for a small fee. You can also buy phones that are already unlocked with no contract (Amazon: unlocked cell phones).

You can pick up a SIM card before you go (check out Mobal, OneSimCard, CellularAbroad, and Amazon). Or buy a local one upon arrival—they’re often available at the airport, at convenience stores, sometimes even in vending machines! But do a little research before you select one. In particular, be sure to find out the coverage and rates, especially if you intend to use the card for international calls. SIM cards come in different sizes—standard, micro & nano—so make sure you get the right one for your phone, and make sure you know where it is and how to remove it.

This is a great option if you’ll be making a lot of local calls while abroad. The downside is that anybody calling you from home at your U.S. number won’t be able to reach you (unless you set up some fancy forwarding). You’ll need to give them your new (temporary) local number, and international rates will apply.

3. Buy or rent a phone to use abroad ($$)

If your phone won’t work at your destination, and/or will be making a lot of local calls while you’re traveling, consider buying or renting a phone just for your trip, preferably one with no contract and pre-paid credits. You can pick up a phone before you depart from companies like Mobal, OneSimCard, and CellularAbroad, or get one locally once you arrive, which can be even cheaper still. Keep in mind that you may have to learn how to use this new phone, and options for sending text messages, installing apps and using data may be limited. And if you plan to make international calls, make sure you buy enough credits, which can be expensive.

4. Use your phone in WiFi mode ($)

These days, free (or cheap) WiFi Internet is everywhere—at musuems, coffee shops, hotels, airports, airplanes…even on some trains and buses. If your phone can connect to WiFi, then chances are you can disable the cellular network and only use WiFi. You won’t be able to use your phone for much when you’re not in range of a WiFi signal. But whenever you are, you’ll enjoy free unlimited connectivity, and with a couple of apps, you may be able to use your phone as usual—almost.

Skype on Android © SkypeTo make voice and/or video calls using WiFi, you will need a WiFi calling app (sometimes called VoIP). Phones from T-Mobile come with one pre-installed. Otherwise, download one such as Skype or Viber. For text messages, try WhatsApp. iPhone users can use FaceTime and iMessage to connect with other iPhone users (though these tend to need a faster WiFi connection). If you have a Gmail account, you can use built-in chat features to call or text the U.S. free of charge. There are plenty of other options, so try a few before you go.

Note that you can use WiFi with any of the other options described above, to reduce your use of the costly cellular network. But also remember that WiFi can sometimes be slow, unreliable or even nonexistant, especially in developing countries.

We couldn’t mention WiFi calling without a special shout-out to Republic Wireless, a small but promising U.S. carrier. Their phones use WiFi first and (with an appropriate plan) fall back to the Sprint network when WiFi isn’t available. They don’t offer international roaming yet, but with their $5/month, no-contract, WiFi-only plan, you can take your phone abroad and use it like usual, making and receiving calls and text messages just like at home, with no special apps—but only when you’re connected to WiFi. We’ve tried it and it works great.

5. Consider other alternatives

traveling with your cell phoneSmartphones these days can cost a small fortune. Are you sure you want to risk taking yours overseas where it can get broken, lost or stolen?

You might instead consider bringing a small, inexpensive tablet (Amazon: tablets). With a WiFi connection and the appropriate apps, you can make and receive voice and video calls, check email, and browse the web. Accustomed to taking photos with your phone? Consider an inexpensive digital camera, which may take better photos. Dependent on map apps? Think about carrying a standalone GPS device, or getting one with your rental car.

Another interesting option: take a WiFi hotspot with you. SkyRoam offers just such a product: a pocket-sized device which provides a wireless Internet connection for up to 5 devices. For a flat daily rate, you’ll enjoy unlimited data with no overage charges in more than 45 countries (more coming soon). It works through local cellular networks, but you won’t be fussing with any SIM cards. We haven’t tried it yet, but it’s an enticing new option.

Helpful hints

  • Disable data roaming while you’re away to avoid using the cellular network and racking up charges. iPhone users: tap on Settings > General > Network > Data Roaming and toggle to “OFF”. Android users: Tap on Settings > Wireless and network > Mobile networks > Data roaming and uncheck it. Or in most cases, you can simply set your phone to ‘Airplane Mode’ and then manually re-enable WiFi.
  • If you are using data, track your usage. Most phones have this option under ‘Settings.’ Some also have an option to set a data limit and display warnings when you get close.
  • Configure email and other apps so they don’t automatically download data. Otherwise, simply turning on your phone abroad could leave you with huge unexpected bill.
  • Using Google Maps? Cache maps of the places you’ll be going so you use less data when out and about. You can do this for many geo-location reliant apps.
  • Print out the international dialing codes you’ll need for local calls and/or dialing home. Bring a list of your important contact numbers too, written out with the international dialing format.
  • Make sure you know the emergency numbers in the countries you’re visiting. (Note that these may not be accessible from WiFi calling apps.)
  • Use hotel phones to call other rooms—and to make local calls, if there’s no charge. And most hotels don’t charge for incoming calls, in case somebody needs to reach you.
  • Consider suspending your cell phone account at home, if you won’t be using it and your contract allows it. Most providers charge a small fee for this, but it’s generally less than your normal monthly rate.
  • Note that outside the U.S., the terms “mobile phone” and “SMS” are often used instead of “cell phone” and “text message”.

Charging your device

But wait: how will you charge your phone or tablet abroad?

If your device can charge from a USB port, you might get away with bringing just a USB cable. Some airplanes have USB charging ports at your seat, and many hotels have charging ports at your desk or in a bedside lamp.

Input: 100-240 volts, iPhone charging blockBut it’s a safer bet to bring your own charger. And the good news is that virtually all modern chargers and USB power blocks will accept 100–240 volt power, so they’ll work just about anywhere without a voltage converter—but check the fine print on your charger to be sure. The problem is that the plug probably won’t fit, so you’ll need a simple plug adapter for your existing charger (Amazon: travel plug adapters). Or just get an inexpensive travel charger (Amazon: international travel chargers) appropriate for the countries you’re visiting. To protect your devices, you also might consider a small surge protector.

charging your cell phone at the airportBut finding a place to charge your phone might not always be easy—especially at the airport! Spend a few bucks on an external charger/battery pack and you’ll enjoy 2-6x your regular charge (Amazon: cell phone external batteries). Or if you can access the battery in your phone, considering purchasing an inexpensive second battery that you can swap in as necessary (Amazon: cell phone internal batteries).

Happy traveling!

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.

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