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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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Part seven of our first-hand look at the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

When I left you last, I was about to go to the most famous (and some say the most beautiful) Greek Isle: Santorini. To pick up where I left off …

The Aquamarine set a course northward from Heraklion, Crete toward our next destination. And just a few hours later the ship was in the caldera (like cauldron). It’s the large, central lagoon from which Santorini’s 900-foot cliffs rise. The land mass is what remains of a volcanic eruption. Its crescent moon shape wraps around a large basin where the island literally collapsed in on itself.

It’s a stunning view from the caldera, looking up at the white-washed towns built into the cliffside. This is where our group had a decision to make. How would we get to the top? There were three options.

1. Take a bus to Oia (pronounced ee-a), the town with white buildings and blue domes where many well-known photographs of Santorini are taken.

2. Walk up a steep, winding path to Thira.

3. Ride a donkey up the cliff.

Obviously, I went with option three. It was a crazy experience that I won’t attempt to describe. Watch the video instead!

After saying goodbye to our donkeys, we spent some time exploring Thira, which is packed with little shops and was bustling with tourists. As it got later in the day, we looked for a place where we’d have a perfect view of the famous Santorini sunset.

The spot we chose was the deck of a cliffside cafe. We ordered our five thousandth Greek salad, a few cappuccinos, and the photo shoot began. It really was the most incredible sunset I’ve ever seen. Here are some of the shots I took.

When it was all over, we rode a gondola down the cliff to the water …

… and embarqued on the Aquamarine one last time. In the morning, we’d be back in Athens for the remaining days of our trip.

A Michigan family’s adventure on Friendly Planet Travel’s Athens and 4-Day Greek Isles Cruise

Taking your whole family to the Mediterranean can be an adventure of a lifetime, and it sounds like it was for Sarah Hirsch from West Bloomfield, Mich. She went on Friendly Planet Travel’s Athens and 4-Day Greek Isles Cruise with her husband, Kevin, and son and daughter, Jacob and Elena.

The Hirsch family recently returned from their tour of Greece and sent me an e-mail recapping their trip. I thought I would share with you all the kind things Sarah had to say and her beautiful photos. Thanks Sarah!


Our family at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece

It may be a small world after all, but it sure seems big when trying to narrow down vacation options. Luckily, Friendly Planet Travel makes planning a vacation easy with a variety of specific itineraries of the best destinations around the world.

I had always wanted to go to Greece and see the beautiful islands, and visit amazing historical sites like the Acropolis, Agora, Plaka, and Panathenaic Stadium.

The Athens and 4-day Greek Islands Cruise itinerary offered by Friendly Planet provided me the opportunity to do all of this and more. With help and guidance from our Friendly Planet Travel agent, Becca, it was easy to prepare for a once in a lifetime family vacation.

Our journey began with an overnight flight to Europe, and our layover in Germany gave us a morning to explore the lovely Frankfurt. We arrived in Athens in the late afternoon, and were met by a Friendly Planet representative who brought us to our hotel.

Our family on the Greek Isles

It was so nice to eliminate the stress of handling ground transportation as that was all taken care of, since it is included on every vacation booked through Friendly Planet.

Our evening consisted of an informational meeting with Yanni, our Friendly Planet point person in Greece, who gave us all of the information we would need for our cruise and oriented us for the week.

We chose to have dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, which featured a view of the Acropolis all lit up for the night like a beacon welcoming visitors to Athens.

The next morning we were taken by bus to the port, where we embarked on our cruise. The ship brought us to the ports of Mykonos, Kusadasi (Turkey), Patmos, Rhodes, Crete and Santorini in the span of four days and four nights.

We were at each destination only briefly, just long enough to taste each island’s unique flavor. These ports of call are so fantastic that even to simply walk around town and spend a few moments dipping our feet into the Aegean Sea equalled an incredible experience.

Elena and I in Ephessus, Turkey

Friendly Planet offers optional excursions for an additional fee in each of the ports. We mostly chose to explore on our own, though we did take an organized tour that we booked through Yanni to the ancient ruins in Ephessus in Turkey, which gave us a look back to the way of life experienced thousands of years ago.

Our final stop was Santorini, which is so unique a place on Earth that it kind of blows your mind a little!

After the cruise, we had two more nights in Athens. Our hotel was located just a couple of minutes walking distance to most of the best sites to see in Athens. Because we chose to go during the middle of summer, the temperature hovered around 100 degrees, so we broke up our days by spending the siesta hours at the hotel pool to keep us cool.

Kevin, Jacob, and Elena in front of Greece’s famous windmills

We began our days with the complimentary breakfasts at the hotel, and spent our mornings and evenings seeing Athens’ great sites.

From the Parthenon and Acropolis, to Syntagma Square, where we used the free wifi to check in back home. The Parliament building where we caught the changing of the guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier, the Ancient Agora, the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, the Panathenaic Stadium, home of the first modern Olympics, the new Acropolis museum, the National Gardens, and the Plaka, the main streets of Athens, where we found many great shops and restaurants to enjoy.

We left early on our final morning, with a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call, but as tired as we were, Yanni was there with a friendly smile to help us arrive in the right place at the airport.

Overall our voyage was indeed incredible. It was everything that I had always imagined my desired trip to Greece would be, without any of the stress that can come along with trying to manage all the details of traveling abroad. I will always be grateful to Friendly Planet Travel for providing my family with this wonderful experience. Thank you!

Oh my Greek god! An Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise for $1,249

The whitewashed houses that cling to the cliffs in the Greek Isles

Friendly Planet blogger Lucy has been giving you a first-hand look into our Athens and three-day Greek Isles Cruise she embarked on in March. What sparked her interest in the tour was the incredible discount we were offering in July 2009.

Take a look at your calendar. It’s almost July and we decided to bring the discount back for 2010. You can book the Athens and three-day Greek Isles cruise for $1,249 until July 30. It’s an epic eight-day journey through Greece. If you read Lucy’s posts, you’ll find out how we fit so much of Greece into just over a week.

The tour first takes you on a voyage through the Mediterranean Sea aboard the Aquamarine or Calypso, docking at the islands of Mykonos, Patmos, Crete, Santorini, and Kusadasi, Turkey. Then you return to land to explore Athens, the birthplace of western civilization.

A sea-side cafe in Mykonos

Pairing a journey to Athens with a cruise around the Greek Islands gives you the best of both land and sea. Your ship is your floating hotel, delivering you to islands full of history, myth, and vibrant towns.

But if you’ve taken a few cruises before, you’re probably accustomed to large, luxurious ships appointed with every possible amenity. Cruising the Greek Isles is different. Ships (including those of Louis Cruise Lines) are generally smaller and more agile, better suited for navigating the shallow waters and small ports of the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas.

These mid-sized ships are practical, comfortable, and equipped with all necessary modern conveniences. So as Lucy mentions, don’t over pack. A basic cabin has all the amenities, but it’s not overly spacious. Think of these ships as good three-star hotels, offering convenient and comfortable transport through the Greek Isles — which are the true reason for your cruise.

But there’s more to our Greek tour than the cruise ship. You’ll spend most of your days exploring the different islands. The first stop is the island of Mykonos. Here you walk its winding alleyways and whitewashed buildings, and relax by sipping ouzo in a café overlooking the Aegean Sea.

The next day you find yourself in Kusadasi, Turkey. Its close proximately to Mykonos makes it an easy detour to experience one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World: the Temple of Artemis.

Later in the afternoon, you head back to Greece to the island of Patmos, where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation. Then it’s on to Heraklion on Crete. It’s home to the ruins of Knossos, the palace with an intricate collection of over 1,000 interlocking rooms.

And we saved the most celebrated of the islands for last, Santorini. There you can catch the spectacular views of the sunken caldera and still-active volcano off the coast before you head back to Athens.

The Acropolis of Athens

Your remaining days are spent in Greece’s capital where you drop your bags in the Divani Palace Acropolis hotel. It is located in the heart of Athens, under the shadow of the sacred rock of the Acropolis where ancient Greek civilization meets modern life.

Step outside and you’re in the Plaka. It’s the historical district of Athens, known for its narrow streets, contrasting old buildings, boutiques, outdoor markets, and more. Traditional Greek music is heard from the taverns lining the streets. Walk inside and you’ll likely find locals and tourists singing, dancing on the tables, and partaking in the celebratory throwing of plates.

There is more information on Athens and the islands in Lucy’s posts, as well as our podcast with Judy Poliva, Friendly Planet’s resident expert on Greece. They’ll both teach you how to say some common phrases in Greek and give you tips on what can’t be missed when sightseeing.

We pack a lot into the tour, and the price as well. Included in the $1,249 price tag are round-trip flights from New York (other gateways available at low fares); three nights in superior hotel accommodations in Athens; three nights aboard the Louis Cruises’ Aquamarine or Calypso; daily buffet breakfast in Athens and all meals aboard the cruise; all group transfers; professional, English-speaking tour guides; and more.

There are only two departure dates available at this low price, so book the Athens and three-day Greek Isles Cruise for $1,249 by July 30 before it sells out. And if a three-day cruise isn’t long enough, why not consider Friendly Planet’s Athens and four-day Greek Isles Cruise, which includes a stop at the island of Rhodes.

After both programs you can take advantage of the already included airfare and enjoy a four-day Classical Greece extension. You’ll see more ancient cities, including Corinth, Mycenae, Olympia, and Delphi for $699. Plus you get breakfast and dinner daily, great hotels, and all touring.

We have a lot of Greek tours to choose from, so if you need any help deciding, write to me or give Friendly Planet’s reservations teams a call at 1-800-555-5765. We’ll get the right tour picked out for you.

Why the Greek Islands are a hop, skip, and a jump away

Island hopping over the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Lounging on the white-sand beaches. Staying in cliff-side hotels with idyllic views, and sipping ouzo while the sun sets. How amazing does that sound? It’s something I would love to do, but for now I’m going to live vicariously through Judy Poliva who has done it all.

Cyclades Greek Island Hopper itineraryJudy is a Product Development Manager for Friendly Planet and is our resident expert on the Greek Islands. So naturally, I turned to her to help develop our two new Greek Island Hopper tours: the Aegean Greek Island Hopper with Athens, Paros, Mykonos, and Santorini and the Cyclades Greek Island Hopper with Athens, Mykonos, Santorini, and Crete. Unlike our cruises, you hop from island to island on a ferry.

Judy knows the ins and outs of all the islands. She handpicked the itineraries for both of these tours. But what’s more important is that she found beautiful four- and five-star hotels that really show off the individual character and majesty of every Greek Island in both tours.

Aegean Greek Island Hopper itineraryI couldn’t capture her love of the islands in a single blog post if I tried, so I’m not going to ;-) . I’ll let Judy do the talking. One of our bloggers, Melissa, chatted with her yesterday about the Greek Islands and I will be sharing their interview with you shortly on the blog.

But let me tell you about these two amazing packages we put together first. On both tours, travelers fly to Athens, Greece and spend a day exploring the city that is known as the birthplace of western civilization.

On the Aegean Greek Island Hopper, travelers set off to Paros first. It’s not as widely known to tourists as the other islands, but is famous for its glowing, white marble that was used by Praxiteles in sculptures such as the Venus de Milo. Travelers spend three nights at the gorgeous Paros Agnanti Hotel, a wonderful base for exploration of the island.

Then it’s on to Mykonos and Santorini, which Judy considers MUSTS for travelers to experience on both tours. In Mykonos, spend three nights at the five-star Myconian Ambassador Hotel and Thalasso Spa Center. It’s on the beach, but close enough to the town so that you can wander the labyrinth of winding alleyways and whitewashed buildings.

Hop over to Santorini, probably the most celebrated of all the Greek Islands. Settle in at the lovely Belvedere Hotel where you can catch the spectacular views of the sunken caldera and still-active volcano off the coast. Then, enjoy the fabulous shopping, relaxing atmosphere, gorgeous views, and so much more.

On the Cyclades Greek Island Hopper, like the Aegean tour, you’ll visit both Mykonos and Santorini. But your final stop on this tour is the island of Crete. It’s the largest of the Greek Islands and home to the ruins of Knossos, the palace with an intricate collection of over 1,000 interlocking rooms.

The ruins have been extensively excavated and much of them colorfully painted and restored. After a day of touring ruins and open-air markets, rest up at the Aquila Atlantis Hotel in Heraklion. Lastly, on both the Cyclades and Aegean tours, you head back to Athens for your final day in Greece.

I’ve told you where you’ll go and what you’ll see, so here’s what’s included in the price: round-trip flights from New York (other gateways available upon request and low through fares), 11 nights in superior hotels on the islands and in Athens, daily buffet breakfast, all transfers and ferries between the islands, a flight from Crete to Athens on the Cyclades tour, and more.

With departure dates for both tours starting in September and going through late October, they are sure to sell out quickly. It’s the prime time to visit Greece without the large crowds that August draws. So book the 13-day Aegean Greek Island Hopper for $2,399 or the 13-day Cyclades Greek Island Hopper for $2,599 by July 30.

There’s a lot more information and some personal insights from Judy in the podcast I’ll post a little later on, so listen to that as well. If you have any questions, visit our website for more details and the full itinerary for both tours. And as always, feel free to write to me or call 1-800-555-5765 and speak to our reservations team, who are waiting to help you with any questions or requests.

Part two of our first-hand look at Friendly Planet’s Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

View of the Athens Parliament from Syntagma Square

Picking up from where I left off, recounting my experience on the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise …

Soon after collecting our bags at Athens International Airport, the Friendly Planet group was met by our tour guide, Heather. First a word about our multilingual travel lifeline.

Heather had come to the country about three years earlier for a job as a guide with another company. She moved to Athens not speaking a word of Greek, but had a month before starting her job to acclimate herself to the city and begin learning the language.

Two days after her arrival she got a phone call from her soon-to-be boss. “Think you could start tomorrow?” She agreed. And after just a week on a tour bus with a driver who didn’t speak a word of English, she was conversational in Greek.

Not surprising, our first conversation with Heather was a vocabulary lesson. On the ride into the city we learned kalimera (pronounced ka-lee-MEra, meaning good morning), yasass (pronounced YA-sass, the polite way to say hello to someone you don’t know), and efharisto (pronounced ef-ka-ree-STO, meaning thank you).

During that drive, Heather also told us an important thing to know about the streets of Athens: Traffic is heavy and the “rules” of the road are seen as more of a suggestion. For the most part, they’re ignored. She strongly suggested that we look both ways (a few times) before crossing the street. :)

Athens’ heavy traffic can be attributed to its dense population. The city lies in a valley, with Mount Aegaleo to the west, Mount Parnitha to the north, Mount Penteli to the northeast, and Mount Hymettus to the east. Over 3 million people live in the Athens urban area, which is about seven times the square mileage of Manhattan.

But unlike the Big Apple, a building height restriction put in place to protect views of the Parthenon means there are no buildings over 12-stories high (except for a handful of exceptions). That means the city is packed with residential and commercial buildings, and Greeks traveling from the outskirts of town to the city center.

Life in the Plaka

After driving from the airport into the heart of downtown Athens, we arrived at our centrally located hotel, the Titania. The afternoon was spent exploring our surroundings. We were walking distance from some of the most beautiful neo-classical style buildings in the city, including Parliament and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where we watched the changing of the guard; the Academy of Athens; and the Vallianios National Library.

Having wandered through Syntagma Square (or Constitution Square), we found ourselves in Plaka, the historical neighborhood of Greece that wraps around the base of the Acropolis. The tangled web of narrow streets here are lined with beautiful old homes, street vendors, shops, and cafes.

It was just a few quick hours wandering the Athens streets (we’d be back in a few days) before we headed back to the Titania to resist a nap, meet with our tour group to discuss cruise embarquement procedure, and finalize the list of shore excursions we would take at each of the islands we would visit.

Dinner that night was at the hotel restaurant. Sure we were thousands of miles from home, but we managed to find ourselves at a place called The Olive Garden. Not the chain you find in the U.S. No endless soup, salad, and breadsticks here. Just incredible views of the Acropolis. :) We went easy on the wine, because it was a 6 a.m. wake-up call the next morning when we’d head to Piraeus, the port of the Athens where our cruise ship, the Aquamarine, was anchored.

But more on that in my next post. Plus: Lifeboat dry runs, sunset picture #1 of 3,000, and how to confuse a pirate.

A first-hand look inside Friendly Planet’s Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

When in Greece, eat Greek salad.

As a Friendly Planet blogger, I get sneak peeks of incredible deal announcements. There was one in particular that grabbed my attention back in July 2009. It was a discount on the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise.

As a young professional on a budget, the first thing that caught my eye was the price: $1,199 for an eight-day adventure on the Aegean? Flights, hotels, and cruise included? I was sold. Two days later the trip was booked. And by the end of the week, I’d recruited four more friends to join me!

After months of anticipation, we departed from JFK International on March 24, and landed in Athens 12 hours later. It was an incredible trip packed with some unforgettable experiences.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share my stories, photos, and videos from the cities of Athens and Kusadasi, on the islands of Mykonos, Patmos, Crete, and Santorini, and on the decks of the Aquamarine. It was all part of the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise. Check back for my first post, Arriving in Athens and boarding the Aquamarine.

Friendly Planet Travel in the news

Instead of ringing a bell here every time Friendly Planet Travel makes headlines, I thought it would be easier to provide a wrap up post every week or so that highlights some of the recent press coverage we’ve gotten. Way to go, FPT team!

Thumbnail image for New Picture (1).jpgAugust 20

USAToday.com: Athens & Greek Isles Cruise package

MSNBC.com: Athens & Greek Isles Cruise package

Diva in a Carry On: Friendly Planet Travel and Kiva partnership

August 24

MSNBC.com: Morocco package

Budget Travel Real Deals: Morocco package

August 25

Treehugger.com: Morocco package

August 26

Topix.com: Morocco package

Friendly Planet Travel’s eight-day Athens and Greek cruise hits USA Today

USA Today’s expert travel advice column, ShermansTravel, featured our eight-day Athens and Greek Isle cruise for $999 in its Editor’s Travel Deal Review.

Yes, I DID say eight days in Athens and Greek Isles cruise for $999. Have a look at the article and our original blog post for the full scoop.

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The wondrous Greek Isles: Mykonos, Rhodes, and Patmos

On the third day of our Athens and Greek Isles cruise, vacationers head to Piraeus, a large coastal city just 10 km from the center of Athens, where they’ll board the M/V Aquamarine. Travelers can pass their time enjoying the sun, warm sea breezes, pool, and shipboard facilities while they sail to Mykonos.
The island of Mykonos is famed for its cosmopolitan character and energetic nightlife (some say it’s the best in Europe), as much as it is for its labyrinth of winding alleyways and whitewashed buildings, basket-laden donkeys, and cascading geraniums. Chic crowds flock to the island’s trendy restaurants, discos, and clubs each night, and vacationers sit seaside, sipping ouzo and watching the sunset while listening to traditional Greek music.
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The next day takes travelers to Rhodes, the stunning “Island of Roses.” Historically, Rhodes was famous throughout the world for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
In the heart of the island’s biggest city, also named Rhodes, is the largest inhabited medieval town in Europe, a fascinating web of Byzantine, Turkish, and Latin ruins. There’s no wonder why it’s been declared one of the few World Heritage Sites. Its mighty fortifications provide the finest surviving examples of defensive architecture of the time.
Lindos, with its dazzlingly white houses clustered beneath a soaring castle-capped acropolis, is Rhodes’ most picturesque village and most important Doric settlement because of its natural harbor and vantage point built 125 meters above sea level. Here, travelers can explore on their own, or take advantage of Friendly Planet Travel’s optional shore excursions.
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The following morning, the M/V Aquamarine docks in Kusadasi, Turkey. Just 10 km from the port of Kusadasi lies the ancient city of Ephessos, where travelers will find an archaeological site that ranks among the wonders of the world. The day’s optional tours include the the Great Theatre of Ephessos, which had a capacity of 25,000 people, and the Library of Celsus, dating from 135 A.D.
Vacationers will then sail to Patmos, Greece. The Aquamarine docks at Skala harbor, a lively atmosphere with whitewashed houses, flowered courtyards, tavernas, and shops. The Island of Patmos is famous in history as the place where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation. An optional tour takes you to the cave where St. John lived and the nearby Monastery, built on one of the island’s highest points, housing priceless icons and manuscripts in its Treasury.
From there, it’s back to Athens for a final few days in the Paris of the Mediterranean.

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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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