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A look inside Friendly Planet Travel’s Iberian Coasts Cruise (part 4)

Lying on the eastern coast of Spain, Alicante is steeped in history, rich in culture, awash with every kind of shop, and bursting with European beach life. The city of 320,000 residents enjoys a privileged year-round climate with an average temperature of 66.2 degrees and 2,500 sunny hours each year. For a sun-dog like me, that’s all I needed to hear.

As the Louis Majesty pulled into port at Alicante, I was looking forward to some slightly warmer weather in the palm-lined coastal town. Unfortunately for us, in February “slightly warmer” meant rain. But that wasn’t going to stop us from enjoying our morning in port.

STEEPED IN HISTORY: Alicante, Spain

As we stepped off the shuttle that took us from port to the city’s bustling downtown, it wasn’t hard to imagine why Alicante has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Spain, even in a drizzle. The marina area is one of the most prosperous areas of the city, an open space facing the sea replete with bars, restaurants, and outdoor squares.

Our first glimpse of the city from the boat revealed an ancient castle towering above the city center, which, when we arrived in town, was our first destination.

ON THE MOUNT: Castle Santa Barbara

The Castle Santa Barbara sits 166 meters above sea level on Mount Benacantil. Positioned for its enormous strategic value, it’s possible to see the entire Bay of Alicante and surrounding stretch of land from the mountain’s summit.

On the hillside leading up to the castle, different archaeological remains have been found dating back to the Bronze Age, as well as from the Roman and Iberian civilizations. The origins of the actual fortress however, date from the late 9th Century, when the Moors ruled Spain.

My husband and I took an elevator to the top of the castle to spend some time exploring the grounds on our own. Tracing my fingers along the castle walls, it was incredible to imagine how astonishing the Castle Santa Barbara must have seemed as it emerged from the hilltop over 12 centuries ago.

A VIEW FROM THE TOP: Bay of Alicante

After spending a few hours walking through the castle’s three precincts, we spent the rest of the morning ambling through Alicante’s streets, popping in to quiet churches along the way.

The sea was a beautiful turquoise green, which seemed to bleed into the tropical feel of the city itself. The streets were busy for a Monday morning, but the people seemed to have a bit more of a somber feel to them than those in Barcelona.

This could have been due to the rain on a city that wasn’t quite used to breaking out umbrellas, or the fact that Sundays are simply happier days than Mondays, no matter which country you live in. Or perhaps, everyone was simply biding their time until summer weather, when the true splendor of the city would truly emerge.

A look inside Friendly Planet Travel’s Iberian Coasts Cruise (part 3)

A light snow fell upon the city in the early morning light as the Louis Majesty pulled into port at Barcelona on Feb. 14. Watching the snow fall as I sipped my tea in the Royal Observatory, I regretted my decision to leave my warm winter boots at home. But by the time my day’s tour stepped off of our bus later that morning into Barcelona’s Park Guell, I’d forgotten all about the chill in the air (well, almost).

MASTERPIECE: Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia

Part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, “Works of Antoni Gaudi,” the park is an incredible peek at the world of Catalan architect Gaudi. Here, his imaginative sculptures and visions for a divine community come to life.

Originally designed to be a housing development and worked on from 1900-1914, Gaudi proved to be too far ahead of his time (and somewhat mad) for current Barcelona standards, and the community failed. But today, the park is a step back in time and into the mind of an incredible artist and visionary architect. Rife with mystic symbolism and incredible mosaics, Park Guell is not only an awe-inspiring display of architecture, but it is a sanctuary from a busy city.

On a sunny day, it would be easy to lose yourself for hours among the tilting pillars and swirling mosaic sculptures. A sucker for color and avant-garde uses of outdoor spaces, I was absolutely mesmerized.

From Park Guell, our tour bus took us to Gaudi’s masterpiece, la Sagrada Familia. It’s not often in my life that I have been overwhelmed by the works of man, but this church took my breath away.

Besides the sheer enormity, the intricacy of the stonework was absolutely incredible. As we circled the outside of the church, our guide flexed his Gaudi knowledge as he pointed out detail after detail and entire Biblical stories unfolded before our eyes. I felt like I could have stared at a single turret all afternoon, and new elements would still slowly reveal themselves.

As the day wore on, we visited Barcelona’s historical district, which was actually my favorite part of the day. There is little else I enjoyed more while in Europe than winding my way down narrow city streets and taking in all the unique sites, sounds, and smells.

NOTHING BETTER: In Barcelona together

When we parted ways with our guide — whose passion for Barcelona shone through his incredible tour — my husband and I stopped for some tapas y cervezas in a sunny piazza with some fellow travelers.

There is perhaps no better way to understand a city than to enjoy a little food and drink in a crowded spot. The food was warm and delicious and the beers were crisp and refreshing. Is there anything better than that?

I did a little shopping on La Rambla on our way back to the boat, where, as one of our travel companions warned us, “they’ll steal your underwear without ever touching your pants,” so don’t be afraid to haggle! A beautiful urban space in a bustling city, it was easy to imagine the splendor of La Rambla in the spring and summer when the trees are in bloom.

When my husband and I finally arrived back on ship, the Louis Majesty housekeeping crew (constantly sticklers for detail) had decorated our cabin for our first Valentine’s Day as a married couple. And after a day like that, I don’t know how we’ll ever beat it.

A look inside Friendly Planet Travel’s Iberian Coasts Cruise (part 2)

I’m sure by now most travelers interested in cruising have seen ads for American cruises such as Royal Caribbean’s Oasis Of The Seas. Have you ever noticed that not one of these ads tells consumers where exactly the boat takes cruisers? Rather, the entire appeal of the cruise is the cruise itself. The destination is the boat.

While this is wonderful for those who want to plan a vacation floating around the middle of the ocean on a boat that more closely resembles a thriving metropolis, that’s not what Friendly Planet Travel had in mind when they began planning the Iberian Coasts Cruise (or any of its cruises, for that matter). Why would they, when there’s Italy, France, Spain, and Morocco to see?

WELCOME: Louis Majesty reception area

During my time aboard the M/V Louis Majesty, I learned that they do it a little bit differently in Europe. When I first stepped foot on the Louis Majesty, I was struck by the vessel’s understated elegance. Less of a traveling circus, and more of a traveling hotel, with all the luxuries you’ve come to expect from Friendly Planet Travel.

The style on board is redolent of the art deco made so popular in the 1920s, which helps you feel that when you step on board, you’re about to embark on an adventure that transcends both time and place.

Many of the sights, sounds, and smells of Europe and Northern Africa are much the same today as they were hundreds of years ago. And life on the ship, with elegant common areas and impeccable service from a staff who truly appear to love their jobs — from the officers to the wait staff — is a small step back in time.

The outside cabin, while not overly large, offers all the comforts of home, including — and as a relatively seasoned world traveler, this was quite a pleasant surprise — power outlets for both European- and American-style plugs.

Imagine tucking into bed after a night at sea, including decadent dinner at the Four Seasons Dining Room, a stroll around the ship’s upper decks, and a quick dance at the Louis Majesty disco.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Louis Majesty outside junior suite

Now imagine waking, the room still dark with a hint of sunshine leaking in from the curtains behind your bed. You pull back the curtains to let the sun pour in and before you lies Marseille, France. The homes, stores, and restaurants all different shades of muted pastel. In the distance, you can see the Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde overlooking the city, with the island of Chateau D’If not far off the coast.

This isn’t hard to imagine on the Iberian Coasts Cruise, because this is your view on your first morning aboard the Louis Majesty. With an entire day at port before me, I didn’t waste any time to get into town.

BEST VIEW: Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde

While Friendly Planet Travel offers a number of optional shore excursions at each port, I set out this morning alone with my husband, who was able to accompany me on this incredible journey. We spent hours walking up and down the cobblestone streets with a map in our hands. The February weather was chilly, but nothing to keep you from spending an entire day taking advantage of all there is to see in Marseille.

We walked up to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde, which offers a breathtaking view of the entire city and port.

From there, we walked on, snapping pictures and ducking into cathedrals. Marseille is a fascinating combination of ancient buildings and traditional French architecture mixed with a subtle new world cosmopolitan flare.

Of course, we had to stop for a fresh baguette and some cappuccino too. Then on we walked. And when we felt like we had taken enough pictures and walked down enough narrow, winding streets, we popped into a small bar overlooking the harbor and enjoyed a cold beer and some olives while we watched the busy city.

EXPLORING ON SHORE: Strolling the streets of Marseille, France

When the day had finally come to a close, our cabin was a welcoming sight after an entire day spent exploring on shore. Marseille was truly an unforgettable city, and tomorrow … Barcelona!

A look inside Friendly Planet Travel’s Iberian Coasts Cruise

I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn that here at Friendly Planet Travel, we can’t ever over-emphasize the importance of world travel and cultural discovery. That’s why Peggy makes a point of encouraging everyone in the office to get out and explore Earth’s riches whenever possible.

ALL ABOARD: The M/V Louis Majesty

The benefit, besides being surrounded by travel enthusiasts, is that every Friendly Planet Travel employee can talk your ear off about how a trek to Machu Picchu or a cruise down the Yangtze River or a meal of tapas y cervezas in a Spanish piazza changed their life. That’s one of the reasons Peggy sent me off on Friendly Planet’s Iberian Coasts Cruise the other week. And over the next few weeks, I’m going to tell you ALL about it.

The nine-day cruise aboard the M/V Louis Majesty embarks from Genoa, Italy and spends time at fascinating ports of call in Marseille, France; Barcelona, Spain; Alicante, Spain; Gibraltar, B.C.C.; Tangier, Morocco; Casablanca, Morocco; and Malaga, Spain. As you can imagine, it’s a dizzying adventure to some of the most culturally significant and extraordinarily beautiful sights of Europe and Northern Africa.

Here on the blog, I’m going to tell you about my own experience on the Iberian Coasts Cruise, and give you an in-depth look at life on and off the Louis Majesty. So stay tuned, because I’ve got a head teeming with stories, a camera brimming with photos, and fingers that are itching to unload them all here!

“The Best Travel Tips Ever,” according to Students in Europe

GRADE ‘A’ ADVICE: I share my traveling tips to Europe

Being a college student and getting the chance to study abroad for a semester is one of the best experiences a person could ask for. But, even if you’re just visiting Europe for fun, I can offer you some valuable tips to make the most of your time.

Students in Europe, a resource for studying abroad and students traveling to Europe, just published a Q&A I did with one of its writers, Krista Stryker. We covered everything a traveler would want to know, from the best cities to visit, to living like a local without emptying your bank account. Krista dubbed her post, “The Best Travel Tips Ever.”

Thanks for your questions Krista! I had a great time telling you all about Europe. Read part one and part two of our discussion, and learn more of my money-saving tricks while abroad.

What’s to come at Friendly Planet in 2010

I always enjoy this time of the year. It’s relaxing to get a few days off from work and spend the holidays with friends and family. As the year comes to a close, you reflect on how much you’ve accomplished, and think about what you want to achieve in the next year. 
 
I know what I’m looking forward to in 2010. We’re going to be introducing several new and exciting tours and community projects at Friendly Planet Travel. I want to share with you all a sneak peek of what’s going to happen.  
 
New Web site. One significant change will be our upgraded Web site. By the end of January, expect to see a faster, more responsive site. It’ll be filled with new tools for individual travelers, as well as a new search engine that will make it even easier to search for deeply discounted air and hotel packages to many foreign destinations including London, Rome, Paris, even the Caribbean. 
 
New booking engine. Along with a new Web site comes a new booking engine. It will let travelers book reservations completely online. It will be even more convenient for travelers to make deposits and final payments online, safely and securely with their own username and password. Travelers can also view their tour information, reservations, documents, invoices, destination guides, and other important details anytime. 
 
New travelers’ community. Another important feature of the new Web site is the new community, where we will host forums for our visitors, have places to post pictures and travel blogs, and provide various ways to interact with us. The forums will be important in getting feedback from our travelers, and allow people who are traveling solo to find roommates easily through our site.
 
New micro-lending project in India. As you’ve heard me talk about before, we’re working on projects with Kiva and the Trailblazer Foundation, and now we’re looking into launching a new micro-lending project in India. It will fund the purchase of rickshaws for drivers who are presently forced to rent them by the day, giving up a good part of their daily earnings, rather than keeping them to support their families.
 
Since these drivers have no access to credit to fund the loans for the rickshaw purchase, they are forced into this rental situation. If we’re able to create a fund that allows the drivers to pay back the loan to us, and end up with the rickshaw in the end, the drivers will soon be able to keep the day’s wages for themselves. 
 
New ways to give back to needy students. We’re also organizing a collection of school supplies for every Friendly Planet travel destination where they are needed, but not available. This is the case in most of Africa, Asia, and certainly in India. Notebooks and pencils that are given to children directly are usually confiscated by needy families who then turn around and sell it for food. 
 
Our project will distribute the supplies to trusted teachers, who will store and distribute them as needed to students. The school supplies project is being organized by local guides in each place where the supplies are needed, and will be implemented early in the new year.
 

Thumbnail image for New Picture (3).jpgNew destinations. Finally, we’ll be adding new destinations to the Friendly Planet globe. Tours are being planned to Madagascar, Burma (Myanmar), Bali, and Indonesia, plus a number of river cruises in Europe and Asia. In addition, several new ocean cruises will be available starting in the spring of 2010, via Louis Cruises and Costa Cruises, two familiar Friendly Planet favorites. 

 
These are just a few of the new things arriving in 2010. There is plenty more in the works for throughout the year, but this gives you a taste of what’s to come!

Enchanting Germany and Oberammergau Passion Play

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When you hear of Germany what do you think? Fairy-tale castles, medieval churches, stunning natural landscapes, friendly locals, and beer, beer, BEER! Well, now you can add "value" to that list because we’ve designed a tour that blends together 10 days of Germany’s unique cosmopolitan flair and rustic charm for only $3,599.

The first part of our Enchanting Germany tour takes travelers through some of Germany’s most historic and picturesque towns and villages, including Mainz, Marburg, and Eisenach, as well as many others along the way.

The tour begins in Munich and circles the country, finally ending 10 days later in Oberammergau, where travelers can take in the much-sought-after Oberammergau Passion Play. Vacationers will find the German countryside and cities brimming with rich history and culture, and the larger-than-life steins brimming with fresh beer at many of Germany’s famed beer gardens.

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Have a look at our Web site for Enchanting Germany’s full itinerary, and don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions. You can also book online. Flights, transfers, great hotels, many meals, a comprehensive sightseeing tour program, and tickets to the Passion Play are all included.

Imperial Cities of Central Europe and Oberammergau Passion Play

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In addition to our popular Austrian Adventure tour, we also offer tickets to see the Oberammergau Passion Play through our Imperial Cities of Central Europe tour, one of the most comprehensive tours of Central Europe that we have ever offered. For only $4,199, travelers will get a taste of the spellbinding experiences offered in some of the most mesmerizing cities in Europe on this 12-day journey.

This exciting two-part tour takes globe-trotters to four of the most beautiful and historic Central European cities: MunichSalzburg, Vienna, Prague, and Budapest. Vacationers will explore this complex, multicultural arena of historic, artistic, scientific, industrial, and commercial importance dating back to the Roman Empire.

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The tour then culminates with a visit to the village of Oberammergau, where you’ll have the opportunity to view the famed Passion Play.

As you can imagine, the itinerary is extensive, but you can check it out in full detail on our Web site. There are two tour dates available in 2010: May 17 to May 28, and Sept. 9 to Sept. 20.

As always, flights, transfers, great hotels, many meals, and a comprehensive sightseeing tour program are all included in this amazing deal, as well as tickets to the Passion Play. But, hurry to reserve your space. This tour sells out in the blink of an eye!

Customer testimonial from a certified globetrotter

I’m sure by now you’re all aware of how much I enjoy getting feedback from our customers, and how important that feedback is in making Friendly Planet Travel the best company we can in terms of service, value, and overall experiences for our customers.

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All feeback is important, but it’s especially gratifying when an experienced traveler gives us the stamp of approval. That’s why the following testimonial, from Jim Villalpando of Taylorsville, Utah, meant so much to us here at the office. Jim and his wife Gloria have gone on numerous Friendly Planet Travel tours, including Egypt, Israel, Petra, Thailand, and Cambodia, as well as tours throughout Europe.

"What can be said that has not been said? Price, value, your tours are an exceptional value. We have been on five friendly planet tours to date and wil be going on our sixth trip to India, Nepal next month. What ever you’re doing, don’t change the formula until we’ve finshed the seven wonders of the world thru friendly planet tours. Great value on all the tours we’ve taken thus far.
 – Jim & Gloria Villalpando Taylorsville Utah"

 

 

 

 

A little look at gran Paris (part 2)

Last week I gave you a little taste of beautiful Paris, through the eyes of my friend Leanna. When we left off, Leanna had described a diverse segway ride past many of the most incredibly attractions of Paris. She continues …
Our Segway tour guides, Simon and Billy, prepared a double-secret list of “best restaurants” not generally known to tourists. We seized immediately upon that. Our favorite restaurants that week were on that list. That was a much-appreciated extra “tip” from the guides to us!
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That same day, after exploring the Jardins du Luxembourg, we embarked on a night bike tour. The bikes were without lights, but we did have reflective jackets to warn any other tourists that we approaching.
We rode at breakneck speed from the Eiffel Tower to the Latin Quarter, over the bridge to the Ile Saint Louis, past Notre Dame, down the Champs Elysee to the Seine, where we took a midnight flyboat up and down the river. The boat trip treated us to sights along the riverbanks — folk dancers, rows of young men mooning the boat, lovers leaning against the walls with wine, the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower on the hour.
Next, we enrolled in a wine and cheese tasting class, held in an old subterranean cellar, formerly some sort of prison. Our sommelier was very French, very knowledgeable, and the wine was delicious (we scored a bottle of Sancerre). The other folks in the class were fun, and we ended up sitting with the family of Ted Nugent (remember “Cat Scratch Fever”?).

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Of course, Leanna’s description of delectable French delicacies doesn’t stop there. Stay tuned for the final post tomorrow, when Leanna will tell you all about the romance and flavor of dining in Paris.

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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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