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Posts Tagged ‘India’

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The epic love story that built the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal: it’s one of the most gorgeous buildings in the world, the icon of India, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the Seven Man-Made Wonders of the World. But do you know what this architectural marvel was built for, and the love story behind it?

Romeo & Juliet, Cleopatra & Mark Antony, Tristan & Isolde—to these famous tales of love, we must add the no less legendary (and tragic) story of Shah Jahan and his queen Mumtaz Mahal.


Happy Diwali

Happy Diwali noCaptionIn the Hindu world, Diwali is celebrated with beautiful lights, sweets, feasts, fireworks and general partying. It’s a time to shed light on the darkness, a metaphor for a victory of good (the light) over evil (the darkness). A deeper meaning has to do with light as metaphor for wisdom and enlightenment. Diwali is actually a five day festival, but the main event occurs on the Hindu month of Kartika, the first and darkest night of the new moon, and in our Georgian calendar, between mid-October and mid-November.

If you’re planning a trip to India or Nepal (or half a dozen other countries around the world), you’ll be in for a major treat if you happen to travel during Diwali. You’ll see families out and about in their new outfits, participating in prayers to Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth and prosperity) lighting lamps and candles inside and outside their homes, setting off fireworks and exchanging gifts with families and friends.

The holiday of Diwali is all about the lighting of lights, both external, as in flames, fireworks, and candles, and internal, as in becoming happier, wiser and enlightened. In gaining this wisdom, you find the way to a more fulfilling, richer life, both for yourself and for others. It’s a beautiful holiday full of meaning and blessings for everyone who participates, Hindu or not.

Souvenirs don’t have to be tacky. Some can hold lifelong memories.

Every member of the Friendly Planet Travel staff has been bitten by the travel bug. Over the years, members of our team have gone soul searching in India; served in the Peace Corps in the Republic of Georgia; collected local art in Spain; returned to their roots in Ireland; and much more.

Each trip exposed them to a new culture and opened their eyes a little wider to the diverse world around them. To celebrate the unique experiences of our staff, I asked them to submit photos of some of their favorite souvenirs from their global travels. Here’s Friendly Planet Travel’s souvenir gallery.

Continue reading to hear a personal description about each memento.


Take a tax holiday — on Uncle Sam

Tax season is almost over! Now that filing is nearly complete, it’s time for many of us to start looking forward to our refunds. This year alone, U.S. taxpayers already received an average of $2,831 per person in refunds, a significant amount of money that could whisk you away on an exotic vacation!

For that reason, I came up with a few suggestions for how travelers can get the most out of their newly acquired cash.

If you’re on the more conservative side of the refund spectrum or want to pocket some of the extra money, here’s my list of tax-refund trips travelers can take for under $2,000, including airfare.

  • Explore Exotic Ecuador for $1,399: Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, boasting more than 300 species of mammals alone. Visitors can tour the natural hot springs in Baños, view the volcanic peaks of Cotopaxi National Park, and explore the world’s most biologically diverse rainforest — the Amazon. Journey back in time with a visit to Quito, the nation’s capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and explore the city’s Spanish colonial architecture dating back to the 16th century. A trip to Ecuador is like immersing yourself in the world’s greatest biology class, and one that visitors will never forget.

Discovering the magic of ageless India

Amer (Amber) Palace, near Jaipur  Photo by Firoze Edassery

We initially posted this story in January 2014, but it still perfectly represents the exhilaration of traveling in India. It is written by Cherie Thiessen, a traveler on one of our Taj Mahal Express tours, and ran in an issue of Senior Living Magazine.

We’re swerving and bumping our way along one of the world’s oldest roads: the historic Silk Route, one of a network of connecting trade routes linking East, South, and Western Asia with Europe and North Africa. We’re only taking this impossibly congested road from Delhi as far as Agra, a mere 240 kilometres, but that will nevertheless take us all day. Here’s what will slow us down:

  • Cows lying in the middle of the road, nonchalantly munching on garbage. The drivers all manage to veer around them without altering their speed.
  • Two truckloads full of students, standing cheek-to-jowl in the back as they jerk and jostle to the music spilling out of the front. Every time the vehicles slow, some of the agile youths rappel out of the trucks and swap places, nonchalantly flicking in and out of traffic. Our driver brakes.
  • Women in rainbow saris balancing bales of chaff the size of smart cars on their heads, the edges of which scratch against our windows.
  • Vehicles ahead of us abruptly stopping in the middle of the road to enable occupants to pray alongside three-storey Hindu statues whose large eyes eerily track our every move.
  • A school bus crammed with tidy, uniformed children, barreling down on us on the wrong side of the freeway, forcing our two lanes of traffic to further divide into a very emaciated three. An overloaded fruit truck inching past the school bus so closely that a young arm is able to reach out and grab a banana from the teetering pile.

We wave and the children wave back exuberantly. (more…)

4 cities you have to see in India

Imagine it’s early morning and you find yourself walking through the streets of a busy outdoor market. As you gradually take in your surroundings, you see row upon row of colorful cloth, fragrant spices, and beautiful handmade goods. This is one of the many experiences you’ll have in India.

A spectacular destination, bustling with excitement and reverberating with new growth, India is a must-see destination. For a glimpse of what you can see and experience in India, check out this video of our Best of India and Nepal tour.

The video showcases some of the top cities and sites I recommend you see in India, and I’ve also expanded on a few of them below.

  1. Delhi, India’s capital and a city of deep contrasts, has a plethora of things to see and do. By day, temples are packed with the devout, and by night, affluent Indians enjoy hotel discos. Shopping centers and restaurants abound. Due to a growing middle class that demands to own cars and motorbikes as a national right, the streets are always overflowing, and are a sight unlike any other you’ve probably experienced!
  2. Agra is home to the world’s most magnificent building, the Taj Mahal. This awe-inspiring structure was created as a testament to love, and served as a mausoleum. Construction of the Taj Mahal began in 1632, and took over 20 years to complete.
  3. Khajuraho, a famous temple complex discovered in 1838 and built between 950 and 1050 A.D., represents some of the finest examples of architecture in Northern India. The remote location of Khajuraho meant that the temples were unharmed by Muslin invaders, and as a result, the intricate carvings that are said to represent life in heaven are still in good condition to this day.
  4. Jaipur, known as the Pink City, is where visitors can enjoy ascending the hill to Amber Fort on the backs of colorfully decorated elephants to appreciate the sweeping panoramas of the rolling hills below.

After spending just a few days in India, you’ll get a sense of the country’s energy and distinct people and culture, palpable and impossible to miss.

Announcing the final winner of our Win the World Facebook Sweepstakes

WORLD TRAVELER: Congratulations to
Stacey, who has won a trip to India!

Giving away free trips to travelers from all over the U.S. has been one of the most entertaining and exciting things I’ve done in Friendly Planet Travel history (and I’ve done a lot things in my 30 years since starting the company!).

But before we get to the end, we still have one more winner to announce in our Win the World Facebook Sweepstakes. This lucky person will win a free trip for two to India on our Taj Mahal Express tour. So who was our last lucky winner?
It was Stacey Foisy from Oregon! Listen in as I tell her what she’s won.


Congratulations to all of our winners — Jamie, Lillian, Shari, Stephen, Laurie, and now Stacey. We’ll be speaking to each of them once they return from their trips to hear how it went, what they enjoyed most, and what exciting things they saw while abroad.

This brings our Win the World Facebook Sweepstakes to a close. Awarding six all-expenses-paid tours to exotic destinations worldwide has been a fantastic experience for all of us here at Friendly Planet Travel, and we’d like to thank everyone who participated.

Keep an eye on our Facebook page, as well as right here on our blog, for more giveaways in the coming months.

Do you have an idea for a future Friendly Planet giveaway that you’d love to see be brought to life? Leave a comment below with what you think we should give away next. 

See India for free! Enter to win our final Win the World Facebook Sweepstakes giveaway

WONDER OF THE WORLD: The winner of this free trip will
get to see all India has to offer, including the Taj Mahal!

I love to explore destinations that have an exotic culture, beautiful scenery, and hospitable people. Few places capture these traits better than India, which is why I decided to offer our Taj Mahal Express tour as our sixth and final Win the World Facebook Sweepstakes trip giveaway.

One lucky traveler and a guest will have the chance to win a free nine-day excursion to India –up to a $4,800 value. To enter to win the trip of a lifetime, visit our Facebook page and fill out an entry form. If you’ve already entered to win the trip to Turkey or Ireland, then you will automatically be submitted to win this trip as well.

Looking to swing the odds in your favor? Then start spreading the word about our sweepstakes to friends and family. For every entry into our sweepstakes from one of your referrals, you’ll get an extra entry for yourself.

Our Taj Mahal Express tour explores the “golden triangle” of India, which includes the cities of Delhi, Agar, and Jaipur, all filled with vibrant sights and sounds. Travelers will also have the opportunity to visit one of the eight Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal. Experiencing the spiritual and exotic atmosphere of India will surely be an unforgettable adventure.

The prize for the winner and a guest includes round-trip airfare and all intra-India ground transportation. It also includes accommodations at superior and deluxe hotels; daily breakfasts and a farewell dinner; a comprehensive touring program, including entrance fees; a professional, English-speaking tour director; and more. If you’re interested in finding out more information about the Taj Mahal Express tour, check out the detailed itinerary online.

If you don’t believe that you can win, check out these blog posts about our last four winners, who all won a free trip for themselves and a guest!

I’m sad to see our Win the World sweepstakes come to an end, but I’m excited to offer this amazing trip to India to one last winner. This is your final chance to win a free trip with us, so don’t forget to enter on Facebook! I can’t wait to announce our final winner on August 1. Good luck to everyone who enters!

The top 10 affordable destinations of 2012

I would never offer a tour that wasn’t a terrific value — that’s the core of our business at Friendly Planet Travel. But there are some tours that are so value-packed, I want to point them out specifically.

I had the opportunity to do just that at The Philadelphia Inquirer Travel Show last month. I named my speech “The Top 10 Affordable Destinations of 2012,” and delivered exactly what I promised. Check out my speech in it’s entirety below.

If you don’t have time to watch the full video, I’ve detailed a few of my favorites, as shared in my speech, below.

Pick #9: Ireland. Like Greece, Ireland has gone through some difficult financial times, but you would never know it from the incredibly friendly and welcoming people you’ll meet when you visit. Ireland has always been a popular destination for Americans, but in the coming years, Ireland is expected to see record numbers of tourists. That’s no surprise. The country is beautiful, with lush, green landscapes; picturesque towns and villages; castles galore; and plenty of pubs where you can mix with the locals, especially since they speak your language.

Pick #6: India. This wild, disorganized country of over a billion people is simply amazing. It has plenty of history and culture to experience and admire. It has an educated, entrepreneurial population that is rushing toward modernity at the speed of light. It has the most gorgeous building I’ve seen, the Taj Mahal, and believe me when I tell you that no picture does this palace justice. That’s how all of India is.

Pick #3: China. Each year, we wait to see if interest in China will finally drop among travelers, but it never does. This is a country that continues to amaze travelers, with its ancient history, gorgeous landscapes, incredibly welcoming people, and, of course, the food. Oh, and did I mention that you can buy an entire wardrobe for pennies on the dollar? Travel to China continues to be a terrific bargain.

Pick #1: Cuba. You might be thinking Cuba is a place that Americans can’t visit. But in the past year, the rules have changed, and a few tour operators are lucky to have been granted one of the new people-to-people licenses, including us. This tropical island is a 50-minute flight from Miami, but until recently, it could just have easily been on Mars. Thanks to a liberalizing of laws, Americans can visit Cuba legally. Visiting Cuba is like taking a trip back to the ’50s, and not just because of the cars. When you visit Cuba, you get to see how people have created a life for themselves with very little money or resources. The music is everywhere, street parties abound, and everyone is welcome to attend. It’s quite an experience.

What places are you planning to visit in 2012? One of these or somewhere different? Let me know here.

How to get a free trip to Kenya or India

What’s better than the Big Apple? Winning a free trip to Kenya or India while in the Big Apple!

Friendly Planet Travel is heading to The New York Times Travel Show this weekend to give attendees the chance to win a free trip for two on our Kenya Safari Express or Taj Mahal Express.

And that’s not all. We’re also giving away a Nikon S8100 digital camera. To enter to win, stop by Friendly Planet Travel’s booth, #276, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. The winners will be randomly selected and announced right here on the blog on Monday, Feb. 28.

In addition to our giveaways, I’ll be presenting “Five Exotic Locations for the Price of a Vegas Weekend” on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. on the Europe stage. Stop by and I’ll tell you all about the exotic spots around the globe that offer your family an unforgettable experience of a lifetime for the cost of the typical trip down the shore.

Back at our booth, we’ll have tour information, snacks, an international slide show with images of the places we visit, and show-only discount coupons valid for many of our tours. You’ll have a chance to win other great prizes just by spinning our Friendly prize wheel!

I’ll also be on hand as well as other Friendly Planet Travel experts to answer all your travel questions. And if you’re ready and find your dream trip while you’re at our booth, you’ll be able to book on the spot using our online booking engine.

As you can see, we have a lot planned for this show. If you still need to buy tickets, you can get them online. Adults are $15 and kids under 18 are free. For just $15, you could win a trip to Kenya, India, or a camera in a New York minute. And that’s in addition to the spectacular performances and activities planned for show visitors.

The New York Times Travel Show is one of the premier travel shows in the country. There are over 300 booths in addition to Friendly Planet Travel’s, but I have a special spot in my heart for booth #276!

But let’s get back to the good stuff — the prizes! Here are more details. The Kenya Safari Express takes travelers to the Masai Mara and Samburu game reserves where Africa’s big five game walks right past you. You’ll experience Africa’s sweeping vistas, teeming cities, and magnificent wildlife. Get the day-by-day details of the trip in my previous posts about Kenya.

Included are roundtrip airfare from New York’s JFK airport on award-winning Emirates Airlines; accommodations at deluxe hotels and superior safari lodges; game-viewing drives with experienced game spotters with a guaranteed window seat and access to a pop-up roof hatch; a boat safari on Lake Naivasha; comprehensive sightseeing tours in Nairobi by local, English-speaking guides; all transfers and land transportation; many meals, and more.

The Taj Mahal Express tour take you on expert-guided tours of the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikhri, Jaipur (known as the “pink city”), and the Amber Fort, with an ascent on elephant or a Jeep. You also get a one-day tour in Delhi that takes you to its most important sites, such as the Laxmi Narayan Temple, Raj Ghat, the Red Fort, and more. There’s much more, but you can read about it in my recent posts.

The tour includes roundtrip airfare from New York on Emirates; superior first-class hotels; daily buffet breakfasts; an authentic Indian farewell dinner in Delhi; expert guides throughout the journey; fuel surcharges, transfers, and much more.

The Nikon S8100 features a 3-inch, high-resolution clear color display. It has 12.1 megapixals with a 10X wide Zoom-NIKKOR ED glass lens, covering 30-300 mm. It also comes with Optical VR Image Stabilzation, high ISO sensitivity to 3200, and a new flash control system. Plus, you can record full 1080p HD movies with stereo sound.

I hope to see you this weekend! And if you can’t make it, we’ll be recapping the whole show right here on the blog.

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