Friendly Planet Blog

Top 6 Exciting Egyptian Experiences

Civilization first dawned in Egypt over five millennia ago when Narmer, first pharaoh of the First Dynasty, unified Upper and Lower Egypt. But Egypt’s history is even older, with human settlements dating back to 4,000 BC. In all that time, Egypt has grown and developed into one of the most exciting, richly cultured places in the world. Here’s just a taste of the exciting things awaiting you when you take a trip to this timeless destination!

River Nile ©Michael Gwyther-Jones/Flickr

1. Cruising the Nile

With over 4,000 miles of waterway coursing through 11 countries, the Nile River is considered to be the longest in the world, and Egypt its gift to Earth. Ancient Egyptians revered it as the source of all life, and with a riverfront view of the bustling ports and trading posts like Luxor, Esna and Edfu that blossomed all along its shores, you’ll see why. Stop off to visit the Valley of the Kings along the West Bank of the Nile and tour Edfu and the Temple of Horus! In addition to its ancient treasures, the Nile’s banks are home to a wide assortment of Egypt’s most iconic animals from its storied history, including hippopotamuses and the legendary Nile crocodiles. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse (from the safety of your boat!) and you’ll understand why ancient Egyptians believed them to be gods.

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The Legends of Lakes, Mountains & More in the Adriatic

Across Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, massive crystal-clear lakes are tucked beneath white-crested peaks, their banks framed by timeless evergreens and ornamented by centuries old castles and cathedrals. The lakes’ blue-green hue reflects the sun’s rays and the verdant valleys surrounding them bloom with a rainbow of wildflowers in the spring. For generations these lakes and mountains have drawn visitors in search of rest, relaxation and rejuvenation. But… is something else drawing people to these geological masterpieces? Something a little less… of this world?

In fact, these fairy tale landscapes and pristine natural wonders are an integral part of a rich oral folklore tradition. Fancifully woven stories passed down over the years teach us about the spirits of the lakes and mountains and how they came to be. Before heading off to explore the wild and rugged Adriatic on one of our tours, step back in time and learn how fairies, dragons, and supernatural folk made this region truly magical!

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Lake Bled and the Legend of the Sunken Bell

Hidden among the Julian Alps’ jagged peaks, and just 22 miles from Slovenia’s capital city of Ljubljana, is Lake Bled. Visitors from around the world head to the lake’s picturesque shores to take in the gorgeous surrounding mountains and forests, and to take a trip out to little Bled Island! The legend goes that once upon a time a young widow lived in the castle on the island. Her husband had died many years prior, a victim of highway thieves who threw his body into the waters. Her sadness was so great that she gathered all of the gold and silver she had and commissioned a beautiful bell to be placed in the chapel on the island in his memory. But a great and terrible storm sank the boatmen and the bell on their way to the island. Overcome with grief, she sold all of her belongings, offered the proceeds to build a new church on the island and left Slovenia for Rome to live out her days as a nun. After her death, the Pope who had heard of her misfortunes and her good deeds sent a new bell to Bled Island in her name. He declared that anyone who believes in God and rings the bell three times will have their wishes come true. Today, the little church still stands on the island—a popular place for weddings. Be sure to ring the bell for yourself when you visit!

The Golden Horned (Left, by Michael R Perry/Flickr), Triglav Roses or Pink Cinquefoil (Right, by Peter Stevens)

Mount Triglav and the Legend of Goldenhorn

In the heart of Triglav National Park is Lake Bohinj—Slovenia’s largest natural lake. On a clear day, towering Mount Triglav’s reflection can be seen in its still, turquoise waters. The tallest of all the Julian Alps and the country’s highest peak (9,395 ft above sea level), Mount Triglav is so cherished in Slovenia that their flag features it prominently in a coat of arms. One of Slovenia’s most well-known legends tells of the mythical Goldenhorn, a magnificent white chamois buck whose realm was high atop Mount Triglav and whose horns were said to be the key to unfathomable treasures.

Once upon a time the mountaintops were covered with lush greenery and overflowed with sweet water and wildflowers. The Alpine paradise was inhabited by White Women, graceful and kind nymphs who helped the villagers from time to time. Goldenhorn also lived there and protected the White Women’s home from the greed of people. In gratitude, they gifted Goldenhorn with magical blood. Whenever it was spilled by a hunter, healing Triglav roses would spring forth. Eating just one single leaf would instantly restore his health and strength!

One day a young hunter in a nearby valley fell in love with the most beautiful girl in the village. To win her heart he set off into the mountains in search of Goldenhorn’s treasure. He found the majestic beast high on a rocky cliff. In an act of love and rage, the hunter shot at Goldenhorn and wounded him. Healing blooms immediately grew from the place where he stood. Quickly, Goldenhorn lowered his head to taste a single petal of the blooming Triglav rose and was wholly renewed! Before the hunter could escape, Goldenhorn ran toward him, and the hunter, awed and terrified by the gleam and ferocity of the golden horns, fell to his death below. Angry at the greed of humans, Goldenhorn destroyed the magical paradise and was never heard from again.

Today, the highest peaks are still barren and snow covered. But the lake valleys below are a popular hotspot for summer vacations as travelers come to unwind, take advantage of the numerous outdoor activities, and explore the tiny, traditional villages that still dot the lake’s shore. See if you can find the statue that honors Goldenhorn on the shores of Lake Bohinj!

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia (by Malcolm Carlaw/Flickr)

Plitvice Lakes and the Legend of the Black Queen

Inscribed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, the Plitvice Lakes sit high in the karst region of central Croatia. Nearly 1,000,000 people visit the natural forested park and lakes each year. But legend has it that this area wasn’t always overflowing with water! In ancient times there was a horrible and lasting drought in the area and the winding river that normally flowed abundantly dried up and turned to dust. The villagers prayed day and night for rain until one day the queen of the fairies, the Black Queen, heard their cries from her palace hidden in the rock walls of nearby Mount Velebit. Taking pity on them, she sent rain to the valley, in the form of great storms with raging thunder and lightning. It rained so hard for so long that the water pooled and created the network of 16 interconnected lakes you can visit today, starting with Prošćansko jezero, the first and highest (2093 ft above sea level) of the entire lake system. Geologically speaking, they were formed over centuries as above-ground and subterranean karst rivers formed, merged, and cut their way through the mountains. Either way, we love the panoramic views and restful vibe they provide!

Lake Worth, Austria (Left), Worthersee Mandl statue in Klagenfurt (Right, by Ádám Erdélyi)

Lake Wörth and the Legend of Worthersee Mandl

Deep in the heart of the Austrian state of Carinthia is Lake Wörth. The largest lake in this district, it’s been a popular spot with tourists for more than a century with clear waters, Mediterranean climate and easy access by rail. Even today this is a great spot for those who want to relax along sunny shores, swim warm waters or hike the nearby nature trails! Many travelers to the area also stop to visit the nearby town of Klagenfurt. In the heart of this charming town’s square, amid bustling crowds and quaint coffee shops, is a little bronze statue of a gnome-looking man called Worthersee Mandl. Despite his tiny size and how unceremoniously he sits, perched with a fountain and keg, this colorful character represents the dramatic fashion of how Lake Wörth came to be.

The legend goes that many years ago another small town sat where Klagenfurt did and it was filled with sinful people who wouldn’t relent from their drinking, dancing and debauchery even during Holy Week and on the eve of Easter Sunday! So Worthrsee Mandl stood in the center of town, warning any passersby that if they didn’t change their ways they would all be punished. Undeterred, the townsfolk continued their revelry. Angry at the greedy people who would not listen, Worthsee Mandl unplugged the cork on his heavy keg and water began to pour out. It flowed and flowed and kept flowing. The waters consumed the whole town—all the buildings, the churches, the homes, everything. The magical water even transformed all the town’s inhabitants into fish! After many days of flooding, a giant lake sat where the town and valley had been. Locals say that the little town still sits at the bottom of Lake Wörth, submerged by the waters.

As you wander the little alleys and shops of Klagenfurt, keep an eye out for the little brass statue of Worthsee Mandl—a reminder to not be consumed by wicked ways. And if you listen carefully on a quiet night at Lake Wörth, it is said you can still hear the underwater church bells ring!

Postojna Cave Slovenia (Left), Endemic Olm (Right, by Nacionalni park Una)

Postojna Cave and the Legend of Jami the Little Dragon

Forged deep underground by the Pivka River over millions of years is Postojna Cave. This massive karst cave system, in southwestern Slovenia, is one of the country’s major tourism sites. And it’s no wonder why! These dramatic caves are a treasure trove of geological wonders from mighty stalactites and towering stalagmites to formations called curtains (that resemble folded draperies). The cave is also the home to the endemic olm, the largest troglodytic amphibian in the world. These “otherworldly”-looking aquatic salamanders are unique because they are exclusively cave dwelling and native only to the karst caves in Central and Southeastern Europe. Perhaps it is their unique place among the fauna of the world that helped spawn the legend of Jami… the little dragon turned “human fish.”

Legend says that centuries ago, fire breathing dragons lived in the caves. They were a terror that frightened townsfolk who feared for their homes, crops, and livestock. When the mighty River Spirit of Pivka swelled and surged, it purged the dragons from the cave. The Pivka River only allowed Jami, a little dragon, to stay behind for he was kind and only longed to befriend the local children and spend his days playing in the fields and streams with them. Understandably, however, the children were afraid of Jami and so he lived alone in the cave longing for companionship.

At the depths of his depression, a cave dwelling beetle appeared. He introduced Jami to all of the cave’s little creatures and his circle of friends grew and grew! After a while they asked him to take a turn guarding the cave’s magical pearls. Jami, not wanting to disappoint his new friends, eagerly agreed and took a post watching over the treasure. Soon after, however, he fell asleep and his snores shook the cave walls. An evil goblin named Switch heard the commotion and followed the snores to find Jami fast asleep atop a pile of pearls. Overcome with greed, and not at all afraid of the dragon, Switch snatched up as many pearls as he could carry.

But Jami felt the rustling and woke up with a start! He snatched Switch into his claws and bared his sharp teeth at the pitiful goblin. Realizing that he was outmatched, Switch began to beg for his freedom. He promised to grant Jami a wish should he let him go. Jami, who still dreamed of a day he could frolic with the village children, agreed to let him go in exchange for humanity. Eager to be free, Switch mumbled some ancient magic words and the cave shook with thunder and smoke. When the smoke finally cleared, Switch had disappeared and Jami remained—a small dragon with human-like skin and a human-like smile—forever destined to play with his little cave-dwelling friends and guard the hidden treasure of pearls.

In 2016 scientists discovered a clutch of olm eggs in Postojna Cave, which look a bit like pearls, and the world watched as two new “human fish” were born! If you visit the cave, stop by the Vivarium Proteus exhibit to learn more about the “human fish” and their ecology along with interesting facts and tidbits about the wide world of cave dwelling creatures that make their home in Postojna Cave!


Curiosity piqued? Explore these natural wonders for yourself on our Discover the Adriatic: Croatia, Slovenia and Venice vacation—and you might just come face to face with a dragon or glimpse the Goldenhorn with your own eyes! (And even if you don’t… these incredible landscapes are unforgettable!)

#FriendlyFiles: Surprising Singapore!

Recently Danielle, a member of Friendly Planet’s Sales Team, set off on an adventure to Singapore. Our independent adventures to this amazing destination offer plenty of opportunity to explore at your own pace—so check out some of her favorite experiences before you book your own getaway to the Lion City!

Time and time again, I heard Singapore described as a “sterile city.” People who had never visited the Lion City told me to make sure I followed the rules – do not chew gum, do not jay walk, do not, do not. Instead of listening to naysayers, I like to push stereotypes aside when I travel, and to dig deep into the culture, the people, and the new adventures. I departed for my vacation with an open mind, and I came home with a fuller heart and a new-found appreciation for all of the surprises Singapore had to share!

An evening walk along Kampong Glam ©Erwin Soo/Flickr

The Many Sounds of Singapore

I believe a city can be measured by the music you hear in it, but I was surprised to learn that the music of Singapore is jazz! On any given night, music lovers can explore Kampong Glam and listen to the sultry singers inside and outside the various bars. If jazz is not your style, this hip neighborhood had everything from oldies to reggae. Kampong Glam is a destination in its own right in Singapore. The streets are lined with colorful art (and tourists lining up to get a selfie!) as well as small boutiques that are a shopper’s dream. It’s also a great place to grab a bite and watch the world go by! On one of my favorite nights in Kampong Glam, I found myself sitting outside a Turkish restaurant, people-watching and listening to the chatter of a multitude of languages around me as a soulful singer played a beautiful background soundtrack.

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Through Your Eyes: a Kenya Safari Experience

One of our travelers, Deborah, recently went on our Kenya Safari Express small group tour. When she returned, she shared with us her incredible story–along with some awesome photos! Africa had been on her bucket list for decades and we are so humbled to play a small role in her unforgettable experience in this amazing country!

It’s 6 am three days before Thanksgiving, and my husband and I are sitting in a small airport café in Frankfurt, Germany sipping coffee while we wait for our next flight. While there, a couple from Texas sat down next to us to chat. As with any airport conversation, the ‘where are you going’ question popped up, and I excitedly said – Kenya on safari! After a split second of stunned silence, the woman said “I wasn’t expecting that”…to be quite frank, I wasn’t expecting it either.

Africa has been at the top of my bucket list for over 30 years. My master bedroom has an African theme, and I always watch NatGeo hoping to see another lion, cheetah, leopard — you name it, I want to see it. I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with Africa, but I know one thing, I was not going to leave this life without stepping foot on the vast African savannah and seeing these incredible creatures with my own eyes. It was time to scratch this off my bucket list.

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10 Temptingly Tasty Thai Dishes

The sound of bustling market places—fruit vendors, hawker stalls, chatty diners and shoppers interacting. The smell of sweet and spicy, lemongrass and lime, intermingling like a perfume on the air. The taste of a new dish, something you’ve never tried before, hitting your tastebuds for the first time. For travelers, food is always a part of experiencing someplace new and no where is it more intricately woven into the everyday experience than in Thailand. For those visiting the “Land of Smiles” here are 10 tempting Thai dishes that will have all five of your senses singing a culinary symphony!

Pad Thai ©Michael Saechang

Pad thai ©Michael Saechang/Flickr

1. ผัดไทย – Pad Thai – Thai Fried Noodles

Immensely popular well beyond the borders of Thailand, pad thai is probably the country’s most iconic dish. So popular in fact that in 2011 pad thai was ranked number 5 on CNN Go‘s World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods readers’ poll. And it’s no surprise why! This flavorful dish is a staple at casual dining joints and street vendors. At it’s core, this quick-to-cook dish is made of rice noodles stir-fried with eggs and firm tofu and seasoned with tamarind pulp, fish sauce, garlic, and served with lime wedges. It could also include fresh shrimp, chicken, squid or other proteins.

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#FriendlyFiles: Hungry in Hong Kong

Recently Amanda, a member of Friendly Planet’s Marketing Team, traveled to Hong Kong to try some of the culinary wonders that the city has to offer.  Check out some of her favorite foods and dining experience below! 

A few months ago, I traveled to Hong Kong for the first time. It was interesting in that it was so familiar and so different at the same time. The high-rises and modernity of this world class city took me right back to when I visited Manhattan as a high school kid. The hurried crowds and bustling streets, the veritable maze of roads and alleys, the way the buildings soared overhead into the clouds—making you dizzy if you stared up too long! English is even widely spoken there because it’s a former British colony. But having never been to China, there was a cultural element buzzing beneath the light shows and skyscrapers that I wasn’t expecting. And nowhere did that perfect blend of ancient culture and today’s fast-paced world come to life more vividly than the food.

Hong Kong's neon skyline

Hong Kong’s neon skyline (Photo by Hong Kong Tourism)

And let’s be honest: I LOVED the food. Each dish masterfully blended thousands of years of Chinese history with the modern setting it was being served in. Food that had comforted diners and impressed royalty for centuries was served daily—from food carts amid bustling night markets and in 5-Star restaurants overlooking the postcard perfect Victoria Harbor. We ate so much that it would be impossible to narrow it down to a single favorite. So here are five delicious things I indulged in—and that you shouldn’t skip!—when visiting Hong Kong.

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Etiquette in Japan: don’t freak out!

From groundbreaking technological innovation to stunning natural vistas to traditional Shinto shrines and Zen rock gardens, Japan has intrigued generations of visitors who come from near and far to experience the island-nation. While some aspects of Japanese culture have made dramatic and lasting breakthroughs into our global consciousness (think sushi, anime, video games, and movies), some things remain a mystery to those hailing from the west. And nothing can be more confusing than navigating Japan’s centuries-old tradition of social etiquette, which is both complicated and important.

But don’t let that scare you away! Like most places you visit on your travels, making an attempt to understand and take part in their traditions and culture is more than enough of a signal that you are trying to be a good guest in their country. But if you’re still worried, don’t be! We’re here to shed some light on the dos & don’ts before you take your next trip to the “Land of the Rising Sun.”

Women dressed in traditional attire greet one another with a bow.

Women dressed in traditional attire greet one another with a bow.

Take a bow.

Probably the most iconic Japanese custom, bowing is also one of the easiest to be unsure about! This greeting takes a lot of different forms, but generally speaking, it is divided into three categories: informal, formal, and very formal. The formality of the bow is determined by the relationship between the two individuals that are greeting one another. Young people bow longer and deeper when greeting elders and employees do the same when greeting the CEO. As a foreigner, a bow of the head is probably all you need to do as most Japanese don’t expect visitors to know all the rules!

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#FriendlyFiles: Scenes of a Dubai Landscape

Recently Danielle, a member of Friendly Planet’s Sales Team, traveled to Dubai on our Dazzling Dubai package! Check out her 5 favorite experiences!

What does Dubai look like? Now that’s a tough question to answer. It’s a remote desert and a field of flowers, an incredible sunset and a metal jungle, a shopkeeper peddling his traditional wares, a delicious meal influenced by five different cultures, and the tallest building in the world. Dubai is often described as a city of paradoxes. Walk a few blocks and you’ll understand why. You will hear about twenty languages in a span of several minutes. You will see business workers in suits, a curious tourist staring up in awe, and locals dressed in traditional white robes all in one city block. But the multitude of cultures, foods and experiences coalesce into a fascinating array of different scenes forming one incredible city. Paradox or not, there were 5 experiences that stood out to me, and here they are.

Spice Markets (by Elroy Serrao/Flickr), Trinket Souk (by Sirah Quyyom/Flickr), Gold Market (by Binder Donedat/Flickr)

1. Gold and Spices
The Gold and Spice Souks are the most visible link to the past of the United Arab Emirates, and they are a shopper’s dream (as long as you aren’t afraid to haggle). Shopkeepers line the corridors presenting their wares, like cashmere scarfs, purses, gold jewelry, gilded-everything and colorful barrels of spices. It’s the perfect place to aimlessly wander and imagine you are in another time in the Middle East. It’s also the perfect place to buy souvenirs!

If you’re nervous about haggling, or just looking for a more modern market of sort, Dubai’s multitude of malls will not disappoint. The ultra-modern Dubai Mall has every store imaginable, and is a tourist destination in its own right, and if you haven’t had your fill of jewelry shopping at the souks, there are certainly enough gemstones to go around.

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The 20 Best Places to Travel in 2018

It’s that time of year again! Every travel publication is putting out their Top List of “must see” and “trending destinations” for next year’s globetrotters. We don’t know if you’ve noticed, but when you look from list to list, it seems like the whole world has made the cut! So we decided to do the dirty work for you. We took a look at all the most popular lists, from Travel+Leisure to Pinterest (and everything in between), and aggregated and tallied up all the trending destinations to give you the true Top 20 Destinations for 2018. You can see the full list below. Then click on the links or scroll down to learn more about select destinations that we visit on some of our tours.

 

  1. Mexico
  2. Canada
  3. Portugal
  4. Australia
  5. Chile
  1. Italy
  2. Malta
  3. Morocco
  4. Spain
  5. Argentina
  1. Croatia
  2. England
  3. France
  4. Greece
  5. Scotland
  1. South Korea
  2. Thailand
  3. UAE
  4. Vietnam
  5. Ireland

 

 LISBON, PORTUGAL | Lisbon Sky ©Deensel / FlickrPortugal

The Friendly Planet Take: Watch Portuguese water dogs help fishermen bring in their nets, then dine on their fresh catch at an outdoor cafe. Explore countryside castles proudly bearing Roman and Moorish heritage. Shop by foot or funicular in the stunning and sophisticated capital of Lisbon. Algarve’s southern beaches beckon, while Porto lures the aficionado of port wine with its ancient traditions and cave cellar tours. We recently released our brand new 11 day Best of Portugal small group tour because we knew how popular the country would be in 2018. Or, you might prefer our classic Douro River Valley Cruise.

What the trendsetters are saying:

  • “Heightening Portugal’s appeal are its incredible affordability and its natural wonders: in 2016, more than 300 beaches earned the coveted Blue Flag rating and two new biosphere reserves were named. It’s no surprise everyone is talking about this small, seafaring nation.” -Lonely Planet
  • “This coastal Portuguese city has all the elements of a world-class travel destination: a striking shoreline, charming architecture and historic sites, plus a one-of-a-kind export – port wine.” -U.S. News & World Report

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10 films to see before heading to Japan

For a relatively small island-nation, Japan’s impact on the world is impressively oversized. Sushi and sake are popular staples in cities across the globe. Japanese innovation in technology informs the way we communicate, travel, shop, and even chart the stars. And from a cultural standpoint, Japanese influence can be found from fashion to film, and everything in between! Before you head out on your trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, check out these ten films that will not only whet your appetite, but also expand your understanding of this fascinating culture.

<i>Spirited Away</i>

Spirited Away (2001)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli

You’ve probably heard of the Academy Award-winning animated film Spirited Away, but did you know that when the film was theatrically released in 2001 it became the most successful film in Japanese history? Anime (Japanese animation) is so prominent in the country that hundreds of thousands of people gather each year for festivals surrounding the characters, art, and stories.

Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl who wanders into a magical world ruled by witches and spirits, and where humans obsessed with worldly greed are transformed into beasts. The film is infused with a variety charming lessons steeped in traditional Japanese folklore. More importantly, Studio Ghibli films are well-known for depicting daily life in Japan in great detail—especially the often overlooked, quiet moments such as pouring tea, making offerings, or lighting incense. In one such moment, Chihiro sheds tears of relief having found joy in a gift of rice balls from a new friend.

If you’re in Tokyo, consider stopping by the Studio Ghibli Museum during some down time to get an insider look at all of the wonderful films made by this award-winning animation studio!

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