The Friendly Planet Blog

The Bel Paese of Italy

Ciao, and welcome to the Bel Paese (beautiful country) of Italy! It’s no wonder that Italy is among the world’s most popular destinations. It’s the alluring home to quaint villages, rolling green vineyards, vibrant cities, stunning architecture, exquisite art, wine and, of course, cuisine. From wandering through St. Peter’s in Vatican City and gazing at the awe-inspiring works by Michelangelo and other masters, to sipping a glass of fragrant red wine while nibbling a piece of young Pecorino cheese in Tuscany and learning, hands-on, the traditional art of silk screening, these treasures and experiences make Italy a bucket list travel destination. Read on and fall in love with this romantic country, full of fascinating culture, friendly locals, magnificent history, and divine experiences.

Venice, Italy

Venice
From the beautifully restored buildings that look like pictures straight from a fairy tale to romantic gondolas meandering through the labyrinthian canals, Venice has captivated the hearts of travelers from around the world for centuries. There are endless reasons to visit this charming and historic city, but no matter how much time you have, a visit to one of the cities many campaniles, or bell towers, is a must! Not only are they a symbol of Venice’s resilience through tumultuous times, they are among the best places to admire the sweeping views. A particular favorite is the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, where you can observe breathtaking sites of the city and the Adriatic Sea.

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Japan: The Spiritual Side

The well-traveled person knows all too well the spiritual enrichment that comes from visiting religious sites around the world, how experiencing the myriad ways people worship will feed the soul in ways nothing else can provide. With more ancient worship sites continuously maintained and still in prominent use today than any other country, the experiences that await you in Japan can’t be matched anywhere else! Shinto, known as “the way of the gods” and built on the foundation of honoring your ancestors as well as divine deities, is the religion of ancient Japan. Shinto was first documented in writing in the 8th century but existed for millennia prior, while Buddhism made its way into the country in the 6th century. They make up over 80% of the country’s religion, and have coexisted harmoniously for over a thousand years, with many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples sharing grounds in the same worship complexes.

Senso-ji Temple Tokyo by Hans-Johnson / Flickr

Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo
Even upon approach, Senso-ji Temple will instill you with awe. The huge Thunder Gate, the Kaminarimon, looms in the distance like a crimson storm, enormous and hypnotic, with larger than life statues of Fujin, god of wind, and Raijin, god of thunder. These statues are posed on either side of the gate to watch visitors as they walk beneath the 1500-pound, 13-foot-tall paper lantern painted scarlet and black like a flame of lightning and pass through the gate into the street beyond. As you enter, be sure to take a moment to turn around and thank the dragon gods, Tenryu and Kinryu, who will guard you on your visit. Their statues, a gift to the temple by 106-year-old master sculptor Hirakushi Denchu, are positioned at the rear of the Thunder Gate where they can look out over the Nakamise-dori. This street is lined with stalls and vendors participating in a living tradition dated back several centuries of selling goods and wares to pilgrims making their way to the temple. When the cherry blossoms are peeking out over the tops of the stalls and the air is thick with the scent of divine incense said to bless and heal any body that bathed in its smoke, and when the sound of the o-mikuji oracles shaking their cups of painted sticks while the Treasure House Gate, the Hozomon with its gargantuan Nio guardians protecting the entrance and the National Treasures housed inside, towers over the end of the Nakamise-dori, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more iconic image of Japan.

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10 Surprises Borneo Has In Store For You

Many travelers may have heard of Borneo, a tropical island off the coast of Southeast Asia that is famous for its rainforests, majestic wildlife and fascinating indigenous communities. But Borneo is so much more than a lush, tropic isle in the Pacific Ocean! This beautiful biological sanctuary has so many surprises to discover.

Kuching

1. Borneo is the world’s 3rd largest island.
With a landmass of over 283,000 square miles, Borneo is the third largest island in the world and the largest of all Asia’s islands, but you might be surprised to learn that despite this, Borneo isn’t its own country. Rather, its territory is divided among the nearby nations of Malaysia and Indonesia and the sovereign state of Brunei, home of the wealthiest king in the world. This mutually beneficial arrangement is especially suited to protecting Borneo’s ancient treasure, from its endemic animals and indigenous people to its breathtaking landscapes.

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Behind the Scenes: crafting ‘Discover Israel’

“Of all the destinations in the world, for me, Israel occupies a place all its own. The very first tour I ever organized was in 1981 for a group of 200 Holocaust survivors (including my parents, my kids and myself) to Israel. Since then, we’ve sent many, many thousands of travelers all across the world, but I’m especially excited about our newest tour, Discover Israel. As a country, Israel has undergone dramatic changes in the years since my first trip, yet the unique history, spiritual magnitude, innovative energy and miraculous growth of this tiny spot on the map continues to earn its nickname, the miracle on the Mediterranean. You truly have to see it to believe it.” -Peggy M. Goldman, President & CEO, Friendly Planet Travel

To get an idea of what goes into creating a new tour, we sat down with Judy Poliva. Judy is our Product Development Manager, who leads the team responsible for creating our dynamic trips and packages. Check out below for her incredible insights–plus a few insider tips and suggestions!

Judy-Israel (1)

Judy visits the incredible sights of Israel with her family

Q. Introduce yourself and what you do at Friendly Planet Travel.
A. My name is Judy Poliva and I am the Product Development Manager at Friendly Planet Travel. It is my true pleasure to design and create the wonderful tours that we offer to our passengers around the world – and most especially to Israel.

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#FriendlyFiles: Experiencing Jerusalem

One of our newest Sales Team members, Lucy, shares her take on the wonder and adventure that Israel has in store for those who visit. Check out her tips for how to get the most out of your bucket-list trip to this destination!

Israel is much more than a religious destination. It is a country where ancient meets modern. While some travelers visit for a pilgrimage or spiritual awareness, others trek to this small Mediterranean country for the history, architecture, and nightlife–and Israel excels in all of these aspects! My family and I moved to Talpiot, a neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem, when I was very young. And even after living there for more than 14 years, I still find new ways to fall in love with it every time I return! No matter what drives you to travel to this incredible place, I can promise you will leave awestruck!

Each alleyway has an adventure! Jerusalem Old Arab Quater ©Dan/Flickr

Each alleyway has an adventure! Jerusalem Old Arab Quater ©Dan/Flickr

Get Lost.

“Getting lost” might sound like a silly thing to do in a foreign place, but sometimes those moments are the most memorable! The best place to lose yourself is in Jerusalem’s Old City. With so many narrow alleyways and packed streets, you’re sure to find something unique on every corner. On my most recent trip back, I was exploring and came across a part of the Old City I had never seen before! Despite living there for over a decade, I managed to find myself falling in love with places I’m still discovering.

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#Friendly Files: 10 Tips For Your Next Trip To India

Recently Greg, Friendly Planet’s Marketing Manager, traveled to India and picked up a few travel tricks of the trade along the way. Below he offers ten tips to consider before you book your own adventure to the subcontinent.

I’m in love with India, and I don’t care who knows it! My infatuation with the country started a few years ago when my wife and I backpacked from South to North. Recently I got another unexpected but entirely welcomed opportunity to head back for two weeks, and along the way, I picked up a few tidbits of hard-earned travel knowledge that might be worth imparting. Some of these tips are very practical. Some of them are slightly more facetious. But whether it’s seeing you through a common misunderstanding or propelling you into a deeper dive of the culture, all of them will be helpful on your next trip to India.

1. Embrace change

You might be expecting something about how spectacularly different India’s culture is from our own. Or some time ruminating on how this very traditional society is evolving on the cutting edge of the world’s urban, technological and entertainment landscapes. But no. What I really mean is…save your change! Small bills and rupee coins are at a premium in India, and it’s no fun paying 100 rupees for a glass of lassi that only costs ten just because the vendor doesn’t have any change. If you exchange your dollars for rupees before you leave, you’re likely heading to India stocked with ₹500, ₹1000 and ₹2000 notes. The ATMs over there offer the same denominations. But everyday necessities and small souvenirs won’t usually cost this much. So when you have the opportunity, get some change, and consider it one of your hottest travel commodities.

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Havana Jazz Festival: Behind The Music

If you want to understand the true heartbeat of Cuba, you have to experience one of the country’s greatest passions: Jazz music. The measured tap-tap-tap of the drum, the wail of the sax, the deep undertones of the bass, the sweet sounds of sultry vocals floating on the air, and the swaying hips of dancers as they take in the scene and soak up the rhythm, all speak to the tumultuous history, the dynamic present, and the optimistic future of the Cuban people.

For the first time last year, we sent our travelers to face the music firsthand at the 33rd Annual Havana Jazz festival! And while the festival itself was a large part of the itinerary and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for music lovers, this tour wasn’t just about watching professional performances on a faraway stage. True to the people-to-people programs we operate on all of our Cuba tours, our travelers had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the culture of Cuban jazz and, along the way, meet the people making it happen along the way. Here are five unique experiences that transported our travelers behind the music on our Havana International Jazz Festival 2018 small group tour.

And if you can already feel your toes tapping, this is your chance to ‘face the music’ too. We’ve officially opened our Havana International Jazz Festival tour for 2019, meaning this could be you come January!

Music School Alejandro Garcia Caturla

1.  Catch a Concert at Music School Alejandro Garcia Caturla

Located slightly west of Havana in a borough called Marianao, the Music School of Alejandro Garcia Caturla was founded in 1968. Many talented Cuban musicians begin their studies in this small school that accepts about 250 elementary students each year. You will visit this special place and get an up-close view of how music can truly be a language for all! The tour begins as administrators and teachers share information about the registration process and requirements that need to be met for students to attend including admissions and exams. Tuition, however, is free and instruments are provided to all students to allow youth of all socioeconomic backgrounds an opportunity to pursue their dream of a career in music.  Visitors are then treated to a classroom visit where the kids get a chance to play a mini concert for you.

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Iceland Academy: What To Know Before You Go

The tourism board of Iceland has put together some cheeky videos that address some of the burning (and not so burning) issues you will inevitably face before and during your next trip to Iceland. This is one of the better series of videos we’ve seen from tourism boards so we wanted to share them with you. There is some very useful info in each of these clips cleverly disguised by the humor and whimsy of the Icelandic people. And after you wrap up your “education”, make sure to head over to our Iceland Adventure package and book your tour.

How to track down the elusive Northern Lights

 

How to pack warm for Iceland

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Experiencing the Real Downton Abbey

Highclere Castle © Highclere Castle Enterprises LLP
Our Product Development Manager, Judy Poliva, traveled to London and Iceland as the tour leader of our Downton Abbey Christmas Ball with London group tour, and here is her account.

Being a true Downton Abbey fan, I didn’t hesitate to volunteer to lead our Downton Abbey Christmas Ball with London tour two years ago. In fact, the only hesitation I experienced was selecting my outfit for the ball. So many options! So many accessories to consider! After months of planning, and brushing up on my Downton knowledge, our departure day finally arrived.

On our way

The true Downton experience started right away, on the flight over the pond, with episodes from seasons 1 and 2 of Downton Abbey on the in-flight entertainment. What a coincidence! It felt like even the airline wanted to make our tour the memory of a lifetime. I got to experience great moments of the show again, like Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley meeting for the first time, as we made our way. During our layover, we all reminisced about our favorite scenes from the show, and of course discussed what we’d be wearing to the ball (a very common conversation on the tour!). The buzz of anticipation was palpable, and the common thread of a love for travel and Downton Abbey was on full display. I already knew it would be a great trip. Read more…

Picture Perfect Vietnam

Close your eyes and imagine Vietnam… Do you see an endless green landscape of stepped rice terraces? Do you picture a vivid pink and orange sky and the sun dipping below turquoise waters? Or, do you envision smiling locals with conical hats offering their wares of snacks and souvenirs at bustling markets? This incredible destination offers all of that and more.

We’ve rounded up 10 of the most photo-worthy spots in this magical corner of Southeast Asia, as seen by the lenses of some of our team members, so get your camera ready for an unforgettable adventure!

1. Vietnam’s Verdant Countryside.

Left: A woman plants rice in a field in Vietnam | Right: photo by Peggy Goldman

“You’ll see seemingly endless rice paddies with whole families tending to the magic grain that feeds the nation, plus green tea plants in the highlands and lush forests in the lowlands. At times, the country seems like nothing but an emerald blanket draped over the contours of a sleeping giant.”  —Peggy, President & CEO

Most of the people in Vietnam live in a rural setting. The rice paddies, vividly green, seem to go on uninterrupted as far as the eye can see! Life is slower in the country side, without the demands and bustle of city life. Religion is very important to the country’s rural communities, who still practice their faith the way their ancestors did, sometimes at the very same ancient temple or pagoda. As you travel the winding roads, keep an eye out for farmers (and water buffaloes!) among the rows of growing rice.

Photo Tips: Getting the best shot of this beautiful aspect of Vietnam is all about composition. Try to include as much of the landscape as you can in your shots so that viewers will get a sense of the size and vastness of the rice terraces. For an extra challenge, try to focus your shot on some of the local farmers in the field, donning their iconic non la hats.

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