Friendly Planet Blog

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.

Tower of David, Jerusalem ©Ricardo Tulio Gandelman/Flickr

Tower of David, Jerusalem ©Ricardo Tulio Gandelman/Flickr

Q. Why do you think people should visit Israel?
A. Israel has something for everyone, no matter your religion or belief. There is something exciting and almost tangible in the air that will touch every visitor. The combination of ancient history and modern ingenuity is amazing.

Tel Aviv's stunning skyline © Ted Eytan/Flickr

Tel Aviv’s stunning skyline © Ted Eytan/Flickr

Q. What stops or experiences on Discover Israel are you most excited about?
A. We’ve been able to include a great mix of classic ancient sites as well as some activities that showcase the modern Israel. It’s very hard to pick! Masada is an exceptional archaeological site. The Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv is stunning. We’ve also included an opportunity to visit Yvel Design Center and the Megemeria School where young talented artists, whose parents are recent immigrants from Ethiopia, are being trained in jewelry design and manufacture – this philanthropic effort is a unique experience.

Float in the Dead Sea ©Ruth Tate/Flickr

Float in the Dead Sea ©Ruth Tate/Flickr

Q. As someone who is really familiar with Israel, what are a few “must do” experiences?
A. I lived in Israel for many years. There are many things that I do every time I go back to visit, and we have included them in our tour. I stroll through the Carmel Market, I float in the Dead Sea, I walk the streets of Tel Aviv, the beautiful sea-side promenade and also along Rothschild Boulevard – a great place to sip a coffee at an outdoor café to people-watch (and dog-watch). I go to Jerusalem and visit the Western Wall, the Israel Museum to marvel at the sculpture garden and the Shrine of the Book where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed. And the food… there is nothing like an Israeli breakfast to start your day. Looking for souvenirs–there are so many ‘one of kind’ hand-made articles to choose from.

Traditional Shabbat challah and candles

Traditional Shabbat challah and candles

Q. What makes Discover Israel stand out from other tours to Israel?
A. This tour allows passengers to experience Israel, visiting the major historical sites but also diving deep into the diversity of Israeli culture today. Learn about start-ups and ground-breaking irrigation technology that allows agriculture in the desert. A kibbutz is a unique way of life found only in Israel, and this tour provides an opportunity to meet with kibbutz members over lunch in their communal dining room. Take a “foodie” tour in Tel Aviv’s open-air Carmel Market, where there is a stall for literally everything and anything! And there is so much more, come on the tour for a trip of a lifetime!

Plated humus ©StateofIsrael/Flickr

Plated humus ©StateofIsrael/Flickr

Q. Do you have a favorite food or drink that travelers should be sure to savor?
A. Everyone must try a falafel or a shawarma or both when they visit–I do each time! There are so many kinds of salads with interesting combinations of taste and texture, and every restaurant has its own way of creating new flavor. Israel has many chefs who are innovative, and every meal can be an experience for your taste buds. But I have to say that I always need a few platefuls of Israeli humus with very fresh pita–there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

Walking along Rothschild Blvd.

Walking along Rothschild Blvd

Q. What take-aways are you hoping travelers to Israel will come away with?
A. You cannot return from Israel the same as before your trip. Israel is faith; Israel is history (archaeology everywhere!); Israelis are fun and ready to share their home. But most of all, it’s the experience of how a small country is modern and vibrant, but also very traditional.

#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.

The smell of spices from a Jerusalem market are not easily forgotten! ©Blues Brother/Flickr

The smell of spices from a Jerusalem market are not easily forgotten! ©Blues Brother/Flickr

Close your eyes and open up your senses.

This is a tip I use regardless of where I am traveling. In a place as vibrant and rich as Jerusalem, closing your eyes and letting your nose and ears experience this new place is just as important. It is a whole different way to experience a nation. When you close your eyes, your ears open up and begin to notice things you may not have before. Have you ever been on vacation and only worn one type of perfume/cologne and the next time you wear it back at home you are suddenly transported back to that vacation? It is known as olfactory memory, and anytime I smell shawarma cooking, I am immediately transported back to the old city, and all these beautiful memories start rushing back.

Small plates of salads, vegetables, pickles, hummus, and more! ©Paolo Mutti/Flickr

Small plates of salads, vegetables, pickles, hummus, and more! ©Paolo Mutti/Flickr

Eat like the locals.

If there’s one thing you should know, it’s that Israelis like to eat! From busy markets to trendy restaurants and everything in between–shopping for and sharing tasty foods are staples of Israel’s rich culture. One of my favorite local dishes is ka’ak with za’atar. Ka’ak translated means street bread, which is a long oval shaped bread coated in sesame seeds, and za’atar is a middle eastern spice blend. This was my favorite afternoon snack to pick up for my walk home. It is best when the za’atar is mixed with olive oil so you can dip the bread in a flavorful oil. I can taste it now just writing about it!

For all you foodie travelers, don’t skip a visit to the Mahane Yehuda Market. This shuk (market) is chock-full of vendors selling cheese, fruits, meats and home goods! Be sure to go on an empty stomach because the local falafel and hummus is a must! If your itinerary has some evening free-time, it’s also a great spot to visit after the vendors have closed down and the market comes alive with tiny bars and restaurants.

And once you’ve picked out your dining spot, be prepared to eat together! It’s not uncommon for local restaurants to serve what’s called a mezze, or a collection of small dishes (such as hummus, salads, pickles, olive oil and pita bread), that everyone samples from together. Sharing a meal together gives everyone a chance to slow down for a moment, take in the bustling surroundings, and really experience the joy of spending time with friends.

Join a local Israeli family for Shabbat ©Sharon Gott/Flickr

Join a local Israeli family for Shabbat ©Sharon Gott/Flickr

Shabbat.

Shabbat for the Jewish faith starts sunset on Friday night and ends sunset on Saturday night. It is a complete day of rest so don’t be surprised to find the streets nearly empty and most vendors closed. According to tradition you are not supposed to work, including the use of electronics. You may even come across elevators that are in Shabbat mode, stopping at every floor so those observing this religious tradition aren’t required to push any buttons! I’m excited that our Discover Israel tour includes sharing in a Shabbat dinner with a local family. They will invite you into their home and you get to witness this unique tradition which includes prayer, candle lighting, blessings, and dinner together.

#FriendlyFiles follows Friendly Planet’s adventurous staff as they travel the world. It is crucial that our team experiences first-hand the sites, hotels, food and transportation so that we know exactly how the trip will feel for our travelers—and to help us as we strive to provide experiences, not sightseeing!

#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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Imperial Cities, a peaceful people… and mint tea!

Beneath the hot, North African sun ancient metropolises bloomed from the desert among the diverse landscape of jagged mountains, lush valleys, and pristine coastline. Over the centuries, political powers and empires from Europe created fluidity among the people and borders, and Morocco first entered the scene in 225 BC as the Berber Kingdom of Mauretania. Since then, the country has seen many changes—from the formation of its imperial cities (Marrakesh, Fez, Meknes, and Rabat) to the development of a complex culture with fascinating cuisine and focus on peace and knowledge. And together, along with the stunning diversity of landscapes that make up this incredible country, each of these elements is a beautiful thread in the intricate tapestry of present day Morocco and worth taking the time to explore when you visit!

Old Rabat Morocco by xiquinhosilva Flickr

Morocco’s history is a sharp contrast to its neighbors. While nearby countries boast a past of victory through war, much of Morocco’s history is a story of peaceful unity, a theme reflected in the Moroccan people today. According to legend, the territory became an independent country when Idris ibn Abdallah, seeking sanctuary from violence in Iraq, persuaded local tribes to break their allegiances to Baghdad. He formed the Idrisi dynasty in 788 AD and named Fez as Morocco’s first capital city. Under his leadership Morocco became the center of learning and discovery of the region. The University of Al Quaraouiyine was established in Fez in 859 AD and is still open today, outstripping Oxford University by more than two centuries!

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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!

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