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Archive for March, 2011

Friday’s Friendly Funny

Vietnam: The last place on Earth you’d ever associate with luxury

When you think of Vietnam, you probably remember the war overseas and civil unrest in the United States. But the truth is, the war ended in 1975 and the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam has been mended. More recently, Vietnam has become one of the most exotic destinations on Earth to experience.

That’s why JustLuxe asked me to cover it. JustLuxe is an online magazine that focuses only on the most luxurious things in life, especially those unexpected luxuries that they can reveal to their readers. And Vietnam is, for obvious reasons, the perfect fit. Its beauty and simplicity of life, juxtaposed against its emerging economy, makes it one of my favorite countries to visit.

During my last trip to the country, I got to enjoy a luxurious overnight cruise aboard the Emeraude on Halong Bay. In my guest article, “Sail the Halong Bay and Explore Vietnam on the Emeraude,” I share every detail about my stay aboard the ship. Read what my experience was like, and if you have questions about Vietnam, leave them in a comment on this post.

Thanks again JustLuxe for featuring my article!

Seven exotic locations for the price of a Vegas weekend

When I was at The Philadelphia Inquirer Travel Show, I got the opportunity to present attendees with “Seven Exotic Locations for the Price of a Vegas Weekend.” The response I got was overwhelming. The room filled up to standing room only for the entire 30 minutes! I felt like I was on American Idol.

When I got another opportunity to present at The New York Times Travel Show the following month, I knew I had to share these locations with this new crowd. Unfortunately, I only had 15 minutes to speak, so I trimmed the presentation down to five exotic locations.

After both presentations, travelers flooded Friendly Planet Travel’s booth with questions about these destinations, and I answered every single one. It seemed this topic struck a chord with travelers. Good thing we got it all on camera. 🙂

In case you missed it, here is my presentation at The Philadelphia Inquirer Travel Show on “Seven Exotic Locations for the Price of a Vegas Weekend.” Hit play, and if you have any questions, leave them in a comment on this post and I will respond.

Coming up is the video of my second presentation from The Philadelphia Inquirer Travel Show on “How to Compare Travel Offers for the Best Value.” Stay tuned for the footage.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

The New York Times calls out our Taste of China tour as a great way save money on a trip to Asia

Asia is a popular destination for savvy travelers, but it’s usually an expensive one.

But if there’s one person who can tell you how to trim your travel budget without trimming your experience, it’s Michelle Higgins of the The New York Times.

Her Practical Traveler column is widely read by travelers who want to see the world at a reasonable price.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was when she featured Friendly Planet Travel’s Taste of China tour in her article, “Saving Money on a Trip to Asia.”

She uses it as one of the ways to save when booking a trip to Asia because it combines air and hotel. I was even able to tell Michelle how travelers can experience all the wonders of Asia for hundreds of dollar less simply by going in the off season.

There’s one thing about Friendly Planet Travel that differs us from other money-saving tours. We don’t just save you money, we give you the extraordinary for the price of ordinary.

Thanks Michelle for featuring Friendly Planet Travel in your column! Head over to the article to get all of Michelle’s money-saving tips. And if you’re interested in traveling to Asia, look at the 13 tours Friendly Planet Travel offers.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

We meet Budget Travel’s Kate Appleton in the Big Apple

If there’s an extraordinary travel destination at an ordinary price, Kate Appleton knows about it. She has to. That’s because it’s her job as Senior Editor of Budget Travel. She’s been telling travelers how to “budget wisely to travel widely” since the website launched in 2005.

So I was thrilled when Kate was able to swing by Friendly Planet Travel’s booth at the recent New York Times Travel Show. While she was there, we cornered her for a quick one-on-one interview with Friendly Planet Travel’s blogger, Melissa.

Kate told Melissa about how she got her start in travel journalism, her thoughts on whether you should choose the better deal over the better value when booking a trip, the state of airport security, her favorite exotic destination, and much more. Watch the interview to get all of Kate’s travel know-how and advice.

Kate, it was wonderful to meet you! Thanks again for stopping by our booth.

How to stay healthy while traveling

In this past weekend’s New York Times Travel sectionMichele Higgins covered “How Not to Get Sick From a Flight.” While there’s some handy advice in it, some of the measures air travelers take are extreme.

I agree with Michelle that frequent hand washing is the best way to take care of germs that might make you sick. But you’ve heard me tell you this before, and why it’s important to buy travel insurance in the event you get sick when traveling.

However, the excessive attention paid to trying to make our environment as germ-free as possible has, in my opinion, made us incapable of fighting germs the way we were meant to — using our body’s natural defenses.

I like to believe I’m not germaphobic. I don’t use hand sanitizers, except when I know I can’t get to water and soap. And did you know that hand sanitizers can’t kill the number one thing that most people catch — the cold. I’ve also concluded from personal experience that products such as Airborne appear to be ineffective.

Despite traveling frequently, particularly by air, I almost never get sick with anything but a cold, which can’t be avoided if someone on the flight has one. And those nasty cold germs don’t even need to come from your seat mate. Someone sitting in another cabin who is hacking and coughing can make you sick.

After 30 years of being a frequent flier, I’m still healthy. So here are some normal precautions I take when I travel by air:

  • I wipe off the tray table before using it. 
  • When I wash my hands in any public space, I use the paper towel (after drying my hands) to open the door. 
  • I use the protective paper seat covers before using the commode. 
  • I try not to touch the hand rails on the moving sidewalks or escalators inside the airport.

You can buy all the health items described in Michelle’s article that are marketed to make you feel germ-free when traveling by air. But it’s like buying expensive facial creams. You know you’re paying a fortune for something that probably works about as well as mayonnaise. On the off chance the expensive cream might actually work, you pay the money anyway. You do it on the basis of a promise of some potential benefit, and in my opinion, the same is true for many of these products.

That said, it is possible some of these products might be helpful. Not having completed my own advanced degree in microbiology, I can only attest to my general knowledge and experience, but I wouldn’t go to a tremendous amount of trouble to stock up on all of that precautionary stuff. I would just remember to wash my hands a lot. What are some steps you take to avoid getting sick when traveling? Tell me about it in a comment.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

Another reason Costa Rica is one of the happiest places on Earth

Cameron and Amy at La Fortuna waterfall

Costa Rica was named one of the happiest places on Earth, and it certainly earned that title and more in the eyes of Cameron Clark and his new fiancée Amy Steinfeld on a recent trip to the country.

Cameron is Friendly Planet Travel’s webmaster, and when he decided to pop the question to Amy, he looked through Friendly Planet Travel’s catalog of tours and picked Costa Rica as the place to do it. Cameron got down on one knee and Amy said yes! Congrats Cameron and Amy, I couldn’t be happier for you two.

Cameron was so excited to share the news with us at Friendly Planet Travel that he didn’t stop there. He told us about everything else that made Costa Rica memorable.

Cameron customized his Costa Rica trip itinerary, but he did visit many of the cities on the Captivating Costa Rica and Costa Rica Pura Vida tours. They included San Jose, Tortuguero, Arenal, Monteverde, La Fortuna, and Santa Elena.

He detailed what he and Amy saw and explored in each of these locales in his e-mail. So I asked him if it was OK to share it on the blog to give readers a first-hand look at some of the places they can explore on our Costa Rica tours.

He graciously said yes and shared some spectacular photos he and Amy took. Read on to get a little history of Costa Rica and what some of the cities on Friendly Planet Travel Costa Rica tours are like.


Hey all,

Amy and I just back from Costa Rica late Sunday night. The trip was fantastic — probably the most relaxing and romantic vacation I’ve ever taken. Felt like much longer than nine days.

And some good news — Amy and I are engaged! No surprise to anybody, of course … except, somehow, Amy! I can’t imagine being any happier or luckier.

And now I’m sending you a not-so-brief summary of our trip, which you’re free to read!

Tortuguero, Costa Rica

San Jose. We started by flying into the capital and biggest city.

San Jose is not as dirty, run-down and dangerous as other Central American cities, but is certainly not the most photogenic part of the country.

Luckily, we had reservations at perhaps the most beautiful and charming hotel in the city, the Grano de Oro, a century-old tropical Victorian mansion that was once home to one of the Costa Rican coffee baron families.

From here, we explored the crowded markets, well-worn cathedrals and quaint squares of the city on foot and recovered from our red-eye flight.

Tortuguero. The next day, we were picked up and taken to a remote spot on the Caribbean coast called Tortuguero. Getting there was no easy task; we wound through several hundred kms of roads through cloud forests over the continental divide; turned off onto 30+ km of dirt roads through banana plantations; then changed to a boat for the last hour of the trip. (And all this in the pouring rain.)

Amy high above the rainforest

Tortuguero is a brackish delta of rivers and natural canals, surrounded by impenetrable jungle, which can only be accessed by boat or by air. Our hotel (if you can call it that) was located on a narrow forested island strung between one of these canals and the Caribbean Sea.

The beach here is one of the most important nesting spots for green sea turtles, as well as other species of turtles (tortugas), and during the nesting season (which we just missed), you can stay up all night and watch the hatchlings dig their way up through the sand and drag themselves out to the sea, only to return when they lay their own eggs.

But Tortuguero is also famous for a wide variety of other wildlife, including spider, howler & capuchin monkeys; iguanas; crocodiles and caymans; jaguars & ocelots; and a mind-boggling number of butterfly, insect and bird species.

Though this area is perhaps the wettest in Costa Rica — it rains without fail every single day — we were lucky to get almost one full dry-ish day, during which explored the canals by boat with a very knowledgeable guide.

Later, the rain provided a nice excuse to spend a couple of languorous evenings taking refuge in our cozy cabin, during which I had plenty of time to get down on one knee. 🙂

A glimpse at the peak of Arenal

La Fortuna and Arenal. We were next escorted halfway back to San Jose, where we got a rental car and began exploring on our own. First stop was Costa Rica’s most active volcano, Arenal.

After erupting in 1968 (wiping out a town and killing a bunch of people), it’s been more well-behaved, though it consistently chortles out smoke and bits of lava ever since.

It’s usually covered with clouds, but if you’re lucky, you’ll see the ribbons of lava at night and hear explosions. The nearby town of La Fortuna is home base to all sorts of adventure activities, but we decided to explore on our own, and were again lucky enough to get nearly perfect weather. We hiked up to the famous La Fortuna waterfall, a ribbon of water surrounded by dense rainforest, and swam in the pools.

Next, we hiked around the base of Arenal itself, catching a quick glimpse of the peak when the clouds parted for a moment. Then we drove down a little dirt road out to Rancho Margot for an incredibly inspiring tour of the most legitimate eco-lodge I’ve ever seen. We finished it all off with a romantic evening at Tabacón hot springs, a ridiculously gorgeous (manmade) paradise that Adam & Eve would have envied.

Cameron at the base of a 100-year-old Ceiba tree

Monteverde and Santa Elena. We next drove around beautiful (manmade) Lake Arenal and up into the mountains to Monteverde, Costa Rica’s most famous cloud forest.

Though only 25 kms from Arenal, the drive took over three hours in the rain, half of it on steep, windy, narrow dirt roads that suffer (like all of Costa Rica) from far too few signposts. Though I hadn’t really wanted it first, the rental company’s free upgrade to a 4-wheel drive SUV came in very handy!

We finally arrived in the small Tico town of Santa Elena, which felt very much like California’s old remote gold country towns high in the Sierra Nevada. Despite its size, Santa Elena boasts many nice hotels & restaurants and dozens of adventure activity outfits. Instead of the somewhat overrun Monteverde reserve, we spent our one full day here in and around the adjacent Santa Elena reserve, once again with nearly perfect weather.

After a three-hour hike led by a well-trained guide, we headed to the Selvatura center, purchasing a package that included 13 zip lines, a terrifying “Tarzan swing,” a well-maintained hiking trail with copious swinging canopy bridges, a hummingbird garden, and a butterfly aviary. As dusk fell and the animals started to reclaim the cloud forest, we finally wandered out, the last of hundreds of tourists to leave, and found our way back to our cabin, with its incredible views over the mountains down to the Nicoya peninsula.

The next morning, we took a tour with Monteverde Coffee Company of a small organic coffee farm with an incredibly sweet second-generation Tico farmer, who let us harvest some coffee beans alongside his 80 year-old father, then crush some sugarcane and drink the juice.

After a night in Cartago, a pretty little town and the original capital of Costa Rica, we headed back to San Jose. And after getting rather lost, managed to make it back to the airport with just 45 minutes to catch our flight — which luckily, we did.