Check out this week’s Friday Funny from cartoonist Dave Blazek! Also remember to enter our Great Greece Giveaway for a chance to win a free trip to Greece!
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Friday’s Friendly Funny: The favorite brother
Why now is the time to visit Greece: Q-and-A with our favorite Greek tour guide
Greece is a richly complex country, filled with unmatched natural beauty, antiquities, a warm and welcoming culture, and world-class cuisine. To truly appreciate the wonder that is Greece, I sat down with a long-time friend and awesome Greek tour guide, Aliki Karvelas, to discover, from the perspective of a true professional, what makes Greece a destination of a lifetime for tourists.
For more than 23 years, Aliki has been introducing English-speaking visitors to the people, history, and beauty of Greece. Her unmatched passion for the country makes her the perfect ambassador for this nation, which is now finally reemerging as a top European destination.
Here’s what Aliki had to say about the country she loves.
1. Friendly Planet Travel: How would you compare tourism in Greece before the 2010 and 2012 Greek protests, during the protests, and now? Do you think tourism is on the rise?
Aliki Karvelas: The Olympics returned to Greece in 2004, and the international attention spurred Greek tourism for the next few years. Then the 2010 economic crisis hit, sparking a wave of protests and demonstrations in Athens that generated a great deal of negative publicity from the international media. Yet much of the story was misrepresented. Few people realized that the demonstrations and protests only took place in specific areas in Athens, and the majority of demonstrations were very peaceful. Because of the negative publicity, Greece suffered three years of low tourism, drastically reducing visitor numbers. As a nation whose economy relies heavily on tourism, this decline bankrupted many restaurants, hotels, and stores.
Today, things are almost back to normal in Greece. We’re very optimistic about the return of our tourism sector. Last year alone, around 17.9 million people visited. For a country with a little more than 11 million residents, that’s a significant number. Visitor numbers are looking equally favorable this year, with experts predicting around 18.5 million people visiting Greece in 2014. If the tours I’ve already booked are any barometer, 2014 will be a great year for Greek tourism.
2. Why is Greece a fantastic destination for travelers?
Friday’s Friendly Funny: Beautiful Greek islands
Check out this week’s Friday Funny from cartoonist Dave Blazek! Also remember to enter our Great Greece Giveaway for a chance to win a free trip to Greece!
One young traveler’s perspective on Greece
A few months ago, I contributed my first article to the Huffington Post where I made the case that travelers should still be booking trips to see the fascinating, historical country of Greece. I also mentioned in the article that Eli and Aileen Fink, our CFO and Operations Manager at Friendly Planet Travel respectively, would be taking their two young daughters on a trip to Greece this summer.
Upon their return, I asked if they would like to share their experience on our blog, and an enthusiastic traveler jumped at the chance! Loren, Eli and Aileen’s 12-year-old daughter, was excited to blog about her family trip to Greece and what she saw while she was there. Read on to get the full story from Loren’s perspective.
“I have loved Greek mythology for the past two years and I was so excited when I found out that my family and I were going to Greece for a summer vacation.
The temples to the gods were mainly in ruins, just stones and pillars, but it was still so astonishing to see all those places and imagine what it was like centuries ago. It was a great experience. I got to learn new things, try new foods, and see mind-blowing places.
Greece is an amazing place. There are many beautiful sites to see from the Acropolis to Apollo’s sanctuary in Delphi. Greece has a long and interesting history, so you can learn a lot from visiting Greece, and if you love to shop, there is a place in Athens called the Plakka, which has many stores and restaurants. There are many things that will surely amaze you.
Recapping Friendly Planet Travel’s first live Facebook travel chat
|CHAT AWAY: I was happy to answer your travel questions
during our first live Facebook chat!
Having traveled both professionally and personally for over 30 years, I am often used as a resource for a wealth of travel questions. So you might have seen that we held our first-ever live chat on Friendly Planet Travel’s Facebook page. I answered many of our fans’ travel questions in real-time, and had a great time doing so. I wanted to share some of the biggest takeaways with those who missed it.
Q: What are the benefits of booking with a travel agency versus booking on my own?
A: The benefits are various, but mainly, you’ll save money. We spend a lot of time getting great deals for our passengers and we pass those on to you. Also, you’re getting plenty of expertise. All that research you’ll need to do, we’ve already done it.
Q: Out of all the cruises you’ve taken, which is your favorite and why?
A: Honestly, the very best cruise I have ever taken was on a small ship, part of the Cruceros Australis fleet, in Patagonia. I loved this cruise because it was an amazing adventure, not just fancy food each day — we visited some of the most pristine places in our hemisphere. Also, the size of the cruise was very conducive to making new friends.
Q: Do you save any money planning a trip far in advance?
A: It doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, especially with airlines and cruises, the best rates are not always available far in advance. However, with tour companies like ours, if we see opportunities to reduce cost, we always pass along the benefits, even at the last minute. The main reason to book early is to be sure you get the trip you want. If you wait, you might not get the space at all.
Q: Do you have any recommendations for traveling abroad, specifically to Ireland?
A: If you are traveling on your own, perhaps with a rental car and some basic hotel arrangements, you’ll want to check in with the Irish Tourist Board. It has a tremendous amount of information, plus plenty of recommendations for restaurants, pubs, and fun events, many of which are completely for free. Since there isn’t a language problem, you’ll meet plenty of warm and friendly people among the Irish who will share their personal favorites regardless of where you travel. Ireland is one the most accessible destinations for Americans.
Q: What would you recommend for a good girls’ getaway trip, one with lots of sightseeing but also some relaxation?
A: Go to Tuscany. It’s amazingly rich in touring opportunities; it’s gorgeous, friendly, with great food and plenty of opportunities to relax.
Q: Is it safe to travel to Greece right now?
A: You bet it’s safe. There is no problem with safety in Greece today. Not a bit. The Greeks have their issues with their economy. Tourist are not only safe, they are major personas MUY GRATAS. The Greeks will treat guests like royalty, and there is no reason at all not to consider visiting Greece this summer.
Q: When is it best to exchange dollar for Euros?
A: Never exchange money in the U.S. before taking a trip abroad. Your best exchange rate will be in the country you’re visiting. You can exchange some money when you arrive, usually right in the airport. That will get you started with local currency for tips or small purchases. Then you can check the local exchange places you’ll find everywhere or at the banks. You should check Travel.State.gov for information regarding specifics of customs, health requirements, alerts, and lots of other information. The site is for U.S. travelers, and it is very helpful.
I want to thank everyone who participated in our first of many live travel chats. If you missed it, we are holding our next chat on Sept. 7 at 1 p.m. EST. Join in and ask me your biggest travel questions. Just remember, it’s better to know before you go!
Why travelers should be visiting Greece
Bookings to Greece are down and there are many theories as to why. I believe that it is due to the perception that Greece is in chaos. However, I also think this sentiment is very overblown. The combination is an unfortunate situation, because Greece remains a magnificently beautiful country with so much to offer, such as history, archaeology, gorgeous scenery, and much more.
I covered this topic further in my first blog contribution to The Huffington Post. Check it out, and pick up where I left off about the current situation in Greece.
I also wanted to share some pictures of what makes this destination so fabulous:
Greece is known for its history, romance, music, and more. It was home to the first advanced civilizations in Europe, making it one of the most historically rich places in the world.
Mykonos, another Greek Island, is known for its nightlife and beach resort atmosphere. Beautiful clear water, white sand, and warm people make this location a perfect one for a summer getaway.
The Temple of Poseidon, located on Cape Sounion,was constructed in 444-440 BC, and was destroyed by Emperor Arcadius in 399. It was built to honor Poseidon, a Greek God who was second only to Zeus. It stands today as remembrance of the past.
Let us know: Are you planning a trip to Greece despite the booking slump? If so, why?
Part seven of our first-hand look at the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise
When I left you last, I was about to go to the most famous (and some say the most beautiful) Greek Isle: Santorini. To pick up where I left off …
The Aquamarine set a course northward from Heraklion, Crete toward our next destination. And just a few hours later the ship was in the caldera (like cauldron). It’s the large, central lagoon from which Santorini’s 900-foot cliffs rise. The land mass is what remains of a volcanic eruption. Its crescent moon shape wraps around a large basin where the island literally collapsed in on itself.
It’s a stunning view from the caldera, looking up at the white-washed towns built into the cliffside. This is where our group had a decision to make. How would we get to the top? There were three options.
1. Take a bus to Oia (pronounced ee-a), the town with white buildings and blue domes where many well-known photographs of Santorini are taken.
2. Walk up a steep, winding path to Thira.
3. Ride a donkey up the cliff.
Obviously, I went with option three. It was a crazy experience that I won’t attempt to describe. Watch the video instead!
After saying goodbye to our donkeys, we spent some time exploring Thira, which is packed with little shops and was bustling with tourists. As it got later in the day, we looked for a place where we’d have a perfect view of the famous Santorini sunset.
The spot we chose was the deck of a cliffside cafe. We ordered our five thousandth Greek salad, a few cappuccinos, and the photo shoot began. It really was the most incredible sunset I’ve ever seen. Here are some of the shots I took.
When it was all over, we rode a gondola down the cliff to the water …
… and embarqued on the Aquamarine one last time. In the morning, we’d be back in Athens for the remaining days of our trip.
A Michigan family’s adventure on Friendly Planet Travel’s Athens and 4-Day Greek Isles Cruise
Taking your whole family to the Mediterranean can be an adventure of a lifetime, and it sounds like it was for Sarah Hirsch from West Bloomfield, Mich. She went on Friendly Planet Travel’s Athens and 4-Day Greek Isles Cruise with her husband, Kevin, and son and daughter, Jacob and Elena.
The Hirsch family recently returned from their tour of Greece and sent me an e-mail recapping their trip. I thought I would share with you all the kind things Sarah had to say and her beautiful photos. Thanks Sarah!
|Our family at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece|
It may be a small world after all, but it sure seems big when trying to narrow down vacation options. Luckily, Friendly Planet Travel makes planning a vacation easy with a variety of specific itineraries of the best destinations around the world.
I had always wanted to go to Greece and see the beautiful islands, and visit amazing historical sites like the Acropolis, Agora, Plaka, and Panathenaic Stadium.
The Athens and 4-day Greek Islands Cruise itinerary offered by Friendly Planet provided me the opportunity to do all of this and more. With help and guidance from our Friendly Planet Travel agent, Becca, it was easy to prepare for a once in a lifetime family vacation.
Our journey began with an overnight flight to Europe, and our layover in Germany gave us a morning to explore the lovely Frankfurt. We arrived in Athens in the late afternoon, and were met by a Friendly Planet representative who brought us to our hotel.
|Our family on the Greek Isles|
It was so nice to eliminate the stress of handling ground transportation as that was all taken care of, since it is included on every vacation booked through Friendly Planet.
Our evening consisted of an informational meeting with Yanni, our Friendly Planet point person in Greece, who gave us all of the information we would need for our cruise and oriented us for the week.
We chose to have dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, which featured a view of the Acropolis all lit up for the night like a beacon welcoming visitors to Athens.
The next morning we were taken by bus to the port, where we embarked on our cruise. The ship brought us to the ports of Mykonos, Kusadasi (Turkey), Patmos, Rhodes, Crete and Santorini in the span of four days and four nights.
We were at each destination only briefly, just long enough to taste each island’s unique flavor. These ports of call are so fantastic that even to simply walk around town and spend a few moments dipping our feet into the Aegean Sea equalled an incredible experience.
|Elena and I in Ephessus, Turkey|
Friendly Planet offers optional excursions for an additional fee in each of the ports. We mostly chose to explore on our own, though we did take an organized tour that we booked through Yanni to the ancient ruins in Ephessus in Turkey, which gave us a look back to the way of life experienced thousands of years ago.
Our final stop was Santorini, which is so unique a place on Earth that it kind of blows your mind a little!
After the cruise, we had two more nights in Athens. Our hotel was located just a couple of minutes walking distance to most of the best sites to see in Athens. Because we chose to go during the middle of summer, the temperature hovered around 100 degrees, so we broke up our days by spending the siesta hours at the hotel pool to keep us cool.
|Kevin, Jacob, and Elena in front of Greece’s famous windmills|
We began our days with the complimentary breakfasts at the hotel, and spent our mornings and evenings seeing Athens’ great sites.
From the Parthenon and Acropolis, to Syntagma Square, where we used the free wifi to check in back home. The Parliament building where we caught the changing of the guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier, the Ancient Agora, the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, the Panathenaic Stadium, home of the first modern Olympics, the new Acropolis museum, the National Gardens, and the Plaka, the main streets of Athens, where we found many great shops and restaurants to enjoy.
We left early on our final morning, with a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call, but as tired as we were, Yanni was there with a friendly smile to help us arrive in the right place at the airport.
Overall our voyage was indeed incredible. It was everything that I had always imagined my desired trip to Greece would be, without any of the stress that can come along with trying to manage all the details of traveling abroad. I will always be grateful to Friendly Planet Travel for providing my family with this wonderful experience. Thank you!
My most embarrassing makeup moment: Don’t let it happen to you
I happened to find myself in a funny predicament during one of my trips. When I told my staff the story, they laughed and encouraged me to share it with you. It’s especially applicable to the female readers, and you’ll soon see why.
Not too long ago, my husband, Ilan, and I traveled to Greece on business. I didn’t know it at the time, but rushing to leave my hotel in the morning, I forgot my makeup bag in my room.
I was heading out to a hectic day and I already felt like all the odds were stacked against me. I had caught a terrible cold and was feeling sick, exhausted, and to top it off, the weather was terrible.
Ilan and I were evaluating cruise ships to decide which ones to use in Friendly Planet tours, and we were meeting with our suppliers to talk about contracts and other items. I always try to look my best, especially at important meetings, who wouldn’t? But between arriving in Athens and inspecting the ships, I started to look like quite the mess.
I wore jeans and sneakers, because I was walking around a ship that was being renovated. The wind and rain were whipping, which was anything but friendly to my naturally curly hair. Plus, my nose had turned a bright red from rubbing it with endless tissues, and my makeup, applied much earlier that day, was quickly eroding. I should have seen the signs then that things weren’t going to go my way that night.
Unfortunately, the cruise ship inspections lasted far longer than I anticipated. There was no way I could get back to the hotel to freshen up before the meeting with our suppliers. There was nothing I could do about my wardrobe, but I thought I could try to salvage the hair and makeup before our hosts arrived.
So I went into the ladies’ room at the restaurant where we were meeting, and began frantically digging through my purse for my makeup bag in order to fix up my makeup and hair. I quickly realized with horror that I had left it at the hotel, along with my hair brush, spray, and anything else I might have needed to make myself look decent.
I wanted to cry. How was I going to conduct a meeting looking like a monster with a red nose, black mascara under my eyes, and hair practically standing on end? Realizing there was nothing I could do to help myself, I went on with the meeting. At least I had a glass of dry Greek chardonnay to smooth out my despair.
You might think the story is over, but you haven’t heard the funny part yet. The next time I met with the suppliers, I was dressed properly, my makeup was done, and my hair was coiffed and in place. Remembering me from our previous meeting, they didn’t recognize me!
There was a moment of embarrassed silence when I shook their hands and they stood before me, clueless as to who I was. We all laughed when they remembered the story. But by their astounded faces, reflecting the evidently dramatic before and after images of me they now compared, I understood that I must never, ever leave my makeup anywhere. 😉
So from that day on I started to practice a few tips to make sure my makeup bag is always with me and convenient enough to tuck into the smallest purse.
Here’s how to pack your makeup:
- Buy your makeup in travel sizes. Or, when you buy the full-sized products, ask for travel-size samples.
- Pack your cosmetics in one bag and keep it with you in your purse.
- Keep creams, lotions, and other items you won’t need for make-up repairs in a separate bag, in your carry-on case.
- Carry Q-tips for smudging eyeliner and quick clean up jobs under eyes.
Here’s what to pack in your cosmetics bag:
- Mineral powder and brush (better than foundation and easier to carry and apply or reapply)
- Small blusher and brush
- Lip gloss wand in a subtle color
- Small eye pencil
- An eye brush that will separate lashes, brush brows, etc.
- A sample-size mascara
Do you have a funny story to tell? Please share it with us in a comment on this post.
Part three of our first-hand look at Friendly Planet’s Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise
Picking up from where I left off, recounting my experience on the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise …
When I left you last, we had arrived at the port of Piraeus where we would board the Aquamarine — the cruise ship that would become our home for the next four nights. For those of you who have never been on a cruise, the boarding experience, called embarkation, is exactly what you would imagine. Wait in a line, drop off your bags, and climb the gangway into the belly of the boat.
But there’s one thing about it you might not expect — you have to hand over your passport for the duration of the trip. Considering that international travelers are told over and over again that their passport is the single most important item they own, and that they must risk life and limb to protect it, putting that precious book in the hands of a very friendly, but completely unfamiliar port agent can be panic inducing.
But rest assured, this is how it’s always done. They will not take off with a few thousand passports for a good laugh. And it will be safely returned before you leave the cruise ship at the end of your stay.
|Participating in our life boat drill|
In return for your passport, you’re given a plastic ID card. This is your replacement passport. If you are ever asked to produce one while on a shore excursion, you can show them your cruise ID card and they’ll know exactly what it is. The card is also linked to a personal credit or debit card so you don’t have to carry around cash or other cards while you’re on the ship.
Upon boarding the ship, the five of us were greeted by the staff of the Aquamarine and led to our cabins. Quick note about cabins on a cruise ship: They are not designed for the over packer. Do everything in your power to keep pieces of luggage to a minimum if you want to be able to walk to and from the door.
After a lengthy (and hilarious) life boat drill, where many jokes about the Titanic were made, we spent the afternoon acclimating ourselves to the layout of the ship, lounging by the pool, and reading up on Mykonos, the first stop on our trip.
Once a quiet fishing village, this tiny island currently boasts a population of about 11,000 and has become one of the most popular summer tourist destinations in Europe. During the summer season, the population shoots to 55,000, and the beautiful beaches, narrow streets, and about 100 bars and clubs are packed with vacationers.
|The winding streets of Mykonos|
Before disembarking at Mykonos, our tour guide, Heather gathered us together to tell us a bit more about Mykonos. Her biggest piece of advice? Try not to get lost, it’s very, very easy.
Known as the windiest island in the Aegean, the town of Mykonos was built to break the gusts coming in from the sea. Wind enters the city through a break in the buildings, only to be stopped by a wall of houses where the road splits off in two, or three, or more different directions.
If you click on the image to the right, which I found on The Mykonos Island Reservation and Travel Agency website, you can see how the streets look like a tangled web. According to Heather, the confusing layout had a secondary purpose. It was a way to slow down the pirates who attacked the port from time to time.
While intruders would quickly get lost in the confusing streets, locals would shut themselves into their houses, climb to the top floor, and drop boards connecting balcony to balcony over the narrow pathways. They would run from house to house and hide, unbeknownst to the pirates wandering the maze below.
|My first Greek sunset|
Before disembarking at Mykonos, I had a minute to catch my first Greek sunset on film, looking over the deck of the ship. Then we were off, down the gangway on onto buses that drove us the mile from where the ship docked into the town.
Heather was right. From pretty much the moment we took our first turn, we were completely disoriented. Had we been there in season, when the streets are jammed with people, I don’t know how we ever would have been able to find our way out. But because it was late March, and the night air was still chilly, Mykonos was ours to explore.
Once we were thoroughly lost in the streets, we explored our way right into a local restaurant for dinner. We sampled delicious moussaka, pita, tzatziki, and chicken gyros.
Our waiter even offered us a round of complementary dessert liquor! We thought we were special, until the table of American guys next to us said they’d been given an entire bottle to share the night before. I guess it was just that famous Greek hospitality, not how cute we looked. 🙂
|A narrow street in Mykonos|
The experience in Mykonos might have been a bit different had we arrived two weeks later. It’s truly the heart of the European party scene, once the weather turns warm. But no matter what time of year you’re there, the architecture is beautiful, and you really feel like you’ve been transported to another time.
After finishing our dinner and more free drinks from our waiter, it was time to find our way out of the town (easier than we thought it would be) and back to the bus.
One island down, four to go! Check back for my next post and an explanation of how you end up in Turkey when you’re on a trip to Greece.