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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.

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!

10 Hauntingly Beautiful Cemeteries

What makes a cemetery special? Perhaps it’s the size, or the number of tombs? Or is it the age of the graveyard, or the famous people buried there? Are they architectural masterpieces in baroque style, or are they more whimsical? Find out for yourself below, as we celebrate Halloween with a list of ten of the most haunting and beautiful cemeteries from around the world!

Père Lachaise Cemetery © Alexander Baxevanis / Flickr

1 Père Lachaise, France

This one of a kind collection of burial sites located in the heart of Paris is known to be the most visited cemetery in the world. The Père Lachaise opened in 1804 and experts estimate that there are somewhere between 300,000 and 1,000,000 people buried on its grounds. Many celebrities are laid to rest among the grand tombs and mausoleums including Oscar Wild, Frédéric Chopin, George Seurat, and even the Doors’ Jim Morrison!

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Take a tax holiday — on Uncle Sam

Tax season is almost over! Now that filing is nearly complete, it’s time for many of us to start looking forward to our refunds. This year alone, U.S. taxpayers already received an average of $2,831 per person in refunds, a significant amount of money that could whisk you away on an exotic vacation!

For that reason, I came up with a few suggestions for how travelers can get the most out of their newly acquired cash.

If you’re on the more conservative side of the refund spectrum or want to pocket some of the extra money, here’s my list of tax-refund trips travelers can take for under $2,000, including airfare.

  • Explore Exotic Ecuador for $1,399: Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, boasting more than 300 species of mammals alone. Visitors can tour the natural hot springs in Baños, view the volcanic peaks of Cotopaxi National Park, and explore the world’s most biologically diverse rainforest — the Amazon. Journey back in time with a visit to Quito, the nation’s capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and explore the city’s Spanish colonial architecture dating back to the 16th century. A trip to Ecuador is like immersing yourself in the world’s greatest biology class, and one that visitors will never forget.
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The miracle of Israel that touches travelers of all walks of life

The following is a guest post from Dr. Steven Derfler, who just returned from Israel with a group.


Traveling to the ancient land of David and Solomon, Sarah and Deborah, the ministry of Jesus, and 3rd holiest place in Islam, is to be profoundly touched by history. The art and archaeology of this biblical world “puts flesh onto the bones” of the literature and religion that shapes the 3 great western religious traditions.

As an archaeology professor who has been a part of many excavations in Israel, and served as the American director of 2 projects, I try to bring the passion of rediscovery to those who travel with me. As a result, in-depth explanation on an archaeology and history-oriented study tour brings the biblical world to life again. Then, when you add in the opportunity to visit the sites with fellow archaeologists involved in the process itself gives a first-hand perspective not often found in study tours.

This was lure of our program this past October. Perhaps the signature site for archaeology and history of ancient Israel is the mountain-top monolith of Masada; overlooking the Dead Sea. The fortress citadel of King Herod over 2000 years ago, this site later went on to become the rallying point of Jewish identity and self-preservation — as defenders were the last to hold out against Rome in 73 CE. Having worked on the mountain myself, one of my closest friends in Israel is the Director of Masada National Park, Eitan Campbell. He would greet the group personally, and offer his own eloquent description of the fortress initially excavated by Yigal Yadin in the mid-60s. It has been the focus of his entire adult life in Israel, and his love for the site came through in his discussion — a fact not lost on the group. (more…)

The top 10 places and sites to visit in Israel

Here are our top 10 places and sites to visit in Israel (in no particular order):

Jerusalem: One of the oldest cities in the world, sacred to three major monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.


Religious pilgrims have been traveling to Jerusalem for centuries, as Jerusalem is full of significant historical, religious and educational sites. Must-sees include:

  • The Western (Wailing) Wall, which is over 2000 years old. It is the most sacred site recognized by the Jewish faith, and the most visited site in Israel.
  • The Temple Mount, one of the most important religious sites in Jerusalem’s Old City. It is the third most important site in Islam, and the most important in Judaism. 
  • The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most holy Christian site in the world.

Shrine of the Book: home to the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.

Located in the national Israel Museum in Jersalem, the largest museum and cultural complex in the country, the Shrine of the Book houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Scrolls are a collection of 972 texts discovered between 1946 and 1956 found on the shore of the Dead Sea, from which they derive their name, and are of great historical and religious significance. They consist of biblical manuscripts from what is known as the Hebrew Bible. (more…)

Why Israel is a country with something for everyone

The first time I visited Israel, it was 1972, a full year before the Yom Kippur War. It was a far simpler place then, with no skyscrapers, no color TV anywhere in the country, and little in the way of luxury goods. It was a time when calculators were golden gifts for Israeli students; transistor radios were treasured by young army recruits; and wineries were known by a single name, Carmel.

I’ve been to Israel many, many times since that first trip more than 40 years ago, when my tour guide made me cry because I wandered away from my group and made everyone late for the next stop on our tour. With each visit, I’ve come to appreciate more and more the amazing diversity and dynamism of this incredible country.

Only 68 years ago, survivors of the Holocaust staggered out of the ashes of the death camps and made their way (mostly illegally) to the shores of the yet-to-be declared State of Israel. I realize there are plenty of political issues surrounding the founding of Israel the nation, and there’s plenty to say about the politics of the region. But despite all of that, no one can deny that so much has been done in so little time. Amazing hardly describes the place. You simply have to see it for yourself to understand what progress, in the face of adversity, means. (more…)

Friendly Planet Travel is 30 years old thanks to you

One of the things I’m often asked is how did Friendly Planet Travel start. And I’m being asked this even more today because I’ve been telling everyone that we reached our 30th year in business.

That’s quite an accomplishment in the world of travel, so I thought I would share that story here on the blog. But before I do, I want to thank you.

Without you booking our tours for the past three decades, we wouldn’t have been able to come this far. For that, I couldn’t be more grateful.

So let’s get to the story. Thirty years ago I was a single mother of two searching for a full-time position teaching English to support my family. I took a job as a travel agent in the interim just to pay the bills.

It was at that job that I first heard about the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors that was going to be taking place in Israel. It was the first time that survivors of the Holocaust would meet in Jerusalem.

I seized the opportunity to create my first group tour. It consisted of 200 local Holocaust survivors and their families who I would help take part in this historic gathering. Little did I know that at that moment, my teaching career was over.

Organizing and then participating in that first group tour to Israel was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my life. We witnessed Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin stand on the Western Wall in Jerusalem saying “never again” in many different languages. It was extraordinary.

That first group tour unleashed a passion — maybe even an obsession — that needed to be satisfied by doing it again and again. And that’s how Friendly Planet Travel was established.

From there I kept selling group tours to Israel, and I soon extended them to Christian organizations. I spoke in churches all across America about why, from the perspective of a child of Holocaust survivors, it was important for Christians to be supportive of Israel. It was a great personal and professional experience, and the groups evolved and grew in number.

Eventually business expanded outside of religious groups, and I started adding new, exotic destinations. Today we have over 54 tours to exotic points around the globe to choose from — from the Middle East, to Africa, to Asia, to Europe, to the Mediterranean, to Central American, to South America.

Throughout our growth, we’ve also seen the travel industry change dramatically. The Internet’s ability to let you book your own trip put a lot of travel agencies out of business. But we stayed a step ahead to keep giving you new ways to experience more exotic parts of the world. In fact, Friendly Planet Travel was one of the first tour operators to develop an escorted touring program exclusively for the Web.

It’s embarrassing to admit this now, but I didn’t know what the Internet was when people first started talking about it! But someone suggested that it would be good for business, so I decided to check it out. We launched Friendly Planet Travel’s website in 2001 and anxiously waited for the phones to start ringing — and they did!

Happily, they are still ringing today, all those years later. Later, we added the ability to book a tour online. And just this year, you might have noticed our new booking engine that lets you personalize your vacations using our build-your-own-cruise engine.

As incredible as it was to have launched an Internet travel business so long ago, it was inconceivable that we would become pioneers of the social media revolution. I never considered that at my age, I would find myself in the midst of so much new and exciting social media activity.

We launched our travel blog in 2009, and it has become a key component of our customer communications. In fact, you might remember it being featured by FOXNews Live for the way we use it to update travelers on breaking travel news, new travel trends, share expert travel advice, media coverage, videos, interviews, and more.

Back in 1981, I never thought about where I would end up in 30 years. Now, three decades later, I’m still here. I feel so lucky to have what to me feels like the best job in the world. Thank you for booking our tours to make it all possible. 🙂

SCOTTEVEST Travel Clothing takes the weight off your shoulders

Scott Jordan, CEO and founder of SCOTTEVEST 

I’m kicking off my search for the perfect travel gear today with an ingenious article of clothing — SCOTTEVEST. It lets women and men travel hands free. The SCOTTEVEST really caught my eye and my attention because I always carry a purse or a large tote bag when I travel.

The bag contains all my things for the flight, including my travel documents, netbook, iPhone, books, a change of underwear, cosmetics, and anything else I can’t live without for the duration of the trip abroad.

It all fits inside the tote, but that tote becomes pretty heavy once it’s loaded. And what a mess when I have to go through security! And with all that stuff inside the tote, imagine me trying to quickly put my hands on my iPhone when it rings. No way. It’s buried with all the other stuff. The phone usually stops ringing before I can get to it.

And men are in a similar boat. They use a backpack or other bag to hold their wallet, documents, smart phone, camera, etc. This extra bulk can weigh down your travel experience — literally.

SCOTTEVEST Travel Clothing is stylish clothing that actually saves you from having to carry around purses and bags, since every garment has tons of pockets where you can securely stow gear and gadgets. I know this might seem impossible, but when you see them for yourself, you’ll understand why these garments are so ingenious and helpful.

The SCOTTEVEST trademark vest has 22 pockets alone. It actually has special places for everything I carry in my tote bag, plus a pockets for a water bottle and a small camera. And guess what? The items don’t bulge out making you look (and feel) like a pack horse, and the vest is made from breathable, lightweight material making it quite comfortable to wear.

I have never promoted items on this blog, but honestly, it seems to me that SCOTTEVEST clothing has managed to solve a very common problem for travelers. I think Friendly Planet travelers would find them ideal for our tours.

For example, the vest is suited for travel in safari vehicles, which typically have little storage space even for a purse or hand luggage. Or, consider our island hopping tours, where frequently getting on and off boats makes having hands free to steady yourself virtually a must!

I loved the whole idea behind the clothes and was delighted when Scott Jordan, the founder and CEO of SCOTTEVEST agreed to be interviewed by Melissa, a Friendly Planet blogger, for a podcast.

During their interview, Melissa found out how Scott’s clothing aids travelers in getting through airport security faster, eliminates the need for a carry-on bag, what destinations it’s ideal for, and more. He also gave us a sneak peek at what they’ll be introducing for the holiday season. (Hint: It involves an article of clothing usually only seen by the wearer.)

SCOTTEVEST is also sponsoring the No Baggage Challenge with Rolf Potts. Rolf’s a travel writer who embarked on a six-week worldwide trip without using any luggage, just his SCOTTEVEST clothing. Scott’s been talking to Rolf frequently and Melissa got an update on how his challenge is going so far.

Scott also just talked travel. You’ll find out why he loves Israel and Morocco, and he makes his case as to why everyone should experience Burning Man once in their lifetime. What Scott didn’t know when he spoke to us is that our very own webmaster, Cameron Clark, has been to a number of Burning Man events. He can echo Scott’s endorsement of the adventure.

So turn up your speakers or pop in your ear buds, and listen to Melissa’s interview with Scott. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole conversation, I’ll be posting the transcript in a few days. But in the meantime, leave a comment on this post if you own a piece of clothing from SCOTTEVEST and tell me what you think about it.

Airport security: A world of difference between the U.S. and Israel

Governments around the world continue to talk up how they are tightening airport security, as a knee-jerk reaction to the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack.

It all sounds good. But I fear it’s also empty promises. I just returned from Tel Aviv, Israel. I kept a keen eye on security procedures throughout my trip. I saw some changes to security. But I was also again reminded of the differences between the U.S. approach and the rules and procedures Israel has in place.

On January 6th, I checked in at Philadelphia International Airport to fly to Tel Aviv, Israel. One noticeable change at the airport was increased presence of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers. I counted 10 plus a dog in the area (many more than usual). About an hour from landing, the captain asked us to take our seats. We were then required to remain seated when we were 30 minutes from landing.

Other than that, it seemed to me to be business as usual. That’s not to say security was lax. Certainly U.S. airport security has become much tighter since 9/11. But other than more TSA officers and being asked to remain seated, additional security precautions were not apparent to me.

Now let’s compare the current state of U.S. airport security to Israel’s approach. In Tel Aviv, security is in place long before you arrive at the airport. On the highway, you have to pass through a checkpoint manned by Israeli border police. Officers look into your car and assess the occupants before letting the car pass through to the airport access road.

You’re screened again upon arrival at the terminal. The men and women who perform the security checks are highly trained in evaluating travelers. They look for telltale signs, check stories, ask questions, and stare you in the eye as you answer their questions.

They are skilled at noticing subconscious body language (“tells“) that can reveal when someone is lying. And they will pull you aside for deeper questioning or other actions if they have the slightest concern. You can’t check in for your flight until these officers are satisfied that you don’t pose a risk. In fact, you can easily be interviewed multiple times by various agents if any one of them doubts about your motives.

Your checked luggage is also screened before you check in for your flight. Nothing gets to the counter — much less the airplane itself — without quiet, comprehensive, repetitive scrutiny.

Ben Gurion International Airport has not had a terrorist incident nearly 40 years, despite being surrounded by legions of Jihadists who would gladly sacrifice themselves. And guess what? They maintain this successful level of security for travelers without asking any to remove their shoes.

I’m not saying international travel isn’t safe. What I am saying is that the world should take a hard look at how Israel protects travelers, and ask what we can learn from their impeccable track record. It’s especially impressive when you consider, again, that Israel is probably the radicals number one target for destruction.

It’s a shame that, since the incident with the so-called underwear bomber, some folks have been inconvenienced more than is probably necessary. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories about “the new airport security,” where delays and lines are longer and more tedious. While this is true in some U.S. airports, I didn’t experience this in Tel Aviv. It’s an interesting contrast. Ben Gurion International has tighter security, yet it is easier for travelers to deal with.

Despite the failed underwear bomber attempt, the TSA’s measures are clearly working most of the time. Otherwise, we would have experienced more incidents like the near-miss on Christmas Day, or worse. That said, we don’t want and can’t afford any more near misses or successful attacks.

We should learn from the best. And right now, the best airport security operation is in Israel. Let’s hope the TSA is paying attention.

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