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With a 747 and a fleet of other airplanes, helicopters and bulletproof vehicles at his disposal, the President of the United States really gets around. One of the most traveled presidents in history is the current one, President Obama, and though it seems a challenge to keep up with his itinerary when he squeezes several countries and world capitals into a few days, The White House has made it very easy with Foursquare.
Thanks to the location-based social media app, The White House can create lists of Obama's stops and offer these lists to be "followed," so that traveling Foursquare users can "check in" to a venue and see if the President preceded them there. It's all very cool, and of course each location includes a tip or note on what Obama accomplished in each place, such as speaking about job values at a BBQ joint in North Carolina.
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It's an unfortunate fact of life that sometimes politics impacts travel. It's an even more unfortunate fact of life that sometimes politics impacts travel so much that we have to write about it on a Friday afternoon instead of easing you into the weekend with baby animal pictures. And yet here we are, with flights being emptied or cancelled across three continents because of a variety of geopolitical flare-ups.
The most dramatic bit of travel politics comes out of Japan, where no less than 40,000 seat reservations to China have been canceled. China has been on a bit of a tear recently, claiming a bunch of islands that by and large aren't straightforwardly quite theirs. The campaign has put them on a collision course with various other countries in the region (obviously) and one of those countries is Japan. There have been anti-Japan protests in China and, apparently, lots of Japanese people are sufficiently pissed off to cancel vacations to China.
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I am going to Tel Aviv. I've never been to Tel Aviv, nor to Israel as a whole. I am going for 10 days and flying around 27 hours without factoring in layovers. Total decision and booking time was about 15 minutes and the flights are only costing me $353.60.
Why? Because, in case you haven't already heard, El Al Airlines had an error in their online bookings earlier this week that left the fuel surcharge off of ticket prices, making a roundtrip from New York to Tel Aviv less than a roundtrip from New York to Las Vegas.
I scored this deal on Expedia as soon as news of it hit social media, as did thousands others. A friend who attempted to book after me had the deal pulled as soon as she clicked "purchase"; the trip price had rocketed up to $999. What compels me to discuss this now is not joy or bragging over grabbing the ultra-cheap flights, but to point out how El Al has handled the potential catastrophe and inadvertently turned it into what is quite possibly the best thing to happen to them in a while.
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In recent months counter-terror officials have broken up plots to murder Israeli tourists in Cyprus and Egypt and Bangkok and Tunisia and India. Warnings were also issued to Israeli tourists regarding possible plots in Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Today a bomber managed to slip through the net and carry out an attack at the Sarafovo Airport in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing at least six Israeli tourists and injuring more than 20 others, including an 11 year old boy and two pregnant women.
The details of the blast are still changing, to the point where no one even knows what kind of bomb exploded. Eyewitnesses describe a female suicide bomber who leaned into a tour bus filled with Israelis and detonated, while Bulgarian officials have reportedly told the Israelis that it was a suitcase bomb loaded into the luggage carriage. Whatever it was, the bomb was powerful enough to blow the front off the bus and set two nearby buses (also filled with Israeli tourists) on fire. Photos are here but please observe a strong content warning.
It turns out there are lots of good-looking people in Tel Aviv. Israel and Israelis long ago became a mainstay of Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues, and of course Tel Aviv itself is both a home and a dining destination for none other than Bar Refaeli. But some people remained unconvinced that Israel's largest beach city was an epicenter of attractiveness. Now there are numbers on this question.
Earlier this year online travel mag Travelers Digest published its roundup of global cities with the best looking men and women. The lists circulated around the Internet for a while, and then dropped off as these things do, and then were revived last week when they got picked up by an Israeli culture blog. Tel Aviv ranked 7th for hottest women and ranked 10th for hottest men. The writeup on the women's list included the phrase "exotic and appealing," which makes a lot sense since Israeli women are both of those things, and the men's list discussed "artistic Bauhaus architecture," which made less sense.
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And now a post about places in the United States, Europe, and Asia where you can visit baby giraffes. So zoos, parks, etc. Note also that we've embedded a couple of especially cute videos at the bottom, because baby giraffes.
Florida's Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay is at the top of the list, with a new baby born last December and then another one born in February. That's two baby giraffes, which you can see on one ticket. Very straightforward.
It's prime travel time to Israel, but. BUT! There's an incredible amount of tension in Israel right now, with sporadic fighting in the country's south and a looming crisis with Iran on the horizon. So if you're the kind of person who looks for deep travel discounts in the wake of geopolitical unrest, as we've urged you to be, you might want to keep your eyes on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem deals.
On the other hand, last month saw a record-breaking number of tourists visit the Holy Land, braving not only the geopolitical problems but also fairly horrendous weather. That kind of demand is going to keep prices at the very least stable, and Israel is already a country with a high cost of living. But those aren't the only reasons why Israel travel is going to stay pricey.
The last time Madonna performed in Israel was in 2009, when she held two concerts as part of her record-shattering Sticky & Sweet tour. This time the newly-rechristianed Queen of Pop is not just holding any old concert in Israel, but using the event to kick off her entire 2012 world tour.
The world tour will kick off on May 29th in the Israeli city of Ramat Gan and stretch all the way into 2013. After Israel Madonna will travel to a couple other Middle East venues before departing for Europe, where she'll do 26 additional spots over the course of two months. From there it's off to North America to do yet another set of 26 venues, then to Latin America, then to Australia. Before everything is said and done she will have played 90 concerts.
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Israel tourism has been in an upward spiral over the last few years. Every year brings a new crop of travelers to the Jewish Statereflected in now-routine "this was the best tourism year ever" headlinesand they go home and tell their friends. That's how you end up with niche surveys about the popularity of Israel travel, like Israel being the number two destination for Russians.
Obviously part of Israel's tourism revolves around the country being a destination for religion travel. Jerusalem is and will remain by far Israel's most-visited destination (see our insidery tips for making the most of a Jerusalem visit here and here). But other parts of Israel are becoming famous for appealing to other demographics.
Forest-filled Haifa recently got the nod of being Israel's cleanest tourism city, part of a campaign to bolster green travel to and around Israel (El Al passengers flying from LHR to TLV can even purchase carbon off-sets).
And then there's Tel Aviv, which has just been voted the world's single best gay travel destination.
The city of Jerusalem (Hebrew: Yerushalayim) has seen as much history as any other place on Earth. The Old City, the 1sq km walled area tucked inside Israel's larger capital, has been continuously inhabited for 5,000 years. It fell on particularly hard times when it was divided between Jordan and Israel from 1948 to 1967all but one of the city's 35 ancient synagogues were destroyed by the Jordanians, for instancebut since its reunification under Israel much of the destruction has been repaired.
The result is that the Old City is now often the highlight for tourists indulging in some Israel travel. It takes more than one day to see all the sights, with just the Ramparts Walk that we recommended to you last summer taking half a day. The question naturally arises, how can you see as much as possible in the least amount of time?
The city of Acre (Akko in Hebrew) is one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in Israel. Probable references to it stretch back to the 16th century BC, and over the centuries it's been ruled by everybody who was anybody in the Middle East. The Canaanites, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, British and now the Israelis have all had it at one time or another. The upshot is that there's been lots of time to build and tear down and rebuild the walls around the Old City, photographed here.
The entire Old City has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The problem is that it used to be something of a trap for the many travelers who came to see the ancient sites, many of whom promptly got lost in the winding roads. But over the last few years the Israeli travel and tourism people have made a major effort to make the city more tourist-friendly, posting maps at entrances and in squares. Recently signs have even appeared all over the city to direct people around.
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Around this time last year, domestic goddess and noted Louboutin aficionado Martha Stewart waded into Philadelphia's intractable Geno's-vs-Pat's cheesesteak war, declaring that Pat's was "kinda bland" and giving her approval to Geno's. Having experienced a conflict of that magnitude, the celebrity was no doubt ready for this year's Labor Day trip to a part of the world where the battles are almost as heated: Israel.
Stewart spent her weekend in the Holy Land attending her nephew's wedding, scouting locations for an upcoming TV segment, and macrame-ing things (we're just guessing about that last part, though she still does that though, right?)
Her professional judgment on Israel? It's pretty interesting. Pretty interesting indeed.