|Michael Fattal, founder, Planet Blue Tours|
It's not every day you get an invitation to New York in your inbox. But so it was, last October, mere days after telling some young women I know about my Contiki tour experience as a 20-something (wonderful if you are prepared to overlook the parts that don't agree with your sensibility), following a tragic report of a young Aussie girl's death on a tour in Italy, that an email from Planet Blue Tours popped into view asking, 'Would I like to join them on a trip to the USA and Canada'. Is the Pope Catholic? This is too good to be true. Surely.
The "too good to be true" theme carried on throughout the tour. I had to pinch myself as I took in the Brooklyn Tabernacle choir's amazing chorus, again as I skated around the Rockefeller Centre to the tune of Christmas carols, again when I took in the awe-inspiring sight of Niagra Falls and again as I delighted in Disneyland.
Again and again and again I sensed that there was something special about this tour company, and so too its founder, Michael Fattal.
A true gentleman with a penchant for the finer things in life (good food, genuine leather luggage, music) with a great sense of humour and a heart that chimes to the sound of the Holy Spirit, Michael has a strong heritage in both Christ and travel: his father owns a travel company.
"My dad was really encouraging of my entrepreneurship, taking me out on business trips from a young age and encouraging me to give things a try," says Michael. "My parents have been the best support in this venture. And my brother is my travel partner; he comes with me everywhere. My success is his, too, and it's good to share it with him."
Michael had been working in travel for eight years, and working in Christian youth ministry for five, when he spotted a gap in the market.
"I was looking for some travel for myself, a group tour, but I'm not really into the whole partying and drinking scene, and after doing some research I didn't find anything that existed for 18 to 35s that appealed to me, so I decided to start doing it myself," he told me.
Two years running, Planet Blue has taken groups to Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece and the Greek Islands, the USA, Africa, Taiwan and China, to name a few destinations. This year, in addition to another trip to the USA in December (highly recommended!), Michael will be taking two groups to Turkey for Anzac Day, another to Africa and one to New Zealand for a photography tour.
"Usually the tours go by my interests first, and I end up meeting people with similar interests," says Michael. "I met a photographer in Melbourne and I thought we could pair up our visions for photography. I want to do a fashion tour, too, to Milan."
With daily devotionals, there's a strong spirituality aspect to the tours, but from the get-go the shared faith gives the groups a special bond. Sitting on a hill in Washington, prior to giving us a guided tour of the monuments, Michael gave his first devotional to our small group of seven, encouraging us to contemplate God's sovereignty.
"From a young age, I knew that God was in control of the world," says Michael. "I wanted my life to have a purpose. I knew there was more than just the daily grind. How that turned into tours is that I want people to experience more than just a holiday. The tours are for people for who the cross has a special meaning; it's more than just a fashion accessory."
For those contemplating travel in 2012, Planet Blue's intrepid, energetic leader recommends exhausting yourself in the first few days to ensure a good night's sleep, eating regularly for energy and packing as much as you can, like chargers, into your carry-on bag. Ah-ha! I won't be making that mistake again.
But despite losing my luggage (a blessing in disguise; and it returned four days later), words can barely express how blessed I felt to join Michael on his 12-day New York/LA trip this past December. Though each of us hailed from vastly different backgrounds – they taught me all about "Arab" culture – the sense of comradeship was there from the get-go (I have a few handy new catch-phrases in my satchel and new Facebook friends to show for it).
If it's any indication, though we were given free time along the way, we didn't want to spend it apart. While all the sights were wonderful, it was the new friends with whom I shared breakfast, lunch, dinner, experiences past and present, girl-troubles and solutions, and pressing thoughts on the state of the world, who have endeared me to this young and exciting new tour operation. I would happily recommend Planet Blue's services to anyone.
An affable young man with enough empathy to ensure we ladies had enough toilet breaks built into the day, sleep at night, visits to girl-friendly stores, and adequate healthy snacks procured at Trader Joe's, too, you would be hard pressed to find a better tour leader than Michael from Planet Blue.
So, thank you, Michael, Bianca, Joshua and Alex, and to my roomies Ruth, Rose and Tamara, too, for allowing me to nurture my inner child, my intellectual curiosity, and my love of God, as we schlepped our bags from airport to airport from Sydney to the USA.
Visit Planet Blue Tours to make a booking for 2012.
Catch up with Girl With a Satchel's USA travel tales here:
Short & Sweet: The American Itinerary
The Satchelist: William and Melissa, MoMA store
Snapshot: Tazza Cafe, Brooklyn
The Satchelist: Marissa, NYC Strand bookstore
Snapshot: Martha Southgate, author, Book Court Brooklyn
The Satchelist: Berta, Culture Project intern
Satchelnomics: New York's Uneasy Dichotomy
The Satchelist: Brad, Salvation Army, New York
Perspective: A window onto New York
The Satchelist: Wanda and Olivia, FAO Schwarz
Short & Sweet: Week beginning December 12
The Satchelist: Emma, Empire State Building
Perspective: Hooray for Hollywood? Not so much.
Snapshot: The Farmer's Market, LA
Perspective: Delighting in Disneyland
Video: The Disneyland Christmas Parade
The Satchelist: Cute couple at Disneyland
Girl With a Satchel