Friday, September 5, 2014

British Isles - Day 12 - Edinburgh, Scotland

In Brief

A day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To GoFriday the ship anchored in the Firth of Forth, just down the river from Edinburgh.  We had to tender ashore to the town of South Queensferry and then it was 30 min into Edinburgh via car, bus, or train.  We ventured off on our own and had a great time exploring the castle, doing a whisky tasting, touring the royal yacht Britannia, and shopped til we dropped, all despite a misty rain.  Saturday is an at sea day, then we are on to our final stop in Normandy, France on Sunday and the ship docks in Southampton on Monday.

Edinburgh Details

We got up early to catch the tenders before all the tour groups left en masse and swamped the boats.  We met a nice couple in their 50s on the boat ride who were also planning to either cab or train into town towards the castle.  We opted to share a cab and had a very nice conversation with them about world travels and Rick Steves.  I reminded them a lot of their daughter in law who also has dark curly hair and loves to plan travels.  They insisted on paying for the cab ride since they would have done it anyways on their own and wanted to treat "the youngest couple on the ship".  As we were all exiting the cab, Tom noticed that the man left his phone behind and grabbed it for him.  He was so thankful he offered to pay for our cab ride back too!  We of course did not accept but told him that the good deed of paying for our cab had already paid off!

A day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To Go

We had read about the crowds at the castle so we bought our tickets online ahead of time and printed them out and were in the first 10 people lined up to enter.  It was quite a crush with all the tour groups and a bit chaotic, but we got right in and headed straight up the 7 gates of the keep to the highest tower to view the crown jewels.  We had the whole exhibit to ourselves and really enjoyed hearing the history of the sword, sceptor, crown, and the rock or scone (pronounced skoon) upon which the Scottish king sits to be crowned.  Since we got through the exhibit in record time, we took another hour to view the others rooms of the castle and the military museum.  We stopped in the cafe and I tried a plain scone with strawberry jam - very good but not the best I have had on the trip.

A day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To Go

A day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To Go

A day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To Go

A day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To GoA day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To GoWe exited by 11:00 and headed over to the building next door for the Scottish Whisky Experience tour.  Rick Steves poo-poos this attraction as a tourist trap but considering we didn't know much about whisky and really just wanted to learn and taste, it was perfect for us.  You sit in whisky barrels and are taken on a ride through a series of rooms that explains how single malt whisky is made.  You then meet up with the group and sit through a guided "scratch and sniff" explanation of the 4 major whisky producing regions in Scotland and the flavors and aromas that are distinctive to each region.  After this, you choose one region that you want to have a tasting of based on the qualities of the region.  I picked the Highlands which are known for floral and honey notes due to the heather that grows there.  Tom picked Islay which is known for smokey flavors because of the high amounts of peat they use in the burning and toasting.   Tom quite liked his sample and said mine was good as well.  Despite my best efforts, it still just tasted like burning alcohol even after adding a drop of water and warming it.  Whisky is just not my drink I suppose!

A day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To GoAfter the tasting, we wandered the Royal Mile which leads downhill from Edinburgh Castle through the old town and is lined with shops and pubs and museums.  We picked up some souvenirs and I looked at wool blankets and sweaters but nothing caught my fancy.  Tom picked out a scarf in the Clan McLaren plaid.

We stopped for lunch in a pub and enjoyed fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, and split a sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream for dessert.  Tom said he has found his favorite beer so far on his quest - The Flying Scotsman.  Its an English beer that is served slightly warmer than usual and is less carbonated.  Its pulled by hand from the tap and he absolutely loved it!

After lunch we wanted to head over to the area where the Queen's yacht, the Britannia, is moored.  We had trouble finding a cab in the rain, so we hopped a bus bound for the right place and sat on the enclosed upper deck for a nice view of parts of Edinburgh that you normally would not see as a tourist where every day living happens.  Arrived after about 20 minutes and then headed to the ship exhibit.  The yacht was used from the 1950s until the late 1990s when it was decommissioned and turned into a museum.  It was filled with artifacts from its time in use and wonderful pictures of the royal family and the yachtsmen at work and play.  We both really loved it and would highly recommend it.

A day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To Go

After we finished, we looked for a cab back to the ship but the taxi stand was empty.  We were about to call for a cab when we saw a tour bus parked which carried a group from our ship.  We wandered over and asked the driver if there was any way we could hitch a ride back to the ship with them and he said no problem as they had plenty of empty seats!  We had thirty minutes until they left and so we went inside the shopping mall next door and I found wonderful clothes at H&M.  Not sure if it was British stock, or we just had not gotten the fall clothes in the states when I last went to the store, but I loved everything they had here and walked away with a sweater and a coat and could have shopped more if we had time.  Caught the ride back with the bus, and were quite pleased at our thrifty transport skills today.  Instead of a £25 cab fare each way, we only paid £8 all day for transport for the bus to the yacht and a tip for the driver who let us on!

Back on board we met up with our usual trivia group at 7 pm and then after dinner we participated in a gameshow on board and our team won! You had 4 minutes for 1 person on your team to describe words given and try to get your team to guess the word without using the word - basically like taboo.  I was the describer and we got 36 in 4 minutes!  Lots of fun!

Sea day is next, and then we are in Normandy, France on Sunday.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

British Isles - Day 11 - Inverness, Scotland

In Brief

A day trip to Loch Ness and Culloden from 72 Hours To GoAfter a much appreciated Sea day on Wednesday, Thursday we docked in the small port of Invergordon which is about 45 minutes away from Inverness.  We took a guided coach tour to see Urquart Castle, a cruise along Loch Ness, drive through Inverness, and then finish with a tour of the Culloden battlefield.  We particularly enjoyed the haunting ruins of Urquart Castle which is situated on the edge of Loch Ness, and it's rumored that Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, sleeps in a cave under the castle.  No sightings for us this time though.  We head to Edinburgh next, which is our final stop in Scotland.

Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness, and Culloden Details

A day trip to Loch Ness and Culloden from 72 Hours To GoUrquhart castle had been spoken of highly but we were not sure what to expect since it's in ruins, unlike all the mostly restore castles we had visited so far.  The visitor center had some good artificats on display and an excellent exhibit on castle life and the people and the roles they played in the castle.  There was an 8 minute video that explained the history of the castle and showed some estimated reconstruction drawings of what it would have been like in its hey day.  During the Jacobite Rebellion, the Stuart supporters who held the castle at the time decided to explode all the powder magazine stores and destroy the castle when they left, rather than leave it for the Jacobite supporters to be used as a stronghold.

My quest for the best scone in Britain continues and we grabbed a fruited scone from the cafe and covered it with strawberry jam for me and raspberry jam for Tom and munched it as we walked down the hill to the edge of Loch Ness where the castle sits.  We then wandered through what used to be rooms and towers.  The nice things about having all the walls missing is that you get beautiful views of the loch!  We had a beautiful sunny morning with just a hint of list clinging to the cool waters of the loch.  You can definitely see how people could misinterpret the dwindling boat wakes as stirrings of a monster in the deep.

A day trip to Loch Ness and Culloden from 72 Hours To GoWe boarded the Jacobite Queen and took a 20 minute cruise along the loch.  I tried the Thistly hard cider and we just had to try the haggis flavored crisps/chips.  They actually tasted quite good, almost a barbecue like flavor. We had lunch at a hotel at the end of the loch, featuring melon starter, haddock with carrots and potatoes, and berry cheesecake to finish.  Tom had whatever stout they were offering and I tried the pilsner.

After boarding the coach we drove about 45 minutes to the Culloden battlefield where the 1745 Jacobite supporters who revolted against the Stuarts were brutally slaughtered by English troops.  This battle ended the Jacobite cause to restore King James II to the throne and was the start of the end for the Scottish clans since after this battle weapons, bagpipes, and the tartan were out banned.  It was particularly exciting for me to visit since I recently read the series of books called Outlander, which is historical fiction that takes place in Scotland during this time period.  The main character of the book is from Clan Fraser and several people had main flowers on the Fraser clan gravestone on the field.  They just turned the books into a TV series on Starz so it's gained a lot of popularity.

A day trip to Loch Ness and Culloden from 72 Hours To Go
On the drive back we heard from our guide about the Scottish maritime industry which has dwindled in the past 30 years, but the port of Invergordon where we docked has become a leading destination for oil rig repairs and they are expanding their capacity since business is booming.  Whiskey is the #1 export, with the US being the biggest market, followed by Asia and Africa is starting to have a large business as well.

Scotland is coming up on a referendum which I think I mentioned in my post about Glasgow.  They vote in 2 weeks to decide if they should separate from the United Kingdom.  In the lowlands near Glasgow, we saw more "No" supporters, but in the Highlands we saw more "Yes" signs in shops and yards.  Our guide said there has been good debate and discussions and a record number of voter registrations, which is all good, but it seems that the vote is going to be very close which is unfortunate.  It would be preferable if the vote was strongly for or against rather than nearly equal.

Off to Edinburgh next!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

British Isles - Day 10 - Dublin, Ireland

In Brief

We docked in Dublin early on Tuesday morning.  The city sits along the river Liffey which we followed up after crossing the Irish Sea last night.  The name comes from the Gaelic 'dubh linn' which means 'black river'.  We opted for a tour to Powerscourt Estate and gardens in the morning and then were dropped off in Dublin to explore on our own for the afternoon before returning by bus to the ship.

Dublin and Powerscourt Estate Details

This is a combination of information from today and what I remember from our tour in Cork since that entry got deleted when my email spazzed out.

A day trip to Dublin and Powerscourt Estate from 72 Hours To GoWe had another wonderful tour guide today who provided lots of information about the land and the economy of Ireland.The unemployment rate last year was 14% but they are coming out of the recession strong.  Prices of housing bubbled during the Celtic Tiger boom at the end of the 20th century then plummeted during the recession. 30% of the population in Dublin is under age 25. So many 5 year olds this year that they had to build new schools to accommodate them!  80% of the land in Ireland is farmland which is incredibly high.  Last year they exported €8 billion in goods, a majority of that from beef and butter.  They only import €4 billion annually, mostly flour and fuel since those are not resources available on the island.

We drove about 45 minutes up into the Wicklow Mountains.  Johnny Cash once visited Ireland and wrote a song called '40 Shades of Green'.  You can really see how true it is in the Republic of Ireland.  Completely different from what we saw in the Lake District, Scotland, or even Northern Ireland.

The Wicklow Mountains are known as the Garden of Ireland because they hold some of the most beautiful gardens on the whole island.  Powerscourt Estate where we visited was recently voted the third most beautiful gardens in the world after Versailles and Kew, respectively.  The estate was fully operational in the late 19th century but fell into disrepair and disuse.  In the 1960s the family started a refurbishment effort that took nearly 10 years.  The weekend before it was to reopen for visitors, there was a devastating fire that left the estate as a roofless shell.  Ever since then, the estate has never been fully restored but the 47 acres of gardens are lovingly maintained by 6 full time gardeners.  We had two hours to visit so we wandered the garden path for about an hour.  I most enjoyed the hydrangeas in various shades of pale to deep pinks.  Tom liked the Japanese garden which has a stream that ran downhill and lots of moss covered rock and water features.  We looked for some ideas for plants and ground cover to eventually redo our backyard.

A day trip to Dublin and Powerscourt Estate from 72 Hours To Go

A day trip to Dublin and Powerscourt Estate from 72 Hours To Go

A day trip to Dublin and Powerscourt Estate from 72 Hours To Go

A day trip to Dublin and Powerscourt Estate from 72 Hours To Go

After touring the grounds, we went inside to check out the cafe and shops.  We each picked a mission at the beginning of the trip - Tom chose beer and I chose scones so we have been trying those everywhere we go to see what the local variety is and find our favorite.  The scones here were huge and could easily be shared, but they offered really interesting flavors which I had not seen elsewhere.  Most scones are either plain or with currents/raisins mixed in.  This tea shop had blueberry scones with cinnamon as well as the standard fruit scone (which means raisins).  They were lighter compared to some of the dense plain scones we had in the Lake District and southern Ireland.  So far my favorite has been the ones from Fortnum and Mason in London - slightly sweet with currants and sized about the palm of your hand.

After tea we wandered the shops.  I found some wool sweaters I quite liked but they were too lumpy on my frame when I tried them on.  Will have to keep looking.  I took note of the names and websites for some manufacturers in case anyone is interested in looking them up.  They were all of quality material and made in Ireland:
  • Avoca Ireland brand makes sweaters and other clothing, didn't see a website but you can google it
  • Arancrafts Ireland,
  • Fisherman Out of Ireland which comes from County Donnegal,
  • Carraigdonn which comes from County Mayo and the Aran Islands,
After leaving the estate, we drove back to Dublin and were dropped off for 3 hours of touring in the city center.  We started at Trinity College where we had a student led tour of the grounds.  On the tour, we heard about the only campus ghost.  Apparently a dean used to cane the boys when they were out of line.  One night some boys had too much to drink and starting throwing stones at the dean's window.  The dean woke up and ended up shooting at them to get them to leave.  The boys turned out to be the head of the school riflery team so they fetched their guns and started to return fire and ended up killing the dean, who now haunts the campus.  None of the boys ended up being charged because it was deemed "a prank that for out of hand".  Quite the prank indeed!

A day trip to Dublin and Powerscourt Estate from 72 Hours To Go

A day trip to Dublin and Powerscourt Estate from 72 Hours To GoThe campus tour ended at the library where we saw the book of Kells, which is an elaborately decorated copy of the Gospel done by monks in Ireland and Scotland.  The exhibit was informative and there was thankfully no line for entry.  We then left campus and walked along Grafton Street to St. Stephen's Green (akin to Central Park).  We stopped at the national archeology museum which had good reviews from Rick Steves, but we found the displays and audio guide too dry for our taste.  We then headed back to the meeting point, stopping for some browsing in the shops and a pint of Guinness along the way.  Made it back to the ship in time to get a nap before headed on deck to watch the Irish dancers on the dock during the sail away.

We have been playing trivia every night with two older couples from England.  They are in their 60s and cruise many times a year and plan their whole days around what time trivia will be offered.  We have a good team of six with a mix of generations and interests so we usually do well but have not won anything yet.

Wednesday is our first at sea day so we look forward to sleeping in, lounging on the deck, and enjoying the activities offered on board.

Monday, September 1, 2014

British Isles - Day 9 - Stirling, Scotland

In Brief

Monday we docked in Greenock, Scotland which is about 45 minutes from Glasgow.  We took an excursion to the small town of Stirling and toured Stirling Castle and viewed the area of Bannockburn, which you might remember from the movie Braveheart.  After Stirling we drove to the Falkirk Wheel which is a boat lift that was made in the past decade to replace some of the canal locks and to provide recreational use.  We got to see the lift in action and rode a boat up and down the lift!  Tuesday we return to the Republic of Ireland to visit Dublin

An excursion to Stirling and Falkirk from 72 Hours To Go

Stirling, Bannockburn, and Falkirk Details

Our guide for the bus tour to Stirling was fine, but she didn't offer nearly the same level of interesting information about the region as we have heard on our other tours, so unfortunately I don't have much info to share about Scottish life.  Hopefully we will hear more at the next port in Scotland.

We did another bus tour excursion arranged by Princess Cruise Lines.  Our tour headed to Stirling first - we had about 1.5 hour bus ride to reach it and passed lots of interesting metal sculptures that were done recently by a Scottish artist.  I can't remember the name right now but I will find it later.  Saw some regeneration in the greater Greenock and Glasgow areas where they had converted former shipping buildings into single apartments by gutting the inside and restoring the beautiful brick and stone exteriors.

One of the most interesting things about Scotland right now is that in just a few weeks they are going to have a referendum to decide if Scotland should become independent from the United Kingdom.  This June was the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn which was a major battle in the first fight for Scottish independence.  Driving through Scotland, you can see lots of posters and ads to vote yes or no in the referendum.  I have also seen TV ads where celebrities have weighed in on how people should vote.  Will be very interesting to see how things turn out.

In Stirling, we got dropped off at the castle at the top of the town and had about 2 hours to tour the castle or explore the town before meeting the bus.  We opted to tour the castle and started out following a guided tour which they offer for free, but peeled off halfway through to explore on our own using the audio guides we had rented since we were short on time.  They are working hard to restore the castle and have added interesting exhibitions, models, and reconstructed furniture and finishings so that you can really get an idea of what it would have looked like.  Some visitors in the reviews we read ahead of time accused the castle of "Disney-fying" the time period but I thought the additions were very helpful rather than looking at a bunch of empty stone rooms.  We stepped into the Argyll and Sutherland museum which featured exhibits on the history of the Scottish military from the 17th century to present.  We also really enjoyed the tapestry room where they are making a copy of the tapestry known as "The Hunt of the Unicorn" which is currently on display at the Met in NYC.  If any of you have ever read the historical fiction called "Girl with the Unicorn" its the same tapestry featured in that story.  It takes a master tapestry worker a full day to do one square inch of work, so it will take nearly 5 years or more to complete the tapestry.  We saw them working on it and it looks lovely.

An excursion to Stirling and Falkirk from 72 Hours To Go

An excursion to Stirling and Falkirk from 72 Hours To Go

An excursion to Stirling and Falkirk from 72 Hours To Go

An excursion to Stirling and Falkirk from 72 Hours To GoAfter racing back through the town and having some difficulty finding our bus due to poor directions from the guide, we finally found the group and headed for the Falkirk Wheel.  This was made in the early 21st century as part of the Millennium Link project which is seeking to restore Scottish canals across the country and bring them back into use for recreation and amusement.  The wheel is based on Archimedes' principle of balance and displacement so they are two chambers that can hold water and boats and they let in more or less water on each side so that they are always counter balanced.  We got to go into a boat and ride the lift which has replaced a series of 8 locks.  Overall I would say it is worth a stop if you are in the area, but don't bother to ride it up.  Its actually more interesting to stay on the ground and watch it go up and down.

After the wheel we headed back to the ship and drove through the outskirts of Glasgow.  We have made friends with 2 older couples from England and we always team up with them at the trivia games on the ship.  Ate dinner in the specialty Italian restaurant again then turned in around 10:30 PM since we have an early start for Dublin on Tuesday.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

British Isles - Day 8 - Northern Ireland

In Brief

Sunday we docked in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  We took a guided bus tour along the Antrim Coast which is considered one of the natural wonders of the world.  Highlights included a photo stop at Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, the ruins of Dunluce Castle, lunch featuring roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and finally a tour of the Giant's Causeway - a natural basalt column formation that legend says was created by the Irish giant Finn McCool.

Details of  Belfast and Northern Ireland

We woke up early and had breakfast this morning as we had to report for our excursion at 8:30 am.  Almost 1/3 of the ship was taking an excursion today so it was quite the process to get everyone grouped and across the gangway and on the buses.  They assign you to a color and a number based on your tour and then give you a sticker.  They call you by group and your bus is always marked with your group so that it is easy to find when you get off somewhere.

A daytrip to the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland from 72 Hours To Go

As we drove out of Belfast, headed towards the northern coastline, we heard about the shipping and linen industries which is where Belfast made most of its wealth in the 19th and early 20th century.  Belfast is where the Titanic was built.  Heading into the country I saw that the landscape looked more like rural England and the Lake District than what we had seen in the Republic of Ireland.  Not as many shades of green, and more pasture land rather than farming.  Tons of sheep and cows still.  Beautiful heather growing wild.  I wonder if we could grow that in our backyard in DC?  Scottish influence on Northern Ireland vocabulary is very apparent.  For example they use the Scottish version of the word for most land features, rather than the English.

  • Glen = valley
  • Tarn = hill beside a lake
We stopped in the village of Larne for scones and tea, then continued on towards Ballycastle, where we stopped to take photos at a couple of sites.  My favorite was Dunluce Castle, built in the 14th century.  It was built right onto the coastal cliff which made it highly defensible, but also made it susceptible to damage from the sea.  In the 1500s, while serving Christmas dinner, the kitchens and a few rooms fell right off the cliff killing most of the servants!  The lady of the castle refused to live there any longer so the family abandoned it to ruin after that.  We also stopped to get some photos of the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge connecting the mainland to a small island.  Tom was disappointed that we did not have enough time to stop and cross it - maybe next time.

A daytrip to the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland from 72 Hours To Go

We stopped at a local hotel for lunch where we had a fruit plate with raspberry sauce to start, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, carrots, cabbage, mashed potatoes and lightly fried potatoes.  To finish we had pavlova, which is merengue topped with whipped cream, fruit, and a citrus fruit sauce.  I had a few bites of everything since it was all too much in one sitting.

After lunch we drove to the Giant's Causeway which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is run by the National Trust (similar to our National Park system).  We had 1.5 hours to explore the site so we picked up our audio guides and walked about 15 minutes down the hill to the natural rock formations.  Tom climbed all over the stones to explore but I stuck to the paved path.

A daytrip to the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland from 72 Hours To Go

A daytrip to the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland from 72 Hours To Go

There are several ideas as to how the causeway was formed - I'll let you decide which you like best.  Science says that the thousands of hexagonal basalt columns were formed by volcanic activity about 30 million years ago.  Irish legend tells a different story that the Irish giant Finn McCool built a land bridge to nearby Scotland so that he could battle another Scottish giant.  He got all the way to Scotland and saw how big the giant was and ran back to Ireland.  He told his wife what happened and she had him hide in the bedroom.  A short while later, the Scottish giant showed up asking for Finn.  Finn's wife said he was out but that the visiting giant could have a seat and wait and she would make him some tea once she fed the baby.  She went in the bedroom and wrapped Finn in a blanket like a baby and carried him out.  The Scottish giant took one look and thought that if the baby was that big than the father must be enourmous!  He hightailed it back to Scotland and tore up the Giant's Causeway as he went so that the Irish giants could not get to Scotland again.

A daytrip to the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland from 72 Hours To GoAfter exploring the stones and enjoying the sunshine, we headed back for the visitor center.  We had perfect timing since the clouds gathered and the heavens opened just as we finished.  Explored the museum and tried the Victoria Sponge cake (sponge cake layered with raspberry jam and clotted cream) then headed back to the bus.

In the way back, we learned about the Irish school system and this is true of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. School for ages 5-16 is compulsory.  No tuition cost, but parents are expected to provide the basic uniform - polos with pants or skirt and a sweater.   Students age 14-16 specialize in subjects of their choosing that would shape their career.  If academically inclined, they can apply for grammar school and then take the A-level exams which determine which university they would be eligible to attend.  University can cost about £25k ($40k) per year without books.

This area was hit by the recession but is starting to bounce back in the past 15 months.  A 3-bedroom, semi detached house (shares one wall with the house next door) is measured as the average.  In Northern Ireland, the average home costs £135k.  The same house costs £185k on average in England, not including London.  London did not really feel the recession and the 2012 Olympics brought a lot of foreign investment from Asia, almost like land grab speculation.  Northern Ireland is trying hard to build up their tourism now that visitors seem to understand that "the troubles" of the late 20th century are over and while there are still community activities and decisions in the making regarding cooperation between those who believe there should be one united Ireland (republicans) and those who believe they should remain separate, all parties are getting along amicably and it is very safe here.  They are trying hard to build up more hotels and golf courses along the picturesque Antrim coast in the hopes of hosting large golf tournaments and making the area into resorts that would attract wealthy Americans and Asians who right now fly in and out by helicopter to golf at the royal courses.

Off to Scotland on Monday!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

British Isles - Day 7 - The Lake District

In Brief

Spent Saturday docked in Liverpool, England.  We took a guided tour bus excursion from Princess to the Lake District where we road the Haverthwaite & Windermere steam train, took a cruise along Lake Windermere and then ate dinner in a local hotel in the town of Bowness.  We had sticky toffee pudding for dessert which may have been the best part of the day and I even got the recipe so that we can compare the one that we prepare for Christmas day!

Liverpool and Lake District Details

We had a very quiet night at sea and got to sleep in since we did not dock in Liverpool until after noon .  I did a quick load of laundry using the laundromat on the ship and that should get us through the end of our trip.  Glad I got it done early because there was quite a line by the time I was done and I bet it will be swamped on the upcoming sea days.  We lounged in the morning and played trivia and then grabbed lunch at the buffet before reporting to the meet point for our excursion.  There are 95% or more "retirees" on this 3000 person cruise and so for the most part everyone moves very slowly.  Not normally a problem, but when you are trying to zip through a line quickly or board the buses it can take quite awhile!

Our bus drove through Liverpool and we had a guide who provided interesting narration throughout the two hour drive to the Lake District and back.  We passed through the town that hosts the Grand National horse race and learned about the original of steeplechase racing.  Back in the day, they used to line up the horses on the edge of one village and then race them to the next village, using the steeple of the village church as the guidepost since it could be seen above the treeline.  The horses would have to jump the hedges and streams to make the most direct route to the steeple, hence the steeplechase race was born.  We noticed that the countryside of England, although beautiful, was not nearly as green as Ireland.  We saw cows, and horses, and lots of sheep in the pastures.  The land near Liverpool was mostly flat and arable, but as we got closer to the Lake District we saw rolling hills and more pasture land as opposed to the farming.  Lots more sheep here than in southern Ireland.

A day trip to the Lake District from 72 Hours To Go

We finally reached the first point of our journey where we boarded the Haverthwaite & Windermere steam line and took a 20 min rail journey up the hills to the edge of Lake Windermere.  The rail was primarily used in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries, and then was reinvigorated for tourism in the late 20th century.

A day trip to the Lake District from 72 Hours To Go

A day trip to the Lake District from 72 Hours To Go

A day trip to the Lake District from 72 Hours To Go

Once we reached the lake, we boarded the boat for our 40 min cruise.  A mere is actually not a lake.  Lakes have a river or source of water that flows in and out of them.  Meres are found near rivers, but don't have a source of water flowing in and out; they are standalone bodies of water.  Windermere is the largest of the meres in the Lake District, about 12 miles long and half a mile wide.  We sat on the bow and got a pint of hard cider to sip as we enjoyed the view.

A day trip to the Lake District from 72 Hours To Go

A day trip to the Lake District from 72 Hours To Go

A day trip to the Lake District from 72 Hours To Go

When we reached the town of Bowness, we were supposed to have time to browse the cute town and the shops but we had been late docking in Liverpool so unfortunately that part of the agenda got scratched.  I was very disappointed since this is the area that Beatrix Potter is from and there were quite a few shops that carried items inspired by her works.  Thankfully we saw websites for some of the shops so I can check them out online when I get home.  We had a great dinner at the Windermere Hydro Hotel.  It was built in the Victorian era as a bath house and spa.  We had salmon mousse to start, mutton and potatoes with gravy and steamed veggies, and sticky toffee pudding to finish.  The pudding was really excellent and I will be sure to share the recipe once I can scan it.

We drove back to Liverpool and watched the sunset over the country side.  Heard more about the recent renovation and regrowth of the city in the past few decades as it has reshaped itself to be a cultural center.  And of course we heard a bit about the Beatles since they put Liverpool on the map again in the 1960's.  Boarded the ship and then turned in for bed since we go to Belfast next and have a full day excursion

Friday, August 29, 2014

British Isles - Day 6 - Cork, Ireland

Friday we docked in Cobh (pronounced cove), Ireland which is the closest major port to Cork and Waterford.  We opted to take a Princess excursion into Waterford via bus where we toured the factory, enjoyed lunch, and took an afternoon drive through the country.

Unfortunately all my notes from the tour were lost due to an email malfunction :( but here are the highlights of the day as told through photos:

An afternoon in Waterford, Ireland from 72 Hours To Go
Watching the crystal making process at the Waterford Factory

An afternoon in Waterford from 72 Hours To Go
Shaping the crystal by hand

An afternoon in Waterford from 72 Hours To Go
Stages of crystal cutting and polishing, from raw product on the right to finished product on the left

An afternoon in Waterford from 72 Hours To Go
Vikings first settled this region - you can still occasionally find some to this day!

An afternoon in Waterford from 72 Hours To Go
Delicious pub lunch at the Munster Bar across the street from the Waterford Factory

An afternoon in Waterford from 72 Hours To Go
The colorful town of Cobh, Ireland hugs the shores as we sailed out of port

Thursday, August 28, 2014

British Isles - Day 5 - Guernsey

In Brief

Thursday we were tendered outside of St. Peter's Port on the Isle of Guernsey.  We got off the ship around 8:30 AM to explore the town on our own.  Took tender boats to shore and then walked 20 minutes to the Castle Cornet which had military and maritime museums.  Enjoyed a guided tour of the castle from a man who lived here during the German occupation of the island.  Made our way back to the ship around 1 PM since we only had a half day in port.  Spent the afternoon sitting on the windy deck or in the hot tub.  I went for a massage and facial and Tom did some afternoon trivia and the comedy show and we met for dinner at the Italian specialty restaurant, Sabatinis, which was delicious!  Turned in after dinner to get ready for the next port, Cork, Ireland.


The isle of Guernsey is loyal to the crown but not to England.  Essentially this means they follow the rule of the Queen and will respond to her call for aid, but they are not governed by the political entity of England and do not pay taxes.  They are very proud of the Queen and the royal family.  This connection has existed for over 500 years.

A day in Guernsey from 72 Hours To Go
Model of the harbor, with the castle in the left foreground
We spent the morning at Castle Cornet which was originally built shortly after 1066, and has been continuously added in to since then.  The Castle is built on an island in the harbor on a strategic position to be outside the cannon range of the town and in an area to protect the sea trade routes between France and England.  The castle has only been taken twice - the Hundred Years War and the Nazi occupation.  Our tour guide was 8 years old when the Germans took the isle of Guernsey in 1940.  The isle had paid money to England for protection but it would have been too costly in lives to free the isle, but they did come in to evacuate the children.  Our guide was the only family his mother had left and she could not part with him so he stayed there.  He was a fantastic storyteller on both the aspects of living through the occupation and the hardships, as well as bringing to life the siege and battle tactics that would have been used throughout the history of the castle.

A day at Castle Cornet in Guernsey from 72 Hours To Go

A day at Castle Cornet in Guernsey from 72 Hours To Go

We also listened to some audio tours we had downloaded ahead of time from Tasty Walks.  We only heard a couple, but they offer many more that cover both attractions and food highlights all over the island.  We tried to find a shop that sold local cheese since Guernsey cows are world famous, but we could not find anything in the port area!  Saw some ice cream shops but we weren't up for that before lunch.  We boarded the tenders and then headed back to the boat.  Tom opted to ride top side on the tender to enjoy the view and the breeze.  I stayed low to help combat the motion sickness caused by the choppy English Channel.

Had lunch in the buffet and then found seats on the pool deck to watch the sail away.  Between the cold and the drizzle, most of the other passengers stayed inside so we had plenty of options.  Tom made a few business calls before we lost signal and I read and then got in the hot tub.  I figured if I was already wet it didn't matter that it was raining anyways!

We played afternoon trivia and joined up with another couple to make a team.  Got 15/20 correct!  I headed off to the spa to get a massage and facial.  It was all very lovely and relaxing and I noticed positive changes in my face and muscle tension immediately.  They have a changing area where you get into the provided spa robe, and if you come early you can use the steam room and sauna.  My appointment lasted about 90 min, and they were a little backed up so I started a few min late.  By the time I got done I had to run back to the room to shower and change for dinner.  Thurs was formal night and I had planned to get all decked out, but because of the time crunch I had to wear my hair curly and slightly damp and kept the look simple with my black dress.  Will plan my time better for the next formal night so that I can get ready properly and we will get some formal portraits taken as well.  While I was being pampered, Tom did trivia, napping, changed into his tux, and went to the comedy show.

Dinner at Sabatinis on Ruby Princess from 72 Hours To Go

We met up for a drink before our dinner in the Italian specialty restaurant on board.  Dinner was fantastic and we will definitely be going back here again.  They start you with fresh flatbreads and break sticks, a plate of olives and prosciutto.  I started with an artichoke souffle and Tom had tomato carpacchio with mozzarella burrata and balsamic reduction.  For the entree, I had braised short rib with penne and Tom ordered the special of the night, veal saltimbocca.  We split a citron tart with chocolate sauce for dessert.  Since they cook everything a la minute, instead of pre-prepped like the main dining room, dinner took about an hour and a half but we thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere, the wine, and the view off the stern as the evening light faded.

The ship was really swaying as we ate dinner and throughout the night.  We were making our way across the English Channel and the Celtic Sea towards Cork, moving at about 30 knots.  I woke in the night with motion sickness and had to take some medicine.  Even with the drugs I had dreams that the ship was rolling upside down!

Next port is the town of Cobh, Ireland which is just outside Cork.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

British Isles - Day 4 - Stonehenge

Wednesday we rented a car and drove from London to the port of embarkation for the cruise in Southampton.  We stopped in Stonehenge to tour and lunch and then boarded the Ruby Princess in mid afternoon.  Spent the rest of the day exploring the ship and then late dinner seating at the main dining room.

Although there were many options to get from London to Southampton, we opted to drive because it offered the most flexibility and control over our time, the least amount of time waiting around for others, and the adventure of driving through the English countryside.  We rented through Enterprise, and were to pick up the car in Marble Arch, London.  Enterprise will pick you up, so we called when they opened and sent the car to us with a driver who brought us and the luggage back to the office to complete the paperwork.  He gave Tom some tips as we drove and we talked about Top Gear.  He drove us by the posh hotel that had a gold Bugati Veyron parked out front!  We had hoped to be able to rent a mini cooper (that would have been too cute!), but we ended up with a Citroen.

We completed all the details at the office then set off with Tom driving and me navigating in addition to the built it "sat nav".  Tom did a great job in London and things were even smoother once we got on the motorway.  We don't have to go twice through any of the roundabouts and only made 1 wrong turn the whole trip. As far as driving on the other side of the road, Tom said he would only recommend it for someone who is a very competent and capable driver, and if you are picking the car up in London, you need to have experience driving in DC, NYC, or LA.  If you don't have that kind of experience, plan to pick your car up at Heathrow airport or somewhere else outside London.  If you do not drive stick on a regular basis, be sure to get an automatic car.  Focusing on the other side of the road and the different traffic patterns is plenty of change!  Also, having a second person to run the sat nav and read road signs and provide guidance on lane changes was really helpful.

Tom also commented that the English are much safer than Americans, both in driving style and speed, laws, even the electricity system which has switches on each outlets and everything in 3 prongs to be grounded.  The emergency exits within buildings are all marked very clearly and in symbols, not words.  We saw multiple types of fire extinguishers throughout the buildings we visited.  [Can you tell Tom is an engineer?]

Roadtrip from London to Stonehenge to Southhampon featured on 72 Hours To Go

On the drive, we listed to some of the Rick Steves podcasts about the English countryside, Stonehenge, and the ancient Celts and Druids which all helped provide some context for everything we were driving through.  It took about 2 hours to get to Stonehenge, and because we wanted to leave plenty of time to get on the ship, we skipped the museum at the visitor center and hopped straight on the next tram to the stones.  Earlier in 2014, they moved the visitor center and parking lot away from the stones, about 1.5 miles up the road.  This was done to remove the modern elements from the immediate area of the stones, and better preserve the area from the effects of foot and car traffic.  The new visitor center has a nice museum, WCs, a cafe, and ample parking.  You can walk to the stones if you choose, otherwise they run a tram/shuttle every few minutes.  Apparently the cost of admission rose considerably with the new center and so many people are unwilling to pay, therefore the A303 highway which runs nearby comes to a standstill just in front of the stones because everyone wants a "free view" from 200 yards away.  I wonder if they will be forced to put up a wall soon to prevent the traffic from stopping?  We had pre-booked timed entry tickets so we hopped on the next tram (otherwise walk up tickets are sold in limited quantity and cost more than booking ahead online).  They offer an audio guide, or we downloaded the Stonehenge app at the hotel the night before so we could listen to the tour on our phones.  Its a 5 min drive to the stones.
Tip: If you are in hurry, you can start listening to the audio tour while you board the tram, and can spend about 10-15 min at the stones then take the tram back.   
If you are not rushed,  the audio tour is designed for you to start once you reach the stones and walked you around them clockwise.  We opted for the fast version but felt like we saw everything and learned a lot and got some great photos.  After returning to the visitor center by tram, we got Cornish pasties (hand pies) for lunch - steak pot roast filling and cheese, onion, potato filling.  They were a good option to tide us over until a late lunch on the ship.

We headed out for Southampton around 12:30 and arrived an hour later.  The address of the car return plots in the wrong location on google maps so we had a few wrong turns and a call to the rental place but eventually found it.  They drove us over to the pier which was very convenient so that we did not have to call a cab or haul luggage.

Boarding with Princess was orderly and uneventful.  You check in and are assigned a color and number.  When you group is called, you can line up to go through security.  We waited about 30 min and took another 30 min to get in board after that.  Got a late lunch on the lido deck where they serve meals buffet style all day and then explored the ship.  I visited the spa and entered the raffle but did not win anything.  I did sign up for some relaxing treatments for Thurs afternoon, once we set sail from Guernsey.
Tip: Never book spa appointments before you are on the ship.  They always offer discounts on board, and we even had a special offer extended to those who attended the spa raffle.
We headed back to the room to nap, unpack, and dress for dinner.  The show didn't interest us so we skipped it and went to the 8 pm seating for dinner. Dinner was fine, but not something we would consider fine dining so we are going to try the specialty restaurants on board the next couple of nights and see if we prefer those.

Turned in after dinner to be ready for our first port of call - Guernsey, England.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

British Isles - Day 3 - London, England

Tuesday we spent a drizzly final day in London visiting the Globe Theater, tea at Fortnum and Mason department store, and finished with a tour of the Buckingham Palace State rooms.  Spent a quiet night in with an order of fish and chips and some British tele so that we would be ready for an active travel day on Wed. 

How to spend a rainy day in London from 72 Hours To Go

Woke up to light drizzle that continued throughout the day but didn't seem to cause the same chaos that downpour on Monday had resulted in at all the tube stations.  We woke early to breakfast and dress nicely and then headed out to the South Bank via tube to tour the Globe Theater.  This is a reproduction of the Globe that presented some of Shakespeare's plays in his time.  They featured a neat museum with artifacts and exhibits on theater life including playwriting, the acting company, costumes, set construction, and music.  After making our way through the exhibits, we had a tour that took us into the theater.  We were lucky enough to go inside when a technical rehearsal for their next play was going on, but unfortunately that meant that we were not allowed to take pictures.  The theater is beautiful on the inside and I was sorry that nothing was showing the weekend we were in town.  The guide emphasized that the groundlings, who stand on the floor during the show, are the beat "seats" because you get to really interact with the show.  But after seeing the floor and the seats, I think I would much rather sit on the balcony.

After the tour we walked along the South Bank and then crossed back over the river.  Got a great picture of St. Paul's Cathedral while we were walking.  We headed to Fortnum and Mason, one of the posh department stores for high tea in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon.  It was a very lovely affair with silver service.  I had the Bannockburn Darjeeling tea with fruit and honey notes.  Tom had the Keenan which was recommended to serve with milk.  He started with eggs Benedict and I had tea sandwiches.  They then brought out the three tier tray of scones with jam and clotted cream, cookies and cakes, and then we got to choose a large slice from one of several cakes on the tea cake trolley.  It was decadent and delicious and we loved all of it!

A decadadent afternoon tea at Fornum & Mason from 72 Hours To Go

A decadent afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason in London from 72 Hours to Go

A decadent afternoon tea with scones and sweets at Fortnum & Mason in London from 72 Hours to Go

After tea, we walked through Green Park to Buckingham Palace for our tour of the State Rooms.  They are only open for viewing during Aug and Sept when the Queen is on vacation at Balmoral Castle, therefore it was very crowded, even with pre-booking tickets.  You are given an audio guide that walks you through the rooms to provide context and descriptions.  The state rooms are the public rooms of the palace used for entertaining.  Each year there is a theme to the exhibit - this year focused on children and growing up in the royal family so there were lots of displays of toys, games, photos, and family history throughout the palace.  The tour takes about an hour, then you exit in the gardens and are free to walk the estate.

My feet were finally giving up after 3 long days of walking and standing, so we headed back to our rooms at The Byron Hotel in Kensington.  Tom went out a bit later for take-away fish and chips from the store around the corner.  We got haddock and chips (fries) with lots of vinegar and some mushy garden peas.  Our hotel had put us in the penthouse suite which meant that we were on the top (5th) floor and in addition to our bedroom and bathroom, we had a sitting room with table and chairs, sofa, and tele.  It was perfect for eating in on a couple of nights, and just having more space to set out luggage and bags so that we didn't have to open and close them on our bed all the time.  Overall we really liked the hotel but will leave a comment warning people about the towel warmer and bathroom pump switches since those were the only hangups we had.

Kensington hotel recommendation for a trip to London from 72 Hours To Go

Sitting room of the penthouse suite in The Byron Hotel, Kensington, London from 72 Hours To Go
Wed is a travel day, ending with us in Southampton to board the ship.
Christina and Tom