So, Let’s consider: 15 Days in the UK this Summer

So, Let’s consider: 15 Days in the UK this Summer

Some thoughts about vacationing in the UK.

My kid is now 11 going on 21, so I figure she’s old enough to not only appreciate traveling abroad but she’ll remember most of her trip(s), the sites, people, and the exposure and appreciation for life in other cultures and parts of the world. We’ve traveled a lot domestically here in the US for most of her life, and continue to do so, but other than a couple days in Canada this was her first real trip abroad. In this trip we learned a lot of what the UK had to offer and we learned a few things about traveling as a tourist. Here’s what happened:

Day 1.

We took an overnighter from Atlanta to Heathrow and arrived at noon in London. I think Delta must have found a sale on buckets at Home Depot and put the smallest ones on this plane for us to sit in! These uncomfortable form compressing containers didn’t lend much to sleep or anything else for just over 8 hours.

But, alas, we checked into the Millennium & Copthorne by the Chelsea football stadium, unloaded the suitcases and flagged a cabbie for some afternoon exploration.

First on the list was the Sherlock Holmes “museum” over on Baker Street. This is a rather quaint hole in the wall tourist trap that has all the memorabilia about Holmes and Watson that you would ever want to by. There’s almost as much floor space allocated to shop as there is to the upstairs “museum”. The museum is a cluster of rooms with period items that Holmes would have used. Also lots of pictures, violins, pipes, and other forensic paraphernalia that Holmes would have used in his work. The museum part is really setup to represent the flat that Holmes shared with Watson and is an interesting look at things from that time period.

From there, it was off to the British Museum for the rest of the afternoon. If you’ve not been here, make sure this is a high priority item on your trip to London. The displays of things like the Rosetta stone, mummies, statues and artifacts from time periods going back to pre-Babylon and ancient Egypt were just incredibly fascinating! Most tours don’t include this museum on their schedule but find some time to go through it.

Day 2: London.

We had booked our tour through AAA with Trafalgar Tours. When I was looking over the itinerary, I noticed that they only offered a 3 hour tour of London. Yeah, it kinda sounds like a quip from Gilligan’s Island. In looking at their itinerary, I realized there was no way they were going to be able to cover London in 3 hours. Attempts to contact Trafalgar prior to leaving the US weren’t very successful so we opted for using another tour group for our tour of London. Later we would find out that there was an “optional” tour we could have PAID EXTRA for that would have included all that the first tour didn’t and should have. We would also later find that Trafalgar has a nasty habit of wanting to tack on extra items, for a fee of course, that frankly should be part of the base tour. This practice of theirs was one of the few things about the whole trip that was most annoying. But life get’s better.

We had a great day hitting most of the sites and things to do and see in London. It a packed 9 hours of walking, riding, boating and listening. The tour guide was excellent. Evidently, England has a certification that tour guides must go through before walking crowds through the streets. Our guide was really good. And the day excellent. I would have liked a 2nd day just to go back and spend more time walking through London in areas we didn’t have as much time to spend at. Also, catching an evening play would have been nice. Next time I’ll plan ahead on that.

I was a bit surprised that they had removed the rather large exhibit on torture and implements of midlevel torture from the Bloody Tower. It used to house a very nice exhibit of these ghoulish tools and practices, and finding anyone that would even talk about the old exhibit wasn’t the easiest thing to do. Off the record, I did find some old Beefeaters that admitted that the older exhibits had been removed to make the place more “politically correct”. So, when you go to the Tower of London, expect the politically correct version – also there’s a lot fewer crown jewels than I recall being there on my last trip as well. Guess they’ve had to pay for some of the queen’s bills or not make things look as gaudy.

Day 3: Paris

You can get a one day really crammed in tour of Paris while you’re in London. You’re up before the roosters, catch the train through the Chunnel and in a couple hours you’re in Paris. We did this. The ride is really nice. First class coach isn’t that much more and the ride is worth it. The French countryside zips by in a lovely patchwork of little farms, villages and towns until you get to Paris.

Keep in mind, you’re not going to do Paris in a day. This was just an overview visit hitting the highlights. And it was really well done. We contracted with Grayline Tours before leaving the US for this as Trafalgar had inexplicably canceled theirs. The tour wound its way through Paris on the top of an open top bus. Thank God it wasn’t raining that morning! We pass through and around most of the major sites and venues of Paris ending up at the Eiffel Tower. This place is incredible. The view from the second level is incredible. There’s a little snack shop there that you can grab a coke and munchie as well. Do be careful of the plethora of vendors that inundate that area under the tower. I was especially annoyed by one of the vendors at the “official” sales booths under the tower. The total of my sale came to about 11.50 euros. She told me she had no change and wasn’t going to be giving me the 50 cents portion of my change. I told her then to move the sale back to 11 euros or I’d walk. She still said no change, so I started to walk…SUDDENLY, her cash drawer opened with plenty of change to be found and life continued normally. I’m told life in Paris hasn’t changed in a long time. SO, if you’re confronted with thieves like this, just walk away from the deal. And make sure you keep your hand on your wallet.

We had several afternoon options to choose from. We chose the palace at Versailles. I had seriously considered going to the Louvre, and if there is a next time probably will. The palace was packed but it was incredible. Clearly a major work of architecture and artistry. Make sure you allocate a full half day for this place if you’re going to do it right. We had just over 2 hours. When you go here, a couple things to keep in mind. Rest rooms are plentiful to be found. As you enter the palace grounds, you’ll see a rather long line of people queuing up for the rest room. This line will be long. There are better alternatives that your guide probably won’t tell you about. If you go in through the exit to the bookstore area, take a left toward the café and there’s plenty of rest room space there. Also, once inside, there’s plenty of rest rooms. Don’t waste your time outside. Unless you have a specific tour guide for the palace, you’ll be taking the self guided audio tour. It’s really good but the line to get your player can be long. Get your player first then go on your wanderings.

We ended up back in Paris around 5:30. Our connection to the train wasn’t due until around 7. So we were stuck for about 2 hours in a centre of stores to shop our hearts out. Now, frankly, if I’m coming all the way from the US to see Paris, one of the last things I want to do is go shopping. Now you see why I wish I’d’ve spent that time at the Louvre.

The train trip back to London went very smooth, dinner was good and we arrived back tired after a full day in Paris.

Fortunately, the laundry was ready and we packed for leaving in the morning.

This brings up two MAJOR items of annoyance with Trafalgar Tours. It would seem that they have an incredibly annoying knack of planting their clients in hotels that totally lack laundry facilities. This is a huge demerit for them as far as I’m concerned. When one travels, they need to wash cloths and after a full day of traveling and walking, the last thing I wanted to do was wash my socks in the sink and hope they dried before morning. Frankly, very little dried on this tour before morning. There was, of course, the valet service that each hotel gleefully informed us was available. Frankly, it was substantially cheaper to have bought each and every item new, thrown them away and bought new to replace them than to use the valet laundry service. The service was a blatant rip off to a captive audience and not appreciated.

Secondly, Trafalgar only allows one suitcase per person. Now, keep in mind, you’re taking a 14 day tour, all your logistical items and you’re going to be picking up stuff at all those tourist traps you’re stopping at along the way and Trafalgar things you should be able to stuff all that crap into one small suitcase. Horseshit! Our travel agent told us 2 bags per person. When we got there and loaded the bus, Trafalgar and I had a little “come to Jesus” meeting over their policy and what we were told and what was reasonable. Common ground was found and life continued. But just be aware you’re supposed to be stuck with one suitcase…and I’d recommend you find a BIG one!

Day 4: The tour begins.

This was really the first day for us with the group. We had contracted for the 15 day “Best of Britain” tour and today life starts for real. What’s interesting is that these tour companies include your travel to and from your home country’s as days of the tour, so in effect, the tour is really more like 13 days, even though it’s marketed as 15.

In the morning we met our coach master, Kirsty Lydon, and our tour guide, Stephen Tormey. Now, before I continue, let me say this: without exception, I’d take another tour with this pair without question. Steve was an incredible tour guide, statesman and guardian of his trusts. Kirsty did a fine job with the coach (generally referred to as a bus by the rest of the world).

We loaded up and traveled through the Salisbury plane to Stonehenge. I’d never been there and frankly it was smaller than I expected, but none the less, very impressive. Come to find out, the Druids made many of these kinds of edifices around the UK. We wandered through the cathedral in Salisbury and ended the day in Plymouth. That night we were at the Jurys Inn Hotel which was conveniently next to an Office Depot store that I made use of in the morning. A nice centrally located hotel, but without laundry facilities.

Another thing you’ll discover while in the UK. They’re concept of high speed internet makes dialup look blazing fast. And it can be incredibly expensive!

Day 5: Plymouth and beyond.

After breakfast we drove down to the wharf where the Pilgrims set sail from. Plymouth is a quiet, quaint and interesting town. The old harbor, fort and Mountbatten’s place across the harbor are still standing.

We took an optional tour (the rest went shopping as I recall) of the harbor and through the naval yard (which is being moved to another facility). It was interesting. Hot coffee felt good! Then down the Cornish coast to St. Ives, which is a nice little village and nook. Then off to Penzance and St.Michael’s Mount for lunch. The landscape is incredibly beautiful. And the roads, very narrow in places. On the way back to Plymouth, we stopped at a nice little pub for tea. Interesting place with an eating room encased in glass that looked more of a greenhouse or conservatory than eating room.

In the evening, we wondered around downtown for dinner. Found a nice place on the wharf. I realized I wasn’t going to be losing any weight on this trip!

Day 6: Glastonbury, Wells, Bath and Cardiff

The abbey in Glastonbury is an interesting place to visit. It’s the place where legend has it that Kind Arthur and his second wife, Guinevere, were buried. The grounds are interesting to walk around but make sure you catch the presentation in the old bakery. It’s worth waiting for.

Then we drove through Wells and on to Bath. The cathedral there is very impressive but more so the Roman bath works that are under it and underground on the grounds. It’s interesting to see how much about plumbing the ancient Romans really knew and these baths are most impressive. Above ground, the city has some nice quaint shops and book stores. And there’s a nice ice cream shop just beside the cathedral.

After dodging raindrops around the cathedral, we reboarded the bus crossed the Severn into Wales and into Cardiff. That night we had a really nice lamb dinner at one of the pubs by the power plant. Had to watch your head going around in the place as the doors were a bit lower but the food and staff were great.

The hotel in Cardiff used was the Copthorne. Frankly, I wouldn’t stay there again. The rooms were a mess, plumbing didn’t work for several of us, there wasn’t any internet in the rooms and the only place you could find internet was in the front lobby at an incredibly high price, slow speed and you were inundated with ads on your browser trying to get anything done. A place to avoid. And, as expected, no laundry facilities. This Copthorne is way away from Cardiff and several of us would have liked to go into Cardiff to explore in the evening. However, it appears that most of Cardiff is closed by 6pm, or so we were told, and it was a fair hike away.

Day 7: From Cardiff to Liverpool

More nice scenery and by now one burned out cathedral looks a lot like the next. Evidently Henry VIII enjoyed burning cathedrals as much as he did lopping the heads off his wives. A pity in both cases. We took the optional “Beetles Tour” that afternoon. It was interesting and informative but not stellar. I can now say I’ve been there, done that. But there’s other places in Wales I’d prefer to be in besides Liverpool.

That night we were at the Jurys Inn on the water front. Nice place, negligible internet availability and no laundry. However, the hotel next to us did have a really nice laundry, so guess who capitalized on that!? Interesting who you run into in the laundry. Had a nice talk with some gals who were in Liverpool for a music festival, all the way from LA.

Day 8: From Liverpool via the lake district to Glasgow

We drove through the Lake District and took a nice optional cruise around England’s largest lake, Windermere. A really nice place to visit. Then a really nice ride around the countryside that inspired Wordsworth. Lunch was in Grasmere and we visited the chapel where he is buried. A really nice creek side village.

Then it was on to Glasgow for dinner and the evening.

Day 9: From Glasgow to Aviemore

Now we’re off and into the Highlands. Past Loch Lomond and some other really nice lakes (uh, er, Lochs!). The Highlands is really an incredibly beautiful part of the world. We wandered into Glencoe and past the 1692 massacre site and had lunch at Fort William. Fort William is a kind of Gatlinburg touristish town with some nice eating places, tourist shops and a great view of the mountains and water.

We stopped at the Ben Nevis distillery for a tour of the facilities. Alex found the “heelin koo’ in the pasture next to the distillery fun to watch. They have got to be the most ugly cows on the earth!

Then off to Aviemore and the Laggan Country Hotel. Now, a word about the Laggan. It’s out in the middle of bloody nowhere. Surrounded by mountains and pastures it’s about as simple and bucolic as it gets. There’s no internet, no laundry and you’re going to love this place. The locks are the old warded type door locks that frankly I’ve not seen used on a hotel in 50 years. It’s clean, the people and food are nice and if you want to get off the grid for a week and get away from everything, this is a place to go.

Day 10: Highlands and Skye

Today we set off in search of the Loch Ness monster…and as you can imagine, didn’t find the little beastie. But we did find some really lovely countryside, a handful of old castles, some of which ya just want to move in and unpack your suitcase at.

A sheep dog training and management demonstration was also to be had that afternoon as an optional event. We went. Learned a few things about sheep dogs and the sheep business. Alex really enjoyed it. Wishes she could have brought home one of the puppies.

Day 11: Balmoral, St. Andrews and Edinburgh

By now, one burned out cathedral’s just as good as the next and you’re beginning to see why Henry VIII may have thought so as well. But, it’s off to the summer home of the queen at Balmoral.

Balmoral is a really nicely laid out castle and estate. The grounds are well cared for and nice to walk around, but don’t think you’re going to be seeing much inside the castle. They basically give you 2 rooms to walk through and no pictures please. The rooms are filled with the queen’s outfits, some pictures and silverware – why anyone would want pictures of these items anyway is a curiosity. There’s the ubiquitous tourist shop and place to snag some lunch, which we did, and it was good.

Then off to the land of the duffers and St. Andrews. Frankly, I don’t like golf but no trip to Scotland is complete without the obligatory trip to St. Andrews where golf all began and where they filmed the beach scenes of Chariots of Fire. OK, now I’ve been there and done that.

Off to Edinburgh. And a really interesting and delicious flame filled evening dinner at a pub just down the street from the grave of Greyfriars Bobby.

This evening, we’re at the Holiday Inn Hotel in Edinburgh. Internet support sucked so bad I was on the phone to their support back at Salt Lake City in the US…the chick in SLC kept telling me she was “resetting the controllers” and would call a senior, and presumably more competent, technician who would solve the problem shortly. Two days later we checked out, problem still not resolved, front desk people still clueless. Nice place to stay if you don’t need internet or laundry facilities – but you should expect more from a Holiday Inn.

Day 12: Edinburgh and Rosslyn Chapel

I wish I had another couple days to spend in this city. I really liked not only the city but the people as well. In the morning we started with the usual tour around the city, ending up at the castle. The castle is a huge bastille built on the top of a solid rock. Once inside it you can see why nobody ever got inside the inner portion of it, ever. The design and construction are really interesting for that time period and the views from walking around are just amazing. The food is great, the people really nice and I could really get into this place.

In the afternoon, we took an optional trip down to Rosslyn Chapel. This is the place made famous by The da Vinci Code. Like the book, it’s a nice quaint little chapel that was nice to wander around. Unlike the book, there’s very few, if any, secrets about the place or hidden chambers, etc. Also, no pictures please. They wanted to make sure you bought the CD of pictures I presume.

Day 13: Edinburgh to York

Hadrian’s Wall is a most interesting thing. Like the Great Wall of China, it stretches across part of northern Scotland and acted as a military barrier. I guess they had to give those soldiers something to do with their time as well, so why not have them build things.

Then into York for the evening.

Day 14: York, Sherwood Forest, Stratford, Oxford and finally back in London

We left York this morning and traveled through the country side stopping for a visit at Shakespeare’s birthplace and group pictures in front of Anne Hathaway’s cottage. Shakespeare’s home is a landmark and tourist attraction – again, no pictures please as we want to sell them to you in the gift shop. The town is an interesting wander around and listening to Steve tell some of the history of the place I learned a few things I didn’t know about that era. Frankly, I’ve never been a fan of Shakespeare and I find the current Anne Hathaway a lot more interesting than Shakespeare’s wife. Se la vi.

The ride through the rolling hills down to Oxford was interesting. It’s a nice rural community with narrow roads and farms. We passed Winston Churchill’s estate but didn’t go in. It’s a really nice palatial estate. And, finally we’re in Oxford. We were running a bit short of time but did have a nice tour of the chapel in Oxford and a few minutes to roam about the place. It’s a huge version of what we would call a “college town” and logically so. A little more time there would have been nice also.

Then finally back to the Copthorne in Chelsea in London and the end of the tour.

By the time we unloaded that bus we were tired and ready to catch dinner and lie down for a while. We’d covered a lot of real estate in England, Scotland and Wales. We’d made some new friends and met some really interesting people. We’d seen and done a lot in a few days. It was worth the price and we’d had a great time.

Day 15: Back home

The alarm detonated early, packing was done quickly. We hit breakfast and said good bye again to some of our travel mates for the last two weeks. A quick trip over to the Chelsea football club shop for a couple t-shirts and then off to the airport and a trip across the pond to Atlanta. This time, the seats were much better and the sleeping came a lot easier.

I’m Don Rima and that’s the way it was in the UK this summer, From Where I Stand.

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