What a HOOT!

Our day in the northern highlands of Scotland was a success from start to finish!

We had booked a full day tour with Gordon of G&S Tours, and our agenda was ambitious. Gordon’s tour didn’t disappoint…we had paid slightly more to be in a vehicle with 8 Captain’s Chairs and wifi, and since we spent a lot of time in the van I thought it was money well spent. £6.25/person is a small price to pay for comfort and a window seat!🙂

Our first stop was at “Millionaire’s View” for a chance to stretch our legs and enjoy the stunning scenery.

We followed that with a visit to the Falls of Shin, where we had the opportunity to see the salmon swimming upstream to spawn. They were sparse and EXTREMELY difficult to photograph, but Chip managed to catch one towards the end of this video.

From the falls, it was on to Dunrobin Castle for the main event — a falconry display. As we drove through the hills, we noticed it was becoming extremely hazy. We learned it was smoke from a heather fire caused by the drought. Fortunately the wind shifted and it was gone by the time we left Dunrobin, but it was pretty unpleasant for about an hour.

During the owl part of the demonstration, I captured one of my favorite travel pictures of all time. Is it technically great? Not even close, but I think you’ll agree it’s a great shot!

All I have to say is it’s a good thing the owl was well trained. He sure looked like he had lunch (me!😳) on his mind, and all I could do was hit the shutter and pray I didn’t embarrass myself in public.😂 Jim was using my phone and tried to video me taking pictures of the owl, but unfortunately he double clutched. The bird was close enough that his wing clipped Jim’s shoulder.

It was a fantastic demonstration, and we had some time to explore at Dunrobin after the show.

By this time we had worked up an appetite, so it’s a good thing lunch was next. We went to the Royal Dornoch Golf Hotel for Sunday dinner. They had a good but limited menu, and we chose the traditional Roast Beef Sunday meal, complete with Yorkshire Pudding. Yum! It was a nice, relaxing break in the middle of the day.

We weren’t done yet! No visit to Scotland is complete without a visit to a distillery, so we were off to Glenmorangie. We passed through the beautiful village of Dornoch on our way to the distillery.

The facilities and process were impressive, but I admit to letting my attention wander since I’m not a fan of Scotch.

On our way back to port, we made one final stop in the quaint seaside village of Ballintore to see the “Mermaid of the North” statue.

Back at the pier we said our “see you soons” to Gordon since he was our guide for Edinburgh the next day, and quickly went back to the ship since our day was far from over.

We met in Vines about 6:30, and at 7:00 we made our way to Sabattini’s for the Tuscan Wine Pairing Dinner. It was delicious, but many courses and a LOT of food and wine.

It was all I could do to stay awake long enough to get ready for bed.

We were excited about the next day — a trip to St. Andrews to see what many consider to be the birthplace of golf. ⛳️

Sea and Sky(e)

Saturday was our first of two sea days, and really the first down time Jim and I had had since we got off the plane at Heathrow on June 26th — 12 days earlier.😳 Predictably I woke up early, did my coffee thing, and sorted papers and dirty clothes…all while Jim slept!

I decided since I was up I needed to take advantage of a sleeping ship and get some laundry done. I know a lot of people say they don’t want to do laundry on vacation, but I really appreciate Princess having laundromats for the passengers to use. It’s a win/win in my book. I get clean clothes, AND I get to control the temperature and the detergent choices! My early start worked to perfection and I was able to do two loads with no wait for a machine. During the cycles I went back to my cabin and started trying to make sense of the piles of paper, ticket stubs, receipts, and general mess that had accumulated in our cabin during a week of going at full speed.

I finished the laundry before 9:00 and was perfectly content puttering in the cabin for a while. I had countless pictures to look at, and the only place I needed to be was on my balcony about 10:30. The captain had said we would be passing the lighthouse on Skye around 11:00, so I figured as long as I was out there for that I could do whatever I wanted until then.

Jim, however, had other plans. He had emerged from his cocoon about the same time I was putting the laundry away and returned to the room with a giant latte for the balcony. He went out, and less than a minute later came back in to get me. You know where this is going, don’t you?🙄

The lighthouse was in the distance. In the distance behind us.😢

Captain Nash must have had the pedal to the metal, because we passed the lighthouse a good two hours ahead of schedule. I was RIGHT THERE, folding socks and undies, and I missed it! Oh well, we are planning to go back to Scotland and tour with Tommy in the not too distant future, and hopefully I’ll get a closer look at what I missed!

Other than the disappointment of missing my lighthouse, it really was a beautiful day and we spent hours sitting outside. The temperature was perfect (in Northern Scotland!) and once again we had mostly sunny skies and calm seas. Jim and I were perfectly content to be on our balcony watching Scotland go by, but many people took advantage of the conditions to sunbathe on their balconies or by the pool.

We had a wonderful, lazy day. I know we skipped breakfast, and I don’t remember what we did for lunch…maybe we grabbed something and ate on the balcony? The day was that lazy!

I know we went for Gelato at some point during the day. I saw this sign and got a chuckle out of it. Just in case you were wondering, Pecan Nuts contain nuts!😂

Finally at about 2:30 we mustered up enough energy to do something important…taste wine! We don’t go to a lot of these any more, but this was a “premium” tasting, and as soon as I heard the word “Caymus” I ran to hand over my $25 for a few sips of wine! I thought the selections and the food pairings were pretty good, but a couple of the speakers describing the wine got a little long winded. I mean, we all know that some wines taste like rich soil, but does it really take 10 minutes to explain? And who eats rich soil anyway?🤔

The evening was mostly the usual…meet for drinks, go to dinner. Since we were in Scotland, our “formal” attire was enhanced by my family tartan…a sash for me and a tie for Jim. I think (fuzzy memory!) this was the night we decided to try to switch things up and start at Bellini’s, but it was a) too loud and b) too crowded. We retreated to our usual spot in Crooners before dinner.

After a nice and relaxing meal that included some great Italian wine and birthday cake (a month late!) Jim and I went to the production show — Secret Silk. It was excellent, and I think Princess has really stepped up their entertainment.

We sat with a couple from our Cruise Critic Roll Call, and it was there we learned the Fab Four had skipped out on another tour.🤬 If there’s a bright side, it’s that this time the organizer heard my story so she was proactive and called. Of course, she found out they had no intention of showing up. Since she had advance notice, she was at least able to replace two of the four.

After the show was the balloon drop, which I skipped this time, and bed. We would be off the ship again early the next day in Invergordon, our most northern port!

Picture Perfect!

I don’t think I’ve ever had what I would call a bad day on a cruise, but they’re not all created equal. Sometimes a port or an excursion doesn’t meet expectations. Sometimes the weather causes a change in plans. Sometimes a meal isn’t to my liking. (I know, that’s a real problem since there’s definitely a lack of food options on a ship!🙄) But sometimes everything falls in place and I have a perfect day. Greenock was one of those…it was exactly what I hoped for and more!

We woke yet again to bright sunny skies, and watched the sail-in to Greenock while we enjoyed a quick breakfast on our balcony.

I was very excited about our plans for the day…we were taking a tour of the Highlands with Photo Walk Scotland. Our small group was me, Jim, and just one other couple, Marci and Dale from Canada.

I had struggled for a long time with what to do in this port — go into Glasgow? Take one of the standard offerings to Loch Lomond and Sterling Castle? I just couldn’t decide. Thankfully I read a review on Cruise Critic and knew immediately I had found the excursion for me! I contacted Tommy (Tom Docherty) at Photo Walk Scotland right after I read the review, and we had many pleasant e-mail conversations planning our day. We had an ambitious itinerary, but Tommy felt certain we could get to the places he suggested and still make it back to the ship with time to spare.

We disembarked as soon as the ship was cleared, and there at the gate to exit the port was our wonderful guide for the day. Somehow, even though we were together with our cameras for 9 hours I neglected to take a picture of Tom. Google to the rescue…here’s one I found by doing a search:

We were off to see the Highlands! We had a pretty long (but scenic) drive to our first stop at The Green Welly restaurant/gift shop/gas station. We hugged Loch Lomond for most of the drive.

We stopped at The Green Welly for about 30 minutes for a much appreciated bathroom break and breakfast (our meals and beverages were included in the cost of the tour). I had a very filling bacon sandwich and explored the shops for a few minutes before we headed to Kilchurn Castle, our first photo stop.

The ruins of Kilchurn Castle are on the banks of Loch Awe. The main part of the structure dates back to about 1450.

Our second stop was also a castle — an occupied one this time! Castle Stalker is located on a small island in Loch Laich. It is believed that the current structure was built around 1440. Today it is privately owned, and is open to the public by appointment at selected times during the summer.

After getting our fill of castles we were off to Glen Coe. The town of Glencoe lies in the midst of the glacial valley and mountains, and it was there that we made two stops…the first at the church and cemetery and the second for lunch at Crafts and Things. Crafts and Things is a combination café, clothing store, and craft shop with a simple but filling and delicious menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches. I had a toasted sandwich with turkey, Brie, and cranberries. The bread and the cheese in Scotland and Ireland were outstanding. I couldn’t help myself!

These pictures of Crafts and Things are from the Internet:

After a great meal, we headed out to see the scenery in Glen Coe. Tommy was great about allowing us just enough time to feel like we were having a quality experience, but making sure we didn’t run short when it came to getting us back to Greenock. He was also great with crowd avoidance. It was a beautiful summer day, and I’ll let the pictures of Glen Coe speak for themselves.

Our last photo stop of the day was at the Blackrock Cottage near the entrance to the Glencoe Mountain (ski) Resort. When we left there we settled in for the long ride back to Greenock, with another stop at The Green Welly for good measure.

Summary…like photography? Take this tour! Don’t really care about photography? Go anyway! The scenery is phenomenal and Tommy is a delightful guide who clearly loves sharing Scotland with his guests. His company does other tours, including some longer trips to more remote areas. We’re eager to go back and hope to take a Photo Walk Scotland trip to the Isle of Skye in the spring of 2020.

Tommy got us back as promised, and once on board we had all of about an hour to get cleaned up and presentable for our Chef’s Table at 6:00. I actually surprised myself by how fast I can move when it’s necessary (or there’s food involved!).

This was one of, if not the best Chef’s Table we’ve been to. Everything about it was top notch…the setting, the food, the service, and even the souvenirs. We started in the galley for champagne and hors d’oeuvres, and then we were seated at the screened table in the dining room for the rest of the meal. Admittedly, I felt a little conspicuous parading through the dining room in the middle of dinner service to get to the special table, but I soon forgot about it because the whole experience was so exquisite.

Dinner ended a little after 9:00. I was tired but too full to sleep, so I made a donation in the casino before I called it quits. Jim went to The Beatlemaniacs show at 10:00, and thought it was just OK.

Back in our cabin, I surveyed the mess we made running in the door and scrambling to get ready for dinner, decided it could wait until the next day, and quickly fell sound asleep. We finally had a sea day the next day, and I was really looking forward to doing nothing, and then doing nothing again! We were far enough into the trip that the idea of having no place we needed to be and nothing we needed to do (until an afternoon wine tasting) was very appealing!

The Element of Surprise

We woke on Thursday to grungy grey skies.😮 Wait, what? Grey skies weren’t on the agenda! Luckily the clouds lifted and we were back to “the usual” by the time we got to our first main stop.

We had planned a very full day with City and Causeway Tours. There were eight of us, and we had opted to spend an extra £15 each to have four in a vehicle instead of six. In hindsight, it was a good call because our day in Northern Ireland involved a lot of time in a van.

We left port right on time and headed towards the coast with our driver, Mick. He was excellent, and Mick taught us a lot about Northern Ireland and “the struggles” as only someone who has lived through and had their life altered by events can.

Things didn’t look too promising weather-wise as we started our day. It wasn’t a wash-out, but it was grey and the light was very flat. Not at all what I wanted when we were headed out to see the scenery! Please excuse the dirty windshield photos…

We drove through the countryside headed towards the coast, and Mick told us a little about what we were seeing and how Northern Ireland is really still very much a country divided. That is very evident as you pass through small towns and villages…the homes in the Nationalist/Catholic towns fly the flag of Ireland, and the Unionist/Protestant families fly the Union Jack. Throughout the course of the day Mick shared his experiences, and his story really helped me understand the “struggles” of Northern Ireland in a way I never had.

Our first stop was in (I think) the town of Carnlough, where there is a Game of Thrones filming location, and more important a large public restroom and coffee shop! We didn’t stay too long, because our goal was to try to stay a step ahead of the big buses. Most of our group walked across the street to see the stairs from the harbor that were used in filming an episode of Game of Thrones, but since Jim and I have never watched the show we were content to just stretch our legs. This picture is from the Game of Thrones website:

Shortly after we left Carnlough, we were treated to some luck of the Irish. One minute we were looking at grey skies and in an instant we found ourselves driving down a country lane enjoying brilliant blue skies and abundant sunshine (again)!

Our first real stop was at a scenic overlook where we could see the countryside, the sea, and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. We didn’t cross the bridge because of time constraints…our itinerary was ambitious!

From there it was a short drive to a beautiful scenic overlook at White Park Bay, and then a stop at the Fullerton Arms in Ballintoy, another Game of Thrones filming location (and restroom stop!🙂).

Mick then took us to an incredible, unexpected surprise…Ballintoy Harbor. The harbor is down at the bottom of a steep, narrow road — more like a path really — and definitely isn’t accessible by any big buses. What a gem Ballintoy Harbor was! Rustic, tranquil, and unspoiled by massive numbers of visitors, it was a very unexpected highlight of the tour. We stayed there about an hour, but I could have lingered for the whole day.

We followed Ballintoy Harbor with the day’s main attraction, Giant’s Causeway. Is it spectacular? Yes. Breathtaking? Yes. Crowded? Yes. Commercialized? Yes. In other words, it is a natural marvel, but one that everyone wants to see. The causeway is an area of about 40,000 basalt columns that was created by an ancient volcanic fissure eruption. The result looks like a moonscape or something from a sci-fi movie.

Interestingly, admission to the UNESCO World Heritage site is free. Admission to the visitor’s center and access to the bus is for a fee. I had read it was faster to walk down to the columns and take the bus back, so that was what I did. I was misinformed. The “line” for the bus was so long and disorganized that by the time I reached the top there were seven fellow tourists and two drivers waiting for me.

All the beautiful scenery and fresh air made us hungry, so it was lucky our next stop was at the Wee Cottage by Dunluce Castle for lunch. It’s a popular spot, being somewhat the only game in town, but it’s tiny and therefore it was pretty crowded. Mick had called ahead and we did manage to get two tables, but I don’t think they could have fit another person in there. I also don’t think they could have fit another object in there…to say it was filled with tchotchkes would be a gross understatement!

To be honest, my ham and cheese sandwich was nothing special. Maybe if it had been grilled the shredded cheese wouldn’t have kept falling out. As it was, it was messy! My sandwich might have been just OK, but dessert was another matter entirely. The scones with juicy strawberries and freshly whipped cream were awesome.

We took a look at Dunluce Castle after lunch, but didn’t go in. We had one more stop to make and sights to see in Belfast.

Our final stop in the Antrim Coast area was Dark Hedges, another Game of Thrones filming location. I thought the trees were beautiful and mysterious, but again, never having watched the show I wasn’t as excited to see the location as some others. The last image of Dark Hedges is from the Game of Thrones website.

We headed for Belfast after that, where Mick gave us a quick tour of the Peace Walls and the murals. During the tour of Belfast, Mick got pretty choked up. He has lived with the tension his whole life, and even lost his Protestant (Unionist) family when he was disowned for marrying a Catholic (Nationalist).

Although there is a peace agreement, the two sides still don’t mix, and that is very apparent looking at the clearly divided neighborhoods, tall walls, gates that close each night at 11:00, and homes along the walls protected by wire cages so they can’t be damaged by projectiles. I didn’t get the sense of “peace” so much as “uneasy truce” and it seems like things could erupt again at any time. Emotions are running especially high right now because of Brexit and the worries of those who currently travel freely between Ireland and Northern Ireland. They fear a physical border where they are now free to cross between the countries, and therefore being cut off from their friends, their extended family, and their heritage. I thought it was heartbreaking to hear about things from Mick’s perspective.

We said our good-byes to Mick at Titanic Belfast, where we were spending the last few hours of our day. You really can’t travel in Ireland without being surrounded by Titanic history, and no place is it more evident than in Belfast where she was built. Titanic Belfast sits on the old site of the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the Titanic was built. These pictures of the outside of Titanic Belfast are from Wikipedia:

I thought Titanic Belfast was very well done, taking visitors from the bustling city of Belfast at the turn of the 20th century, through the planning, building, and outfitting of the ship, the maiden voyage, the sinking, and the aftermath. Large windows overlook the area where the gantries for the Titanic and the Olympic once stood and from where the ships were launched. On the concrete you can see painted outlines indicating where the funnels, and lifeboats were located. There are wooden benches in the same location they were on the deck of the Titanic. It not only gives visitors a good sense of scale, it also makes you “see” people walking the decks or trying to fit in a lifeboat on that tragic night.

I thought this was very interesting since we visited the Titanic cemeteries when we were in Halifax last October. Pictures of the two graves mentioned here can be seen below. The small boy #4 has since been identified.

At the end of the slipway you can see the Royal Princess. Directly across the channel from the modern cruise ship dock is the old Thompson Graving Dock and Pumphouse. Behind the building is the giant dry dock where the Titanic was fitted out.

Our time at Titanic Belfast ended right at 7:00, when the museum closed. Honestly, by then we were ready to go back to the ship. We had been gone 11 hours and packed in just as much as we could. The ship looked close, and it was, but the only fast way to cover the distance would have been to cross the channel in a dinghy. Our taxi didn’t have that capability, so we had to go around and it took about 10 minutes.

We freshened up and for dinner went to Alfredo’s with Deedee and Chip. I don’t think any of us had an interest in getting spiffed up enough to go to the dining room. We just wanted something casual, and Alfredo’s fit the bill perfectly. Besides, their Sangria is awesome!

Deedee and Chip probably found some nightlife after dinner, but we didn’t. We had another really ambitious itinerary for the next day, AND we were booked for the Chef’s Table the next evening!

I’m not sure what I expected, but I was surprised by Northern Ireland in so many ways…the beauty of the coast, the warmth of the people, the tragedy of their ongoing struggles. Northern Ireland was always kind of mysterious to me — much like Russia or Cuba. It was forbidden fruit! Having lived in London in the early-mid 1970s, all I ever heard about Northern Ireland was it was a place where there was a lot of fighting between Protestants and Catholics. IRA bombings were always in the news. I found the fighting is gone but the tension and animosity is not. Past wrongs are certainly not forgotten. I also learned Northern Ireland is so much more than the struggles. I hated to leave, but we sailed away right at 9:00, headed for Scotland!

Beautiful Ireland — Outside Dublin for the Day

We woke up early on Independence Day, were greeted by the usual brilliant blue skies and bright sunshine☀️, and started getting ready for our day in the Irish countryside. I was happily sipping coffee a little before 7:00 when the phone rang. The phone ringing that early is never good, and when I looked and saw it was the lead sister from the Fab Four I got a sick feeling in my stomach.

To make a long story short, the lead sister thought she “might” be coming down with something, so she was going to stay back. It gets better…her husband was also going to stay back to take care of her. I did some quick calculations in my head and figured the cost wouldn’t be too bad with three couples. I told her I hoped she felt better and we’d see sister #2 and her hubby at 7:45. It gets better…sister #1 said sister #2 wouldn’t go anyplace without her! In other words, a 60 year old woman refused to go on a tour she was obligated to because her sister thought she might be getting a cold!😳 I was furious! For starters, even if they decided not to go, they should have still paid. You can’t drop out of a tour less than an hour before departure and completely shrug off your obligations! Secondly, I had said no to lots of people for the tour because we were full. To have four spots go unused at the last minute really bothered me. Even though it cost us a lot more (€225 per couple instead of €112.50), I was angriest about their total lack of consideration in not letting me know until it was too late to find anybody to fill the spots.

My gut feelings about Fab Four from the day before were right. I now think they missed the Meet & Greet on purpose, because I don’t think they made name tags for 80+ people. I think they just made a few as they went along for the people they knew they would see. To top it all off…they did this again to another group a few days later. Just incredible. I’ve planned excursions with strangers for years and I have NEVER had anybody completely dump on their fellow roll call passengers like this.

I really enjoy the trip planning process, including finding and booking great tours. This experience has made me a little more cautious. I don’t want to handle other people’s money, but maybe I’ll have to look for companies that will take payments in advance directly from the participants. Tuesday was paid in advance, and the Fab Four showed up. Wednesday and the other private tour they skipped out on were “pay the day of” and they backed out. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I can tell you that if they ever showed up on another roll call I’m on I would run as fast as I could.

The AWOL couples aside, we had a FANTASTIC day with our Beautiful Meath driver, Martin. The trip was an excellent choice, and since there were only four of us (me, Jim, Bob, and Cathy) we had plenty of room to spread out!😂 We started with a drive out of Dublin through the Wicklow Mountains, where we saw the rolling hills of Ireland, Guinness Lake with its black water, and lots of wildlife.

You could tell how little rain they’ve had, because the views weren’t nearly as green as I expected. In fact, Martin said they had been having some trouble with wildfires in the gorse. Some tours had needed to be rerouted, but we were lucky and everything went as planned.

Our second stop was at Glendalough — probably my favorite stop of the day. Glendalough is the site of the remains of an early Medieval Monastic settlement in a beautiful valley. I really like old cemeteries, and this one was a great one!

Jim is trying to get his arms around the Wishing Cross. Alas, they aren’t nearly long enough!

Hunger was setting in by this time, so we went to our next stop, Avoca Weavers. In addition to the mill and gift shop, they have a small café with a selection of hot and cold sandwiches and salads. These cafe and food pictures are from the Avoca website:

The weaving facility originally started out as a cooperative for area farmers in the 1700s. They could grind their corn and spin and weave wool for clothing. Today, Avoca produces fine woven products, ceramics, and gourmet food in 12 locations in Ireland. Our tour through the weaving facility was very interesting, and of course we couldn’t resist a trip to the gift shop! The products were beautiful, but a lot of it was way too heavy for Houston. Cathy and I both chose brightly colored scarves with sheep on them, to remind us of all the sheep we saw driving through the Wicklow Mountains.

Our final stop of the day was at Powerscourt Estate. The gardens were beautifully laid out, and reminded me a little bit of Peterhof with the terraces and fountains. Unfortunately, you could really see the effects of the drought…the grass was brown! We strolled through the flowers but probably didn’t stay as long as we would have if the dry weather hadn’t had such an effect on the site.

Back at the ship, we got cleaned up and met Deedee and Chip at Crooners for some refreshments before dinner.

While we were sitting there lo and behold who walked by looking perfectly healthy but the sisters! They were all decked out in Flashy-Blinky 4th of July shirts, and appeared to be headed to the blow-out sale on Deck 7! I thought the most ridiculous thing was sister #1 saw me, pretended she hadn’t seen me, and then grabbed sister #2 and steered her away from the area where we were sitting. It was just like junior high! I hope they had fun at the junk sale and bought lots of worthless things with all the money they saved skipping out on the tour!🙄

We ate in the dining room again, and had a nice, relaxing meal. It was pretty late when we finished dinner, and I spent a little time in the casino before I called it a day. We had great plans for Belfast and the coast of Northern Ireland, but that also meant another early start to our touring day.

“Almost All” of Dublin on Foot 👣

We woke Tuesday in Dublin, opened the curtains, and were greeted with brilliant blue skies and bright sunshine…where have you heard that before?☀️ We were already docked, and not in a big hurry because we weren’t meeting our guide until 11:00. We had a leisurely breakfast on the balcony (great weather but an industrial port view), and I spent some time organizing things since we had four very full days before our first break in the action. We were ready to go with no rushing around, and we went down to Vines at 9:30 to meet our fellow Dublin sightseers.

We finally met the “Name Tag Sisters” and their husbands, since they had signed up to spend the day, the evening, and Dublin Day 2 with us. They presented us with our name tags, and I remember thinking they were pretty over the top considering they had to make (and pay for) more than 80 of them. I know if I had spent that kind of time and money I would have certainly moved Heaven and Earth to make sure I was at the Meet & Greet to distribute them. Something just didn’t seem quite right, but it was just a fleeting thought that would unfortunately make a lot more sense over the next few days of the trip.

I was excited about Dublin because of the tours I had booked, but more importantly I was excited because it was Dublin. What I discovered was that while there is still a rich history and pockets of the city ooze charm, many of Dublin’s old, historic structures have been replaced by modern buildings that make Dublin look a lot like many other cities. Our tours both days, however, were fantastic and more than made up for the experience in Cobh.

We piled into 2 taxis for the quick trip downtown, and had time to explore the National Museum of Ireland Archaeology while we waited for our 11:00 meeting time to start our tour.

I had booked a 5 hour “Almost All of Dublin” walking tour through Dublin Tour Guide (found on Trip Advisor). Our guide, Calbac MacSiacais, was prompt, and after introductions we explored the museum for a few more minutes while he made our reservation for the Book of Kells. Thankfully, Calbac goes by the English name of Carl Jackson, because I never did get the correct pronunciation of his Gaelic name! Carl explained the Irish alphabet only has 19 letters, so some letters combine to do double duty and make sounds of letters that don’t exist in then Gaelic alphabet! One common combination is “bh” which makes the “v” sound. Hence, Cobh is pronounced Cove and Siobhan is pronounced Shivon.

We started our tour with a walk to St. Stephen’s Green, where Carl gave us an overview of Ireland’s/Dublin’s history and briefly explained the things we were going to see.

It was there that I started to understand the strained relationship between England, Ireland, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Suffice it to say, some of my assumptions about the current relationships between the countries and Brexit were way off the mark. If I was going to describe the current atmosphere as a relationship status on Facebook I would choose “it’s complicated.” Actually, it’s beyond complicated, it’s emotional and gut-wrenching and as steeped in history and inexplicable events as race relations in the U.S.

Our first stop was at Trinity College and the Book of Kells. On the way we walked down Grafton Street past all the expensive designer stores and cart vendors, winding our way through the throngs of people and street performers. A quick stop for the story of Molly Malone, and we were on the grounds of Trinity College. We went directly to see the book of Kells, followed by the jewel in my day, the Trinity College Library.

The Book of Kells is a set of beautifully illustrated Latin books of the four gospels, meticulously hand written in inks of the times. Believed to date back to 800 A.D., the heavily ornamented pages are unlike most other scripts of the time. For centuries, the work was housed at the Abbey of Kells, but has been in the possession of Trinity College since at least 1661.

Today the manuscripts reside in a climate controlled case in the Trinity College Library. The manuscripts are fascinating, but the process for viewing them leaves something to be desired as it involves lots of pushing and shoving in tight quarters. Obviously, photography is forbidden, but pictures are easy to find on the internet. These came from Wikipedia. I did have an interesting conversation with one of the employees about the care of the book. The pages are turned every few months, and it is a lengthy, painstaking process. The display is closed to the public during the times the pages on display are changed.

Exiting the Book of Kells display, a marble staircase took us to heaven — I mean the Long Room of the Trinity College Library. Oh, how I would have loved to be there and wander through the stacks without all the tourists! As improbable as it seems given the age of the books, the lack of technology, and the number of tourists, this is a working library for the students at the college. Books cannot leave the premises, but they can be requested to be used in the reading areas of the library. I could have lost myself there for many hours!

Isn’t it spectacular? Here’s a picture from Wikipedia without all the people:

After we left the library, we walked around campus a little before we headed to lunch.

We ate in the most unlikely place — Kilkenny Department Store! I was skeptical, but upstairs there is a great café serving a variety of hot and cold sandwiches, quiches, soups, sausage rolls, and sweets. The servings were plentiful, it was fast, and there was something for everybody. In hindsight, it was a good choice because we needed to eat without spending too much time. These pictures are from the website:

After lunch we walked down to the Liffey River.

Along a stretch of the river known as the Dublin City Docklands is where you can find the Famine Memorial. The haunting figures represent the victims of a dark time in Irish history, the great potato famine when around 1 million people died of starvation and another million emigrated from Ireland in search of food.

I’m not going to go into detail here, but this was the first of several times we heard the term “genocide” used in relation to the famine and the massive loss of (mostly Catholic) lives. Suffice it to say there were a number of political, social, religious, and economic factors that contributed to the huge loss of life and helped shape Ireland as an independent country with only historical ties to England.

Docked in the river close to the memorial is the Jeanie Johnston, a tall ship that carried over 2,500 starving immigrants to North America during the famine. The statues at the memorial are placed so as to be making their way to the Jeanie Johnston. She is typical of the ships referred to as coffin ships due to the massive loss of life on board the immigrant transports, however no passengers ever died on a Jeanie Johnston crossing. That was a great feat attributable to the captain and ship’s doctor.

Our next stop was at a place not usually on tourists’ must-see lists…we visited St. Mary’s Pro Cathedral. Why St. Mary’s? Deedee’s Great-Great Grandmother was christened there, so we included it on our list of stops! I don’t think they get a lot of sight-seers, because the caretaker was very excited to have visitors, especially when he learned the reason! The first two church pictures are from Wikipedia:

From St. Mary’s we walked down O’Connell Street on our way towards the river and the Temple Bar area. There we saw the Spire of Dublin, a gigantic steel sculpture that doesn’t appear to depict anything. It’s in a kind of questionable neighborhood, and the locals have given it some questionable nicknames. The most common one is “The Stiffy by the Liffey,” but there are others…all referring to the shape of the sculpture! The picture of the “stiffy” is also from Wikipedia.

We crossed the river and walked slowly through the bustling, colorful Temple Bar area. I thought Temple Bar and the surrounding streets looked the most like the picture of Dublin I had in my head before the trip. The buildings were old, quirky, well-kept, and surrounded by beautiful flowers. It was an area I would have liked to spend more time exploring.

From Temple Bar we walked to Dublin Castle, and found a shaded spot in in the Dubh Linn Gardens where we chatted with Carl for a while about all things Ireland — education, sports, religion, history — you name it. Sadly, it was time for us to part company, and Carl rushed off to play in a soccer match while we squeezed in a few minutes at the Chester Beatty Library.

The Chester Beatty Library houses ancient manuscripts, biblical papyri, and very early copies of the New Testament as well as other important religious documents. It was another one of those places where I could have spent a lot of time, but unfortunately by the time we got in there they were preparing to close. It would definitely be on my list for a return visit.

We had a little time to kill before our dinner/show at the Brazen Head Pub, so we walked in that general direction and settled on Ned O’Shea’s Pub across from our dinner destination for a late aftenoon cocktail. It was while we were in Ned O’Shea’s that things started to get a little strange. I mentioned to the “Name Tag Sisters” what a shame it was they had spent so much time and money on name tags only to have them go to waste. They didn’t seem too bothered by the waste, but I suggested we set up a get together later in the cruise and they somewhat reluctantly agreed. I should also add that the “Name Tag Spouses” were even less enthusiastic about the idea than the sisters. In fact, neither of the husbands really had much to say the entire day. One of the husband’s parents immigrated from Cobh, and when I asked him about it he said he had never visited before and really never had any interest in doing so. I thought it was strange, but each to his own!

Before dinner Jim and I went on a walking tour of the neighborhood desperately in search of a drug store. My allergies had hit with a vengeance that morning and were getting worse by the hour. I felt fine, but I could barely talk and was starting to cough a lot. We finally found what we were looking for and met the rest of the group upstairs at the Brazen Head.

What a fun evening! We attended an event called an Evening of Food, Folklore, and Fairies. We were served traditional Irish food while Phillip shared stories and songs that have been passed down through the generations. The only thing I would have liked was a bit better air conditioning. It was hot for Dublin (upper 70s), and quite stuffy on the third floor of the old pub, especially while eating giant bowls of Guinness Stew!

While we were at the Brazen Head I got an urgent e-mail from Derek of Beautiful Meath Tours letting me know there was a problem with the air conditioning in our van for the next day. Apparently it was working in the front but not the back. Derek said they would load plenty of cold water on the van for us. We all talked about it (me, Jim, Cathy, Bob, and the Name Tag Sisters and their side-kicks) and decided we would be fine, and we could switch seats throughout the day to make sure everyone was comfortable. Keep in mind the forecast was for the high 70s. It might have been sweltering to the Irish, but to the Houstonians it felt great!

Little did I know that when we parted ways at the Brazen Head into taxis back to the ship that was the last time I would see the Name Tag Entourage (henceforth to be know as the Fab Four) except from a distance.😢😡😳

It didn’t take me long to fall asleep when we got back to the ship. It had been a wonderful but long day, and since we were meeting at 7:45 the next day I knew I needed my beauty sleep!

Up next — Happy Independence Day from the spectacular Irish countryside, a wonderful guide and day with Beautiful Meath Tours, and what NOT to do when you commit to a tour!

One of These Things (Tours) is Not Like the Others!

We woke on Monday morning to brilliant blue skies and bright sunshine…we were back on track with the weather, and ready to greet Ireland! Some frou-frou coffee, a quick breakfast, and we were off to Vines to meet our group. There were 11 of us who had formed a group on our Cruise Critic roll call, and we were booked with Butlers Bus. The tour was one of the first I reserved for this trip, and based on the outstanding reviews I was confident we were going to have a fantastic day. Our itinerary was to visit the English Market in Cork, Charles Fort, Kinsale, and see some coastal scenery. No Blarney Castle for us! We didn’t want to deal with the crowds or stand in a long line to kiss the Blarney Stone.

Getting off the ship was not as easy as I expected. In fact, they were directing everybody into the dining room. I wondered if they were trying to pull a St. Petersburg, aka get their tours out ahead of everyone else, but the delay turned out to be waiting for the ship to clear Irish immigration. Once the formalities were taken care of we were off fairly quickly. Soon after we disembarked we found our driver Norbert and we were off.

I had hints pretty early in the day that something was not quite right.🤔 First of all, our bus was the only one that was silver instead of white with the bright blue and pink lettering of the other Butlers vehicles. It also seemed quite a bit smaller than a Butlers 16 passenger bus. Then there was Norbert.🙁 Our “guide” didn’t know what our itinerary was, didn’t seem to want to be there, and worst of all, had the personality of a rock. Conversation was non-existent. Perhaps he needed to kiss the Blarney Stone! As we drove to Cork from Cobh, there was no narration, no explanation of what we were seeing, and very short answers to our questions. We knew before we even got to Cork we had a problem on our hands. On the bright side, it was a beautiful day and we were going to enjoy ourselves despite Norbert.

Our first stop of the day was at the English Market in Cork. Norbert was unable or unwilling to tell us anything about it, but he did recommend we enter in groups of 2 or 3 so we wouldn’t be charged admission. Sigh…as you will see this was the pattern for the day. We followed instructions, and enjoyed about 30 minutes walking around admiring the fresh seafood, meats, and produce. The market is celebrating its 230th anniversary this year, and it is one of the oldest markets of its kind in the world. I would love to have a nearby market like that to shop at.

We left the market and headed towards the coast and our second stop at Charles Fort. Deterred but determined, we asked Norbert various questions about the things we were seeing, but he was having no part of it! I remember asking what we were crossing (I wanted the name of the river), and the response I got was, “a river.”🙄 In hindsight I suppose that was pretty informative, because when we got to Charles Fort we were told to read the signs!😳

Charles Fort is a 17th century star shaped fort that was one of the main fortifications on the Irish coast for centuries. It was used extensively in the Williamite War in 1689-91 and the Civil War in 1922-23. The fort was declared a national landmark in 1973. In addition to the interesting structure and history, Charles Fort offers beautiful views of nearby Kinsale and the rolling countryside.

The fishing village of Kinsale was next on our list, and again we were left to figure things out. Unfortunately, it was lunch time, and we had to spend a good portion of our time trying to find the open restaurants, check menus, etc. Five of us lucked into a great meal at the Blue Haven, but that was after 30 or so minutes of wandering aimlessly through the town. We felt like a Goldilocks group — The first place we tried had seemed to have a lot of potential on Trip Advisor, but we found it wasn’t at all what we expected. The second place would have been great, but there was a wait. The third restaurant we tried was a perfect fit! We had a great meal, but it would have been nice to be able to go straight there to maximize our time. I had something called a Toastie, and Jim had fish tacos that he proclaimed to be the best he’s ever had.🌮 Great tacos in Kinsale, Ireland. Go figure! After lunch we walked towards the bus, stopped for ice cream and at a craft show, and reboarded the bus for our next stop, which was to be coastal scenery.

Not so fast my friend! Norbert said he didn’t know of any place with scenery. Thankfully I had done some research, and I knew from working on our itinerary that Old Kinsale Head was nearby. I suggested that location and Norbert amazingly remembered it existed. I’m glad I was persistent. Not only was the view spectacular, Old Kinsale Head is home to the Lusitania memorial and museum. The Lusitania was sunk by a German torpedo in 1915, resulting in over 1,100 deaths. The remains lie about 13 miles off the coast of Ireland near Old Kinsale Head.

After a mostly silent and hot (the bus didn’t have A/C) ride back to Cobh we were happy to part ways with Norbert! Cobh (pronounced Cove) was formerly known as Queenstown, and is well known for being the departure point for 2.5 million Irish immigrants to the United States between the mid 1800s and 1950. It was also the final call of an ill-fated journey before the crossing to New York. 123 passengers boarded the Titanic here, and only 44 of them survived. The waterfront buildings, streets, and remnants of the tender pier used by the Titanic passengers survive, and the Old White Star line office now houses the Titanic Experience.

My trip came close to ending, or at least having greatly curtailed activities while we were walking down the pier to return to the ship. I’m not graceful at the best of times, and if there’s an obstacle or a trip hazard I’m sure to find it. Sure enough, my foot caught the edge of a recessed drain, and down I went with all the grace of Dumbo falling off a bar stool. Fortunately the only thing that was injured was my pride, and with my camera and all my bones intact I dusted myself off and boarded the ship. I was surprised security let me proceed…they were very concerned about the dip in the pavement after they saw me fall, and by the time we got to the gangway there was an officer blocking the spot and making people go around.

One of the first things I did when we got back to the ship was contact Butlers about the problems we had. Even though we enjoyed the day, it was far from what we expected or paid for. We enjoyed ourselves despite the tour, not because of it! The response from Butlers was fast…a huge apology and a full refund. It was explained to me that Butlers had an “internal emergency” and had to contract out for a vehicle and driver for our tour.

Since we got home I have had additional communication with the managing partners at Butlers, and they have assured me they have severed ties with the substitute company (Deasy’s) and will take steps to ensure a situation like ours doesn’t happen again. I’m satisfied with their response, but I would still much rather have gotten what I contracted for. It does bother me a little that I booked almost a year in advance and still ended up drawing the short stick on that day, but Butlers said they don’t consider booking date in their vehicle/guide assignments. Would I give them another chance? Probably, but I would look around to see what other good providers were available. We certainly had a tour that was not like the others!

It felt good to have time to relax for a while. Remember the AWOL “Name Tag Sisters” from Day 1? I contacted them to make sure all was good for the next day since they were touring with us both days in Dublin, and we hung out on the balcony for a while enjoying the gorgeous day until it was time for drinks/dinner.

Sailaway was while we were enjoying fancy martinis in Crooners. We ran out and took a few pictures, but it was cold and windy, so we quickly retreated to the warmth of the indoors and our vodka concoctions!

We learned that the Concerto dining room opened for Anytime Dining at 7:30, so that became our location of choice that night and for most of our dining room dinners. After a nice dinner we went our separate ways…I made a donation to the casino, Jim went to the production show “Colors of the World,” and Deedee and Chip went back to Crooners and on to do whatever night owls do while those of us with less stamina sleep!

We would wake up Tuesday in Dublin and had a two full days and a fun evening planned for our stay!

Into Every Vacation a Little Rain Must Fall

We woke on Sunday to grungy grey skies and rain. What?!? This was a British Isles cruise. We were prepared for rain, but we weren’t supposed to get any!😂 Oh well, rain or shine the show must go on!

We grabbed a quick bite to eat, packed our rain gear and other assorted supplies for the day, and met the rest of our group (8 of us from the Royal Princess) at Vines at 7:30. I had read enough scary reports about tendering in Guernsey that we wanted to ensure we had plenty of time to make our tour. In fact, we had a plan for both directions. We were going to return early in the afternoon to avoid the horrible waits that had been reported. You know what they say about plans, right? But I’m getting ahead of myself…

The morning plan worked like a charm. We never even made it into the Symphony Dining Room for tender tickets — we were early enough we walked right on to a boat! I would say the tender ride took about 15 minutes, and there we were in Guernsey with almost an hour before our walking tour. Thankfully the rain had given way to clouds, so we stowed the rain gear and amused ourselves with free WiFi. Well, most of us did. Jim had to live vicariously through the rest of us since his phone had gone where all overpriced Apple products seem to go on a regularly scheduled basis!😳

Our plan for the day was a morning walking tour with Annette Henry, some quality shopping time, lunch at one of the delicious looking restaurants we had found on Trip Advisor, a walk over to the castle, and an early-ish return to the ship to beat the late afternoon tender lines. The first part of our plan went off without a hitch. We found Annette Henry to be an extremely knowledgeable guide. She is a Guernsey native, so in addition to using props and engaging her audience to tell a story, she also has first-hand knowledge and can convey the information as only someone who’s lived it can do.

We wandered through the beautiful streets and up and down the many stairs of Guernsey, with Annette telling the story of her home as we went along.

We learned about the vennels that were built to provide a fast route from the shore to the center of town. These dark, narrow passageways/staircases provided a quick route for everyone, including pirates, prostitutes, and unfortunately rats carrying the Bubonic Plague. Even today, some of the vennels don’t look very appealing…I decided I didn’t need to explore.

Queen Victoria is revered in Guernsey, as she was the first reigning monarch to visit in 1846. Although Victoria and Albert were already married when they visited, Annette included the story of Victoria’s many suitors, and she used props and some of us to tell the story. Apparently one of Victoria’s would-be husbands didn’t suit her because he had too much facial hair and acne (that was Jim’s role!), and another was dismissed because he was partially blind. I have no way of knowing if that’s fact or fiction, but it was fun, entertaining, and kept everyone engaged.

While we walked, we learned about the cost and availability of housing in Guernsey. Housing in Guernsey is divided into two types…local market and open market. Local market housing is restricted to those who are natives of Guernsey, have at least one parent who falls into that classification, or have a partner who is a native. Open market housing is available to anyone, regardless of their citizenship status. It is much more limited than local market housing, and as a result is extremely expensive. Since Guernsey is a relatively small island with limited housing, the rules help control the population at a level that gives all a high quality of life.

We also heard about some of the darker times in Guernsey’s history. On a steep staircase Annette told the tragic story of three women. Catherine Cauches and her daughters Perotine Massey and Guillemine Gilbert were convicted of heresy and sentenced to death by hanging and burning. During the execution Perotine gave birth, and even though the baby was rescued from the flames the bailiff ordered the baby to be burned along with his mother. The memory of these women is represented on a plaque and serves as a glimpse at a dark period in history.

This was another event where Annette called on us to play the parts of the three women, and I’ll be honest…it was a little over the top for me. She even had a noose she used as a prop. I took a photo of the scene complete with the noose around a lady’s neck, but I’m not going to post it because the thought of being burned alive and having a newborn thrown in the fire freaked me out. I enjoyed almost everything about our tour, but that audience participation segment gave me the creeps.

At the top of a hill overlooking the town and the harbor, we heard the story of the German occupation of Guernsey during WWII. 5,000 children were evacuated from the island, among them Annette’s mother and uncle. Other family members stayed behind and endured the hardships of life on an occupied island with dwindling food supplies and increasing tension between the islanders and the occupying forces. Annette shared the story through her relatives’ experiences, photos, and artifacts from the time.

Our tour ended with a demonstration by Annette…she showed us how they used to deal with thieves “back in the day.” I have to admit, if I had been walking by I probably would have done a double-take.😳 I could tell Annette is extremely proud of her home and enjoys helping visitors get to know Guernsey. Her tour would appeal to people of all ages, and it was a great introduction to Guernsey.

Our time with Annette ended about 11:15, and we walked down to a place called Tea & Co. for some genuine Guernsey ice cream. Remember, this is a vacation story, so dessert before lunch is allowed! We decided on a place called Dix Neuf for lunch, and since there were two ships in port we thought it would be best to be there when they opened. We would have been right on time any other day, but this particular day was a Sunday, and Dix Neuf wasn’t open for lunch. As a matter of fact, lots of places — most places — were closed. The husbands were probably more than a little relieved, but Deedee and I were disappointed to have our shopping plans ruined.

We walked back down the hill to the Ship & Crown pub, which was right next door to our ice cream stop. We got there and grabbed a nice table just as they opened, but the seats filled fast. If we had waited to eat I’m not sure we would have found a table. I had a great burger. I don’t remember what the other choices were, but I think everybody enjoyed their lunch.

*The Tea & Co. pictures and the Ship & Crown pictures were downloaded from the internet.

Sometime while we were in the pub it started to rain. Hard. We didn’t think much of it at the time, because we were inside where we were dry and had plentiful food and drink to keep us busy. Unfortunately, the thousands of other people who were walking past the shuttered shops and restaurants of Guernsey decided the rain meant it was time to return to the ship. We had no such sense of urgency and took our time. Once the rain let up we thought it would be a perfect time to head back. We scrapped the idea of walking over to Castle Cornet and went straight to the tender dock. It was then that we discovered the perfect torture that is tendering in Guernsey. The Disney-esque line mostly stood still while hundreds of Royal Princess passengers and hundreds of Brilliance of the Seas passengers slowly shuffled along. The “fun” was doubled when it started pouring again.

All told, it took us about 2 hours from the time we left the pub until we stepped back on the ship. Totally unacceptable, but at least it wasn’t broiling hot, and there were employees walking around making sure things didn’t get out of control. When we finally got to the gangway we discovered part of the problem is that Guernsey really doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle 2 big ships at once. The two ships had to share one dock and one gangway down to that dock, hence the long periods of no movement.

I thought Guernsey was beautiful and interesting, but I would think twice about spending a long day on shore from a ship if it meant standing in line for hours again just to get “home.”

Back on the ship, we hung up our rain gear (preview…we wouldn’t really need it again!😁), and I did a quick load of laundry. We hung out on the balcony and relaxed for a while before dinner. Sunday was the first of two formal nights. We started the evening in Crooners with beautiful scenery and fun martinis, then ate in the Symphony Dining Room about 7:30. I remember dinner was good, but I couldn’t begin to tell you what I had!☺️ I know the dessert had peanut butter in it and it was so good I could have made room for another!

I didn’t have much awake left in me by the time we finished dinner! We watched the Champagne Waterfall from above, but didn’t participate. Jim went to the show, but I opted for sleep! It had been a long day, and we had a full day planned for Monday. I fell asleep dreaming about our next few days in Ireland.😴

If You Build it They Will Come!

We woke on Saturday morning to brilliant blue skies and bright sunshine…do you sense a pattern here? Everyone we encountered throughout the cruise said this was the best summer in decades. One person said since 1976…the same year I moved back to the states. I was sixteen. You can do the math!

After a quick breakfast with a waitress who seemed irritated by our presence at 7:00 on a Saturday, we retreated to 219 to pack up our last minute items, and it was cruise time! It took us a few minutes to schlep our bags down a half-flight of stairs and through the maze of carpeted corridors to the elevator, but we made it and were in the lobby at exactly 7:45.

We were one of three couples who travelled together to the port by way of Stonehenge and Salisbury. Woodford Cars/Cruise Connection was our car service, and they were excellent. We had a very comfortable vehicle, an excellent driver, and best of all a loot hauler (luggage trailer) so we had plenty of room to spread out.

The ride to Stonehenge was uneventful. We were early enough on a Saturday that traffic wasn’t bad at all, and we were easily at Stonehenge in time for our 10:00 admission tickets (purchased on-line in advance). I was the only one of the six of us who had been to Stonehenge, and I would be lying if I didn’t say I was shocked by how much it’s changed. Not un-like the popular London attractions, as the site became more visited/crowded it also evolved and became more commercialized. Granted, it’s been at least as long as the last summer with weather like this one since I had been to Stonehenge, but I remember a (dirt?) road leading to a very small parking lot. From the parking lot you could walk to, among, and even on the stones! There was no visitors’ center, no shuttle bus, and if I recall correctly, there were no restrooms! There definitely wasn’t a gift shop!

Obviously, the stones themselves haven’t changed, but the number of visitors certainly has! Jim snapped this picture on my phone. It reminds us of the caravan in Field of Dreams…If you build it, they will come! I’m not sure that’s what they had in mind several thousand years ago, but they built it and now they come!😂

You now take a shuttle from the Visitors’ Center to the stones — drop off is where the old parking lot was. The stones are viewed from a path surrounding them, and the stones themselves are roped off to keep visitors away. Understandable, given the number of visitors and the need to preserve the ancient site. I tried so hard to get a couple shots without people in them, but it was a difficult task!

Putting aside annoyances with how much the experience of visiting the site has changed, it is fascinating. The earliest wood temple on the site dates back to 5,000 B.C., with the installation of large stones starting around 2,500 B.C. It really is incomprehensible to try to picture how the stones were brought to the site and erected.

So, what was Stonehenge used for? A temple? A burial ground? A calendar? The answer is yes to all of those to various degrees. There are probably many more uses that we’re not aware of, and many historians, scientists, and archaeologists have put forth theories of the purpose of Stonehenge. We may never know the answers to many of the questions that still surround the site.

Our visit wasn’t a long one…we were headed to Salisbury and wanted to be at the ship early in the afternoon. We had enough time to walk slowly around the stones, explore the Visitors’ Center sights, and we were off. It was quite a bit more crowded by the time we left, so we were glad we had gotten an early start and purchased tickets in advance. The stream of cars creeping towards Stonehenge was seemingly endless.

Everybody goes to Stonehenge, but from my perspective virtually nobody visits Salisbury, and I’m not sure why. The village is charming, the cathedral is stunning, and then there’s the Magna Carta.

The main section of Salisbury Cathedral was built between 1220 and 1258, with the cloisters, chapter house, and spire added later. The flying buttresses were added some years after the spire to prevent the collapse of the cathedral under the enormous weight of the steeple.

While the architecture inside the cathedral retains its classic style, there is a very notable modern addition. The stunning baptismal font at Salisbury Cathedral was installed in 2008 to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the consecretion of the cathedral.

The Magna Carta is housed in the Chapter House, an octagonal building that was constructed in the years after the completion of the cathedral.

The next 2 pictures are stock images I found on the internet:

There are four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta, and the one housed at Salisbury Cathedral is considered to be the best. The Magna Carta originated in 1215 as an attempt to bring peace between royalist and rebel factions. Although the (quite radical) document didn’t have an impact when and as it was written, it eventually became part of statute law in England. Although the original document concerned the relationship between a monarch and barons, the Magna Carta is also significant in U.S. history as it profoundly impacted the original colonists and influenced the U.S. Constitution.

Photography of the document isn’t permitted, but I found this image on the internet. I was stunned at the intricate penmanship…a lost art these days!

After we left the cathedral, we made a quick stop at a grocery store for some allergy medicine (I’ve never encountered so many things blooming at once anywhere!) 🌺🌿🌻 and we were off to Southampton! It wasn’t a long drive at all, and we were soon pulling up to the Royal Princess!

We dropped off bags, were upstairs in the terminal quickly, and we were met with CHAOS! There were people everywhere, and as it was after 2:00 we couldn’t figure out what the problem could be.

I’m so thankful that we had priority boarding. For us there was no real wait, We checked in, slowly made our way through security (we were stuck behind some of the people you never want to be behind in a security line🙄), and we were on the ship. For those without priority, the wait was substantial. We found out the gangway had been out of commission for over an hour, and check-in had come to a complete stop. I’m glad we had been out touring, because it saved us an uncomfortable wait in a crowded terminal!

Our cabin was C429, a mid-ship mini suite with an extended balcony. This wasn’t the first cabin I chose for this cruise, or even the second, third, or fourth! I originally booked a deluxe balcony, but after our cruise on the Regal last fall we decided we wanted more storage space and moved to a mini-suite. After that, I changed decks and sides of the ship several times until I finally landed in a great location. The mini suites on the Royal class aren’t huge, but the storage was more than adequate for us, and I liked being able to put everything away. Obviously these pictures were taken later in the trip when we were well settled in!

Just a side note…when we got home we had a message on our answering machine from Princess. They called after we left for London because they wanted to offer us a complimentary upgrade. We missed it because they had our home number and not my cell number.😢 Lesson learned! In the future, I will make sure my cell phone is the primary contact number!

A quick look around, a couple dinner reservations, and it was time for lunch with Deedee and Chip. We went to Alfredo’s and enjoyed salads, Calzones, personal pizzas, and Eggplant Parmigiana. And Sangria. Lots and lots of sangria!🍹Somehow we all ended up with our own carafe because we were told it was a bargain! Oh well, we didn’t have to drive!

Muster was next, and it was reasonably painless. We were assigned to the Concerto Dining room, so since we didn’t have to bring life jackets 👏🏻 we went straight there from Alfredos. After muster I ran to our cabin to do a quick freshen up and grab my camera, counted suitcases (yay, everything was there!), and headed up to the Outrigger Bar for our Cruise Critic Meet & Greet/Sailaway Party.

We had a good turnout, but we also encountered a problem. There were several no-shows. Unfortunately, two of the no-shows were sisters who had very enthusiastically volunteered to make name tags.😰 It really was difficult to put names with faces without the tags, but we did the best we could. I was also a little worried because the sisters and their husbands were on two tours I had arranged and at least one more from the roll call. The next day I called the name tag volunteer who said she went to the wrong place. I had my doubts, because the day/time/location were well publicized, but decided to believe her. Sadly, my doubts would prove to be well-founded, but that’s a story for another day.🤔

Jim and I didn’t do much else on boarding day. We stayed at the Outrigger for quite a while. I wanted (needed) to get unpacked and put everything away, and by the time that task was finished it was getting late. We ran up to Horizon Court for a dinner snack, and went to bed early. We had six more days of touring before a “day off” and I knew from experience I would need all the sleep I could find!

I seldom sleep better than I do at sea, and June 30, 2018 was no exception. I attempted to type notes for my blog, but after falling asleep at the keyboard three times I gave up and called it a day!

All Around the Town

We woke on Friday morning to brilliant blue skies and bright sunshine…the weather couldn’t have been nicer. We started with a quick breakfast at the hotel, and were happy to finally meet Cathy and Bob who were going to be on our cruise. Cathy and I had been e-mailing and planning for months, and it was great to put faces with names.

I’ll tell you right up front that both of the tours we took on Friday were a bit of a mixed bag. Our first activity of the day was a walking tour of Notting Hill and Portobello Road Market with Discover Walks.

It was a short, easy trip on the Tube to Notting Hill Gate Station where we were to meet our guide (in a distinctive pink vest) outside Exit 1. Let’s start with the fact the directions were wrong…Exit 1 brought us up from the Tube on the wrong side of the street. Then let’s talk about the distinctive pink vest our guide was wearing. Wait! You guessed it…there was nobody in a pink vest anywhere in the area.

We had been asked to be at the meeting place at 9:50. Finally at about 10:10 I called the emergency number. The person who answered was very concerned that she couldn’t get in touch with her guide and not at all concerned that we were standing on a street corner waiting for a prepaid tour and didn’t seem to have a guide. Looking back, I think the office dropped the ball on communication, because just after the conversation ended our guide (without a vest or any other identifying garment) approached us.

We had a nice stroll, but I don’t feel like we really learned anything about the area. Our guide was more of a companion than a guide — he largely left us to our own devices unless we asked about something. The conversation was pleasant, but not particularly informative.

Portobello Road Market probably came the closest to my memories of any of the things we saw in London. As a teenager, I loved Saturday outings to Portobello Road for embroidered shirts and armloads of cheap bangles. That part hasn’t changed! You can still purchase all kinds of embroidered clothing and inexpensive jewelry. The only things that really seemed different to me were the houses behind the stalls have been fixed up, and the market stalls now line the sides of the street instead of filling it.

Portobello Road Market in the mid 1970s:

Portobello Road Market today:

Street art near the market…

From my trips to Portobello Road as a teenager in the 1970s, I remember Notting Hill as being fairly run down. Like many other parts of London it’s been cleaned up, the homes have been renovated, and it is now very trendy and expensive. I know the movie had something to do with Notting Hill’s popularity, but given the location and beautiful old townhomes the revitalization would have happened anyway.

Walking through the area today, you would never guess Notting Hill was the scene of a race riot in the late 1950s and the carefully restored, colorful townhomes were once run down multi-family dwellings that were considered to be some of the worst slums in London.

Our guide took us to see the Grenfell Tower…the scene of the horrendous high rise apartment fire that killed 71 people in June of 2017. I’m not sure how I feel about the inclusion of that site on our tour. While it was a tragic event, the description of events turned to tales of ethnic cleansing and murder, putting a damper on the morning.

Shortly after we visited Grenfells we made our way back to Notting Hill Gate Station where we ended the tour. As I said earlier, it was a pleasant morning, but we could have done the same thing on our own with a little time on the internet to get some background information. I highly recommend touring the area, but I don’t think Discover Walks enhanced our experience at all.

We got back on the Tube headed to Embankment for lunch and our afternoon tour. We ate at Gordon’s Wine Bar, an ancient establishment on Villiers Street near Embankment Tube Station. It was a great choice! Gordon’s has a large outside seating area, so while the inside was so dark and dreary I could barely see where I was going, outside it was warm and sunny and perfect! I thought the food was great…a big hunk of bread, a slab of English Cheddar, Parma ham, butter, olives, marinated tomatoes…yum! I’d choose that for lunch every day if I could!

Our afternoon tour was with London Walks. They offer a wide variety of tours every day, with no advance booking required. You just show up at the designated location a few minutes before the scheduled time, pay £10 per person, and off you go. Our meeting place was just outside Embankment Tube Station.

We had chosen the Sherlock Holmes tour, and for me this was also a mixed bag. I had taken a Sherlock Holmes tour 5 years ago when I was in London on a Tauck Tour, but I didn’t realize Tauck had made special arrangements to turn the tour into a game just for our group. I had something like that in mind when we decided on the tour, but ours was just a regular walking tour.

Don’t get me wrong. Our guide Richard was very knowledgeable and a fantastic story teller. I enjoyed listening to him. There were just too many people for me to really enjoy the tour. I think we ended up with about 40 in our group, which can be kind of hard to manage walking through the streets of London. Richard was excellent about making sure everyone could hear his main talking points, but we didn’t get any of the side conversation we’re accustomed to on smaller walking tours.

I witnessed something interesting and a little scary during our walk. We were on The Strand not too far from Covent Garden…standing in a big half circle around Richard. A pick-pocket(?) dressed as a little old lady started trying to mingle with our group, which was loaded with people oblivious to their surroundings. I think the woman thought she had hit the jackpot, because the number of ladies in our group with open bags was astounding. I spotted her and immediately walked to the other side of the circle, making sure the potential thief saw me and knew I was on to her. She kept moving, but I kept her in view until Richard was done and we moved on. I told the would-be victims about it as we walked to our next stop, and they were shocked to think they had almost been robbed.

I don’t walk around cities paranoid, but I always try to be aware of my surroundings and take reasonable precautions like a secure bag that’s difficult to get into in a hurry. London is probably hardest for me, because I’m so comfortable there and I always feel safe, but I still keep my bag zipped and carry it so things like cash and credit cards are extremely difficult to get to. These ladies who were almost robbed had no clue…bags wide open with contents plainly visible. It’s no wonder I hear so many stories about people being pick-pocketed. They make it easy!

After our tour we went straight back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner.

Six of us walked to the Kensington Hotel and had a leisurely, relaxing dinner at the Town House Restaurant. The pictures of the restaurant are from the website. I only remembered to photograph dessert!

As much as we were tempted to stay out and have fun, we didn’t finish dinner until after 9:00, and we needed to get back to the hotel and re-pack. Why does it seem like even though I work hard to keep things neat and do minimal unpacking, getting ready to board a ship after a few days away is always a chore? I finally finished getting everything ready to go long after Jim was asleep. I joined him in Dreamland so that I could get at least a few hours of rest before our Saturday morning 8:00 departure.

Up next…on to Stonehenge, Salisbury, and our ship!