Vacation 2017: United Kingdom

06 August 2017

Synopsis

Notes and impressions from our June-July 2017 trip to the United Kingdom.


Preparations

Each year we try to make at least one international trip so this year we decided on Great Britain. Since my daughter Jennifer has unlimited vacation at her new job, she wanted to go also. We immediately decided to take a tour instead of driving around ourselves so Jennifer suggested we try Trafalgar.

Trafalgar has many tours to choose from so we needed to prioritize what areas and sites we wanted to see. My priorities, in addition to London, were Liverpool, Scottish Highlands, Hadrian’s Wall and of course Stonehenge. My wife definitely wanted to see the Scottish Highlands along with any small quaint villages. Jennifer sort of agreed with all our choices.

I made it clear that Stonehenge was a deal breaker for me but that wasn’t a problem since fortunately, Trafalgar had a tour that covered all our priorities, except London, and one that met our length and price constraints. We decided on the Amazing Britain 10 days, 11 cities tour of England, Scotland and Wales.

Even though the Tour started in London, it’s only a sleepover and pick up/drop off spot. However, since we wanted to see as many sites in London as possible, we decided to arrive a few days earlier so that we could tour London on our own.

I wanted to try Virgin Atlantic since they had direct flights from Orlando to London’s Gatwick airport. We made our reservations directly on the Virgin website to depart Orlando at 7:50pm on June 30th. Gatwick is at least 1.5 hours drive from Central London so Jennifer reserved an Uber ride for us from the airport.

As we quickly learned, it’s nearly impossible to find reasonably priced hotels in Central London. Therefore, we decided on triple room accommodations to save money. We eventually chose The Huttons Hotel located in London’s West End in the City of Westminster.

We pre-purchased tickets for the Big Bus London, and made arrangements for a walking tour of the Tower of London/St. Paul’s Cathedral and the London Rock Music Tour.

London Arrival

The flight from Orlando took 7 hours and 15 minutes. And even though our takeoff was delayed for about 30 minutes, we still arrived in London on time. By the way, the Virgin Atlantic flight attendants were prompt, courteous, and attentive. Even though our seats seemed a little cramped, the flight went well.

Gatwick airport is not impressive for international arrivals. It seemed like we walked miles from the gate through unfinished areas of the terminal in order to get to customs/immigration. Once there, we got through fairly quickly.

Our ride wasn’t immediately available after we picked up our bags but after a call or two our driver arrived. We then dragged our bags to the parking garage, loaded them into the van and we were on our way.

The first thing we noticed about London was how cold it was for the end of June. We left Orlando in the 90s and arrived in the UK in the 60s. The second thing I noticed was the make of automobile that everyone seemed to be driving. We were in the UK but it looked like Germany; Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and Volkswagen autos were everywhere. Mind you, we weren’t even driving through the upscale areas—I remember seeing signs for Croydon.

After about a 2-hour drive, we finally arrived at our hotel.

If you’ve ever taken a cruise and chosen an interior cabin, then you have some idea of the size of our room in The Huttons Hotel. Saying the room was tight would be an understatement especially for three people. There was really no room for our three large suitcases. I actually believe cruise ship bathrooms were larger. So, this is what you get for £138.00. If I had to do it again I would stay at the Hilton London Tower Bridge or another similar hotel.

Touring London

For our first day in London, the only thing we decided to do was to ride around the city on the Big Bus Hop-On Hop-Off. I wanted to take pictures so I sat on the open upper deck of the bus and by the time we were done, I was frozen. It was really cold, especially when the bus was moving. Even so there were still a few people in shorts and tee shirts.

During our second day, we planned to catch the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace. We started our day with breakfast at the Pret A Manger. There are Pret A Mangers all around Central London. They have pretty good breakfast sandwiches including the expected croissants as well as other breakfast fare, including decaf coffee. The Pret is an inexpensive and quick alternative if a traditional English breakfast is not your cup of tea.

We arrived at Buckingham Palace about 2 hours before the start of the ceremony. If you check around the Web you will find a lot of experts advising you to skip this event. My advice would be to ignore what the experts say and do what you want to do. As it turned out, the Changing of the Guard ceremony was the highlight of our London experience.

As you would expect, there are some drawbacks to attending an event along with a few thousand other tourists and that is you will have to make your way out of the area and compete for buses and/or taxis. Since we had our Rock Music tour scheduled to start shortly after the completion of the ceremony, we immediately began to make our way over to the tour pick up point.

Our Rock Tour guide spoke almost non-stop during the outing except for brief interludes when he played popular songs that were timed so that the lyrics in the songs coincided with where we were on the tour. He had the timing down pretty consistently. The tour included neighborhoods where Hendrix, Jagger and Page frequented, including the residence where Hendrix died. We also made a stop at Jimmy Page’s current residence—no, we weren’t invited in. The tour included a short stop at Bill Wyman’s Sticky Fingers Café and culminated at Abbey Road Studios—again, we did not go in to the studio itself. Everyone did the walk (shoes on) across the Abbey Road Street Crossing, the same street crossing that was used on the Beatles Abbey Road album cover.

That evening we had a nice dinner at Charing Cross Steak & Co. steak house. After dinner, we decided to take a cab to London Bridge so that I could take some night shots of the scenes along the Thames along with Tower Bridge. There’s one thing you need to remember, during the summer it doesn’t get dark until around 9:30pm so you have to stay out late to get real night photos.

Our third day in London was spent on a walking tour of the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Our tour included the Tower of London Opening Ceremony which takes place before the area is open to the general public.

After we finished at the Tower of London, our tour continued with a walk to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Upon arrival, we split up into two groups for a tour of the inside of the cathedral. By the way, Britain is not photography friendly. Photos were not allowed anywhere in the main sanctuary, flash or no flash. I can understand not allowing pictures during a service and I can even understand not allowing flash photography, but what the heck? Actually, you can bet that if you are inside a building you will not be allowed to take photographs. I remember being at one cathedral where they offered to sell you a photo permit for a few pounds.

The Amazing Britain Tour

As indicated in Trafalgar’s brochures, all luggage is handled for you. At the designated time, you have to have your luggage tagged and outside you room before breakfast. On most days, breakfast started at 7:30am and departures were at 8:30am. For obvious reasons, Trafalgar maintains a strict schedule, so you need to make sure you remember when and where the bus will be leaving from. However, at some popular photo spots we were usually given a little extra leeway as long as our tour guide had us in sight.

Every breakfast on the tour was a buffet with the exception of the Highlander Hotel in the Scottish Highlands. Your basic English breakfast consists of bacon, sausage, baked beans, fried eggs, fried potatoes, and sautéed mushrooms and tomatoes. The bacon is more like a fattier ham, and the sausages have a much different flavor and texture than the breakfast sausages we are used to in the U.S. The fried eggs are a little unusual too because they appear to be sunny side up but the yolks are opaque. After a while eating the same thing for breakfast every day gets a little old so for a change I would either have cereal and/or I would make my own breakfast sandwich of roll and cold cuts.

All the hotels we stayed at in the major cities were decent but our triple room accommodations usually consisted of only one full size bed with either a second roll away bed or convertible sofa bed.

Our tour bus itself was okay, but some seats in certain rows seemed more cramped than others. The bus had Wi-Fi when signal was available.

Our travel time on the bus normally didn’t go for more than 1.5-2 hours between stops. If we were on the motorway, we would usually get a 15-20-minute rest stop. I don’t know exactly why but we were always thirsty on the trip. I would recommend buying the large flip top bottle water sold at the motorway rest stops. We also bought the £1.00 bottle water they were selling on the bus as needed.

Trafalgar Group Photo
Trafalgar Group Photo

Since I’ve already provided a link to Trafalgar’s tour website, I won’t dwell on the details of our itinerary here. Instead, I’ll mention what we considered to be the highlights of the trip along with our impressions of the optional experiences we chose.

I would have to say that it was a tie between the Scottish Highlands and Stonehenge for the title of “Most Memorable.” The scenery in the Highlands is breathtaking, while Stonehenge is a prehistoric and some would say, “mystical” place.

I like to rank Liverpool in second place. How cool is it to visit Penny Lane and the Cavern Club where it all began? And yes, there really is a “Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey.”

Another less spectacular but no less cool place was St. Andrews, Scotland and the beach where the opening scene in the movie, Chariots of Fire was filmed.

Of course, everyone liked the small quaint villages, particularly Ft. William, Grasmere, and Ludlow.

I won’t list all the optional experiences available because they are included on the Trafalgar website but I will say that we took all options except for the Rosslyn Chapel. If you’ve never been to the U.K. or if you don’t plan on a return visit, then why not do them all? We passed on the Rosslyn Chapel because we were already kind of chapeled out.

The evening excursions usually include a dinner, but you can probably catch the same sights during your own free time. Of course, you will need to do your own research on the area ahead of time in order to be prepared. One of the excursions that you will most likely not be able to do on your own is the Edinburgh Scottish Show with Dinner. This is an “all in” Scottish cultural event which includes a sampling of the Scottish national dish, haggis. Most people won’t try it after they hear what’s in it but I really liked it.

We all got a kick out of the Scottish Highland Farm Experience where you get to see a real working sheep farm. Neil the Shepherd will give you his take on the government lunacy with respect to farming along with an impressive demonstration of sheepherding using his border collies, along with a sheering demonstration. We also had some time to play with his border collie puppies. Who wouldn’t like that?

The least impressive optional excursion was the Loch Lomond Boat Trip. It wasn’t that long, didn’t go that far, and really didn’t include that much to see. To top it off, there was very little narration by the captain during the sailing.

The capstone of the tour was Stonehenge…oh yea, I mentioned this already. Nevertheless, I advise you to make sure you first take care of the rest room at the visitor center and have bottled water handy before taking the shuttle bus out to the “Stones.”

One notable disappointment of the tour was Hadrian’s Wall. I think Trafalgar threw it in our tour just to say it’s included. The spot where we stopped is probably the least impressive section of the wall. I guess it was a convenient spot considering our tour route. Besides, walls are not in vogue today, are they?

London Departure

As we did on our arrival, we took a fixed-price Uber from our Hilton London Kensington Hotel to Gatwick Airport. This time our driver took the most direct route which took the usual 1.5 hours. Check-in at Gatwick was straightforward and quick. We arrived in plenty of time to have a pretty good Asian lunch at Wagamama Gatwick North before boarding.

Our Virgin Atlantic flight departed on-time and 8 hours and 20 minutes later we were landing in Orlando.

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Copyright 2017 Gerard Sczepura