Arrived at Gatwick (uneventful flight to the UK), and stayed at the Sofitel - a beautiful hotel with excellent service. They were able to get us a room 5 hours ahead of our scheduled check-in. We then used the Gatwick Express to travel to London and spent the day touring with Gren Tours. Glen laid out a fabulous day in London walking to all of the sites. He was well prepared, ensured all of the family members had a great time, and toured at our pace. What was unique was that while we never felt rushed - he always knew what time it was and where we needed to be. We had an opportunity to see the changing of the guard, and Glen knew exactly where to stand - and within 60 seconds the parade went right by us. We found Glen on Trip Advisor and he was #1 at the time - I can see why - we would all highly recommend him.
The journey to the ship: We used Woodford Chauffer Cars for our trip to Southampton and requested a stop at a Tesco to pick up water, sodas and snacks for the cruise. The driver was early, in a clean vehicle and easily accommodated our request for a quick 15 minute stop. We used Woodford on a previous cruise, after a recommendation on these boards, and are pleased with their service. We arrived around 1230-1300.
Embarkation: It was over within 10 minutes - filled out the customary "I'm not ill forms," received our cruise cards, passed thru security and snapped the first of many photos. What was surprising is that our bags made it to the room before we did. First time that has ever happened - amazing! We found our steward and requested a top sheet along with the memory foam cover - both were on the beds after dinner.
Food: We like traditional dining (easier to get to know the waiters) and were NOT disappointed with the service from either John or Bernardo. Never saw the Head waiter once at our table. We liked the addition of the "home style" main entree option - but other than that we haven't noticed the menus change significantly over the years. We ate breakfast typically in the Horizon court, and the staff made it easy for us to find a table for 6. Most lunches were eaten off the ship - but we still tried to grab a piece of pizza whenever we could.
Ports: We typically book Princess excursions - but we wanted to try something different this cruise - and booked private tours for most ports. With 6 of us traveling, it was less expensive and we didn't need to form a group - we were our own group. Note: We booked most of our private excursions in early September 2010 for our July 2011 trip - and even then found some guides were booked.
Le Havre - Our original intended guide was booked, and he recommended Normandy Sightseeing Tours. We had a fabulous day with Matheu as he showed us the German Cemetery, the German fortifications and then Omaha beach and the US Cemetery. An emotional day - wish we could have seen more but simply didn't have the time.
Edinburgh - We used Gordon Ross from Great Scot (again a recommendation from these boards). He was FABULOUS. He quickly made us feel at home and relaxed, he wasn't as much of our guide as our friend for the day. He was able to help us by-pass several entrance lines, and then privately escorted us thru Edinburgh Castle as well as Holyrood Palace (as best he could with the restrictions).
Invergordon - We used Alastair Cunningham's (Clans and Castles) - another board recommendation. Although Alastair was booked, he trusted us with Graham. A good day touring Urquart Castle, looking for Nessie (no sightings) and seeing the Clava Cairns. Graham got us quickly to Urquart (before they even opened) and we were done by the time the tour buses arrived. Thanks to Graham! He also demonstrated the original use and wearing of a kilt while at the Cairns - and I'm sure these pictures will turn-up somewhere in the future.
Belfast - We used McComb's for a private tour (Stephen was our guide). An excellent day touring the cost including the Giants Causeway, having lunch at Bushmills distillery ( voted by our family as the best lunch of the trip), and then some quick sights of Belfast.
Glasgow - Day 2 with Gordon Ross - we toured Loch Lomond and Trossachs and saw a lot of hairy cows (feel free to Google that). It really was a fabulous day seeing the countryside of Scotland. Note: For our family, Gordon was the standard from which all other guides were then compared.
Dublin - We used Tour Dublin with Martin. We spent the morning in the country and then in the afternoon, we spent touring and shopping in downtown Dublin. Saw the Book of Kells, ate lunch at O'Neills Bar & Restaurant on Suffolk Street. The number of "liquid refreshment" opportunities on draft is amazing. Then more shopping before we headed back to the ship.
Liverpool - sorry no Beatles information - instead we used Busy Bus to see Wales. It was a smaller group tour, easy to reserve on line - but was the least favorite of the tours. The tour guide miscounted the number on the bus - and then we spent the rest of the day looking for the phantom 2. At the end of the day - we were dropped in downtown Chester - and told to explore on your own - just don't get lost??? The tour guide then left us for the day, leaving the driver to get us back to the ship. A lower cost alternative to a ship excursion - and from our view - would not recommend. As noted in a previous review - the ship had a "slight" list coming into port which drained 1/2 the pool water and at least 1 family member rolled out of bed.
Cobh - Used the Princess tour to visit the Blarney Castle - we had not intended - but did wait in line to kiss the stone (1.5 hours). Great pictures and no longer on the bucket list. Great shopping near the castle. Lunch was provided with real Irish stew (e.g., lamb not beef). We would do this tour again.
Guernsey - Visited the Isle of Sark - 45 minute boat ride after the tender - and did a horse (mule?) drawn carriage ride thru the dirt streets. Limited (!) eating options for lunch, 45 minute boat ride back and then tender back to the ship. 5 out of 6 said it was a good day - I'm not so sure.
Overall - a really nice vacation. We had cool temps (60F) most days, and only 1 day of rain while in Normandy. The ship was in good shape - but carpet was worn in 2-3 spots on the stairs. The staff - especially the CD was friendly and helpful. We didn't spend many nights in the theaters (too tired) - but did enjoy the nightly game shows in the Explorer's lounge.
For the return trip to Gatwick we again used Woodford, and spent the day touring Stonehenge and Windsor Castle. Alan, our driver for the day, was super! Stayed at the Gatwick Hilton - never again - not even with free Hilton points if the Sofitel is available.
Key Message: Private tours and Woodford, for us, worked extremely well, Would recommend all but Busy Bus - and HIGHLY recommend Gordon Ross, Gren Tours and Woodford.