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Newcastle (England) Overview
One of the most vibrant cities in the north of England, Newcastle gained a whole new lease on life in the mid-1990s following the rebirth of the derelict downtown Quayside area. Spiffed up along the river banks with a host of trendy bars, restaurants and nightclubs, all set against a spectacular backdrop of several different, very eclectic bridges, the city has an unmistakable stance that renders it almost unique on mainland Britain.
It retains a mixture of ancient and modern that brings visitors back time and again. The old castle keep, dating from the 11th century, still looms over a cityscape of classical Georgian architecture and vast thoroughfares such as Grey Street, topped by the soaring monument of the same name.
Yet the same city offers up such cutting-edge buildings as the mesmerising, shell-backed Sage Theatre, with its echoes of Bilbao's Guggenheim museum, and the famous Baltic Arts Gallery, acclaimed as the finest in the north of the country. Nearby, the country's first bio-technology "village" can be seen at the astounding Centre for Life.
At the heart of it all is the extraordinary "Geordie" passion for football (Geordie being the famous nickname for people from this region). Premiership team Newcastle United plays out their home fixtures at St. James' Park, venerated almost as a cathedral by the soccer mad locals. The local Newcastle Brown Ale is world famous but, alas, no longer brewed here.
The main cruise season for Newcastle departures tends to be between May and September, with companies such as Fred. Olsen and Cruise & Maritime Voyages using the port on a regular basis.
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Many would say that a Newcastle United F. C. team shirt, with its totally distinctive colouring, is one of the most evocative symbols of the city. For shopping opportunities, head to the large, mall-type shopping complex in Eldon Square, but don't miss the many side lanes with more quirky, eclectic shopping venues selling everything from herbs and spices to facsimiles of the famous Tyne Bridge.
English, but often spoken with a very strong dialect that is somewhere between Irish and Scottish.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The pound sterling is the official currency. Check www.xe.com for current exchange rates. The city has plentiful ATM machines -- cash points in the local slang-- available 24 hours a day.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the port of North Shields, some eight miles from Newcastle's city centre. Taxis run to and from the city centre, and there is a light rail service called the Metro that connects North Shields to the city centre. Best stops for alighting in Newcastle are Haymarket and the Central Station. Please note that the Metro usually stops running at midnight.
The cruise terminal has only a couple of shops and a café bar area, with no reliable Wi-Fi. The adjacent Royal Quays shopping outlet features a variety of shops, plus cash point (ATM) facilities. This is within easy walking distance of the terminal itself.
There's plenty to do in the actual port area of North Shields. Stroll the area around the quayside, or visit the nearby beach for a spot of local style relaxation. Check out the massive Tynemouth Priory (open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) on the headland, once one of the largest fortified castles in the United Kingdom. It contains a sedate, cloistered chapel dating from the 13th century and impressive views from the looming battlements out over the beaches and the North Sea itself. An exhibition, entitled "Life in The Stronghold," highlights the Priory's role as a castle, church and artillery fort through the ages.
Newcastle has no shortage of taxis and local bus routes, and the already mentioned Metro runs to almost all points in the city and surrounding areas in Sunderland. From the airport, it also runs into the Central Station, a journey time of around 25 to 30 minutes.
Unless you are staying a few days and going farther afield, renting a car is probably a pointless expense. Large tracts of the city centre are traffic free, and most of it makes for a pleasant stroll, especially along the renovated Quayside.
Watch Out For
Pickpockets can be a problem along busy thoroughfares such as Clayton Street, Grey Street and the Bigg Market Area. If using a card to obtain cash from an ATM, make sure your pin number is always shielded.
You should also check out the spectacular span of bridges over the River Tyne -- from the famous "coat hanger" bridge to the modern Millennium, with its blinking "eye" -- from the patio of the Baltic Art Gallery. On a warm summer day this is a truly remarkable vista.
Opened by the Queen in 2000, and currently hosting around 200,000 visitors a year, the Centre for Life features numerous rotating exhibitions and a permanent display based on diverse aspects of human life, including its ability to adapt and survive across a range of environments. The theatre also hosts live science demonstrations allied to the main exhibition theme of the time, while the integral Newcastle Fertility Centre is recognised as one of the world's leading centres for stem cell research. The centre is located next to Central Station and frames an open square full of cafes, bars and restaurants. Visiting hours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Last admission 4 p.m. daily.
Almost a perfect echo for its famous cousin in Sydney Harbour, the Tyne Bridge remains the perennial, defining landmark of the Newcastle skyline. It is best viewed from down on the Quayside. Originally commissioned in 1925, the 591-foot-long bridge was inaugurated three years later by King George V. The four massive towers on either side of the bridge, built from Cornish granite, were originally intended for use as massive, five-storey warehouses. The graceful, curving arch of the bridge stands some 59 metres above the water, and is coated in green paint. This is both a traffic and pedestrian bridge, and the views from its main span along the Quayside are simply stunning.
Sage Music Centre stands across the River Tyne on the Gateshead side of the city. It opened to considerable acclaim in 2004. This is essentially three buildings morphed into one, and the venue has five bars and an on-site brasserie. The glass shell-back façade was designed by Norman Foster, and the use of curving glass in receding sizes makes it a stunning visual statement. It often houses performances by artists as varied as Van Morrison and Herbie Hancock. The Sage is located at St. Mary's Square, Gateshead.
Hancock Great North Museum is the city's premier showcase for historic artefacts. It has a large planetarium with LED displays of the heavens, as well as a large-scale, interactive model of Hadrian's Wall as it originally appeared. The museum also features several animal and mammal displays, including an elephant and great white shark, as well as a full-sized skeleton of a T-Rex. Barras Bridge, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays 2 -5 p.m. Admission is free.
Segedunum marks the eastern end of the 73-mile-long Roman Wall constructed right across England by the Emperor Hadrian as a defence against Scottish raiders. The display comprises the excavated fort, baths and museum complex that has now been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It features displays of Roman artefacts and re-enactments of military life, which can be observed from a 35-metre-high viewing tower. Station Road, Wallsend, Tyne and Wear. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. all week including Sundays during summer.
Grey Street is a fabulous thoroughfare, lined by Georgian architecture that dates predominantly from the 1830's. It runs from the base of the imposing Grey's Monument down towards the River Tyne. Lined by such opulent buildings as the Theatre Royal, it was voted as "Best Street in the U.K." by listeners of Radio Four in 2002.
St. James' Park is the white, cantilevered roof that can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. For sports fans, this is the home of Newcastle United, and currently the sixth largest football stadium in the United Kingdom. If the city has a true cathedral for the devout, this is it. St. James' is also one of the host venues for the forthcoming 2012 Olympics.
The Quayside. This is a bustling waterfront promenade that extends across both the Newcastle and Gateshead banks of the River Tyne. The Newcastle side has many bars, shops and chic bistros in a fabulous setting spanned by a series of vaulting bridges, all overlooked by the iconic Tyne Bridge itself. Within eyesight and easy reach are the already mentioned Sage and the famous Baltic Arts Centre. Evenings in particular find the waterfront alive with strollers, street performers and mime artists. If you hit at the right time of year, you might even see a spectacular firework display framed by the mighty Tyne Bridge itself.
Been There, Done That
Durham is a fabulous small city, located within an hour of Newcastle, that boasts an amazing setting on a bend on the River Wear. The cityscape is dominated by the massive, brooding Norman castle and cathedral, erected in 1072 as defences against marauding bands of Picts. Today the city has many winding, cobbled lanes leading to ancient squares full of quirky arts and craft shops, and a broad, meandering river that makes for beautiful walks along either bank. The city also boats the third oldest university in the United Kingdom and some fine old timbered buildings dating back to the 15th century. The river is traversed by a series of old stone bridges updated from the same period, and the city centre is pedestrian only. All of this makes Durham a wonderful place to stroll and savour.
Take the train from Newcastle Central station and alight at Durham. Journey time by fast train is around 14 minutes (the Metro does not run as far as Durham). Alternatively, you can take a taxi. Please note that the aforementioned
Alnwick is some 35 minutes north of Newcastle by train, and boasts a splendid castle with sumptuously restored formal gardens. This is the residence of the Earl of Northumberland. The castle is better known to many as the fictional Hogwarts from the Harry Potter films. The region is close to the Northumberland coast and has some fabulous beaches, though the winds can be harsh. There is also the White Swan hotel, which contains much of the original first-class wood panelling from RMS Olympic, the twin sister of the ill-fated Titanic. The two ships were essentially identical, and the restored artefacts in the hotel include large parts of the original smoking room, complete with leaded glass windows, and part of the original Grand Staircase as featured in the 1998 film. Take the train from Newcastle Central -- a taxi will work out quite expensive unless shared. Again, the city Metro does not run this far north.
Angel of the North is a sight that might prove irresistible for art lovers. Anthony Gormley's controversial vision opened to mixed local reviews in 1998, but has gone on to transcend these to become almost as great a Tyneside icon as the Tyne Bridge itself. It stands 20 metres tall on a hill outside the village of Low Fell, while its wingspan of 54 metres seems to embrace all who stand near it. Again, you can take a taxi but, as an alternative, you might pick up the Angel Bus from Eldon Square Mall, in the centre of Newcastle. Run by the local company Go North East, the bus numbers for this service are number 21 and 22. You simply turn up and buy a ticket on board.
Because of Newcastle's temperamental climate, local fare tends towards hot, wholesome and filling food. Try minced beef with mashed potato, bangers and mash, or fish and chips (best enjoyed with lashings of malt vinegar) for an authentic regional treat. If in town on a Sunday, try the traditional Sunday roast, consisting of either beef, lamb or pork served with mashed potato, several types of vegetable and the world famous Yorkshire Pudding.
Casual Dining: If in the vicinity of the Quayside, try the Pitcher and Piano for an authentic Geordie pub lunch such as sausages and mash, or the 5oz. steak ciabatta. Pitcher and Piano is located right on the waterfront opposite the Baltic, next to the Millennium Bridge. 108 The Quayside.
Local Pick: Pani's Café is a good choice for noshing with the natives of Newcastle, with a varied menu running from hot toasties (toasted sandwiches with a variety of fillings) to a sit-down lunch such as the char-grilled lamb with white wine sauce and mint. The cafe offers reasonable prices in a very homely setting to provide an enjoyable all round experience. 61-69 High Bridge Street, Newcastle upon Tyne.
Elegant Dining: Blackfriars Restaurant claims to be the oldest dining venue in the entire country, having served up food continuously since 1239. The original building was a hostel run by monks, and was once host to King Henry III. Set in a horseshoe-shaped nest of buildings, the highlight is a beautiful medieval courtyard used for al fresco dining during the summer months. Friars Street, Newcastle upon Tyne.
Royal Station Hotel, Newcastle, is a three-star, centrally located hotel, opened by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1858. Neville Street, Newcastle upon Tyne.
Malmaison offers hip, contemporary living with a commanding location of the new Millennium Bridge, and easy access to the Quayside. Quayside, Newcastle upon Tyne.
Copthorne is a highly styled hotel complex right on the Quayside, within easy walking distance of the Baltic Arts Gallery and other attractions. Lavish guest rooms boast expansive bay window views out over the river. The Close, Quayside, Newcastle upon Tyne.
Staying in Touch
The Newcastle Cruise Terminal has Wi-Fi hotspots, and the city itself has several Internet cafes. Among the most central is the Settle Down Café, 62 Thornton Street, Newcastle upon Tyne.
Best Choice for Art Lovers: Try the Jewel of the North tour to the famous Bowes Museum, an imposing French-style chateau. It boasts one of the largest and most extensive collections of fine and decorative arts anywhere. Across three floors you'll find works by Goya and Canaletto, plus fine Sevres porcelain and a truly amazing mechanical silver swan created back in 1773.
Best Choice for Active Travellers: The fabulous Alnwick Gardens is a pastiche that combines strolling the cobblestone streets of old Alnwick, a famous medieval market town, with walking around the recently restored formal gardens, originally created for the Duke of Northumberland in the 1750s. Overlooking it all is the famous castle, ironically better known today as the fictitious Hogwarts, of Harry Potter fame.
Best Choice for History Buffs: Hard to beat is the Historic Durham & Cathedral tour, which has the added bonus of making a brief photo stop at the stunning Angel of the North. But the main crux is the fascinating cathedral and Norman castle in ancient Durham itself, a world famous UNESCO World Heritage site.
For More Information
On the Web: www.visitnewcastlegateshead.com or www.visitnortheastengland.com
Tourist Office: Newcastle-upon-Tyne Grainger Street Tourist Information Centre, 8-9 Central Arcade, 0191 277 8000, email@example.com
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--By Anthony Nicholas, Cruise Critic Contributor