My wife and I are frequent cruisers, this was our 16th and 2nd on Princess. I am a NCL fan primarily due to entertainment focused more toward my likes and great attractions on their newer ship. The dates for the British Isles itinerary worked well in my schedule so we chose to sail on the Crown Princess in a S4 suite.
The most important attraction for this cruise are the ports. While my wife is a Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones fan, I was less enthusiastic about the area. However, I became a big fan of the geography, architecture, and culture during our brief visits at the various ports. My personal favorites were the Paddywagon tour of Belfast with our wonderful guide Paul, and the Princess tour to the gorgeous Mont St. Michel.
As far as the cruise goes, I tried to lower expectations based on my previous Island Princess cruise thru the Panama Canal. I started at about 3 stars but it slowly rose as the cruise went on.
A comfortable cabin but without any standout features.
The ship’s first stop was Wednesday morning at Guernsey, an island in the Channel between France and England – but much closer to France. It actually has a very interesting history of being a territory of France, Great Britain, Germany in World War II, and then back to Great Britain. After taking a water taxi (tender) ride from the ship to the waterfront, Ray and Traci walked to Castle Cornet. They did not know anything about it except it was a castle. Three hours later they knew quite a bit. Castle Cornet is a military fort on the shoreline of Guernsey, built, destroyed, rebuilt, and refortified over the years to protect Guernsey.
Cannons from the distant past decorate the seawalls, and visitors are treated to an actual cannon firing at noon daily. German bunkers built into the walls bearing traditional German female names once housed anti-aircraft guns. The complex now houses several museums dedicated to the castle’s history, militia and infantry battles, and a Royal Air Force squadron once stationed on Guernsey. If that wasn’t enough, 16th century herb and pleasure gardens are also seen. To finish off the visit, Ray and Traci listened to a resident who was in Guernsey as a child during the German occupation and brought the era to life with his stories. Castle Cornet was one of the very few attractions that Ray and Traci have visited with what seemed like an extraordinarily low price (10 pounds to enter). Having spent much of their limited time at Castle Cornet, they returned to the tender line for the ride back to the ship.
On Thursday, the Crown Princess stopped at Cobh (pronounced Cove) in Ireland. The tour leader Mike from Paddywagon tours brought Ray and Traci’s group to the famous Blarney Castle.
The site included the castle with its Blarney Stone, a kiss of the stone according to lore, leads to 7 years of eloquent speaking. Neither traveler thought risking transmittable infection from thousands of fellow travelers was worth the purported gift of gab. Now, granting a wish like a 2020 World Series in Seattle would be a different story. In addition, the signs warned visitors that the line was 90 minutes long to get into the castle and see the stone, so Ray and Traci explored the other areas of the grounds. Pretty waterfalls, and areas of rock and wood were accompanied by signs alerting visitors to legends about past inhabitants like witches and druids. An interesting area of the complex was the poison garden where there was a large variety of plants that could be harmful and even deadly to humans. Everything from marijuana, poppy (opium), foxglove (digitalis) to poison ivy could be found growing in a well maintained garden. After leaving Blarney, the tour group headed to Kinsale, a small waterfront town with many pubs and shops. It seemed that pubs were more ubiquitous than Starbucks are in Seattle! Before returning to the ship, the bus stopped at St. Colman Cathedral – a most impressive church rising above the Cobh waterfront, signifying the importance of the Roman Catholic faith to the inhabitants of this small town. Cobh was the Titanic’s last stop before sinking, and Ray and Traci hoped history wouldn’t repeat itself with their ship.
Saturday was another beautiful day, this time back in the United Kingdom at Liverpool. Ray and Traci planned on exploring the city on their own. After a leisurely exit off the ship, they wandered down the waterfront to Albert Dock, a tourist food and shopping mecca. A Liverpool branch of the Tate Modern art museum was their first attraction of the day. Using the very helpful Google Maps, they then found their way to Liverpool Cathedral, a beautiful Anglican church, just in time to enjoy a noontime concerto by the church organist.
A short distance away, Ray and Traci found the much different Catholic church, the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.
Shaped like Disney’s Space Mountain, the structure was quite different than any other Roman Catholic Church either traveler has seen. The history was also very unique. Fundraising and initial construction started with the crypt below ground. This area was quite immense and included many different areas for events and performances. The initial plan was to build an immaculate traditional church – the model rests in the Liverpool museum. Unfortunately, the war and lack of finances prevented the execution of their plan and in 1962, this spaceship looking church was built next to the original crypt. The inside of the cathedral matches the modern appearing outside. From there, Ray and Traci wandered back to the waterfront along the streets of Chinatown. Many Chinese restaurants and shops lined the streets although surprisingly most were closed on a Saturday afternoon. Back at the waterfront, a statue of these local residents seemed to attract a lot of attention:
Monday marked the end of their first week of British Isle tours, and the ship moved on to Scotland with a port of call stop at Greenock, 45 minutes from Glasgow. Ray and Traci booked a shore excursion with Timberbush tours. The first stop on the tour was Stirling Castle, about 90 minutes away from the port.
The castle has been strategically located on top of a steep hill and overlooked the River Forth crossing. Originally built around 1100, it was mostly destroyed around 1300 and then rebuilt – it was an active British Army training facility until 1965 at which time it was restored and now serves as a popular tourist attraction, concert venue, and even television set. At first, Ray was a bit lukewarm on visiting another castle, but after taking the 60 minute free tour given by castle staff, he was disappointed they only had 90 minutes total to see the site. The architecture was quite interesting with limewashed stonework on the outside giving it a golden appearance due to iron content of the sealant. Inside, regal furnishings gave the feel of its past life.
One key difference between Stirling Castle and others is the extensive restoration required due to centuries of use as an active military facility – much of the tapestry and furniture are reproductions so not tarnished by age and available for visitors to use.
Due to limited time, Ray and Traci didn’t get a chance to play king and queen by sitting on the dining hall thrones.
Another nice touch is the costumed staff who look and talk “in period” giving a first hand description of life during the castle’s heyday. One staff member talked about the importance of golf, although the clubs looked quite challenging for players of that era.
Reluctantly, the travelers returned to the bus without getting to explore more of the exhibits at the castle.
Lunch in the quaint village of Aberfoyle was next, Ray and Traci found an excellent (and unbelievably inexpensive) restaurant called Liz MacGregors. Traci enjoyed a lentil soup and roll, while Ray had a very tasty grilled ham and cheese sandwich – called a toasty made with very thin bread. They also explored some of the shops and found a grocery store with unexpectedly cheap prices of American goods at least when British pounds are converted to US dollars. The last stop was at Loch Lomond, a large lake in the Trossachs National Park. Like many tours, the bus stopped at this shopping mall located along the lake. While the view was nice, Ray wishes they spent 5 minutes at the lake (mall) and an hour more at Stirling Castle. The tour guides James and David did a good job, and shouldn’t be blamed for the misallocation of time. Ray did some research after the excursion and could not find a tour that just went to Stirling Castle – something he would recommend for future travelers. Before the Crown Princess left, a Scottish bagpipe band serenaded the departing ship with traditional music from the shore.
Thursday was the final stop in Scotland at Edinburgh. The ship did not dock and used its lifeboats to shuttle people into the Queensferry port – the tender boat time and a 40 minute shuttle bus ride into town significantly delayed enjoyment of Edinburgh. Ray had obtained online tickets for Edinburgh Castle so they walked from St. Andrews square to Edinburgh Castle, built on top of a hill.
Arriving shortly after 10am, Ray and Traci were fortunate to miss the huge crowds which later appeared even on a weekday off season visit. They joined one of the walking tours and learned about its rich history. The oldest existing structure at the castle – St. Margaret’s Chapel was originally built in the 1100s. Over the years, the castle expanded, parts demolished, and extensive renovations took place. Even today, the Royal Regiment of Scotland is garrisoned at the castle. A small cemetery for pets of soldiers is found within the walls.
The large complex contains several museums housing the Crown Jewels of Scotland, War Memorial, and detailed exhibits of castle inhabitants and areas used as prisons for captured soldiers. While the complex has many replica cannons, a modern Howitzer is used to fire a 1pm charge daily. The crowds continued to grow as Ray and Traci left the castle and headed east on the Royal Mile. Nearby, they decided to stop at Camera Obscura – a tall building housing many types of illusions. On the top floor, a special periscope displays a 360 view of surrounding Edinburgh. Outside, balconies allowed visitors to appreciate the beautiful landscape on a sunny day. On the next four floors, tourists were treated to all sorts of optical illusions, electronic images, a disorienting light tunnel, and a maze built of mirrors. Camera Obscura was a nice diversion from the mostly historical sites visited during this trip. Ray and Traci walked further down the Royal Mile, stopping at Café Nero, Europe’s answer to Starbucks, and shared a toasted ham and cheese sandwich. Their last stop in Edinburgh was at Holyrood, the Queen’s official residence while in Scotland.
Fortunately, crowds were light at the end of the day, so Ray and Traci could appreciate the history and beauty of Holyrood. The tour featured great reception halls, offices, and dining areas used today for official visits but unfortunately no photos were allowed. This policy was sternly explained to Ray after he inadvertently photographed the elegant dining room!
The surrounding grounds were immaculately maintained. Traci especially enjoyed the special exhibition of Harry and Meghan’s Royal wedding which displayed the wedding gown, veil and tiara. As is the case with many ship stops, time grew short and Ray and Traci had to take the reverse route on the bus and tender boat back to the Crown Princess. A Scottish band provided music for the ship's departure.