Our least favorite thing about Britain? Heathrow Airport. Our arrival this time merely reinforced our opinions. We waited on the tarmac for a gate to open. Though customs and immigration were reasonably efficient, we walked for what seemed like a mile lugging our carry-on bags. The checked luggage took forever to appear on the carousel. Arriving at our hotel tired and cranky, but early in the day, we were obliged to wait several hours before our room was ready. It wasn't the most auspicious beginning to our journey.We must be Anglophiles, or at least Britphiles (is that a word?). This is our eighth visit to Great Britain, and our second to Ireland, yet in spite of our desire to "see the world," something keeps pulling us back here. It may have to do with being able to (usually) understand the language, or the fact that we trace many of our ancestors to these islands.
London Icons: Big Ben & Royal Mail Drop.
But this trip is different in a couple of respects: it's our first trip with Road Scholar; and, it involves a cruise aboard the Aegean Odyssey, a small(ish) ship with around 300 passengers. Though we're used to traveling independently, we're getting to an age where there's increased value in reducing hassles and decreasing decisions. With this trip we're learning about Road Scholar, a non-profit, educational travel company. The cruise part of this trip first caught our attention because it provided a means well-suited to exploring more remote parts of these isles.
The 11th Century Tower of London The 21st Century view from the Tower
Our London hotel was conveniently located in South Kensington. Our first evening we met our Road Scholar group leaders, Nick and Brian, and our fellow Road Scholars at dinner in the hotel dining room. Next day, our guided coach tour of central London afforded a refresher-course in London's history, frequently illustrated with buildings, monuments and bridges as we inched through traffic. The following day included a visit to The Tower of London (our fourth? or, fifth?) on the way to embarkation at Tilbury. We were struck by the view from the 11th century Tower across the Thames to the "Shard," a striking 95-story skyscraper and icon of 21st century London.An evening cruise down the Thames and overnight across the Channel, brought us to Guernsey at 2:00 PM. It's the second largest of the Channel Islands. Much closer to France than Britain, these islands are the last vestige of the original realm of the William, Duke of Normandy, better known as "The Conqueror." We opted for the island coach tour to get an overview, as this was a first visit for us, and time was limited. After tendering into St. Peter Port's snug harbor, past Castle Coronet, we met our guide and driver, Phil. His family has lived on Guernsey for 350 years!
St. Peter Port Harbor Rural Road Namesake Island Cows
Isle of Guernsey Views
Phil's narrative of life and history on the 25 square mile island offered a personal perspective. Navigating narrow lanes, we observed a small herd of the island's namesake cattle, toured a tiny chapel, and a coastal gun emplacement. Phil explained that his mom stayed on the island with her family during WWII's German occupation, while his dad evacuated with his folks to Britain, his grandfather joining the RAF. We were surprised to learn that Guernsey (as well as Jersey) was not a part of the United Kingdom, nor of the European Union. As a Crown Dependency, Guernsey's head of state is the British Monarch, and it's defense and foreign affairs are provided by the UK, but otherwise Guernsey runs it's own affairs.
Our next port, Falmouth, in Cornwall, we suspect was on our itinerary because of the Eden Project. Tropical and Mediterranean ecosystems are ensconced within five vast, interconnected geodesic domes about 30 miles from Falmouth. We learned the project was the idea of a fellow named Tim Smit who envisioned propagating endangered plants from around the globe and using them to repopulate suitable areas. At the same time an abandoned clay pit was repurposed. Both the botanical and engineering aspects of the project were fascinating, and unique in the world.
Cornwall's Eden Project Falmouth Shopping Street
In the afternoon we explored downtown Falmouth on our own to see what we could remember from a previous stay here. We wandered along Church, Market and High Streets, the old commercial center of this little city. We poked in and out of art galleries and craft shops while meandering along the end-to-end streets paralleling the waterfront. It produced a twinge of nostalgia.
Tresco's Abbey Gardens View from Tresco Orchid Blooms in Tresco Gardens
From Falmouth, our ship headed for the Scilly Isles, off Land's End, Britain's extreme southwest tip. This was one of the places that drew us to this cruise. The attraction here is the weather (almost subtropical) and the peace and quiet. Most visit our destination, the island of Tresco (three square kilometers, year round population: 175) for the Abbey Gardens. After exploring the island a bit, we joined our group at the Gardens where our very knowledgeable young guide both educated and entertained us as we wandered among exotic flora native to Africa, Australia and the Americas.Next port-of-call, Dublin.