Trafalgar Tours have tweaked their Real Britain tour to make it a better experience. Several years ago I did the seven-day version of Trafalgar’s Real Britain tour.
We overnighted in London, Bristol, Chester, Edinburgh (2 nights), York and London.
It was a well-paced trip. Mhairi, our Scottish-sounding, but Irish-born, cruise director- cum-guide, filled us in on the history and attributes of what we were about to see and/or experience. Since she has appeared on stage, she occasionally broke into song relative to our location.
This was not my first trip to the United Kingdom, but it was one of the more relaxing visits. I didn’t have my usual angst about keeping to the correct side of the road. I didn’t have to figure out an itinerary, how to get there or, conversely, how to get un-lost. Basically, everything, or as much as I wanted done for me, was done. Days began and ended with bellmen collecting suitcases from or delivering them to my room. If we were checking in to a hotel, there was no lineup at registration filling out the same forms we filled out at the last property, just a table full of room keys awaiting us. Check-in, check-out, and attraction admissions were all expedited for us. For a week, the most I carried was camera, carry-on and coat.
Like a ship-styled cruise, this tour took us to a variety of destinations. At each stop, Mhairi provided us an overview of the place, walked us past waiting queues, introduced us to any local specialist and advised us on top local draws for our free time. Free time is another attractive aspect to this tour. Whoever developed Trafalgar’s itinerary, I thought, showed a deft hand in how they managed group time so that we saw and experienced the highlights people at home would be quizzing us on while also allowing us to linger over a place, plate or passion.
For example, the Real Britain tour starts in London. A local, city guide, Tony, toured us around the city core providing an overview of London. I thought it a handy introduction for first time visitors and useful for returning visitors. It spares first-time visitors from acting like a ping-pong ball bouncing all over the city trying to take it in.
Changing the Guard
Naturally one of the top must-sees for visitors is the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. This doesn’t happen every day which can cause disappointment. Our tour began on a day when the guard change wasn’t scheduled, so Tony took us to Horse Guards Parade, where mounted soldiers in plumed helmets with drawn swords, sit motionless outside the former army headquarters in Whitehall. There we saw the oft-overlooked mounted regiments change guard. This morning the Blues and Royals replaced the Life Guards.
Their horsemanship is stunning. Not only do the soldiers – who, it is important to note aren’t merely ornamental, but are in active service – control their mounts in a crowd, they get them to back up and move sideways. If you’ve ever ridden you know how hard that is to accomplish.
From Horse Guards Tony walked us up The Mall to the Palace. While others continued on with Tony for his afternoon walking tour, I opted to explore the city on my own.
On the road
Our first day on the road took us to the mystery of Stonehenge, then to Bath, where, after lunch, we explored the ancient Roman baths and Jane Austen fans basked in their heroine’s hometown.
Trafalgar’s revamped Real Britain package has expanded to eight nights and nine days. The itinerary switches Cardiff for Bristol. Other than a cool welcoming pub dinner presented by Trafalgar Bristol was merely a place to sleep. Cardiff, as capital of the principality, offers more to see and do, so is an enhancement to the experience.
One of the optional add-ons is a private tour of Cardiff Castle. His reminded me of a Welsh ad campaign that boasted: 600 castles, no Starbucks.
Switching an overnight in Liverpool for Chester is the next change in the itinerary. Chester is a timbered town, encircled by a Roman wall. It is one of my favourite stops. The new itinerary offers the photogenic opportunities and backgrounds of Tudor timbered buildings, plus a thousand-year-old castle and Georgian architecture in the market town of Ludlow.
An optional add-on is a Famous Sights and Fab Four tour of Liverpool. This would be a no-brainer for Baby Boomers. Liverpool is a vital, interesting city than most independent travelers wouldn’t think to visit, so this, like the whole week, provides a taste of the art and architecture with the added attraction of a musical pilgrimage.
From Liverpool, the itinerary follows a familiar route. There is a half day in the Lake District (which never gets old) and a pass-by of Gretna Green (a popular place for young couples to runaway to for a fast wedding – we happened to catch one bride in white dress running across the lawn on our travels).
Our next stop was Edinburgh, where we had two nights. That gave us time to explore the city, Castle and Royal Mile. While some shopped, I joined John, a 60-something engineer, to find The End of the World Pub which his dental hygienist in Connecticut had recommended.
Among of our Edinburgh options were a visit to the Royal Yacht Britannia and a traditional dinner in an historic setting. The new itinerary has a third dinner show option.
Back in Britain
Our last night on the road was in York, where we arrived to the peeling church bells of York Minster (no second ‘i’). York Minster is both spiritual and superlative. It took 250 years to build, is the largest church in Northern Europe, one of the world’s oldest churches and has the largest medieval stained glass windows in the world.
A costumed guide provided a walking tour through the medieval city. Followed by a farewell dinner.
Our final drive day took us to Shakespeare’s hometown, Stratford-on-Avon. Much of the day was driving, so in a way, it was like the usual cruise sea-day. We stopped for a photo op at Anne Hathaway’s cottage, then went into town to visit Shakespeare’s birth house where in the gorgeous gardens, young actors perform sketches from his works. On the day we visited it was snippets from Romeo and Juliette, and Merchant of Venice.
From Stratford we returned to London for a final, free night of the tour. I learned from my fellow travelers that, like cruise passengers, they enjoy the experience and convenience so much they repeat it. Several couples had transferred to this tour either from a 14-day Best of Italyor 11-day European Travelertours. Others had used Trafalgar to see Spain, Portugal, France and imperial capitals. Those of us who were new to the experience are ready to do it again.
I like that, in addition to the service and convenience, the itinerary provides room for individualization. For those who curl up their noses at the thought of a coach holiday, this type of packaging is a real vacation in that it simplifies the travel process, with the details done for you.