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Copyright © 1995-2003 
Linda Coffman

Royal Princess

August 2001
British Isles ~
Channels & Seas

by Bruce Baldwin

Our recent cruise on the Royal Princess took us through channels and seas but we never really cruised in an open ocean except for about 120 nautical miles. This 12-day cruise was billed as a tour of the British Isles. It was totally delightful. The cruise had only 2 sea days so we saw a lot of the British Isles and a bit of France.

The Royal Princes has been in the fleet for over a decade. She is one of our favorite cruise ships. Other reviewers and the Princess web site aptly describe the ambiance of the Royal Princess so this review dwells mainly on the ports of this itinerary.

We traveled through the English Channel, the Dover Strait, the North Sea, the Firth of Forth, the Moray Firth [north of the WW II battle of Scrapa Flow], the Pentland Firth, into the Atlantic Ocean, then the North and Little Minch Channels, the Sea of Herbides, the Firth of Clyde, the Irish Sea, St. George Channel, the Celtic Sea, around the Cape of Cornwall, and back into the English Channel.  Firths are what the Norwegians call Fjords. The major difference we noted was that the Fjords are more dramatic than the Firths. [Both are tricky to pronounce after a few fine malt whiskeys.]

The ports were Plymouth in England; Dublin and Waterford Ireland; Holyhead Wales;  Rosyth, Kirkwall [in the Orkney Islands], Invergordon and Glasgow Scotland; and LeHavre France.

Prior to boarding the cruise in Southampton [southwest of London about 1 1/2 hours by train] we stayed in London for 3 nights. London amazes me for several reasons. First, the city fathers way back when decided that no street should run parallel to or perpendicular to any other street. Second, no street should run in a straight line for more than 4 blocks. Third, no street should retain the same name for more than 1/4 mile. Fourth, London would be divided up into many sub-cities, each with its own name. Fifth, streets could have the same name in different sub-cities, all within the city of London. When a native speaks of "going to the City," they mean they are going to Central London, wherever that is.

This was our third trip to London and another thing that amazes me is the number of people out and about at almost any hour of the day or night. The crowds just never stop except for the back residential streets. I sat on our hotel suite balcony one evening just enjoying people. There is a phenomenal ethnic diversity among the locals as well as the tourists. Trolleys [the double-decker buses] run almost continuously and most are at least half full. We quickly learned that different routes have different numbers and leave from the same bus stops. We had to watch that we got on the bus going where we thought we wanted to go.

Then there is the traffic going on the other side of the street than we're used to. Signs on the pavement warn walkers to "Look Right" or "Look Left" and even the natives have to be careful because of all the one way streets and intersections like the spokes of a wheel. The drivers take no prisoners and go like mad but with some sort of system, I guess.

One day we took a bus tour to Leeds Castle that is about half way from London to Dover. It took over an hour to get out of the greater city of London. The city just went on and on and buildings are really packed together. I guess that is why there are no freeways within London.

Leeds castle was built in the 1200s. Ownership transferred between royal families until about 1700. Private individuals were subsequent owners. Some of them went broke trying to maintain the castle and grounds. At one time the castle served as a prison. In 1926 a very rich and young widow bought the castle and grounds with the idea of restoring it and using it as her home. About 2,500 acres of the farms and buildings that had once been part of the property were sold. The restoration and furnishing of the castle took about 5 years and many millions of dollars. Electricity, telephone, an alarm system, and central heat were installed. I can't imagine living there without it. Lady Byrne lived in the castle until her death in 1978. She designated in her will that the castle would be put in a charitable trust and open to the public for viewing. The grounds originally encompassed over 3,000 acres and supported buildings for sharecropper farmers, a vast number of employees, a school for employee children, extensive gardens, stables, orchards. Lady Byrne stocked the moat and adjacent lake with ducks, swans, and other waterfowl. She maintained extensive gardens that are beautiful to this day.

Back in London we enjoyed using the daily trolley/tube passes to get around. We stood in line to buy the discount theater tickets. We enjoyed three plays. We enjoyed eating in quaint small neighborhood restaurants. We enjoyed the cool weather as compared with Texas. In fact the weather was bright for almost the entire time visiting the British Isles. We just had a couple of sprinkles and two mornings with fog during the entire trip.

This was our second cruise on the Royal Princess and we are among the Ship's loyal fans. All cabins are outside cabins and all have a tub and refrigerator. There is a self-serve laundry on board and a well-stocked library. The ship is considered small by today's standards. The Royal Princess holds 1200 passengers and was completed over 16 years ago. The Royal Princess has aged marvelously. The cabins and public spaces have been updated several times and everything is kept in "almost new" condition. This ship gives one the feeling of cruising on a classic liner.

We find the Royal Princess a comfortable ship with friendly staff and crew, a pleasant dining room, great menus and food presentation, comfortable lounges and showroom, a theater, and cozy corners to hang out. The promenade deck goes the circumference of the ship; 4 laps to the mile. We were selected to sit at the Staff Captain's table for the cruise for some reason. His wife travels with him on most voyages and she dined with us most evenings. Her husband was on the bridge [driving, I guess] every other evening so he joined us on the alternating nights. Our tablemates were lively and interesting, one couple from Montreal and the other from California. We never ran out of conversation.

The cruise started at Southampton, England. We cruised through the English Channel eastward and northward to the Dover Channel. Then we went into the North Sea. After a day at sea our first port was Rosyth, Scotland. This port is close to Edinburgh and is a major industrial port for the country. We decided not to visit Edinburgh but instead hired a driver to take us along the coastal roads through quaint fishing villages to the historic town of St. Andrews. We stopped at several of the villages along the way and enjoyed seeing the small fishing trawlers, the village shops, the people out for a Sunday stroll.

We visited the little town park in St. Monance. This park is free and open to the community for their enjoyment. It contains a little zoo and lovely gardens. Then we drove on to St. Andrews. Our first stop was at the  Cathedral ruins. The Cathedral was first constructed in 1310. All that is left of St. Andrews Cathedral and the St. Andrews Castle now are some of the original structure outer walls. The area has an amazing history. St. Andrews University is located adjacent to the castle and some of the classrooms look out on the Cathedral grounds. Prince Phillip will be attending St. Andrews in the fall. St Andrews is also noted for its world famous golf course.

After leaving St. Andrews we drove inland and stopped at the SECRET BUNKER. The Scott government in 1950 built this bunker secretly. The purpose of the bunker was to serve as a government command post in case of nuclear attack. It remained fully manned and operational until 1993. We toured the bunker thirty feet underground and found it fascinating. Select government officials would be moved there in the event of an imminent attack and could work and live there for up to seven months. Hopefully the radioactive fallout would have dissipated by then. Our driver took us to a quaint local pub for a lunch of fish and chips before we returned to the ship. We enjoyed the lush greens of the rolling country and farmlands on our way back to the ship. Roads were narrow and winding with no shoulders and it seemed as though we were always on the wrong side of the road.

Our next port was Invergordon. This is just a small port town that serves the larger city of Inverness and surrounding area. Its claim to fame was that the deep-water port was used by ships and seaplanes during both World Wars and was a major naval base until 1956. We took a shuttle provided by the ship to the city of Inverness. This, too, is a charming small city in Scotland. Inverness is at the northern end of Loch Ness. We looked for the famous monster there. Inverness is also the capital of the Scottish Highlands. There is lots of history in this area and the castles amidst the rolling hills are magnificent.

After Invergorden we went to Kirkwall. It is the major city of the Orkney Islands. I had never heard of the Orkney Islands. The islands are part of Scotland [as are the Shetland Islands] and are just 10 miles north of the mainland. The Orkney Islands abound with seals, otters, all kinds of sea birds, and an abundance of fish. Most inhabitants have at least one boat. The islanders have their own dialect dating back to the 8th century.

The Orkney and Shetland Islands became part of Scotland only in 1468 when King James III married a Danish bride. The islands were pledged to him as part of her dowry and have been part of the British Isles ever since. We toured the imposing Cathedral of St Magnus and found it magnificent. Building of this Cathedral started in 1137 and additions were completed at various times. The tower bells were installed in 1528. Major renovation was completed on the interior in the mid 1800s. The stained glass windows are relatively new; they replaced the old windows in the 1920s [over 80 years ago]. Most of the wood used in the building and furnishings was imported for the Orkney Islands are almost treeless.

During World War II the Orkney Islands area was vital to the defense of the British Empire. Italian prisoners of war were used to buttress the defenses against Nazi submarine attacks. They built "Churchill Bunkers" of reinforced concrete for the passages between islands. In their spare time the Italian prisoners converted two ugly Nissan huts into a beautiful Catholic chapel by using plasterboard, cast concrete, and scrap iron. The quaint chapel still stands and is used to this day. The prisoners used barbed wire and cement to create a dramatic statue of St. George and the Dragon.

After Kirkland we headed down the west coast of mainland Scotland and arrived at Greenock and a bus shuttle to Glasgow following a day at sea. We were disappointed at this port. The city of Glasgow is great for shopping but otherwise; the central area is run down and ugly. Glasgow is a bad mix of old and new architecture. The city center and small parks are filled with litter and graffiti. The city was the manufacturing capital of Scotland but now, as in many cities in the rust belt of the U.S., many of the old factories are idle and in disrepair. There are lots of nice museums, monuments, and other attractions in the Glasgow area but we didn't have time to look for them. Glasgow serves as the gateway to the Scottish Highlands but it takes much more than a day to appreciate them.

Holyhead Wales, on the island of Anglesey, is Britain's third most-important passenger port with ferries serving several Irish ports and other parts of Wales. As we entered the port we saw miles of cliffs, some said to be 600 feet high. We used tenders in Holyhead. The port was not deep enough at low tide for the Royal Princess. Wales has a Celtic heritage. Welch is widely spoken and even when English is spoken, there is a marked difference from the England or Scot English.

Most of the ship tours involved bus rides to the Wales mainland or along the coastline to view villages and castles. We decided to get a little more "down close and personal" so we walked about a mile from the tender dock to the center of town. On the way we stopped to look in a little pub and were quickly invited in for an eye-opener. We passed on the ale at such an early hour but I did enjoy talking with the barmaid and the two customers. All were very curious about us; where we lived, what we thought of our new president, [their reaction was mostly favorable], and especially whether we liked the British Isles and especially Wales. It was a true joy to visit with such humble and happy people.

We enjoyed our walk through the winding and climbing streets of town. We visited at a bakery and stopped at the local produce market. Everything in town was spic and span. Everyone was extremely friendly and relaxed. There shouldn't be many ulcers in Holyhead. Then we returned to the ship for more fellowship, a super supper, and the evening's entertainment.

Dublin was our next stop. We exchanged some dollars for Punt, the Irish currency. British currency is not accepted. Ireland's population is about equal to that of Los Angles. This does not include Northern Ireland. Over half of the population lives in or around Dublin and most are under the age of 35. Gaelic is the official language but we didn't have any problems using our English.

We took the shuttle from the pier to town and spent the day enjoying some of the sights of Dublin including St. Patrick's Cathedral, Trinity College and grounds, Dublin Castle, O'Connell Bridge, and Grafton Street. Grafton Street is a pedestrian mall full of interesting shops. It even includes a McDonalds, etc. We didn't find any bargains but we did enjoy watching the shoppers. We ate a full breakfast on board so we didn't stop for the traditional Coddle or Carrageen Moss Pudding. Coddle is the traditional pub dish of bacon sausages, onion, carrot, and potatoes, all boiled together. The pudding is a cold dessert of a seaweed base served with Irish Cream. It will be interesting to return to Dublin and spend more time in the area.

We arrived the next morning at Dunmore East, the anchorage for the port of Waterford amidst heavy fog and drizzle. The Royal Princess is too large to safely use the port at Waterford and that port is subject to heavy swells that would be extremely dangerous for tendering. We were glad we hadn't signed up for one of the tours to the countryside because the visibility was next to nothing.

We explored the small village of Dunmore and then took the Princess shuttle to Waterford. The claim to fame here is the Waterford Crystal Works and their fine leaded crystal. Being Sunday the town was especially quiet and it was a bit eerie with the fog shrouding everything. Nevertheless, the Waterford Factory Store was open for business. Lots of passengers loaded down with the fine leaded crystal. The weather cleared a bit in the afternoon and we could see the beautiful countryside on the 11-mile shuttle ride back to the pier.

If it's Monday, it's Plymouth, at least on this cruise. Again this morning the fog looked like pea soup. This was a tender port. In fact the port was closed to all ships and boats that didn't use radar so Princess engaged some radar equipped ferries to tender us to and from shore. The Pilgrims set out from here in 1620 and the old Barbican area of town still has Elizabethan houses, narrow streets and the Royal Citadel. Plymouth now is a bustling city with many post-WW II structures. Except for the Barbican area, much of the town was destroyed during WW II.

Ships tours went off to Dartmouth and the Devon Countryside, to Sir Francis Drake's Country Home, or for a Leisurely Country [Bus] Drive and Cream Tea. We elected to grope our way through town. The fog cleared by mid-morning so we enjoyed exploring the Barbican streets and alleyways. We sampled some of the Pastys from the infamous Cornish Oggy Oggy Pasty Company. A pasty is similar to a meat pie or an English version of a Mexican taco, without any spice, of course. The Pasty can be stuffed with most anything. They were interesting but not very memorable.

Le Havre France was our last port of call before returning to Southampton. Some of the passengers had signed up for the long, long excursion to Paris. The bus ride was 3 1/2 hours each way that left just 3 1/2 hours to do Paris. That sure doesn't seem to do the city justice. We had reserved a car at Hertz in Le Havre and planned to drive along the shores to the Normandy Beaches, some of which weren't too far from the city; but after 9 ports in 11 days we were bushed. We just stayed on board and hung out. The day was sunny and warm so we sat in a lounge chair for a while and reflected on the past days with some fellow passengers.

This was an absolutely delightful cruise aboard a gracious ship and with lots of interesting ports. When chatting with the Staff Captain's wife and our other tablemates at the final supper of the cruise, everyone agreed that we wouldn't have wanted to omit any of the ports, that it would have been nice to spend an overnight at some of the ports, and that a few additional sea days would have made the journey more restful. We all agreed the cruise aboard the Royal Princess was one of our best cruises and we hoped we would meet again on another cruise in the not too distant future.

Copyright © 2001 Bruce Baldwin

Photo Credit--Princess Cruise Line

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