Thursday, September 5, 2013

Triumph of the Itinerary: Recap of British Isles & Ocean Princess

We had a wonderful vacation in the British Isles and that was mostly due to a great itinerary. While an 8 Day cruise may seen a bit short, the selection of port visits and 2 sea days were perfect. Visiting Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Channel Islands by cruise ship was terrific. The only thing that would have enhanced the experience further would be adding the Orkney Islands to the itinerary. With the exception of England and France, this was our first time to all of these destinations. We had a full schedule each day in port but soldiered on with feet dragging and thighs burning to get it all in. The local people were wonderful, the food mostly delicious and the sights and scenery spectacular.

We started off on a good foot too by taking the day flight from Boston to Heathrow. We arrived in the evening without any jetlag. After a good night sleep at the Sofitel Heathrow we were rearing to go. Mother Nature was especially kind to us during our journey around the British Isles and post-cruise in Paris. Most days started out overcast but the sun would come out by the afternoon. We also had brilliant blue skies and sun on our first sea day and the best weather was during our visit to Milford Haven, Wales when the temps topped 80F. Best of of all there was no threat of hurricanes back home in Florida to worry about. Our petsitters are wonderful but evacuating with 2 dogs really isn't part of their job description.

We were able to use miles for award tickets on the BA flight to the UK and also the AirBerlin flight home saving $. Although it was distracting at times, I enjoyed using a camcorder for the first time. At some point I will figure out how to edit the videos and add them to the blog.

Below is an short recap with highlights of our journey, with the time spent in the UK, our post-cruise stay in Paris and general reflections of the Ocean Princess.

Favorite Port: St. Peter Port, Guernsey, Channel Islands: Our visit was short but sweet. I had originally planned to disembark from the Ocean Princess here but demurred when other cruise lines had to cancel their visits due to difficult seas. We had a wonderful walk around the Old Town, visited Victor Hugo's fabulous home Hauteville House and gorged ourselves on a scrumptious lunch overlooking the harbor.

View of St. Peter Port harbor and Castle Cornet from Le Nautique
Longest Day in port: Edinburgh during an overnight stay. This day went on and on and on. We were off the ship and at the train station heading to Edinburgh at 7:00 am and didn't get to bed until after 1:00 am the next morning! We covered a lot of ground (walked over 10+ miles) and enjoyed seeing so many different venues. If visiting Edinburgh for the first time, the month of August is the time to do it! We partook of the Book Festival, Fringe Festival and International Festival plus the Military Tattoo all in the same day!

Edinburgh, Scotland
Favorite Lunch: Le Nautique in St. Peter Port. Succulent lobster, fine wine, excellent service, a supreme setting and the gorgeous views of the harbor were unbeatable.

Best Lobster Ever!
Favorite Scottish City: In addition to Stirling and Perth, we also visited both Glasgow and Edinburgh which are only 46 miles apart. There is a well known rivalry between Glasgow and Edinburgh with many preferring one over the other. In our assessment Glasgow is the winner. While Edinburgh offers tons of events in August, historic sites and many Michelin starred restaurants, we still enjoyed Glasgow more. Edinburgh felt very touristy and almost a bit contrived. Glasgow is a real city with great restaurants and nightlife. Glasgow's glorious heritage architecture, fab shopping on Buchanan Street, close proximity to the countryside, the beautiful Kelvingrove museum. the striking University of Glasgow and the fantastic Glasgow School of Art won us over and should not be missed.

Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow
Best Meal in Scotland: While Two Fat Ladies at the Buttery was very good, my favorite food is Asian and Lychee Oriental in Glasgow delivered with its homey Katsu Curry, delicious Duck with plums and thirst quenching Lychee Bellinis.

Lychee Bellini
Best Fish & Chips: We only had this once during our trip but the one at the Forth Inn in Aberfoyle hit the spot during a full day tour to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs with Rabbies.

Fish & Chips Forth Inn Aberfoyle
Best Live Action Event: The Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Charlie, the Border Collie and his ducks in Aberfoyle were adorable and certainly entertaining, but they cannot compete with the pageantry, extravagance and skill of the Tattoo performers from around the world.

Military Tattoo 2013
Best Escorted Tour: Rabbies. From Glasgow we did their tour to Stirling Castle, Loch Lomond & Glengoyne Distillery. The castle was fabulous, the view of Loch Lomond beautiful from Balmaha, the distillery was very interesting (and tasty!) and most importantly our guide George was stupendous!

Loch Lomond from Balmaha
Best Asian Food: Besides Lychee Oriental in Glasgow which was already mentioned, the excellent sushi  and sashimi at lunch on the Ocean Princess was a surprise and put smiles on our faces and yummies in our tummies.

Sushi and Sashini Selection Ocean Princess
Best Historic Home: We saw several of these on this trip and it isn't easy deciding which we enjoyed more. Winston Churchill's Chartwell House in Kent and Victor Hugo's Hauteville House on Guernsey were tops. The grounds and the history behind Chartwell House are magnificent. Seeing the lovely rooms and learning about Winston Churchill was fascinating. The decoration of Hauteville House is very unusual and along with the amazing views has to be seen to be believed!

Chartwell House, Westerham, Kent, UK
Worst ripoff: Our deceitful taxi driver in Sevenoaks who misled us about the road closure in Westerham and drove for 15 minutes directly to where the road was closed and then an additional 25 minutes in the opposite direction to get to our destination at Chartwell House. What should have cost 22 pounds ended up being 36!

Best Find: Snoozebox without a doubt! I was so happy to be able to spend the night in our shipping container in Edinburgh for 82 pounds. This saved valuable time as we did not need to traipse back and forth to the ship during our 2 day visit. The cost of Edinburgh hotels in August is astronomical and Snoozebox was a great alternative.

Our Snoozebox Room
Most Beautiful Garden: The Monet Garden in Giverny. Even on an overcast day the reflections on the pond when the sun made an appearance were mesmerising. The grounds around the house aren't too shabby either and the entire area is a treasure. Very convenient from Paris too as we were there by express train in just 45 minutes.

Monet's Giverny Garden
Favorite Cathedral: We only saw one but the St. Davids Cathedral in Wales was terrific. We loved touring the remarkable purple and gold flecked building and even had a little extra time for the lovely town. The drive and views along the Pembroke Coast were beautiful too.

St. Davids Cathedral, Wales
Favorite Dinner: Frenchie in Paris. Chef Greg Marchand is a genius and keeping the menu to only 2 choices for the appetizer, main and dessert makes ordering very simple! We loved the Cod and the Pork Belly!

St. Jean de Luz Cod, Frenchie in Paris
Favorite Scottish Palace - We saw both the Place of Holyroodhouse and Scone Palace which are very different from one another. Holyroodhouse is certainly dramatic with history pertaining to Mary Queen of Scots and as the official residence of the British monarchy, quite special. The scenery in Perth around Scone Palace was fantastic and a wonderful place to visit on a Sunday morning. Scone Palace itself did not take long to see but is very elegant and not your typical palace. It is really a flip of the coin which one we preferred more but as I loved being in the countryside I give a slight nod to Scone Palace.

Scone Palace, Perth, Scotland
Palace of Holyroodhouse
Best Shopping: Paris! With our time spent at the Galerie Vivienne, viewing fabulous antiques, cruising Rue St. Honore, a stop at Galleries Lafayette and spending Sunday afternoon in the Marais we saw lots of items to pique our interest. The window shopping was terrific. Amazing that we had such good self restraint and made very few purchases.

Shopping in the Marais
Favorite Dessert in Port: Pudding Selection at The Witchery Secret Garden in Edinburgh. The mini selections were perfect for sharing and the variety was excellent. The savior of a rather mediocre meal.

Pudding Selection, The Witchery Secret Garden, Edinburgh
Favorite Museum: We only visited one and it was far from spectacular. We didn't care for The National Museum of Scotland but the special Mary Queen of Scots exhibit was well worth it. We also saw the National War Museum at Edinburgh Castle but it was a quick 20 minute visit so I am not counting it.

Mary Queen of Scots Exhibit, Edinburgh
Wish we had more time for: This one is easy! The island of Guernsey. It would have been wonderful to explore more of this beautiful Island. Seeing the Castle Cornet and Candie Gardens in St. Peter Port in addition to learning more about the German occupation would have given us a greater appreciation for this special place.

Best Snack: Pierre Herme macaroons in Paris. Yum!!!

Relaxing Countryside Visit: Our visit to Scone Palace in Perth followed but the yummy Afternoon Tea at the nearby Gleneagles Hotel was a great way to enjoy the Scottish countryside. The Tea was scrumptious and surpassed our expectations. Very reasonably priced too! We did this on the ship's second day in Edinburgh.

Gleneagles Hotel, Scotland
Sweet Section of the Afternoon Tea
Favorite Train Journey: The Eurostar to Paris. This was our first time taking it and it was so easy to disembark the ship in Dover, take the train to Ashford International, board the Eurostar and travel under the English Channel to Paris. All in under 2 hours! Fantastic!

Eurostar at Ashford International
Something I would do differently: Bring proper footwear for the gym. While I thought I would be exhausted from all the long days in port during the cruise I had plenty of energy on the ship. With very few activities offered onboard, the 2 seas days would have been prime time to spend in the gym.

Best Ship Tour: Our Princess tour to the Powerscourt House and Garden in Wicklow which included Dublin on Your Own on the return suited us perfectly.

View of Sugarloaf Mountain from Powerscourt House and Garden
Surprises: I am not a morning person, yet I was up at dawn more times than I care to remember! This was both for convenience and to maximize our vacation time in port.

Favorite Hotel: Les Plumes in Paris. I picked it on a whim after reading the reviews. Loved the hip design, literary theme, convenient location and the reasonable rate.

Les Plumes Hotel, Paris
Least Favorite Hotel: The Hotel du Vin in Tunbridge Wells. While the setup and amenities of the hotel were very nice; the weird lobster painting in our room was frightful and the uncomfortable bed didn't provide a good night sleep. The food in their Bistro restaurant was also a bit disappointing. Dinner was just average and their breakfast offering was very sparse.

Review of Ocean Princess

Our 8 days on the Ocean Princess went by so quickly! Our balcony stateroom (7100) was cozy, nicely appointed and well located near the aft area of the ship. We got a price break with a sale just before final payment making the cost very reasonable. The "R" class ships are classy and it is so easy to get anywhere on the ship in just a few minutes. Where the Ocean Princess was lacking is in the entertainment department and some elements of the food. There were no lectures on the ship and the poor evening entertainment detracted from our overall enjoyment. The specialty restaurants on the ship were nothing "special" and we actually preferred the food in the main dining room. Breakfast in the Lido was excellent and the extravagant sushi presentation during one of the sea days at lunch was a wonderful surprise. The crew were very professional and the waiters, stateroom attendant and front desk personal were all terrific.

Main Staircase Ocean Princess
Best Princess Perk: Being able to book the ship excursions online but not having to pay for them until on the ship. (Same as Crystal Cruises).

Best Ocean Princess Dessert: The Baked Alaska on the last night. The parade was fun, the atmosphere jovial and everyone's spirits were sky high!

Baked Alaska
Surprising feature that pleased us : Traditional dining. This is not something we would usually do, but having our own table for 2 each night at 6:00 pm worked out perfectly. The only detriment was that the table was against the wall and not near any other passengers so we could not engage or chat with others around us which would have been nice.

Best Ship Feature: The small size of the ship! It was a joy to walk around. Another plus was being able to disembark in each port without hordes of people. Due to the Ocean Princess' small size we were able to dock in Rosyth and had a short train ride to Edinburgh. This beats tendering as the larger Caribbean Princess must do in Leith where getting to the train is not as easy.

Most Annoying Experience of the Cruise: The muster drill when the crew attendant in charge of our section was cackling the entire time and was quite annoying. We had a lot trouble hearing the announcer.

Most Disappointing Aspect Onboard: The entertainment. The shows were not good and there were no special lectures except for the port / destination presentations. I got a lot of reading done!

Overall Surprise: That the Ocean Princess was in such great shape! The ship is very elegant and well maintained. I expected it to be a bit worn and old looking. The ship was also very relaxing and sailed beautifully. It was so quiet with only 674 passengers onboard and at times felt like a private yacht!

I looked at many lines for a British Isles itinerary but with the exception of Princess, could only find ones that were 2 weeks long and / or at a much higher cost. With Princess offering the 8 Day cruises on the Ocean Princess during the months of July and August to Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Guernsey it ticked almost all of the boxes. Princess offers a great product at a much reduced price in comparison to its competitors. Oceania and Azamara who also operate the R class ships provide a higher end product. You may not get the same high level of service and excellent food on Princess as you would on Oceania or Azamara but the cost is also significantly less. We loved the breakfasts as well as the lunches on the Ocean Princess during the 2 seas days but struggled a bit at dinner. The cruise was not perfect but close enough that with a great itinerary at the right price point I am very glad we booked it. I would highly recommend the Ocean Princess for those looking for an elegant ship, with a hard working crew, great service and a fabulous itinerary. The Ocean Princess provided a great overall experience and we look forward to sailing with them again.

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