‘Scenic Britain’ highlights places and people

A seven-day tour provides a crash course in coach travel.

Great cheeses! Market Day in Ludlow

“Edinburgh’s got the bills, and Glasgow’s got the cash!”  Clearly I’d struck a nerve by asking the elderly Scot his opinion of Edinburgh City Council’s decision to re-introduce trams to the ancient city centre.  From the original £375million estimate taxpayers fear the project will exceed £1billion by 2014. Standing on the grand Missoni Hotel steps the unvarnished, no-holds-barred, local opinion of civic politics was refreshing…and colourful.

Regretfully tearing myself away from my informant, I clambered aboard the idling Insight Vacations coach. Dreaded road works aside, Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Yacht Britannia, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and other charms of the great city, remained intact and beckoning.

“Scenic Britain”, the new Insight Vacations seven-day whirlwind glimpse of England, Scotland, and Wales, was to be my introduction to a new senior experience – touring by coach.

Edinburgh was the only two-night stop on the itinerary, and I intended to take full advantage of all that was offered.

A kilted city guide conducted a well-versed tour of Edinburgh Castle. The tiny St.Margaret’s Chapel tucked into the battlements, Mons Meg, and the 15th century Honours of Scotland (the Scottish regalia and Scottish Crown Jewels) intrigued our group of Australians, Canadians, Asians and Americans.

Mons Meg was one of two massive siege guns given to James II of Scotland in 1457. She weighs 6,000 kg, fired 150-kg stone cannon balls, and was once considered state-of-the-art military technology. One of her claims to fame is that she was fired in 1558 to celebrate the ill-fated marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to the French Dauphin.

http://raven.b-it.ca/portals/uploads/cloverdale/.DIR288/wBritannia-Queen-sbedroomPhotoUrsulaMaxwell-Lewis.jpgInsight Vacations, which is noted for small groups, coaches with extra leg room, and well-appointed, centrally located, hotels, had chosen The Missoni for our group. It is within easy walking distance of Edinburgh Castle, as well as handy to the imposing plethora of stolid stone buildings housing cashmere and kilt shops flanking The Royal Mile.

The Royal Yacht Britannia is berthed here. The Queen’s cabin is simple and feminine, while Prince Phillip’s adjoining cabin reflects his no-nonsense naval background. The only queen-sized bed onboard was ordered by Prince Charles for his honeymoon with Princess Diana. The formal dining room, where many the great and the good were hosted, is the main concession to grandeur. The ship is definitely worth visiting. Remember to make time for tea and scones on the upper deck.

[The Queen’s cabin aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia is simple and feminine]

Earlier in the week, we had left central London and explored Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon Avon home flanked by gardens dotted with poppies, and spent a brilliantly sunny afternoon exploring The Shambles, a rabbit warren of shops in the shadow of  York Cathedral. Here, the importance of noting the coach number, departure time, and location, was demonstrated when a fellow traveler vanished. Our worried tour director, John Brackenridge, delayed as long as possible before enlisting the aid of the local constabulary. During dinner at the Majestic (a rambling Victorian hotel with a delightfully informative local receptionist), our missing mate was, to John’s relief, returned none the worse for wear.

I’d like to have explored more of North Yorkshire, but Durham with its UNESCO World Heritage cathedral and castle was next on our list. Well worth exploring, Durham is hilly, and rambling. Since 1832 the castle has housed Durham University.

http://raven.b-it.ca/portals/uploads/cloverdale/.DIR288/wCavernClubBeatle-LiverpoolPhotoUrsulaMaxwell-Lewis.jpgGretna Green (less touristy when my parent’s honeymooned there in 1940), was included in our swing through Scotland. After all-too-brief samples of Wales via Conwy and Carnarvon, we wheeled back south through the Lake District to Liverpool. Here I recommend investing £13 to join local tour guide and big time Beatles fan, Sylvia O’Malley, for a visit to the Cavern Club.

Dashing through a downpour down an alley, the club lived up to its name.  On stage a local entertainer told us all we needed was love. Beatles photos decorated the walls, and you can jive to your heart’s content. Fiftieth anniversary celebrations go on until the end of 2012. To my surprise, I’d like to have spent longer exploring Liverpool, but settled for watching the ferry cross the Mersey from my hotel window.

Stonehenge, plus a brief visit to the spa town of Bath, rounded out our tour.

For me, this was hasty introduction to coach travel. My experienced coach companions advised me to try a 10-day tour, but they were pleased with the highlights we had covered. Without exception, they were bound for either Europe or Ireland by coach when we returned to London. The youngest was looking forward to celebrating her 50th birthday the following week with Insight in Venice.

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis was a guest of Insight Vacations and Visit Britain. She can be reached at utravel@shaw.ca, or on Twitter @YouTravel. See her Insight Vacations Tour Director singing “My Little Welsh Home” at http://goo.gl/05yDI en route to London