Sunday, March 27, 2016

Part 1... What the hell am I doing in Scotland again?


Beautiful sunset on the first night of our cruise.  We were near Greenock.

In November 2012, Bill and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary in Scotland.  We did two five night cruises on Hebridean Princess, a former car ferry turned tiny luxury cruise ship.  That ten night cruise was mostly marvelous!  We were bowled over by Scotland's charm and beauty and the fantastic personal service we received on Hebridean Princess.

On that first trip, I felt a real kinship with Scotland, which is where a lot of my forebears hailed from before they ended up in the Rockbridge County area of Virginia in the 1700s.  Not all of my people were Scottish, but as I've been studying my origins, I've found out that it was once home for quite a few of my ancestors.  I can only guess why so many of them ended up in Virginia when they did.  One thing I have noticed, though, is that Rockbridge County looks a lot like Scotland, only with less water and lower mountains.

Of course, I have also discovered roots in Germany.  In fact, it turns out I have more German ancestry than I initially realized.  Some enterprising members of my extended family have done genealogy work and left it available for slackers like me and I have found ties to places like Rhineland and Hessen... and even Karlsruhe!  Germany also has a special place in my heart, but I live there now, see it most every day, and was badly in need of a change of scenery.

Also, we had a bit of a tragedy on that first Hebridean cruise that kind of ruined the last day for us.  Our sweet old bagel (beagle/basset hound mix) MacGregor became very ill while we were away and while we were on the Princess, we got the devastating news that he needed to be euthanized.  Fortunately, we were able to get back to North Carolina to see MacGregor and get him properly diagnosed.  We ended up taking him to NC State, where he had an MRI.  Sadly, he had a highly malignant tumor invading his spinal column that we hadn't known about.  Nothing could be done for MacGregor; so we said goodbye to him December 18, 2012.  A month later, inspired by the beauty and splendor of Scotland, we named our next rescue dog Arran, after one of our favorite Scottish islands discovered on that first trip.

For three years, I pined to go back to Scotland and try another Hebridean cruise.  The ship carries only 49 passengers.  The food and service are impeccable.  It's truly all inclusive and very, very Scottish.  Last year, I steered my mom to a cruise on Royal Crown, the ship Hebridean leases every summer for its European river cruises.  Mom spent two weeks on Royal Crown and had a fantastic time.  When she visited us in July 2015, her stories about her cruise reminded me that it was high time we took another voyage.  I saw a prime opportunity when we got notified of a special offer for the brand new "Spirit of Scotland" tour offered from March 15-22.  This would be a cruise focused on touring whisky distilleries.  A whisky expert would be onboard.  And if we booked early, we'd even get a discount.  I made a proposal to Bill, who had a ball on our first cruise.  The prospect of drinking whiskies all week was a great incentive for him to say yes to the boat.

One thing I did differently for this cruise was booking directly with the main office in England.  I sent an email to Johnathan Moffat, who I think is in charge of UK sales... Anyway, we quickly got somewhat familiar with each other through emails as I arranged the trip.  Though Hebridean cruises charges a fee for paying with a credit card and only accepts payments in pounds sterling, I think we may have paid less by booking through the UK instead of through the North American sales office.  Also, the UK office didn't charge us for taking the coach to the Greenock cruise terminal.  On our first cruise, booked through a broker in the United States, we paid $80 for Bill and me to ride the bus... This time, it was included in the price of the cruise.  That's something to keep in mind if this blog encourages anyone to book a cruise on Hebridean Princess.

So, once we had decided to go, I started making plans for our trip.  I knew we'd need at least one night in Glasgow.  Sure, we could have arranged for the coach to pick us up at the airport in Glasgow, but I knew I liked Glasgow and wanted to see it again.  I also wanted to see Avenue Q, a very irreverent musical currently touring the United Kingdom.  Originally, I had planned our trip to start in Belfast, since Avenue Q was showing there the weekend before our cruise was to start.  But we discovered Max, our dog sitter, was not going to be available at that time.  The earliest we could get to Glasgow was Monday, March 14th.  That would give us one night in Glasgow.  Although I like to try out new hotels, I decided to book us a room at the Carlton George, which is where we stayed the first time we visited Glasgow in 2012.

I have become a big fan of Carlton hotels.  So far, Bill and I have stayed in three of them and they have all been very comfortable and convenient.  Two of the three, Carlton George and Carlton Square (in Haarlem, The Netherlands), even offer free minibars.  That means free booze!  The first time we stayed at Carlton George, I went cheap and booked a basic room.  This time, I booked an executive room, which gave us access to the very nice executive lounge on the seventh floor.

Realizing that our cruise started and ended on a Tuesday, Bill decided to take off work the rest of the following week.  He's worked very hard in Germany since August 2014, so his boss was very agreeable to the idea of him burning up some leave.  The plan to take the rest of the week off worked out perfectly, since Avenue Q was going to be playing in Stoke on Trent the week following our cruise.  It was on the way to Mildenhall Air Force Base, which is another place I've been dying to see for many years.  My father's last assignment was at Mildenhall and it's where most of my very first memories were formed.  I wanted to go back there and see it again.  Our initial plan was to spend one night in Glasgow, the week on Hebridean Princess, two nights in Stoke, and three nights in Mildenhall.

Next, I booked our flights.  I chose KLM because it offered the best connections and most reasonable prices.  Our inbound flight came into Glasgow, but I wasn't sure which airport we should use for leaving the United Kingdom.  I originally toyed with trying to use Stanstead Airport, but the flights I found that worked for us were obscenely expensive.  I dreaded the idea of using a London airport, since I knew Bill would be driving and probably freaking out over that.  Then I discovered the lovely Norwich Airport, located not so far from Mildenhall.  Then I realized that our flight would be early on Easter morning, so instead of staying near the Air Force base, I chose lodging in Watton, which is on the road to the Norwich Airport.  That turned out to be a very good decision.  We had a wonderful drive to the airport this morning.  Seriously... if you're headed to Mildenhall or Norfolk in the UK, you should consider using the Norwich International Airport.

Once the trip was planned, Bill started working out so he could get back into his dress blues.  We remembered from our first cruise that folks on Hebridean Princess get a huge kick out of US military uniforms!  Speaking of which, I know I have a lot of military readers and many of them have kids.  I want to state upfront that Hebridean Princess is pretty much an adults only cruise.  Kids under age nine are not allowed and, to be very honest, I highly doubt most youngsters would enjoy the cruise.  At age 43, I was among the youngest of the passengers, if you get my drift.  However, it is a fabulous cruise for couples, especially those middle aged and older.  It's also a great cruise for single travelers and elderly folks, as long as they are active and able bodied.  The ship does not have any elevators and many of the excursions involve walking.

Another thing I want to mention is that the fares for Hebridean Princess are pretty steep.  However, Bill and I have now done three cruises on the Princess and have yet to have a bill to pay at the end of the trip.  When they say it's all-inclusive, they really mean it.  You pay your fare and literally don't have to pay another dime when you're on the ship.   Only a few things are not included in the fare and they generally involve library wines or items from the gift shop.  So yeah, once you've paid, you really are a guest in every sense of the word.


A beautiful sunset over Oban... taken on the last night of the Spirit of Scotland cruise.


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