Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Twenty Things You Should Know Before Traveling to Great Britain

  1. You should know the difference between England, Great Britain, and the UK. England is a country. Great Britain is made up of three countries locked together geographically (England, Scotland, and Wales). The addition of Northern Ireland creates the United Kingdom.
  2. Money is in pounds, not euros. In fact, if you missed it (not sure you could, really), but GB is no longer a member of the European Union which uses euros as currency. Get your pounds after you land in GB. It’s cheaper and you won’t need your pounds until you get there anyway. There are ATMs at the airport, but I recommend waiting (if you can) until you get in town where the rates should be much better for your currency conversion.
  3. Take your debit card and credit card, but make sure the issuers know that you are traveling overseas; otherwise, you may find your funds cut off! Take more than one card and keep them separately so they both don’t get lost or stolen. Make sure your cards don't charge foreign transaction fees.  Try to use a debit card that doesn't charge you each time you use an ATM.
  4. They drive on the left over there. Not news, but it also means you’re driving in the right-hand seat, shifting with your left, and passing on the right. Read my blog for more information.
  5. London is a great destination, but it’s only a small part of what makes Britain great. See some of my “Off the Beaten Path” posts or my trip articles to get an idea.
  6. The English may seem a bit distant at first, but they have generous hearts and go the extra distance for their friends. Be respectful, and don’t interfere with their personal space or yell (as one lady did on a tour I went on) “A BOBBY, A BOBBY” when she noticed a policeman. Typically, gentle voices and a calm demeanor go a long way. Note: The folks I’ve met from Wales, Scotland, and Ireland have a more outgoing and boisterous nature, but I’d still respect their space until they get to know you. Don’t be the ugly American stuffing your camera in their face and clicking pictures without asking.
  7. You can’t use your electronics in GB without a converter AND adapter. You must have both and they must have enough juice so that you don’t blow electronics that pull a lot of power. Your local Best Buy or Frys can help with that.
  8. There is a definite cultural line drawn between north and south and, in fact, between counties. They are very competitive and you’ll find jokes about it depending on who you talk with. Typically, the south is seen as more educated and the north as more liberal. This isn’t necessarily reality, by the way.
  9. The language is similar to ours, but there’s enough of a difference to get you in trouble. Words like fanny pack, jelly, and eggplant have gotten riotous responses from my British friends. If you’re interested in some of the differences, here’s one of my posts on it.
  10. Things are smaller there. Streets are narrower; cars are smaller; hallways, bathrooms, and bedrooms tend to be more “bijou”. Think of this when you are packing. Do you really want to haul your American size luggage up three flights of stairs for a hallway that will barely accommodate a carryon?
  11. The pace of life is faster or slower than we’re typically used to. London is just frantic. That’s the only word I have for it. Even so, there is a world of exploration to be done there. Meanwhile, in the Lake District or other areas of outstanding natural beauty, you can put your feet up, sip a pint, and let the world float by.
  12. They don’t tip there the way we do. However, tipping is more common now than it used to be. Trip Advisor offers a post about tipping in GB.
  13. Typically, you can get really cheap rail travel by booking in advance. For my upcoming trip, I’m traveling all over Britain by train for about $280 vs. a BritRail pass for similar flexibility that would cost me $422. The Oyster Card is the way to go for transportation in London. For more information on getting around London, see this post.
  14. I have heard time and again how expensive England is (much too expensive to travel there!). For a night in the Lake District, you can find a decent B&B (that’s with a full English breakfast and en-suite bathroom) for about 45 pounds a night (which equals about $56 at today’s rate). With the strength of the pound down against the dollar, it’s a great time to visit! Note that staying in London can be much pricier! This year, I’m staying at the Park International Hotel which costs about $122 a night at the price I got. Prices fluctuate wildly, so if you see a good rate on a hotel you want to try, get it right away! Avoid costly meals out and buy your lunch at the grocery store. Places like Sainsbury’s have sandwiches you can purchase. Be prepared for sticker shock for restaurant food, however. A burger and fries may cost you twice what you’d pay in the states! Gas prices are also pretty outrageous. Know where the pitfalls are and try to avoid them.
  15. Pubs, unlike nightclubs, are generally open between 11 am and 11 pm. Pub food can be awesome. Check out a pub guide if you’re interested in “gastro pubs” that specialize in great eats. You must try Sunday Roast lunch at a pub that is known for it. This is a traditional pub meal only served on Sundays! If you’re interested in learning more about pubs, check out this post.
  16. If you are staying in a small village, store hours are likely to be a bit wonky. You may not get much service on a Sunday (including train and bus). Make sure to plan accordingly.
  17. Make copies of your passport and other important information and carry it with you. Always store in a safe place. This will make it easier to replace things that might get lost or stolen. Use your camera to take pictures of your luggage (inside and out) so that if it gets lost or stolen, you have much better information for the agencies to use. Tag your luggage inside and out. Minimize your luggage. Travel light.
  18. You can use your cell phone over there if it’s an unlocked GSM phone or (typically) if you pay out the nose to your phone service provider. See this article for more information on cutting those costs. T-Mobile User’s Only: If you have a T-Mobile phone, T-Mobile is in the UK. You still have to pay extra for using your phone internationally. See your T-Mobile rep. for more information.
  19. The British are typically very conscious of courtesy to others when driving or walking. If you’re on an escalator, stand to the right and allow faster folk to pass on the left. If you’re driving on a motorway, slower cars are left, faster in the middle, and fastest in the right lane.
  20. The weather can be awful in GB, but it isn’t usually as nasty as the movies would have you believe. If you’re in crowded London, you may want to wear a slicker with a hood on rainy days to keep from poking people’s eyes out with an umbrella. The wind can pick up in the countryside and I’ve had more than one umbrella turn inside out on me. Umbrellas are sometimes not the best weather proofing device! When I pack, I take a waterproof jacket with hood and a fleece jacket. I can use one or the other or both depending on what the weather's like. One of my favorite trips to England was in the Winter for the Christmas markets. The weather was cool, but clear and I had a fabulous time!

For more information related to travel, refer to Advanced World Travel or use this blog as a resource by searching for desired information.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Off the Beaten Path: Tintern

County: Monmouthshire, Wales

I’ve had two trips, recently, where I had just wanted a hint of Wales.  An appetizer, perhaps, for future travel.  With two friends in tow on my 2014 trip and one on my 2016 trip, each had a request to experience England, Scotland, and Wales… which is hard to do on a two-week vacation!  But, I thought I had found the answer when I located Tintern.

Tintern is only 37 minutes from Bristol (22.7 miles).  It borders Gloucestershire to the east and Herefordshire to the northeast which makes it an intriguing possibility for a Welsh overnighter on an already cramped trip!  So, we packed up the car and border hopped into Monmouthshire for a wee bit of Wales!

I’d entered Wales before with a short trip to Conwy and Llandudno in the north.  Here, we were in the more southerly part of the country and I was really digging the vibe of the place.  Heavily forested, the roads offered “tree tunnels” for cars to wend their way through on the lovely roads leading into town.  We briefly scraped the outer edges of Monmouth, a market town and center of the county.

As you might know, Tintern was made famous in art and poetry.  Famous artists like Gainsborough, Gilpin, and Turner painted the area.  And the poet, William Wordsworth, immortalized the abbey there in his poem “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey”:

“Five years have past; five summers, with the length of five long winters! And again I hear these waters rolling from their mountain springs with a soft inland murmer. Once again do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs that on a wild secluded scene impress thoughts of more deep seclusion.”

This is truly Tintern. It’s dark and leafy with a beautiful, fast flowing river running through it.  Ducks and swans are swept along its vernal banks.  The River Wye is the second longest river in Wales. It originates from the Welsh mountains at Plynlimon and flows for 134 miles to Chepstow.  It makes for a romantic setting in itself, but then, there’s the Abbey.

Tintern Abbey stands resolute and unwilling to die.  Caught up in the dissolution of the monasteries brought about by Henry VIII, its walls still remain standing, if not intact.  This is the romantic backdrop for the small town of Tintern.

In 2016, I had just experienced a nerve-wracking trip to the Cotswolds (don’t go to any of the tourist towns – it’s a trap!).  The Cotswolds are reachable by various day trip companies from London.

If you do go to the Cotswolds, pick a working town… not a tourist town.  We were inundated by thousands of tourists from several tour companies at Bibury.  Hastily, we withdrew and ended up at Tintern.  I remembered how calm it had been on my 2014 trip, and it was no less calm this time around.  If you want to assuage jangled nerves, catch your breath, and just be one with the landscape – this is the area for you.

We booked into the local Best Western (my first trip, we’d tried a local B&B which didn’t quite suit us).  The Best Western, St. George hotel opened its doors and we had our room for the night.  It’s a bit dated, this hotel, but it’s got a lovely outdoor space where patrons of the hotel bar can stretch out with a nice cider and chat. Our room was on the first floor, and when we opened our back door, we found the perfect place to dry our clothes after hand washing them!  It was just lovely.

Tintern Abbey is .2 miles from the St. George.  It’s an easy, not to mention lovely, walk!  You’ll find shops and cafes along your route, and even a nice pub just across from the Abbey.  The Abbey gift shop is large and has a great selection of gifts very reasonably priced!  I’ve enjoyed shopping there.  It is in the gift shop that you can also purchase tickets to walk around the Abbey and soak up its ambience.

Later, take a stroll into town along the riverside and pick a nice restaurant to have a bite. If you like to walk, there are many routes you can take to enjoy a sunny day along the Wye.

After the Cotswold debacle, Tintern was my haven.  I will always love that town, and hope to explore it more on one of my next trips.  As for 2017? I am taking my sightseeing more toward the north and west of Wales.  For further adventures, watch this space!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Off the Beaten Path: Tintagel

County: Cornwall

Though my heart is definitely in the north of England, I did manage to carve out a few favorites from southern counties as well. Probably my MOST favorite town in the south is Tintagel. I landed there one year at the behest of a travel partner who wanted to know more about King Arthur. To that end, Tintagel is a must see.

If you’re staying in Tintagel, I highly recommend the Avalon B&B. It’s right beside the sea within easy walking distance of the remains of King Arthur’s Castle and Merlin’s cave. Ask for an ocean view – I promise you’ll wish you had if you don’t! Peter and Julie are great hosts, and you must do yourself a favor by trying the porridge brulee.

Heading southward from the B&B, you’ll be met with numerous shops and eateries. Get a real Cornish pasty or perhaps a pub lunch at the King Arthur’s Arms! The distance to the castle ticket booth is about half a mile or so. You’ll have to be at least minimally fit to climb the steps up to the top of the hill that contains the castle remains. To be honest, I was more enamored of the views than the castle leftovers. You can see for miles out into the blue. Island rocks jut out reminiscent of the old Yes album covers.

Just below you, underneath the hill is a tidal cave known as Merlin’s cave. You can peruse it at low tide, but otherwise, it remains underwater. Just being on the beach at the base of the hill is an enormous energy high. You can almost feel the history lifting you up and permeating the air. On the way back to the town, you can stop by the castle gift shop and there’s a small café nearby also. For those not up for a walk, there’s typically a manned golf cart that will haul you for a fee.

Back into Tintagel, you can spend your day shopping, catching up on your laundry, or checking out the visitor’s centre (it’s a nice one)! There is a King Arthur’s Great Halls which is a hall, gift shop, and movie theater. I’ve only been in the gift shop, but I hear the movie and hall tour is well worth the price! Of course, if you’ve read my other blog posts, you’ll know that one of my favorite nearby spots is St. Nectan’s Glen. It’s close enough that you can walk there if you’re fairly fit. If not, you can drive to a little car park nearby and walk about a mile through the most awesome fairy forest I’ve ever seen. At the end of the trail is a Wiccan café where you can get a bite before purchasing a ticket to the kieve (waterfall).

I’ve been to Stonehenge and to Avebury. They have their positive points and the energy (at least in Avebury) is still pretty amazing. Nothing compares to St. Nectan’s Glen, though. Not Glastonbury Tor or the Chalice Well or even the holy Hawthorn tree on Wearyall Hill. Just saying that you really shouldn’t miss it. Plan to stay long enough to do some meditation and prayer. It’s a good place for it.

In 2014, we had some spare time, so we decided to see the Witch Museum in Boscastle (just the other side of St. Nectan’s Glen). Honestly? One of the most gorgeous little towns in Cornwall that I’ve seen. The museum was extensive, but the visitor’s center was HUGE. Besides having cute little shops and cafes. I’d say Boscastle could be a holiday destination as well as Tintagel.

Very close to Tintagel (if you are traveling by car) is Port Isaac. If you’re a Doc Martin fan, you’ll know that Port Isaac is the real life “Portwenn” in the tv series. I found it fascinating, beautiful, and a little tough to get around in. The town is perched on the side of a hill, so to get anywhere, you’re either traveling uphill or downhill. Most of the time the grade is very steep! But, I got to see Doc Martin’s house and even went in Mrs. Tishel’s chemist shop. :)

Tintagel is not easy to reach without a car. Your best bet (without a car of your own) is to get the train to Bodmin Parkway Rail Station and either take the bus or get a taxi from there. Here is some helpful information.

I wish you all the best in your travel adventures to Cornwall. There is SO much to see and do! Get there during the week to miss the weekend tourists. Take a shopping bag, a walking stick, and an adventurous spirit. Cornwall will fill you up with its mystery, amazing landscapes, and historical sites!

Friday, January 20, 2017

Trip 2017!

This year’s trip is already in the works. I’m changing things up quite a bit so that I’ll have even more information for my lovely classes in the Fall. This post is just a heads up that I’ve not ever traveled this way in combination before. It’s going to be a new experience and I hope to share lots of new tips and tricks and places to go with my upcoming classes.

So, here is the outlined plan:


Day 1-2

Drive to Houston and leave on a direct flight to London. My friend, Clare, is picking me up at the airport and taking me to her place. (Now on day two of the trip.)

Day 3

I’ve no plans for the day so I was thinking I might get out and explore Windsor castle if I’m not too jet lagged. We have planned a lovely evening watching a musical on the West End called Beautiful. It’s about the life of Carol King.

Day 4

Sandra has kindly offered to drive me northward to catch a train to Wales. Thanks, again, to my two friends who always seem to take care of me when I’m over there. There is a possibility that I may have lunch with a friend in Telford (if possible), but it will all depend on the train times and such. The end of Day 4, I’m checking into Mary’s Court B&B in Betws y Coed. This mountain town is supposed to be amazingly pretty and is close to other things I want to do!


Day 5

Take the Sherpa bus to Portmeirion. This town has been on my bucket list for ages! It’s a Mediterranean village plopped along the west coast of Wales. It’s also the setting for the 1960s TV show, the Prisoner. I hope to tick that box this year!

Note: On days 5 & 6, I’ve had the offer by a friend in the area to act as tour guide, so if we firm that up, I may not need the Sherpa bus! Thanks, Mark Clarke! I’m also looking forward to seeing his dog, Meffie, who looks a LOT like Maddie!

Day 6

Take the Sherpa bus to Mount Snowdon and take the train to the top! Woohoo! If I have any time left over, I’d like to see one of the local castles like Caenarfon, perhaps.

Day 7

Take the train northward to Ulverston where I’m staying with the lovely and effervescent Dawn Sharples for a few days. We’ll hopefully have time for a bite at the pub. I’m assuming she’s working on both weekdays I’m there, so spending Day 8 with Karin.

Day 8

Going with my friend Karin to shop for bargains! I love to shop thrift stores and garage sales, so Karin says she thinks we can find a boot sale or two! Wouldn’t that be fun!?!


Day 9

I’m hoping to get together with friends from the past to do a brief low-level hike somewhere. I wouldn’t mind seeing the Hoad, Dawn! LOL… or anywhere else folks want to meet. First round at the pub is on me afterwards!


Day 10

This is a Sunday, and I’m hopping the train for Lanark, Scotland to see my friend Frances and her pretty little spaniel, Pippa. Oh, and don’t forget Caramel the guinea pig.

Day 11

I’ve never been to Lanark, and am looking forward to catching up with Frances and sightseeing. She’s talked about taking me to New Lanark which is a world heritage center and visitor attraction! I’ve heard about this on my favorite series, Escape to the Country, and it seems like it will be so much fun!


Day 12

I wish I could stay in Scotland longer, but there’s so much to fit in in so little time! Sadly, having to say goodbye to Frances and friends, and heading southward to Rotherham, Yorkshire to meet up with my dear friends Chris and Linda. I love all my friends, but Linda has the added distinction of also being a Texan and Tennessean! We’re linked very distantly as relatives.


Day 13

This is a day that’s open to traveling anywhere Chris and Linda like. I wouldn’t mind seeing new or old places in Yorkshire – I’d love to take them through Thirsk and Kilburn, but perhaps they have something else in mind that would be another adventure.


Day 14

Tearfully leaving my friends and heading southward to link up with yet another old friend of mine (she’s not old, but the friendship is) Kim. I’m guessing that her boyfriend (an even older friend of mine) will be there with us as well. I asked Kim if we could hit some thrift stores and boot sales. I also want to know more about the land she lives in as I know virtually nothing about England’s east coast.


Day 15

Kim mentioned boot sales and Boudicca (two things near my heart), so I’m guessing we’ll be sightseeing and doing these things together for the next day or two.

Day 16

See day 15!


Day 17

Leaving Norfolk for London. Staying in a new hotel called the Park International which is very centrally located at Gloucester Rd. I will be having afternoon tea with Clare at the Victoria and Albert museum at 4 pm, so I better get a move on!

Day 18

Sightseeing day. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to tour Parliament during this period, but I’ll definitely try. I’d also like to visit the Queen’s Gallery and gift shop (my favorite gift shop in England). It’s on the back side of Buckingham Palace and offers higher quality souvenirs and the prices aren’t THAT awful (though some things can take your breath away).

I’m packing that night because I leave the motherland the following day.


Day 19

Depart London Heathrow at 1:40 pm and arrive Houston at 6 pm. I’ll stay the night with mom before heading home.


Day 20 – the Finale

Pick up my long lost children from the petsitter and crash.


This trip is a new adventure for me in many ways. I've never traveled this long or far by mass transit. Never tried staying with friends for most of my journey. Venturing into London's West End isn't new, but seeing the musical, Beautiful will be wonderful! I've never been to Betws-y-Coed, Snowdon, Portmeirion, or Snowdonia National Forest. I'm potentially meeting my new friend, Carrie Anne if we can make the connections work. I've never been to a boot sale, and I'm sure my Lake District hike will be an adventure as well! Going to New Lanark with Frances and exploring Yorkshire with Linda and Chris is new as is the exploration of Norfolk with Kim and Greg. I've never been to Windsor or taken a tour of the Houses of Parliament - not to mention tea at the Victoria and Albert!

In planning this, the best part, for me, is thinking of the friends I'll get to see and actually having more than a few minutes to catch up with each of them.  Be forewarned, my dears... I'm coming laden with silly Texas gifts again!  Already started making my stash. :)

So,  you see, this is going to, hopefully, be a massive culture shock for me. Am I ready for it?  In the words of that great musician, Marvin Gaye... "Let's Get it On!"

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Driving in the UK

Driving down a backroad in Cornwall, I’m white knuckling it again.  These old pony paths are now paved and supporting motor vehicle traffic.  And, to top it off, folks here like to line the roads with hedgerows about 10 feet tall.  There’s no shoulder.  My heart is beating quickly and I’m praying, “Please don’t let anyone come from the opposite direction!”  There is no room to move over or pull off.  Just as I utter the prayer, a large Range Rover comes into view.  Oh. My. God.  The driver and I exchange glances, and he notes the terror in my eyes.  He begins to back up to a point where there’s a place to pull over.  I pass by mouthing “thank you thank you thank you!”  He laughs.

I am renting a car from a global rental agency in a small market town.  I notice the car isn’t shifting properly.  A mile from the lot, a horrible smell fills the car.  I turn back with only two miles on the odometer since I left… and they charge me $1800 (over and above the actual rental fee). A legal battle ensured (I won), but it was long and painful (and costly).

I am in the Lake District, and I ask for the easy way to a small town where friends are located.  I’m pointed to a larger “A” road, but my GPS takes me to a small pathway hanging in midair called “the Struggle”.  I live to drive another day, but only just.

There are tons of horror stories about driving in another country – these are just a few of mine.  But, having said that, I’ve been on the road a LOT during my travels and the incidents have been very rare.  There are reasons to self-drive, but I have to be convinced!  I recommend train travel over car rental any day except for the problem of actually *getting* to places you want to see.  For years, Portmeirion, Wales has been on my list.  Totally not on the major rail line.  Mount Snowdon has also been on the list, but it’s only by a harrowing combination of bus and rail travel that I could make it there on mass transit lines.  The cost and travel time is cut by ¾ in driving myself.  So, there are times I would recommend renting a car.  I’m considering it this year.

If you were in my class, I would probably recommend taking mass transit for your first few trips over.  You’re probably going to want to see more tourist sites that would be rail-linked.  In fact, I’d recommend a group tour for your first trip (to get the lay of the land) followed by a self-planned tour in subsequent trips.  At some point, however, you may want to go beyond the tourist sights to see things others don’t have a chance to.

What should you know before you rent a car in the UK?

  • Know your insurance before you go over.  What’s covered and what isn’t? What does your credit card cover?  You may not need that Collision Damage Waiver that adds quite a bit to your costs.
  • Know if you want to add a second driver to your contract.  This adds something around $10-$20 a day for the rental.
  • When renting a vehicle make sure you understand how to operate it before leaving the lot.  An agent should give you a briefing before you take off.
  • Check the government website as to whether you need an international driver’s license.  Currently, you don’t, but that could always change. (http://www.gov.uk)
  • Check your car THOROUGHLY before driving off the lot.  I was experiencing trouble shifting on one car which led to the $1800 charge.  If you have *any* issue at all, stop the car immediately and call the agency.
  • Know the rules of the road.  There are some pretty complex traffic circles and signs that you may not be aware of.  To familiarize yourself with British road safety, go to http://www.gov.uk and look up The Highway Code, road safety and vehicle rules.
  • Most cars in the UK are standard shift, though you can get automatic for added cost.  One rental agent told me an American showed up on his lot thinking the car was automatic.  He gave her a 30-minute class in standard shift and sent her on her way! 
  • Don’t lose your keys!  On one trip, I lost my keys and it was going to cost about $750 for a replacement, plus the cost of a courier to get me a replacement from London.  I lucked out in that I found the key two days later and they waived the courier fee.  I was very lucky!
  • Follow parking rules.  Some city centres still use parking discs that allow you to park for free for a designated amount of time by setting your arrival time on the disc.  You will need to have or obtain a free parking disc to park in these zones which are usually available from council offices, tourist information centres and many businesses.  Time limits vary, so check the signs adjacent to your vehicle.  Display the disc on your dashboard.
  • If an area is not marked as paid parking, disc parking, or emergency parking you are probably ok to park there.  As with anything, do your research before you go over!
  • Make sure you have some sort of GPS with you.  Even though I had two GPS’s with me and they could never agree on anything!  It’s still better than being irretrievably lost.
  • Take a hardcopy Atlas with you in case the GPS is just going too wonky or you lose satellite connection.
  • Make sure there is parking at your lodging.  Parking is not guaranteed anywhere in the UK! 
  • Note that blue signs marked with a large “P” indicate parking lots in cities and towns.
  • On divided highways (called dual carriageways), it is the law for slower cars to stay on the left, faster cars in the middle, and still faster on the right. 
  • Closed Circuit TV is used on most major roads in the UK. 
  • Restrooms and gas stations are not as plentiful as they are in the states.  However, the British have something called “Services” which is pretty amazing.  When you see a sign indicating “Services”, it will take you to a large gathering of stores, gas stations, and even casino games (depending on the size and location of the Services).  I wish we had Services in the U.S.!
  • Speaking of lack of restrooms, if you have to go or think you will, and you see a Services sign – STOP then and there!  You may not get another chance for a long stretch of road.  This is also a good time to note your gas tank levels.
In general, driving in the UK comes naturally after about an hour or so in the driver’s seat.  Relax. Being uptight and worried doesn’t make you a better driver.  Breathe.  If you feel you’re getting overwhelmed, pull over and rest a bit.  Services are your friend as is preparedness.  Know the rules. Head off rental car issues when possible.  Cover yourself!  Forewarned is forearmed.