Thursday, September 29, 2016

Life on the Road with a Group Tour

When contemplating a first trip overseas, you have to decide which approach to take:  (1) plot the trip yourself and commit to renting a car and hoping you can cope with whatever the local roads and drivers throw at you, (2) plot the trip yourself and commit to using public transportation, or (3) join a group tour and let the professionals take care of the details.  We opted for a combination of (2) and (3).

David has taken the challenge in previous trips overseas to do some driving in a rental car, but always where folks drive on the right side of the road.  Both of us agreed that we would not be comfortable attempting to drive in Britain until we had a chance to observe the roads themselves and how things work differently when driving on the left side of the road.  For the London stretch of our trip we decided the smart thing to do would be to travel mostly by taxicabs, taking the tube where unavoidable and taking a train on our one trip we wanted to make out of the city before we joined our tour group.

So far as London goes, I will never ever attempt to maneuver a rental car in that city.  Driving in London requires a certain level of throwing caution to the wind and it might be mandatory to have either a death wish or be a tiny bit insane.  It is quite an experience to sit in the back of multiple taxicabs and watch the drivers zip in and out of the tiniest openings, driving pell mell down a busy thoroughfare with pedestrians standing at the edge of the road (I kept holding my breath for fear someone would step off to their death) and seemingly running red lights.  (I finally caught on that there were two lights, one on the left for the thru traffic and one on the right for the turning traffic.)

Speaking of lights, one thing the Brits do that I think we should adopt is the yellow light coming on both to and from the red.  I liked that.

The first few taxicab rides I just held on and hoped for the best.  Our last night after the tour ended found us back in London and zipping around to a few last places on our list.  By that time, after 12 days in a motor coach on narrow British country roads, the taxicab rides weren't nearly so daunting.  But I still wouldn't attempt to drive in London.  I would undoubtedly end up blocking Piccadilly Circus or some equally busy place, having hysterics while some poor bobby tried to prise my hands from the wheel.

One of London's black cabs, Big Ben in the background

Looking toward Big Ben from the Jubilee footbridge over
Victoria Embankment

Once we joined up with the Globus Essential Britain tour and exited London, the road situation changed dramatically.  Sometimes we would be on what we would term an expressway, although much less stressful than our version and usually no more than four lanes, divided.  Most of the time we were on smaller two lane roads heading out to scenic sights in the countryside and coastal regions.  We were traveling on a luxurious motor coach, with plush seats and wi-fi (sometimes).  Our primary driver, Kevin, was very competent and never gave us a moment's concern, not even when we would meet up with another large motor coach.  The two drivers would squeeze past each other with inches to spare.  Our tour director would instruct us to "breathe in" as we would approach these passings.  Quite frequently there would be spontaneous applause for Kevin's driving once we cleared.

On the way to Loch Lomond, Scotland

Our coach parked for a photo op near Ballachulish, Scotland

Squeezing past a lorry on a narrow country road near
Blairgowrie, Scotland

The view through the front window near Kyle, Scotland
Not only are the roads narrow, in many cases there are hedgerows or rock walls right up next to the roadway so it's not like you can ease off onto a shoulder when it's a tight squeeze like you usually can here.  I can't be complimentary enough about our drivers. (Kevin was required to take a day or so break here and there and our fill-in drivers were just as good as he was.)

The bus - I mean motor coach (they were adamant about that) - was very comfortable and each day on the trip meant several hours watching the beautiful countryside through enormous windows that Kevin cleaned at the end of each day.  By the third day, most of us were taking cat naps between stops.  The seats were soft and comfortable and the motion of the coach was as good as any lullaby coaxing you into sleep.  We became accustomed to our travel companions either listing forward until they jerked awake, or their heads lolling backwards with their mouths falling open.  Fortunately I never heard anyone break into a snore.  

Hmm.  I best get back to the subject of this essay, which was not really supposed to be about the road conditions in Britain, but rather a tiny review on seeing Britain with a tour group.  Let's just close this portion with the observation that while I would never ever attempt to drive in London, I don't think it would be too much of a challenge to drive elsewhere in Britain.  After 12 days on the road observing a competent driver (when I wasn't catnapping), I think I have a basic understanding of the road signs and the roundabouts.  I would feel optimistic about flying into a smaller airport, grabbing a rental car and heading out to Dartmoor or up to the Lake District or the Scottish highlands.  Those were the three standout areas for me of all the places we visited and I would love to go back and spend some time exploring.

The time issue is the big negative about traveling with a tour group.  Don't get me wrong, the positives far outweigh the negatives, especially for your first time traveling abroad.  What you give up in freedom to roam and explore, you gain in getting to see far more than you would if you were traveling the same amount of time on your own.   The tour folks have this down to a science and know exactly how much time it takes to see a place, grab a bite to eat and get back on the coach.  They make sure to stop every couple of hours if it's a long travel stretch so you can visit the facilities, stretch your legs for a few minutes and grab a fresh bottle of water.  Sometimes you end up having to decide between visiting a promising gift shop and taking that potty break, because the stops are timed exactly to get the essentials taken care of and no extras.  You sure don't want to be the one who is causing the other 45 folks to wait on you to get back on the coach.

At the destination stops we would be provided with tickets and eased on up to the front of the line.  (This initially seemed like we were being treated like something special, although you quickly become aware that at every one of these stops, there are likely another half dozen or more tour groups being shuffled to the front of the line to keep them on the tour schedules.  These places depend on those tour groups for a big part of their revenue.)  For these primary tour stops, we would be turned loose for 90 minutes or a couple of hours and given a time to be back in our seats on the coach.  I would always plan on being done with the sight-seeing about 20 minutes before boarding time so I could stroll through the gift shop or grab that bite to eat.

I was disappointed that a few of the promised destinations fell more into the 20 minute rest stop variety,  but there were so many stops on the way that you really had to keep moving to get them all in.  I guess when you really think about it, after you've ooh'ed and aah'ed over the beauty of Loch Lomond and snapped 20 or 30 pictures, there's not too much point in hanging around.  There's more to be seen down the road a bit and a schedule to keep to, so we learned to step lively and see the sights without dawdling.

Our daily starts were early, with luggage to be outside your hotel door by 7am and boarding time set for 8am.  (There was a morning or two that started even earlier.)  While they were collecting and loading your luggage, you would have access to a full breakfast buffet at the hotel.  During the preliminary days in London, I thoroughly enjoyed the "Full English Breakfast", which is generally eggs, bacon (English style, more like thin ham), sausage, beans (like our pork and beans, only no pork), grilled tomatoes and/or sautéed mushrooms, toast and pastries.  By the time we joined the tour, the novelty of that spread had worn off a bit and I found it harder and harder to face eggs in the morning.  Fortunately, I developed a taste for the fresh croissants and the English jams, so I switched back and forth for the duration of the tour.  As the tour progressed into Scotland, you also had the option of your morning dose of haggis, which I declined to sample.  There's only so much adventure in my soul.

I was a bit apprehensive about what kind of accommodations we would enjoy during the tour.  I had paid an extra premium for a single, but I knew that many hotels in England provide twin beds and smaller rooms to singles.  My fears were unfounded.  I always had a full or queen sized bed and a generous sized bathroom (more on the bathrooms in a later post).  I usually had a decent view out my window.  I discovered rather late into the trip that the instant coffee provided with the mandatory electric tea kettle was much, much better than the instant coffee I'm familiar with and that became a late evening treat along with a package of the tea biscuits provided.   The majority of the time I had an ironing board and iron and sometimes a little fridge for my water.

What they didn't have, reliably, was air conditioning.  At the bigger chain hotels, air conditioning was not a problem.  At the smaller hotels, it got a bit warm at times.  These places did provide fans, thankfully.  Some of the hotels required your hotel key to be put in a slot just inside the door to keep the lights on and the air conditioning going.  That took me a few minutes to puzzle out, but I eventually got there.

The extra excursions we enjoyed and the meals provided by the tour I will cover in later posts, but I will say that the entertainment was excellent and the meals were adequate for the most part.  Our tour director was entertaining on the road, spinning tales (some tall) about the places we were going through and anecdotes about the royal family and other Brits of note.  At either end of the tour, we were expertly welcomed and discharged by very friendly Globus representatives.  At the very end of the tour I hesitantly asked if it would be possible to add a transfer to the airport for early the next morning and it was quickly arranged by a most charming and helpful young lady.  I don't know about other tour companies, but I can say that Globus knows what they are doing and I felt like I got my money's worth.

Our travel companions were a mixed assortment.  We had quite a few Aussies on board with us and they seemed to be a friendly and cheerful bunch.  While there were several single folks on tour, most were paired up with co-workers or friends or a family member.   There was one other single woman traveling without a roommate and she and I just happened to meet in the hotel lobby before the rest of our group assembled the first morning.  Toward the end of the tour we agreed that we had a bit of a bonus traveling alone, as we each got our own bench on the coach, all to ourselves, and we could spread out and be even more comfortable.  My additional seat generally held my hat, upside down, holding my knitting bag so it would stay put and I worked on my knitting project off and on while gazing out at the beautiful English countryside.

Sad to say, there is always a grump in any crowd and we had one.  He was generally complaining to the tour director early in the morning about some perceived slight in the accommodations and he bit the heads off a few of our companions who wandered into his orbit, but we lucked out in that he almost always fell asleep on the road so we didn't have to put up with too much out of him.  He was easy enough to avoid off the coach.  (Wouldn't you know, he sat across the aisle from me in the mini bus that took us to the airport for our departing flights.  The trip to the airport was an hour and he kept falling asleep and tilting toward me, getting snagged by his wife before he could fall out of his seat and then snapping at her for waking him up.  He must be a real joy to live with.)

So to wrap this up....I would definitely take another tour with Globus.  But not to England, Wales or Scotland.  They showed me a good time and I saw so much that I had heard about all my life and I enjoyed every minute.  But the best thing they did for me was provide me with the experience to know where I would like to return and take my time getting to know better.  Next time I'm going to stop and smell the heather, for as long as I please.


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