We marched two miles to the South Hampton train station, punched the locker code and retrieved two carry-on size rental bicycles. Back at the ship, bikes on our shoulder we skipped up to Caribe Deck 10 and tucked them on our balcony. Brompton is the Apple of folding bicycles and we were ecstatic about this innovative program- an opportunity to experience the freedom and function of this compact marvel for under $4 a day. We couldn’t wait to launch on our “nine ports in twelve days” British Isles odyssey.
Apart from the fact that the Royal Princess was at least twice the size of the cruise ships David and I typically favored, our shipboard strategy, starting with dining, was fairly standard. As we don’t travel to collect new friends, a traditional late seating table for two is the best safeguard against forced socializing. Our cabin was appointed with a spacious closet adjacent to an efficiently designed bathroom complete with toiletries and bathrobes. The queen size bed dressed in a white duvet and a sitting area with a wall-mounted flat screen television enhanced the creature comforts of our retreat at sea.
St. Peter Port, the capital of Guernsey, thick with layers of Roman and Viking tales was our first spin down narrow winding roads with French names. We rode passed idyllic English cottages and Guernsey cows grazing in lush pastures and a miniature chapel crafted of colorful pieces of broken pottery and china. A German Occupation Museum with a maze of tunnels that served as an underground hospital during the five-year occupation was particularly interesting. We looped back passed the house where Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame during his 15-year exile.
The thermometer rarely rose above 55 degrees that week even when the sun broke free from the gray shower-bloated clouds. Luckily we discovered the bliss of stretching our limbs in the heated outdoor pool and lounging in the hot tub while watching a late afternoon movie on the ship’s giant screen.
It took a couple of days to acclimate to the fact that I was on a floating resort with 3000 other explorers. Finally enthusiasm overcame reticence and I embraced the ship’s small village ambiance. Our daytime land adventures were complimented by evenings of specialty restaurants and entertainment programs from classical string quartets and dance bands to Vegas style extravaganzas and stand-up comics.
The shamrock ports included Cork and Dublin in the Republic of Ireland and Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland. Riding in Cork’s city center was tame compared to the15-mile hilly, hairy bike ride to Blarney Castle sharing narrow country roads with speeding cars. But the splendor of the castle’s setting was worth the stress.
Dublin, the UNESCO City of Literature gave us Phoenix Park for cycling and St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin Castle and Trinity College, Ireland's oldest university for cultural sightseeing. Bar Temple along the River Liffey was the most vibrant quarter of the old town with pubs a plenty for Guinness lovers.
Although Belfast still has its "troubles" from time to time, it was extremely tourist friendly. The Titanic Museum on the actual slipway where the ship was built and launched is one of the city’s popular attractions. We opted to ride up the peaceful River Lagan’s 20-mile path for a picnic in Lisburn’s castle gardens.
Our first Scottish port was Greenock, outside of Glasgow. The land of bagpipes, tartans and clan loyalty stirred the most intense and profound feelings of anticipation and awe. As we caught our first peek of the Highlands pedaling along the Clyde River, it was easy to imagine the landscape ruled by tribal Gauls (ancient Celts), the first civilization north of the Alps.
After five consecutive ports we were primed for a relaxed day cruising the Sea of Hebrides. Until now, the itinerary had been historically enriching but it was Kirkwall, capital of the remote Orkney Islands that teased my imagination. Bromptons under our arm, we hopped on a bus for ½ hour ride to the middle of windswept nowhere. We stepped off and pointed our wheels uphill for ten blustery miles to Skara Brae, Europe’s most complete Neolithic site. The stone-built village, older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids was declared a UNESCO site in 1999. From there we dodged rain showers pedaling to charming Stromness for a bus ride back to Kirkwall.
In Invergorden, gateway to mysterious Loch Ness and the Highlands, our day’s adventure began with a local bus ride into Inverness, where we set off on a magical two-hour pedal to Dores on the sloping south shore of Loch Ness. The route climbed up from the River Ness promenade’s stone cottages through woodlands, weaving passed highland meadows dotted with grazing sheep and golden blooming Scottish broom. Our path eventually emerged on an emerald plateau overlooking the legendary lake cradled by precipitous hillsides against a backdrop of mountains and snow-draped moors. We glided down the path in the shadow of a hail cloud reaching the rocky beach in time for a picnic lunch under a momentary patch of blue. I was euphoric surrounded by breathtaking wild beauty and basking in my idyllic vision of Scotland.
South Queensferry’s 14-mile Scotland National Cycle Trail and John Muir Way (named after Scottish-born Sierra Club founder) into Edinburgh was pure enchantment. Away we went caressed by sunny skies! Edinburgh had panache that rivals the great capitals of Europe. Its vibrant blend of Old Town cobbled lanes, New Town Georgian style grand boulevards, Royal Mile historic monuments, castles, cashmere and cafes was utterly seductive. Holyrood Park's cliff-top hike was an unexpected adrenaline fix, while cake and scones at Clarinda's teahouse was a succulent indulgence.
Le Havre, the last port of call, was rebuilt with a lack luster modern element after WWII, earning it the nickname of “Stalingrad by the Sea”. In 2000, when UNESCO turned the spotlight on the city’s architectural style, Le Havre was reborn as “Manhattan on the Sea”. Normandy’s naturally muted lighting inspired artists like Monet and the era of impressionism. The promenade displays examples of his paintings depicting his hometown’s harbor in the 1800s. We braved the gauntlet of high-speed roadways to the phenomenal Normandy Bridge and pedaled 15 miles across the River Seine estuary to Honfleur. This historic medieval gem boasts an exquisitely picturesque harbor with bustling café life and lofty buildings with centuries old slate and wood facades. Turner captured Honfleur’s character in his 1832 painting of the quayside. Coincidentally, my brother reminded me that famous French explorer Samuel de Champlain and founder of Quebec City set sail from here in 1608 for my homeland, then known as Nouvelle France.
Thanks to ship’s state of the art stabilizers even a stormy Channel crossing did not disrupt our last night of dreams at sea. We faced the inevitable surge of post cruise depression in the morning light as we tore ourselves away from our Royal Princess cocoon and the doting staff to wheel our Bromptons back to the train station. As we shut the locker door, gratitude replaced separation anxiety realizing how the bikes had enhanced our ocean voyage and expanded our wanderlust range to gather new unique memories.