Three weeks by land and three by sea – crossing the Atlantic by ship for a self-drive tour of the UK

By Robert Ono
This article appears on page 6 of the June 2016 issue.
Anne Hathaway’s farmhouse cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Escaping the dry, browning Central Valley of California was a perfect excuse for my wife, Betty, and me to schedule a return visit to the lush gardens and green hills of England. 

As we’re both retired and can easily adjust our calendars, we decided to use transatlantic cruises as our method for “crossing the pond.” This approach would take three weeks for the round-trip ocean crossing and leave us with three weeks for land touring, including a visit to the Cotswolds. 

One of the advantages of taking a transatlantic cruise was avoiding the abrupt multiple-time-zone change upon arriving at our destination. Also, the cost of a transatlantic cabin was about the same as two business-class air tickets.

Getting underway

The most popular US embarkation ports for travel to the UK are in New York and Florida. Considering our past cruise experiences and the overall schedule for this trip, we decided to travel on Princess Cruises’ Royal Princess

Departing from Fort Lauderdale in April 2015, the Royal Princess would take 15 days for the crossing, with stops at São Miguel Island (in the Azores), Cobh, Brussels, Amsterdam and Southampton. 

Our return cruise to the States would be via a 7-day nonstop cruise on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, one of the last true ocean liners.

With a total of 16 at-sea days, you really need to be able to enjoy relaxing during the day. We found that reading, watching movies, attending onboard enrichment lectures and visiting the fitness center kept us more than busy and away from the endless opportunities to snack. 

We started our trip on a nonstop Virgin America flight from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale. We stayed one night at the Fort Lauderdale Embassy Suites Hotel (1100 SE 17th St.;, located only a few miles from the airport and near the cruise port and several restaurants. 

We’ve found that arriving a day early at the embarkation port is a good practice, especially if a checked bag doesn’t arrive or a flight is delayed. 

In the morning, a hotel shuttle took us to the cruise terminal. The ship’s check-in process moved quickly, and we were on board by noon. 

During check-in, I let the staff know that I was bringing a case of wine on board, and I paid the $15 per-bottle fee for the number of bottles that exceeded the 2-bottle limit. 

Evensong choristers from Wells Cathedral School.

The Royal Princess is a relatively new ship (2013) with 1,780 cabins, including suites, mini-suites, balcony cabins and interior cabins. We opted for a centrally located mini-suite ($4,200 for the two of us), which contained an extended balcony, a queen-sized bed and a full-size sofa.

The Azores and Ireland

Upon arriving at São Miguel Island, we were met by Pedro, our private excursion guide from Trilhos da Natureza (São Miguel; phone +351 91 902 0506, Our full-day 4x4 tour (65, or $74, per person, including lunch) included visits to the blue and green crater lakes of Sete Cidades, a popular scenic spot, and the Salto do Cabrito and Caldeira Velha waterfalls, the latter featuring a geothermally heated natural pool in which visitors could wade. 

In Cobh, Ireland, we spent the afternoon walking through the downtown area on our own. Highlights included a tour of the Neo-Gothic St. Colman’s Cathedral, a visit to the Cobh Museum’s RMS Lusitania exhibit and a tour of the Titanic Experience. 

View from the cruise ship on its approach into Cobh, Ireland.

The Titanic Experience (Casement Square; is a museum located in the original ticket office of the White Star Line. We enjoyed a guided tour of the waiting area and the port terminal and exhibits depicting passenger life on board. 

From the museum, you can actually look out over the pier from which passengers boarded the Titanic

Exploring Amsterdam

After another restful day at sea, we arrived in Rotterdam, where we met Edwin Groeneweg, owner of The Dutch Travel Advisor (phone +31 6 5355 6292,, for a private tour of Amsterdam ($1,000 for six people, including all museum entry and riverboat fees). The drive from Rotterdam to Amsterdam took about an hour via the highway. 

At the Anne Frank House (Prins­engracht 263-267;, there was a long line of people waiting to purchase entry tickets. (The advance-sale tickets were sold out for the day.) As Edwin had previously purchased our tickets, we were able to enter the museum without the wait (which Edwin said can sometimes be as long as four hours). 

Winding through the house and its exhibits was heart wrenching. 

After touring other central-city sites and stopping for lunch, we took an hour-long Blue Boat canal tour of the city. The best vantage point on the canal boats is from the aft open-air seating, where you’ll have a full view of both sides of the canal and no obstruction from the cabin’s ceiling. 

Following our canal ride, we took a short walk to the Van Gogh Museum (Museumplein 6;, which is administered by the family trust of Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s brother. Edwin arranged for Paula, a local art historian, to be our personal museum guide. 

Exploring the historic canals in Bruges, Belgium.

Bruges, Belgium

Our visit to Bruges started at 7:30 a.m., with a return to the Royal Princess in the early afternoon. Given the compact size of the Old Town, we decided to conduct our own walking tour. However, with such an early start time, we found most churches, museums and stores closed, so we focused our morning on a walk through the quiet town, simply enjoying the canals and buildings that date from the 1400s. 

Later in the morning we were able to take a canal boat tour. 

If you have a chance to watch the 2008 movie “In Bruges,” you’ll have a great introduction to many of the city’s historic sites.

For lunch we stopped at Zwart Huis (Kuipersstraat 23), featured in a scene from the above-referenced movie. We enjoyed our light lunch (dishes average 12-20), local Bruges beer and the friendly staff members. Besides providing a great dining environment, the restaurant offers live jazz in the evenings. 

After lunch, we browsed various chocolate stores, stopping to shop in two: Lionidas and Dumon. 

We learned that Dumon is a family-run chocolatier and well recommended by locals. 

Having purchased chocolate for ourselves and for gifts, we walked through town toward the meeting point for our ride back to the cruise terminal. While waiting for the bus, we took the opportunity to share a Belgian waffle — topped with fresh strawberries and whipped cream.

Southampton and beyond

Our disembarkation day in Southampton was very busy. As we would now be traveling via rental car and train, we decided to pare down our luggage to just two 22-inch backpacks, storing our excess luggage at a Lok’n Store facility (, where we rented a 4'x3' locker for $15 per week. (A monthly contract was required, but the unused portion of the month’s fee was refunded to us when we picked up our luggage.)

I understood that driving in the UK could be challenging, with the many roundabouts and right-side steering, but what I found most challenging was the size of the rental car we received. 

Apparently, Enterprise rental cars with automatic transmissions tend to be larger vehicles. Our assigned Vauxhall Insignia estate wagon — at about 16 feet in length — was longer than any car I’ve ever owned or previously driven. With the narrow streets and limited parking in the villages we visited, we found this car to be cumbersome, at best. 

Nevertheless, we drove off to see the Salisbury Cathedral ( and its original copy of the Magna Carta, then stopped for lunch in The Refectory, the cathedral’s on-site restaurant. 

During our many trips, we often have lunch at the museums or historic sites we visit. Reasonably good food can usually be found, and we like to avoid taking time to search for dining alternatives. 

Our next stop was Stonehenge (, where we visited the historic Stone Circle and visitor center. We opted to exit the shuttle bus to the circle before arriving at the historic stone site. This allowed us to enjoy the lush and historic scenery by walking the last half mile along a grassland path. 

The audio guide was very helpful to better understand this historic area. 

With the need to continue our journey to Bath, we opted to ride the shuttle bus back to the visitor center. 


During our stay in Bath, the Apsley House (141 Newbridge Hill,, a Georgian country house that once belonged to the Duke of Wellington, served as our home base for several day trips. 

We stayed in the Salamanca Room, on the third floor, which offered a nice view of the rolling, green hills. Several dining options were nearby, ranging from The Boathouse pub (Newbridge Rd.) to the more upscale Circus Café & Restaurant (34 Brock St.).

Due to city-center parking limitations and our large car, we took the bus from our hotel to central Bath to spend the day touring area sights. 

I recommend that visitors to Bath take the free walking tour led by one of the Mayor of Bath’s Corps of Honorary Guides ( The city guide led our group of 10 visitors, who had gathered outside the Pump rooms in the Abbey Churchyard, to many historical sites. During the 2-hour tour, the guide shared information on the Abbey, Roman Baths, Georgian Assembly Rooms and Circus and discussed the construction and historical development of the city.


Bath is a great location from which to take day trips. On one such excursion we toured Wells Cathedral, Cheddar Grove, Glastonbury Abbey and Nunney Castle. 

Wells Cathedral (, just a short drive from Bath, is dedicated to St. Andrew the Apostle. The earliest abbey church was built on the grounds in about 700, while the present Gothic church dates back as far as 1175. We enjoyed seeing the cathedral’s wonderful architecture and the lifelike carved figures that decorated several pillars. 

We then continued on our way to Cheddar Gorge. Before this trip, neither of us realized that cheddar cheese was created in the UK village of Cheddar in 1170. 

Our second day trip took us a bit farther, to Bowood House & Gardens ( This imposing house and expansive gardens, covering 2,000 acres, were very beautifully maintained. 

A Morgan coupe being prepared for paint.

It would take many hours to explore the property and we had just about 60 minutes, so we wandered through the public rooms in the house and spent our remaining time enjoying the garden.

Our third and final day trip included a visit to Gloucester Cathedral (, about an hour’s drive from Bath. We joined a guided cathedral tour to learn more about the original Norman architecture, remodel initiatives and the scenes depicted in the stained-glass panes. 

On to Chipping Campden

The final four nights of our UK driving trip were spent at The Chance bed-and-breakfast (1 Aston Rd., in Chipping Campden. We stayed in the upstairs Hidcote Room, which was separate from the main house and featured a king-sized bed and en suite facilities. 

The B&B was only a 10-minute walk from the village center, where there were many choices for shopping and dining. We were pleased with our well-decorated room and the friendly proprietor, Sally, who prepared wonderful breakfasts. 

Our first day trip from Chipping Campden was to the Morgan Motor Company factory (, about 75 minutes away in Malvern. 

I’ve always been a fan of the beautiful wood-framed, steel-chassised Morgan cars, which have been built in the same Malvern location since 1914. The tour took us through the various original factory buildings that are still in use today. 

Our second trip was to Stratford–upon-Avon (, where we toured several historic Shakespeare sites and attended an evening play. 

We arrived at the farm of Mary Arden, William Shakespeare’s mother, and the neighboring farm of Adam Palmer after a 40-minute drive from Chipping Campden. Docents in period costume were available to describe farmhouse life, and we watched as they prepared a farm lunch in the rustic Palmer House kitchen. 

Hertford Bridge, which is also referred to as Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs.

We continued our visit with a stop at the childhood home of Anne Hathaway, William Shakespeare’s wife. We toured the cute thatched-roof cottage, surrounded by expansive gardens, then drove into the village center and made our way to Shakespeare’s birthplace. There we toured the bedrooms, dining room and kitchen of this simply constructed structure with humble furnishings.

In the evening we attended the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version of “The Merchant of Venice.” I was a little surprised, as there were few to no stage props, and the actors were wearing current-day outfits, including sneakers and jeans. This distraction, along with the challenge of understanding the dialog, made it an evening that required focused attention. 

Our final day trip from Chipping Campden was to Hidcote Manor Garden, Bourton-on-the-Water, Stow-on-the-Wold and Broadway Tower.

At Stow-on-the-Wold, we walked through the village center, looking for sights noted in our Rick Steves guidebook. Although known as a tourist spot, we preferred some of the other Cotswold villages to this one. 

End of the road

After a full day touring the final stop on our self-drive journey, Oxford, we turned in our rental car and looked for a restaurant that was within walking distance of our accommodation, the Remont Oxford Hotel (367 Banbury Rd.;

Not only close to our hotel but providing one of the best dinners we had during our UK holiday was The Oxford Kitchen (215 Banbury Rd.; The chicken with gnocchi and bok choy was a terrific main dish, and the desserts were wonderful. (The cost was $80 for two.)

Having picked up our advance-purchase rail tickets earlier, we were ready for the next day’s train journey to London.

Next month, the Onos recount their adventures in London and their trip home on the QM2.