A beautiful cruise ship like the Celebrity Infinity is an excellent way to get a taste of the British Isles and Normandy. The Infinity sailed from Harwich round-trip on 10 to 14-day summertime cruises to ports of call in England, Scotland, Ireland, the Channel Islands, and France.
After dropping our carry-on bags in cabin 7057, we ate a nice buffet lunch in the Oceanview dining room, deck 10 aft. After lunch, we returned to the cabin to find our bags. How nice! We were unpacked and settled in by 3:30. The emergency drill was at 4:15, so we went to it and then decided to eat an early dinner (both still tired from travel) and go to the 7 pm "welcome aboard" show.
So, at 6 pm we went to dinner at the Oceanview buffet, and mom ate pasta and I had Asian stir fry. We grabbed a table by the window and watched the view as we sailed along the English channel, talking about those who had swum across it. Very nice dinner.
The show in the Celebrity Theater was quite entertaining and provided a preview of the onboard entertainment. They had ten dancers and five singers—many more entertainers than I've seen on other large ships. Plus, a nice show band, string trio of young women, a pianist, two guitarists, etc. We agreed it looked very promising.
After the excellent show, we went to the Rendezvous lounge to listen to the dance band and see how many ballroom dancers were onboard. We were very pleasantly surprised to see at least a half dozen or more couples dancing, many of whom were very good. A couple from California joined us at our table. They had gotten onboard 12 days earlier for the crossing from Florida. They said they thought about 300 people were doing the back-to-back transatlantic plus British Isles. I'm sure retirees or those who have the time could do the transatlantic for about the price of the one-way airfare. This couple was staying on for a third leg when the ship would go to the Norwegian fjords, making their vacation a five-week one! They said they had met several other couples doing the same thing. We could tell they were "dancers" when they joined us since they both had their dancing shoes on. She told me she had brought three pairs of dancing shoes just in case something happened to one of them—very serious ballroom dancers.
It was after 9 pm by the time we got back to the cabin and after 10 by the time we both got showers, etc. We had a full day tour the next day in Le Havre to see the Normandy beaches and the famous 11th-century tapestry at Bayeux.
Normandy Beaches and American Cemetery
The next morning we were up at 6:30 am for our 11-hour, full-day excursion to the Normandy beaches and Bayeux. The ship docked at Le Havre, and unfortunately, it was rainy and cool. We donned our sweatshirts and raincoats and were off the ship by 8 am. The Celebrity Infinity had several other shore excursions available, including four trips to Paris, three to the Normandy beaches, and four to other French towns/attractions like Mont Saint Michel, Honfleur, Giverny, Rouen, Etretat, and Fecamp.
The bus drove inland for about 10 minutes before crossing the Seine River at the huge bridge built in 1995. The tides in the Seine go up and down about 26 feet per day, making bridge construction (and the D-day invasion) difficult. Le Havre was the last city recaptured by the Allies during the Overlord operation (we call the whole thing D-Day), and it was seriously bombed. The Allies captured Le Havre in September 1944, so the entire operation lasted over 100 days rather than the 20 originally estimated by the Allied generals.
Driving about 2 hours from the ship to Omaha beach, we rode through the Normandy countryside. It was really lovely, with many fields of the brilliant yellow rapeseed (canola) and blooming apple and other fruit trees. The green fields were covered with all sorts of French cattle--e.g. Charlois, Limousin, and Norman. This is the area where Camembert cheese comes from, as does the French apple cider and Calvados (apple brandy), which is made from the apple cider leftover at the end of the season.
We passed by the Normandy beach towns of Touville and Beauville and learned that this area is known as the flowered coast. It's much quieter (and cooler) than the French Riviera beaches on the Mediterranean.
We had a technical (bathroom) stop about 9:30 am and soon after passed through the town of Caen, which (like much of Normandy) is attached to William the Conqueror since it is the site where he is buried. William married his cousin Matilda, and the Pope excommunicated them both since this was forbidden by the church. To get back in the Pope's good graces, William and Matilda built two huge abbeys in Caen. Although they date back to the 11th century (William conquered Britain in 1066), we could see the towers from the bus. Caen is about 9 miles inland from the furthest east landing of the Allies in June 1944, which was at Sword beach.
The Allies chose the Normandy beaches since they were the least protected by the Germans. The Germans did not have this section of the beach defended as well as the other French coastline because the beaches were wide, with huge cliffs at the end, making the landing much more difficult. However, the Allies (led by Eisenhower and Montgomery) chose five beaches, giving them code names--Sword, Juno, and Gold (to be invaded by the British) and Omaha and Utah (USA landings). Utah is near Cherbourg, which is the deepest harbor other than Le Havre. The Allies also built two artificial harbors—Mulberry A (British) and Mulberry B (USA), to be floated across the channel and put in place near Arromanches.
The landing date was chosen because of the tides and weather. They wanted to land in the middle of the tide when the moon was full (beaches were too wide at low tide) and do it at about dawn. Only three days fit the tidal criteria—June 5, 6, or 7. If the weather wasn't good enough, they would have to wait until July. The landing battalions also needed a lot of help from the French Resistance in order to destroy the inland bridges/roads, etc.
German General Rommel came to Normandy from Africa at the end of 1943 and he immediately thought it wasn't well enough defended. He ordered millions of mines and other defenses (like Belgian gates to keep the tanks off) to put on the beaches. Rommel left Normandy on June 4 to go to Berlin for his wife's birthday on June 6. He also went to Berlin to see Hitler and ask for more armored divisions. Germans thought the landing would be at Calais in the north of France because of the many false signals the Allies gave out. So, many German tank groups and armored divisions were at Calais rather than Normandy.
It has been reported that a young telegraphist accidentally sent the message to the Resistance that June 6 was the day of the invasion, although Eisenhower had thought about canceling due to the awful weather. When the Resistance got the message, they began destroying the trains and bridges. The troop ships left England at midnight and the British paratroopers landed at a little after midnight on the eastern beaches. Simultaneously, the USA paratroopers were dropped on the western beaches. Eighteen thousand paratroopers landed. The Germans had flooded many of the best paratrooper landing areas, so some paratroopers didn't even survive the jump.
Bombings started at 6:00 am, and at 6:25 am the bombing stopped because the Americans had landed at Utah and Omaha at 6:30 am, which was the mid-rising tide at dawn. The English landed at 7:15 at Gold and Sword and at 8:15 on Juno. (It was a rocky beach and they needed to wait till the rocks were covered by the tide). Within a few hours, over 135,000 Allied troops had landed from 24,000 ships. Our guide said that about 80-90 percent of those who were among the first on Omaha Beach died. Omaha was the worst area to land. The others had the shore, a gentle slope and then the fields. Omaha had the highest cliffs, and the most experienced German soldiers defending Omaha.
Many who landed at Omaha were in too deep of water and either sank or were killed--losses at the start were over 90 percent. First hours of the landings were a disaster for the Allies. General Bradley (in charge of Omaha landing) almost abandoned the landing. He first asked for reinforcements at 9:10 am.
As you can see, we got a lot of details about the D-Day invasion while at Omaha Beach. From there, we drove to the American Cemetery where over 9,000 American soldiers who fought in Normandy are buried. It's a beautiful place, yet very solemn. The French gave the USA 172.5 acres in perpetuity, so our guide said it's actually American soil. The cemetery sits on the hilltop overlooking Omaha Beach, and American tax dollars have done a great job in keeping the grounds pristine. There's no entry fee, but you and your stuff do have to pass through a metal detector/x-ray like at the airport.
The Visitor Center has many interesting exhibits, videos, and photos detailing World War II and the battles at Normandy. There's also a 15-minute movie with old newsreels. We stayed at the cemetery about an hour or so, leaving at 12:30 for the lunch stop in Bayeux. We drove through the countryside on a narrow road (not wide enough for two buses to meet) and through Arromanches, where the Mulberry artificial harbor was.
Bayeux, France, and its Famous Tapestry
Lunch was at the Lion d'Or Hotel in Bayeux, and they served two buses from our ship on the tour. It was a very nice fixed lunch—an apertif of kir, followed by puff pastry with mussels, roasted chicken with potatoes and broccoli, and a lemon dessert. Since we were in France, the wine flowed freely.
After lunch, we went to see the famous Bayeux tapestry, which is actually an embroidery piece of wool thread on linen. It's 70 meters long (about 75 feet), but only about 18 inches tall. This tapestry was made to show the story of William the Conqueror (who was known as William the Bastard before he became king) and the history leading up to the battle of Hastings. Visitors wear earphones and the narration guides you along the tapestry. Walking slowly with the earphones takes about 20 minutes, and after that, we had almost two hours of free time. Mom and I went to the huge Bayeux Cathedral, which is done in the Gothic and Romanesque styles. Bayeux was a very nice French town, well worth a longer stay.
The bus was back at the ship by 7:30 pm, just in time to get ready for the Trellis Restaurant dinner at 8:30. We decided to check out our assigned table mates. Before dinner, we stopped by the Rendezvous Lounge to watch a little ballroom dancing and grab a drink to take to dinner. Our table mates turned out to be four couples from Opelika, AL, who were about my age or a little older. They were quite fun and we enjoyed many nice dinners with their group.
For dinner, I had tuna carpaccio, a nice Asian ginger consomme soup, and veal. Mom had a Waldorf salad and the veal. For dessert, mom had creme brulee and I had a chocolate melting cake that would have been much better if it had been hot. It was almost 10:30 by the time we finished dinner, so we rushed off to the ventriloquist show.
Guernsey in the Channel Islands
We didn't have a Celebrity Infinity shore excursion booked the day the ship was anchored off Guernsey, a British island off the coast of Brittany. The ship did have five tours: a walking tour of St. Peter Port, a drive around the island, a tour of the sites related to the German military occupation during World War II, a biking tour, and a powerboat ride in a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) around the island.
Although only 70 miles from Great Britain, this Channel Island is actually closer to France than to Britain, and many of the signs are in English and French. The Channel Islands were the only British territory occupied by Germany during World War II. The Germans took over the islands in 1940 and didn't leave until Germany surrendered in 1945.
Guernsey is about 24 square miles and has 60,000 permanent residents. Mom and I ate a leisurely breakfast, picked up tender tickets, and waited in the lounge about 30 minutes before our number was called. The tender ride to the pier was about 15-20 minutes and was very bumpy and slow. The town of St. Peter Port was cute and clean, with narrow winding streets stretching up the hillside from the busy harbor and many pedestrian-only streets lined with shops and cafes.
It was a sunny day, which was nice, but cold and windy. Mom and I just wandered around for a couple of hours, taking in the town. We sat in the sun (and out of the wind) on a small square, just watching the people. After walking around St. Peter Port, we headed back to the ship for a late lunch. While standing in line to wait for the tender (not as long as to get to the island), we found that some had taken a local bus ride around the island and found it to be very scenic. It is famous for its hiking trails and Guernsey cows. When the tide is low, parts of Guernsey have nice beaches.
After lunch, mom read her book and napped while I walked around the ship, booked our Celebrity transfer back to the airport, and just wandered the ship some. There was a Zumba class outside by the pool at 4 pm, but even though about a dozen of us showed up, it was canceled by the instructor because she thought it was too cold.
This was our first (of two) formal nights, so mom and I got dolled up and sat in a high traffic area by the Martini Bar for about an hour, watching the parade of formal (and not so formal) wear go by. Most guests were dressed up, but a few looked like they had drug their clothes out of the rag bag.
Dinner was very good. I had beef carpaccio, a spinach salad with blue cheese and cranberries, and rack of lamb. Mom got the same salad and the lamb. They also had a good looking steak on the menu and shrimp scampi, so it was a hard decision.
The "iBroadway" show in the Celebrity Theater was one of the best I've seen in a while. The ten dancers and five singers really put on a show, with music from many familiar musicals—Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Phantom, Mama Mia, Hairspray, and more. The a cappella quartet performed while people were getting settled for the big show, which was a nice touch.
The Celebrity Infinity would be docked in Cobh, Ireland the next day.
A Day in the Irish Town of Kinsale
It was another cold, windy day in Cobh (pronounced Cove), Ireland, which is the harbor town near Cork. County Cork certainly has many appealing things to do and see. Mom and I had booked a 4-hour afternoon tour from the Celebrity Infinity that included a drive through the Irish countryside and a long stopover in Kinsale, another Irish coastal town, but we had the morning free. The cruise ship had a very diverse mixture of shore excursions including two to Cork, one to Blarney Castle, a driving tour of the Irish countryside, a drive to Kinsale, and a walking tour of the Titanic-related monuments and sites in Cobh. Several of the tours included a stop for Irish coffee.
We ate a late breakfast (sticky bun sweet roll, fruit, and corn beef hash for mom; an omelet, muesli, and fruit for me. Then I walked into Cobh while mom took her book and went to the library and observation lounge on deck 11 forward. We had visited Cobh back in 2008 when we did a Royal Caribbean Jewel of the Seas family vacation cruise of the British Isles and Norwegian fjords itinerary. On that cruise, we spent the day in Cobh so this time we decided to venture out into the countryside to see more of this part of Ireland. The Titanic made its last port of call in Cobh, and the town claims to have the second largest natural harbor in the world.
While on my walk, I saw many of the same things we had seen in 2008—the huge church, the monuments to the Titanic and the first Irish citizen who immigrated to the USA and arrived on Ellis Island, and the many colorful houses. I was back on the ship in time for lunch (of course). We had a mixture of foods for lunch—Asian noodles and a hot Cuban sandwich. Mom and I were out on the pier as instructed at 2:15, and it was very chaotic. Not sure why they didn't have us meet in the theater—must have been a dozen buses going to three different locations, with some of the tours leaving at 2:15 and others like ours at 2:30. People were getting a little irritated by the time it was all sorted out.
We rode on the bus with our chattering guide. The drive from Cobh to Kinsale was about an hour and quite picturesque—exactly the way you picture the Irish countryside--green and hilly. We saw many tidal rivers, and since it was low tide, most of what we saw was mud flats and just the river channel. Many birds were on the rivers or the river banks—swans, egrets, ducks, and herons. According to the guide, they also see whales sometimes. The tides are over 10 feet. Trees stretched almost all the way across the road and the bus windows were sometimes scraped by the branches. Very nice drive.
Before going into Kinsale, we stopped at the Charles Fort. Kinsale has played an important role in Irish history and was once even occupied by the Spanish. I won't go into the history of Kinsale, but I'll have to admit I was pretty ignorant about the area. other than the Titanic connection. We had an hour's free time in Kinsale (4 to 5 pm). It's very touristy, and mom and I browsed in a few shops, but they were way too expensive for us. So we found a small cafe with free WiFi and enjoyed a latte (mom) and a hot chocolate (me) while I downloaded the email to my iPhone.
It started raining while we were on the bus back to Cobh, so we couldn't see much. Lucky for us, it stopped by the time we reached the ship. I was a little disappointed that I missed the Zumba class (indoors this time at 4 pm) and the Irish dancing show (5 pm) that we had enjoyed so much the last time we were in Cobh.
We cleaned up and went to the magician/comedian show at 7 pm. He was quite silly/funny, and those who love slapstick comedy like my brother Rick would have been rolling in the aisles. After the show, we went back to the Martini Bar, and the waiter remembered my name from the previous night, plus our drink requests. I think he is bucking for a promotion, but it's really an impressive memory for such a large ship.
Dinner was at 8:30. We had an enjoyable dinner. I had shrimp cocktail, a wedge salad, and steak. Mom had the shrimp cocktail and the veggie couscous dish. Since the ship had sailed, we browsed the shops a little before going to bed at about 11 pm. The next day we would be in Dublin.
The next day the Celebrity Infinity was in Dublin. The day started off gray, but the sun actually came out in the late morning, and we ended up with a nice day. It was still a "two-jacket" layering day, but we didn't even carry our umbrellas.
After a leisurely breakfast, we waited for the tours to leave before heading outside to catch the shuttle bus at 9:30. Cruise ships usually have a shuttle from an industrial pier (like Dublin's) into the city center, but they are often not advertised. The luxury ships don't charge for the shuttle, but mainstream ones like Celebrity do. This shuttle was 10 euros round trip, which was well worth it. We were able to purchase a combination ticket that included a ride on the hop-on, hop-off bus (HOHO) for 16 euros each additional.
By the time we stood in line to get the tickets and filled up the shuttle bus, it was about 10:30 when we arrived at the shuttle drop off point near Trinity College in downtown Dublin. One of the disadvantages to exploring "on your own" is how inefficient it can be. Of course, organized tours are inefficient too, if you are constantly waiting on someone. We found the HOHO bus stop and got on a bus. No riding outside on this cool day, so we sat downstairs on our first bus. I had wanted to visit the Guinness Storehouse (brewery), so we rode from stop 3 to stop 14 to get off the bus. The ride was through some of the residential and retail sections of the city, and we passed by most everywhere we had walked during a visit to Dublin 5 years before. The ship had a tour to the brewery for $62 each, but the Guinness Storehouse entry fee for seniors was only 13 euros. So we ended up paying 10+16+13=39 euros (or about $50 each), and we had the use of the HOHO bus to have a tour of Dublin the rest of the day, too. Since we hadn't purchased tickets in advance, we did have to wait in line for about 15 minutes.
In addition to the Guinness tour, the ship had a guided bus tour of Dublin, a walking and pub tour of Dublin, a bus tour of Dublin, the Irish countryside, and Glendalough, a tour of Malahide Castle that included a visit to an Irish pub, and even a Segway tour of Phoenix Park.
The Guinness brewery tour was nice but more education-focused and not as fun as the Heineken Experience tour in Amsterdam. The exhibits of old beer bottles and advertising campaigns reminded me of the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta. The tour is self-guided (even those from the ship tour had to guide themselves) and spread over several floors.
Mr. Arthur Guinness started the brewery in 1759, and he rented a huge tract of land in Dublin for his facility and warehouses with access to the waterfront. He negotiated a good deal—45 pounds a year for 9,000 years. The signed lease is displayed prominently in the brewery. He started out brewing ale and stout, but dropped the ale and focused on stout only. The lease is one of the world's best deals, but since Guinness remains the #1 private employer in Ireland, the country has benefited by the continued monopoly. Mr. Guinness and his wife raised their 21 children in a large house on the same property as the brewery, so he could even walk to work.
Basically, stout (like all beers) is relatively easy to make with its four ingredients—water, barley, yeast, and hops. The most popular part of the tour is the free pint of Guinness you can drink at any of the bars (your entry ticket gets you the pint). Most people ride the elevator to the top of the building on the seventh floor to the Gravity Bar, a circular room with great views over Dublin, especially on our sunny day. The room was packed, but we found a seat to sip about 1/2 pint each of our beer (a whole pint was too much at lunchtime for us when we hadn't eaten).
We got back on the bus and completed the circle tour around the city on the HOHO bus. This time we got a seat in the enclosed section up top, which had much better views. One bus stop on the outskirts of town was the famous Kilmainham Gaol (jail) where many political prisoners from the uprisings in the early 1900s were kept. It's now a museum and one of the "must-sees" in the city. We also rode through Phoenix Park, a huge park where the zoo is located, and learned that Dublin has a very successful lion-breeding program. Even the MGM lion of the 1920s came from Dublin. We rode by the U.S. Ambassador's house (very nice), which was one of only two homes in the park, the other being the president of Ireland.
We saw the giant Spire of Dublin right in the downtown retail area. Many of the Irish think it is kind of ugly, and it certainly is more modern and dramatic than its surroundings. Got off the bus where we started—at stop 3. Surprisingly, there was no line for the shuttle, so we were back on the ship by about 3:30 pm.
Mom and I split a quick lunch at the pool, then we headed back to the cabin to rest a little before our dinner at the Qsine specialty restaurant at 6:30. I loved this venue on the Infinity. It's on deck 11 and has great views of the sea. Since we were sailing away from Dublin, it was especially enjoyable. The Qsine menu is quirky and displayed on an iPad. There are 22 items on the menu, and you scroll through and add your choices to "my favorites." The server takes the iPad menu and goes over your order before turning it into the galley. They also have wine (glass, 1/2 bottle, or bottle) or specialty mixed drinks for sale. The waiter suggested we order 4-6 menu items to split for the two of us, so we picked five plus a glass of wine apiece. The presentation of the dishes was innovative and exciting and even better than the taste. I think it's more fun to dine with 4-6 people so you can try even more dishes. We had a shrimp dish, hot crab, tacos with guacamole we made at the table, a Chinese sampler with six different items, and spring rolls. Really a memorable place to dine, and unlike anything else at sea (other than on the Celebrity ships with the venue).
The next day we would be back in England, visiting Liverpool on the western coast near Wales.
Medieval Town of Conwy in North Wales
The Celebrity Infinity sailed into Liverpool early the next morning. Our full-day tour from Liverpool to northern Wales left early. I'd never been to Wales and wanted to see some of the countryside since we had been in the city of Dublin all day the day before.
After breakfast, we went down to the theater to wait for our tour at 8:15. Six buses were going on the same tour! Guess the Welsh countryside would be busy. Other shore excursions included a tour linked to the Titanic, city tours of Liverpool or Chester, and two Beatles-focused tours. We left the ship and took the big tunnel under the Mersey River made famous by the song "Ferry Cross the Mersey." There are two Mersey River tunnels—the one we used was dedicated by Queen Elizabeth in 1977, the other was built in the 1930s. The older tunnel is harder to drive through since when the engineers reached bedrock too hard to drill through, they just went around. So the old tunnel winds around some under the river. However, it's impressive that using the technology of over 80 years ago, they started digging the tunnel on both sides of the river and met just one inch shy of where it should have been.
We rode down through the Wirral peninsula before entering Wales, where immediately the signs became bi-lingual—Welsh and English. Wales is famous for its unusual language, which is missing some of the letters we use in Englsh, plus has some of its own (like a "ff" and "ll" and "dd" that have different sounds.)
The bus drove along the shore to the town of Conwy (pronounced Conway), which has a 13th-century medieval castle. We arrived in Conwy about 10 am and stayed till noon. I was really wishing we could see the Welsh town with 52 letters, but it's in a different part of the country. The castle was interesting and much different than Windsor was just a week before. I've seen castles in many countries, but this was the first English one outside of London and Windsor.
After our tour of the castle, we had free time.. We enjoyed walking around the little town, seeing the "smallest house in England," which was smaller than many tree houses.
The bus continued on towards the region of Snowdonia National Park.
Lunch in Betws-y-Coed and a Drive Through North Wales
Back on the bus at noon, we rode to Betws-y-coed, a small village on the edge of the Snowdonia mountains. It looked like many alpine villages. The drive through the Conwy river valley was quite scenic, with rolling green hills filled with sheep, mountains in the distance, and small rivers running alongside the roads. Lunch was at a hotel—cold salmon and Asian noodle appetizer, lamb, potatoes, carrots, and broccoli, and then fresh strawberries with clotted cream for dessert.
The sun came out when we were eating lunch, so it was nice to walk around with our hour's free time and explore the shops. We left Betws-y-coed about 2:45 pm and took a different route back through Snowdonia over the moors. The elevation went up and up to about 532 meters (over 1500 feet), before heading back down. The moors were just as I expected--very bleak and covered with heather, which doesn't bloom until August. Many sheep were grazing, but the grassy areas were spread around, with most of the land brown or almost black with the dark heather.
We were back on the Celebrity Infinity by 5 pm after a very nice day in Wales.
Mom and I went for a drink at the Martini bar before the 7 pm show since we had "missed" it the night before when dining at Qsine. Randy our barman remembered us again. The show was with the 15 singers and dancers and was another good one. Music mostly from the '70s with lots of energy and costume changes.
Dinner was in the Trellis Dining Room with our Alabama friends. I had a very rich creamy polenta with parmesan cheese and mushroom appetizer, followed by a chopped salad with yummy lemon dressing, grilled salmon, and Grand Marnier souffle with vanilla sauce. Mom was much better, eating a shrimp cocktail, prosciutto and melon, soup, and the souffle.
We strolled through the bars to watch some dancing and the shops to see what was the sale for the day, but didn't dawdle anywhere and were in bed before midnight. The next day the Celebrity Infinity would be in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
The Celebrity Infinity was docked in Belfast the next morning, and my age group is old enough to remember the "troubles" between the counties in Northern Ireland and those in the Republic of Ireland in the south in the 1960s. The conflict really started over 400 years ago when Britain encouraged Protestants to settle in the Catholic country. The minority Protestants controlled the entire island until the earth 20th century when a fierce guerrilla war (fought mostly around 1916-1920) resulted in independence and the independence of the Irish Free State in 1921 by 26 of the island's 32 counties. The 6 mostly Protestant counties of the northern part of the island voted to remain a part of Great Britain. The Irish Free State was part of the British Commonwealth (like Canada) until 1949 when the country cut all ties with Britain to become the Republic of Ireland. In 2011, Queen Elizabeth went to the Republic of Ireland to mend some of the fences and attempt to heal some of the wounds still remaining from the horrible conflicts of the early 20th century. She was the first British monarch to visit since 1911— a hundred years before.
The six northern counties formed a new country—Northern Ireland—and are a part of Great Britain like England, Scotland, and Wales. However, about 35 percent of Northern Ireland is Catholic, and these citizens want to be part of the Republic of Ireland. Although on the surface it looks like a conflict between Catholics and Protestants, it's really a conflict between the Unionists (mostly Protestant) who want to remain a part of Great Britain and its Union and the mostly Catholic Nationalists who want to be a part of the Republic of Ireland like the rest of the island.
We all remember the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and all of its terrorist activities of the 1960s. This group was partly inspired by the civil rights movement of the USA. After a lot of bitter battles, Britain sent in the troops in 1969 and they are still there. For many years, Belfast had army checkpoints, and you couldn't drive into the city without going through one. The worst year was 1972, with over 500 people killed, and over 3000 have died in the past 40 years. It's kind of odd that the fighting elements (IRA and the UVF or Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force) declared a cease-fire in 1994, and it's mostly stuck. Many political prisoners were released in 2000, and the peace remains. The city has no checkpoints and is now embracing tourism. Of course, the basic issues between the Unionists and the Nationalists remain, but I guess the terrorist leaders were either killed or sufficiently mollified. Today the country is one of the safest in the world for tourists.
The Celebrity Infinity had three tours of Belfast, three scenic drives of the Northern Ireland countryside, and a tour of the sites in Belfast related to the Titanic. Since mom and I inadvertently ended up on an every-other-day organized shore excursion, we were on our own in Belfast. This worked out well since the city had a free shuttle into the city center that dropped us off right across from the Belfast visitor center. This visitor center was very helpful and had a map and other useful information, plus free WiFi (if you brought your own phone or computer). It was 1 pound if you used their computers. Although we waited until after 10 am to go into town, the city was still very quiet and shut down on a Sunday morning. The lady at the visitor's center suggested we might enjoy the local market, which was open on Sunday, so we decided to explore the city a little on foot (it was flat) and head in the general direction of the market. The huge City Hall dominates the main square, but it was closed on Sunday. It does have a nice Titanic monument. White Star Lines built the Titanic in Belfast and was once headquartered in Belfast, as was Cunard Line before it moved to Southampton.
We strolled around the city center, and I made photos of the City Hall, Titanic monument, opera house, and the Crown Liquor Saloon, a famous old bar that is now part of the Historic Trust. Unfortunately, it was closed on a Sunday morning. The downtown area was so quiet that we had no traffic to contend with.
We easily found the St. George's Market, which was well worth the visit. It's really a combination flea market, handicrafts, and local foods—much like the weekend festivals we have at home, but it is indoors and happens every Sunday. This was a very fun market, so we wandered around a little and then bought a coffee, diet coke, and hot raspberry/yogurt scone. After finding a small table to enjoy our snack, a local family from Belfast joined us in the busy "food court" since we had extra chairs. They were fun to talk with, and it's always nice to interact with locals.
The funniest thing happened in the market. While enjoying our snack, a small band set up in the food court, and we thought we were going to settle down for some Irish music. Imagine our surprise when the first song they played was "I'm an Okie from Muskogee", and then proceeded to play a selection of country & western music.
After finishing our snack and chat with the Irish family, we left the market and returned to the visitor center, where I downloaded the mail on to my phone using their WiFi before re-boarding the shuttle for the trip back to the ship, where we arrived about 1:30.
After lunch of pasta for mom and fish and chips for me, we relaxed a little before I went to the Zumba class at 4 pm. This was my first chance to attend the class since the first day that was canceled. They had the classes most every day at 4 pm in the Constellation lounge (observation lounge), and in the mornings on the main stage of the Celebrity Theater when the ship was at sea. I wasn't surprised that the choreography of the dances was less complex and the level of intensity lower than the class I attend at home. After all, we were on a cruise ship and had to allow for the rolling of the ship and the most newbie attendees. However, the classes were well attended and popular.
We had drinks in the Martini Bar, followed by a good show by a British pianist/singer named Claire Maidin. She was a better pianist than singer but very entertaining. She had on a bright red tutu-like dress that was a little longer than a tutu but still had the very flared skirt. She said she had a weakness for shoes, and it showed. She was wearing bright blue, 5-inch heels with about a 2-inch platform. The blue shoes were adorned with the Union Jack, making them very patriotic. She was trained as a classical pianist but learned she could make more money by being more commercial.
After the show, we strolled back to watch the ballroom dancers before heading off to dinner. As usual, we enjoyed the dinner. I had a poached pear with Gorgonzola cheese in a puff pastry, a mesclun salad, and broiled sea bass. Mom had the pear, a beef consomme, and a surf & turf. Her steak was particularly good, and several of us at the table helped her polish it off. Mom skipped dessert as usual, and I had boring chocolate ice cream, which was good (as always).
Off to bed by 11 pm. The next day would be an early/busy day since our tour to Edinburgh left at 7:45.
A Day in Edinburgh
We were off to breakfast by 6:30 the next morning since our full-day tour was from Greenock, where the Celebrity Infinity was docked, to Edinburgh (pronounced Ed-in-bur-row), about a 73-mile journey away. Scotland only has two deep water ports—on the west side of Scotland at Greenock, which is near Glasgow, Scotland's largest city on the Clyde River; and Invergordon, the port for Inverness on the north side of the country. The ship had tours to Glasgow, the southern part of the Scottish Highlands, and to Edinburgh. Mom and I chose "Edinburgh on Your Own." We always like the "on your own" tours since we get transportation, but can do our own thing when we get there.
The bus left right on time, and we were in Edinburgh before 10 am, which gave us 4.5 hours in the city since we had to re-board the bus at 2:30 pm. We had a guide/escort on board who gave us some basic information, provided maps, etc. The bus dropped us on Waterloo Place, very near the Information center in the Princes Mall shopping center and the old Calton Road cemetery.
We first stopped at the tourist information office to grab a better map and use the toilet. The tourist office didn't have a public toilet but directed us to one in the food court of the mall next door. It was a nice one but cost 20 pence. We spent the next couple of hours on High Street, which is usually called the Royal Mile since it links Edinburgh Castle with the Palace of Holyrood House, the official royal residence in Edinburgh. Many of the buildings in this old part of the town date back to the Middle Ages. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was meeting in Edinburgh the week we visited, so Holyrood was closed.
Mom and I took our time walking up to Edinburgh Castle, stopping on one side of the street to browse in the shops, take photos, etc. We went into St. Giles Cathedral, which was lovely, but I was too cheap to pay 2 pounds to take photos. The Thistle Chapel was especially impressive, with its many tributes to the Knights of the Order of the Thistle. Certainly not as well known as the Knights of Malta.
We got to the castle a few minutes before 11 am, just in time to see the changing of the guard. The castle was packed and the line horrendous, so we decided to pass rather than wait. (If we had been sure we were going inside, I could have bought tickets online before we left home.) It is a huge castle, with sections dating from the 12th to the 20th century.
We did some more browsing and photo taking on the opposite side of the street on the way back down. I was very proud that mom made it all the way to the top. She didn't think she would, and I didn't either! We crossed over the North Bridge back towards the new town and walked a couple of blocks from the Princes Street (the main street of the New Town, which dates back to the 18th century). Our guide had told us there were many pubs and nice lunch spots on Rose Street, so we headed there. The day had turned from a 2-jacket day into a no-jacket day—the sun was out and it was warm enough to strip down and put on the sunglasses. Mom and I found a nice outdoor cafe in a small garden. We enjoyed a Scottish beer (of course) and split a goat cheese/caramelized onion/black olive pizza. Forgot to add that we took a break about 11 am to sit on some steps, rest, and eat part of a bag of Walker shortbread cookies, which mom and I both love.
After lunch, it was about 1:15, so we headed over to the nearby Princes Street Gardens to check out the lovely spring flowers and enjoy some more of the sunshine. I got a wild hair to walk up to the top of the Sir Walter Scott Monument in the park. This 200-foot monument was completed in 1844, and it's 287 steps to the top. The staircase was very narrow and winding, but it did have three places to stop and walk out on the balconies. Passing other people was funny since you had to get very friendly to get by. The views of Edinburgh were spectacular, and mom was happy to hold all my coats and rain gear while I hiked up. They charge four pounds for the "pleasure" of walking to the top, but you get a certificate of completion, plus burn a few of those shortbread and beer calories off.
By the time we swung by the bathroom in the mall, it was time to head back to the bus. We left Edinburgh about 2:40 and arrived back at the ship about 4:30, just in time to go to the Scottish music show that featured three dancers (two girls and a guy), a male singer, a female fiddler/singer, a pianist, accordion player, three bagpipers (of course), and a drummer. Very nice show, but was surprised that the young male dancer had on his white briefs under his kilt (they were very obvious when he danced). The girls had on black panties, as did the older male singer who also did a little Highland dancing. Can't help but wonder if the young guy forgot to put on the black ones. At least I now know what some Scots wear under their kilts— tidy whities.
After the show, mom and I went for a drink at the Martini Bar, and then she decided to just eat upstairs at the buffet. One of the things I love about cruising—those traveling together don't have to do everything together! So, I went with her and ate freshly-made sushi while she had the Asian Wok/stir fry. Very nice snack for me. After mom's dinner, we were back in the cabin by 7:00 pm, which gave me plenty of time to shower and clean up for my second dinner. We skipped the British female comedian show but heard it was good, although some of her impersonations were funnier to the British than to the Americans. I went to dinner in the Trellis Restaurant at 8:30 and had a summer roll with chili sauce (hot, but tasty), gazpacho soup that I didn't care for—it was a fruit base rather than tomato—and veal medallions. Nice evening.
When I got back to the cabin about 10:30, mom was already asleep. I didn't read long before going asleep myself. We got to sleep in the next day—our first sea day.
Invergordon, Scotland - Gateway to Inverness
After seven port days in a row, we finally had our first full day at sea on the Celebrity Infinity. It was cloudy and cool, about the same as the rest of this mid-May cruise. Since it wasn't even windy, the North Sea was relatively calm, which made the day at sea even more enjoyable. We passed by islands on both sides of the ship much of the day and sailed relatively close to Scotland's Isle of Skye. From the ship, the Scottish highlands looked as wild and barren as I expected.
After a leisurely breakfast, I went to a 9:15 Zumba class on the main stage in the Celebrity Theater. Always fun to meet people from around the world who share my same interests—even if it is exercise. I also spent some time photographing the ship, while mom took her book and found quiet places to read. In the afternoon, we both took naps and then I went to the afternoon Zumba class. Since the classes were only 30-45 minutes, it was time to quit about the time I got warmed up.
In the evening, we had our "usual" routine—a martini (green apple for mom, cucumber for me) at the Martini Bar, followed by another excellent show from the 15 singers and dancers and the aerialist couple. This one was music from around the world, and mom and I had visited all the countries they touched on—Thailand, Argentina, USA, Ireland, Russia, and France. The show seemed to focus more on the dancers, and they did a good job on a variety of dances—can-can, Irish stepping, tango, etc. Following the 7 pm show, we watched the ballroom dancing for a little bit and then ate dinner in the Trellis Restaurant.
Since it was formal night, everyone looked great, and the dining room was packed. They had a nice selection of dishes. I got a blue cheese souffle (very good, but way too rich and too large of a serving), Caesar salad, and the Caribbean lobster. Mom had shrimp cocktail, French onion soup, and the lobster. The lobster was not as good as Maine lobster but was a larger size than I've had elsewhere and the chef didn't overcook it. Some of our tablemates got the beef Wellington and said it was very good. The most popular appetizer was the oysters Rockefeller, and most of us got the baked Alaska for dessert. Celebrity doesn't have a parade of singing waiters, but we did all cheer for them and the chefs.
The next day the Celebrity Infinity would be at Invergordon, the port for Inverness and Loch Ness.
The Celebrity Infinity docked in Invergordon at about 7 am. This small town of about 3500 is the other deep water port in Scotland (the first is Greenock where we were earlier on the cruise). It's about 25 miles from Inverness, the unofficial capital of the Highlands, and the largest city in the region.
Mom and I had a tour at 1 pm so we ate a big breakfast and skipped lunch. After breakfast, I picked up a map of Invergordon from the front desk and went ashore. It was sunny but very windy and cold. I had on all three of my jackets, plus stocking cap and gloves. It was nice to do a brisk walk for about an hour or so. I first walked into the wind and got my face very chapped despite the sunscreen/lotion on it. The citizens of the little town have painted murals on the ends of many of the buildings, so walking down the main street was interesting. I headed out of town towards the golf course and got some great photos of the snow-capped mountains on the western side of Scotland about 50 miles away. When I turned around, I got this great push from the wind along the sidewalk, which made me walk much more briskly. However, I still got caught in a spring shower for about a block before I could duck into a grocery store.
The rain didn't last long, but it did last long enough for me to buy two small bags of the shortbread cookies mom and I like so much. These were a generic store brand, but with 32 percent butter, I figured they would be good, despite the price, which was 1/2 of the famous Walker's brand. When we tasted them back on the ship, they were just as good.
I was back on the ship by about 11 am, and then mom and I left the ship for the tour about 12:15, leaving enough time to check out the souvenir shops on the edge of town at the end of the pier.
Looking for the Loch Ness Monster at Urquhart Castle
No, we didn't see Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, which was a little disappointing. We did see a "model" alongside the road, but it was clearly fake. However, it was still a fun day in Scotland.
The tour was a good one, but the microphone on our bus was faulty, so all of us in the back (and probably the front) had a hard time hearing and understanding our guide. Fortunately, technical issues like that one happen only rarely. We rode down along the Cromarty Firth (bay) to Inverness and did a short driving tour around the city before heading off to Loch Ness. We saw some gray seals basking in the sun along the banks of the firth.
Inverness has a nice big castle and is also the site of the famous Battle of Culloden, the last battle ever fought on the island of Great Britain. Those of you who have read the Outlander series of books by Diana Gabaldon would love to drive around this part of Scotland where the books are set. Although Gabaldon lives in Scottsdale, she travels to Scotland frequently to publicize her books and do readings.
Leaving Inverness, we drove down along the Ness River, checking out the fly fishermen who were wading in the river. The road followed the river straight to the Loch Ness, which was formed by a glacier and is over 800 feet deep in some places. It's a beautiful lake, and since the weird weather continued, we got to see this famous lake in the sun, rain, sleet, and hail--all in about an hour! We stopped at the ruins of Urquhart Castle, which is over 1000 years old. The ruins overlook the lake, and rumor has it that Nessie (the Loch Ness monster) lives in a subterranean cavern under the castle. The castle wouldn't probably look quite as decrepit as it does if the family who owned it in 1789 had not blown up the castle on purpose rather than let it be taken over by raiders.
We stayed at the castle for about 1.5 hours and then drove back through the Highlands and along the moors to the ship. Only a small part of the drive along the Cromarty Firth was repetitive. Like in Ireland and elsewhere in Scotland, we saw lots of gorse blooming. This brilliant yellow bush is similar to broom. It's weed-like and considered a nuisance, but it sure was pretty scattered across the hillsides. It's also called furze, win, or ulex.
We got back to the ship at about 6:00 and missed the 5:00 Scottish music show. That's two shows we missed because of being on tours, but at least we did get to see one Scottish show. I should know that you can't do everything on a cruise. Mom decided to skip late dinner, so I went upstairs with her and ate sushi while she had dinner. Then, we went to the 7 pm show, which was an excellent singer named Jack Walker. He had a gorgeous voice and a nice mixture of songs—operatic to pop ('60s and this century) to show tunes. After the show, I went to dinner at the Trellis Restaurant and mom took her book and read until I got back to the cabin after dinner.
The next day we would be at sea, which would allow plenty of time to pack and get ready to head home.
Harwich - British Isles Cruise Embarkaton and Debarkation Port
Our last full day on the Celebrity Infinity was another windy and a cold one. Seas were rough, but not enough to make anyone sick. After a light breakfast, I went to Zumba and then took the remaining photos I needed of the ship. Mom found a place to read her book. The ship had a scrumptious Trellis Restaurant brunch from 10 to 1, but we waited until about noon to go and just ate lunch there. It was a terrific buffet, with all the breakfast favorites, but also lunch stuff like boiled shrimp, sushi, Asian wok, and a variety of meats/veggies. They also had a chocolate fountain and a wide range of desserts. Needless to say, after eating all that, I was glad I had gone to Zumba!
After lunch, mom and I went to watch the Q&A with the fifteen-member production staff. This group was so good, it was fun to learn more about them. Thirteen of the fifteen were from the British Isles (Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England) and two were from New York City. Most were very young and on their first contract with Celebrity Cruises. They had just boarded the ship a few weeks ago and had a six-month contract. The cruise director said they set a record for the highest "guest questionnaire" comments, with almost a perfect "excellent" rating, and I believe it. They all work for a British entertainment company who designs all the shows, costumes, etc. Celebrity cannot change anything, not even the volume! Like most cruise ships, the Celebrity production shows run for about 5-6 years.
The cruise director said that in addition to the British company, Celebrity contracts with two other companies for entertainment. The shows are almost identical on all the Millennium-class ships (Millennium, Infinity, Summit), but are different on the Solstice class. On many ships, the cast has dressers who help them with costume changes, but this group acted like they were responsible for their own changes. They put a towel on the floor and then stack the costumes and accessories on top of each other. They do have separate changing rooms for girls and guys. After the 7 pm show, they have to go backstage and sort out all the costumes and re-stack them for the 9 pm show!
After the Q&A, we went back to the cabin, and mom started packing. I went to the 4 pm Zumba class since I figured I needed some more exercise after all the eating and drinking I've been doing. The seas were pretty rough, and this class was at the deck 11 observation lounge (the morning one was on the deck 4 main stage). We rocked and rolled and danced "uphill and downhill." Joan (the instructor) toned down the steps a lot to keep people from falling. Still a better workout than lying on my bed and watching mom pack.
We went for a farewell martini (cucumber for me and apple for mom) and then saw the 7 pm farewell show. It lasted a whole hour and featured many of the entertainers we had enjoyed on our 11-day cruise. Dinner with the Alabama crowd was another fun night. We really enjoyed getting to know them. I had a cold veal appetizer, Greek salad, and crab-crusted flounder. Mom had the Greek salad and flounder. I had hot apple crumble with vanilla ice cream and mom passed on dessert. It was a great last dinner on the ship (like all of them had been).
Back in the cabin by 10:15, and bags outside the door by 10:45, just ahead of the 11 pm deadline. Time for bed since we had a 5:45 am wake up call!
Debarkation in Harwich
The Celebrity Infinity docked very early in Harwich to help expedite debarkation. Some guests had arranged private transfers, others took the train that stopped right across the street from the dock, and many took one of the three transfers offered by Celebrity. Two of the transfers were called shore excursions and included sightseeing in either London or Windsor before drop-off at Heathrow. We took the third option—a Celebrity transfer directly back to Heathrow Airport. Arriving at Terminal 4, we grabbed a cart and pushed our bags back to the same Hilton Hotel we had stayed in prior to the cruise. The transfer worked out perfectly, and we settled into the room to rest up for our flight home the next day. This hotel met all our requirements for a layover hotel, and it was very relaxing to just walk to the terminal the next day to check in for our flight home. No taxis or transportation issues.
It was another cold and rainy day in the UK, perfect for relaxing and reminiscing about the terrific cruise. Having sailed on the Celebrity Infinity in South America six years before, it was especially fun and interesting to see the changes made to the ship when she was Solsticized. The designers did an excellent job of fitting the new venues into the existing space. This cruise ship seems to have it all—great itineraries, comfortable cabins, many onboard amenities, good dining options, and excellent staff.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary cruise accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.