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Cruising In Europe

Doing Europe sans backpacks  Sep 21, 2008

Cruising in Europe is rapidly gaining in popularity -- it's coming close to matching Alaska as a favored destination in the summer -- and there's good reasons.

It's hard to beat cruising as the choice to sample multiple destinations since you're without the hassle of packing and unpacking and can enjoy the comfort of staying nightly on a luxury cruise ship.

While other segments of the travel industry are finding it difficult to offset the economic turndown in the U.S. -- other parts of the world now, as well -- European cruising is on the upswing. European cruise industry spokespersons say more than 3.6 million passengers this year are expected to start their cruise from a European port, and that market now accounts for nearly one-quarter of all cruises booked globally.

Cruising the British Isles is among the most popular of European cruises, and 57 southern Minnesotans -- booked on the 21st cruise sponsored by the Post-Bulletin -- can attest to that.

The 2,300-mile journey (Aug. 15-30) that took cruisers to England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland -- plus a day in France -- was aboard Princess Cruises' luxury liner, the Grand Princess.

The majestic city of London, one of the most-visited cities in the world, was both the starting and end point of the 15-day trip. We scheduled a two-day visit there prior to the cruise, and it was well worth it.

Most of the group opted for an all-day "Total London Experience" tour, which included a tour of the city's fabled West End, Westminster Abbey, Household Cavalry Museum, Buckingham Palace and one of the most photographic events in the world -- the Changing of the Guard -- along with visits to the Convent Garden, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Tower of London -- featuring the Crown Jewels -- and the London Eye.

The eye is a new gimmick to London's sightseeing scene. Built as a millennium attraction in 2000, the giant observation wheel was primarily sponsored by British Airways. Passengers in 20-person capsules soar some 400 feet above the ground for a startling panoramic view of the city.

London, as one might expect, was a prime attraction on the trip but certainly not the only one.

First stop aboard the 2,500 passenger Grand Princess -- which was home to some 150 more persons than the ship's listed capacity -- was Ireland's gateway port, Cork. The first scheduled stop, at Guernsey Island, was canceled because of high seas.

Which brings us to the weather: It was typical British Isles in the late summer. A usual day went something like this, not necessarily in this order: A light shower, some sunshine, and some clouds, with this menu seemingly rotating through the day. Temperatures were usually in the mid to high 60s, ideal for touring, most of our group thought.

The stay at Cork was followed by a stop at Dublin, with its myriad of popular shore excursions. Next was Liverpool, England -- the European City of Culture this year plus popular "Beatles Story" shops and exhibits as an attraction. After that, it was Scotland and the industrial center of Glasgow.

Next port stop was Belfast and fast-economically developing Northern Ireland. That city's renaissance since the cease-fire between the warring Catholics and Protestants is startling to say the least.

Highland castles and the magic of Scotland -- including a visit to Loch Ness, home to the legend of the Monster, followed. Next on the itinerary was the Scottish port city of South Queennsferry, the gateway to mighty Edinburgh, the political, commercial and cultural heart of that country.

We felt the best of the cruise was left to the last. That was a stop at the French port of Le Havre, where passengers had a choice of spending the day in either Paris or Normandy. What a hard choice that was.

The flight to London's Heathrow Airport -- the largest in Europe -- was via Northwest Airlines and its new non-stop service there from Minneapolis-St. Paul International.

Doing Europe sans backpacks

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