It was my first visit to the UK and I was on a mission to experience all aspects of its diverse culture. While most people might head straight for London, I knew that would be cheating. My trip coincided with the Paralympic Torch Relay so, inspired by this year’s Olympic spirit, I set out to follow the flame around the UK’s four capital cities. Armed with a plane ticket, my suitcase and just eight days to complete my goal, I pumped my fist in the air and embarked on a trip that I’ll never forget.
Fab views in Northern Ireland
My first stop was Belfast, where I soaked in the scenic beauty of the green hills and flocks of grazing sheep on the drive from the airport as the friendly taxi driver regaled me with stories. I checked into the Hilton Belfast, a five-star hotel overlooking the River Lagan that has hosted the likes of Rihanna, Chris Brown and the Clintons. My room offered views of the Belfast Harbour and in the distance I could see the rolling mountains stretching to the horizon. But this was just the beginning.
Belfast’s best feature is the liveliness of its night life. I met up with the group I was travelling with and on our first night we headed straight out for a dose of typical Northern Irish culture. The city was bursting with tourists and locals who were welcoming the weekend. Inside the many pubs and restaurants the revellers were out in full force dancing the night away to music from live bands.
The next morning I stumbled upon one of the city’s best-kept secrets, St George’s Market, which is a showcase for local items from seafood and fresh-baked breads to handmade crafts. I made my way around the stalls picking up souvenirs and grabbed a bite at one the live cooking counters. By the time I came out the sun was playing peak-a-boo with the clouds and it was getting warmer.
Back with my travelling companions, our tour took us to the Botanical Gardens, Queen’s University of Ireland, Belfast Cathedral, Leaning Tower of Belfast and Belfast City Hall, where the Paralympic torch was going to be lit at night. The city hall is also home to the Titanic Memorial Garden and Monument, where the names of those who perished when the Titanic sank are inscribed.
Our guide, Billy, clearly loves his city and was eager to educate us in everything from the Normans landing in Ireland around 1169 to tectonic plates. Did you know that Scotland and the north of Ireland were part of the North American plate, while the south of Ireland and England were part of Europe? Well, go back to your O level geography notes.
In another bit of historical trivia, did you know that the Titanic had a twin sister? And did you know that she was built in Belfast? We topped up our knowledge at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, where we saw Titanic: The Exhibition, which showcases over 500 original artefacts.
Then we walked to an exhibition called Titanica: The People’s Story in the outdoor Folk Museum, where we were welcomed by costumed tour guides who took us through villages complete with farms and churches for a life-size experience of how things were back when the Titanic was built.
In the afternoon we drove up the hill to Culloden Estate and Spa to fuel up. Set in secluded gardens and overlooking the Belfast Lough, the hotel is well-known for its afternoon teas. I enjoyed the treat of scones, sandwiches, fruit and pastries – and I have Anna Maria Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, to thank for it. Legend has it that in the early 19th century Anna complained to her butler about a “sinking feeling” during the late afternoon and, with dinner time a long way off, he’d prepare tea and a light snack to stave off her hunger. Anna invited friends over to her boudoir for the afternoon snack and thus high tea was born.
A royal jaunt in bonny Scotland
On my third day in the UK, I was on a plane to Edinburgh. The views from the sky were stunning and they were equally matched by the hospitality we received from our guide Charles Hunter – who arrived wearing a kilt for the occasion – upon landing at the Edinburgh International Airport.
First up we visited the Edinburgh Book Festival for a literary fix. There were many big names including English novelist Mark Billingham who spoke about his new Tom Thorne thriller. We also enjoyed poetry readings and music performances at an event organised by Scottish publishing house Luath Press. Gastronomic delights awaited us at the Rhubarb Restaurant at Prestonfield House Hotel. The surroundings were great and the place oozed opulence and comfort.
The next morning a short walk from Apex Waterloo Place Hotel where we were staying took me to the famous Royal Mile, which is bounded on one end by Holyrood Palace, originally a mediaeval monastery, which serves as The Queen’s official residence in Scotland, and on the other by Edinburgh Castle. Which way to go? The imposing castle standing atop a mountain like a sentinel guarding the city won. Then it started raining – I braved the showers for a few minutes, but decided it was time to go back to the hotel, I couldn’t risk catching a cold and aborting the mission.
Edinburgh’s offerings are endless, but its crown jewel is the Britannia, the last royal yacht moored at the Ocean Terminal in Leith. The Royal Yacht Britannia is a floating palace that served the British Royal Family for over 40 years. A 15-minute drive from Edinburgh city centre and you step into the 1950s and get a glimpse of how the royals lived on board. The highlights of the tour included the elegant bedrooms, the Rolls-Royce that travelled with them, the barge that featured in the Jubilee celebrations, the crew’s quarters and the engine room at the bottom.
After exploring we sat down for snacks in the Royal Deck Tea Room, which was originally used by the royal family for deck games and entertaining, where they now serve tea or coffee with scones and cakes.
I decided I couldn’t leave Scotland without getting myself a kilt. We drove back to the city centre in heavy traffic. The warbling sound of bagpipes echoing through the streets provided perfect background music as I hopped from one shop to another in search for the kilt. It set me back £50 (Dh295) although they threw in a matching scarf. With my Scottish souvenir in hand, the clock was ticking and I had to say goodbye to Scotland and catch a flight to Wales.
By the afternoon on my fourth day I’d already made a lot of progress and was glad to be hitting my third capital. The Cardiff Hilton was bustling as it was hosting the Australian Paralympic team.
In the evening we took a coach to Cardiff Bay for the Paralympic Flame Festival. With several cultural venues, including the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay has established itself as a centre for arts and culture and offers a vibrant nightlife. Being home to the Welsh Assembly building it is also a political hot spot. This area also boasts amazing architecture, from Victorian structures to 21st-century designs, it has it all.
The next day we started our tour at the Cardiff Castle – which boasts 2,000 years of history and has served as a Roman garrison, a Norman stronghold and a Victorian Gothic fantasy land and then took a zigzaggy walk through the streets. With cobbled streets full of character, Cardiff is a wonderful shopping haven that boasts several arcades in the city centre, which have lots of quirky offerings and vintage clothes.
A short bus ride took us to Cardiff Bay for a tour of parliament. Just down the road is The Doctor Who Experience, an exhibition about the UK’s long-running science fiction television series. Outside people were posing in front of a blue phone booth and it beat me why people would make such a fuss about a booth! Ignorant me – that was no ordinary phone booth; it was a replica of Dr Who’s famous time-travelling spacecraft, the Tardis. The exhibition is located next door to the BBC’s Roath Lock Studios in Cardiff where the show is filmed. The Dr Who Experience features props, original costumes and other memorabilia from the series. Since the series has been running for nearly five decades, The Dr Doctor Who Experience attracts viewers both young and old and is a great destination for families.
For the next leg of my British tour we swapped air travel for a road trip. The English countryside is lush and green, and there were many beautiful views to look at along the way. En route to London, we reached Stoke Mandeville by late afternoon, the birthplace of the Paralympics.
We had chips and sandwiches at a cosy roadside restaurant before proceeding to the stadium. There was a carnival atmosphere – the arena was packed and the entertainment lively. Then the flames from the four capitals arrived and the whole stadium erupted into cheers.
We hopped back on the bus and four hours later we reached London.
I had a good night’s sleep at the Royal Horseguards Hotel. This five-star hotel in Whitehall lives up to its name – during my stay there I saw many guards patrolling the streets on horseback.
The next day I visited the Science Museum where I couldn’t take my eyes off the Apollo 10 command module. Next up was the National Theatre, but the highlight was watching the Paralympics Official Opening Ceremony at the Olympic Stadium. The skies held back and the atmosphere was exciting. On the following day after watching swimming at the Aquatic Centre I still had time to kill, so I walked around and found myself inside the largest mall in Europe, the Westfield Stratford City. The £1.45 billion shopping centre boasts more than 300 shops, 70 restaurants, a 14-screen cinema, three hotels and Britain’s largest casino.
And if you still haven’t sated your appetite for shopping, there’s more in store. One street that stands out as a must-visit shopping destination is the infamous Oxford Street.
A trip to London would not be complete without a visit to Buckingham Palace, so that’s where we headed on my last day. Everything there was amazing, but the highlight was the Diamonds: A Jubilee Celebration exhibition (which unfortunately, is now closed), which showcased diamonds that have been collected over 200 years and Her Majesty’s personal jewels. I’d never seen so much exquisite bling from all over the world in one place.
After packing in all this I still managed to go on a relaxing cruise along the Thames River. I got to see many attractions like The Tower of London, the Millennium Footbridge, Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. With my London Pass (www.londonpass.co.uk) I got VIP treatment. The good news is the London Pass can also be used for entry at 55 other attractions including museums and art galleries, historic buildings and monuments.
After this whirlwind tour, it was mission accomplished. I left the UK but I’m definitely going back.
For more information see www.visitbritain.co.uk