Europe -- A Grade A Vacation

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It's hard to beat a vacation in the British Isles and Europe for an overall great vacation. You can trust the water, the food and things usually work.

The trains run on time, there are good bus schedules and frequent flights between the cities.

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Visiting some of Great Britain's great castles was one of the treats of Ken Brooks' recent trip.

A couple of weeks ago we chose to spend a few days in London, and then board one of our favorite ships, Voyages of Discovery's comfortable Discovery.

While in London we saw two shows, "Pygmalion" and the musical "Wicked." London, like New York, is loaded with entertainment. All you have to do is pick that which interests you.

We took a boat ride on the Thames River through the heart of London, went to the British Museum for a morning and enjoyed eating in local restaurants. One day we took a train to Windsor, about 20 miles from London, and visited the castle and surrounding area. This is a beautiful and historical area which is not to be missed. We enjoyed tea in a little tea room near the castle. The building in which the shop was located was almost 600 years old and had been the home of one of the king's mistresses.

After London, we transferred by coach to the port of Harwich to board the Discovery. We have sailed on this ship several times because it holds only 600 passengers and is like a private club at sea. It's easy to make friends, the crew is extra friendly and the food and accommodations are very nice.

Upon sailing from England we entered a very calm English Channel, headed north into the North Sea bound for Norway. After a day at sea we sailed into the beautiful fjords common to western Norway and visited three areas. Norway is more beautiful than I expected. We saw green, high mountains capped with snow, many waterfalls, tranquil, small farms with small cottages and barns. We stopped at several points to go inland.

The Geiranger fjord is probably the most famous and it deserves its fame. It's hard to describe the beauty of the high mountains dropping straight into the water. This area was formed during the last ice age. From one point we took a coach up 6,000 feet into thick snow to a large, ice-covered lake. The temperature outside was 12 degrees.

The roads are very winding, but the scenery is some of the most outstanding I have seen anywhere.

The Norwegian people are most friendly with plenty of smiles and ready to help with whatever your need may be.

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Ancient buildings abound in Great Britain and Europe. With a visit to a castle, tourists almost always get to enjoy expansive grounds and gardens as well. And many, such as Windsor Castle (below) are surrounded by quaint shops lining narrow streets.

We rode several trains to various locations and took lunch one day in the small town of Voss. We enjoyed one of the best buffet lunches I have ever feasted on. Salmon prepared in various ways was but one of the selections.

We cruised into the beautiful city of Bergen, second largest in Norway. Some 350,000 people live in this seaside community. We were fortunate to enjoy a clear and warm day here and took a cable car to the top of a mountain to get a wonderful overview.

I never saw trash anywhere I visited in Norway, which made me wish my own area was as clean.

After a day's sail we docked in Lerwick, the main port for the Shetland Islands located at the top of Scotland. These islands are 100 miles off the north coast of mainland Scotland. We're talking very north here. The land has few trees, experiences poor weather year-round and is known mostly for the Shetland pony. Most of the buildings and homes are constructed of stone and are unpainted. Since there are almost no trees, they build with what they have -- stone. The overall look is rather bleak, but the people are friendly and seemed pleased to welcome visitors from afar. They make their livings mostly from fishing, but there are some here devoted to supporting the offshore oil industry.

Our next port was Invergordon, which is the principal distribution port in the north of Scotland. From here you go inland to the scenic highlands to drive through spectacular countryside with farms, villages and even some castles.

After lunch at an upscale hotel, we visited famed Loch Ness. The lake is 22 miles long, situated in the rolling hills of this tranquil area. At a lakeside stop we purchased gifts for friends back home, but there were no sightings of the monster.

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Norway had its share of quaint buildings too, along with breathtaking beauty and a refreshing cleanliness.

Sailing south, the Discovery docked at Leith, the port for Edinburgh. There is much to see in this historic city and with only one day, we decided to take a tour to cram in as much as possible. Edinburgh Castle clings dramatically to its rock as the ancient buildings ramble down the spine of the Royal Mile to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. We visited both castles. They are filled with history, exciting interiors and sprawling gardens. Downtown along Princess Street gives you the buzz of the city as people quickly move from one place to the other. This is the largest city in Scotland and loaded with history.

Docked next to our ship was the retired Royal Yacht Britannia. This ship is some 400 feet in length and was commissioned by Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It gave some 700 voyages to the royal family between its commissioning and its retirement in 1997. One can go aboard this finely crafted vessel and walk all over its exteriors and inside visit the public and private quarters of the royal family. What surprised me was the fact that the d├ęcor was rather simple. I expected it to be more lavishly furnished.

Then, all good things have to come to an end as the good ship Discovery pulled into its berth at Harwich for our debarking. The cruise line furnished our transportation to the London airport and we flew home with our photos and memories of a vacation we'll never forget.

The U.S. dollar is sinking into the sunset in relation to its exchange rate in Europe. Be prepared to spend a lot of money on a vacation to Europe and U.K. A decent hotel in London will cost you at least $500 per night. You can spend less, but you will get less. This is one reason we chose a cruise for most of our vacation. You pay at least 90 percent of the cost of your trip up front before you leave home. We like Voyages of Discovery because the ship is smaller than most today and there aren't hordes of people in the towns with you during shore excursions. Some of these mammoth-size ships deposit 2,000 to 3,500 people in a port at a time. On our cruise we were lucky to not be in port when these giants pulled in.

Europe is good all year. Warm in summer, cool in winter. But always great.

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