Category: United Kingdom (Page 1 of 2)

Just because the Journey into Darkness team are based in the United Kingdom doesn’t mean we don’t know a thing or two about travelling in our home nation.

The Night Before Sailing

Departure port: Southampton
Destinations: La Rochelle, Bilbao, A Coruña, St Peter’s Port
Cruise Line: Princess Cruises

Today we’re heading off on our fifth cruise – a trip around the Bay of Biscay with Princess Cruises.

It has become a tradition that we now overnight in Southampton before each sailing. Linda says it is ‘less stressful’ if we drive down early because there is no chance of getting caught in a traffic jam and missing our ship.

And given that the drive from Essex took more than three hours, she’s probably right.

So we’re checked in to the Premier Inn Southampton West Quay. We’ve stayed here before and it’s still nothing special. The beds are decent however, which is a bonus seeing as hotel rooms in the city are trading for £140+ tonight.

After parking in the West Quay car park (£5 per night – bargain) and checking in, we head over to the shopping centre for some dinner. Lin says the cocktails are good at Bill’s so we manage to snag a table on what seems to be a very busy Saturday night.

Dinner turns out to be decent – lobster and seafood linguine for Lin, truffle chicken two ways for me. Washed down with a Peroni (me) and a Pimms-type cocktail for Lin.

After dinner we don’t mess around. It’s been a long day – and tomorrow will probably be longer still. Bed.

Top tip: The West Quay car park is good value – and right next to the Premier Inn (and the Moxy). We’ve never yet had a problem parking there.

Bonus tip: If you don’t mind walking a potentially significant distance with your suitcases, the West Quay car park is a far cheaper option for cruise parking than any of the “official” services at the docks. Or you could get a taxi.

Get to the boat

After checking out of the Premier Inn, it’s a short drive down to the Mayflower Terminal where we will be boarding the Sky Princess. We’ve booked with CPS who meet us at the terminal, take a few pics of the car and then drive it away for safe keeping as we sail around the North Atlantic.

Check-in for the cruise is relatively smooth after showing our passport, Covid pass and proof of a negative test (taken yesterday morning). Princess is one of the few cruise lines still demanding travellers hold a valid Covid pass, vaccines and pre-boarding tests – hopefully they follow the rest of the industry and quietly drop these requirements in the very near future. Security is (as always) a pain. But then we’re scanning our Medallions and boarding the ship.

Top tip: DO NOT arrive before the embarkation time specified in the Princess Medallion App and in your email confirmation. You just screw up the boarding process for everyone else.

We’ve booked a mini suite on Deck 15 (Marina!) and it is well appointed, as we have come to expect from Princess. There’s plenty of room around our king size bed and a separate sofa to sprawl on when we’ve had enough sprawling on the bed. The balcony is quite small, but we mostly lean over the rail to watch the world/sea go by, so that’s no problem.

Top tip: You cannot hear the ship’s announcements in your cabin stateroom when the door is closed. But if you select the ‘Bridge Cam’ channel on your TV, you will be able to hear the announcements perfectly.

Sky Princess is the cruise line’s flagship, but it varies little from the other Royal-class ships in the fleet. That’s not a bad thing though – the place is immaculate with an army of staff to clean and to cater to the needs of the guests.

Overnight we will be sailing to our first destination – La Rochelle in France. This gives us time to take lunch and dinner and do a whole lot of nothing. Especially as the ship’s clock moves forward one hour overnight to synchronise with the local time in France.

Top tip: Until Princess drops their pre-departure testing and Covid pass requirement, you can get 30% off the ‘medically observed’ tests at DocHQ using the code RETURN30 at the checkout.

Bonus tip: You can make your medically observed test even cheaper by buying your own tests in advance. Superdrug sell the ‘approved’ Flowflex tests for less than £2 each.

Guernsey – Found it at last!

This is our second trip to Guernsey this year – just as well we liked it last time. The trip into anchorage is always interesting, cruising past small rocky outcrops with Alderney and Sark clearly visible in the distance.

We also really like the journey into town on the tenders. We’re lucky to score a seat on the roof – and the weather is spectacular for the 20 minute trip.

On our previous trip we spent a significant amount of time trying (and failing) to find two geocaches. So our first stop is to have another go. The first is located in the middle of a construction site, so that’s out of the question. Then we fail to find the second. Again.

Demoralised we head back into town to check out the VAT-free shopping. We buy nothing. Instead we drop into the Albion House Tavern for a local beer which is welcome.

Having run out of things to do, we decide to have one last stab at the geocache – and we finally find it! Our trip to Guernsey has not been totally wasted.

Top tip: Your medallion is magnetic and will be useful for solving this particular geocache puzzle

Sadly this is our last night onboard Sky Princess. Tomorrow we will wake up in Southampton and it will be time to drive home 🙁

QE Poo

Breakfast done, we’re told we can leave Sky Princess immediately, rather than wait for our group to be called. There’s a long queue to disembark. Then there’s a long trek through the Queen Elizabeth II terminal – sadly it is not as opulent or pleasant as its namesake.

In fact, the QE2 terminal is a bit of a dump.

Once we’ve collected our suitcases, things go from bad to worse. Large crowds of people have arrived for the next sailing long before their embarkation time and they are clogging up the entrance. People leaving cannot get past other people arriving and the whole place is a mess.

Top tip: DO NOT arrive at the Queen Elizabeth II terminal before the embarkation time specified in the Medallion App and in your email confirmation. You just screw up the boarding AND disembarkation process for everyone else. And you waste your day sitting in an over-glorified shed.

And if the disembarkation process wasn’t bad enough, a series of accidents means it takes more than five hours to get home.

Next stop, Norway.

A night at the Moxy

Departure port: Southampton
Destinations: Oslo, Copenhagen, Skagen
Cruise Line: Princess Cruises

We had a decent journey down to Southampton, taking just 2.5 hours. Before checking into the hotel we drive down to the Town Quay car park so we can watch the MSC Virtuosa sail. We’re considering booking a cruise on the ship in December, so we’d like to see what she looks like – and to catch what turns out to be a decent sunset.

She’s big.

Afterwards, we go back to the West Quay car park, using the ‘secret’ back door on level 1 to exit into the car park behind the Moxy hotel.

We’re both tired and can’t be bothered to go hunting for food, so we opt to eat a pizza in the Moxy ‘restaurant’. £10 is a lot for a frozen pizza, but such is the cost of convenience – at least they have beer on draught.

The room is comfortable and familiar (we have stayed here before). Unfortunately we have a rear-facing room – great for keeping traffic noise out, but you can’t see the ships that dock at City Terminal in the morning.


Top tip: Unless you’re an avid collector of Marriott Bonvoy hotel points, book through ebookers or to get the best rates – you should be able to pick up a room for about £70 if you book in advance. Plus you will earn cash back or points through their loyalty schemes too.

Come sail away

There’s only one ship in town today, so the roads around Southampton are far less busy. Embarkation at City Terminal is smooth and painless – especially as we have now reached Platinum status with Princess Cruises. This entitles us to priority boarding, which is nice. There is also no longer any need to provide proof of a negative Covid test, which dramatically speeds up the check-in process.

Onboard, and everything feels very familiar. We have a sandwich and a cocktail, visit our cabin stateroom, enjoy the ‘complimentary’ glass of bubbles and head down to the dining room for lunch. Later we go out on deck to witness our departure from port to the strains of Styx’s classic Come Sail Away.

Later after dinner we visit the Vista Lounge in the hope of playing in the quiz being hosted by celebrity chef, John Torode. It’s standing room only, so we head back to our stateroom and watch a movie instead.

Tomorrow is a sea day, so everyone onboard is hitting the bars hard. Things could be messy at breakfast.


Silverstone, UK – Day 1

When offered weekend passes for the British Touring Car Championships at Silverstone, it wasn’t a hard decision. Even if it meant booking a hotel at the last minute.

The drive into the ‘heart’ of England was unremarkable and we arrived just after 8:30am. We met our host from Team Dynamics at the gate and made the long walk from the car park to the pit lane. Early on Saturday it’s quite clear no one is quite sure what is happening – including the ITV crew who are here to broadcast races tomorrow.

There is a full programme of events today including some ‘real’ races. The touring cars will have two free practice sessions in the morning. Later in the afternoon there is a qualifying session which will determine grid placement in the first proper race tomorrow.

Having toured the pits we make our way to a grassy bank at the end of the home straight to watch the first practice session. The noise is immense!

When the session ends we stop for a coffee and a bacon roll from one of the many burger vans. One roll sets me back £5.

Top tip: Food and drink is extremely expensive at Silverstone. Expect to spend £10-£11 for a burger, ~£4 for chips and £6.50+ for beer. If you’re on a budget, you can bring your own picnic.

Later on in the day we learn that grandstand access is unrestricted. If you have a paddock pass, you can take a seat in any of the open stands. We snag some decent seats on the Copse Corner bend which gives a great view of the Start/Finish line, home straight and the first bend where much of the action takes place during a race.

The racing is entertaining and we stay until the end of the touring car qualification. With places settled, we make our way back to the car and on to our hotel for the night.

The Paisley Pear in Brackley is just six miles from Silverstone racetrack, which will be handy for tomorrow. Operated by Marston Inns, you check in at the pub next door – if you can get someone’s attention. It takes a while to get anyone to acknowledge our presence.

We have been allocated an accessible room on the ground floor of the hotel. It looks much like a Travelodge – nothing special at all. And definitely not worth £130 as charged by Revolut (or even £119 after cash back). £50-£60 would have been fair, but that’s the price you pay for late bookings.

Top tip: If you book direct with Marston Inns, you will get 20% off your food bill in the restaurant next door.

We decide to eat in the pub restaurant, which appears to be very popular with locals. The staff aren’t keen on giving us a table, even though we are staying in the hotel. Not a great start.

We end up ordering three courses. The food is decent and very filling. The service is sullen and unwelcoming. Given that there is nowhere else to eat within walking distance of the hotel however, you don’t have a lot of choice.

Really we’re just here to crash. Race day tomorrow!

Silverstone, UK – Day 2

We’re up and out of the hotel by 8:30am so we can get to the racetrack before the action starts. It is much busier today and we have to queue to get into the car park – and again to get onto the track. There is a definite sense of excitement among the crowd which is much, much larger than yesterday.

Top tip: You are allowed to take your own folding seats. This is great if you don’t like standing for long periods and don’t think you can get into a grandstand.

We head towards the merchandise store to buy a beanie hat each. It’s grey and breezy and very cold, so a warm head covering will be welcome! We make another pass by the Team Dynamics garage to thank them for organising our tickets. Then it’s back to the grandstand at Copse Corner to catch the end of the Porsche Challenge – and the first touring car race of the day.

There’s plenty of action and excitement. A big screen has been erected on the other side of the track too, allowing us to see what’s happening elsewhere on the track. It’s great – we don’t miss a thing.

Because the Silverstone complex is so large, you spend a lot of time wandering between garages, food outlets and various other promotional displays. We end up walking a long way and the periods between races goes quite quickly.

Top tip: The drivers are generally quite happy to sign autographs and programmes if you hang around the garages between races.

For Race 2 we’ve also been given grid access tickets. This allows us onto the hallowed Silverstone Grand Prix track. We walk between the various cars and chat with some of the pit crew. It’s great to get up close to the racers as they go through their final preparations.

Top tip: Speak to some of the crews when you walk through the pit lane – they can arrange grid access passes for you. Sometimes you may even be able to pick them up for free.

Because there’s no time to get back trackside, we’re invited to watch the second race on the TV in the Team Dynamics garage. This adds a whole new element of excitement – especially as their driver finishes third.

Afterwards we head to the Pit Stop Café for some food and a beer. We end up with butter chicken with rice, poppadum and onion bhajis (£11). It’s actually pretty decent albeit a little cold.

For the final race we head back to our favourite grandstand on Copse Corner. The third and final race of the day is crazy as the drivers all push themselves to the limit. There’s crashes and spins and aggression as the competition to be named BTCC 2022 Champion enters the final stages. The race is very exciting – as is the fact that no one will claim the crown today – that will be decided in the final meet of the season at Brands Hatch next month. I’m quite disappointed we won’t be able to go to that.

Afterwards, it’s a very long walk back to the car park. And the queue to leave the car park. And the queue to leave the town of Silverstone. We end up taking a very long detour home – and it’s still faster than the direct M1 route.

Motorsport has never really been our thing, but this weekend has been great. We would definitely do it again if the opportunity presents itself.

Next stop, London Heathrow

Twas the night before Heathrow

Because we will not be returning by the way we departed, this trip is a little different to normal. We’re flying out to New York from Heathrow to pick up our ship, Sky Princess, then sailing back to Southampton via the Eastern Seaboard. This means that we can’t park at the airport like we would normally.

Instead, we catch the National Express coach from Marks Tey (via Stansted). The journey is relatively straightforward, but there are a few things to note:

  • Tickets are cheap. Like really cheap. Much cheaper than parking at Heathrow for a week.
  • The coach stop at Marks Tey is not marked as such. Check for the location on the National Express website first which has a handy, precise map display for every stop on their network.
  • The coach has free WiFi on board. It is rubbish.
  • Journey time is slightly longer than driving yourself, but the coach stops right at the terminals in Heathrow. For us, we thought that was a decent trade-off.
  • You can earn all-important Avios points by booking through the BA Executive shopping site.

When travelling from Heathrow on an early flight, we typically stay at a local hotel the night before. This makes choosing a hotel somewhat tricky because you have to park somewhere overnight, and then find a way to get to the terminal in the morning. We avoid taxis because they are ridiculously expensive for a 5 minute ride to the airport. 

So far we have found four ways to reach Heathrow, each with their own complications.

  1. Choose a hotel on Bath Road
    This involves catching the “Heathrow Hoppa” bus from the terminal to the hotel. Reverse the process next day. Problem? The Hoppa may not start early enough in the morning to get you to the airport on time.
  2. Book parking with Purple Parking
    The long stay Purple Parking carpark is within easy walking distance of some of the Bath Road hotels, most notably the Premier Inn. Park up the night before and walk to your hotel. In the morning, walk back to the carpark and catch the free shuttle bus to your terminal. Problem? It can take quite a while to get to and from the terminals.
  3. Book official parking
    Similar to above, park the previous day and catch the included shuttle bus to your terminal. Problem? Your choice of hotels is limited to those within easy walking distance of the actual terminals. This includes Yotel and Hilton Garden Inn (Terminal 2 and 3), Sofitel (Terminal 5) and Holiday Inn Express (Terminal 4) – all of which tend to be quite expensive because of their location. The runway view from the Hilton Garden Inn bar is amazing though, so…
  4. Stay at the Thistle Hotel
    Heathrow has an unusual driverless transport system that runs to one of their ‘business class’ carparks. The Thistle Hotel Terminal 5 is located behind said carpark and they have an agreement with Heathrow to allow their guests to use the pods to get there. Problem? You need a code to get through the gate between car park and hotel – which will cost you £6 per person each way.

We decided to try option 4 this time for three reasons. First, the pods look like fun. Second, we were able to pick up a room at the Thistle for just £54 on, allowing you to earn Avios on the stay using BA Executive Club. Third, this seems to be a really hassle-free ending to our journey.

Top tip: You can ride the pods at Heathrow for free – just press the button to return to the terminal when you reach the end of the line.

Once at Heathrow, we make our way to Level 2 and the Pod Parking station. These self-driving pods are quite good fun and take just five minutes to reach the car park. The gate into the Thistle Hotel is easy to find and we are buzzed through by reception. It’s a bit of a walk with our suitcases to the front desk, but once there we are checked in in a matter of minutes. As an added bonus we are not charged for the inbound journey on the Pod.

Top tip: The Pods are not an option for guests at other nearby hotels like the Premier Inn. This is an exclusive agreement with Heathrow so Thistle staff will not sell gate access to non-guests.

We’re assigned room 173 on the first floor which is a bit of a pain when travelling with three suitcases. It’s quite a walk from reception and involves a few flights of stairs (there is no lift in that part of the building). However, the room does have a runway view which is brilliant. We’ve stayed in a ground floor room at the back of the Thistle before and it was very tired. This room is a bit knocked about, but the bathroom is nicer this time.

Later we head into the restaurant to watch the planes, consume some beers and have some dinner. Beers are ~£7 a pint. Expect to spend approx £15 on a main course. Lin says her steak and ale pie is good and I enjoy my bangers and mash which makes the bill a little more palatable.

Afterwards we head across the road to McDonalds for dessert. It’s busy but very, very efficient. It’s also much cheaper (and just as enjoyable) as dessert at the hotel restaurant.

That’s pretty much it. Next stop, New York.

Down South again

Departure port: Southampton
Destinations: Hamburg, Zeebrugge, Rotterdam, Le Havre
Cruise Line: MSC

This time we’re doing something different and trying MSC Cruises. The surprisingly low fares, coupled with the fact that they are the only operator still running cruises out of the UK at this time of year makes MSC the obvious choice for a short break.

MSC ships leave Southampton later in the evening, so there’s no need to stay in town the night before. Instead we take a leisurely daytime drive down without any major headaches.

Once in town we had planned to stop for lunch in the Westquay Shopping Centre. As we head up from the carpark, I remember there’s an escape room across the road, so we forget about lunch and head over to Locked in a Room instead. The venue is deserted and we are able to walk straight in. We choose Parallax which turns out to be the hardest room of the two on offer but we do manage to escape with six minutes to spare. The theming is great and the games masters really get into character – we have a great time (much better than a KFC).

Top tip: Look under everything.

Afterwards we stop for a Krispy Kreme donut and drive to the port (after much hassle trying to pay for parking). MSC sail from the Horizon Terminal which would be an easy walk from the city centre.

Our first sighting of the MSC Virtuosa moored in Southampton
First ‘glimpse’ of the MSC Virtuosa

Parking is right outside the terminal which is great. The journey through the terminal is smooth and hassle-free – none of the grief we have come to expect when sailing Princess Cruises. No queueing, no shoving, no complaining – incredible.

Once onboard, the sheer size of the ship becomes apparent. With a max passenger capacity of 6334 (+ crew), this place is enormous. There’s plenty of glitz and shiny stuff, much to Linda’s excitement.

Top tip: MSC offer a status match program, so if you’ve achieved status on another line, use the form here to apply for the MSC equivalent. Our Platinum Captain’s Circle status on Princess equates to ‘Gold’ level on MSC.

The cabin stateroom itself is nice, although the MSC experience lacks much of the polish we have come to associate with Princess. This is particularly true when it comes to tannoy announcements which are given in five or six languages, dragging on for several minutes at a time.

That said, we’re looking forward to our latest adventure…

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