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Southampton is England's leading passenger port. It is rich in historic embarkations, from Henry V's fleet bound for France and the battle of Agincourt to the Mayflower, the ill-fated Titanic, and the maiden voyages of the great ocean liners of the 20th century such as the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth 2. Parts of the town center can seem mundane, having been hastily rebuilt after World War II bombing, but bits of the city's history emerge from between modern buildings. The Old Town retains its medieval feel, and some remnants of the old castellated town walls remain. Other attractions include a decent art gallery, extensive parks, and a couple of good museums. The Southampton Boat Show, a 10-day event in mid-September, draws huge crowds.
The bustle of this resort town's fishing harbor, yachting center, and commercial port only adds to its charm. In the 18th century Falmouth was the main mail-boat port for North America, and in Flushing, a village across the inlet, you can see the slate-covered houses built by prosperous mail-boat captains. A ferry service now links the two towns. On Custom House Quay, off Arwenack Street, is the King's Pipe, an oven in which seized contraband was burned.
Dublin is making a comeback. The decade-long "Celtic Tiger" boom era was quickly followed by the Great Recession, but The Recovery has finally taken a precarious hold. For visitors, this newer and wiser Dublin has become one of western Europe's most popular and delightful urban destinations. Whether or not you're out to enjoy the old or new Dublin, you'll find it a colossally entertaining city, all the more astonishing considering its intimate size.
It is ironic and telling that James Joyce chose Dublin as the setting for his famous Ulysses, Dubliners, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man because it was a "center of paralysis" where nothing much ever changed. Which only proves that even the greats get it wrong sometimes. Indeed, if Joyce were to return to his once-genteel hometown today—disappointed with the city's provincial outlook, he left it in 1902 at the age of 20—and take a quasi-Homeric odyssey through the city (as he so famously does in Ulysses), would he even recognize Dublin as his "Dear Dirty Dumpling, foostherfather of fingalls and dotthergills"?
For instance, what would he make of Temple Bar—the city's erstwhile down-at-the-heels neighborhood, now crammed with cafés and trendy hotels and suffused with a nonstop, international-party atmosphere? Or the simple sophistication of the open-air restaurants of the tiny Italian Quarter (named Quartier Bloom after his own creation), complete with sultry tango lessons? Or of the hot–cool Irishness, where every aspect of Celtic culture results in sold-out theaters, from Once, the cult indie movie and Broadway hit, to Riverdance, the old Irish mass-jig recast as a Las Vegas extravaganza? Plus, the resurrected Joyce might be stirred by the songs of Hozier, fired up by the sultry acting of Michael Fassbender, and moved by the award-winning novels of Colum McCann. As for Ireland's capital, it's packed with elegant shops and hotels, theaters, galleries, coffeehouses, and a stunning variety of new, creative little restaurants can be found on almost every street in Dublin, transforming the provincial city that suffocated Joyce into a place almost as cosmopolitan as the Paris to which he fled. And the locals are a hell of a lot more fun!
Now that the economy has finally turned a corner, Dublin citizens can cast a cool eye over the last 20 crazy years. Some argue that the boomtown transformation of their heretofore-tranquil city has permanently affected its spirit and character. These skeptics (skepticism long being a favorite pastime in the capital city) await the outcome of "Dublin: The Sequel," and their greatest fear is the possibility that the tattered old lady on the Liffey has become a little less unique, a little more like everywhere else.
Oh ye of little faith: the rare ole gem that is Dublin is far from buried. The fundamentals—the Georgian elegance of Merrion Square, the Norman drama of Christ Church Cathedral, the foamy pint at an atmospheric pub—are still on hand to gratify. Most of all, there are the locals themselves: the nod and grin when you catch their eye on the street, the eagerness to hear half your life story before they tell you all of theirs, and their paradoxically dark but warm sense of humor. It's expected that 2016 will be an extra-special year in the capital, as centenary celebrations of the fateful 1916 Easter Rising will dominate much of the cultural calendar.
Before English and Scottish settlers arrived in the 1600s, Belfast was a tiny village called Béal Feirste ("sandbank ford") belonging to Ulster's ancient O'Neill clan. With the advent of the Plantation period (when settlers arrived in the 1600s), Sir Arthur Chichester, from Devon in southwestern England, received the city from the English Crown, and his son was made Earl of Donegall. Huguenots fleeing persecution from France settled near here, bringing their valuable linen-work skills. In the 18th century, Belfast underwent a phenomenal expansion—its population doubled every 10 years, despite an ever-present sectarian divide. Although the Anglican gentry despised the Presbyterian artisans—who, in turn, distrusted the native Catholics—Belfast's growth continued at a dizzying speed. The city was a great Victorian success story, an industrial boomtown whose prosperity was built on trade, especially linen and shipbuilding. Famously (or infamously), the Titanic was built here, giving Belfast, for a time, the nickname "Titanic Town." Having laid the foundation stone of the city's university in 1845, Queen Victoria returned to Belfast in 1849 (she is recalled in the names of buildings, streets, bars, monuments, and other places around the city), and in the same year, the university opened under the name Queen's College. Nearly 40 years later, in 1888, Victoria granted Belfast its city charter. Today its population is nearly 300,000, tourist numbers have increased, and this dramatically transformed city is enjoying an unparalleled renaissance.
This is all a welcome change from the period when news about Belfast meant reports about "the Troubles." Since the 1994 ceasefire, Northern Ireland's capital city has benefited from major hotel investment, gentrified quaysides (or strands), a sophisticated new performing arts center, and major initiatives to boost tourism. Although the 1996 bombing of offices at Canary Wharf in London disrupted the 1994 peace agreement, the ceasefire was officially reestablished on July 20, 1997, and this embattled city began its quest for a newfound identity.
Since 2008, the city has restored all its major public buildings such as museums, churches, theaters, City Hall, Ulster Hall—and even the glorious Crown Bar—spending millions of pounds on its built heritage. A gaol that at the height of the Troubles held some of the most notorious murderers involved in paramilitary violence is now a major visitor attraction.
Belfast's city center is made up of three roughly contiguous areas that are easy to navigate on foot. From the south end to the north, it's about an hour's leisurely walk.
The Isle of Lewis and Harris is the northernmost and largest of the Outer Hebrides-the Western Isles in common parlance. The island's only major town, Stornoway, is on a nearly landlocked harbor on the east coast of Lewis. It's the port capital for the Outer Hebrides and the island's cultural center, such that it is. Stornoway has an increasing number of good restaurants. Lewis has some fine historic attractions, including the Calanais Standing Stones-a truly magical place. The Uists are known for their rare, plentiful wildlife.
Stornoway. Besides being the island's main entry point for ferries, Stornoway is also Lewis's main arts center. You'll find some good restaurants in town if you want to have lunch off the ship. The town can be explored by bicycle if you are so inclined. Local rental shops can give you advice on where to ride, including a route to Tolsta that takes in five stunning beaches before reaching the edge of moorland.
An Lanntair Arts Centre. The fabulous An Lanntair Arts Centre has exhibitions of contemporary and traditional art, as well as a cinema, a gift shop, and a restaurant serving international and Scottish fare. There are frequent traditional musical and theatrical events in the impressive auditorium. Kenneth St..
Black House. In the small community of Arnol, the Black House is a well-preserved example of an increasingly rare type of traditional Hebridean home. Once common throughout the islands-even into the 1950s-these dwellings were built without mortar and thatched on a timber framework without eaves. Other characteristic features include an open central peat hearth and the absence of a chimney-hence the soot and the designation black. On display inside are many of the house's original furnishings. To reach Arnol from Port of Ness, head south on the A857 and pick up the A858 at Barvas. Off A858, 21 mi southwest of Port of Ness. Admission charged.
Calanais Standing Stones. These impressive stones are actually part of a cluster of several different archaeological sites in this area. Probably positioned in several stages between 3000 BC and 1500 BC, the grouping consists of an avenue of 19 monoliths extending northward from a circle of 13 stones, with other rows leading south, east, and west. Ruins of a cairn sit within the circle on the east side. Researchers believe they may have been used for astronomical observations, but you can create your own explanations. The visitor center has an exhibit on the stones, a gift shop, and a tearoom. On an unmarked road off A858. Admission charged.
Dun Carloway. One of the best-preserved Iron Age brochs (circular stone towers) in Scotland, Dun Carloway dominates the scattered community of Carloway. The mysterious tower was probably built around 2,000 years ago as protection against seaborne raiders. The Dun Broch Centre explains more about the broch and its setting. Off A857.
Gearrannan. Up a side road north from Carloway, Gearrannan is an old black-house village that has been brought back to life with a museum screening excellent short films on peat cutting and weaving. For a unique experience, groups can rent the restored houses.
Leverburgh. At Leverburgh you can take the ferry to North Uist. Nearby Northton has several attractions; St. Clement's Church at Rodel is particularly worth a visit.
MacGillivray Centre. Located in a round building overlooking the bay, the MacGillivray Centre gives insight into the life and work of William MacGillivray (1796-1852), a noted naturalist with strong links to Harris. MacGillivray authored the five-volume History of British Birds. This is a great location for a picnic (there are tables for just such a purpose). A walk to a ruined church starts at the parking lot. A859, Northton.
Seallam! Visitor Centre and Co Leis Thu? Genealogical Research Centre. The center is where you can trace your Western Isles ancestry. Photographs and interpretive signs describe the history of Harris and its people. The owners organize guided walks and cultural evenings weekly between May and September. Off A859, Northton. Admission charged.
St. Clement's Church. At the southernmost point of Harris is the community of Rodel, where you can find St. Clement's Church, a cruciform church standing on a hillock. This is the most impressive pre-Reformation church in the Outer Hebrides; it was built around 1500 and contains the magnificently sculptured tomb (1528) of the church's builder, Alasdair Crotach, MacLeod chief of Dunvegan Castle. Rodel is 3 mi south of Leverburgh and 21 mi south of Tarbert. A859, Rodel.
Port of Ness. The stark, windswept community of Port of Ness, 30 mi north of Stornoway, cradles a small harbor squeezed in among the rocks.
Butt of Lewis Lighthouse. At the northernmost point of Lewis stands the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse, designed by David and Thomas Stevenson (of the prominent engineering family whose best-known member was not an engineer at all, but the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson). The structure was first lighted in 1862. The adjacent cliffs provide a good vantage point for viewing seabirds, whales, and porpoises. The lighthouse is northwest of Port of Ness along the B8014.
Harris tweed is available at many outlets on the islands, including some of the weavers' homes; keep an eye out for signs directing you to weavers' workshops.
Harris Tweed Artisans Cooperative. The Harris Tweed Artisans Cooperative sells stylish and quirky hand-crafted tweed clothing, hats, accessories, all made by artists belonging to the cooperative. 40 Point St., Stornoway.
Borgh Pottery. At Borgh Pottery, open from Monday to Saturday 9:30 to 6, you can buy attractive hand-thrown studio pottery made on the premises, including lamps, vases, mugs, and dishes. Fivepenny House, A857, Borve.
It’s hard to imagine, as you stroll Heimaey’s idyllic streets of white wooden houses, that this island was literally torn apart by a spectacular volcanic eruption, just over 40 years ago. The fact that you can visit incredible Heimaey at all is something of a miracle – because the oozing lava of the Eldfell volcano threatened to seal the harbour off completely. Fortunately, its advance was halted by gallons of seawater, pumped onto it by the plucky islanders, who saved their fishing industry in the process. Iceland's famous for its scenery, and the huge castles of volcanic rock that rise out of the sea's waves here are some of the country's most dramatic.
Sprawling Reykjavík, the nation's nerve center and government seat, is home to half the island's population. On a bay overlooked by proud Mt. Esja (pronounced eh-shyuh), with its ever-changing hues, Reykjavík presents a colorful sight, its concrete houses painted in light colors and topped by vibrant red, blue, and green roofs. In contrast to the almost treeless countryside, Reykjavík has many tall, native birches, rowans, and willows, as well as imported aspen, pines, and spruces.
Reykjavík's name comes from the Icelandic words for smoke, reykur, and bay, vík. In AD 874, Norseman Ingólfur Arnarson saw Iceland rising out of the misty sea and came ashore at a bay eerily shrouded with plumes of steam from nearby hot springs. Today most of the houses in Reykjavík are heated by near-boiling water from the hot springs. Natural heating avoids air pollution; there's no smoke around. You may notice, however, that the hot water brings a slight sulfur smell to the bathroom.
Prices are easily on a par with other major European cities. A practical option is to purchase a Reykjavík City Card at the Tourist Information Center or at the Reykjavík Youth Hostel. This card permits unlimited bus usage and admission to any of the city's seven pools, the Family Park and Zoo, and city museums. The cards are valid for one (ISK 3,300), two (ISK 4,400), or three days (ISK 4,900), and they pay for themselves after three or four uses a day. Even lacking the City Card, paying admission (ISK 500, or ISK 250 for seniors and people with disabilities) to one of the city art museums (Hafnarhús, Kjarvalsstaðir, or Ásmundarsafn) gets you free same-day admission to the other two.
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