By Lina Zeldovich
When it comes to summer vacation, England is one of the favorite destinations of American families, yet their travel often stays limited to the country’s capital. Some tourists are turned off by gas prices, others are spooked by the right-side driving, and the airport security is too much of a hassle to fly around. Luckily, there is one simple cure for all of the above: traveling by rail. Like everywhere else in the world, UK train travel is on the rise: it’s easy, it’s pleasant, and it’s green. There’s no need to suffer through two-hour check-ins, learn to drive with a stick, or be herded on and off a bus with fifty other tourists whose travel interests are diametrically opposed to yours. Instead, one can devise a convenient, custom-made schedule, and then lay back and enjoy the relaxing views of the emerald green English countryside.
The railway system in Great Britain is the oldest in the world, with its first locomotive-hauled public railway opening in 1825. Now it consists of East Coast, West Coast and Midland Lines, all of which feature modern trains, comfortable seats, and affordable prices. Many trains offer Wi-Fi, some serve an almost gourmet dinner with wine. Now for the first time Rail Europe is offering British domestic fares to American travelers on-line, easily bookable at www.raileurope.com. So, if you are ready for a vacation beyond the traditional Disney experience or a cruise, and are looking for an enriching and educational journey, consider exploring UK by rail. Here are a few great UK destinations your whole family would enjoy.
By all means, plan a few luxury days in London; there’s hardly a better place to stay in this vibrant city than Sofitel St. James located at Waterloo Place, right next to such great attractions as Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace and St. James Park. Designed by Pierre-Yves Rochon, Sofitel décor combines old British elegance with French sophistication, and its soothing comfort with attentive yet unobtrusive service. The only dilemma you may have after a tiring flight would be choosing between its deep tub and an equally welcoming featherbed with silky linens and a dozen pillows. After a busy day at the Victoria and Albert Museum or Harrods, you will find all your needs met at Sofitel: from the traditional afternoon tea in the cream-and-pink Rose Lounge to a sophisticated dinner at Brasserie Roux, to So Spa by Sofitel – a three-floor retreat where luxury cosmetology meets ultimate relaxation.
Once you’re rested and ready for your expedition, take the East Coast line to York - one of England’s finest and most beautiful historical cities. The Vikings called it Jorvic, the Saxons Eoforwick, and the Romans named it Eboracum. With over 2000 years of history and traditions to explore, York begins with its beautiful Victorian railway station and fully unfolds within its ancient encircling walls that stretch 3.4 kilometers long. The medieval charm of York’s streets, buildings and churches is carefully preserved and cherished by the locals. Amongst the charming old houses towers Minster – the biggest Gothic cathedral in Europe, where every statue has a meaning and every stained glass window is a work of art. Minster can easily take you over an hour to explore, especially if you opt for the guided tour included in the admission price (if you’re a history buff you’ll love it, if you’re an art enthusiast you will learn a lot as well.)
To recharge, stop by Betty’s for afternoon tea and scones that come with clotted butter, a rich sweet cross between butter and cream, the highly popular English culinary treat dating back to the early 1300s when it was produced by the monks of Tavistock Abbey. By all means bring some of Betty’s exquisitely packed delicacies back home. Reservations are strongly recommended – the place is always packed.
York offers a lot of children’s attractions. As every medieval city, it has a gamut of supernatural stories that can be experienced with nightly ghost walks. Don’t miss the haunted pub – the Black Swan on Peasholme Street. Another adventure not for the faint of heart is the York Dungeon which brings the visitors to the plague-ravaged 14th century York and follows Dick Turpin, a infamous English highwayman, to the gallows. Also not to be missed are the Yorkshire Air Museum and the National Railway Museum, which is the largest in the world and features such rare exhibits as Stephenson Rocket (a Japanese bullet train) and royal carriages. What’s best – admission is free! More attractions lay within a short distance from the city: Dads can indulge at the Black Sheep Brewery (www.BlackSheepBrewery.com), Moms may fall in love with the Yorkshire Lavender Farm (www.YorkshireLavenderFarm.com) and the entire family would enjoy Yorkshire Wildlife Park and The Deep – one of the most spectacular aquariums in the world that features sharks, rays, daily dive shows and animal feeding (www.thedeep.co.uk)
The recently opened Cedar Court Grand is the best place to stay in York. Only a two-minute taxi ride from the train station and a five-minute walk from the city’s historic center, this aspiring-to-become-York’s-first-five-star hotel is remarkably inexpensive for what if offers: expansive rooms with high ceilings, spacious bathrooms, plus a spa and a swimming pool (cedarcourtgrand.co.uk). For a leisurely stay, allow yourself two to three days; this would also give you time to visit places outside the city. Questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About two hundred miles north of York, there lies the city of Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, also easily accessible via the East Coast Line. Once home to Mary Queen of Scots, The Edinburgh Castle dominates the city, as no other buildings can be taller than this historical edifice which sits on top of the Royal Mile – a succession of streets that forms the main thoroughfare. An interesting factoid: the castle sits on top of the summit of an extinct volcano, thus allowing clear unobstructed views over all of Edinburgh while overlooking the Princes Street and its gardens from the north side. Nowadays, the castle hosts a gamut of museums, including The National War Museum of Scotland and The Great Hall, which holds a display of arms and armor. Another museum, the ancient Royal Palace, now houses the Stone of Destiny and Scotland’s crown jewels. It was here that Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her son James in 1566, who later became King James I of England, following the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603. As many old cities, Edinburgh is about traditions – one of them is The One o’clock Gun, which fires from the castle wall daily, except Sundays, since 1961.
Packed with little museums that feature everything from weaving to childhood toys, the Royal Mile leads down to the Scottish Parliament and the Holyrood Palace, which King James converted from a medieval monastery into a royal residence. Located at the midpoint of the Royal Mile is another spectacular feature of the Edinburgh skyline – the St. Giles' Cathedral, also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, with its distinctive traditional Scottish crown steeple. It is sometimes regarded as the mother church of Presbyterians.
If your children liked the ghost tour in York, there’s plenty here as well: a cloaked guide will lead you down into the Vaults beneath the South Bridge while telling you stories of those who once occupied the dark chambers, and perhaps still do. Scotland’s National Aquarium is another great place to visit for the whole family – it features diving with sharks and is only a short train ride from Edinburgh. Couples may try the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour that marries one’s love of literature with the Scottish pub culture. The city also hosts twelve festivals a year, ranging from the International Film Festival to the Storytelling Festival and from the Art Festival to the Royal Military Tattoo (www.edinburghfestivals.co.uk/festivals), attracting 1 million overseas visitors a year, making it the second most visited tourist destination in the United Kingdom after London.
While selecting a place to stay consider Hotel Misoni, located just below the castle esplanade; it will have you smitten by the views, although you may find the rooms a bit small and bathrooms with showers but no tubs a tad disappointing. If Misoni’s bright modern colors are not your taste, opt for the Balmoral Edinburgh hotel on Princes Street – a landmark in its own right. Allow yourself a couple of days in this great old city, and, if you want to see more of Scotland – such as Skye, The Highlands and Loch Ness, look into Timberbush Tours (www.timberbushtours.com) or consider taking the West Coast Line to Abergavenny, Wales, to see some great old Welsh castles.
Back in England...
If you never thought of England as a resort destination, you may be surprised. Barely two hours away from London, there’s the City of Bath, famous for its natural hot springs. The legend says that about 500 BC, young prince Bladud, father of Shakespeare’s King Lear, stumbled upon the springs while suffering from leprosy, and was miraculously cured by the waters. Later, the Romans built a sophisticated series of baths here for medicinal purposes. During the 18-19th centuries the city blossomed as a cultural center, attracting celebrities such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. In 1987, UNESCO designated Bath a World Heritage Site. A few years ago a natural Thermae Bath Spa opened, restoring Bath’s two thousand year old tradition of healing and recreation. In its spacious airy facilities, the Thermae Spa offers affordable packages and treatments, and features a rooftop pool where visitors can soak in the mineral-rich waters by day and night while enjoying the views of the city and surrounding hills (www.thermaebathspa.com). While children under 12 are not admitted in the Spa and those under 16 must be accompanied by an adult, Bath offers attractions for kids such as The Theater of Glass that features live glassblowing demonstration, The Fashion Museum and The Roman Baths Museum. The City of Bath also continues the royal tradition – this year it will host the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. The couple will be married on Apr 29, in Bath’s Westminster Abbey – the last of the great medieval churches of England.
With the flexibility of schedules and prices offered by Rail Europe, you can easily devise your own schedule and plan your activities in each destination, taking into account every family member’s wish. Note that prices for youth (12-25), children (2-12) and seniors (60+) may be cheaper than those for adults. Pack light – it’s easier to maneuver your luggage on and off trains, so consider leaving unnecessary heavy items at home (does every family member need a laptop, maybe one netbook would do?) But, if you’re planning to travel during the busy summer season, book your tickets in advance. With the modern ease of booking, your custom-built trip is only a few clicks away! Visit www.raileurope.com – and all aboard!
Lina Zeldovich writes about food, travel and culture, and blogs at