We didn't think anything could top 2012 - what with Britain's smashing medal hall at the 2012 Summer Olympics and all the spectacle of the Queen's Jubilee.
It turns out that 2013 was a pretty good year for UK travel, attractions, trips and events too. I've picked my favorites for 2013.
photo Getty Images
Thousands of sports fans will be heading to Glasgow in July and August 2014 as the Commonwealth Games get underway. 6,500 athletes will compete from 70 teams and 53 countries around the world.
Besides the chance to see some of the world's top athletes compete, this event (that takes place every four years somewhere in the countries that used to make up the British Empire) will turn Scotland's biggest city into even more of an international party than the Edinburgh Festivals, the following month.
Come to think of it, why not plan a visit that takes in both?
For a lot of visitors, Glasgow is something of an unknown quantity...which is why a few new free Apps, available in several phone and tablet formats, will come in very handy. They could help you slip into the Glasgow vibe in no time at all.
photo Visit Britain
Imagine singing carols by candlelight in a tiny Norman church, nearly 1,000 years old, that was once abandoned to farmyard animals. Or arriving in the middle of a woodland rapidly reclaiming a ghost town to find a small congregation singing holiday music.
The Churches Conservation Trust, an organization that looks after abandoned churches and restores them for modern community uses, opens many of the ancient and once unloved buildings in its care for special Advent and Christmas events. Attending is a different experience from listening to the soaring voices of boy choristers in an English Cathedral, but if you love English churches and mysterious, atmospheric environments, you'll love discovering places like -
- St. James, Cooling in Kent, pictured here, said to have inspired Charles Dickens's Great Expectations
- An ancient Norman church in Dorset, saved by the ghost of Thomas Hardy
- A church built by prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars and American POWs from the War of 1812.
Find out more about the Churches Conservation Trust and holiday events at their unusual English Churches.
photo Courtesy of the Churches Conservation Trust
Vacation rentals - what we call self-catering here in the UK - can be a terrific way to save money on a family vacation or a trip with a group of friends. You come and go as you please, have plenty of bedrooms for everyone, cook your own food for the fussy eaters in your group. Plus you learn how to live like a local for a week or two.
All great. Until you discover you've landed yourself in the self-catering cottage from hell. Or even worse, end up hopelessly lost just trying to find the place.
The trouble is, one person's vacation cottage nightmare is another person's des res. And the only way you can find out whether a country cottage is just right for you, is by asking the right questions and doing the right research in advance.
It would be a shame to avoid this delightful way to visit Britain because you're nervous about getting it wrong. To avoid the pitfalls of vacation rentals and self-catering cottages, check out my ten step plan - How to Avoid Vacation Rental Nightmares.
photo Getty Images
"Toby's Dog Friendly Walks", a guide to 10 walks around Combe House hotel, near Honiton in Devon, is one of the nice touches the hotel provides for dog-owning guests. The book - written "by a dog, for dogs" offers maps and plenty of information about each walk along with a detailed key to features - are there sticks to chew? playmates around? spaces to run? livestock around? poo bins available?
I wish I could say that my stay at Combe House was as delightful as this little booklet. But sadly, it could only be described as was what the British call a curate's egg - in other words, good in parts.
photo ©Ferne Arfin
A new Stonehenge exhibition and visitor center opening to the public on December 18 is the first phase of £27 million environmental improvement program at the ancient monument - the largest capital project ever undertaken by English Heritage.
The visitor center will include a museum quality permanent exhibition with archaeological finds on loan from several major collections, and what English Heritage is calling a "360-degree virtual, immersive experience" that will allow visitors to "stand in the stones," as they have not been able to do in decades. The new center includes:
- an environmentally sensitive, fully accessible building
- a cafe with indoor and outdoor seating
- a shop
- parking for 500 cars and 30 coaches
- downloadable, free audio guides
- a pre-booked, timed ticket system to reduce lines and avoid overcrowding at peak times.
Perhaps best of all, the new visitor center is located a mile and a half from the monument itself. Visitors will arrive at Stonehenge via a ten-minute shuttle bus trip, allowing the monument to reveal itself gradually, in pristine isolation on Salisbury Plain.
Phase Two of the redevelopment, scheduled to be completed by Easter 2014, will include a small village of Neolithic dwellings, similar to the village occupied by the builders of Stonehenge and based on recent archaeological finds.
And, if you've visited Stonehenge and have been disappointed by the traffic and commerce, the buses and commotion around it, you are in for a delightful surprise. In Phase Three of the project, scheduled to be completed in time for summer visitors in 2014, the landscape around Stonehenge is being restored. Existing visitor facilities and parking lot will be removed (see photo of Stonehenge now, left). A stretch of the A344 road will be removed and grassed over, reconnecting the monument with the Avenue, Stonehenge's ancient processional approach for the first time in centuries. New interpretation panels, developed with the National Trust, will guide visitors along the Avenue to the Monument. (Photo right shows the landscape as it will look in the summer of 2014.)
Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, which manages the site, said, "The world famous monument, perpetually described as a mystery, finally has a place in which to tell its story. The exhibition, created with imagination and rigour, will change the way people experience and think about Stonehenge forever." I'll be heading there myself on December 18 and will report back with pictures and first impressions.
The first exhibition at the new visitor's center, Set in Stone? How our ancestors saw Stonehenge, will explore more than 800 years of ideas and debate about the monument, who built it and why. Meanwhile, to catch up with the latest ideas about Stonehenge, based on the last ten years of archaeological findings, check out Stonehenge Myths and Mysteries - Some New Theories.
Pre-booked, timed tickets will be available online from December 2. National Trust members are admitted free of charge.
photos © English Heritage
Since moving to the UK from the USA, I virtually gave up on steaks. For years, while I found British roast beef usually wonderful, steaks left a lot to be desired. My visits back to the USA were usually marked by at least one visit to a steak house to remember what I'd been missing.
But things have seriously improved in recent years. With the move toward local foods from named suppliers and the acknowledgment that, to borrow a catchphrase from Orson Wells, a butcher should sell no steak before its time, good steaks, perfectly aged and cooked are easier to find these days.
Last month, while visiting dog-friendly hotels in Devon, Wallace the Westie and I arrived at the Moorland Garden Hotel just as its new chef, Bruce Cole, was walking away with a Best of the Best, Taste of the West Gold Award for the hotel's Wildflower Restaurant. Local ingredients from named, West Country suppliers are key to the Wildflower's seasonally changing menu. That includes a rib eye, pictured here, that was genuinely worth raving about.
This time there were no table scraps for Wallace the Westie. But the hotel's dog-friendly features scored top marks from both of us anyway. And since he was welcome in the hotel's Dartmoor Bar, he did manage to sniff up a few crumbs of very good local cheeses.
photo © Ferne Arfin
I like my adventures short and sweet - over before my fraidy-cat spirit has a chance to wake up and scream. I don't think I'd enjoy riding shotgun, so to speak, in a tiny little plane over a great big ocean for more than a minute or two....which is why I was glad our adventure contributor Helen Ochyra decided to report on this story for us. But this adventure was over so quickly that I think even I could have managed.
photo courtesy of Luxury and Little Ones
Why not let someone else stuff the turkey this Christmas. Imagine a romantic getaway at a country house hotel instead. Or a jolly family break with someone to look after and entertain the children for a few hours a day. This year, more of Britain's atmospheric country house hotels than ever are putting together two, three and even four day holiday packages with loads of traditional goodies to eat, carol singers and live entertainment, beautiful decorations, films for the children, surprise Christmas stockings and, if you're lucky, a light dusting of snow that you don't have to shovel.
If you need some inspiration, have a look at these. But don't dawdle - they book up fast.
photo courtesy of Luxury and Little Ones
Wallace the Westie and I have just returned from the dog-friendliest hotel stay we've ever experienced. Prince Hall on the top of Dartmoor is more like a country house party with all your dog owning friends. A beautiful setting, great food, wonderful views and lots of new interesting things to sniff around. What more could a well traveled dog - and his owner need. Have a look at our review of Prince Hall to see what we mean.
Dog-friendly accommodations are all very well for those of us who already live in the UK or are simply crossing the English Channel or the Irish Sea to get here. But, if you're traveling some distance to the UK, would you want to bring your dog with you on vacation? Clichés do have a tendency to hang around - even when they haven't been true for years. And one that seems to still have legs is the idea that if you bring your dog to the UK it will have to stay in a quarantine kennel for months.
That is just not true and it hasn't been true for years.
As long as you follow the rules and regulations of the UK's Pet Passport and Pet Travel schemes, your dog - or cat - can share your UK vacation, much as he or she would at home. Europeans - especially the French - who take their dogs everywhere, have been taking advantage of the loosened regulations for a long time.
So is it worthwhile bringing your dog from North America? It depends on how long you are planning to stay, how much you can afford to spend (because shipping a dog by air is not cheap) and whether your dog is young and healthy enough for a transatlantic trip in the hold of a plane. If you are coming over for work or for an extended stay, it might be something worth considering.
Wallace the Westie and I have been on the road together, reviewing dog-friendly hotels and attractions and considering all the rules and regulations for years. Now, we've gathered all that information together in one place to make it easy for you to find. Check it out here.
© Ferne Arfin