In March 2010, when Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh officially opened Stratford-Upon-Avon’s dynamic Royal Shakespeare Theatre just in time for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) to roll out its 50th season, it signaled hopes for a renewal of British tourism. The British keep on reinventing themselves, and the Britain you visit today seems different from than the country of 20 years ago. This year’s royal wedding was just the opening salvo of what VisitBritain hopes will be a series of dazzling events (the Olympics, the Paralympic Games and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee) that can serve as catalyst for a resurgence of tourism.
As it heads into its big year in 2012, the U.K. is flush with new attractions and services. London alone has spent some $17.4 billion in projects directly benefiting visitors. Major investments range from the completion of the East London Line and redevelopment of Kings Cross St. Pancras Station to the return of the refurbished Savoy Hotel (www.fairmont.com).
With its new 105-foot tower, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has a modern look that’s somehow rooted in its history. It took more than three years of construction to transform the 1932 playhouse into a 1,000-seat auditorium that brings the actors and audiences closer together. The architectural elements were designed to attract a broader range of audiences and visitors. Now you can visit the building without even seeing a play, thanks to the new exhibition spaces. There are places to eat and drink, including the splendid Rooftop Restaurant atop the tower, as well as the Riverside Café and terrace.
From the Rooftop Restaurant, you get an encompassing view of Shakespeare’s world and his river. The elevator takes you to the top, then most people walk down and enjoy the photographs of the RSC productions lining the wall. By late March 2010, more than 80,000 visitors had taken tours of the dynamic new complex. Visit www.rsc.org.uk for the details on theater tours, dining and upcoming shows.
Last fall, the Scottish town of Alloway, in Ayrshire, built a museum that communicates the life and work of a great poet in a way that appeals to a wide range of ages and interests. Delightful interactive exhibits and hundreds of Burns’ artifacts make the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (www.burnsmuseum.org.uk) well worth a visit. The museum is part of the Burns National Heritage Park, which includes the cottage where Burns was born, Tam O’Shanter’s haunted “Auld Kirk” and the Brig O’Doon bridge itself.
Scotland has 6,000 miles of coast and some 540 lakes. Loch Lomond Seaplanes (www.lochlomondseaplanes.com) uses six- and 10-seater Cessna seaplanes to operate scenic tours of Loch Lomond, Glasgow and some of the west coast. In Glasgow, the seaplanes land on the River Clyde.
In the north of England, the remains of the Industrial Revolution have taken on an almost rustic beauty. Mersey Ferries (www.merseyferries.co.uk) offers day cruises along the 35-mile Manchester Ship Canal that capture that transformation and, at the same time, tell the important story of industrial heritage. The voyage goes through locks and under bridges, with a speaker pointing out sites of historic interest along the way. The ferries feature a bar and food; the cruise ends with a coach transfer back to the point of departure.
A child of the Industrial Revolution, Liverpool became a European Cultural Capital in 2008. That distinction sent millions of pounds into the city’s economy, as well as 15 million visitors. Understandably, Liverpool is determined to keep the visitors coming, and over the past decade, it has invested billion into transformations.
Virgin Trains (www.virgintrains.co.uk) now operates a quick service of slightly more than two hours between London’s Euston Station and Liverpool. When it opens, the Museum of Liverpool will joins a fine lineup of museums there, including the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the International Slavery Museum and the Tate Liverpool. The Beatles Story Museum (www.beatlesstory.com) and Hard Day’s Night Hotel (www.harddaysnighthotel.com) have created some Beatles-themed packages. Visit www.visitliverpool.com for details.
The West Berkshire village of Bucklebury, home to Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge, is one of those rustic English towns where the postmen need only a name, not an address, to deliver a letter. Thanks to the interest generated by the royal wedding, tour coaches are finding their way through the narrow lanes to the Duchess’ childhood home. The Blade Bone pub is where it all happens in Bucklebury. A classic village pub, the Blade Bone serves exemplary traditional food and is a great place to stop for lunch as you combine a self-drive through the area with Windsor Castle, Tetbury, Oxford, Blenheim Palace, Stratford-Upon-Avon and the Cotswolds. Greatdays UK (www.greatdays.co.uk) suggests a Cotswolds itinerary for small groups, based in Chipping Campden for six nights, exploring Oxford, several gardens and Stratford-Upon-Avon.
The royal couple’s new home is likely to be London’s Kensington Palace (www.hrp.org.uk). And as it undergoes renovation, Kensington will continue to be used as an interactive exhibition space for “The Enchanted Palace,” a theatrical installation that combines fashion, performance and visual spectacle to tell the story of the State Apartments. The WILDWORKS theatrical company brings the palace’s many hidden stories to life in a playful but historic presentation based on the princesses who once lived there: Mary, Anne, Caroline, Charlotte, Victoria, Margaret and Diana. Actors in period costume move among the crowds, telling stories as visitors tour the rooms viewing historic items from the Royal Collection and Kensington Palace’s Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. Among the items are two dresses worn by Diana, Princess of Wales, and Princess Margaret. In June 2012, Kensington will reopen after a project that will improve access, introduce education and community facilities, and reconnect the palace with the surrounding park through new public gardens. The project’s title, “Welcome to Kensington, a Palace for Everyone,” was created to connect the royal family more intimately to the public.
George III’s tiny palace in Kew Gardens will be opened in 2011, and at the Tower of London (www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon), a new permanent exhibit tells the stories of the people who took care of royal business behind the tower walls, from 1100 to the present day. The 75-minute “Blue Badge” guided tours of the Houses of Parliament (www.ticketmaster.co.uk/housesofparliament) run throughout the day.
The U.K.’s Blue Badge Guides are among the best in the world, but it’s becoming increasingly easier to take a guided tour through a mobile device. The London Sightseeing Pass’ (www.londonpass.com) iPhone app enables visitors to plan a day’s outing by listing offers, insider tips, maps and attractions, or even where the closest “loo” is. The app is free to all Pass holders and can be downloaded from the iTunes Store. Users receive priority access at the busiest attractions to avoid lines, a guidebook, and more than 40 deals and discounts. Thanks to the app’s offline functionality, most content can be accessed without incurring any roaming charges if downloaded in advance of the visit.
As Greenwich starts its preparations to be a host borough for the London Olympics in 2012, as well as its appointment as a Royal Borough in 2012, it’s gearing up to welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors. Through the free Destination Greenwich app (http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/greenwich/id385752734), users can find out which Olympic and Paralympic sporting events are happening where.
The World Heritage city of Bath is celebrating 2011 as the Year of the Museum with a free walking tour (“An Insider’s Guide to Bath’s History and Architecture”), which can be downloaded for free (www.visitbath.co.uk). The audio tour guides visitors around the highlights of the city, describing the architecture, and providing historic insights and introducing museums en route. Visitors can download the audio guide as an mp3 file from the website as well, together with a map featuring the trail. The 12 tracks can be downloaded individually or as a complete unit, allowing visitors to appreciate the city at their own pace.--James Ruggia