Wednesday we rented a car and drove from London to the port of embarkation for the cruise in Southampton. We stopped in Stonehenge to tour and lunch and then boarded the Ruby Princess in mid afternoon. Spent the rest of the day exploring the ship and then late dinner seating at the main dining room.
Although there were many options to get from London to Southampton, we opted to drive because it offered the most flexibility and control over our time, the least amount of time waiting around for others, and the adventure of driving through the English countryside. We rented through Enterprise, and were to pick up the car in Marble Arch, London. Enterprise will pick you up, so we called when they opened and sent the car to us with a driver who brought us and the luggage back to the office to complete the paperwork. He gave The Engineer some tips as we drove and we talked about Top Gear. He drove us by the posh hotel that had a gold Bugati Veyron parked out front! We had hoped to be able to rent a mini cooper (that would have been too cute!), but we ended up with a Citroen.
We completed all the details at the office then set off with The Engineer driving and me navigating in addition to the built it "sat nav". He did a great job in London and things were even smoother once we got on the motorway. We don't have to go twice through any of the roundabouts and only made 1 wrong turn the whole trip. As far as driving on the other side of the road, The Engineer said he would only recommend it for someone who is a very competent and capable driver, and if you are picking the car up in London, you need to have experience driving in DC, NYC, or LA. If you don't have that kind of experience, plan to pick your car up at Heathrow airport or somewhere else outside London. If you do not drive stick on a regular basis, be sure to get an automatic car. Focusing on the other side of the road and the different traffic patterns is plenty of change! Also, having a second person to run the sat nav and read road signs and provide guidance on lane changes was really helpful.
The Engineer also commented that the English are much safer than Americans, both in driving style and speed, laws, even the electricity system which has switches on each outlets and everything in 3 prongs to be grounded. The emergency exits within buildings are all marked very clearly and in symbols, not words. We saw multiple types of fire extinguishers throughout the buildings we visited. [Can you tell why we call him the engineer?]
On the drive, we listed to some of the Rick Steves podcasts about the English countryside, Stonehenge, and the ancient Celts and Druids which all helped provide some context for everything we were driving through. It took about 2 hours to get to Stonehenge , and because we wanted to leave plenty of time to get on the ship, we skipped the museum at the visitor center and hopped straight on the next tram to the stones. Earlier in 2014, they moved the visitor center and parking lot away from the stones, about 1.5 miles up the road. This was done to remove the modern elements from the immediate area of the stones, and better preserve the area from the effects of foot and car traffic. The new visitor center has a nice museum, WCs, a cafe, and ample parking. You can walk to the stones if you choose, otherwise they run a tram/shuttle every few minutes. Apparently the cost of admission rose considerably with the new center and so many people are unwilling to pay, therefore the A303 highway which runs nearby comes to a standstill just in front of the stones because everyone wants a "free view" from 200 yards away. I wonder if they will be forced to put up a wall soon to prevent the traffic from stopping? We had pre-booked timed entry tickets so we hopped on the next tram (otherwise walk up tickets are sold in limited quantity and cost more than booking ahead online). They offer an audio guide, or we downloaded the Stonehenge app at the hotel the night before so we could listen to the tour on our phones. Its a 5 min drive to the stones.
Tip: If you are in hurry, you can start listening to the audio tour while you board the tram, and can spend about 10-15 min at the stones then take the tram back.
If you are not rushed, the audio tour is designed for you to start once you reach the stones and walked you around them clockwise. We opted for the fast version but felt like we saw everything and learned a lot and got some great photos. After returning to the visitor center by tram, we got Cornish pasties (hand pies) for lunch - steak pot roast filling and cheese, onion, potato filling. They were a good option to tide us over until a late lunch on the ship.
We headed out for Southampton around 12:30 and arrived an hour later. The address of the car return plots in the wrong location on google maps so we had a few wrong turns and a call to the rental place but eventually found it. They drove us over to the pier which was very convenient so that we did not have to call a cab or haul luggage.
Boarding with Princess was orderly and uneventful. You check in and are assigned a color and number. When you group is called, you can line up to go through security. We waited about 30 min and took another 30 min to get in board after that. Got a late lunch on the lido deck where they serve meals buffet style all day and then explored the ship. I visited the spa and entered the raffle but did not win anything. I did sign up for some relaxing treatments for Thurs afternoon, once we set sail from Guernsey.
Tip: Never book spa appointments before you are on the ship. They always offer discounts on board, and we even had a special offer extended to those who attended the spa raffle.
We headed back to the room to nap, unpack, and dress for dinner. The show didn't interest us so we skipped it and went to the 8 pm seating for dinner. Dinner was fine, but not something we would consider fine dining so we are going to try the specialty restaurants on board the next couple of nights and see if we prefer those.
Turned in after dinner to be ready for our first port of call - Guernsey, England.