(Tribune Media Services) -- Jolly olde England and the Emerald Isle of Ireland continue to enchant and entice, even with the pound whomping the dollar nearly two to one. Here's what to expect if you visit in 2008.
There's a new visitors center at Ireland's Cliffs of Moher, and rangers now keep visitors from getting too close to the edges.
For longer visits to London, you'll save time and money getting around on the Tube (London's underground) and city buses with an Oyster Card. You buy this plastic transit card for a small fee and then enjoy discounted rides -- reloading for more credit as necessary.
The Heathrow Express train connecting London's Paddington Station with Heathrow Airport is now the most expensive rail journey per mile in Britain. Save money by riding the Tube or using the regular train.
Those going to the Continent (under the English Channel) on the Eurostar bullet train will enjoy an even faster trip on a faster track. The train now departs from London's St. Pancras International Station (no longer the Waterloo Station).
The London Transport Museum reopened in November. Whether you're cursing or marveling at the buses and Tube, this fascinating history of London's public transportation system is a delight.
The British Museum's Reading Room, normally free and open to the quiet public, will instead host special exhibitions (on Chinese Terracotta Warriors through early April, and Roman Emperor Hadrian from late July through October), requiring a separate entry fee. The vast museum itself remains free.
The British Library, also free, will undergo an extensive reorganization in 2008. In particular, one of the original Magna Carta documents and the only existing medieval manuscript of "Beowulf" will be off display for much of the year.
There will be no organ recitals at St. Paul's Cathedral in 2008 or 2009 as its organ will be under restoration.
Public places in England and the rest of Great Britain are now smoke-free, including hotels, B&Bs, restaurants and even pubs. Expect places that sell food to be non-smoking indoors, with smokers occupying outdoor patios and doorways.
Save money on local calls by picking up an inexpensive English mobile phone (which can be as low as 20 pounds for a phone complete with a SIM card and some minutes), particularly if you're staying at B&Bs, which rarely have in-room phones.
Bath's new Thermae Bath Spa -- which finally opened after years of delays -- is already popular with locals and tourists alike. Consider an evening visit (last entry is 7:45 p.m.), when the crowds thin out and the town twinkles from the rooftop pool deck.
Stonehenge, long famous as a highway drive-by sight, is planning a major, gradual renovation over the next several years. The plans are to divert the busy road farther from the site and build a new, low-profile visitors center to recapture the stone circle's alone-in-a-field aura.
Blenheim Palace has a new multimedia exhibit called the "Untold Story" -- 300 years of history told by a maid named Grace Ridley. While interesting, the palace's Churchill exhibit should remain your first priority.
Stratford-upon-Avon is sharing the limelight with another Stratford (an area just outside of London by the same name), which is the location of the 2012 Olympics. (To avoid confusion, use Stratford-upon-Avon's full name when buying train tickets.) In Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company has closed its Globe and Swan theaters for renovation and is using the Courtyard Theater as its main stage. The thrust-design Courtyard Theater is the prototype for the in-the-works theaters, scheduled to reopen in 2010.
Ireland and Northern Ireland
There's a new visitors center at the Cliffs of Moher. After years of easy access to the cliffs, numerous fatal accidents (and suicides) prompted the hiring of "rangers," whose main purpose is to keep people from getting too close to the cliff edge. The upside: They lead guided tours several times a day in the summer.
In Galway, the Siamsa folk theater, which featured Irish music, singing and dancing -- including the step dancing popularized by Riverdance -- will be closed in 2008 (and may not reopen after that). Sadly, in Kilronan on Inishmore Island, the Ragus Irish song and dance group is also no longer performing.
The British Army has finally pulled out of Northern Ireland, after 38 years mired in the "Troubles," which is a healthy sign that the region's worst days are in the past and tourism will no longer be such a tough sell in Ulster. As if to celebrate, Belfast has opened a 196-foot-high Ferris wheel, similar to the London Eye. It will spin crowds of tourists (paying $12 for the 15-minute trip) throughout 2008.
A visit to England and Ireland in 2008 will be expensive, but an ever-evolving lineup of sights is keeping these two countries on the must-see list for travelers. E-mail to a friend
Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.
Copyright 2009 RICK STEVES, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
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