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The Actief wends its way
from Windsor to Oxford.
Although this cruise is one of the shortest river journeys in England, the route offers six days of fascinating history, old English charm and majestic architecture, not to mention golfing.
Windsor is just a few miles from London’s Heathrow Airport, so it makes an ideal place to start a vacation in England. The River Thames, which has been featured in British history since Roman times, flows quietly through the center of town, and it is here that the Actief awaits her passengers, who are transported to Windsor in a small bus. The bus also shadows the vessel for the entire cruise for excursions.
After a champagne greeting, visitors head to Windsor Castle, with its magnificent state apartments and the vaulted St. George’s Chapel containing tombs of kings and queens. The visit is a step back in time to an England with parading soldiers, bands and a British institution, afternoon tea.
Back on Actief, passengers settle into their accommodations — three suites, two twins and a single. Dinner is preceded by drinks in the English countryhouse salon, with its comfortable, soft furniture. An open bar makes for sociable gatherings, and wine with meals is complimentary. This is the first opportunity clients have to meet the crew — the captain, chef and two hostesses.
Dinners are the highlight of the day, with dishes such as salami of guinea fowl with wild mushrooms; roast rack of lamb with aubergine puree, sweet potatoes and spinach; and Golden Jubilee chicken (created for the Buckingham Palace jubilee). Cheeses, such as English Stilton, are a specialty. And there is rarely a rush to turn in, since passengers can step off the vessel and be in a traditional English pub in two minutes while the Actief docks for the night in most ports.
On the second day of the journey, passengers visit Eton College, one of Britain’s most famous schools (princes William and Harry both attended), then the Actief moves on to stop under a willow tree near the stately mansion of Cliveden, once home to Waldorf and Nancy Astor.
As the barge moves upriver, villages dating from medieval times roll by, and clients can see beautifully restored stone buildings, cricket pitches and, of course, pubs with brasses and horse leathers.
“This is the England I always imagined,” said a visitor from Boston.
We enjoyed a kaleidoscope of idyllic English towns: Marlow, with a hotel called the Compleat Angler, from the famous book of the same name; and Henley, where the annual regatta is a British institution. Here, golf is also available at nearby Huntercombe, one of the most exclusive clubs in the country. For the record, Henley has the highest real-estate prices in the U.K. outside of London.
The Thames winds upstream to Mapledurham, where a big, old house with a water mill served as the setting for the famous children’s book, The Wind in the Willows.
At Oxford, the bus takes passengers to Christ Church, a magnificent college founded by Henry VIII in 1525. Oxford has many other treasures, and clients can find relaxation punting on the Cherwell, a tributary to the Thames, or by sipping a pint of beer at the historic Turf Tavern behind New College, founded in 1379.
Just eight miles from Oxford are the splendid palace and gardens of Blenheim, given by the king to John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, in 1704 as a reward for defeating the French. This site was where American heiress Jenny Jerome (who was married to Lord Randolph Churchill) gave birth to future U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It is often said to be the home of the “special relationship” that binds America and Britain.
Since the journey ends here, it’s noteworthy to mention that it is worth taking a few days extra to explore Oxford and soak up the atmosphere of the town, with its colleges, parks, the river, a covered market and the well-located Randolph Hotel, named after Churchill’s father.