Can a discriminating traveler find happiness on a package tour? Can this hypothetical voyager give up the right to pick destinations, accommodations and traveling companions? Subordinate the urge to control his or her own destiny in order to avoid the petty nuisances and inconveniences that inevitably arise when negotiating foreign terrain?
There was only one way to find out.
My sole responsibility was to present myself at 8:45 a.m. at the London hotel where the tour began. After that I would be fed, housed and driven for the next six days through southwest England on a "Best of Britain" tour conceived, designed and executed by someone I had never met.
The brochure I picked up at the British Travel Authority in New York described a luxury tour "to the furthest point of mainland England, discovering rugged coastline, wild moorland, picturesque villages and splendid towns, which should not be missed by the discerning traveler."
It was the adjectives that did it, especially the last. For one week, a tour company would be my British nanny.
Eight-thirty a.m. I am early. Manhandled by a bed with more lumps than a bowl of cold oatmeal, I awake with time to spare. The bed is in a London hotel I selected myself. It will be my last such decision for several days. Let's see if they do better.
" ' Ello. You goin' with me on my Noombah One Tooah? Name's Ken."
"I'm Bob," I answer, and shake hands with the tour driver-guide.
On the bus, he introduces himself again. "Ken," he says. "Kenneth on Sundays." A joke.
We are 10, in a bus designed for 40: an Indian couple with a little girl; a young woman with an Italian accent who takes the rear seat ("What you doin' back there?" Ken asks. "I like it," she replies); two elderly ladies whom Ken addresses singly as "my luv"; a ruddy-faced man, around 50, in the first seat, intently studying the map open on his lap; an English couple named Smith. And me: American, writer, explorer, snoop.
The bus feels empty. We disappear into the thickly padded seats, those on the aisle a few inches advanced so that all have an unobstructed view. We drive through London, Ken pointing out the sights, across Hammersmith Bridge. Within minutes we see our first thatched-roof house.
Ken has us write down our names and addresses on a pad of paper. The English couple turn out to be Australian, as are the single man and one of the elderly ladies. The other older woman is Canadian. The Italian woman is French. The Indians are still Indian, from Bombay.
We drive to Winchester, where, Ken tells us, the famous cathedral was begun in 1079 and completed in 1404. And residing in a vast hall, which is about all that remains of a medieval castle, is no less than King Arthur's round table. He says that.
And I see it. Or at least what some people would have us believe is The Table. It's round, it's huge and it has a painting of King Arthur and the names of all his knights. As for its authenticity beyond that ... well, it makes a good story.
There is nothing nonauthentic about Winchester Cathedral. Everywhere beneath its great vault are monuments and tombs and carvings and other relics from the last 1,200 years. And everywhere are wonderful women with round red badges to explain their significance.
One points with a flashlight to show groups of schoolchildren the carved dragons and animals perched above the 13th-century choir stalls. Another indicates where the Norman arches give way to Gothic. I could listen to them all day, but we have only two hours. At 2:30 we're on our way, but not before I've lunched on plaice (flounder) and chips and my first and last "pea fritter."
An hour's drive through movie-set English country: round, deep green hills, manicured to perfection, then the broad, vast Salisbury Plain. Above hang thick, dark clouds through which spots of sunlight fall and glide across the fields.
Over a hill and Stonehenge appears. The gray, upright stones dwarf a line of tiny figures moving on the crest, silhouetted against the sky like the last scene of Ingmar Bergman's "Seventh Seal."
An hour later we're in Salisbury, being given a tour by a local expert. It's highlights only, then we're on our own until dinner. I check my room. I don't know if it dates from medieval times, when the south wing of the Red Lion Inn was a hostelry, but it's pretty and neat and the bed doesn't have lumps.
Outside it rains, stops, rains, stops -- typically English. I find shelter in the cathedral and listen, with perhaps 10 others in the vast, empty space, to a church service featuring a marvelous boys' choir.
A teenager sits in a pew with a cap on. A verger comes over, speaks softly. Getting no response, he reaches down and whips the cap off. When he goes, the boy puts it back on. Yes, even here.
Ken stands at the front of the bus. "Mornin'," he says. "Anybody escape?" We all laugh. We've become a group. (Except for the French woman, who is still in the back of the bus.)
As we enter Dorset, Ken tells a very long joke about the Dorset three-legged chicken. If he weren't driving, we would throw him off the bus.
Dorset is a country of distant views. The fields and roads are stitched with tall hedgerows. We can see over them from the bus, but I realize that if I were in a car, it would be like driving through an endless tunnel.
We zip past landscapes, breezing through villages where I would love to stop and spend time. Lyme Regis is a famous seaside town of pastel houses overlooking the English Channel. Five minutes and it's gone.
Ken tells the story of the customer who said the tour should be called "the ABC trip," for "another bloody cathedral." It's true we've seen three cathedrals in two days, but that's all right with me. Each is different and magnificent in its own way.
The B3212 threads its way through Dartmoor National Park. A vast wasteland, I thought, where escaped prisoners lose their lives in treacherous bogs and quicksand. Not a bit of it, at least not on the B3212. We drive the little two-lane road up forested mountains, past farms with ancient stone walls, through tiny, isolated villages. It's rough and rugged country with spectacular views at every turn.
Then, suddenly, we cross a ridge and the Dartmoor of myth appears. The trees have vanished, replaced by miles of heather and peat. Water sits in rocky depressions and the only signs of life are wild sheep and the famous Dartmoor ponies. Later the hills turn green again, but trees remain scarce until we near the coast.
In Plymouth, we stay in a Holiday Inn. The Pilgrims would be ashamed of me. I feel as though I'm letting my ancestors down. (Actually, my ancestors came from Italy, but the Pilgrims belong to me too.) The hotel is huge and modern, and the room is terrific. Not, of course, what I would have chosen.
But one of the best things about package tours, I have discovered to my amazement, is not to have to make choices. No matter where you go in England, just around the corner is something wonderful that you will inevitably miss. And you will have only yourself to blame, because, after all, you created the route. But on a planned tour, you can blame them! If you miss the cottage Thomas Hardy used as the model for Tess's home, or the little village with the perfect Norman church, it's their fault! How nice.
At the Theatre Royal, I see a lavish production of Sheridan's "School for Scandal." It's the English making fun of the English as only they can. Monty Python, 200 years old.
The Cornish pasty, a hand-held meal contained in a pastry crust, was, Ken says, invented in the 1850s -- "bygone days" -- by miners' wives for their husbands. The original production was a long affair with potatoes at one end, meat and vegetables in the middle and dessert at the other. He doesn't say how they knew which end was which.
Cornwall is a variation on the English theme of hedgerows and pastureland, until the hills tumble suddenly to a fishing village named Megavissey. We arrive at low tide, and I see for myself what I've seen before only in photographs: a waterless harbor with boats resting on the mud.
England has the second largest tidal rise and fall in the world -- Canada's Bay of Fundy is first -- and here in the West Country it is between 30 and 40 feet. This explains the rivers of mud we've passed, with trickles of water running down the middle.
Megavissey is a fishing town. Men on the wharf mend nets with quick, deft motions.
Houses are clearly built for shelter, not for show. I can feel the Cornish independence in the polite but aloof attitudes of the local folk.
The journey to St. Ives is the first dull drive on the trip: flat, textureless countryside with towns to match. Equally dull is a visit to a sheepskin factory and shop to which Ken allots 45 minutes. But there is a mini-rebellion, the stop is cut short, and we have enough time to take an offshore look at St. Michael's Mount.
With St. Ives comes the sun at last, and not just for a few minutes. From above we see a large town with a magnificent harbor and a sea of Mediterranean blue. On both sides are broad, sandy beaches.
I roam the narrow streets, along the promenade with its fearless sea gulls, up steep hills to bay-windowed town houses facing the horizon. Every other house, it seems, is a bed-and-breakfast. Yet despite its fame as a summer resort, there's a heaviness about St. Ives. The gray stone houses speak of the harshness of the weather. Perhaps it's the time of year. Perhaps I'm feeling the effects of traveling alone. Whichever, I don't feel the buoyancy of spirit I expected.
We stay two days in St. Ives. The weather is glorious and in the summer it must be wonderful to stretch out on the beach and take a break from the bus. But it's too cold for that now, in May, and there's not enough for me to do. I need a cathedral!
To Tintagel, legendary castle of King Arthur. No matter that it was built 500 years after his death. On the way we drive past Perranporth and Fraddon and St. Tudy on roads described as "scenic" on my Michelin map. Michelin has never let me down, and this is no exception. There are mossy woods carpeted with purple wildflowers, high hills whose grazing cows stare down at us, long vistas to the sea.
"Arthur may have existed, but only in the 6th century as a roving British warlord," I read at the exhibition shop. Another hero bites the dust.
But it doesn't matter. The castle ruins are spread on the top of an island hill and overlook fantastic slate headlands that jut into the ocean. It takes the legs of a billy goat and the heart of a bull to cover it all, and still leaves you wanting more.
However, just when I've got my breath back, we pull into Clovelly.
Clovelly is built at the bottom of a cliff. Cars are not allowed in the town. The street leading down is embedded with small cobblestones, edges up. Going down to Clovelly is a test. Coming back up is an ordeal. For those not training for the Olympics (me), there is a van service, but in spite of it, the path is filled with indomitable, white-haired English folk, pressing steadfastly on.
I have my cathedral! Vital statistics: Across the west front of the Wells Cathedral are 293pieces of medieval sculpture, an array unique in Europe. The nave is one of the earliest in completely Gothic design. Above the cloister is the largest medieval library in English. Every quarter-hour, a clockwork knight is knocked off his horse as he has been since 1390. And outside are buildings surrounded by a moat, where autocratic swans ring a bell whenever they are hungry.
An hour and a half is not nearly enough to see the Wells Cathedral and the medieval remains scattered throughout town. I give the church 30 minutes, then set off on a mad dash to get a glimpse of the rest, arriving last, as usual, at the bus.
We drive slowly through Bath, while a retired history teacher points out its Georgian features: the Circus, the Royal Crescent, the Pulteney Bridge. He is tall and dignified, with an easy charm that seems uniquely English. His enthusiasm for his subject is clearly genuine, in spite of the hundreds of times he must have repeated the information. On the way he shows us where Jane Austen wrote "Northanger Abbey," and a Delft-tiled alcove where gentlemen powdered their wigs.
Suddenly we're on the M4 to London, our first highway of the tour. Then we're saying goodbye, and it's over. The group of strangers who have become family for a week disperses and disappears.
Later, in a room of my own choice with another lumpy bed, I evaluate the experience. Did I, the "fiercely independent traveler," find happiness on this packaged tour? I must admit, I did. Certainly there were places I missed and others at which I would have spent more time. But that would have taken longer than the six days allotted. Instead of looking for hotels, parking lots and gas stations, I saw the sights -- at least some of them -- that I had come to England to see.
And so I would not hesitate to recommend a well-designed package tour to anyone who prefers painless travel to the complications of a homemade itinerary.
It may even be suitable for confirmed do-it-yourselfers, obstinate and recalcitrant individualists who, under ordinary circumstances, would rather suffer the torments of the damned than give up an ounce of their precious freedom.
We know who we are.
The tour company I used is no longer in business, but information on similar tours is available from the British Tourist Authority, 40 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019, 212-581-4700 or, toll-free from Washington (no area code required), 554-7969. Robert Ragaini is a writer living in New York.