When we were on the Highlands and Islands cruise in July I was given “an offer I could not refuse” and booked another cruise. JW and I were due to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary in September, so where better than on the Balmoral cruising up the coast of my favourite country?
I am normally quite an optimistic person, but where holidays are concerned that natural optimism seems to desert me.
We had already celebrated on the actual day with Jennie and family, so I began to wonder whether I had let my enthusiasm run away with me.
As this had been a last minute booking (at an anchor price) I could not choose the cabin, only the grade. I usually choose an outside cabin on the main deck, midships, but this grade has cabins two decks higher, which are larger but may have an obscured view. That was worry number one!
Worry number two was the weather. We had lousy weather in the weeks preceding departure, rain and howling gales. I have crossed the North Sea many times before and it can be quite horrendous.
Worry number three was what to do on shore if the weather was atrocious.
When we left Cardiff the sky was grey and did not look very promising, but as we crossed the bridge into England a watery sun showed briefly and there was, (as my mother used to say) enough blue sky to patch a sailor’s trousers.
The now familiar journey went well and about three hours later we were driving into the cruise terminal road.
The porters took our luggage and ABP met us and took away the VW, leaving us to go through security etc. and forty five minutes later we were boarding Balmoral.
The cabin was indeed larger than we had had before and the partial obscuring of the view was neglible as the window was larger than those on the lower decks.

The cabin

The cabin

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From the window end

From the window end

There was a beautiful floral arrangement (compliments of Fred Olsen) and a charming letter enclosing a voucher for a free formal portrait and inviting us to inform them which day we wuld like to have champagne and canapes delivered)

floral display

floral display

Before the boat drill we availed ourselves of a  “cuppa” and a snack, and then at 5pm we watched the casting off and sail away and then back to the cabin to unpack and get ready for dinner.

My worries had (as usual) been needless.  The car had not broken down, we had arrived in plenty of time, the cabin was lovely and everyone was as friendly and welcoming as ever. 🙂

We had had a smooth crossing of the Irish Sea and spent the day rounding the South West  coast of Britain. We had travelled 2008 NM.

calm seas

calm seas

We had been blessed with glorious weather, the sea had been calm throughout, the sun had shone, we had seen spectacular scenery and been greeted by friendly people all round.

The Western Islands, which can be lashed by violent storms, had shown us their gentle side and we could easily have imagined ourselves in the South Pacific.

The crew had, as usual, looked after us with the friendliness and efficiency for which Fred Olsen is well known.

There was the usual programme of activities available, but most people were busy packing, swapping addresses and Email addresses with new found friends and enjoying the excellent meals, visiting the spa and then in the afternoon taking part in the raffle for the RNLI funds before enjoying the special selection of cakes and dainties at the tea dance.

Just as we were finishing our evening meal a message came over the tannoy for the crew, which we later found meant that a passenger had taken ill and was being transferred to the mainland by helicopter. Some of the crew members are trained to deal with this kind of emergency so it was interesting, if a bit ghoulish, to watch and add a prayer for a happy outcome.

helicopter rescue

helicopter rescue

Next morning we were all up for an early breakfast and then it was time for thanks and farewells as we disembarked.

This was speedily done and the trusty VW  was waiting for us. Three hours later we were back in Cardiff and Jennie and co. arrived with a bag of fresh food to tide us over the weekend.

It had been a lovely cruise and I had gone some way to fulfilling my ambition to see as many of the Islands of Britain as possible!

We enjoyed it so much that we have booked another short cruise soon to celebrate our Ruby Wedding!

This was our last port of call and we were torn between staying in the city to see all the sights we had seen so much on the television, but we couldn’t resist the lure of the Giant’s Causeway, which was within easy reach.

Belfast docks

Belfast docks

 

The docks seemed very busy after the traquility of the harbours we had been visiting. Across the harbour from us was the famous Harland and Wolfe shipyard where the doomed Titanic was built, Samson and Goliath – the giant cranes, the Titanic Experience building and everywhere container ships.

 

Samson and Goliath

Samson and Goliath

Our guide, Marie Theresa, was once again a fund of information about the places we passed and the history of the area. She was very even handed when she told us about the troubles of recent years.
We drove inland through the counties of Downe and Antrim, passing through some beautiful villages. It was difficult to reconcile this gentle vista with the ugly scenes of bombing and fighting which we were seeing all too frequently on our television screens not so very long ago.
We stopped briefly to take photos of Dunluce Castle ruins.This castle was owned by the Duke of Buckingham in 17c.

 

Ruins of Dunluce Castle

Ruins of Dunluce Castle

The Visitors Centre at the Giant’s Causeway is managed by the National Trust and is run as efficiently as all their properties.
We had a tasty light lunch and then took the bus down to the stones. There were lots of people there clambering over the stones. We had been given maps and personal audiophones.

 

Stones of Giant's Causeway

Stones of Giant’s Causeway

 

Another viewing

Another viewing

 

View three

View three

 

Popular viewing point

Popular viewing point

We had two hours there which soon passed and then we set off back again, returning by the coast road.
The scenery is beautiful, cliffs, rocks and sandy bays. We passed through villages with colourful gardens and hanging baskets.

 

Rugged coastline

Rugged coastline

We arrived back in time for afternoon tea and swapped stories of what we had seen. Those who had been to the Titanic Experience had been very impressed by it and those who did the City tour had found parts of it very moving.
I would like to go back again at some time to see all these other things.
That evening was the Captain’s Farewell party so we all togged up in evening dress.
After dinner JW and I went to listen to the String Trio, who were very good. They played light classics. One of the tunes I recognised as a gavotte which I had danced to for my grade 3 ballet exam! I could even remember the steps, not bad after 60+ years. 🙂
We rounded off the evening sitting on deck and watching a lone gannet following in our wake, swooping, gliding and diving, giving a tireless acrobatic display.

Welcome to Stornoway

Welcome to Stornoway

 

It was hot and sunny again when we arrived in Stornoway harbour.
Stornoway was at the crossroads of the historic trading routes lying, as it does on the Western edge of Europe.
As with all these Western Isles, Lewis and its neighbour Harris are havens of widlife with a large variety of birds, seals and dolphins etc. It has strong westerlies which cause difficulties for both humans and animals, but somehow they all cope.
It is fairly flat with a rugged coastline and sandy beaches.
Lord Leverhulme bought the island in 1918 and in 1923 returned the island to the people.

Tenders taking and returning passengers

Tenders taking and returning passengers

 

We went into the town and did some shopping. JW had hankered after a Harris tweed jacket, but didn’t like the “hairy” and bulky ones we had seen in English shops, so was delighted to find one in the right colours and right weight in this their home!

Townhall

Townhall

 

Shopping street in Stornoway

Shopping street in Stornoway

 

lifeboats returning to their station

lifeboats returning to their station

We left Lewis in the late afternoon and sailed back through those beautiful islands keeping a keen lookout for seals, dolphins otters and birds. I am still waiting for a close sight of whales, but alas they steer well clear of me. (Must be the genes of my whaling catain ancestor which scares them away.) 🙂

Shoreline Orkney

Shoreline Orkney

We were welcomed ashore by a kilted piper. We had booked a tour around the island and once again we had a charming guide. Marita told us that she was a German who had come to the Orkneys on a study course more than twenty years previously and had loved it so much that she had been there ever since!

Farmhouse

Farmhouse

I had expected it to be mountains and rocks so was pleasantly surprised by the gentle slopes and very green fertile looking countryside. There are few trees as it is so windy and has severe gales at times.

Everything gave the impression of careful husbanding of their resources with fields of healthy looking sheep and cattle.

There are many smaller islands around the main island, I believe there are over seventy islands in the Orkneys.

Marita had as one of her jobs been a collector of folk tales and entertained us with stories of the Seal folk and the Fin people.

We drove along the shores of Scapa Flow and saw the Kitchener memorial where Lord Kitchener was drowned in WW1 when “The Hampshire” was lost, and the memorial marking the sinking of “Royal Oak” in WW2. I had wondered how Marita would cope with that, being German, but she handled it very well. I remembered a friend from my childhood whose father was lost on “Royal Oak” a week before Billy was born, and he always referred to him as “my picture daddy”.

Driving inland we saw the Ring of Brognar and Standing Stones of Stennes, signs of an ancient civilisation said to predate Stonehenge.

Standing Stones Notice

Standing Stones Notice

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Standing Stones of Stennes

Standing Stones of Stennes

We were impressed by the friendliness of the people and gentle beauty of these islands and would be interested to see how different it would be in a raging gale.

We anchored off Ullapool early next morning, another hot sunny day. I had a “deja-vu” feeling and then when we went ashore and along the sea front I realised why when I saw the Youth Hostel. I had been there before,more than 50 years ago when my friend Beryl and I had  hitch-hiked around Scotland in our second year nursing!

Ullapool and beyond!

Ullapool and beyond!

Harbour

Harbour

Ullapool is on the mainland and part of Wester Ross and the scenery around is towering mountains, cliffs and beautiful sandy beaches.

We had booked to go on a short tour and once again we had an excellent guide, Kenneth, who gave us a potted history of the area, the highland clearances and the fight for Crofters rights and Land reform. A group , founded by Chris Brasher have raised money to buy up estates so that they can sell homes only to the local workers, so that local housing is kept for them rather than sold as second homes.

He also told us about the grades of mountains….Monroes (over3000 ft), Corbetts (2,500ft),

Our first stop was at Corrieshall Gorge

Corrieshalloch Gorge Notice board

Corrieshalloch Gorge Notice board

The more energetic walked down to the bridge to see the Measach Falls, sadly not at their most spectacular due to the very dry summer. JW and I just walked part way down…….we know our limitations 🙂 and admired the varied vegetation. The heather was just coming into bloom. As we looked down the hillside it was easy to imagine the Highlanders hiding from the Redcoats.

"Bonnie Purple Heather"

“Bonnie Purple Heather”

We drove along the scenic road. towards Gruinard Bay admiring the West Highland scenery. Despite sometimes harsh and unforgiving countryside, there is evidence of earlier civilisations for more than 3000 years.

Misty hills

Misty hills

Gruinard Bay

Gruinard Bay

Road back to Ullapool

Road back to Ullapool

We arrived back on board, sated with the beauty of this area. We left at 5pm on our way to the Orkney Isles and watched more beautiful islands and colourful sunsets.

We cruised up through the islands and arrived in Tobermory harbour next morning. There are hundreds of islands off this West coast, all shapes and sizes. Some are little more than outcrops of rocks, others supporting several communities  some mountainous, some flat. Most support a wide variety of wild life, birds, sea creatures and land creatures, and the people living there seem to have achieved a perfect balance with them. . The gales and high seas are notorious, but somehow both humans and animals cope with it and all those I met seem very contented with their lives, hard though it is at times.

Tobermory is the main town on Mull, one of the larger islands, which is separated from the mainland by the Firth of Lorne. The waterfront is well known to the childrens programme “Ballymory”

Tobermory seafront

Tobermory seafront

We had not booked any tours so we took the tender to the pier,

It was very hot so we took our time and ambled along the colourful seafront, past the distillery and chocolate factory(!).

There was a Nepalese Fairtade exhibition in the hall by the pier so we went in and admired the array of goods for sale, bought a few things (including a couple of little elephants for my growing collection) and then wandered along, diving in and out of the shops.

Tobermory Harbour

Tobermory Harbour

Fishing boat Tobermory

Fishing boat Tobermory

We were very thankful for the iced drinks provided by the ship as we waited to board the tender back to Balmoral and even more thankful for the cool air conditioning once we were back on board.

IMG_4262wAs part of our cruise, Victoria Traval had included a visit to Mount Usher Gardens.

We were met on the coach by Josephine who gave us an excellent commentary as we drove south towards Mount Usher. Not only did she point out all the points of interest but gave us a potted history of Dublin from the invasions of the Vikings to the struggle for independence, and the growth of recent years.

We passed through a variety of scenery, granite mountains, wooded glens and deep valleys.

Mount Usher Gardens are in the county of Wicklow and were voted “Most Romantic Gardens in the Republic of Ireland” in 2010. They are laid out along the banks of the river Vartry in the Robinsonian style. It was once a working mill, first a tuck mill and later a corn mill, which used a tributary of the Vartry to turn its wheel.

We were greeted in the tea room where we were offered tea and scones.

We started on the tour with one of the very well informed gardeners, who seemed to know every tree and shrub, but after a while decided that we would rather meander around and drink in the beauty of the place. There is a wonderful vista around every bend. Beautiful combinations of colour and form all blending together. The plants and trees have been gathered from all corners of the earth, trees with coloured bark and many coloured leaves.

The river is used to great effect to reflect the plants and also provide a home for a wealth of wild life such as the dragonflies which skimmed over the water.

 Killinskey River in Mount Usher  gardens

Killinskey River in Mount Usher gardens

Riverside walk

Riverside walk

Weir on River Killinsky

Weir on River Killinsky

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The planting looks quite natural and blends in with the surrounding countryside. There are also semi-formal parts like the croquet lawn and the herbacious borders which are a blaze of colours.

semi formal borders

semi formal borders

I wished I was a more talented painter and could capture some of this beauty, but thankfully JW took lots of photographs for me.

We said goodbye to Matt at the gardens (he was staying on for a day longer as Tony Russell was taking over from this point.)

We had a pleasant journey back and Josephine entertained us with her anecdotes about some of the “rich and famous” who lived in or visited Dublin. We arrived back in time for a late lunch and then just had time to buy last minute souvenirs  from the quayside shop and then it was off on the next leg of our journey as we sailed northwards past the Isle of Man towards the Hebrides.

Most of the next day was spent at sea sailing around the coast of England and South Wales and then across a beautifully calm Irish Sea.

I enjoy these days at sea as you get the chance to get to know your fellow passengers. Only at the evening dinner are the tables and restaurants fixed, so other mealtimes you tend to share a table with different sets of people and most of them are only too pleased to chat. It is easy to start a conversation, “have you travelled with Fred Olsen before?”, “On Balmoral?” “To the next port?”  “Where do you come from?” From this it is an easy progression to other subjects.

There is a programme of events each day from interesting talks, to games and demonstrations, being pampered in the Spa , or just relaxing by the pool or listening to the musicians in the various bars.

We had an added attraction as we were travelling with the Victoria Travel group, (part of Cruise .co.uk)which specialises in tours for gardeners. We had the lovely Matthew Biggs who gave a very interresting talk about the Lobb brothers who were famous plant collectors who introduced many species into Britain.  William Lobb worked for Veitch and co. in the early 19c. and travelled to the Americas, and brought back the Sequoia and the Monkey Puzzle tree amongst other things. Thomas travelled mainly in the East.

We had travelled with Matthew before on the Canaries cruise. He was with us for the first part of our cruise and would be accompanying us on our included tour to Mount Usher Gardens next day.

It was sunny again but there was a cooling breeze so it was very comfortable.

We arrived in Dublin  about 4pm. Some went ashore straight away, but we decided to have dinner first and then took the free shuttle bus into the city. We drove in by the side of the Liffey right into the centre.

Many of the bigger shops in Grafton St. were open and the streets were crowded with good natured folk out for the evening. There were street performers and musicians, all very cosmopolitan, but very hot!

We meandered around for a while and then decided to go back to the ship and enjoy the Elvis concert on the Lido deck.

Next morning we arrived at St Peter Port, Guernsey, about 7am. We had to be transferred by ship’s tender to the shore from our anchorage point.

ST Peter Port from the sea

ST Peter Port from the sea

We had booked a tour of the island, so were off the ship quite early and found our coach and driver/guide, Graham waiting for us.  He was an excellent guide who not only showed us the interesting sights but told us about the history and customs of the island and the notable families who lived there.

Many of the older houses were built in the old farmhouse style with a central front door, five windows upstairs and three downstairs and the fronts clad in stone. Originally the farms had lean-to glass houses in which they grew grapes and figs, some for export. In the 1950s and 1960s tomato growing was very productive and large glass houses were built to accomodate them. When the UK joined the Common Market in the 1970s, the main customers for their crops, the super markets,  started buying the cheaper (subsidised) crops from the EU and it was no longer viable for them to compete with the higher shipping costs and no subsidies. The Channel Isles are not in the EU.

There are strict rules on house buying. Some houses are only for sale to Islanders, these are at the “cheaper” end of the market, about £400,000 for a three bedroom semi!  Non Islanders pay from £1million upwards.

First stop was “the little church” which was built by monks.

The Little Church

The Little Church

The altar in the little church

The altar in the little church

The mosaic decoration is made from broken ceramics provided by Wedgewood.

Next stop was at Pearl bay where they served refreshments and sold souvenirs, pearls, Guernsey sweaaters etc .

Our final stop was on the cliff top where we saw a replica gun emplacements and tunnels used by the Occupying forces during WW2. Everywhere there were reminders of that sad time, memorials to those killed, Islanders, Jews and foreign nationals, the deportees and celebration memorials to Liberation Day.

It is a green and pleasant land and plenty more places to visit on a longer stay.

I looked in a supermarket and found prices more expensive for everyday items, but cheaper on luxury goods (no VAT)

There is no road tax, instead they add tax to petrol, but it is still cheaper than in UK mainland. There is a speed limit on all roads of 35 mph for private vehicles and 25mph for commercial vehicles. All vehicles have to display insurance details on the windscreen.

We returned to the ship for lunch and then had a quiet meander along the sea front before returning to get ready for the Captains welcome party and the formal dinner.