The world is a beautiful place, much of it on our own doorstep. Cruise & Maritime Voyages’ flag ship Columbus transported me to spectacular scenery, the land of green rolling hills, mountains, glens, castles, clans and the swirl of bagpipes. Yes, Scotland, this is my story.
Arrival at the Port of Tilbury, through check-in and security, and we’re onto the ship and into our cabin in less than 30 minutes, one of my fastest boarding times ever. After compulsory boat drill, the ship moves away from the quayside and we begin our transit along the River Thames, following the twists and turns past meadows, towns and villages as we head for the open sea.
Next morning, we negotiate the sea lock and North Sea Canal before our lunch time arrival in Amsterdam. Soon after berthing, a coach transports me to the Keukenhof Garden, home of the region’s bulb fields. Keukenhof is busy: thousands of tourists from all over the world have come to see the world’s largest display of tulips and many other bulb varieties. Originally designed as an ornamental garden in 1857, it’s a 79-acre world of colour, perfectly sculptured lawns, secluded gardens, woodlands and waterfalls that tumble into lakes where the water is so still it mirrors the trees. Vistas of yellow, red and white tulips, yellow daffodils, blue and mauve hyacinth, tall standing iris, delicate crocus and so much more; 7 million bulbs hand planted every September by a team of 40 gardeners. Board one of the electric boats, glide amongst the bulb fields experiencing the colour and wonderful aromas that fill the air. This venue needs a full day to appreciate the many sights. For those that wish to explore Amsterdam there is excellent public transport to all areas. Board one of the hop on-hop off canal boats, passing house boats (of all shapes and sizes that together with the cost of purchase and mooring can set you back an eye watering €450,000), churches, official buildings, the Anne Frank Museum and everywhere you look, parked bicycles.
Late afternoon sees us retracing our steps along the North Sea Canal. It’s time to head north and with a day at sea, time to explore the ship. Entering service with Cruise & Maritime Voyages as their flagship in 2017, Columbus boasts 17 categories of well-appointed cabins. 597 offer ocean views at an average size of almost 190 sq. ft. so no one will complain about lack of space, plus there are 28 de luxe balcony cabins and 36 junior balcony suites, ensuring there is something to suit everyone’s pocket. Recognising the needs of passengers travelling alone, Cruise & Maritime Voyages have allocated 150 cabins for solo use. All cabins are tastefully furnished, coming equipped with air conditioning, private en-suite facilities with a powerful shower, ample hanging space plus 18 drawers, flat-screen television, fridge, personal safe and that all-important item, a hairdryer. Electrical sockets are of the continental type, plus in my cabin an English style 3-pin socket.
Waterfront, the main dining restaurant, is set out to tables of 4, 6 and 8 settings with some for 2, with selectively-placed partitioning lending a more intimate feel to the area. I soon discovered the quality of food and service were excellent.
Our arrival in Kirkwall is greeted with blue sky but a chilly 7°C. Travelling across Orkney, our guide delivers a history of the island, including how the new industrial area was an RAF aerodrome during the last war before arriving at what is probably the most visited part of the island, known during WW2 as Camp 60: the site of the Italian Chapel. 1942 saw 1300 Italian soldiers who had been captured in North Africa brought to Orkney to help construct the Churchill Barriers, four concrete causeways created to block access to Scapa Flow. 550 of these prisoners were housed at Camp 60 on Lamb Holm. They asked for a place to worship which was agreed by the camp Commandant and the camp’s Catholic priest. Two Nissen huts were joined end-to-end, the interior covered with plasterboard, the altar and altar rail constructed from concrete left over from work on the barriers. Much of the decoration was done by prisoner Domenico Chiocchetti who painted the sanctuary whilst other prisoners decorated the remaining interior. They created a frontage of concrete concealing the huts’ shape, corned beef tins were transformed into light holders and the font was made from the inside of a car exhaust covered in a layer of concrete. Shortly before the war ended, the prisoners were released but Chiocchetti remained on the island to finish decorating the newly-consecrated chapel. The interior, is amazing: beautiful, a work of art and for me, certainly, the highlight of that day’s tour.
Leaving the chapel, we made our way across the island with stops at the Ring of Brodgar dating back to Neolithic times, and Skara Brae, a Neolithic stone built settlement overlooking the bay of Skaill. Next we toured the Orkney Brewery, which produces craft brewed ales varying between 3% and 10%, with tempting names such as Orkney Gold, Dark Island, Red MacGregor and the like. We sampled a few whilst tucking into a lunch of locally caught fish, salmon, herring and more.
It was soon time to move on to the magnificent St. Magnus Cathedral, Britain’s most northerly cathedral which dominates the skyline above Kirkwall. Building was begun in 1137 by the Viking Earl Rognvald in memory of his uncle St. Magnus. The cathedral is not owned by any church but by the people of Kirkwall, and has become a huge tourist attraction. The interior can only be described as magnificent with its ornate ceiling, wood carved pulpit, alter with miniature Viking long boat, flags and so much more. This is a place I will return to as there is much to see.
Our final stop was the Orkney Distillery, home to the famous Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin produced under the expert eye of head distiller, Louis Wright. A micro distillery producing gin, yes gin, in a land renowned for another spirit, may come as a surprise to some but gin is becoming very popular.
As we sail from Kirkwall the pipes and drums of the Kirkwall City Pipe Band play us away. A fitting way to say goodbye as we head to our next port of call, Portree on the Isle of Skye.
Many will know the ‘Skye Boat Song’ telling of the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape to the Isle of Skye, the largest island of the Inner Hebrides. Today, the ship anchors in the bay and we tender ashore before travelling across the island. Passing low rolling hills, loch views, cattle, sheep and uncluttered roads we head to Dunvegan Castle, home to the MacLeod’s, a clan that can trace its heritage back to the early 13th century and boasting not one, but two tartans: one yellow one green. The current head of the clan, Hugh Magnus MacLeod took over in 2007 and still maintains an apartment on the top floor. A tour of the castle is like stepping back in time as you gaze upon the beautiful furniture, paintings, and cases of antique swords. Standing on a rocky headland over the sea inlet to Loch Dunvegan and surrounded by gardens boasting all the colours of spring, this is definitely a place to visit. Travelling back to the ship, we spy seals basking in the sunshine along the shoreline and rocks of Loch Snizort.
The following day is Tobermory, a small town on the Isle of Mull featuring brightly coloured houses, cafes, restaurants and shops. Its busy small harbour makes it a very popular location for visitors to Western Scotland and is used as the location for the children’s television programme ‘Balamory’. Leaving the picturesque town behind, we travel south east across the island to Duart Castle, ancestral home to the Clan Maclean since the 14th century. However due to clan wars, the castle changed hands several times and became almost a ruin before being purchased in 1910 by Sir Fitzroy MacLean, 26th clan chief. Situated on a peninsula overlooking the Sound of Mull and the entrances to Lochs Linnie and Etive, it affords a breathtaking vista. In the grounds are a tea shop selling wonderful homemade scones and fruit cake, and a small but well stocked gift shop. Driving back to the ship, a bright sun shines from a cloudless blue sky, the fields have become alive with sheep and lambs, their white coats a contrast to the rich yellow of the Gorse hedgerows and green grass. Highland cattle with their long horns and woolly coats ignore us as we pass. Arriving back in town, there’s time to visit the Tobermory Distillery, one of the oldest in Scotland, before tendering back to the ship. The next day is Dublin where I reluctantly leave the ship before it cruises on to the Isles of Scilly, Guernsey and Honfleur and returns to Tilbury.
If you are looking for a cruise that unveils beautiful locations, history and breathtaking scenery near to home aboard a ship that for me never disappoints, then this is a cruise for you.
Please be advised that Cruise & Maritime Voyages has now ceased trading. For more information, please visit www.cruiseandmaritime.com