A voyage around the British Isles on Fred. Olsen’s aptly named ship, Boudicca, is all about cityscapes, Celtic ruins and natural wonders. Sailing out of Port of Tyne in North Shields is a bonus for residents of the North East even if a wee bit wet. Lynn Houghton reports.
There is no mist or rain nor clouds to dim the glorious, glimmering pink sunrise over the Sea of Hebrides. Boudicca is steaming north-east towards the Isle of Mull as we head for Staffa Island and Fingal’s Cave. Remarkably, there is no wind, only a gentle breeze with the vast sea appearing like a proverbial mill pond. Wrapped up against the chill, several intrepid guests stake out viewing spots on the upper decks to inspect the cave that inspired Mendelsohn’s Hebrides Overture. As Staffa Island approaches and our ship slows, it becomes easier to spot the basalt honeycomb shaped columns that shore up the island. We had seen these same rock shapes up close at the Giants’ Causeway in Northern Ireland – our previous stop. As the sun rises, the cave – framed by these basalt columns – becomes fully visible. A truly remarkable site and we are the only humans around to see it.
It is appropriate that the ship taking us to iconic sites in Celtic Ireland, Scotland and England is named Boudicca after the legendary warrior Queen of pre-history. Fred. Olsen Cruise Line’s vessel is a small, charming ship with 162 cabins, a capacity for 880 guests and a crew of 361. But she is perhaps most famous for her friendly crew who have a penchant for remembering returning guests. The food is also a highlight. The only female head chef at sea, Senior Officer Sara Sipek, gets the best from her staff of 63. Everything from Indian buffets to formal cream teas, gala dinners to Cullin Skink soup (in honour of Celtic Scotland) are authentic and tasty.
Later that morning, Boudicca arrives into Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands. On first viewing, the lush green hillsides – dotted with sheep and cattle – have almost no trees due to ferocious winter gales off the Atlantic Ocean. On disembarking, guests visit the famed Neolithic sites of Skara Brae (3,100 BC village), the standing Stones of Stenness and the atmospheric Brodgar Circle, as well as the bay of Scapa Flow. Famous for its WWI underwater ship wrecks, Scapa Flow is also known for the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak during WWII.
Kirkwall itself is a small town whose inhabitants, as is true of most of the Orkneys, pride themselves on their self-sufficiency. It boasts an ancient cathedral, a lovely high street with gift shops (hand knitted scarves make nifty gifts) and an attractive fishing port worth exploring.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan
It is an exceptionally warm autumn morning when we sail into Falmouth Harbour. This is the opportunity to visit the Lost Gardens of Heligan or the Eden Project, both created by Dutchman and entrepreneur, Tim Smit.
I decide to visit the former and am not disappointed. Entering the Lost Gardens of Heligan is akin to arriving into a primeval paradise. Our tour guide, Graham Honey, is from nearby Mevaissey and grew up here. Graham is full of inside knowledge about the gardens and the family who owned them. “Helygen is Cornish for ‘willow’ and these trees, along with Rhododendron and Camellias, flourish in the mild climate here,” says our guide. “I used to play here as child so there was nothing ‘lost’ about the gardens for locals like me!”
It has taken twenty-five years to return the grounds to their original state and the results are quite astonishing. The exquisite and unexpected walled vegetable garden (where Victorian produce is being cultivated) with its Melon Yard, Pineapple Pit and wall of bee boles has been restored and are in pristine condition. A unique section of the grounds, named the Jungle, has enormous ferns and exotic plants in tandem with ponds, bridges and water features.
Originally owned by the Tremayne family, the gardens were created in 1770 by Reverend Henry Hawkins Tremayne. In their hey-day, they covered 1,000 acres of the 2,000-acre estate. It took a veritable army of gardeners to maintain but the Great War had a devastating effect on this work force. Half of the young gardeners were sent off to fight and none returned. Some tools were left, quite literally, in the spot where they had been last used.
Cobh, Cork and the Blarney Castle
Next port of call is on the other side of the Irish Sea – COBH. Much of the history of the Port of Cobh (pronounced Cove) is relatively current, particularly with reference to the Titanic and the presence of major American tech companies based here.
As Cobh is one of the deepest and most extensive natural harbours in the world, it has always held a prominent place in respect to the emerald isle.
There is ancient history here, too. Perhaps one of the most well-known ruins in the world is Blarney Castle. Only a twenty-minute drive from the city of Cork, Blarney Castle, with its infamous Blarney stone, is a place virtually every visitor to Ireland wants to include in their itinerary. Though the castle itself is a ruin, it is interesting to climb up the inside staircase to the battlements. At the top are gorgeous views of the countryside and the chance to kiss the stone, of course! Legend has it that those who kiss the Blarney stone will acquire the gift of eloquence. They also might acquire a crick in their neck due to having to kiss the stone backwards and upside down!
The Port of Belfast offers an opportunity to explore this industrial city or to see the new Titanic Museum. But most of the guests are interested in the area’s less industrial past and head for the hills.
What many may not know about the Giant’s Causeway is that the surrounding landscape is designated by UNESCO as an area of outstanding beauty. This is where the popular series ‘Game of Thrones’ is filmed and the green, rolling hills and farms are truly picturesque. Here farms, fields and livestock live peacefully alongside the crashing tumultuous surf of the Atlantic Ocean.
Though the Giant’s Causeway has been chronicled by many, it is still astonishing to see these incredible rock formations. Formed millions of years ago by volcanic activity and uplift, the symmetrical octagon shaped stones are fascinating in their uniformity. Many of these basalt columns are black which is most striking. These rock formations are all the more exciting to view when skies are sunny and with the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean. Truly breathtaking.
The prospect of sailing on Boudicca, the former Royal Viking Star built in the 1970s, is a real bonus for those that know the history of cruise vessels. For most, the destinations are the real stars of this itinerary, particularly if the weather is fine. But, without a doubt, the friendly staff and tasty menus also help make for a smooth sailing.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines.