The world is a beautiful place, much of it on our own doorstep. Cruise and 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 it’s through check-in and security, onto the MV Columbus and into our cabin 11171 in less than 30 minutes, one of my fastest boarding times ever. Next, compulsory boat drill which, completed, sees us move away from the quayside and begin our transit along the River Thames, following the twists and turns past meadows, towns and villages as we head for the open sea. First port of call before heading north, Amsterdam.
Next morning, we negotiate the sea lock and North Sea Canal to our lunch time arrival in Amsterdam. Soon after berthing a coach transports me to the Keukenhof Gardens, home of the region’s bulb fields. Keukenhof is busy, thousands of tourists from all over the world have come to see what is, the world’s largest display of bulbs, not just tulips but many other bulb varieties. Originally designed as an ornamental garden in 1857, a 79 acre world of colour, perfectly sculptured lawns, secluded gardens, woodlands, small waterfalls tumbling 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 many others, 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 areas. 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, pass 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 bcycles.
Late afternoon sees us retracing our steps along the North Sea Canal, it’s time to head north and a day at sea, time to explore the ship. Entering service with Cruise and Maritime Voyages as their flagship in 2017 Columbus boasts 17 categories of well-appointed cabins. 597 with ocean views at an average size of almost 190 sq. ft. so no one will complain about lack of space plus 28 De Luxe Balcony cabins and 36 Junior Balcony suites ensuring there is something to suit everyone’s pocket. Cruise and Maritime recognising the needs of solo passengers have allocated 150 cabins for their use. All cabins are tastefully furnished coming equipped with air conditioning, private en-suite facilities with 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, partitioning selectively placed gives a more intimate feel to the area, and as I discovered the quality of food and service were excellent.
Arrival in Kirkwall is greeted with blue sky but a chilly 7c. 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, that known during WW2 as Camp 60, the site of the Italian Chapel. 1942 saw 1300 Italian soldiers 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 camps 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 interior 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, amazing, beautiful, a work of art and for me, certainly the highlight of that day’s tour.
Leaving the chapel, we make our way across the island with stops at the Ring of Brodgar dating back to Neolithic times, Skara Brae, a Neolithic stone built settlement overlooking the bay of Skaill, before lunch and a tour of the Orkney Brewery. Producing craft brewed ales varying between 3% and 10%, be tempted by such names as Orkney Gold, Dark Island, Red MacGregor and the like. Why not sample a few whilst tucking into a lunch of locally caught fish, Salmon, Herring and more.
Time to move on, the magnificent St. Magnus Cathedral, Britain’s most northerly cathedral dominating the skyline above Kirkwall, building began 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. On the opposite side of the road stand the ruins of the Old Bishops Palace with tourist office in its grounds. This is a venue I will return to as there is much to see that shortage of time on this visit prohibited.
Our final stop, 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 name Skye from the song ‘Skye Boat Song’ telling of the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie escaping 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 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 location 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 before our arrival back in Portree for the short tender ride back to the ship.
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 making it a very popular location for visitors to Western Scotland and used as the location for the children’s television programme ‘Balamory’. Leaving picturesque Tobermory 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 peninsular overlooking the Sound of Mull and the entrances to Lochs Linnie and Etive it affords a breath taking vista of the world around. In the grounds are a tea shop selling wonderful homemade scones, fruit cake etc. 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 Tobermory, time to visit the Tobermory Distillery, one of the oldest in Scotland before tendering back to the ship.
The next day is Dublin where unfortunately I leave the ship before it cruises on to the Isles of Scilly, Guernsey and Honfleur before returning to Tilbury. If you are looking for a cruise that unveils beautiful locations, history and breath-taking scenery near to home from a ship that for me never disappoints, then this is a cruise for you
Alan Fairfax -
is a travel writer for
YOUR HOLIDAY TV
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Published May 2019