Tuesday, May 29, 2012

It is All Becoming a Blur

Map picture

I have never been on a cruise that has anywhere near the activity and adventures as this ship. When I last wrote, we had just visited Killarney, Ireland; that was on May 24th. Today is the 28th and in the interim, we have stopped at Galway City, Ireland and Kylemore Abbey. Then we anchored off the small town of Killybegs, Ireland, where Lisa and I walked around for an hour. Following this, the vessel anchored off Rathlin Island, where we walked around the beautiful landscape and then went to a magnificent Bird Sanctuary. That afternoon we anchored off Portrush, Ireland and visited the 1630’s castle called Dunluce, and afterwards went to see the Giant Causeway, a World Heritage Site. Now, in my book, that is a mouthful. We are awakened early every day, usually around 6:30am, and the activities are constant until just before dinner around 7:30pm. I will say, it has been great fun, and after this experience, I think we would find a normal cruise boring!

Let me give it a try to summarize all that has happened: This morning was perhaps one of the most exciting adventures we have had on this entire cruise. The ship dropped anchor off the deserted small island of Staffa, in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland. Staffa Island, Hebrides, ScotlandThe island is not only a world renowned Bird Sanctuary, but it offers some spectacular caves which can be explored by our Zodiacs. Staffa Island, Hebrides, ScotlandFor the last three years, the weather conditions precluded using the Zodiacs, but today dawned with clear skies, warm temperatures, and not a breath of wind so everyone got to explore the caves and the island itself during our four hour visit. What made the day so special was that when we arrived to board our Zodiac, we turned out to be the only two onboard. So, we had a private tour! The day was so special, that the Captain, himself, came along and piloted one of the Zodiacs. The water was flat calm, and we had the island totally to our group. As we are just now departing, however, I see that many boats have come over from the mainland, and the island is crawling with people. During our “private” ride, we actually got to see Puffins swimming and flying all around our Zodiac. What an experience! If I can, I am going to attach a photograph of a Puffin. Staffa Island, Hebrides, ScotlandThe waters were crystal clear, and we could see all kinds and sizes of jellyfish, some of which were pink, white, or even a purple one. Our driver explored every one of the caves on the island, and since we were by ourselves, it was quite an awe inspiring experience. We are now back onboard, the anchor has lifted, and we are off to the Scottish mainland for a visit this afternoon to visit Iona, Scotland.

Yesterday May 27, we dropped anchor off the small island of Rathlin in Northern Ireland. Rathlin is home to around 100 people, and is only 8 miles long, and 1 mile in width. It is a special bird conservation area. Rathlin Island, Northern IrelandOur group spent about 90 minutes walking in the splendid countryside after which we boarded a bus which took us to the basalt sea cliffs which rose over 500 ft. above the ocean and are home to millions of birds, including the Puffin. To reach the viewing area, we had to descend almost 300 feet down a steep incline, “with only 89 steps” bragged our guide. The big deal was that we would see Puffins. They named their buses after Puffins, and the little gift shop at the lighthouse sold stuffed Puffins, so I was very excited to finally see one of the little darlings. Sadly after such a descent and a wonderful vista, there was not a Puffin to be seen. Several powerful scopes had been setup for our use because the birds were nesting over 200 ft. below us. Some people claimed to see a puffin, but when I looked in the scope all I could see were “birds.” Just in case, I took a picture of a plastic bird that had been setup as a display, and if worse came to worse, I could send my granddaughter that picture since seeing a Puffin is her only one request for this trip.

We returned to the ship for lunch while the vessel moved to the Causeway Coast of Northern Ireland, said to be one of the World’s Great Road Journeys. We dropped anchor off the small coastal village of Port Rush and went ashore by Zodiac, where we boarded our buses for the afternoon adventure. What astounded us was that the town was absolutely full of people everywhere. Any open area had people sunbathing and the streets were full of entire families out for a stroll. As we left town the roadways were full of cars and they were parked all along the coastal road. According to our guide, this part of Northern Ireland rarely sees the sun, and a brilliant day such as yesterday, brought everyone out to enjoy the rarity.

Our first stop along our route was to visit Dunluce Castle which was built in 1630, but which dates back to the 14th century. Duncluce Castle, Northern IrelandToday the ruins are in quite good shape, and the castle is considered the most romantic and picturesque Castle in Northern Ireland. We spent about an hour exploring the ruins before once again boarding our bus to continue our journey. We drove through the town of Bushmills, and got to see the famous Bushmills Distillery. We continued on to the Giant’s Causeway, which is a World Heritage Site. I simply could not believe all the people! I think that all the population was outside today, and it looked as if half of them were at the Causeway! Giant's Causeway UNESCO Site, Northern IrelandThe Causeway is composed of over 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns that descend to the sea. Formed over 50 million years ago, it has been an archeological wonder for centuries. At the end of a two hour visit, we all once again boarded the bus for our return journey to our new home, the Silver Explorer.

On the previous day, May 26, our ship had docked at Killybegs, Ireland, which is a small coastal fishing town in the Donegal Region of Ireland. In the morning, we finally had a little time to ourselves with a morning “at leisure.” The onboard experts gave all types of lectures, so you could certainly keep entertained. The Captain also had a little treat for us. Since the day had dawned once again with absolutely clear skies, he decided to head to a large series of cliffs, which would offer us some fantastic views. When we arrived, I stayed on the Bridge to watch with total amazement as the Captain perfectly positioned the ship for viewing in spite of the sudden rise in the winds to over 60 mph. Outer Hebrides, ScotlsndAt times the winds were so strong that they almost knocked me over. The Captain made the extraordinary decision to open the foredeck where all the anchors are located, but which allows some shelter from the winds so people could safely take photographs. In the afternoon the ship offered a 3.5 hour tour to a Replicated Folk Village, but in truth, neither Lisa nor I were terribly interested in the excursion, and so we opted to walk into town and then take the rest of the afternoon off. Killybegs, IrelandIt was a long walk to reach the village, and after taking a few pictures, we had seen what there was to see and managed to find a taxi back to the ship.

Now I will go back yet one more day to May 25 and our visit to Galway City, Ireland. This is going to be a little tricky, because I am going to attempt to describe the most amazing feat of seamanship I have ever witnessed, if I can just get the words right.

Usually a ship of any size anchors off the coast and tenders ashore. Certainly the perfect place to dock would be in the center of the town at the quay, but the quay was a square area of perhaps no more than 500 ft. square; it was lined with small boats tied up to the dock. You might recall that our vessel is 355 ft. in length. The idea of trying to put this ship in that harbor seems ludicrous. But wait, it gets better still. This region of the world is subject to very large tidal flows. You may have seen in some of my photographs that after the tide recedes, the small boats in the harbor end up resting on the bottom after rolling on their side. In Galway, they have attempted to solve this problem by installing a narrow canal type entrance into the quay, and when the tide starts to recede, they simply close the locks, and keep the water level constant. To the surprise of everyone onboard, even the crew, the Captain elected to dock this ship in that small harbor, an event that brought virtually every crewmember and passenger on deck, not to mention a fair number of onlookers on land.

As we approached the canal, it appeared to me that there was absolutely no way this vessel would fit through that narrow channel. Galway City, IrelandThe Captain slowly and skillfully slipped the vessel to the right and literally rode the bumpers on that side as he slowly moved forward along the canal wall. In the center of the narrow passage, we had only 2 ft. of clearance. OK, so now he had the bow of the ship poking into this little harbor – how in the world did he turn the ship around, or was he somehow going to back out when we departed? Here was where the surprise came in – even to the other officers. As our bow cleared the lock, the Captain ordered a docking rope thrown to workers on the dock. They immediately tied the rope down right on the corner of the quay. The ship continued to inch forward until it was almost touching the little boats docked at the Quay, and the rope was slowly let out. Just as the stern cleared the canal, the Captain ordered the rope on the deck to be tied to the cap stand, and the deck cleared. Slowly the rope tightened until there was no more give, but by then it was serving as a pivot for the rear of the ship. Our momentum carried the rear of the ship around in a circle and barely missed some of the little craft. As if by a miracle, the ship turned a complete 180 degrees and now our bow was pointed out the canal. We slowly moved forward and tied up in the canal channel itself, while the locks were closed behind us. Absolutely amazing – nothing short of spectacular!

In the afternoon, we all departed the ship for a six hour tour of the Connemara countryside and a visit to Kylemore Abbey. Kylemore AbbeyThe Abbey was built in the 1860’s and today is home to the Irish Benedictine Nuns. It is a beautiful building, but sadly only three rooms are open to the public. On the grounds is a beautiful Chapel, called Norwich Chapel, and of course there are magnificent gardens. We saw as much as time and our feet permitted, and then returned to the ship.

So, believe it or not I managed in reverse order to cover our last 3 ½ days, and I will try to get some pictures uploaded later today. However this afternoon we are going to the island of Iona, again in the Hebrides, where we will visit the Iona Abbey.

I hope everyone is well. I am much better and Lisa is fine – we love this experience.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Return To The Mother Country

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Sitting in our stateroom with the balcony door wide open and the sunlight pouring in, our ship is at anchor in the Dart River in southeastern England right in the middle of the town of Dartmouth, Capital of County Devon. This ancient city, home to roughly 5,000 people, rises steeply on both sides of the river. Overlooking the city itself is the magnificent structure of the Britannia Royal Naval College. The river is actually a long narrow tidal ribbon that runs inland as far as Totnes. We are in the middle of the river, and can shuttle over to the town center in a short two minute ride on one of our zodiacs, a large rubber raft type craft with a large outboard motor. These little craft are like taxis which are available constantly while we are at anchor.

With our door open to our stateroom, I can hear all the boat traffic as it passes, tooting horns in greeting to the ship. There are church bells tolling almost constantly, and there is even an old passenger train still in service which adds its whistle to the cacophony of sound flooding in from outside. We are only the second cruise ship to visit Dartmouth in large part because the depth of the river would make passage by most vessels impossible. In addition, the river has huge tidal flows, so that even our ship is severely limited as to when it may move on the river. Indeed, right in the center of town is the local Quay where a small fleet of boats are tied up. When we arrived this morning, all of the ships were afloat; however, when we returned from lunch at a local pub, the water was completely gone, and every vessel was sitting at an angle on the muddy bottom.

The ship provided a complimentary four hour walking tour of the Naval College today; a very rare honor. Normally the facility is closed to the public. However, we were just not up to another long day of walking, so we opted to hop over to town, and there hired a cab to show us around. “Not much to see” he said, “but if you got an hour, I have a few ideas.” And so we set out on an adventure that took us to an old fort, an ancient church, a long drive along the beautiful shoreline, and to a monument where an old WW II tank which had been recovered, was on display. It was an old American tank that had sunk with all its occupants in a rehearsal for D-Day. Today it is a solemn monument to England’s friends across the Sea, and the memorial and tank are covered in fresh flowers and plaques. Our drive ended at the door to the driver’s favorite local pub.

Welcome to “adventure cruising.” Our small ship can, and does take, its guests to places that larger vessels don’t and cannot go. Each evening there is a briefing by the large staff of onboard experts about what awaits us the next day, and of course, a brief recap of what our day was about. The attire onboard is casual, with the exception of the Captain’s Welcome Dinner, when men should wear a jacket, but tie is optional. The bridge is open at all times, and I went in this morning to observe the tricky passage up the river and the process of turning the ship around and dropping anchor all in one swift move. There is only one restaurant, and mealtimes vary depending on what the day brings.

But, I have gotten ahead of myself. We have been away from home for six fully packed days. Let me see if I can do a quick update:

We were met by our good friends, Bill and Jayne Davison, at the London airport. Bill & Jayne DavisonThey quite literally took a week off of work to spend time with us and to plan our short stay before boarding our ship in Portsmouth, England. We met Bill and Jayne many years ago on a Princess cruise to Egypt, and have been good friends ever since. The idea was that they would rent a car big enough for all of us and then from the airport, we were to drive to Hampshire in the south of England, where I had reservations for all of us at the famous Lainston House.Lainston House  Hampshire, England It was first built as a summer palace for Charles II in 1683, but today is a 5 star hotel nestled into the English countryside. Somehow we did not communicate well, because Bill and Jayne had come down several days earlier in their motorhome to scout-out the area. They rented the car in Winchester which was nearby, and were planning on staying in their motorhome and picking us up for touring. When I told them I actually had a pre-paid room for them at Lainston House, they thought I was joking until we went to the front desk, and a key was produced in their name. We all had a good laugh at the screw-up, but sadly, while the property was quite exceptional, the service was not. If I had to rate the place overall, it would barely get 2 stars.

Bill suggested that we eat at a local pub, and am I glad we agreed. I have now learned just how great this English institution really is. At home, we have become accustomed to “chain food.” However, each little pub is an institution unto itself. First, we had to master the protocol. I mistakenly ordered a scotch, and when the glass arrived, there was a thimble amount of liquid in the glass with no ice. The proper thing to do in a pub is to order a pint of the local ale. Every little local community is proud of its own ales, and I gathered that ordering one is a good idea. Next was the issue of menus and service. Well, there are no menus, and no table service as we know it. There are blackboards around the place with the day’s menu carefully written in chalk. You make your selection, and then go to the bar and place your order. Some time later it is delivered to your table, and that ends the service part. When you are done, you go to the bar to pay your tab! BUT, it is the food that really makes the difference. It is, and was, amazing. Both nights we went out with Bill and Jayne, we had fabulous food. The kitchens in both places were open so that you could see inside, and they were spotless and run with efficiency.

Our first day was spent touring in and around Winchester. First and foremost is Winchester Cathedral. Winchester CathedralA church was founded on this site in 634, and over the years, grew into a massive Cathedral. What exists today was begun in 1079 at a time when Winchester was the Capital of England. We had a great time and saw some more things including an aviation museum. However, jet lag quickly put Lisa and I on a track back for an early nap. Sadly, both during the nap and later that evening when I went to bed, the pain in both my shoulders was so bad that I was unable to sleep well. In fact, the pain was the worst I have had since I broke my shoulder.

At breakfast I brought it up, and we all came to the same conclusion: my “heavy” camera was just too much for my injured shoulders. Pooh! Now what was I to do?

The next day we all agreed to once again visit Salisbury to see the Cathedral there. Salisbury CathedralWe all remembered from our previous trip how wonderful it was, and we all felt that it was much more special than what we saw at Winchester, and indeed it was. I cannot tell you why, but Salisbury Cathedral is such a special place that it is very difficult to describe until you have been there yourself.

It was on the way back to our car that the entire trip almost came to a complete stop when I once again suffered a fall. This is really becoming a bad habit!! While we were walking along a sidewalk, my left foot slipped over the curb, sending me falling onto my hurt shoulder and right into the lane of oncoming traffic. Brakes squealed, and people shouted, and before I knew it three big men, and I mean BIG men were lifting me up and off the street before I could even catch my breath. Thankfully the cars stopped just in time, and I rolled this time more than fell, but I have re-injured both shoulders, and now added my right knee. If this keeps up, I may have to get a walker, or at least a cane (which I am considering).

At that point, I was ready to head for our ship in Portsmouth, but not before everyone decided that I needed to see if I could find a small lightweight camera that I could use. Having now injured myself yet again, carrying my big heavy camera was really out of the question. And so, we found a camera store, and to my amazement they had a small Sony camera that in every specification was better than my Nikon. The only problem was the only one in stock was the display model, so clearly I would have to take that. But, it had a very mediocre lens, and after much discussion of finding an alternative, the manager appears from the back with the exact Sony lens I would want. It was being “held” for someone, but I could have it! I would need an extra battery, but alas they were sold out, but the manager would sell me her battery at a discount, and before you knew it I left the store with a new camera outfit!

It was an hour drive to Portsmouth, and a sad moment to have to part from Bill and Jayne. They had literally gone way out of their way to see that our three days was fun filled, and we cannot thank them enough. However, it was time to board our ship and new home for the next 37 days.

Even though we have never been on this ship, the Silver Explorer, we have been with SilverSea on many previous cruises. Many of the crew recognized us, and the newly appointed Hotel Manager is someone with whom we had a private dinner on our last cruise – so let’s just say we are being treated like royalty.

Our welcome to “adventure cruising” came before dinner on our first night. I was dumbfounded when the speaker asked for a show of hands of those who had cruised on this ship in the past, and more than half the room did so. This program of SilverSea has only been around for four years, but clearly a large number of people already knew about it and are coming back for more.

Our first stop was to be at Lyme Regis. Lyme Regis, EnglandNow don’t go hustling to your maps, because chances are that you are not too likely to find it listed, except in really small print. Lyme Regis is a small coastal town in West Dorset, England which is home to around 4,000 people of which 45% are elderly. At one time, it was a major British port, but today its claim to fame is the nearby “Jurassic Coast,” a World Heritage Site.

By way of example of what this ship does, the call to Lyme Regis represented the very first visit of a cruise ship, and was therefore a major celebratory event. The town turned out in full force and turned the day into a celebration. They even got the Royal Navy to send the HMS Exeter, a modern day destroyer, to anchor next to us and for their crew to participate in the town’s activities. HMS ExeterWe went ashore in zodiacs. Unfortunately the weather was not good. We had very choppy water and strong winds. The temperature was only 40 degrees F, and the winds were steady at 40 mph. Therefore, our first exposure to the zodiac was rough, wet and very cold!

Arriving at the jetty, we were met by the Mayor, and also by the Official Town Crier. A large gathering of the local populace was also there, and a party was had by all. We boarded small jitneys for the journey uphill to meet our motor coaches. The streets of the old town were too small for them to meet us at the jetty, so this was the only way to keep us from enduring a long steep walk.

There were two different tours offered here, and we chose the one that would visit the world famous and award winning Abbotsbury Sub Tropical Gardens. Abbotsbury Sub Tropical GardensAfterwards we were driven to a very special location along the coast where at this time of the year, thousands of swans come to nest and hatch their eggs. Abbotsbury SwanneryIn spite of the cold overcast skies, the gardens were well worth the visit, but I was quickly almost reduced to tears. Everything was so rushed and new, including my camera. I never had time to read the 160 page manual, and the menus were totally different on this Sony from my old Nikon. I missed several great pictures, just not knowing how to even turn the darn thing on. Then I could not tell what I was shooting, and finally I hit a button by accident and it appeared that all my pictures from the gardens were gone. At this point I was about to throw the darn thing against a wall.

As we drove to visit the swans, I “found” the deleted pictures, and came up with a few answers on taking pictures, so I managed to calm down a little. Somewhere on the drive back I figured out my last challenge, but the real revelation came when I pulled the pictures up on my laptop. They were stunning! Anyway, more to follow on this as I figure out what I have here.

The Swannery was amazing. We just happened to be there at the exact time when the eggs were hatching, and we actually got to see that event occur several times. Just being surrounded by thousands of beautiful swans was interesting enough for a day’s adventure.

That brings us full circle to our stop in Dartmouth. Since I started this blog, the sun is now going down and the ship has moved out of the river towards our next stop, Tresco, the Isle of Scilly. I am headed off to our daily briefing, and I hope you are enjoying these as much as we are enjoying our trip. Obviously with so much going on, I have barely even looked at the pictures, much less gotten them in shape for publishing – so bear with me as I try to figure out how to do all this with the limited time available.


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Say It Isn't So - An Icebreaker?


Lisa and I are about to set off on a cruise which promises to be quite different from our prior experiences. We will be sailing on the Silver Explorer which is the smallest and most unique vessel in the SilverSea fleet. Perhaps the best way to describe what awaits us is to quote from the SilverSea web site:

"Silversea’s purpose-built Silver Explorer expedition ship has been designed specifically for navigating waters in some of the world’s most remote destinations, including both of earth’s polar regions. A strengthened hull with a Lloyd’s Register ice-class notation (1A) for passenger vessels enables Silver Explorer to safely push through ice floes with ease. A fleet of Zodiac boats allows Silversea Expedition guests to visit even the most off-the-beaten path locations and an expert Expedition Team provides insight and understanding to each unforgettable Silver Explorer cruise adventure."

The ship carries a maximum of 132 passengers, and a crew of almost equal size. Unlike its larger sister ships, it has a very informal atmosphere with no formal nights and an "open Bridge policy." At each port, shore excursions are already planned and included as part of the expedition. Generally, we will leave the ship on Zodiacs, which are basically rubber boats with big outboard motors. As such, we will make wet landings on occasion, but this allows us to go places that the normal cruise ship could not go. The ship carries experts in each region in which it is travelling who will prepare us for what we will be experiencing at each port or stop.

During our 37 day cruise, I count 32 different places that we will visit, and for those who are interested, I am attaching a copy of our actual itinerary. Besides the usual type of activities, we will explore sea caves by zodiac, visit colonies of mute swans and puffins. We will visit some of the mysterious standing stones in Scotland, and walk through the village in the Isle of Man that was the filming location for the movie "Waking Ned Devine." We will sail up close to icebergs in our zodiacs and explore deep fjords and lava caves. Eventually we will head North to the edge of the polar ice shelf and in go in search of polar bears and a walrus or two, and at times hope to photograph over five different species of whales that traverse the northern waters at this time of the year. We start in England, visit Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Orkney Islands, the Hebrides, and the Faroe Islands before reaching Iceland. From there we travel north to Norway and the land of Svalbard, home to over 5,000 polar bears. Our journey ends at Longyearbyen, Norway, the northernmost city in the world. From there a chartered aircraft will bring us to Oslo to spend the night before we once again return home.

Obviously we have never quite done anything like this, but it sounds quite exciting. Given the schedule that we have, I am uncertain as to how much time I will have for writing my blogs and publishing my photographs. So, please "bear" with me and I promise to write, but it will probably be done in batches when time permits.

We hope everyone is well and that you will enjoy our travels together.