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.


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