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Trip Logs

Cruising the Enchanted Isles: Scotland, Ireland & England Trip Log: August 26–September 8, 2022

Trip Logs

Cruising the Enchanted Isles: Scotland, Ireland & England Trip Log: August 26–September 8, 2022

By Mark Brazil, A&K Expedition Team | August 31, 2022

August 26, 2022 | Edinburgh, Scotland

Upon arrival in Edinburgh, we gathered at The Balmoral for welcome cocktails in the landmark hotel’s elegant Holyrood Suite. Later, we were seated for dinner in the Sir Walter Scott Suite, where our Expedition Leader, Suzana Machado D’Oliveira extended a warm welcome and introduced us to our Abercrombie & Kent Expedition Team. Our welcome dinner was capped off with a rousing chorus from a renowned bagpipe band. The journey begins in earnest tomorrow after a rollicking first night on Scottish soil.

August 27, 2022 | The Firth of Forth

A calm, sunny day greeted us in Edinburgh — perfect weather for exploring this fascinating city. After an early breakfast, there was time to explore the city at leisure. Some of us took in the city’s historic architecture, as well as the acts of street performers from the world-renowned Edinburgh Festival.

Following an early lunch, we divided into three groups to explore the city further. One group embarked on a walking tour, while another stepped aboard ‘The Royal Yacht Britannia’ for a close-up look at the stately vessel. The third group soaked in the history of Edinburgh Castle, relishing panoramic views across the city and Firth of Forth from the battlements. All three excursions ended with a journey north across the Firth of Forth via the iconic Forth Bridge, one of the world's earliest great multi-span cantilever bridges.

Once across, we boarded ‘Le Champlain’ and settled into our state rooms. We sailed eastward, taking in the delightful scenery of the southern coast, the Fidra Lighthouse, the mountainous cone behind North Berwick and dramatic Bass Rock. Thousands of northern gannets treated us to flybys, affording glimpses of their shining white plumage, golden heads and black wingtips.

August 28, 2022 | The Highlands of Scotland

We awoke to a calm, mild morning as ‘Le Champlain’ cruised through Cromarty Firth and docked at Invergordon, Scotland’s main deep-water port. After a leisurely breakfast on board, we disembarked and broke into three groups to explore the delightful Highlands of Scotland.

The first group took in a wealth of Highland scenery, including Great Glen, Beauly and Caledonian Canal. From Dochgarroch, the group embarked on a private cruise of Loch Ness. Disembarking at Urquhart Castle, the group explored the fortification’s 1,000-year history, an epic saga spanning battles, sieges, raids and explosions.

Meanwhile at Culloden, the second group explored one of Scotland’s most famous battlegrounds, as well as the halls of Fort George, a former stronghold against the Jacobite insurgency and the current home of The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland.

In Tain, the third group enjoyed a guided tour of the world-renowned Glenmorangie Distillery, a cornerstone of the centuries-old Scottish Whisky tradition. Later, Glenmorangie House paired local culinary specialties with drams of their finest whiskies for a sublime taste of Scotland we wouldn’t soon forget.

Afterward, all three groups returned to ‘Le Champlain’ for a welcome dinner hosted by Captain Yannick Simon. We raised a glass to a spectacular day and to the adventures to come tomorrow in Orkney.

August 29, 2022 | Orkney

Overnight, ‘Le Champlain’ left the Highlands behind, ushering in a new tapestry of verdant, low-lying islands. We had voyaged from Alba to Orkney, an archipelago comprising 70 islands also known as the Green Isles.

We disembarked to explore the main island by coach, taking in its meadows, pastures, bays, lochs, standing stones and historical mounds. Fields bordered with intricate dry-stone walls penned Aberdeen and Angus cattle, as well as Cheviot and Scottish Blackface sheep, all mainstays of the island’s economy. As we drove along, we learned how the Orcadians shared certain ancestry, culture and linguistics with the Norse.

We broke in to three groups. The first embarked on a walking tour of Kirkwall, the island’s main city, revealing its 12th-century cathedral, as well as the adjoining Bishops’ and Earls’ palaces. The second group travelled back millennia, exploring the Neolithic wonders of the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar henge and the ruins of Skara Brae village. The third group set out on a northern coastal drive featuring the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, as well as the cliffs of Yesnaby and the Bay of Birsay. Here, we took a stroll to spot eider ducks and common seals, and to sample the wares of a delightful local honey stand. The three groups reassembled to cap off our island excursions with lunch at a waterside bistro where the locals charmed us with their warm hospitality and delicious cuisine.

Back on board ‘Le Champlain,’ we were soon underway, bound for the Outer Hebrides. This evening, we settled in for an enrichment lecture from Lord Richard Chartres outlining the “Enchanted Islands Before History,” followed by a recap of the day’s adventures and dinner. It was sad to say farewell to Orkney, but the Western Isles await.

August 30, 2022 | Lewis and Harris, Outer Hebrides

‘Le Champlain’ continued northward through the night, arriving this morning in Stornoway, our gateway to the island of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles. Although the name, Lewis and Harris, suggests two separate islands, it is in fact a single land mass.

Lewis and Harris greeted us with calm, clear, sunny weather — amplifying the raw natural beauty of the island and its glaciation. The island is littered with innumerable glacial erratic boulders, small pools and boggy patches of peat moss — its hillsides purple with blooming heather, its lochs whitened with flowering water lilies. Some 7,000 lochs and lochans (small lakes) also grace Lewis and Harris, adding to its wild grandeur.

Today, we split into three groups to explore the island further. The first group took in the island’s small village communities and white-sand beaches, marveling at views that stretched to the Isle of Skye. Those who headed northward from Stornoway unraveled 5,000 years of rich archeological history; including the dramatic Calanais Standing Stones, a site often described as Scotland’s answer to Stonehenge; Dun Carloway, a fortified residence dating back some 2,000 years; and the Arnol Blackhouse a traditional thatched house built around 1880. Meanwhile, those who headed south from Stornoway travelled along the Golden Road to visit with a fourth generation Harris Tweed weaver, as well as a whisky and gin distillery in Tarbert.

After a glorious day, we returned to ‘Le Champlain’ for our overnight cruise the most remote island of our voyage, St. Kilda.

August 31, 2022 | St. Kilda, Outer Hebrides

We approached St. Kilda’s main island of Hirta in bright sunshine and still winds — rare weather in this often harsh, far-flung corner of the world. One low cloud loomed across the flanks of Mullach Mòr and Cornachair, the island’s main mountains, but soon burned away as we boarded the Zodiacs for our landing.

Hirta’s last inhabitants, a community of just 27 people, abandoned the island in 1930, leaving behind a hardscrabble life eked out from sheep herding, collecting seabird eggs, tending hearty vegetable gardens and harvesting peat bogs. Today, the island’s sole inhabitants are the military contractors who man the radar installation atop the island and a small staff from Historic Scotland who protect and maintain the historical buildings, infrastructure and natural history of this National Nature Reserve and World Heritage Site.

As we approached by Zodiac, we could make out the former community’s immense stone walls, rectangular cottages and blackhouse crofts. Once ashore, we soon encountered the island’s Soay sheep, a rare breed that thrives here in the wild, as well as plenty of northern fulmars, Arctic skuas and great skuas.

We were offered three walks of differing lengths. The long hike took us uphill along the island’s main road, leading us to the radar station and superb views. The medium walk took us through the fascinating community, then uphill through a gap in the village’s outer stone wall onto the hillside beyond. There, dozens of dry-stone storehouses dotted the landscape. The trail continued up toward The Gap, a section of cliff affording astounding views back down to the village and the hills of Lewis and Harris on the skyline beyond. Our more relaxed option took in the island’s little church with its attached schoolroom. A small museum set along the village street revealed further details about the former islanders’ difficult lives.

As we returned to the luxury of ‘Le Champlain’ for lunch, we contemplated the stark contrast between our lives on board and the rugged lives of those who once lived on the island. ‘Le Champlain’ slowly circumnavigated the island while Lord Richard Chartres lectured on “The Scottish Enlightenment in Britain and America.” A lovely Scottish afternoon tea was presented as we viewed a dramatic rock stack carpeted with northern gannets. We rounded out the day with Dr. Mark Brazil’s talk about Birds Britannica, followed by our daily recap and briefing. It’s hard to believe that we only have one more day left in Scotland.

September 1, 2022 | Staffa & Iona

Another fabulous day greeted us as we sailed toward the Isle of Staffa. The island takes its name from the Norwegian word for stave, as Staffa’s cliffs of basalt columns reminded early Norse explorers of the staves in their churches back home.

‘Le Champlain’ anchored off Staffa’s coast, setting the stage as our small fleet of Zodiacs headed out for the day’s excursions. The island’s dramatic cliffs, flat top and green turf afforded a scenic backdrop against ‘Le Champlain’s sleek profile, inspiring many of us to photograph the ready-made postcard composition. As we neared the island, all of the details popped into focus. The 60-million-year-old basalt columns of the cliffs resembled the pipes of a grand cathedral organ, twisting as they continued skyward.

We explored several of the isle’s sea caves by boat, their over-arching columns of basalt lending them a cathedral-like atmosphere. The most impressive was Fingal’s Cave, its vast cavern of hexagonally jointed basalt columns measuring some 72 feet tall and 270 feet long. As the great botanist Joseph Banks said of the cave in 1772, “Compared to this what are the cathedrals and palaces built by men! Mere models or playthings, imitations as his works will always be when compared to those of nature.”

During lunch, ‘Le Champlain’ repositioned to our new anchorage off Iona, an island that is widely regarded as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. Saint Columba first came here from Ireland in AD 563, and the monastery he and his followers founded became one of the most influential in the British Isles.

We disembarked ‘Le Champlain’ aboard the ship’s tenders for the afternoon’s excursions on the island. Once ashore, some of us headed off towards the island’s northern tip to wander the white-sand beaches and hike up Dùn Ì hill. Others explored Iona Nunnery; St Oran's Chapel; and St Martin's Cross, Iona’s only surviving high cross still standing on its original spot.

On such a delightfully mild, sunny and windless afternoon, many of us were tempted to stroll, to visit craft shops selling exquisite jewelry, or to sit and enjoy a drink at one of Iona’s cafés or bars while taking in splendid views across the sea.

The only downside of our excursion was having to part with our wonderful Scottish guides, Helen, Maggie and Maggie, Ross, and Les, as we bid farewell to Scotland and sailed onward for Ireland.

September 2, 2022 | Killybegs, Ireland

This morning, we arrived in the Irish port of Killybegs, a bustling hub of fishing, cargo and tourism vessels. We broke into three groups, exploring Londonderry, Slieve League mountain and Donegal.

The Londonderry group began at the Museum of Free Derry. Here, we learned about The Troubles, an ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland that lasted from the late 1960s to 1998. We then met a survivor of Bloody Sunday, The Troubles’ defining tragedy. Afterward, a local guide joined us for an engaging walk outside the city walls, discussing the area’s many murals as we went. After a splendid lunch, we took a walking tour of the walled city’s interior, capping our excursion off with a stroll across the Peace Bridge before returning to the ship.

The second group set out along the Wild Atlantic Way, a scenic drive along the west coast of Ireland. Arriving at Slieve League mountain, we took in spectacular views of 2,000-foot cliffs. After lunch in a wonderfully atmospheric pub, we visited Glencolumbkille Folk Village and its collection of dwellings spanning the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Inside the houses, we watched as craftspeople spun wool, mended nets and wove rush crosses. We paused for afternoon tea and scones before returning to ‘Le Champlain.’

Meanwhile, those who visited Donegal joined a scenic boat tour of Donegal Bay. Back ashore, we embarked on a walking tour of the town that revealed a vibrant history dating to the eighth century. After an excellent lunch inland at Eske Castle, we headed back to Killybegs and ‘Le Champlain.’

September 3, 2022 | Galway

While the extended weather forecast would likely prompt some changes for the days ahead, the morning’s benign conditions allowed us to continue the day’s three excursions as planned.

For the first group, Connemara was the attraction. Leaving Galway behind, we traveled on roads of diminishing size through lush meadows and swampy moorland dotted with paint-dappled sheep. Long lochs stretched out on either side, while well-weathered hills rose ahead. Kylemore Abbey stood in beautiful contrast to its wild surroundings. Here, we took in some of the abbey’s history and visited its magnificent Victorian garden. After a short drive, we enjoyed lunch at the historic Cashel House Hotel and wandered the property’s lush grounds.

The second group embarked on a food and whiskey tour of Galway. A local historian guided us through this picturesque city, pausing at the house of James Joyce’s wife. We continued on for a cheese tasting paired with Irish spirits. After a delightful half an hour, we enjoyed lunch at one of Galway’s many exquisite restaurants. Our Irish guide had tried, without luck, for three years to obtain a reservation at this Michelin two-starred restaurant, so we felt exceptionally fortunate to eat there. After a delicious meal, we visited a typical Irish pub and took in a presentation by an oyster farmer and whiskey expert. Soon, we were washing plates of oysters down with fine single malts. We capped our excursion off with a leisurely afternoon stroll of the atmospheric city streets.

The third group explored the iconic wild wonders of the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren. We enjoyed a fortunate window of weather as we spent much of the morning wandering the cliff-top trail and taking in spectacular views. After lunch, we continued on to the Burren, where we learned about the immense limestone karst landscape and visited a dolmen (single-chamber megalithic tomb) dating back some 5,800 years. At a working farm, we met a local shepherd and watched as he directed his four dogs to wrangle a flock of sheep using only his voice and whistle.

We reconvened aboard ‘Le Champlain’ for our voyage departing Ireland. As dinner ended back aboard, we paused in the waters off the Cliffs of Moher to enjoy a spectacular sunset.

September 4, 2022 | At Sea from Ireland to England

Early this morning, we caught our last sight of Ireland as we headed eastward for the distant Cornish coast and our new destination of Plymouth, England. A leisurely day at sea afforded us to time to read, organize our images, chat with new friends and enjoy our “university at sea.”

The day’s enrichment lectures offered something for everyone. In the morning, photographers flocked to Andy Coleman’s fascinating presentation entitled, “Photographing People and Cultures.” Those with natural history interests took in Dr. Mark Brazil’s discussion of avian conundrums during his talk “Crossing Continents: The Mystery of Bird Migration.” In the afternoon, Lord Richard Chartres entertained us with his engrossing, humorous review of English history, “Royal Progress.” After our usual staff recap, Expedition Leader Suzana Machado D’Oliveira briefed us on tomorrow’s exploration of Plymouth.

September 5, 2022 | Plymouth, England

Our unexpected extra day in England afforded us the opportunity to explore the city of Plymouth and the county of Devon with our choice of three diverse excursions. Having ridden out a storm overnight, we were amazed to enjoy pleasant, mild weather during our morning ashore.

Soon after our arrival at Mill Bay Docks, the first excursion headed out to reveal Plymouth’s highlights and its connections with the Americas. At Plymouth’s barbican (fortified outpost), we learned about the incredible maritime history of the city. We continued to the Mayflower Steps and Museum to learn about the historic voyage of the pilgrims who traveled on board the ‘Mayflower’ to reach the New World. After some time to explore independently, we continued to Plymouth Hoe, where we were fortunate to enjoy spectacular views across the sound. We also took in Sir Francis Drake’s statue, Smeaton's Tower (lighthouse) and the city’s war memorials. After tea, coffee and cakes overlooking the sound, we returned to the port and our ship.

The second group took a coach ride along the stunning coastline to visit Mount Edgcumbe House. There, two entertaining guides introduced us to the house’s history, art and former inhabitants, the Earls of Mount Edgcumbe. A visit to the lovely gardens concluded with a traditional Devonshire tea, complete with scones, strawberry jam and clotted cream. We returned to Plymouth by way of the Tamar Road Bridge and a local ferry.

The third group embarked on a panoramic drive to Dartmoor National Park. We took in the spectacular countryside, sprawling moors and towering rock pillars as the coach dodged wandering herds of sheep. We passed the infamous Dartmoor Prison and St Michael’s Church, pausing at the national park visitor center in Princetown. After tea at the Two Bridges Hotel, we headed to back to Plymouth and ‘Le Champlain.’

Back on board ‘Le Champlain,’ we rounded out our day with a briefing on tomorrow’s excursions in London. Next came a visual review of the entire voyage, an evening cocktail party hosted by our Captain, and a gala dinner celebrating our wonderful time on board this beautiful ship.

September 6, 2022 | Dover to London

Stunning views of the White Cliffs and Dover Castle greeted us as we made our way into port. This morning’s arrival in Dover marked an end to our time on board ‘Le Champlain,’ but our explorations of Kent and London still lay ahead. After bidding farewell to ship and crew, we boarded our coaches and headed northwest for London, pausing for tours of stately homes and castles along the way.

First, we explored Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. The double-moated, 13th-century castle had been beautifully renovated in the early 20th century by William Waldorf Astor. We took in the grand residence’s splendid interiors and magnificent paintings, walking in the weighty footsteps of the castle’s former inhabitants. After lunch, we strolled the property’s impressive gardens — each of us hesitant to leave such a lovely place.

Next, we visited Chartwell, Sir Winston Churchill’s family home for more than 40 years. Here, we witnessed this great man’s legacy, including the world's largest collection of his paintings.

We continued to Leeds Castle, a former Norman stronghold and the subsequent home of six of England's medieval queens. In turn, it became King Henry VIll and Catherine of Aragon's palace, a Jacobean country house, and a Georgian mansion. We approached this imposing island citadel via tram, stepping off to cross the castle bridge on foot — all the while dazzled by the vast grounds’ manicured gardens and intricate maze. At the Castle View Restaurant, we concluded our tour with a quintessentially English lunch of battered fish, chips and mushy peas. Afterward, we took in the stunning vistas, strolled amid a myriad of sculptures and tried our luck at the maze before returning to our coaches for the journey to London.

This evening at the Four Seasons Hotel, we gathered in the stately UN Ballroom for cocktails and a special dinner. Our toasts were bittersweet, as we all realized our grand adventure was drawing to a close.

September 7, 2022 | London

We awoke at the Four Seasons Hotel for the final day of our journey. The homes and daily lives that awaited our imminent return seemed a million miles from the streets of London — and further still from the wilds of the Outer Hebrides and the Burren we’d experienced so recently.

Today’s London itinerary offered a choice of four excursion themes: military history, culinary adventure, royal heritage and the city’s iconic sights. We faced a difficult choice, but each one was a winner.

Those interested in London’s war-time history made an early start with a private, before-hours tour of Churchill’s underground headquarters, followed by a visit to the Imperial War Museum. After a delicious lunch beside the Thames, we toured the mighty HMS Belfast, a former Town-class light cruiser which now serves as a floating World War II museum.

The second group retraced royal footsteps at the Tower of London and in the chambers of Kensington Palace. After a fabulous lunch at Dukes London, we walked next door to Spencer House, which served as a fitting backdrop for a fascinating telling of Lady Diana’s ancestry and life’s story.

Meanwhile, the culinary adventurers sampled sublime charcuterie and more in the legendary crypt of Fortnum & Mason, savored distinctive brews from around the world at the East India Tea Company, and browsed the exquisite confections of Charbonnel & Walker. After window shopping the sun-dappled Royal Arcade, we were seated at Brown’s Hotel for a spectacular lunch. Here, we were joined by former royal executive chef, Carolyn Robb, who regaled us with some unforgettable insider anecdotes.

Those seeking a deeper dive into London’s iconic sights made an early start at the Tower of London. Here, a Beefeater and a Yeoman Warder led private, before-hours tours, followed by a private viewing of the Crown Jewels of England in the tower’s renowned Jewel House. Next, a city tour revealed insights into London’s old and new architectural gems, as well as its iconic bridges. At the London Eye, we took in the sprawling cityscape from the spectacular vantage of a soaring gondola. Following a lovely riverfront lunch at Gillray’s Steakhouse, we capped off our excursion at Westminster Abbey.

After our excursions had ended, we bid farewell to our fellow travellers and newfound friends to spend the remainder of the day at leisure. The evening offered opportunities for independent exploration and dining, as well as time to reflect on our spectacular journey. We had traversed land and sea, often seeing familiar destinations in a whole new light. We would go our separate ways for now, but for many of us, the spark of our next adventure had already taken hold.

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