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The Hebrides – Magical Staffa and Iona, Scotland
Today was another action-packed day onboard Silversea’s Silver Explorer, as we spent time exploring Scotland’s Hebridean Islands. And that is a woefully inadequate description of just how stunning this day was.
Some statistics for Monday, May 28, 2012 onboard the Silver Explorer, courtesy of the Silversea Chronicles:
- Sunrise: 04:48
- Sunset: 21:57
- Staffa, Scotland: Arrival 07:00; departure 11:15
- Iona, Scotland: Arrival 13:15; departure 18:30
At first light (meaning: very early), our shipwide wakeup call announced we were on-course to be in position off the small, uninhabited island of Staffa. But you could hear the excitement in Robin’s voice when he announced the conditions for the day: sunny, hot, no wind, and a “sea like glass.”
The weather around this remote island can be terrible at the best of times. The expedition team told me it can be very touch and go here, and several guests said they’d never actually been able to complete a zodiac landing here before. So to have amazing weather conditions for our arrival was like a dream come true: not only would we be doing a one-hour zodiac tour in and around the island and its numerous caves, we’d also make a shore landing to allow guests to ramble around this deserted island for nearly two more hours!
If the weather was amazing, so too were our experiences because of it: the zodiacs were able to sail straight into the complete length of Fingal’s Cave, bordered by towering basalt columns that made the Giant’s Causeway look like Disneyland: nice, but recreated. Again, we were told that this never happens: passengers were able to reach out and place their hands upon the farthest wall of Fingal’s Cave.
In the still of the almost funeral silence, you could hear only the soft puttering of the zodiac’s engine and the dripping of water coming down from the roof of the cave. Apparently, even during moderate weather the sound inside this cave is normally deafening.
As we reversed out of the cave, we hadn’t sailed much more than ten feet before the engine was cut: a group of nearly 10 colourful puffins were casually floating by our zodiac, not looking like they minded our presence one bit. Compared with yesterday, when I could only see a puffin with the use of a high-powered scope, to see these fascinating birds so close was an absolute treat.
Leaving our puffin friends, we began to sail around the island, making it another maybe hundred feet before coming closer to shore for sightings of more amazing birds bathing themselves near the shore. As we were looking at the birds, someone noticed a jellyfish swimming by in the crystal-clear water.
The clarity of the water is stunning, akin to what you might find off of the sandy shores of Barbados.
After toodling around in the zodiac, going wherever the action took us, we were brought ashore on a small concrete jetty. A friend of mine was telling me that some of the expedition leaders were so entranced with today’s scenic sail-by that even they were taking photos; you know you’re experiencing something amazing when the people who do this for a living are impressed!
With an hour and a half to spend roaming this small island, I set out to try to do it all, first walking along the narrow basalt columns that led back to Fingal’s Cave. I was hoping to get a shot of one of the other zodiacs, but I must have missed them. Interestingly, there is a small railing to assist you in making your way along the passage, but it’s placed along the inner cliff wall. Watch your step!
After that, we set out across the rolling green hills of Staffa. The biggest surprise: the ground here is spongy, giving way under your feet as you step on it. You can even stand on the tips of your toes and bounce on it – it’s that elastic.
People used to live on this island in the 18th century, though it’s not really clear how many resided here, or how permanent their residences were. I only saw one example of former civilization during my travels: the remains of stone walls that undoubtedly used to be a small dwelling of some sort.
I find it very difficult to express in words how exhilarating this morning was. It was like tasting candy for the first time, realizing a deeply-held dream or falling in love – that kind of moment when all your senses except for one seem to fade away, leaving just a single overpowering emotion. Today, I felt like laughing, crying, smiling, and maybe even camping out until darkness, just to see what it would be like to spend an evening on some place so remote. I also took a whopping 476 photos!
One thing I know for sure: today was life-changing, and I will treasure the memory of wandering around Staffa for the remainder of my days.
And this all happened between the hours of 7:30AM and 10:30AM.
As we sailed to Iona in the late morning, I only had one worry: that the Silver Explorer has forever hooked me on expedition cruising. Let me put this into perspective: I’m battling a cold that just refuses to go away, I’m getting very little sleep because of it, and I’ve done more in the past week and a half than some people will do in a month – maybe even a year. Yet I am just thrilled (thrilled!!) each and every time we get to go ashore.
I was going to write that you shouldn’t do an expedition cruise if you want to relax, but yet here I am, mid-morning as I type this, enjoying some bouillon in the Panorama Lounge. So I am very relaxed – almost as relaxed as aboard Silversea’s other ships. But if you crave adventure and don’t mind a little hard work or a few early calls, this is most definitely the way to see the world.
I’d always sort of looked with a half-questioning eye at Silver Explorer’s Caribbean itineraries, but now I’d love to sail the Caribbean aboard this ship, because I’d reckon even though I’ve been to the region four times, I’ve probably never seen the real Caribbean. And that’s really saying something, considering Silversea’s non-expedition vessels still call on some off-the-beaten-path ports.
In the vein of relaxation while onboard, it’s also worth noting that Silver Explorer has a small but functional Fitness Centre on Deck 4 Aft, and a small spa on Deck 6 Aft. It’s basically just a single treatment room, but you can get nearly every spa service offered on Silversea’s larger vessels. Now if only they had those comfortable heated ceramic loungers that are on the Silver Spirit!
There’s also a fairly generous steam and sauna room, which I finally had the chance to try out this morning. Open from 09:00 until 20:00, it made a great stop after a long tour ashore and had me wondering why I didn’t make the trek after our chilly day in Waterford.
After lunch, the Silver Explorer dropped anchor off Iona, Scotland, where guests were able to zodiac ashore and take part in several guided tours, or set off on their own to explore this pretty little island.
While the Iona Abbey is an undeniable draw, perhaps the most historically important feature of it sits directly in front: St. Martin’s Cross. Dating back to the 9th century, the cross is a replica of the 8th century St. John’s Cross, original fragments of which can be found on display in the Abbey museum.
Also of interest: there are roughly 48 Scottish, 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings buried on the ancient burial grounds next to the abbey – and this is according to an inventory taken “recently” in 1549. Their graves are no longer identifiable, but it’s entirely likely the surrounding areas haven’t changed all that much since these prominent people were laid to rest here hundreds of years ago.
While bird and nature walks were offered with Expedition members Chris and Hans Peter, and a photography walk was offered with Expedition photographer Ray, I chose to do my own thing, rambling to the north end of the Island before the return back to the pier and the zodiac ride back to the Silver Explorer, gleaming in the bright sunshine.
Another Expedition Team Recap & Briefing took place in the Theatre on Deck 6 promptly at 6pm, where passengers once again had the opportunity to ask the team questions about the things they saw and experienced today, and preview the day ahead – sadly, the last full day for most of us aboard the Silver Explorer.
Tomorrow we call on Brodick, in Scotland’s Isle of Arran for another adventure-filled day. But right now, I’m reminded that there’s still a full evening onboard the Silver Explorer to enjoy – and we’ve earned it today! So here’s to that extra helping of dessert in the beautiful Restaurant on Deck 4, or that chilled glass of champagne as guests dine under the beautiful Scottish sky up on Deck 6, or an extra martini in the Panorama Lounge with music by Lou on the piano.
Today, none of us aboard the Silver Explorer were cruisers.
We were explorers.
Our Live Voyage Report from aboard Silversea’s adventurous Silver Explorer continues tomorrow as we journey ashore for one last exciting port of call!
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