Fish Out of Water

Musings and observations about life from an East Coast native now living on the Left Coast in the California State Capitol since 2004. This fish has made her home in Madison, WI (7 years); Portland, OR (2 years); Las Vegas, NV (7 months); Middlebury, VT (3 summers); Marne-la-Vallee, a small town east of Paris, France (6 months); Middletown, CT (3 years); and Marshfield, MA, the fish's coastal hometown 40 miles south of Boston (17 years).

Location: Sacramento, California, United States


Scottish Isles & Norwegian Fjords: May 31-June 1

May 31: Isle of Skye
Overnight, we remained docked at Mallaig, so the waters were very calm. Regardless, I woke up earlier than expected and found a grey and rainy morning outside our window. The Captain had mentioned last night that the forecast today included colder temperatures, wind, and rain, which is quite a contrast to the gorgeous day we had yesterday.

I returned to the Fitness Center while Mom slept until a more reasonable time. The treadmills have a touch-screen interface, and of course everything is based on the metric system, so luckily I have a rough idea of my typical 10K time that I can use as a basis for setting an appropriate pace. However, when it comes to entering personal data, I have no idea what my weight is in kilograms!

One of the unexpected pleasures of the trip so far has been speaking French with many of the crew. I knew that we would be traveling on a vessel from a French cruise company, but I hadn’t really thought about what that would mean in terms of communication, and it’s lovely to practice my rather rusty-at-this-point French as well as to just hear it spoken around me.

For breakfast today, we decided to try the other restaurant, La Licorne, on Deck 2. Mom liked that we were sitting so much closer to the water, and since our group departure was a bit later this morning, we could more leisurely enjoy our petit déjeuner and coffee.

We had learned that ship-wide announcements are made before each event, whether it’s a presentation or disembarkation for a shore excursion, so we relaxed in the cabin until our Yellow group was called to head to the Main Lounge on Deck 3 to board the tender for the trip to shore. Our first stop on the Isle of Skye was Armadale Castle and the Museum of the Isles. All that remains of the Castle are some ruins and lovely grounds and gardens, which displayed some beautiful flowering trees and fields of bluebells:

We strolled through the grounds, despite the intermittent raindrops, and also toured through the Museum, which provided an excellent chronology and information about the area, particularly the clan system.

After a 45-minute coach ride with some narration by our guide about the Isle, we arrived at our second castle of the day, Eilean Donan:

A young bagpiper was busking in the parking lot, which provided a rather fitting musical accompaniment as we crossed the stone bridge to the Castle. We listened to short informational presentations from guides in two rooms and then wandered through the narrow stairways of the Castle to tour the bedrooms and kitchen. This Castle was still used by the family up until quite recently, so there was a rather odd juxtaposition in the bedrooms with contemporary family photos contrasted with the older furnishings. Both of the Castles we visited today were relatively young, built in the 18th and 13th centuries, respectively.

Since we had had a later departure time in the morning, we didn’t return to the boat until after 2:30pm, so we had just enough time for a late lunch in La Boussole on Deck 6 before going to the first educational presentation of the trip. Elizabeth Pierce of the Archaeological Institute of America provided a visual overview and chronology of Scotland’s history. The second presentation was by special guest speaker Nick Card, who is the lead archaeologist on the major dig at the Ness of Brodgar, which was featured on the cover of a 2014 edition of “National Geographic.” Both of these lectures provided context for the next day’s land excursion to the Orkney Islands.

The Smithsonian hosted a cocktail reception in the Observation Lounge on Deck 6, followed by a group dinner at reserved tables in La Licorne on Deck 2. Both Mom and I decided that we prefer to have dinner at La Boussole instead, as it’s set up as a buffet style rather than a multi-course plated meal. The latter style is served in La Licorne, which takes much longer and is just too much food for us! We skipped dessert and came back to the cabin.

I had trouble sleeping again (somewhat rough seas, at least for me) and decided to move to the daybed near the window. This transition ended up being quite fortuitous when I glimpsed a shaft of light coming through the blackout curtains, decided to investigate, and looked out the window to discover an amazing and bright full moon shining over the ocean and illuminating the rolling waves. We also were passing by a spit of land with a lighthouse at one end, so I spent several minutes just enthralled by the scene of the moon, the waves, and the flashing beacon of light.

June 1: Orkney Islands
We woke up to a gorgeous sunny (but cold!) morning. I did a workout and then met Mom down in La Licorne for breakfast. Some of the passing scenery included a very picturesque and solitary lighthouse on a cliff, and the sunlight made the water bright blue in contrast to the chunks of land:

Today began with two lectures, one on medieval tattooing by Charlie McQuarrie, the study leader for our Smithsonian group, and the other on the influence of the Vikings in Scotland by Elizabeth Pierce, the same expert who had given the overview chronology presentation yesterday. The latter helped to really tie together the interaction of the cultures over the years and to show how archeological and genetic evidence clearly supports when and even how and for how long the Vikings came into this area.

We had a bit of time before lunch and then disembarked for our afternoon tours. The ship was “alongside” in Orkney, which meant we could descend a gangplank rather than needing to take a tender from ship to shore. Our local guide, Chris, provided us with informative and entertaining commentary throughout the entire afternoon.

Our journey in Orkney began with a visit to the Ring of Brodgar, where we walked gingerly through the mud to see the impressive circle of standing stones.

We then stopped briefly at the Ness of Brodgar for some remarks by Nick Card, the expert guest lecturer from yesterday afternoon. The dig site is covered at the moment for the winter, so we couldn’t actually look into it at all, but it was still helpful to see it in context and get a sense of the size and location relative to other Neolithic sites in the area.

Our next and final ancient stop was at Skara Brae, right on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, with several cows grazing nearby (see images above). Although we still had lovely sun and mild temperatures, the wind at that location was incredibly strong, and it was hard to imagine how people in 3000 B.C. were able to form settlements, not to mention how the current Orcadians can withstand such conditions! According to our guide, this was actually a rather lovely day…

The final stop was in the village of Kirkwall for a tour of St. Magnus Cathedral:

I opted to skip the commentary in favour of checking out the local shops, all of which rolled up their doors around 5:30pm, so I had just enough time to purchase a few souvenirs before rejoining the group to head back to the ship.

During the drive around the mid part of the island, we saw lots of sheep, Angus cattle, and wind turbines, all of which contribute to the industry and livelihood of the inhabitants. Tourism is actually the primary economic driver on the island, as the port is a convenient stop for cruise ships on certain routes, and Orkney welcomes about 140,000 cruise passengers each year – that’s about 7 times the number of permanent residents of the Islands.

Back onboard, we had a bit of time to relax before dinner in La Boussole on Deck 6. Although we were both tired, I decided to take my last glass of wine to the evening’s entertainment, a storyteller from Orkney, who was onstage in the Theatre on Deck 4 at 9:30pm. She was very talented, and I loved the first story she told about how the Orkney Islands and Shetland were formed, but I decided to call it a night at 10pm in the hopes of catching up on some sleep.


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