2017 - Shetland Cruising

To be strictly accurate, we didn’t actually cruise from, to or around Shetland, but we did go to Lerwick and environs (by sea) and we did cruise (from Greenock to Liverpool). It was all Jim’s idea - as a dedicated ocean cruiser he had discovered that one of his favourite ships (Fred Olsen’s Boudicca) was intending to relocate from a northerly to a southerly home port in early June, and was willing to finance this move by taking paying passengers with it.

A sleeper trip itinerary was quickly produced to fit around this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (until another comes along of course). Shetland has long been on our to-do list, with the added challenge of an overnight ferry journey through waters not known for their smoothness. But now was clearly its time, with the added benefit of a direct flight back to Glasgow, itself only a short distance by bus and train to the point of cruise embarkation.

A full set of the usual suspects assembled in stages, as is normal this days. Five of us convened at Liverpool Lime St in the Virgin First Class Lounge, conveniently relocated on the main concourse after the last major revamp of the station. As before, the robotic entryphone took some persuasion to allow us in, and the snack selection seemed a little lower in both quality and variety, but we indulged just the same. Well it would be rude not to.

The journey south was speedy and uneventful, which one has to consider as a credit, however reluctantly, to the aforesaid Virgin. At Euston we met up with Malcolm and Peter at the home for SMRS waifs and strays, the Doric Arch. 

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Peter was already one step ahead, having sleepered from Glasgow to London the previous night just for practice, and spent the morning improving his education at the Imperial War Museum. After some skirmishing with the left luggage office (whose prices might suggest they sell you new luggage rather than give you your old stuff back) we split up to explore at least a sub-set of London’s many delights. Jim went off in search of trams, while most of the rest of us headed for the British Museum. This was not a complete success, one has to report, as the queues for entry, with or without left-luggage, were considerable, slow-moving and increasingly damp as a heavy shower descended on one and all. Richard’s cunning plan of taking it in turns to look after our bags in the nearby park was curtailed in favour of afternoon tea in a nearby café.

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After a reunion at the Bree Louise public house for evening food and drink, we returned to Euston and boarded the sleeper. This time we had thrown our wallets metaphorically to the winds and engaged 1st Class sleepers for all the party, so snorers and snorees would be separated by whatever sound insulation the sleeping car outfitters had seen fit to fit to the cabins. Then, as is traditional, we repaired to the lounge car to partake of our first taste of Scotland, be it beer, spirits or haggis.

The next morning, as is becoming increasingly traditional, the train was found to have lost significant time, despite the relaxed overnight timetabling. More time was lost in being shunted off the single-track line to allow other services to pass, so that we arrived in Inverness a couple of hours adrift. Tony made careful notes, for refund action on returning home. At the station we met up with Euan, who by then was wondering if it was wrong train, wrong station or wrong country.

Then it was on to another train to Aberdeen, which was reached at the advertised time, i.e. in time for a well-deserved late lunch at a handy Wetherspoons (is there any other form of pub?). Peter disgraced himself not only by the quantity of comestible relocated from plate to person but also by getting rather too friendly with a scantily-clad female impersonator who just happened to be on the premises. Or perhaps it was an overdressed male impersonator, it was difficult to tell.

Feeling pleasantly full, we proceeded dockwards along roads that seemed more designed for vehicular ferry traffic than pedestrians, and into the terminal itself. After a minimum of formalities we were allowed to board the vessel, a reassuringly large and well-found vessel clearly built for the more rugged seaways between northern Scotland and southern Shetland. We departed on time via some interesting scenery, including a variety of oil-industry vessels, Aberdeen’s well-appointed but I suspect rather chilly sandy beaches, and a futuristic-looking maritime control building.

As we progressed northwards, across a mercifully-calm North Sea, the weather turned a little damper, but not much darker, this being the high latitudes in at least nominal high summer. Going indoors, as they say in boating circles, it was both dry and brightly lit, with an enticing menu on display, this part of the interior being the restaurant. Wetherspoons seemed an aeon ago, so we partook with minimal restraint, mindful that breakfast would not be available until 6am, at the earliest. Later in the evening the horizon started getting solid again, and we docked in Kirkwall at around 11pm. The rest of the journey was mainly spent in our four-person cabins, gaining strength for the early morning breakfast call. Fortunately the lack of vehicles in our luggage allowed us the luxury of a lie-in, whilst those so encumbered navigated their way to the car-deck and from thence down the ramp to the Lerwick dockside.

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We followed in due course, taking care to avoid excessive speed spoil our digestion. A taxi took us to our two guest houses, for dropping off excess baggage and making ready for our all-day island tour. This had been pre-arranged with one Grant Redfern, who turned out to be a young, enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, complete with minibus. Both arrived promptly at 9am, and we set off in somewhat mixed weather to sample Shetland’s cultural delights. These included the Crofthouse museum, showing what life was really like in the not-too-distant past, Sumburgh lighthouse (complete with numerous puffins) and the Shetland Bus memorial. This last is not a testament to some long-forgotten island omnibus service but a fitting reminder of the dangers faced by those who shuttled agents and escapees to and from Norway in WWII. On the way we learned much about Shetland’s history, geography and culture, and enjoyed an excellent lunch in a private dining room in the Sumburgh Hotel.

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The following day had the benefit of no pre-planning, so we decided on a group walk. Initially this was uphill, but for only a modest distance to Lerwick New Cemetery. This overlooked the sea and contained over a hundred war graves. After paying our respects we circled westwards along the coastline, past the inevitable Tesco and on to Loch Clickimin, site of a well-preserved broch. This is a circular stone construction from the Iron Age, surrounded by the remains of a fort and other buildings. A narrow entrance required some agility to access the inner sanctum, but this was achieved without undue difficulty.

We continued in the anticlockwise manner back into town, and visited the centrally-located Fort Charlotte, a defensive structure dating back to the Dutch wars of the mid-1700s. The fort is both well-located to dominate the Sound and well preserved, complete with some impressive replica artillery pieces. The originals never saw action apparently.

Tuesday was moving day, time to leave Shetland and head some 400 miles south, but still in central Scotland. A taxi took us to Sumburgh airport and we embarked on a plane for Glasgow, courtesy of Messrs Flybe. The weather became increasingly damp as we flew, and stayed that way as we navigated by bus to Paisley and train to Gourock. Peter, no doubt having perused the long-range weather forecast, took his leave at the airport and continued on a southwards vector towards the dry warmth that is the Lake District.

For the rest of us, the 30-minute ferry trip to Dunoon was not noticeable for its sunshine either. However it eventually ran out of rain, as it always does, and the promenade B&B was comfortable and welcoming, to the extent of promptly clearing the dining table to facilitate our consumption of a pre-dinner aperitif of beer and crisps from the local supermarket.

Some discussion with the proprietors over the best way to spend our second free day of the trip led to us hiring a black cab, complete with backward-facing tip-up seats, to take us to Bute, in particular Rothesay and Mount Stuart. By now we were six, with Euan having spun off back to more domestic duties in the Borders, so we just fitted in the vehicle. Wednesday dawned fine and sunny, so it was a pleasant drive through scenic countryside to the small ferry at Colintraive, and then on to Rothesay. There we stopped for a comfort break at the world-famous (depending on the size of your world) Victorian loos, and a quick look around the town.

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The main target for the day was Mount Stuart, built by the 3rd Marquis of Bute to show off his wealth from coal, and he had a lot of it to show. The style is perhaps best described as extravagant rather than stylish, with multi-coloured marble the building material of choice. Designed to impress certainly, and it achieved its objective in spades. Posh gardens as well.

The next day we were due to leave for the mainland, and the weather reacted as if it didn’t want us to leave - damp again. Before leaving, mention must be made of the view outside our bedroom windows, notably the Firth of Clyde. This was sometimes blue, sometimes grey and seemingly always filled with either cruise ships or gannets, and sometimes both. We retraced our steps by ferry and train to Gourock, where we were to join our very own cruise ship, not to mention a pair of wives who had travelled north to meet us.

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Jim and Fiona’s tales of cocktails at four, all-you-can eat buffets and live entertainment sold us the experience without difficulty. And in truth the actuality did live up to the promise, and an enjoyable and relaxing time was had by all. The only regret was that it was just the one night, so as we were getting used to the onboard service levels the Liverpool skyline came into view, and the delights of Merseyrail awaited us. Down to earth with a vengeance. At least we had the sleeper refunds to look forward to.

An itinerary is here.

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