Award-winning journalist Lesley Bellew joined Aegean Odyssey recently on her 15-day exploration of the cultural treasures and natural wonders of the fascinating British and Irish Isles. This cruise offered a varied selection of included tour options, as well as ideal possibilities for independent exploration. With that in mind, we asked Lesley to share some of the highlights she experienced while ashore, and to give a glimpse into life on board our award-winning small ship.
St Peter Port, Guernsey
Aegean Odyssey sailed into a sea of colour in gorgeous Guernsey’s capital where more than 1,000 planters, hanging baskets and window boxes adorned the town’s narrow streets and harbour. We also found the Albion Tavern which is five feet from the Town Church, making it the closest pub to a church in Britain. Guernsey’s local Blue Bottle gin also went down well …
During this first port of call Mother Nature put on a spectacular show with pods of common and bottlenose dolphins passing by the ship in the crystal-clear green water.
The Channel Islands are officially the sunniest place in the British Isles with 2,000 hours of sunshine every year and we walked on the cliff tops which were clothed with wildflowers from cow parsley and alexanders to heathers, pink sea thrift and wild orchids. We also spotted a common blue butterfly which added to our pleasure. For other passengers, a tour of the 25-square mile island revealed the island’s rugged beauty and it was here, in 1883, that Pierre Auguste Renoir spent a month painting the south coast cliffs and bays.
Our Captain, Panagiotis Giakoumatos, sailed the ship into Falmouth amid news stories of blue sharks basking in Cornwall, but it was not our day – they were long gone. However, a peregrine falcon caught passengers’ eyes at the port before they visited the inspirational Eden Project and historic St Michael’s Mount, near Penzance.
Once again it was a beautiful day to explore the West Country and some garden enthusiasts also made their way to Trelissick Gardens, perched at the head of the Fal Estuary, with jaw-dropping views.
Tresco, Isles of Scilly
Next stop, Tresco, where red squirrels delighted passengers by scampering along branches in their sub-tropical, predator-free playground of Tresco Abbey Gardens.
A unique collection of plants from every corner of the planet grow in Tresco’s temperate climate and Aegean Odyssey’s guests – a mix of British, Australian, American and Canadian’s – were all able to pick out familiar plants from home and marvel at rarer specimens in this oasis of palms, pines and pretorias.
One of the big plus points of sailing with Voyages to Antiquity is that all tours, bar a few specialist themed excursions, are included in the cruise price, but passengers can also jump ashore to explore at their leisure. On Tresco, several people hiked around the whole island while others sunbathed on the luxurious, glistening sand, lapped by a bright blue sea. We felt as if we were in Greece!
As we sailed away, 30 miles off Land’s End, Gannets skimmed alongside the ship as she sailed into Holyhead. Here a seal was seen in the harbour before we crossed the Irish sea and we kept our eyes peeled for wildlife all the way.
Like an Exocet missile, a peregrine falcon powered over South Stack, in Holyhead, diving for prey.
Thousands of puffins and guillemots make the cliffs beneath South Stack Lighthouse, on the northwest coast of Anglesey, their home for the summer and we watched in awe as these agile birds dived for sand eels to feed their young.
We also wandered over to The Range, where the pre-Cambrian rocks are the oldest on Earth.
This precious landscape is protected by the RSPB and also features rare maritime heathland that was alive with birdlife; stonechat, linnets, skylarks and meadow pipits.
On the return journey to the ship, via Penhros Nature Reserve, curlews began to fly in to roost and we counted 40 of these large birds with their distinctive curved beaks and heard their soulful call that has been described as the ‘essence of the wilderness’.
Wildlife expert Andy Bunten was ever-present to help passengers identify birds and wildlife throughout the cruise, pointing out gannets, kittiwakes, Manx shearwaters and skuas to sea mammals and it was a real bonus for passengers to have him on board.
Dublin was one of the passengers’ favourite ports. Tours with top-rated guides brought home the incredible mix of heritage and hedonism in the city while an additional afternoon’s excursion to Malahide Castle and Gardens provided another opportunity to delve into history. The butterfly house and extraordinarily enormous gift shop, which sold sumptuous Irish woollens, also added to the satisfaction!
With the weather kicking up rough, Aegean Odyssey moored overnight in Dublin, and it proved every cloud has a silver lining – many passengers took advantage and hit the Temple Bar pub for the night.
The Highlands, Scotland
Sea eagles alluded us as we sailed into the Hebrides, and past the island of Skye, where weather conditions were not good enough to drop anchor but, again, there was an upside – mooring in Scrabster Harbour meant passengers could stretch their legs and enjoy the local hospitality at Popeye’s, a friendly pub complete with a pool table and music.
From Scrabster we visited Dunnet Head, the northern-most point in Britain, where more puffins were seen bobbing in the water and fulmars nested in the sandstone rocks. Fields of wildflowers included an unusually stubby purple scabious, cotton grass and glistening lilac-coloured chicory. We continued to John O’Groats and took a cheeky peek at Castle Mey, the Queen Mother’s former home, where the flag was flying to show that the Duke of Rothesay, HRH Prince Charles, was in residence.
Just along the road an array of marquees were in place for the Mey Highland & Cultural Games which were due to start on August 4. The event was set to feature para-athletes for the first time so with the Invictus Games being close to Prince Harry’s heart, the locals were also expecting him to drop by.
Edinburgh was next on the itinerary, buzzing with visitors who were in the city for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (the largest arts festival in the world) and the annual Military Tattoo. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling makes her home in the city and as passengers glimpsed the grandiose independent school Fettes College, somewhere between Scottish Baronial and French chateau in style, it left them with no doubt that this ornate building was the inspiration for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Architecture was pretty special on arrival in Rosyth, our entry port for Edinburgh, as we sailed under a trio of bridges which span the Firth of Forth and three centuries; the 19th century Forth Bridge, which was once the world’s longest cantilever bridge; the 20th century Forth Road Bridge, opened in 1964, and the 21st century Queensferry Bridge which opened last year.
In Rosyth shipyard we also witnessed the construction of HMS Prince of Wales, the second Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier. She will come into service in 2020, although cruise passengers may well have already seen HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is based at Portsmouth. These 65,000-tonnes aircraft carriers are the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy and capable of carrying up to 60 aircraft. Yes 60!
Despite the wonders of engineering, the three bridges and aircraft carrier still could not capture the imagination of passengers as much as the iconic Tower Bridge, in London. Everyone was out on deck as Aegean Odyssey made history, sailing under the landmark bridge for the first time at the start of her cruise on July 22nd. The 19th century bridge was opened specially for our departure and on a balmy evening people walking along the riverbank and on passing boats cheered as Aegean Odyssey graced the famous river.
Life on board Aegean Odyssey
As the cruise went on, Andy Bunten’s list of wildlife sightings in the library grew ever longer as his lectures inspired more passengers to get out on deck to look for wildlife. Alongside Andy, RHS Chelsea Flower Show judge John Hughes’ talks gave passengers a greater insight into plant-life and wildflowers as well as lectures on gardens we were due to visit, including the innovative Eden Project, with its two giant bio-domes.
John’s knowledge also came to the fore when identifying plants at Bodnant Garden in Wales, the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland, Malahide Castle gardens in Dublin, and Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, a renowned scientific centre for the study of plants.
Andrew and John’s talks dovetailed nicely with our tours while Stephen Carr-Smith’s lectures on the history of the British Isles gave passengers a rich picture of this Scept’rd Isle where battle upon battle filled his PowerPoint presentations! Lectures were always well-attended and one Australian passenger said she had not enjoyed such informative talks since she graduated from university in the 1970s.
While Voyages to Antiquity prides itself on educational cruises there was plenty of time for passengers to relax and let their hair down as cruise director Richard Sykes rocked the house with Elvis and 60s numbers, a Rat Pack cabaret and comedy interludes.
Classical music from The Odyssey Trio and easy listening from the Excelsior Duo in the Charleston Lounge was also a bonus while dance classes were another popular offering.
But nothing could really beat waking up every morning to survey the coastline of our green and pleasant land. Whether it was from the balcony or out on deck for breakfast, lunch and dinner, this cruise, and its crew, just kept on giving.
Aegean Odyssey’s full collection of Britain, Iceland and North Atlantic itineraries can be found on our website. She will visit Rosyth on her ‘The Norwegian Fjords‘ and ‘Iceland, Faroes & Shetlands’ itineraries, sailing in July 2019 and Guernsey on her June 2019 ‘European Connoisseur‘ sailing.