Ireland & the British Isles
Published on Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Wednesday, May 23, 2012 - London, England: Our gathering at the Hilton Paddington in London brought together new friends from the USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Although many were exhausted from the long flights, a welcome cocktail followed by dinner allowed some relaxation and familiarization. Following this, a brief introduction to some of the expedition staff and leaders of our onboard special interest groups, including the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and the Archaeological Institute of America, took place. Comfortable beds beckoned early for everyone!
Thursday, May 24 - London / Plymouth / Embark Clipper Odyssey: After an early start, we joined our train for Plymouth which took us through lush countryside, filled with greens and yellows from the rapeseed fields, and the freshly awakened deciduous trees. The rich red soils on the sandstone rocks punctuated the scene. Areas of standing water, flowing rivers, and tidal outlets introduced some of the varied British bird life, including gray herons, little egrets, mute swans, and red kites.
Once in Plymouth, we divided into groups; those in the first party headed for a pub lunch and an afternoon amid the spectacular Dartmoor scenery. Its towering rock torrs of granite punctuate the skyline and the moorland is a mecca for birds and wildlife, with sightings of cuckoos, whinchats, carrion crows, and buzzards, as well as the ubiquitous Dartmoor ponies.
Meanwhile, the rest of us adjourned for lunch in the converted Plymouth Gin Factory, located in the old part of town, followed by a scenic tour of the Elizabethan-aged winding stone streets, the Merchants House, the great castle, and the Plymouth Hoe. The glorious sunshine ensured that we viewed these sites at their best.
We then transferred to the Clipper Odyssey, moored at the dock which had received the survivors from the Titanic some hundred years before. Our welcoming home for the next weeks, we enjoyed a chance to unpack and freshen up, ready for our anticipated adventures.
Friday, May 25 - Isles of Scilly: A calm night brought us into the ring of islands located off the Cornwall coast, the most southwesterly point of the British mainland. Our morning stop was to the island of Tresco and its enchanting Abbey Gardens, established by Augustus Smith, and now on lease from the Duchy of Cornwall. From magnificent pink proteas and intense blue agapanthus from South Africa, to the distinctive monkey puzzle trees of Chile and the striking echeiums commonly seen in the Canary Islands, all are protected by the abbey wall and a shelter belt of planted trees. For those interested in birds, this island did not disappoint with a rare sighting of tawny pipits along with peregrine falcons, shelducks, chiffchaffs, and sedge warblers.
The afternoon brought us to the island of St Mary’s, home to the largest settlement in the island group. The 18th- and 19th-century townscape, nestled along the isthmus separating two sandy bays, sat comfortably next to the taller Victorian townhouses with their multiple chimneys. Narrow stone streets recalled earlier days of foot and carriage traffic, but the melée of activity resulting from the arrival of the ferry from Penzance, surely echoed more ancient times. The small local museum provided a lovely introduction to the riches of the past, from an Iron Age burial with sword and mirror, to the large cache of Roman enamel brooches. Evidence of the extensive pirate activity was supported by hoards of Spanish coins, African bronze bracelets, and wreck debris from generations of sailors lost at sea.
A walk around the distinctive star-shaped fort of Star Castle enabled great views of the island group as a whole. The fort, built initially for Elizabeth I in 1593, facilitated protection against incoming fire from enemies, who were unable to fire a direct hit to a straight wall face.
Once back onboard, Steve Quinn of AMNH presented Seabirds of the British Isles: Ocean Nomads. The end of a wonderful day was suitably achieved by the welcome cocktails and dinner hosted by our Captain Peter Fielding.
Saturday, May 26 - Saltee Islands, Ireland / Dunmore East / Waterford: The birders had an early start to the day, landing on Great Saltee Island located at the southeast corner of Ireland. The home to countless gannets and puffins nestling in cliff-top burrows, this privately owned island is a gem, set at the junction of St. George’s Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. With tales of pirates and ship wrecks, it is an easy leap of faith to imagine Robinson Crusoe meeting you on the small beach. A chance to stretch our legs and explore through guided groups or alone, this was a peaceful stop to begin our day.
By the afternoon we were in Dunmore East, where we boarded buses and headed into nearby Waterford. Our tour included the new and reinvigorated Waterford Crystal Factory, with an explanatory walk through the working and engraving areas. The walk-through explained why the finished products in both traditional and modern styles have found markets throughout the world, and grace royal households and museums, as well as private houses. The adjacent Bishop’s Palace included an exhibition called the Treasures of Waterford and focused on Waterford’s illustrious 18th- and 19th-century history. We stopped at Malone’s Bar for fish and chips and Guinness—nothing more to be said!
The round stone tower known as Reginald’s Tower is now home to Viking displays portraying the foundation of the Viking-age town of Waterford and its nearby discoveries at Woodstown. The full day was rounded out by a most unexpected concert rehearsal at Christchurch Cathedral, where the strains of West Side Story filled the air.
Sunday, May 27 - Cobh / Cork: Our day began in Cobh harbor, renowned for its associations with both the Lusitania and the Titanic. Beautifully colored houses stretched across the hillsides and small piers punctuated the harbor; it was from here that our morning excursions took us to the Blarney Stone and into the hinterland of Cobh. The Blarney Stone, at the legendary Blarney Castle, is reputed to bestow eloquence forever once kissed.
Our second tour took us to the beautiful Cobh area, around the picturesque Cork Harbor to Roches Point Lighthouse, and onto the historic town of Cloyne. Returning to Cobh we visited the special exhibition portraying the mass emigrations from Ireland. The story of the Titanic was portrayed, as both First and Third Class passengers boarded at this stop. We ended our Cobh tour with the story of the Lusitania.
In the afternoon we chose from a number of options, including a walk through town where we visited the prominent St. Colman’s Cathedral. Another option was to visit picturesque Kinsale, a lovely fishing village and the home to several small galleries and coffee shops, as well as the 17th-century star-shaped Charles Fort.
Once back onboard, we were treated to a performance by local tenor, Ryan Morgan who delighted us with both Irish and operatic arias.
Monday, May 28 - Sneem / Caherciveen: A full-day excursion around the Ring of Kerry allowed us to see some of the more picturesque parts of rural southwest Ireland. On our Zodiac transfer into Sneem, we viewed a rare sea eagle which we subsequently learned had been released in the Lakes of Killarney region in 2008! A short stop at the town of Kenmare, famed for its lace production, was followed by a visit through Moll’s Gap, and Muckross House in the Killarney National Park. Surrounded by wonderful gardens and glass houses, the house had originally been built for a visit by Queen Victoria in the late 19th century. With flowerbeds and mature trees set within manicured parkland, this was indeed a lovely location.
Following lunch in nearby Killarney, we made our way further around the Ring of Kerry, enjoying various photo stops and lovely coastal views towards the Skellig Islands and Valencia Island, over to Caherciveen where the ship had repositioned. After a brief stop to note the now ruinous home of Daniel O’Connell, we also saw a remarkable sculpture of a curragh being rowed by monks, a fitting memorial to St. Brendan, the great traveler of the early Christian period, who is reputed to have lived in the area.
Back onboard, Jim Wilson gave an informative and entertaining discourse entitled Did St. Patrick Banish the Snakes from Ireland?
Tuesday, May 29 - Skellig Rocks / Great Blasket Islands: An early start for what was to be an exhilarating morning! The eremitic monastic complex of beehive cells, the World Heritage Site of Skellig Michael, was our destination. Located atop a mountainous ridge, some 600 plus rock-cut steps from the landing, this cluster of distinctive structures cling to the rock terraces created by the early Christian monks who sought solace here in the 7th and 8th centuries. Surviving almost intact, we marveled at the building skills of the monks and the creation of the beehive-shaped cells with corbelled roofs, built without mortar. We came to understand their fortitude to live in such an extreme location, as many of us battled to face our fears on the long and precipitous descent back to the landing.
As we regained our composure back on the ship, we listened to an entertaining and highly informative lecture by Tom Sharpe, entitled Lost Continents and Vanished Oceans. The afternoon was altogether a gentler affair, as we landed on Great Blasket Island, renowned for its remarkable, and perhaps unexpected, literary tradition in the days before it was forcibly evacuated in 1953. Today the ruins of the houses, haunted by the spirits of their one-time owners, lay amidst the overgrown gardens and fields, now marked by grass-covered boundaries and linked by winding tracks. A truly remarkable and entrancing island.
The later afternoon brought a lecture from Colleen Batey entitled The Vikings in Ireland and recap was replaced with An Invitation to a Victorian Music Salon, presented by Olga Stone.
Wednesday, May 30 - Dingle Peninsula: Our day began with a driving tour around the narrow and winding roads of western Ireland, lined with colorful hedgerows. The views across to the Blasket Islands were simply stunning, and the landscape was filled with stone walls protecting tiny fields. We explored the Dunquin Blasket Centre and its main viewing area focused on the Blasket chain. We moved onwards to the Gallarus Oratory, a 10th-century stone chapel with a pronounced upturned keel-shaped form, this is the best preserved oratory in Ireland. Located on the main pilgrimage route to St. Brendan’s mountain nearby, the site had been in use for generations and each pilgrim had brought a single pebble to record their presence at this holy place.
The afternoon brought a range of options, from free time in Dingle, a quaint and colorful seaside town, to onboard lectures by Ian Stone, The Chuckle Club, and Jim Wilson, We Don’t say ‘Top O’D’Mornin’! An Overview of the Irish Language. Pre-dinner entertainment by two local musicians, playing the accordion and harp, brought to our vessel the delightful sounds of jigs, reels, and ballads.
Thursday, May 31 - Aran Islands / Cliffs of Moher: Our morning landing was on Inishmore, one of the three Aran Islands. The distinctive limestone scenery, flat and slab-like, has resulted in a plethora of field boundaries as well as archaeological features. We boarded minibuses to nose our way around the island’s tiny ribbon-like roads, flanked on all sides by the distinctive mesh of stone walls which prevented the thin man-made soil cover retreating back to the sea. We visited St. Ernan’s Cemetery which houses the remains of a 6th-century stone chapel nestled among the reclaiming dunes, followed by the so-called Seven Churches site, with its international reputation as a seat of learning and scholarship in the early Middles Ages. Next we stopped at the Iron Age Dún Aengus Fort, sitting atop 300 foot sheer cliffs, an incredible site! Despite the damp conditions, we enjoyed a final call at the local pub for Guinness and Irish coffee.
In the afternoon we sailed to the stunning Cliffs of Moher, and discovered the lower levels of the sheer 650-foot rock face of sandstone and black shale. The top was shrouded in low cloud, but Manx shearwaters, guillemots, and puffins could be sighted.