Travel: Orkney Islands, Faroes, Stornoway

Stromness

Stromness

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Carrying straight on beyond the Khyber Pass and turning left at the foot of Hellihole Road there awaited one of the finest coastal views in the ... Scottish outer islands.

These are real street names to be found a few hundred yards apart summing up the quirkiness of the Orcadian town of Stromness, one of the more unexpected gems unearthed on our five-day cruise to the Faroes and Scottish Islands.

We sailed aboard Cruise & Maritime Voyages’ ms Marco Polo and - appealingly - the embarkation port for this grand old lady of the sea was Leith.

With Cruise & Maritime Voyages also set to use Rosyth next year, as well as Greenock and Leith, the convenience of a Scottish departure cannot be underestimated, whatever the destination and the choice is growing.

In an era of intense and intrusive airport security and baggage restrictions, to be settling into a cabin literally within an hour or two of leaving home is a massive advantage.

And when this is coupled with some of the best cuisine we had experienced as relative cruise veterans, the recipe for success was assured even before setting foot on dry land.

When we did disembark, after a 31-hour voyage highlighted by a couple of informative talks by a crime investigator whose speciality included unsolved murders and 20th century executions – on board entertainment was rich, varied and sometimes gruesome! - it was at Torshavn in the Faroe Islands.

Not the most accessible of destinations, a cruise is the ideal means for exploring some of Europe’s most unspoiled terrain that is the essence of Faroese life.

Cascading waterfalls abound but a word of warning should you plan on freshening up.

I accidentally strayed too near the nest of an indigenous oyster catcher and was made to pay as the protective parents buzzed me, shrieking like banshees.

Visits to a series of picturesque waterfront hamlets restored the sense of tranquillity and on one stop our guide pointed out the emotional debt owed by UK citizens.

Per capita, no European country lost more of its citizens during the Second World War as the Faroes fishermen found themselves in a catch-22 situation.

With their country aligned to German-occupied Denmark there were perils sailing under the Union Jack, while to fly the Danish flag meant retribution from the Allies. And yet these Faroese fishermen were still a major source of keeping Blighty fed.

Peacetime presents different economic problems for the remote Faroese and we were urged by a guide to stick closely to the hiking routes because every blade of grass is good for the free-roaming sheep.

A total solar eclipse next March will provide a tourism bonanza; first hotel bookings from tourists wishing to witness the event were taken in 1995.

From the Faroes we sailed to Stornoway where on a previous docking my wife and I had found some local businesses stand-offish and apparently non-plussed about receiving cruise ship passengers.

Pleasing to report, then, that the welcome from shop and cafe owners could not have been in greater contrast and a series of awards being bestowed on the local Harris Tweed industry has given the community a real sense of pride.

One thing Stornoway had in common with our final destination of Orkney was circular Neolithic standing stones and at both Callanish and Skara Brae the eerie calm that descends on the visitor has to be experienced.

Orkney is a treasure chest of ancient and contemporary history particularly given the islands’ naval involvement in both World Wars. Think Scapa Flow and the wreck of HMS Royal Oak, which is now a war grave where 833 men lost their lives after being torpedoed surprisingly close to shore.

The Italian Chapel created by prisoners is a must-visit. Its outer shell was made from two Nissen huts of salvage material and there is an echo today of those hard-working craftsmen in that local unemployment is low at two per cent.

Kirkwall has a bustling feel even early in the morning but it was Stromness which captured the imagination with its narrow alleys, whalebone arches and thriving arts festival.

It was from Stromness that we set off on the final leg of the journey and back to a ship which rejoiced in a relaxed yet highly efficient atmosphere created for its adult-only clientele.

Typical of the fun was the tongue-in-cheek tannoy announcement sombrely stating: “We have a message for the person who has lost a gold Rolex watch - it’s six minutes past 12!”

If home comforts were easy to find perhaps a few more access points for electrical items such as hairdryers would have been welcome in otherwise comfortable cabins served by attentive staff, mostly East European, but with a good grasp of English.

A bouquet, too, for the staff at Leith for their luggage handling at both ends of the journey making the experience of a home port departure even more pleasurable.

• BILL and Helen Lothian spent five nights on the MS Marco Polo, where prices from Leith for the cruise to the Faroe Islands, Stornoway and Orkney started around £509 for an inside cabin.

Owners, Cruise & Maritime Voyages, are currently offering deals that include buying one berth with a second free.

In 2014 Cruise & Maritime Voyages will add Rosyth to Scottish departure ports Leith and Greenock.

Destinations from Scotland include the North Cape, Fjordland and Spitsbergen, St Petersburg and Baltic Cities, Round the British Isles, Iceland, Scottish Islands and the Faroe Islands.

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