A lifetime of islands in two weeks

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WE HAVE got used to jumping aboard one of our fleet of three Orkney ferries every time we want to get to the Orkney Mainland shops or visit another of our Northern isles. We have even done some exploring aboard the Orkney-based Explorer charter boat with intrepid skipper, Steve, at the helm. But having listened to the experiences of my aunt and uncle-in-law, Heather and Tim, I can feel the need for an island hopping cruise on an altogether grander scale.

Twelve days before we met them in Kirkwall, Heather and Tim boarded the MV Polar Star way down in Dartmouth. The Polar Star was built in Finland as one of a fleet of icebreakers. Nearly 90 metres in length, she is big enough to undertake long voyages around the more remote parts of both northern and southern hemispheres, and yet neat enough to call in to small ports and islands.

From Dartmouth their first port of call was Tresco on the Isles of Scilly, those finger-tips of Britain's south-western limb known for their almost sub-tropical climate and flora. From there they cruised on up to Bantry Bay and Garinish Island along the southern coast of Ireland. Around the corner they headed north, all the way up Ireland's wild west coast. Now there's a place I'd like to see.

The Skelligs are among Britain's remotest and smallest islands, inhabited only by seabirds and the inevitable monastery ruins. I say inevitable because monks habitually sought these most isolated of places to live. Further north are the Aran Islands, home of the Aran sweater.

Between here and Donegal a gale force nine storm blew up and had the boat rocking and rolling in style. Unable to land on Tory Island, at the Gaelic-speaking north-west tip of Ireland, they ran for shelter up to Tobermory Bay on Mull. Having lived on Mull for a few years, here was a place I could finally say I had also been to.

For a while we were on familiar territory as Heather described their visits to my old Hebridean stomping grounds of Islay, Gigha, Staffa, Iona and Rhum. Then another stab of envy pierced my heart with the mention of St Kilda. I once tried, with a few friends, to reach these remote rocks, outermost of the Outer Hebrides.

The trip was doomed from the start: due to a spot of bad planning with regard to tides, our boat quite literally fell over while we took on water in Bunessan Bay, Mull. We had to wait for the next rising tide to right us (and suffer the mirth of a gathering of locals, who came down to the pier for a good laugh at our plight) then we sailed around the south coast of Mull for a night in Loch Spelve. This turned into several nights as we waited for a spot of bad weather to pass and our skipper had a go at fixing his boat's engine.

We then made it up to the Small Isles - Canna, Muck, Eigg and Rhum. After some days of waiting here for the perfect weather conditions required for the dash out to St Kilda, I had to jump ship and hitch a lift back to Stirling and my job as a night-nurse. It is a holiday that I will remember forever with anguish and hilarity.

The Polar Star made light of the wild waters between Mull and St Kilda and her passengers went ashore via Zodiac dinghy to explore. Next stop was Lewis and Harris before a midnight flit all the way up to Shetland. After a whistle-stop tour of Britain's most northerly archipelago, the ship cruised south to Orkney for a similar mad dash around before her final leg down to Edinburgh's docks at Leith.

When we met up with Heather and Tim for our lunch-time pint in the Kirkwall Hotel they were in the full flush of holiday spirits: tanned, twinkly-eyed and full of enthusiasm. On board with them were an ornithologist, archaeologist, artist, historian and marine biologist. Not only have they now visited more islands in a fortnight than I have in a lifetime, they are also brimming with knowledge thereof. I feel I must book myself onto a cruise without delay. Mind you, the average age of their fellow passengers was reputed to be 75, so I have a few years in hand.