I’ve just returned from a short but intensive six day voyage aboard the stately old Marco Polo, one of my favourite ships still in service. Having sailed serenely through her landmark fiftieth anniversary last year, the ship is still going quietly about her business- charming and beguiling an entire new generation of fans, many of whom were not even born when she first cut salt water as the Alexander Pushkin.
Our six day cruise began in Hull, and terminated at Port of Tyne. In between, the Marco Polo surged north and west into a surreal, half realised hinterland of small islands in the Shetlands, Faroes and Orkneys. Cast adrift in the North Atlantic, small groups of these windswept outposts huddle together like some kind of circled wagon train, seeking protection from the elements that can batter them with almost visceral ferocity in the long, dark winter months.
But they take on a very different character during the long days of mid summer, when the glow of the sun is still visible below the horizon at one thirty in the morning.
A sea of brightly coloured gorse and heather breaks out like some incurable rash all along the low, rolling hills of the islands. Fields full of buttercups appear overnight. The sky- a vast turquoise canvas unhindered by large buildings or forests of skyscrapers- takes on an almost overpowering aspect.
It’s a region where the influence of long gone Celtic and Viking communities still hangs in the air. Huddled, recently uncovered settlements and Bronze Age artifacts sit in a kind of uneasy silence amid the modern vices of 21st century technology. The past hangs over these ancient waters like some kind of ceremonial shroud.
In towns like Lerwick and Kirkwall, ancient, narrow, flagstone lined streets are filled with coloured bunting that dances above sightseers and shop owners alike, plying their trade in converted houses where smugglers once piled their plunder. The local inter island ferries flit in and out of harbours filled with small yachts and fishing craft. Old stone fortresses crowned by serried ranks of silent cannon stand guard over headlands where the Scottish and Danish flags still whip snappily in the breeze. And the cry of the whooping, screeching seabirds is the constant soundtrack to everything, playing in the background as if on a loop.
Lobster pots stand in serried, haphazard piles atop gnarled stone quaysides along the jagged green slash of the coastline. Long, sun kissed, white capped Atlantic rollers surge and flail against rugged pebble beaches draped with bits of flotsam, washed up from who knows where. Small houses, sometimes made from clapboard, others from no nonsense red sandstone, dot the rolling hills where sheep and cattle enjoy the long, lazy days of summer.
And all of this surreal, show stopping finery was savoured from a ship that, in herself, is an epic work of art. Tiny by modern standards, and yet as ornate and exquisite as a Faberge egg, the Marco Polo rode the wild, sometime stormy Atlantic waters with the ease and poise of a lady who has seen and done it all, many times before. Eyes popped and jaws dropped as this sublime floating anachronism dropped anchor off the small yacht harbours of the islands, swinging languidly at anchor like something out of a sixties Bond movie. Improbable, elegant and unforgettable, the Marco Polo left nothing but a sense of wonder in her wake.
Back on board, all was instantly, reassuringly familiar. There was the welcome chance to renew former acquaintances among the officers and crew. Time between shore visits to slouch gratefully back into a favourite seat and enjoy a fondly remembered view with a book, a drink, or even both. Time to succumb with almost pathetic gratitude to the age old rhythm and lifestyle aboard a well run ship. No water slides. No aqua parks or rock climbing walls. No children and- most blissful of all- no pressure to do absolutely anything.
Over the next few blogs, I’ll recount some of the highlights of this voyage to the far isles. Here’s hoping that you can stick around for the adventure.