Scrabster and John o’ Groats

Though the sea was a lot calmer this morning, the rough weather yesterday meant our arrival in Scrabster was delayed by about 90 minutes. So it wasn’t until 10 o’clock that we docked in this fishing port in the Scottish county of Caithness.

We’d never been here before but we learned that Scrabster is Britain’s northernmost large port set on the north-western edge of Thurso Bay, and has been a harbour town since Viking times, when the Norsemen arrived in their longboats and formed a thriving settlement at this natural port.

In fact, reading the word “Scrabster” reminded me of a cross between “crab” and “lobster” and I was hoping to find some seafood stalls selling local cockles and mussels, as I absolutely love fresh shellfish.

Today we had booked on the Northern Highland Sights and Scenery tour so, boarding the bus on the quayside, we set off through the small fishing town, past the little houses and cottages perched on the hills with fantastic views of the harbour.

The weather was cloudy and a little bit windy, but at least it was dry. The coastal landscape gave way to fields of sheep and cattle with the occasional farm building, as we passed through remote, tiny little villages. There was also rugged moorland of heather and gorse. It looked a peaceful, idyllic place to live, miles from the hustle and bustle and stresses of traffic jams. However, unless you were a farmer or fisherman, I don’t know if there would be many other means of employment here, apart from a shopkeeper or publican/hotelier.

Our first stop of the day was at the famous John o’ Groats, on the north-eastern tip of Scotland. It isn’t the most northerly point on the mainland (we’d visit that later on) but it’s the furthest point from Land’s End, in Cornwall, as is beloved of cyclists and backpackers who want to do the 876 mile journey from one end of this island to the other, usually as an endurance test and/or to raise money for charity.

The town of John o’ Groats takes its name from Jan de Groote, a Dutchman who obtained a grant for the ferry from the Scottish mainland to Orkney, recently acquired from Norway, from James IV, King of Scots, in 1496.
By this time the sun was peeping hesitantly out from behind the clouds so, alighting from the bus, we spotted a little shop called “Flavours” that sold 15 different flavours of ice cream. I got a rum and raisin cone and Trevor got a toffee one and we strolled around the cliff top, looking in the little souvenir shops; in fact it was now starting to feel like a typical British seaside holiday, especially looking at the tour buses and the visitors, all doing what we were doing and enjoying an ice cream in the sunshine and bracing sea breeze. 🙂

After about 45 minutes it was time to go back on the bus. We passed some more of the lovely, rugged and remote scenery, seeing the small crofters’ cottages among the fields, some containing the distinctive black Aberdeen Angus cattle.

Our next stop was to Dunnet Head, and this time it was the most northerly point in mainland Britain, at 58° 40′ N, 03° 22 W. There wasn’t much here apart from the lighthouse, but there were great views of the islands of Stroma and Hoy, as well as Orkney. We were told by Mary, our guide, that it was a haven for bird-watchers and there had often been dolphins spotted, or indeed a friendly seal or two. So not really a lot to see or do here but, as with John o’ Groats, at least we can say we have been. 🙂

Back on the bus we passed more of the beautiful scenery before arriving back at the Adonia in time for lunch at around half past one. We’d already spotted a pub in the village called “The Ferry Inn” so we decided to wander along afterwards, as the weather was now quite warm if you could find somewhere out of the breeze.
We took a walk along to the pub, passing the Thurso lifeboat station and the lifeboat itself on the way. Inside were a couple of the locals, but various people came in off the Adonia to do what we were doing and have a couple of pints or taste the local whisky.

When we went back on board we had an afternoon nap then got ourselves ready for dinner as usual. From our table near the window we could see when the Adonia slipped her moorings at 7.00pm and started to head back in a south westerly direction.

Then it was off to the Curzon lounge where singer Lorraine Brown, the Shirley Bassey wannabe, was performing again.
Later on, in the Crow’s Nest, we enjoyed some drinks with Charlie and Linda before they decided to go to the Conservatory to take part in the syndicate quiz, but we were staying in the Crow’s Nest as tonight it was karaoke night, and yours truly, as ever, would be getting up to do a couple of numbers. 🙂

We moved our seats so we could get some good bird’s eye views of the receding, rugged coastline and watch the lighthouses flash their beams, warning mariners of rocks. We saw another cruise ship in the distance, and looking through the binoculars provided, we saw the Fred Olsen logo on the funnel; the ship turned out to be the Boudicca, on which we cruised in 2008, when we went all the way up to Spitsbergen, and nearly to 80° north.

At 10.15pm entertainments officer Graham came into the lounge to start the karaoke. There weren’t many people in the Crow’s Nest by then, so I hoped a few more would come in after the main show had finished, as I didn’t want to be the only one to get up and sing! However, on this particular cruise most of the passengers were elderly, and indeed we’d been told that the average age was 69, so it looked as though most of them had taken their cups of Horlicks and gone to bed. 😉

Well, I have to say that the karaoke turned out to be the “Graham and Debbie Show” as Graham “filled in” by doing a few songs and I was the only passenger to get up! We each did four songs, but we were performing to a nearly-empty room, so I don’t think they’ll be putting on any more karaoke nights this cruise. 🙂

There Are Warnings Of Gales…

During the night we woke several times as the wind had got up and large waves were crashing off the side of the Adonia, and we could feel our beds shaking. When we got up it was quite difficult moving around our cabin due to the ship’s motion.  Not to worry though; sea-sickness has never affected us, no matter what the weather, so we were looking forward to another relaxing day at sea.

After breakfast we went along to hear another talk by the P & O marine historian Rob Henderson; this time it was about several of the great ships of the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company and their roles during the war. Afterwards we went along to the Conservatory to enjoy a mid-morning coffee, and we saw Charlie and Linda who were looking slightly worse for wear due to the rough weather and, they said, maybe a tad too many of the cocktails of the day.   🙂  We advised them to consume some form of ginger (ginger beer, ginger ale etc.) as we have always found ginger to be excellent for relieving nausea; indeed on the QE2 in the past they always used to set out bowls of crystallised ginger for the passengers to help themselves to whenever the going was a little rough.

We decided to venture out onto the deserted pool deck and were nearly blown off our feet by the strong wind, which was very cold.  All around us the Irish Sea crashed and foamed with large, choppy waves.  We sought refuge inside once again and pottered about the ship until lunchtime.

The mid-day announcement informed us that the wind was Force 8 on the Beaufort scale, which was gale force and, as ever, advised us to “take care” when moving around the ship due to the high seas.

At 1.00pm we went along to the Crow’s Nest for the second round of “Battle of the Sexes” and the picture round consisted of famous landmarks, followed by a general knowledge round.  When you are part of a large team there is a lot of conferring going on, and often someone on the team will offer the correct answer but then allow themselves to be talked out of it by the other team members; this happened quite a lot to us.  Also, it’s the luck of the draw which questions you get; sometimes we knew the answers to the opposition’s questions but not our own.  It’s all part of the fun though.  Once again, the ladies lost by five points, so we are now lagging behind 10 points overall.   😦

Charlie and Linda had joined in with the quiz and had taken our advice and got a ginger-beer based drink, but it didn’t do them any good and, in fact, they both left in rather a hurry to seek the comfort of their cabin.

We stayed for the “Name that Tune” round and had another drink, then it was back to our cabin for an afternoon nap, as we hadn’t slept well last night.  Another annoucement from the bridge advised us that the storm had increased and now the wind was up to Force 9 (strong gale).  Indeed some of the doors leading to the open decks had been roped off, saying the the deck was “closed” and advising passengers not to go outside.

Around teatime we spotted “land ahoy” and, looking at the map, saw that we were going through the Hebrides. In the distance we could see the islands of Lewis and Harris to our port side and some of the inner islands, such as Skye, to our starboard side.

We enjoyed a hearty dinner at 6.15pm and noticed that the sea was calmer.  The captain had advised that, by about midnight tonight, the wind should have dropped and we had a good forecast for our arrival into Scrabster tomorrow morning.

In the Curzon Lounge tonight’s entertainment was a pianist.  He was very good and played a selection of contemporary and classical pieces, including one of my favourites, the fantastic Warsaw Concerto by Richard Addinsell.  He ended his concert by asking the audience to shout out some of their favourite piano pieces (I asked for Debussy’s Clair de Lune) which he then played in a medley.  We really enjoyed his performance and some people got to their feet while applauding.

We met up with Charlie and Linda once again in the Crow’s Nest, by which time they’d perked up considerably.  We played the “Majority Rules” quiz, which is a bit different in that there is no right and wrong answer to each question, but you score more points the more teams that have the same answer as you.  We didn’t win, but it was amusing to see some of the answers people had suggested.

Then it was off to bed again in cabin B117 where we noticed from our balcony that there were not as many “white horses” on the sea, so we hoped for a much calmer night.

In Dublin’s Fair City

When we awoke this morning, the Adonia was already moored up in the capital city of the emerald isle. There is a very old joke that asks “Which country is the richest in the world?” and the answer is “Ireland, because its capital is always Dublin.” 🙂

We had been here once before, on the Black Prince in 2008, so it was nice to come back and see the familiar sights as well as new ones. We weren’t going on an excursion this time, preferring instead to do our own exploring.

We got the shuttle bus from the docks into town, where we were dropped off outside the main library. Armed with a map of the city, we’d already decided on our first destination; the world-famous Guinness brewery at St. James’ Gate, where Ireland’s favourite beer has been brewed since 1759.

It was about a mile and a half of walking, but it allowed us to get some exercise, as well as looking in the shops on the way. When we arrived at the Guinness Storehouse (as its known) we noticed a party of men, all wearing white peaked caps with enormous black tassels hanging down; we thought they looked a bit daft). They were obviously a foreign tour group come to take a look around the brewery, as we were doing ourselves.

The Guinness Storehouse is a tall building with lots of glass and open-work staircases; in fact it is shaped like a giant pint glass. You work your way up the various levels, on each one learning the different stages of the fine art of brewing the “black stuff”, from the roasting of the malted barley grains, to the picking of the hops and the addition of pure mountain spring water, and of course the history of the company itself, which has been going for more than 250 years.

Once you reach the top of the “pint glass” you find yourself in the Gravity Bar, which is a circular rooftop bar affording the best views over all of Dublin. We had a voucher which we exchanged for a free pint of Guinness and enjoyed the panoramic views. We noticed that the group of guys with the daft hats had also assembled with their pints; just then, the barman asked for our attention and announced that we were very lucky to have a male-voice choir visiting us from Finland, whereupon the group of men burst into song, a superb a capella version of the Indiana Jones theme. They then did a rendition of Happy Together, and the harmonies were fantastic. An unusual and unexpected bit of entertainment; here we were in Ireland listening to a choir from Finland, while enjoying our Guinness in a rooftop bar over the city. 🙂

We then took a slow walk back, first of all stopping in a nearby pub called “Arthur’s” and enjoying another pint of Guinness with a bar meal, during which time I sat and wrote out the three postcards we’d bought earlier.

After posting the cards we continued on our way and had a look in a shop selling a fantastic range of unusual looking shoes. I saw a great pair with a 6” wedge heel and they would have been perfect apart from the fact that they had an ankle strap, and I cannot wear anything around the ankle any more, ever since I broke my right ankle and had to have it pinned in 2008. 😦

As it was now about 3.45pm and the last shuttle bus back to the Adonia was at half four, we decided to make our way back to the library, first of all stopping off to see the former home of famous Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, as well as a memorial statue of this great man of genius and wit.

We were almost falling asleep on the short bus ride back to the ship, so once on board we decided to have a nap. I’d already made my mind up that I wasn’t going down to dinner tonight (which certainly wouldn’t hurt, ha ha) so I took my time getting ready. Trevor went down to the dining room but I just took my Kindle along to Anderson’s bar and enjoyed a glass of champagne before joining the others in the Pacific restaurant for the coffee and liqueur stage.

The show in the Curzon Lounge tonight was called “Songs from 88 Notes” and was based around famous songs that had been composed using the 88 keys on a piano keyboard. It featured the Adonia singers and dancers and was the usual cheesy singathon, OK but not out of this world.

Then, as usual, it was up to the Crow’s Nest where the resident musical quintet called Quintessence were playing a tribute to jazz; we actually enjoyed that more than the main show.

The quiz tonight was called “All Around the World” based on geography (i.e. capitals, flags, famous landmarks etc) and we usually do quite well in these types of quizzes because we’ve been to 71 countries across all seven continents. However, we lost the quiz by one measly point, because we didn’t recognise Liverpool. In the section called “in which city do you find these landmarks” we correctly recognised Seattle, Moscow, Rio de Janero and Dubai, but didn’t get Liverpool. So no bottle of wine for us tonight then!

Back in our cabin we opened a bottle of prosecco that we’d bought in Lidl in Dublin, and settled down for the night. The forecast was for rough weather ahead, and the movement of the Adonia was already reminding us that we were no longer on terra firma and a taste of the high seas to come.

Fastnet and Lundy

As we are doing a cruise in British waters, I thought I would continue this blog using the title of whichever shipping forecast area we happen to be sailing in on that day.

We woke up this morning and went up to the Conservatory for our breakfast, and afterwards we went out on deck to get an idea of what the weather would be like today. There was a lively wind blowing and still quite a chill in the air, so we didn’t stay out too long!

At 10 o’clock we went along to the Curzon lounge where a bloke was doing a presentation and showing a short docu-film about the building of P & O’s original Oriana. A lot of the documentary was filmed in and around the ship yard, and it was fascinating to see the architects, welders, platers and painters at work. It was also a little nostalgic because there are hardly any ship-builders left in Britain, and where we live in the North-East there used to be two great shipyards; Swan Hunter on the Tyne and Austin Pickersgill on the Wear. Alas, they have been swept away in the passage of time (and not necessarily progress).

When it showed the Oriana being launched and going down the slipway into the water for the first time, it really was such a tremendous and moving sight; I can’t imagine how proud all the men who had helped to build her must have felt.

Afterwards we went back into the Conservatory for a cup of coffee, and we bumped into Charlie and Linda again. We decided we’d get together in the Crow’s Nest at 1.00pm for the “Battle of the Sexes” quiz, and share our prize from last night’s quiz.

At lunchtime we went into the Lido café to have something light; the weather looked a little brighter outside so we took it out on deck at the rear of the ship. There wasn’t much of a wake as she was hardly moving, maybe only doing five or six knots. I enjoyed a cold meat salad and a helping of apple crumble, then we went back to the cabin to get the bottle of vino to take up to the Crow’s Nest.

We got together with Charlie and Linda but then we had to split up into two teams, men on one side of the room and women on the other. Then the format of the quiz was that each team took it in turns to choose a number, and that dictated which questions you were asked. There were two correct points for each answer, but if the team didn’t know the answer or got it wrong, it was passed to the opposition and they could ‘steal’ a point if they answered it correctly. Then men’s team won, 32 to our 27.

Afterwards we decided to stay in the Crow’s Nest for Name that Tune. There was music from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s as well as TV themes. We thought we’d done quite well, scoring 28 out of 32, but another team had also scored 28 so it went to the tie-breaker, which we lost by a whisker. 😦

We then went back to our cabin where I had a half-hour’s power nap and Trevor went up to see a classical pianist perform.

Tonight was formal night, so I took my time getting preened and dressed. I wore a long black velvet Gothic dress, together with long evening gloves and silver sequinned platform shoes with a 5” heel.

We went along to the Curzon Lounge at 5.45pm, met the captain and enjoyed three free glasses of wine, before it was time to go for our dinner.

The menu featured smoked salmon and lobster thermidor tonight (yum yum) with kiwi pavlova for dessert, and we finished off washing it all down with a nice glass of ruby port.

The show in the Curzon Lounge tonight was excellent; it was a husband-and-wife Irish duo called “Livewire” and featured the lady on the fiddle and the man on either the accordion or the typical Irish drum called a bodhran in which the drum is held in one hand while a double-ended stick, held in the middle with the other hand, is used to beat out a fast rhythm. The music was really catchy and they finished off with a brilliant rendition of Riverdance. We really enjoyed their show; it was the sort of music that lifts you and makes you feel cheerful.

We finished off the evening by going up to the conservatory for the Syndicate Quiz, but there were only four teams and we didn’t do so well this time, only managing third place out of four.

Hidden Gems of the British Isles

In all our years of cruising, many thousands of nautical miles right across the globe, we’ve tended to neglect our own green and pleasant land with all its history, heritage and rugged beauty. So it was at 4.00am this morning that woke up and got ourselves ready for the long journey from Durham to Southampton, where we were due to join P & O’s Adonia for a cruise around the British Isles.

We joined the luxury coach at Washington services on the A1(M) and set off at 5.30am. There are several ways you can get to Southampton from Durham; on the train, the coach or driving, each of which take about six hours, or by flying from Newcastle, which takes about 1.5 hours but you have the hassle of going to the airport, checking baggage in etc.

In any case our shuttle coach with Eavesway Travel was included in the cruise package, and the beauty is that once the cases are loaded on to the coach, you don’t see them again until they are delivered to your cabin, so it’s a really convenient way of doing it if you don’t want to lug your bags about.

The time passed surprisingly quickly and, at 9.00am, (it felt more like lunchtime when we’d been up since 4.00!!) we cracked open a bottle of rosé wine we’d sneaked onto the bus and enjoyed a couple of glasses each before the coach took its second comfort stop in Warwick.

At 1.00pm we pulled up outside the departure terminal at Southampton docks. We alighted from the bus and were pleased to see that the lengthy queues we’d experienced here in January were absent, and we were able to approach the check-in desk immediately, thinking we’d be on the ship within a few minutes.

No such luck, however. It seemed there was a problem with our cruise cards; they’d apparently got stuck in the machine. We were asked to take a seat nearby while they sorted us out with some new cards. It took about 15 minutes by which time we were champing at the bit, dying to get on board Adonia and start our holiday. 🙂

Eventually we boarded but couldn’t go to our cabin as it wouldn’t be ready until 2.00pm. No problem; we headed for the Lido self-service buffet on Deck 9, got something light to eat, and took it outside onto the rear decks, where the sun was valiantly attempting to break through the clouds. One thing about holidaying in Britain is that you can never predict the weather; it doesn’t matter what time of year – spring, summer or autumn – you can never guarantee any sunshine, and in fact so far in 2013 we have had unseasonably cold weather, still getting hard frost and snow on high ground even in the middle of May!

Last May (2012) we took a five-day mini cruise around the Scottish islands and the weather would have rivalled that on the Mediterranean; cloudless skies, sunshine and temperatures well into the 20’s (Celsius). Today, however, there were cloudy grey skies and a tiny threat of moisture in the air, as well as a brisk breeze. When packing our cases to come away, it seemed strange packing my coat, cagoule and umbrella instead of my shorts and flip-flops.

So we found ourselves hoping that if it wasn’t going to be sunny, at least let it be dry, and it’s quite depressing to be looking out at the rain pouring down, and we’d done too much of that this year already. 😦

We enjoyed a drink with our lunch and then made our way to cabin B117, a balcony stateroom on Deck 7 aft. It was very nicely decorated and spacious, with twin beds pushed together, a settee, coffee table, dressing table and chair, fridge and tea and coffee making facilities. The bathroom was a bit on the small side, but would serve its purpose.

Athough we’ve never been on the Adonia before, she felt very familiar to us. She was one of seven identical small ships built at Fincantieri yard in Italy, and we have already been on one of her sister ships, the Azamara Journey, when we cruised around the French riviera in 2011. At 30,300 tons Adonia is the smallest in the P & O fleet, holding 712 passengers. As this cruise doesn’t involve any flying and is staying in British waters, we predicted that the majority of passengers would be in their “later years” and indeed, so far, I seemed to be the youngest person taking this voyage!

After dumping our bags we decided to go up to the Crow’s Nest for one more drink before lifeboat drill at 3.30pm. I enjoyed a marguerita and Trevor had his “Newky Broon” (Newcastle Brown Ale) then it was back to the cabin to get our life jackets and proceed to our muster station. We were amused to see that the master of the Adonia is called Captain Cook (although his first name is Ashley rather than James). 🙂

After lifeboat drill we had an afternoon nap as the early morning start was starting to catch up with us. Then it was time to get a wash and brush up before making our way to the Pacific restaurant and table #43, where we were looking forward to meeting our table companions for the voyage.

We are sharing our table with two other couples: Charlie and Linda from Chelmsford in Essex and Ray and Lorraine from Weymouth, so neither of them had as far to travel to join the Adonia as we did, and they winced when we told them we’d been up since 4.00am.

It is always during the first dinner that you wonder about several things; what would the food and the service be like, and will you get on with the people with whom you are sharing a table, but this time we need not worry on any counts, because everything was excellent, including the company.

In fact, Charlie and Linda joined us after the meal in the Curzon lounge, where the cruise director was introducing the ship’s band and welcoming us to the first performer, a singer called Lorraine Brown. She was actually very good, but you could tell by her mannerisms she was modelling herself on Shirley Bassey (or trying to). Nonetheless we enjoyed her performance before we decided to end the evening by going to the Crow’s Nest for tonight’s quiz.

The quiz questions fell into three categories; general knowledge, picture round and music from the 70’s and 80’s. We only came up with an average score in the first couple of rounds, but we really came into our own on the music category, as 70’s and 80’s is my era and we only dropped half a point in that round. So we ended up winning the quiz – a good start to the cruise. 🙂

Our prize was a bottle of rosé wine and we decided we’d meet after lunchtime tomorrow to enjoy it.

We then enjoyed a nightcap after a very long day, then it was back to cabin B117 for our first night on board the Adonia.