Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Keep to the Left

It’s important to know right off that no one died in the making of today’s adventure. With the possible exception of one side mirror, there were no physical injuries at all. There may have been a bit of psychological trauma, however.

We were docked in Scrabster, Scotland, this morning. The skies were overcast and there was a threat of rain. Temperatures were predicted to be in the upper 50’s. We are heading north and weather conditions will reflect this as we travel above the Arctic Circle. Today, however, we were just making a loop along the north-east corner of Scotland.

Jay had arranged for a rental car, a seven passenger vehicle actually, which had only two comfortable occupants on our journey. MA & D, Jay & Sharon and Ed & Roxanne shared the minivan while Marvin and Barbara had their own car. We could have rented a 12-seater but were justifiably concerned about death and dismemberment. Since Barbara and Marvin were the last ones in, they were the odd couple out.

Jay had a list of eleven[!] places he thought we ought to see but we convinced him that his list was unattainable. One of the men from the car hire service said it would take three hours just to drive the circular route even if we didn’t stop. We decided to start with the site closest to the ship and make up our itinerary as we went.

D was elected to drive because he normally drives a minivan and has also driven in the UK. Remember that he was sitting on the wrong side of a car situated on the wrong side of the roadway and shifting gears with his left hand; the only “normal” aspect was that the clutch, brake and accelerator were in the same configuration as in the US. Okay, we stalled leaving the parking lot by the ship when he did not hit the clutch in time at the “stop” sign. And he did sideswipe some curbs [or kerbs] in the early stages. And there was the possible murder of the side mirror on a parked car in the neighboring town of Thurso, but the car was parked facing the wrong direction and deserved to be punished. Oh, then reflexes has us pull to the right to avoid another car on a narrow road and almost crash into it. But nobody died today.

Our first stop was Dunnet Head, the northernmost point of the British mainland. Let’s not quibble that Great Britain is an island; Dunnet Head is still its northernmost spot. Once we left the main road, we traversed a winding single-lane track which featured periodic wide spots to allow cars to pass in opposite directions. We made it down this road without incident, even pulling into a turn-off to allow a motorcycle to pass us. Barbara [navigator] and Marvin [driver] got separated from us but eventually found Dunnet Head where we waited for them. The view was vast, the cliffs were stark and sheer and the lighthouse an obvious necessity. Barbara had brought walkie-talkies so we were in contact with them most of the time, but it was still reassuring to hear her say, “I see MA! I see Roxanne!” as they pulled up to the parking lot.

We caravanned more closely on the way to the high point of the day, the Castle of Mey. Still, our minivan arrived before Barbara & Marvin. At one point, while we waited, the three women went to the ladies’ room and were sitting in their stalls when suddenly they heard Barbara call out from the walkie-talkie, “MA, where are you?” Nonchalantly, MA replied, “In the bathroom!”Needless to say, they emerged from the loo in hysterics

Built in 1636, the castle had been family owned for generations, perhaps centuries. Eventually, it fell into disrepair. In 1952, it was discovered by the Queen Elizabeth who was visiting friends in the area following the death of her husband, Edward VI. The Queen Mother, as she became know, bought the castle and had it restored [1993 – 1995] so she could stay there in August and September when she visited Scotland.

At one point, the estate totaled over 8000 acres but is now only 2500 acres or so. It encompasses the castle itself, gardens and animals. The gardens we saw looked more functional than ornamental and included flowers, hedges, roses, herbs and vegetables. The flowers and produce were [and may still be] used by the staff for decorative as well as practical purposes. We did not explore the livestock although we could see cattle and sheep in the fields. For that matter, we saw cattle and sheep everywhere we drove today except in the cities and towns.

The castle has been maintained as a museum dedicated to QM Elizabeth. All of her furnishings, tapestries, tchotchkes, clothing, etc. are on display and, in each room of the castle, there were docents to explain everything. No pictures were allowed inside, but we saw Christmas cards she sent; her favorite blue outfit [she had 4 copies]; the dining room set up for entertaining; the sitting room where she met guests; the kitchen; and other rooms used by family or retainers. It was a much better castle from our point of view than Stirling Castle yesterday. The only drawback, again, was the existence of steep and narrow staircases. None of us fell.

The staff at the Castle gift shop said that there was a pub at John o’Groat, another spot on Jay’s list. Barbara and Marvin followed us there, keeping closer this time. We arrived there around noon and discovered that there was no there there. John o’Groat was really just a tourist trap of shops and a café which served beer. This was not our idea of a pub but we were hungry so we stayed. To our surprise, the food was pretty good. Some had soup; some had toasties [grilled cheese and something sandwiches]; and several had both. MA had a cheese and onion toastie and D had a bacon and cheese one, both on good brown bread. We were disappointed yet satisfied.
We were going to go from there to a quarry to see exhibits about minerals and such, but Navigator Jay realized that we would have to go south to get there and we weren’t so sure of the time involved with the extra driving and the “tour” itself, so we continued back to Thurso, the village next to Scrabster. We debated going straight to the pier, dropping off the car and returning to town on the HAL shuttle but parked near the center of town and walked around. Somewhere along the way back, we lost Marvin and Barbara and assumed they had gone back to the ship. Their names were not called when we were ready to depart, so we knew they were on board.

We were in time for trivia but placed second, then stayed and chatted with other players who are also CC people. Nap and journal time before a drink and dinner [seafood Cobb salad/seared tuna]. We returned to the cabin only to find a message from Richard in Guest Services, so we trekked back upstairs to see him. There were, alas, no surprises – HAL was not willing to give us the million dollars to vacate our staterooms. We were welcome to stay for the entire trip although they would honor the original offer of refund/free cruise/on-board credit. There is little likelihood of an upgrade for the last two weeks. He also explained the confusion over MA’s gel nails – the process is available on the other HAL ships but not on the Prinsendam yet. And he offered the services of a priest or rabbi if we wanted one for the disposal of Henry and Pokey’s ashes. We declined that offer, too, fearing that their ghosts would haunt us if there was any hint of religion in the proceedings.

And so to bed and sleep by 10:30. We have to up early again tomorrow for our third port in three days.

Next – Runavik, Faroe Islands

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sheep May Safely Graze or a Tail of Two Cities

Today’s port of call is Runavik [roon-uh-wick], Faroe Islands. The Faroes are north of Scotland but are associated with Denmark. They print their own paper money, for example, but use Danish coins. When their youngsters go to university, they can have free tuition in Denmark. The language, on the other hand, may be closer to Icelandic. According to our guide, whom we called Rolf, there was no written Faroese until about 150 years ago.

We were to make port in Torshavn [tore-shawn], the capital, but today marks the beginning of a two-day national celebration and there were already two other ships landing in Torshavn. Since it is an hour away by car, we opted not to join the mayhem. Instead, we had a driving tour of several of the northern islands. There are a dozen or more islands in the Faroes, connected and ferries. There is only one bridge connecting islands in the chain.

As the captain said this afternoon, we were lucky with the weather. There was a mix of cloud and sun – and fog – depending where we were and which side of an island we were on. The islands themselves seem to consist of either fjords or mountains, the highest of which is 880 meters [about 2500 feet] high. The mountains presented steep but stepped facades. They would have been easy for a mountain climber but were still sheer by tourist standards. Because of erosion, they appeared to be in steps or distinct strata. Each lower level was a little wider or closer to the valley floor. As the steps widened, they became grass covered

Erosion not only created the step effect, it also provided boulders for use in low walls between fields and even as a way to keep sheep from the higher steps. The hills and valleys were a bright green dotted with rocks and sheep but not trees. The only trees we saw had been imported. The fields were not used for vegetables but provided a limitless buffet for the sheep which seem to outnumber the people. There are so many sheep [How many sheep are there?] that periodically there are “sheep gates” in the road; like cattle gates in the US, these are metal tubes [rollers?] across the road to prevent the sheep from wandering away. At the sides of the road where these gates are install, barbed wire fencing connects to the fences in the fields. This system allows the sheep to cross the road [no chicken jokes, please] without becoming lost.

According to Rolf, there are only 48000 people living in the Faroes. Their main occupations are sheep ranching, fishing and sailing. The sheep are raised for food not for their wool and represent a major element of the islanders’ diet. Rolf said that they actually import lamb from New Zealand to meet the need. There are some cattle and geese but no swine. Rolf said they was a farmer who tried unsuccessfully to raise pigs but “they all burned.” In a supreme irony, the farmer was Moslem.
The population of native Faroese seems to be shrinking, supplemented by immigrants from everywhere but especially the Philippines. The young people who go away for college tend not to return which drains the resources of the island nation.

We had a marvelous day with Rolf. Mostly, we saw scenery, often a phantasmagoria of clouds and fjords. One minute we would see a fjord filled with cotton-candy-like clouds and then we would return five minutes later to find a clear view of the other side. We never tired of seeing the mountains with and without their hats, as Rold called the highest clouds. There were several cascading waterfalls and countless rivulets pouring down the mountainsides. And black and white [and black-and-white] sheep everywhere.

We saw, from a distance, a deserted village which was falling into disrepair. One day, all of the men in the village died on their boats during a bad storm, leaving only the women and children to live there. Soon after, the survivors all moved out because they could live there without the men. We found a little pocket park late in the day. It featured a bronze statue of a mother and her two children looking out for their husband and father who had been lost either at sea or on a mountain.
Life in the Faroes can be harsh. Not only are there occupational dangers, but also the weather can be hazardous, especially in the winter. Snow and strong winds combine to make living there dangerous; if it’s not one, it’s the other or, even worse, both. There is a good road system so the villages are not too isolated, but some of the villages have only half-a-dozen houses. Life can be lonely, too.

Small town life isn’t all bad, though. Before Rolf suggested a place for lunch, he called ahead to ask the owner of a crafts store across the street if she would open for us. She drove in, opened the shop and made a couple of sales for her efforts. Our lunch was in a restaurant in a little town with an unpronounceable name [as were most of them]. We had a buffet which had meatballs; sloppy Joes without the bread; breaded pork patties; roasted pork belly; fried fish; potatoes; and vegetables [frozen, we are sure]. There was little confusion about paying since D was the only one with Danish currency, but the proprietor was willing to take US dollars, British pounds and euros. Magnetic strip credit cards were not accepted. Despite the variety of payment options, D still had to bail out Ed who didn’t have any small bills.

Our last adventure of the day had us driving across the Atlantic Ocean. Last year, the Cruise Director swam across by taking a dip in the ship’s pool as we passed the half-way mark on our crossing of the ocean. Today, we drove across the only bridge connecting islands in the Faroes. Since the water is technically the Atlantic, we drove across the ocean. Tricky, but now we have bragging rights over most of our friends.

We arrived back too late for trivia [awww] but early enough for naptime and journal writing. Dinner was a curried vegetable cutlet and roast beef, followed by laughter and chocolate.

Tomorrow is a well-deserved sea day, so we can sleep in a little.

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