British Isles cruise, UK: A cruise of discovery around Orkney, Skye, Portrush and the Isle of Man

I can forgive most of the foibles aboard the good ship Star Pride, including the screwy pronunciation of Edinburgh, our point of embarkation; and the gentle ribbing the guest relations manager gives haggis, but I absolutely cannot abide hearing Nessie described as "he".

I'm on board Windstar's 208-passenger ship for an eight-day Gaelic Explorers cruise around the British Isles.  The target market is very clearly New Worlders on heritage pilgrimages, people who have come to see the lands from which their ancestors emigrated. 

None of that applies to me – I'm an Old Worlder, from the west coast of Scotland, and for this trip I can't shake a feeling of being a spy. The voyage starts in Edinburgh and finishes in Dublin, with scheduled stops in Invergordon (near Inverness), Orkney, Skye, Portrush (in Northern Ireland) and the Isle of Man. Every time we get an explainer on Scotland, I find myself tuning in, almost actively looking for errors. I realise this is a pretty unhealthy way to spend what are otherwise very comfortable days aboard the ship, but I can't help it, even when the talks and lectures are interesting and accurate. At least until Nessie is mentioned.

There are certain things that, as a Scot, you just know: our international sports teams will break your heart, the sun will almost never shine when you need it to, and Nessie is female. I decide not to correct the host and also decide not to take the optional tour to Loch Ness when we drop anchor in Invergordon. This is partly because I've lost enough hours in the past trying to spot the Highlands's most famous resident but also because, later in the day, the ship runs a complimentary excursion to Fort George.

This large, 18th-century barracks was built in response to the Jacobite uprising of 1745 and has never been out of use since. It may have never endured a siege, but its strategic position at the end of a peninsula and the perfection of its original design means that it has been unchanged for the last quarter of a millennium. A sort of real-life Castle Black from Game of Thrones (the incumbent military are The Black Watch), it's also a museum and a spot for us to take in a show, featuring traditional Scottish dancing and no small amount of haggis bon-bons and whisky. After a couple of hours, we're bussed back to the ship, drunker and happier for the outing.

In 2018, the Star Pride marked 30 years on the sea, but it has the feel of a newer ship. Its rooms, lounges and restaurants are all remarkably comfortable and, I'd wager, if Windstar wanted to, they could cut the average cabin size and have many more inferior versions instead. It's admirable that they don't, but it's also a little hard to believe that this large, lush ship was built for the rigours of the British coast. Of our projected landings after Invergordon, two (Skye and then Portrush) are cancelled, while the Isle of Man visit is shortened significantly when we have to try to find a calmer port in which to anchor. 

Of course, this is all down to the evil machinations of Mother Nature, but it's also northern Britain, an area of the world no better known for good weather than Saudi Arabia is known for pub crawls. Missing out on Northern Ireland causes the highest number of complaints from fellow passengers, who are especially galled by the fact  another Windstar ship is at anchor next to us and able to disembark and tender passengers to the shore with relative ease. As what is ultimately a pretty calm sea – at least for this part of the world – gently nudges the Star Pride from side to side, I can't help wondering if Windstar  has done the maritime equivalent of bringing a Ferrari to plough a field.

It's not all bad news, of course. The second stop, in Kirkwall on Orkney, happens during a rare break in the cloud. Bright but not warm, these windswept islands have a different culture to any of the others we visit. But then Orcadian culture isn't really Scottish at all – like far flung Shetland it once belonged to the Vikings.

Up at 59 degrees north – almost as far north as the Antarctic Peninsula is south – life remains very different to the mainland. There are three sheep and five cows for every person living there, yet the largest landowner is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. That said, people aren't latecomers to some sort of Edenic animal haven – the standing stones of Stenness have been here longer than Stone Henge, 1000 kilometres to the south. To look at them, to see the slow-growing lichens edging their way up these monoliths, to try to fathom the insane number of things that have happened in the world since these stones were stood on their ends … well, that's as baffling and marvellous for me as it was for any of the Canadian and American passengers.

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There's a different kind of strangeness on the Isle of Man. Emerging from the sea fog, this Great British oddity lies halfway between England and Ireland, yet seems to exist in its own realm. Officially a self-governing British Crown dependency, it is almost comically independent (so much so that it has two telecommunications networks of its own, neither of which has a functioning relationship with any UK provider) and undeniably weird.

There are the mutated cats with their odd short tails; there's the annual Isle of Man TT, a motorcycle race that's been going for 111 years, despite riders dying at a rate of almost 1.5 per annum; there's the language (a form of Gaelic) and the currency (pounds unnecessarily printed with a different design), neither of which quite tally with the nations either side of the Irish sea. 

It's around this time on the voyage – probably when our guide on the bus instructs us to speak to fairies under a bridge – that I finally begin to understand the point in this cruise. It's not to enjoy the food, and certainly not because of the weather, or even the marvellous scenery, but rather to experience the strangeness of the British Isles, and to try  to fathom the innumerable ways in which we odd people are at once similar and very, very different.

FIVE MORE NORTHERN EUROPE CRUISES

SPITSBERGEN ENCOUNTER

One Ocean Expeditions take passengers around the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, far north as it's possible to go in Europe, which is home to 1000 polar bears, countless walrus and an astonishing number of glaciers. See oneoceanexpeditions.com

NORDKAPP CRUISING

A passenger ferry as well as a cruise liner, the Hurtigruten route around the Norwegian coast goes past the northernmost point of continental Europe all the way to the remote town of Kirkenes, close to the Russian border. See global.hurtigruten.com

BALTIC SEA

For a more traditional cruise, Royal Caribbean defy their title to visit the Baltic Sea, making stops in Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Russia and Sweden, depending on whether you have taken their seven, 12 or 15-night option. See royalcaribbean.com.au

NORDIC ADVENTURE

Take the Viking route from Scotland to the Faroes to Iceland and back again with Voyages to Antiquity. The 15-night program loosely follows the route of the Norse warriors, starting and finishing in London. See vikingcruises.com.au

SOUTHERN NORTH

If you don't fancy travelling quite so far north, then Celebrity Cruises offer a 12-night option that starts and ends in Amsterdam, visiting Belgium, Guernsey, and southern Ireland along the way. See celebritycruises.com

TRIP NOTES

Jamie Lafferty was a guest of Windstar Cruises.

MORE

traveller.com.au/cruises

traveller.com.au/scotland

windstarcruises.com

FLY

Emirates, Qantas and Qatar fly to Edinburgh from Sydney and Melbourne via their hubs in the Middle East. See emirates.comqantas.com; qatar.com

CRUISING

The Gaelic Explorers itinerary is a recent addition to Windstar's growing cruise program. Prices start from $3599 per person including all meals. Many excursions come at additional cost and all are weather dependent. See windstarcruises.com

   

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