What is the allure of islands? Is it the appeal of defining our limits? That over the hill is the sea and this is all there is – so make the most of it? I lived on islands for five years, in the south Pacific, and it is the sea that comes to mind when I reminisce: paddling dugout canoes and sailing on rusty, workaday ferries between mangrove-fringed specks under a southern sky. But I now live on a much larger island – Britain – and even though the sea is all around me, I miss the feeling of containment and insularity, of peace and seclusion. I often yearn for a smaller, quieter island. As it happens, Britain has more than 6,000 islands along its 11,000 miles of coastline. So there really is no excuse.
Over a millennium ago, people made pilgrimages to islands to escape the crowds and pressures of modern life. Off the Kerry coast, in Ireland, monks meditated atop the jagged fang of Skellig Michael, about seven miles out to sea. Seven hundred feet up, they sheltered in stone beehive structures, like a foretelling of some Inca fortress, staring out at the lonely ocean.
Today we don’t have to be so adventurous to reach these outcrops of serenity; but the best way to experience their charms is still by sea. As television series and books intensify interest in Britain’s coast, these islands – from the subtropical microclimate of the Isles of Scilly to the subarctic Shetlands – are popular draws for visitors.
In the sixth century, St Columba left Ireland and washed ashore on Iona, in the Outer Hebrides, where he set up a monastery. He loved Ireland, “But sweeter and fairer to me / [was] The salt sea where the seagulls cry...” By a white-sand beach, a Celtic cross marks the birthplace of Christianity in Britain. On such islands, our horizons are never too distant, time never too short – unless, perhaps, as was the case with me last summer, we are on a cruise and the ship is ready to go.
But this is no ordinary cruise. The 112m, 6,500-ton, 81-cabin National Geographic Explorer is the flagship expedition vessel in the fleet of pioneering US travel company Lindblad Expeditions, and from it the smallest island gems garlanding Britain can be reached using rigid inflatable boats known as Zodiacs that bounce through the waves to deposit passengers on beaches and jetties.
On board, instead of cabaret shows, there is a rotating phalanx of experts in ornithology, geology, archeology and marine biology who present to the guests. On Iona, I attend a candlelit mass in the abbey with one of them – David Barnes, a noted Welsh historian. I learn that the circle design in the Celtic cross could signify the sun – “A syncretism of Christianity with Neolithic beliefs”, he suggests.
Back aboard, we watch footage of corals, anemones and sponges living exactly where we are anchored, filmed earlier that day by the scuba-diving underwater specialist. Over cocktails and canapés in the lounge, thanks to a microscope linked up to a video camera, we observe the pulsing of a tiny translucent jellyfish as it floats in a Petri dish and learn that its digestive system doubles up as its gonads. We find out about the Caledonian orogeny (a prehistoric era of mountain building), seafloor spreading, and how England and Scotland were once separated by an ocean.
Irish academic Vinnie Butler tells us how the Vikings (who, it transpires, never wore horned helmets) took girls from Ireland to sell as sex slaves in the Middle East. Butler – who describes himself, in his broad Irish accent, as a member of the “bog body fraternity” – also regales us with tales of millennia-old human remains preserved in the deep peat and mud. “How do you know they were friends…”, asks a suspicious member of the audience afterwards, “…these ‘bog buddies’?”
If all the presentations and guided walks don’t meet our appetite for learning, there is also a well-stocked library and a notice board where research papers are pinned each day (the ship is also an active research vessel). Traditional elements in the diet of the Northern Isles of Scotland and Long-term changes in breeding performance of puffins on St Kilda were both on offer during my trip.
The Explorer’s bridge isn’t an out-of-bounds, high-security area, but instead a sociable meeting point where passengers can scan the sea for cetaceans, discuss the technical specifications of the ship with the captain, pore over charts and even make requests as to where the ship should go. “Loch Sunart’s very pretty,” says somebody one afternoon. “Could we go there for some sightseeing?”; and before dinner is served, we are steering an unexpected diversion.
Our captain, Oliver Kreuss, explains that the National Geographic Explorer is a former Norwegian ferry “and so is perfect as an expedition ship – great for manoeuvring into small bays and along rugged coastlines”. It has also been newly ice-strengthened. “It was already suitable for icy Arctic waters, but at Lindblad we positively seek out very solidly frozen seas, so the hull needed more strengthening.”
Few other expedition companies own their own ships; but then this family firm is like few others. In the 1960s, Swedish-American Lars Eric Lindblad pioneered expedition tourism in Antarctica. His son, Sven-Olof Lindblad, started Special Expeditions (which went on to become Lindblad Expeditions) in 1979.
He is a passionate advocate of the genre: “The art of expedition travel is in the action – in seeing, exploring and making new discoveries,” he says. “We believe that adventurous travellers [want] an original experience – one that reveals a destination to them in a way that is unique unto itself.” The company “relentlessly seeks innovative ways to examine our world and inspire travellers to explore and care about the planet”.
Lindblad Expeditions’ prominence in expedition tourism was recognised in 2004, when National Geographic formed an alliance with the company in a unique (and astute) exercise that enables guests to interact with world-renowned photographers, scientists and researchers as they travel the globe on Lindblad’s fleet of five ships, the vessels’ names now prefixed with “National Geographic”.
The maiden voyage of the first Lindblad-owned ship was around the British Isles; and this has continued to be one of its most popular destinations. “People have no idea of the depth of wildness of this country,” says expedition leader Tom O’Brien, who’s been with Lindblad since 1985. Some of the (mostly American) guests “expect Britain to be all tea and crumpets”, he says. “I hope they go away in awe of the depth of layers of civilisation and the wildness of the landscape – the Celtic Christian and Neolithic sites were built in powerful places, so even in bad weather they are very dramatic,” he says.
Many of the guests are well-travelled Ivy Leaguers. One I speak with, travel agent Suzan Alexander from Michigan, has holidayed in the UK “60 to 70 times. This is my first time with Lindblad though, and it exceeds expectations,” she tells me over a dinner of pan-seared halibut with diver-caught scallops. “It’s a way of seeing parts of Britain that I haven’t had the chance to visit before,” she says. “You can get to places on a small ship and the Zodiac that [people really don’t go to] otherwise.”
The company wins dedicated followers. Ross Dinyari, who describes himself as an entrepreneur who does real estate “as a hobby”, travels for about a third of the year with his wife Rosemarie. They have been on more than 10 Lindblad cruises in the past decade. “Going away with Lindblad is like being on a college field course,” he says, after an on-board talk about the demise of corncrakes. “It’s so totally different from the usual ‘love boat’.”
But as even the higher-end “love boats” become more expedition-focused – with speedboat excursions, kayaking and expert lectures – so the Explorer has become more “cruise-like”. It may not be as luxurious as, say, the tartan-decked floating country house that is the Hebridean Princess, but there are cabins with balconies, plus high-thread-count bed linen, a gym with sea views, a sauna and a massage therapist who will pummel you with a “humpback whale deep tissue massage”. (Not, I venture, a name that will catch on in the mainstream spa world.)
The menus feature local ingredients, with a focus on sustainably caught seafood; on this 13-day cruise, the 150 guests would polish off 100kg of Dublin Bay prawns, 150kg of diver-caught scallops and 780 quail eggs. It must be said that the restaurant service still has a bit to go: the queues for the lunch buffet might have tested the patience of the medieval monks in whose footsteps we’re travelling.
But our “hardships” pale in comparison to those of the islands’ former inhabitants. On the remote and treeless archipelago of St Kilda, 100 miles off the west coast of Scotland, we learn how the islanders used to lower themselves down 1,000ft vertical cliff faces to gather sea birds for food. In the 17th century, a group of gannet-hunting men and boys was stranded on a storm-lashed rock stack for eight months. They lived on a tiny ledge, eating raw birds and drinking seepage water, not knowing why their families had abandoned them. It turned out that the islanders were simultaneously succumbing to smallpox; almost all – except the ones on the stack – died. (Rather puts the quail-egg queue into perspective.) St Kildan life continued to be a struggle until the last 36 islanders opted to leave 81 years ago.
Sailing the seas for leisure is a concept those hardened islanders would find hard to understand. Before my four-day taster of this cruise is finished, I have come face-to-face with puffins on Staffa, kayaked on the wind-rippled waters of Loch Ewe, visited the stone circle of Callanish in Lewis and, in Orkney, wandered around the rooftops of Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic village, Skara Brae, where the furniture is made of stone.
O’Brien is right to characterise these islands as “powerful” places. But equally powerful is the contrast between the extraordinary resilience of earlier island civilisations and our pampered modern existence; and the privileged perspective on it all that the Explorer affords its passengers is what, I’ll wager, will endure for us.