Tuesday, 12 October 2010

My First Trip - Orkney Islands

29 July

Today, we woke up early. Ew. We had to be showered and ready to be at the bus station by 7:30am. We were taking our first and only bus tour and we were going north to the Orkney Islands. 

We got no breakfast at the inn. They didn't serve breakfast that early. However, they fixed us a packed lunch. We took inventory on the bus and there was more food in that bag that we could've imagined could've possibly been packed in a bag that size!

The tour cost £40 (£75 now). Don't get shocked or anything - that's not much for all that we did! Trust me, stay tuned and you'll find out.

We made it to the bus station, parked in a parking deck and made it to the bus on time (or is that the church? Nevermind...). This was our first tour bus of the trip (which made me expressly ecstatic that we didn't use this method to see the rest of Scotland!). 

The trip, mostly along the coast, took us to John O'Groates where we caught a ferry (45 minutes) to Orkney. There were bagpipes waiting for us, playing as we got off the bus. It was raining and a bit chilly, but it was fine. We were quite enjoying the cooler weather. I was, however, very happy that I decided to take my jacket that day!

Our driver, George, and hostess, Julie, got us on our way. We had breakfast on the bus, a croissant, a buttery (roll), with juice and tea (£2.30). We could only see limited sights - the fog set in early and steam coated the inside and outside of the bus windows. We made it to John O'Groates, waited and waited for the ferry, all of us in a queue (line) that would make any kindergarten teacher proud! I could see almost nothing in front of me! The ferry was almost upon us before we even knew it was on its way! Sheesh! That one day, we got the famous fog! *sigh*

It was cold!! The wind blew briskly and the sea blew spray until it too was almost a mist. The fog teased us, acting as if it were going to either lift or burn off, but it never did. I'd talked to many, many people who'd come to Scotland, not one had come to Orkney. Finally I was going to have something to tell them about they didn't know - but through the fog. Oh well, at least it wasn't raining!

Very uneventful, we arrived in Orkney without sinking. This is always a plus when you're in a boat! I caught myself spying where all the life-vests and the lifeboats were. Don't tell anyone, but just between you and me, this was my first boat trip ever on any sort of boat of any size. Yes, I know. I was 30 years old and had never been on a boat bigger than a canoe. I told you this was an adventure!

We boarded another bus, on land, of course and our driver/host was Tom. This man carried a strong Scottish brogue - heck it was worth the £40 just to hear him speak. We asked him if he wanted to come home with us but he said his wife wouldn't much like that idea.

We drove (rode, actually), seeing what we could through the fog, as Tom voiced his apologies. We saw there were several boats or ships that had been purposefully sank, or scuttled, for sea barriers to protect the causeways that were built by Italian prisoners of war in WWII to make access between islands easier. These were incredible. I took photos through the fogged up windows and decided I would cry hard if they didn't turn out - but they did. 

We visited the northernmost distillery in the world, Highland Park Distillery. We couldn't take the tour, we didn't have enough time, but we watched a video and had a wee dram of their scotch. I bought a bottle of it before we left. 

We visited the Ring of Brodgar, a stone circle about 3,000 years old, said to be older than any other on the islands. It was quite fascinating, although we didn't get to spend much time there.

(Anyone noticing a pattern yet?)

In Kirkwall, we visited St Magness Cathedral. I'm not sure how old this structure is (12th century, actually), but its just amazing. You could tell when walking in that it was as old as time. Kept up well, very beautiful, there was an old cemetery on the grounds. A stone inside the church was a skull and crossbones. We saw a lot of that in churches we visited.

We visited the Italian Church, a Catholic church built in a bunker by the POW's of WWII to have a place to worship, since most of Scotland was Protestant at the time. It was beautiful. I could tell that a lot of love went into the building of this church. It all still stands as it was, an Italian flag still flies proudly nearby. Breathtaking!

We had part (only part) of our packed lunch in Stromness (the rest we snacked on and ate for dinner on the way back). Cathy had to buy a coat there because the temps were so cool. We ate at the Visitor's Centre. It was nice and peaceful; there was a man there who lived on the islands. He talked to us while we ate lunch and he said it was nice to talk to Americans that would talk to him! How sad! Anyway, he told us that the fog visits most often in the summer, as does the rain. He told us that January is warmer! (Not sure I believed him!)

While we shopped, Cathy found a Dr Pepper. I should say that at the time, I had a serious Dr Pepper addiction. I hadn't had one since we left the USA and it had been a whole four days!! I opened it up, enjoyed the lovely aroma, and took a big drink. YUCK! It tasted like a watery mixture of Pepsi and Mr Pibb!! No thank you!! I nearly spit the stuff onto the back of the head of the man sitting in front of me!

That was a great trip but we didn't spend much time in one spot. It made me glad that we drove ourselves everywhere else. We saw Maes Howe - from the bus window. Skipped Skara Brae (who goes to Orkney without visiting Skara Brae???). That was my biggest disappointment on that trip really. I thought I was going to get to see it and I was on the island (only a couple of miles away) and didn't. 

Maes Howe is said to be a burial cairn that is over 4,000 years old. The story Tom told us was funny. Before anyone else discovered it, the Vikings raided it, taking all its contents, apparently even the bodies. They left behind only a skull and some age-old graffiti! After it was translated, it was discovered that writing on the walls hasn't changed that much over time.

"Ingrid is the fairest girl in the north," is one of the translations - he swears it was true!

Skara Brae is a prehistoric village (older than the pyramids!) that's been uncovered there by a great storm years ago. That and the dolphins have hidden from me. The dolphins again! I have been around the ocean on and off for years and have never seen a dolphin or a whale in the wild. But I digress ...

The bus trip just wasn't my cup o'tea. I felt like we parked in a parking lot and the driver said, "You have ten minutes to see the city." We only visited free sites and places where we would spend money that the coach company would get a kick-back for! The harbour in Stomness would've been great without the fog. We didn't take the video camera. Just wanted to kick myself for doing that trip on a tour bus. Lesson learned!!

Note: I did finally get back to Orkney in 2009 with Peter and the boys. I did get to see Maes Howe and Skara Brae. It was a wonderful trip - we spent a week there! I'd go back!!!

We got back on the ferry, back on the other bus, rode all the way back and got in our car and back to the B&B. Then we crashed! The trip started at 7:30am and we didn't get back until 9:30pm. Whew! What a day! We enjoyed it very much, even if there were things about it we would've changed. 

The next day, we would be on our way to the Isle of Skye. This is a leg of the trip we had looked forward to for some time. The owner's of the B&B where we stayed, Tom & Marje, had been emailing us back and forth for months. We felt like they were old friends and we'd never met. We couldn't wait to meet those two! But for tonight, sleep. Lots and lots of sleep!

Financial run-down:

    Croissant, buttery, orange juice, and tea - £2.30 (no idea)
Tour to Orkney:
     Included: bus to ferry in John O'Groats from Orkney, ferry to Orkney, bus on Orkney and back to ferry, ferry back to mainland, bus back to Inverness - £40 (£70 now)
Ring of Brodgar, St Magness Cathedral, Italian Church:
     No admission fee (which is why, I strongly suspect, we visited them on the coach trip!!)
Highland Park Distillery:
     We didn't take the 30-minute tour, but if we had it would've cost £3.00. (£6.00 now and they offer a speciality tour for £35)

We saw a lot, did a lot, but really didn't spend that much money. 

Next: On the Way to Skye

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