The Viking cruise that unearths every British oddity. Photo / Getty Images
There’s a Viking cruise titled British Isles Explorer that unearths (almost) every British oddity, and the art of sea salt licking is just the beginning, writes Dominick Merle
I’ve always been a sucker
for exotic trips with lots of exclamation points and never really focused on Britain, figuring it was too tame, and had one too many cathedrals and cucumber sandwiches.
But here I am on a Viking cruise, aptly named the British Isles Explorer, suddenly wondering what took me so long to get here.
In the early years, I hung out in Asia with alleged headhunters and cannibals, who most likely weren’t really who they claimed to be, but rather tour guides in disguise. There was nothing that exotic or fake in the UK, but several surprises awaited us throughout our 15-day cruise on the Viking Mars.
We docked on the famous Thames River in the London borough of Greenwich, home of the Royal Observatory, the centre for setting the world’s clocks, known as Greenwich Mean Time. While most of the 900 guests on the Viking Mars elected to take tours upriver to Buckingham Palace, Westminister Abbey and Big Ben, we remained in Greenwich.
Instead of upriver, our first surprise was being able to go “under-river,” walking through a foot tunnel beneath the Thames — perhaps even passing directly under our cruise ship — linking Greenwich with the borough of Millwall on the other side. It was built in 1902 as a free crossover for residents to get to the shipyards and docks, and about a 20-minute walk each way.
Greenwich is both a little run-down with a minestrone of tacky souvenir and takeaways, and peppered with a lot of royal attributes, including the Queen’s Palace and the Royal Naval Academy. But it was a simple statue of one of Britain’s naval heroes, Admiral Horatio Nelson, that stole the show.
During the Napoleonic War in 1805, the admiral was struck by a fatal musket ball. Instead of a burial at sea, the body was preserved in a cask of brandy and lashed to the deck of the ship. When the ship made port, Nelson’s pickled remains were transferred to a lead coffin, again filled with brandy.
Now twice pickled and (with all due respect) DDOA (Dead Drunk On Arrival), he had a major military funeral and up went the statue in Greenwich. His fame and scandalous preservation have been rising ever since.
Once on board again, we sailed out of London and were greeted the next morning by the majestic White Cliffs of Dover, the symbol for home and peace for the troops returning from World War II.
That afternoon we visited charming Canterbury and its famous cathedral (hey, you gotta do at least one), the third largest in the world and the seat of the Protestant religion. Just up the street, within earshot, is a freaky tourist attraction, Canterbury’s Old Crooked House, leaning forward, looking like it’s about to tumble over any minute. Built in the 17th century, it’s been leaning like Italy’s Pisa tower for as long as anyone can remember. An internal chimney slipping led to its strange posture, and a steel frame keeps it from collapsing altogether. The Crooked House changes hands often, from one tourist shop to another.
We spent the next day at sea so plenty of time to stretch our feet on the deck of the Viking Mars. Viking is often described as a luxury cruise line, but is not pretentious or stuffy. It has a comfortable feel about it, everything in its place, a nice combination of Scandinavian elegance and Swiss precision.
It has won almost 60 awards over the years and always ranked among the top three cruise lines, often the first. All this adds up to a return rate of over 70 per cent, which is almost unheard of in cruise travel.
Because of massive traffic jams, our Ireland visit was limited to a quick dash through Dublin’s main shopping areas of O’Connell and Grafton streets, where the blarney was at its peak with everyone seemingly talking at once. We finished with a more leisurely stop for refreshments at the Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest tavern, or so they say. The present pub has been operating since 1754, but many claim the original tavern dates back to 1198. Legend has it there are even older pubs out in the country. I’ll drink to that.
Beautiful Wales, our next port of call, is often overlooked by tourists, so it’s pulling out all the stops to be noticed, including hosting the world’s one and only Sea Salt Tasting Championship, which we participated in. Exotic and exciting? No. Different and a little weird? Definitely.
The unique event was sponsored by the Halen Mon Sea Salt Company, which bills itself as the “Champagne of Sea Salt”. Located on the Isle of Anglesey in northern Wales, it ships its salt to 22 countries, along with individuals who are hooked on the stuff.
I use the word “hooked” because the competition room could easily pass for a cocaine-snorting party with tiny white particles spread on mats at a long table.
We tasted — with our licked fingers — 8 flavours of pure sea salt, including a palate-cleansing drink in between licks. The curry-flavoured salt did nothing for me, but was declared the champ.
In addition to sea salt, Wales has given us actors Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins and singer Tom Jones. Coincidently, it also claims to be the mozzarella cheese capital of the world, producing more than Italy. They do also enjoy tall stories in these parts.
Next, a short visit to the Isle of Man, a self-governing strip of the British Empire, short because it’s only 50km long and 20km wide. King Charles owns the entire island, so he’s basically everyone’s landlord.
The Isle of Man is well known for motorcycle racing and the notorious Isle of Man TT Races, which always seem to claim at least one life a year. It’s also the breeding ground of Manx cats, which have short-to-no tails. There’s also a large park where you’re allowed to shout about anything you want to get out of your system — politics, race, sex, religion etc. The epitome of free speech.
I walked out there and gave a few shouts about my hang-ups, but nobody seemed to care, including the gentleman also shouting a few metres away, most likely another silly tourist entertaining the locals.
Scotland was our next stop in the British Isles and the Scots are never without surprises, beginning with their No 1 star, Nessie, the good old Loch Ness Monster. We were there shortly after the conclusion of a conference of “world scientists” investigating the mystery. They never caught sight of Nessie, but reported hearing “strange sounds” within the lake.
One thing is certain, the Scots will never declare that Nessie is a myth because it brings in about 40 zillion dollars a year. Also, the monster must have a touch of a vampire in him or her because its first sighting goes back to the 7th century.
On a more factual note, Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, is hands down the most entertaining city in the empire in my view. We spent the better part of a day on its Royal Mile of shops and cafes, and in Old Town with its cobblestone streets and taverns dating back to who knows when.
Finally, to the tiny Shetland Islands, at the very northern tip of Scotland. There are about 20 small villages here with houses plopped every which way, as though they simply dropped down from the sky. The people population is 23,000 or so, the sheep at least 250,000.
This is also the main home of tiny Shetland ponies whose faces are mostly covered by their own hair. But they are as strong as bulls and live into their 50s. Sheep dogs are also trained here and we watched a demonstration, followed by a sheep shearing performance that lasted no more than three minutes before the animal was naked.
Shetland Islands natives have a brogue as thick as any you will ever hear. I asked our tour bus driver a typical tourist question and he grunted out a long series of syllables … I swear I didn’t understand a single word.
Our cruise ended just across the North Sea in Bergen, Norway, but bad weather prevented us from sightseeing. Oh well, perhaps next time. I’m sure Scandinavia still has a few tricks and exclamation points up its sleeve as well. But we really could do without the salt.
For more things to do in Britain, go to visitbritain.com/en