Board the Polar Pioneer around mid-afternoon in Aberdeen. After settling in, set sail north.
Among Orkney’s archipelago of 70 windswept islands, lying 6 miles north of the Scottish mainland, a rich tapestry of archaeology, history and wildlife awaits. Follow the passage of time – from 5000 year old World Heritage neolithic sites, past relics from wandering Vikings and reminders of World War II occupation, to present day crofting communities. Imposing sea cliffs teem with seabirds, inviting Zodiacs and kayakers to explore coastlines.
Mid-way between Orkney and Shetland, Fair Isle houses a major European ornithological research station, and is also famous for knitwear and historic shipwrecks. About 3 miles by 2 miles, it is surrounded by impressive cliffs. The 70 or so islanders mostly live in traditional crofts on the more fertile low-lying southern part of the island.
A bird watchers’ paradise, Fair Isle lies on the intersection of major flight-paths from Scandinavia, Iceland and Faroe. It attracts common species and also eastern rarities such as the lanceolated warbler. In summer, the cliffs teem with breeding fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots, gannets, shags and puffins, and it is an excellent place to view seabirds at close range, especially puffins. The island also has over 250 species of flowering plants, including wetland flowers, rare orchids, alpine species and common wildflowers. Be welcomed by the hospitable villagers and take a hike or visit the museum.
Britain’s most northerly islands lie almost 100 miles north of the Scottish mainland, at a similar latitude to the southern tip of Greenland, or Bergen in Norway. Kept relatively warm by the Gulf Stream, Shetland’s 100 islands experience almost 24 hours of daylight in summer. They abound with nature reserves and archaeological sites, and offer a taste of traditional island life. These include the complex Stone, Bronze and Iron Age settlement of Jarlshof, the world’s best preserved broch (fortified Iron Age tower) on Mousa, and remnants of Viking conquest along the coast.
While sailing towards the Norwegian coastline, the warmth of the bridge or the outer decks offer an excellent vantage point for birdwatching. Historians and naturalists delight you with their informative talks.
The ship captain aims to spend three days exploring the superb Norwegian coastline, cruising the intricate maze of seldom-visited inlets and outer islands. The cod-fishing island of Sør Glaeslingan greets visitors with its delightful wooden houses and cheerful inhabitants, who search for nesting kittiwakes and reclusive sea otters. It provides fantastic birdlife, including kittiwakes, terns and skuas that migrate here each summer. Hunt for fabled trolls as you pass by Torgatten, a mountain with a distinctive hole through it, and learn the fable of lost love and a troll’s arrow. Majestic scenery delights in Lofoten Islands, from romantic beaches to narrow fjords hemmed by granite walls. Share the water with orcas, the skies with puffins.
Cross the Barents Sea, past often fog-shrouded Bear Island, a favorite nesting ground for fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots, and gulls. Beyond Spitsbergen’s South Cape, explore South Spitsbergen National Park, a sanctuary for barnacle geese and eider ducks, before entering the iceberg-laden waters of Hornsund. Surrounded by polar desert on a grand scale, search for reindeer, ringed and bearded seals, and the mighty polar bear. Learn of human history dating back 400 years and if lucky, encounter the elusive beluga whale.
On arrival in Longyearbyen, disembark and bid farewell to new-found friends.