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Cruising close to home

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There’s plenty to see in the waters around these islands.

I’ve long fancied going on a cruise, but the idea of sitting on a plane for hours just to get to the ship always left me with that sinking feeling. Then I heard about Cruise and Maritime Voyages, which specialises in no-fly cruises from ports around the UK, including Leith. Their summer cruises are mainly to northern Europe. But during winter they run cruises as far afield as the Amazon and AustraliaI didn’t have time to sail off to the Southern Hemisphere so, on an overcast evening at the end of May, my husband and I set off from Leith on board the MV Marco Polo, one of three ships in CMV’s fleet, for a five-day Scottish Island and Faroes cruise. The Marco Polo celebrates her 50th birthday in 2015 and while the venerable lady isn’t in her first flush of youth she is definitely growing old gracefully.

Day one was spent at sea, giving us a chance to explore and make use of the ship’s facilities, including its two restaurants. In the more formal, but still relaxed, atmosphere of the Waldorf, five course meals are the norm, while the Marco Polo Bistro offers a less formal buffet-style menu.

The ship also has a range of bars, shops and small theatre as well as a spa and gym. Our cruise was almost at capacity with more than 700 passengers, but the crew were always on hand and coped happily with our demands.

On Tuesday we arrived in the Faroe Islands, an archipelago in the North Atlantic with a population of 49,000 humans and 70,000 sheep. After a whistle-stop tour of the capital, Torshavn, we headed to the north of the mainland and over the Streymon Bridge onto the second largest of the islands, Eysturoy. Our guide proudly informed us this was the only bridge over the Atlantic. I didn’t have the heart to tell him about our own Atlantic Bridge at Clachan in Argyll.

We stopped for lunch at Gjogv, a small village on the north eastern coast. Like most of the settlements we saw on the Faroes each house was unique, many brightly painted (think Tobermory harbour on a larger scale) and many with grass roofs. As well as being efficient, these roofs help to weigh the houses down during high winds!

We returned to Torshavn over a high pass adjacent to Slttaratindur, the highest peak on the Faroes. Supposedly you can see Iceland from the top on a clear day.

Having sailed overnight we awoke on a gloriously sunny Wednesday morning to find the Marco Polo anchored just off Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. We were lucky enough to be offered a tour around the Harris Tweed mill at

Carloway and were shown the painstaking process of producing the only fabric in the world protected by an Act of Parliament.

The tweed must be handwoven by islanders in their homes in the Outer Hebrides to qualify for the famous Harris Tweed Orb Mark, Britain’s longest running certification mark.

We then visited the Gearranan Blackhouse Village, a wonderfully restored settlement of traditional dry-stone thatched houses overlooking a beautiful bay on to the Atlantic. The houses were in use until the mid-1970s and really brought home how austere a lifestyle the inhabitants of these rural areas experienced even up until recent times.

From Gearranan we made the short journey to the standing stones at Callanish. The stones have been here for almost 5,000 years and it’s quite bewildering to think of the effort it must have taken to transport them some are five metres tall to the hilltop where they form a Celtic cross.

Thursday another day, another island and the ship berthed alongside the harbour at Kirkwall on mainland Orkney. First up was a trip to Scapa Flow, scene of the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak with the loss of 833 lives in 1939.

It seemed strange, looking from our vantage point towards the island of Lamb Holm, that such a tranquil place could be the scene of a human tragedy on such a grand scale. It was a short journey on to Lamb Holm itself and the remarkable chapel built by Italian prisoners of war from two Nissen huts and beautifully decorated using whatever they could salvage locally.

We next visited Skara Brae, a Neolithic village dating to 3100 BC, more than 500 years older than the Pyramids at Giza. Continuing the Neolithic theme we then took in the Ring of Brodgar, another site of standing stones but with a very different feel to those at Callanish. These stones had been in place for more than 4,000 years, but one was split in two by a lightning strike in 1980.

After lunch in Stromness, a picturesque harbour town, we made our final stop on the island at the Orkney Brewery. The brewery is in an old school and the walls of the visitor centre are adorned with school memorabilia, including registers relating to the father of Norman Sinclair, the brewery’s owner, who was a pupil at the school.

Suitably refreshed after sampling some of the brewery’s products, we made our way back to the harbour to join the Marco Polo for a last night aboard and our return trip to Leith. While enjoying a final dinner and relaxing drink on board we were able to look back on our three islands in three days and could barely believe we had managed to do so much.

Cruise and Maritime Voyages have extended their “buy one get one half price” offer on their Winter 2013 and Summer 2014 cruise departures until August 31 along with other selected reductions.

The deal means you can save up to 25% on full fares and in addition the second passenger travels for half the price. As an example a two night cruise to Antwerp to visit a Christmas Market departs on December 18 this year from London with the first person paying from £169 and the second person sharing the cabin just £85.