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Seafaring views of Britain. 11-day cruise highlights Celtic heritage of islands

We were sailing the waters of the ancient Vikings, conquering Normans, fleeing Pilgrims, and of course, the Allied troops on their way to liberate Europe. All this and more raced through our thoughts as the Royal Viking Sky left her moorings in Amsterdam and began our 11-day cruise around the British Isles. Leaving the harbor and entering the canal to the North Sea, we strained to catch a last glimpse of the fluorescent acres of tulips we had enjoyed during our springtime stay in Holland.

Walking the decks in the brisk North Sea air, we anticipated some swells or rolls. As it turned out, however, the fearsome North Sea was a glassy lake for most of our voyage, and the usual drizzly spring weather gave way to clear blue skies and gentle temperatures.

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Sailing into our first port of call, Edinburgh, we were reminded that we were seeing the world as early explorers did -- from the deck of a ship. Air travel can't duplicate the view of familiar landmarks rising from the sea as you enter a famous port. By the time we docked, the early morning mist was burning off. Once ashore, we explored the chambers and turrets of towering Edinburgh Castle, then walked down High Street to Holyrood House, home of Mary Queen of Scots. After a lunch of Scottish broth and meat pie in the North British Hotel, we spent the rest of a brilliant day browsing through the shops on Princes Street and mingling with the throngs of natives outdoors to catch the first rays of spring in the gardens beneath the castle.

Toward evening we reboarded the Sky and made for open waters. In the morning we awoke to see flocks of white and black sea birds riding the slate-blue waves. On the horizon loomed the Shetland Islands -- beige with splotches of new green foliage. This day had dawned crystal clear and crisp.

After anchoring at Lerwick, Scotland, we boarded a coach and drove past peat-lined hills to one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in Britain at Jarlshof. Known as an ancient Celtic site, there are layers of remains of settlements dating from the Bronze Age to the Vikings to later medieval dwellers. Right across from the ruins is Sumburgh Airport. Here the decline in North Sea oil activity is evident. Whereas Sumburgh was one of the busiest heliports in Europe in the past, it has only occasional flights today.

All during the trip, a major sport among passengers was seeking out bargains in local woolen shops. The buying frenzy reached its peak here in stores selling authentic Shetland sweaters.

After leaving the Shetlands we cruised past the Orkney Islands and arrived at the Isle of Skye, where fields of golden-yellow broom painted hillsides dotted with sheep and lambs. A stop at Clan McDonald Center, amid the ruins of Armadale Castle, proved a good introduction to the history of the Scottish clans. The Skye Woolen Mill near Portree offered a wide selection of sweaters and tartans, but Ragamuffin, a store at the tiny port of Armadale, was the real find for imaginative handknits.

As we cruised to the Isle of Man -- a sovereign country not part of Britain -- we had our only encounter with very rough seas. Our tenders bobbed up and down, buffeted by the heavy surf. Once ashore at the capital city of Douglas, we encountered heavy rain, and the Victorian resorts along the harbor were shrouded in mist.

Each year Man serves as host to one of the largest motorcycle races in Europe -- the ``TT.'' As we made our way to the Snaefell Mountain Railway, our tour bus traversed much of the course, where bales of hay and markers were being placed. The Isle of Man is a living museum of various forms of transport, from horse-drawn trams to the narrow gauge railway that winds slowly up the island's tallest mountain. We rode the railway to the top, but the dense fog and winds during our visit made outdoor sightseeing untenable. We found the small restaurant at the Summit Hotel cheery and hospitable. After returning to the coach and following the race course across the island, we lunched on fresh Manx scallops (``Queenies'') served in an Italian sauce with garlic and tomatoes at Ruff's Restaurant, owned by Heather and Francesco Ruffini.

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As it turned out, the Isle of Man offered the best sweater bargains of the entire trip, with cashmeres priced around $40 at the Tynwald Craft Centre.

Our arrival in Dublin was electric. The streets echoed with the richness of Ireland's culture and history. We savored the Georgian row houses with their brightly painted doors and gleaming brass knockers. We pored over Viking artifacts in the National Museum, and at Trinity College library we stood in awe before the luminous Book of Kells, a beautiful, ancient Christian text. We stumbled on the Kilkenny Design Shop opposite the college -- almost a museum in its own right -- and browsed through Irish handcrafts.

Walking the streets once trod by Joyce, Shaw, Yeats, and Synge made us yearn for Irish drama, so we bought tickets at the famed Abbey Theatre for that night's performance of ``The Drums of Father Ned,'' by Sean O'Casey, a play made all the more relevant by its partisan themes, which drew applause from different factions in the audience.

The restaurant below the theater serves light lunches and snacks, with rich breads and homemade tomato soup the specialties. Pubs in Dublin also offer excellent food, including Irish smoked salmon. Local friends warned us to avoid the famous Joycean pubs, as they were apt to be overcrowded with tourists.

The landscape in Wales ranges from rolling, green farmland to the rocky crags Sir Edmund Hillary climbed to train for Mt. Everest. In one day we visited Bodnant Gardens to see the banks of rare rhododendrons, lunched on fresh, native lamb at the Royal Oak Hotel, and drove by scores of climbers clinging to the gray, windswept rocks of Snowdonia National Park. Wales also offers an array of medieval castles -- most of which are still in excellent condition. Caernarvon in the Northwest -- site of the investiture of the Prince of Wales -- is a maze of turrets, towers, and passageways -- ideal for fantasizing about the days of knights and fairmaidens.

On another day at sea -- rounding the rugged coast of Cornwall, we were treated to two talks by former Prime Minister Edward Heath, who told of his meetings with Mao Tse Tung and Marshal Tito.

After a restful night, we awoke to find we were entering Southampton's vast harbor. With thoughts of the great Cunard liners of an earlier era and romantic voyages as yet unsailed, we ended our journey with mixed feelings.

The Sky and other Royal Viking ships were elongated a few years ago to accommodate more people, so many in fact that passengers no longer develop that spirit of camaraderie that can emerge on smaller ships. The lines of passengers waiting for tenders to carry them ashore can grow long and tedious. But the ship is well maintained, and the public areas retain their uncrowded feeling.

Dining aboard the Sky was, at best, adequate. Although we were cruising the British Isles, the chef had made no special effort to secure native specialities -- no clotted cream for teas, for example, and -- worst of all -- the breakfast kippers were canned! Although the food was well presented and properly prepared, it was not the gastronomic adventure promised in the brochures.

The itinerary, though, was perfect -- the ideal way to enjoy bits of Scotland and Ireland and visit islands difficult to reach other than by local ferry. Practical information

Royal Viking Cruises around the British Isles and to other parts of the world may be booked through a local travel agent.

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