An ‘archipelago’ is a group of islands, or a collection of bits of land in a sea, ocean, or stretch of water. Sometimes it’s a cluster of islands, sometimes a chain, sometimes a random sprinkling of tiny specks of land in a large expanse of watery nothingness. There are archipelagos with lots of land mass e.g. Indonesia, and lots of islands e.g. off the southwest coastline of mainland Finland, and archipelagos within archipelagos e.g. the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides) off the northwest coast of the main island in the British Isles.
But there’s another way to think of an archipelago: as a collection of ferry routes to be enjoyed.
Ferries are great. Some I’ve been on are tiny and precarious. Some smell of sheep. Some are just for tourists now. But it’s those that ply their trade between the islands of an archipelago, with their own nuances and quirks, that endure in the mind.
Sure, regular scheduled ferry services aren’t the only way to travel between islands, and there are often smoother modes of hopping from one to another. Norway have their road and subsea tunnels. Planes are much quicker, often hilariously so and usually more thrilling; Barra island beach airport is never dull to land in or take off from. Or live on an archipelago? You may have a neighbor, friend or relative with a boat who says he’s just going to pop over to that island over there while pointing at a small lump of rock some miles distant, and a few minutes later you find yourself in his boat, safety gear on, surrounded by nothing but increasingly deep sea. So outside of the five month Hebridean winter this kind of thing would happen:
Or I’d spend a birthday on an island inhabited by just a herd of deer, courtesy of Donald and his blue boat:
There’s always something to look at on a boat or ferry trip. The scientific; how the boat moves, how the sails fill, distances and speed. The romantic; the moving land or lights on the horizon, the rhythm of the waves, spray, feel and smell of the water and air, dolphins, whales, the sense and thrill that you’re doing something that mankind has done for thousands of years but is still not quite natural for us land-evolved animals.
Though, not all ferry trips were thrilling experiences. In the summer of 1998 I spent a month in the (English) Channel Islands because … ah, why not. It’s a small archipelago whose main industries seemed to be tourism, agriculture and being the home of many extremely rich people and their bank accounts; an awkward blend of rural England, rural France, and the Cayman Islands. One day I had a ticket to go from Jersey to Guernsey by ferry, the boat being delayed by bad weather. Most of my stupid decisions are taken in the morning before three cups of coffee and todays was deciding, as I watched the boat pitch and roll around and struggle to dock, that I had time for a fry-up breakfast before boarding.
You can guess the rest. The only time in hundreds of boat trips that I’ve been seasick, though this was more uncontrollable projectile vomiting. In a tiny bathroom seemingly designed that no matter where you vomited, the vomit would rebound and hit you. Little comfort that many other passengers and crew were involved in the same elsewhere on the ferry. Finally, arriving at the island, we were given complimentary food vouchers as compensation, the thought of which triggered secondary vomiting in some. The ride took three times longer than scheduled, I couldn’t face the trip back in any weather and purchased an expensive but quick and vomit-free plane ride back a few days later.
Ferries in the Caribbean were far more leisurely. Though, with the islands being more spread out, planes were the default method of island hopping. Side-point: Air Jamaica is still the most relaxed and friendliest airline I’ve ever flown on, and the only time I’ve been offered a spliff by a fellow passenger – during a flight. Despite much of that month being a blur of astonishing heat, cricket, really severe sunburn and rum to quell the pain of the really severe sunburn, the beauty of the islands, warmth of the sea and the laid-back friendliness sticks with you. Maybe it was the rum and heck I drank so much, constantly, on that adventure but the ferry rides between St Kitts and Nevis, in particular, were lovely in every regard. The smell of railings being painted as the boat sailed; the running commentary as some reluctant farm animals were eventually brought on board; the way people would nonchalantly indicate a whale swimming parallel to us while I was “OMG WHALE”; the random dispensing of food from total strangers. Good times, and good journeys, despite the searing sunburn.
In a rather different climate, a few years later found me on a ferry to the Gothenburg archipelago. Living in west (mainland) Scotland had the advantage of being between two airports with cheap flights to various European cities, which we used to full effect. “Nothing happening locally this weekend oh just found £9.95 tickets to Sweden and booked accidentally oh well”. One New Year (2002 or 03) we tried Sweden’s second city, as the capital was a bit pricey. Gothenburg itself was a strange mix of culture, port, industry, eateries, pretty coastline and second city inferiority complex; a kind of Swedish Birmingham-by-the-sea. Side-point: the New Years firework display was shockingly good, still the best of any display I’ve seen (sorry, 4th of July in the USA), with bonus participation by locals letting off fireworks at angles of madness degrees from the gaps between pavement slabs.
One surprise on this trip was the hundred or so tightly-packed islands just off the coast, connected by a Swedishly-efficient network of small ferries, one offering welcome but exhorbitant coffee in the subzero temperatures. We spent a day wandering the islands, walking on some, watching the residents motor around in their adapted Swedish island versions of quad bikes, looking at others from the deck of our often surprisingly close-by boat. Our last ferry back arrived ten minutes late, triggering profuse Swedish apologies and the insistence of a refund; got to love Scandinavian efficiency. From those pre-Flickr days I wish I had kept photographs, so here’s a nice one from someone else:
And then there were the Outer Hebrides, home for half a decade and the destination of many trips (several for househunting) for a few years before those. The archipelago is long, as tourists who think they can “do” the place in a day gradually discover; from end to end it’s further than from Glasgow to Newcastle. Despite this, there are only two internal ferry services. A tiny boat makes the short hop from Barra (for me the perfect island if only it had genuine broadband) to Eriskay. Then it’s a collection of long roads and causeways up to my previous home island of Berneray, and then the crazy hour of zigzaging between the rocks in the shallow waters of the Sound of Harris before disembarking on Leverburgh.
Time it right, have a decent car and no fear of single track roads, and with no weather or tidal delays you *can* do the Outer Hebrides in a day, but you’ll end up well over a hundred miles from where you started, and you’ll have zoomed past some of the most perfect beaches in Europe. But getting to the Outer Hebrides; that involves more leisurely ferry rides whether out of Oban, Uig or Ullapool. The Oban to Barra run, a good five hour sail, was a particular favorite, with much Scottish mainland and island scenery, the surprisingly good meals that Calmac can dish up, the airplane-like “Where you are right now” digital maps, the announcements that cheerily say “Caledonian MacBrayne” in that accent, and plenty of places outside and in to sit, write, ponder and watch the scenery slide past. Seriously top tip: Calmac ferries to the Outer Hebrides are usually busy, an increasingly problematic issue for residents in particular, and it’s a seriously good idea to book your place in advance.
There are many other archipelagos to consider visiting. The Faroe islands look interesting, as do the Åland islands. And for years, firmly number one on my personal list are the Lofoten Islands, off the coast of Norway and a little bit above the Arctic Circle. Because Scandinavia. And also because, well, these pictures by other folks who have been there:
But there’s one archipelago ferry service I’ve done before that am keen to repeat, which is the point of this ramble.
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Six years ago this month, I was at the end of a short break, and trip #19, in Scandinavia. Stockholm, my favorite capital city with its cafes, odd hipster culture, architecture, funky subway system, hotel lift signs, biggest Ikea, cheese markets, outside exhibitions, and its cafes. Did I mention those twice? Yeah; sitting outside with a coffee and some Swedish cake in a seafront, or old, part of the city? Bliss.
Stockholm itself is built on a bunch of islands. It’s easy to forget this when you’re busy or traveling on the subway; less so when you encounter the waterfront and the huge oceanic ferries that tour the world. But tucked away in their shadows are the local passenger ferries and, on a whim this day, I got myself a round trip ticket and boarded one.
Best travel decision ever.
The Stockholm archipelago is complex. Many of the islands are inhabited all year round, with communities or more individual buildings. Some are uninhabited, or have winter homes. Most are accessible, due to Sweden’s law that you can land in most places so long as you don’t hassle nearby residents. And some are even on part of Stockholm’s central integrated transport network.
The ferry I boarded had a mixture of tourists, commuters, and locals out for a day on the water. We zipped around a variety of islands at speed. At one small but particularly inviting island, I got off, wandered to the other side (which took less than two minutes), and came across a small beach with a barbeque in full operation. Offered cooked offerings, I stayed there until another ferry arrived. This one sailed a little slower, ambling through cold and clear and blue waters, past small islands of single and expensive houses, and larger islands of woods and little settlements, and bare rocks of no inhabitants but visitors, sunbathers, swimmers and picnickers. Ferry number two offered a variety of drinks, but only cake as food.
I stayed on the cake-ferry for a couple of hours, as tannoy messages announced additional stops at ports for mysterious reasons (at one, most of the crew disembarked, bought ice creams, and reboarded, so that was possibly one). As we chugged further eastwards, towards over-the-horizon Finland, there was a sense of moving into more open sea and leaving the shelter of fragmented Stockholm land gradually behind. I relented, bought cake, and watched a pair of fellow voyagers do things online, and wondered with envy how this was possible when my own island-based broadband didn’t even work at low tide (true story: another time).
Aware that I was on the equivalent of a stopper-train, I got off at an island – or chunk of mainland, it was sometimes difficult to tell which was which – and waited for a faster ferry. Which turned out to be the original ferry, possibly on its second or third run of the day. I boarded, was reunited with the hat I’d left behind earlier, and we were off again. Past more rich owner islands, and little tufts and rock, and a small island used by unabashed naturists – they waved, I awkwardly waved back – and larger islands, and clumps of land that grew larger as we headed towards Stockholm.
As the afternoon drew on, I looked out of the back of the boat, watched the spray fly behind us as we sped to home, and contemplated home. And realized that home probably wasn’t where I thought it was, and that emigration to … somewhere was not only possible, but inevitable in a way I couldn’t articulate, and personal change was coming.
We passed larger cruise ships heading to lands distant, and yachts and smaller boats, and boats of an indeterminate nature. And other ferries, as we approached the port and I got off to go and find a cafe and scribble some notes and thoughts, that have ended up as this post. So, in life, boat trips, and exploring the Stockholm archipelago, there’s a lot of choice. And much of it is good.
And to finish off that boat ride, a lovely sunset: