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Saturday, April 19, 2014

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Beauty's in great abundance on Journey to British Isles

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Dublin Castle [Masada Siegel photos]

The floor rocked below my feet, but I felt steady and steadfast in the knowledge that Shabbat was upon me as I stood by a table in the middle of the ocean while waving my hands over candles and reciting the blessing.

Uncovering my eyes, I held my siddur and started saying Kiddush with my fiancé, Ari. The table was filled with men who placed the cloth napkins on their heads, in lieu of kippot. They held their wine glasses up and gazed at us with interest.

I was on the cruise ship Journey, by Azamara Club Cruises, sitting with some new friends, including an interesting couple from Ireland in their 70s who had never experienced any aspect of Shabbat.  While I recited the Kiddush, I felt the energy of wonder and peace settle over the table. The Irish man, with his wife, said, “Thank you for sharing the moment with us. You know, in our faith we don’t have rituals we perform at home weekly. It’s only when we go to church. This was so beautiful.”

I smiled. Beauty was all around me. I was in the midst of a 12-night voyage from Edinburgh, Scotland to Southampton, England. We were exploring places I had never even heard of, which is one reason a cruise with Azamara was appealing to me. They host longer trips with smaller, more diverse ports of call.

Castle in Scotland

One of the enchanting places I visited was Orkney, Scotland. Orkney is a group of islands about 10 kilometres from the northeast tip of the Scottish mainland. I started my adventure with an early morning visit to the Highland Park Distillery, the northern-most Scotch whisky distillery. Waitresses materialized at 9am with trays of 12-year-old vintage whisky and I giggled even before I had a taste. I’m not much of a drinker, but after a distillery tour and an explanation of the process of how single malt scotch is created, I started to appreciate the taste.

From Highland Park I found my way to Balfour Castle, a 19th century building on the island of Shapinsay. I daydreamed of life in a castle, while wandering through the garden and admiring its colourful flowers. Soon after, I toured the interior, walked through a secret doorway hidden in a bookshelf, and was treated to a lovely tea in one of the extremely elegant sunlit rooms.

Orkney also boasts a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Ring of Brodgar, which will take you back in time thousands of years. It’s a stone circle 104 metres in diameter and it was thought to be originally composed of 60 stones set within a circular ditch up to three metres deep and 10 meters wide. Today only 27 stones are still standing. Ancient scholars debate over why these were created and for what purpose, while I just marveled at how the enormous rocks, which don’t seem to be from the area, were moved to such a location in the first place.

After a full day of exploration, I was greeted back on the ship by a smiling crewmember with, a big “Welcome Home!” Cruising with Azamara is a dreamy and luxurious, especially while enjoying room service on your balcony watching the world float by. While the food is plentiful, there are also "specialty" restaurants to indulge your palate. The spa is incredibly relaxing, and the fitness centre's classes are fun. Additionally, Azamara often offers night touring, to give passengers a full taste of a city. More excitement was on the horizon as we were about to spend a full day and night in Dublin.

Irish history is complex and fascinating. There is a small Jewish population, never more then 6,000 people. However, influential figures, such as Chaim Herzog, the sixth president of Israel, were born in Ireland.

The earliest reference to a Jewish presence was in 1079, when scholars believe merchants arrived for a short visit.  Dublin has had two Jewish mayors, a father and son, Robert Briscoe, twice lord mayor of Dublin (1956-57 and 1961-62) and his son Ben Briscoe in 1988.

Dublin is a cultural city filled with a myriad of places to visit, from the Hugh Lane Gallery to Dublin Castle. I also spent time in the Writers’ Museum reading about William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. Even wandering the streets is akin to walking in a novel. In particular, James Joyce’s Ulysses comes to life in Dublin. Many of the places he writes about in the book, which his famous Jewish character Leopold Bloom frequents, such as the restaurant/bar Davy Byrnes, on Grafton Street, are still open for business and marked with metal plaques.

I am a huge fun of the Dublin’s Gaiety Theater, where the performances are consistently outstanding. Appropriate for a trip to Ireland, we saw Riverdance. Director John McColgan’s outdid himself. The show was mesmerizing, the music intoxicating and the dancers phenomenal.  By the end of the performance, I was at the edge of my seat, leaning so far forward, it was almost as if I wished to be on the stage.

From the stage and back to the sea, another magical day was upon me, as we tendered at the Isle of Scily, which is actually pronounced “silly”. It is part of an archipelago that is less than 50 kilometres from Land’s End on the coast of Cornwall, England.

The gardens were created in the early 19th century by Augustus Smith. As the islands are warmed by the Gulf Stream, the climate is temperate, allowing for an amazing variety of sub-tropical plants. Once Smith realized it was a frost-free environment where he could create an exotic garden, he started planting. 

View from Tresco Abby Garden

Today the Tresco Abbey Garden is filled with over 4,000 different types of plants from all over the world, from New Zealand to South Africa.

Walking on the sunlit windswept beach island of Tresco was breathtaking. The purple heather littered the pathway as we walked up towards the Tresco Abbey Gardens. Upon arrival, I came across the head gardener, Andrew, and asked if he would show us around.

The garden was enchanting, bursting with color. Each plant has a story and Andrew showed us ones that can be used to make herbal tea (lemon verbena) as well as others that can heal sunburn (aloe). We wandered off the property for a moment to see the magnificent views. The Island is also a magnet to hundreds of migrating birds.

Clearly we had fallen into a storybook, and while more adventures awaited us, I did not want to let go of this moment, I could have easily spent many more hours in the quiet and beauty of the Tresco Abby Garden.

Just like the magical energy of a Shabbat dinner, where we focus on family and   try to forget the stresses of the week, travel also has its own energy. Exploring exquisite places opens up new worlds, new channels for discovery of a location and oneself. It’s a chance to be a modern-day explorer, to take a break from everyday life, and to fill your mind with magnificent sounds, colors and feelings. Sometimes, if you are really lucky, not only do you experience something special, but you also get an opportunity to give others a glimpse of a beautiful new world too.

Masada Siegel lives in Scottsdale.  Her new book Window Dressings is available at Masadasiegelauthor.com

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