Sitting on the deck of the Smyril Line ferry between Denmark and the Faroe Islands, I watched a gang of kids playing tig. Another group were playing football in the netted enclosure. The parents were in the observation lounge reading books. My son Conor and I were taking turns at the port-side telescope, examining the distant outline of Muckle Flugga lighthouse in the Shetland Isles. We wondered why the Faroes and Shetland had never joined as a political unit, given that they are reasonably close neighbours. A history book was required. Next to us, hunkered down in a deck chair, a woman was scribbling furiously into a diary, the margins exploding in hurried sketches.
As foot passengers on a ferry, we were certainly saving on CO2 emissions, producing around 19 grams per kilometre per head, as opposed to 156 on a short-haul flight. But it was the other benefits that I was noticing: the time to read books, write diaries, play tig or simply look around.
The practicalities of terrestrial travel can be a challenge and the costs may be higher, but this is always a richer experience, sometimes becoming more important and memorable than the destination itself. And if, like the restless voyager Ulysses, your return voyage becomes the main event, and you arrive home to find that no one recognises you except the dog, you will have achieved something marvellous. Here are a few suggestions for creating such epic journeys.
Big Baltic beach and boat trip
The Baltic may seem an ambitious target for the non-flyer, but with time and patience, it is achievable. The German ports of Kiel and Lübeck (both a short train ride from Hamburg) are former Hanseatic League entrepôts that link the entire northern sea with a network of ferry services. Lübeck in itself is worth a walking tour, then hop on a Stena Line boat to Liepāja, Latvia’s third city.
Our trek starts on the city’s five-mile sandy beach, but first head to the House of Craftsmen and see the 123-metre amber necklace made from beads donated by the public in 2003. You could watch out for these amber nuggets, which regularly get washed ashore.
Once out of the port, turn south for a lovely bracing walk over the Lithuanian border to the port of Klaipedia, 65 miles away (from where you can get a DFDS ferry back to Kiel) or, more ambitiously, head north, with the sound of the waves forever in your left ear, buying wild strawberries in homemade boxes on the roadside, passing weatherboarded summerhouses and mile after mile of sand. Just 300-odd miles away is Estonia’s capital, Tallinn and, just when you think the odyssey is over, there is the Tallink ferry to the Åland Islands at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia, and thence to Sweden, with your pockets full of amber.
Swim with moray eels, Ponza, Italy
In Roman times, fish was almost always on the menu. The only surviving Roman cookbook, Apicius’s De re coquinaria, or On the Subject of Cooking, lists 459 recipes, of which 347 contain fermented fish sauce, similar to the nam pla used in south-east Asian cookery. One fish particularly prized by the emperors was moray eel, a creature known to divers as the grumpy-looking brute which stares out of holes in coral reefs, then streaks away revealing a dazzling array of spotty colours – and some vicious teeth. Catching this animal is not easy, but the Romans found a way.
On the island of Ponza, which lies west of Naples and south of Rome, they constructed an elaborate fish farm called Grotte di Pilato (named after Pontius Pilate). This moray nursery was complex of sea caves, tunnels and pools where the fish could be penned ready for use.
Take a train to one of the Lazio ports – Anzio, Terracina or Formia – then jump on a ferry. Small motor boats can be hired in Ponza port (from €400 a day) to the Grotte di Pilato, less than a mile along the coast (remember to take swimming things). Marine enthusiasts will then also want to skip across to the neighbouring island of Ventotene for its diving. It is also a nature reserve, with excellent bird-watching.
Sea stack climbing, County Donegal, Ireland
Climbing undiscovered peaks may seem to be the distant territory of the hardiest elite, a dream unavailable to us lesser mortals. There are, however, places where few human feet have ventured which are yet accessible to anyone with a reasonable level of fitness and strength: the sea stacks and cliffs of Donegal are among them.
There are many ferry choices to Northern Ireland and the Republic: from Fishguard, Pembroke, Holyhead, Liverpool and Cairnryan, near Stranraer (as well as services from Cherbourg in France, and the Isle of Man). In some ways crossing the Irish Sea is the easiest part of this journey. Donegal has no railways, so going by public transport means tackling the bus network.
Rock climbing guide Iain Miller, based in Falcarragh on the Donegal coast, has been steadily working his way around the county’s hundreds of seastacks and cliffs for some time. A lot depends on the weather and tides, but you might find yourself hiking along a cliff, scrambling down to a beach, then taking a short trip in a rubber dinghy before finally ascending your chosen target. Iain adjusts his trips according to experience and ability, but expect to be pushed.
Skewered by Skuas, St Kilda, Scotland
When I visited the Faroe Islands, there was one place that everyone asked me about: St Kilda. It’s part of the UK but can be harder to get to than places on the other side of the globe, because the 57 miles of sea between the Outer Hebrides and Village Bay is treacherous. The best option is to take a trip from Oban with Hebrides Cruises, whose founder, Rob Barlow, is an inspiring companion for such an adventure – occasionally donning a dry suit and going overboard to hunt for scallops. Otherwise, trained sailors could attempt the voyage; the Hebridean Dolphin and Whale Trust uses volunteers to carry out cetacean surveys in the area; and there are also day trips from Skye or Harris.
Once on the island you will need binoculars: the bird life is magnificent. An estimated 100,000 puffins and 60,000 gannets live here, the latter swarming around the looming rock tower of Stac Lee. In season, beware of the great skuas which defend their ground nests vigorously.
Custard tarts and surfing, Portugal
You wake early. You want a custard tart. But not any old tart – it has to be a pastel de nata from the best place in Portugal. That might be Lisbon’s Pastéis de Belém, but that’s often a bit busy. Maybe the Time Out Market will be better. You get to Portsmouth in time for the overnight Brittany Ferries crossing to Santander. From there it’s train (or bus, which is quicker but less fun) via Madrid and Porto.
Two days later you lift that immortal pastry filled with creamy vanilla custard and dusted with icing sugar to your lips. But wait: what’s that over there? A pão de deus, a fluffy roll coated in coconut and sugar. Even better is a pastel de Santa Clara, with deliciously thin pastry wrapped around almond custard. Maybe with a garoto coffee (with milk in a small cup)?
Of course, we didn’t come this far for sugar alone. Now you are ready to surf. Head 60 miles north to Peniche and then take a boat to the Berlengas, an archipelago and nature reserve 10 miles off the coast. There is also excellent diving (lots of wrecks) and wildlife watching here, too.