-Hey, I'm Rick Steves, thanks for joining us to stoke both your travel dreams and your appreciation of public television.
We've put together a delightful island hopping voyage.
In the next half hour, we'll explore four of Europe's most intriguing and surprising islands.
They're just dots on the map in the Mediterranean, Malta and Capri and tiny bits of the British Isles, the Isle of Skye and Orkney.
This salty adventure comes with remote beaches, crusader castles, a blue lagoon, prehistoric wonders and deliciously traditional island lifestyles.
So all aboard for what promises to be a bon voyage.
♪ The captain of our cruise ship advised being up here to enjoy the entry into the grand harbor of Malta, the historic heart of this remote island serving three cities, including the capital city of Valletta.
Clearly, this port was well worth some serious fortifications.
And with a "different port every day" schedule of our cruise, we'll have a busy day to explore it.
Our ship just squeezes into the historic harbor and in moments we're in the old center of town ready for a full day of sightseeing.
Malta is a tiny, independent country set between Sicily and Africa with a culture enriched by a long parade of civilizations.
It's a strategically placed island nation with an extraordinary history.
The capital city of Valletta is a stony monument to this hard fought history.
Government buildings seem to demand obedience.
And a commanding view from the ramparts of the heavily fortified harbor reminds the visitor of Malta's strategic importance through the centuries.
Of the many cultures that shaped it, perhaps the most obvious is its British heritage.
Malta spent 150 years as part of the British Empire.
In World War II, It was a key Allied naval base and therefore was devastated by German bombs.
Much of Malta has been rebuilt in recent years.
While it gained its independence in 1964, Malta retains its British flavor -- English style pubs and food, statues of Queens, and red phone booths.
While its first language is a Semitic language called Maltese, English is virtually universally understood.
If this feels like a fortress city, it's because it was the capital of the Knights of St. John, also known as the Knights of Malta.
The Knights of St. John were headquartered on the Isle of Rhodes.
But in 1923, they were defeated by the Ottoman Turks.
They retreated here to Malta, where they set up their new capital and built a huge fortress in anticipation of another Turkish attack.
Malta's stout walls, many of them incorporated into existing limestone cliffs, survived a siege in 1565 of 40,000 Ottoman sailors.
The grid plan of streets was laid out with the new fortress.
After the Turkish threat passed, the city was ornamented with delightful architecture, including characteristic enclosed balconies called Gallarija.
As you stroll, you'll enjoy an inviting and nostalgic patina of age in its facades.
♪ Within a short drive from the main city are a number of interesting sites.
Sleepy towns come with both oversized churches and laid-back locals.
Tiny and remote harbors hide out along the dramatic and rugged coastline.
Local guides take tourists to numerous nooks and crannies, including the island's Blue Grotto.
The landscape, which seems timeless, is dotted with prehistoric ruins, dating back an astounding 5,000 years.
♪ Megalithic sites like Hagar Qim are evidence that in roughly 3000 B.C., settlers from Sicily arrived in search of arable land.
While the humble mud-brick village that once surrounded this temple is long gone, stones from the temple still stand.
A short drive away is the fishermen's harbor of Marsaxlokk.
A favorite with cruise travelers, it's home to a fleet of typically Maltese fishing boats.
While Marsaxlokk has a fine main square and church, the action is along the harbor, especially during the Sunday market, when it's all about fish.
Tradition says that the shape of the boats goes back eight centuries before Christ to when Malta was a Phoenician colony.
These colorful boats pop in the dazzling sunlight, seeming to celebrate yet another distinct heritage of the Mediterranean world.
♪ [ Gulls crying ] -For a great day trip from Naples, Positano or Sorrento, catch the early morning jet boat to the Isle of Capri.
The Isle of Capri was first made famous as the vacation hideaway of Roman emperors.
In the 19th century, it was the haunt of romantic-age aristocrats on their grand tour of Europe.
♪ While the island is small, just four miles by two miles, there's plenty to see and do.
To get the most out of our quick visit, I'm meeting my friend and fellow tour guide, Roberta Mazzarella.
Our first stop is the reason most come to Capri -- to enter the fabled Blue Grotto.
The Blue Grotto experience is more than just visiting a cave.
Getting there, getting in and getting back is a scenic hoot.
You enjoy a fast cruise part way around the gorgeous island, seeing bird life and local fishermen at work, all under dramatic limestone cliffs.
-So most of the Isle of Capri is just like this -- limestone cliffs straight down into the beautiful blue water.
Look at this cliff, from the water all the way up to the top, Roman emperors and loved this, because it was easy to defend.
-Arriving at the mouth of the grotto, you find a busy distribution center as the tourist-laden boats arrive, awaiting dinghies converge and visitors clamber gingerly into their little boats.
The entry hole is small.
If the water's too rough, it becomes too dangerous.
Dinghies can't get in and visitors are turned back.
We are lucky today -- there's a little chop, but dinghies are squeezing in.
The raffish rowers jostle their way to the tiny hole.
Tourists scrunch down safely below the gunnels and the guides pull fast and hard on the cable at the low point of the swells to squeeze you into the grotto.
Inside the 60 yard long cave, the sun reflects off the limestone bottom, giving the grotto its famous brilliant blue.
[ Man singing ] Your man rose you around, sings a little, "O Sole Mio," and lets you enjoy the iridescent magic of the moment.
♪ ♪ -Capri, the largest of the island's two towns, sits in a saddle above the port.
Piazza Umberto is the main square of this cute and touristy shopping town.
The main drag is nicknamed "Rodeo Drive" for its exclusive boutiques.
While prices are steep, the window shopping's free.
These days, especially in the summer, Capri can be a world class tourist trap, packed with gawky visitors searching for the rich and famous, and finding only their prices.
But other times of year -- we're here in April -- it provides a relaxing and scenic break.
At the edge of town, elegant villas and a public garden are strategically placed to enjoy fine views.
On glitzy Capri, everything's done with panache.
Taxis are white convertibles -- though expensive, they make getting around an unforgettable part of your visit.
♪ For expansive island views, ride the chairlift to the top of Monte Solaro, Capri's 1,900 foot summit.
You'll float over lush orchards and well tended gardens.
♪ At the summit, you'll enjoy the commanding panorama of both the Italian mainland in the distance and the Isle of Capri.
Cliffs are busy with birds enjoying a little R&R break during their migration, tending scenic nests and soaring on a steady sea breeze.
The faraglioni rocks are an icon of the island, with tour boats squeezing through every few minutes.
And from here the hike down is a delight.
♪ -Next up, the rugged Isle of Skye.
Offering some of Scotland's best scenery, the Isle of Skye is understandably popular.
Narrow, twisty roads wind around Skye in the shadows of craggy bald mountains, and the coastline is ruffled with peninsulas and sea locks, or saltwater inlets.
Skye, while Scotland's second biggest island, about a two hour drive from south to north, has only 13,000 residents, and it's been that way since the Highland Clearances back in the 1800s -- that's when wealthy landlords decided sheep were better for their bottom line than people.
Landless peasants were driven out, and to this day, the island's population is half what it used to be.
While plenty of tour busses cover Skye, it's a great place to have your own wheels.
The island is dotted with scenic roadside attractions.
The highlight of our Isle of Skye visit is driving around the scenic Trotternish Peninsula.
The coast is lined with jaw-dropping cliffs plunging into the sea.
This one's nicknamed Kilt Rock because it's volcanic lava columns look like pleats in a Scottish kilt.
A steep climb inland leads to a trailhead at the summit of the Trotternish Ridge.
♪ Man, we're lucky to have a place to park.
Skye is well discovered these days, but you can still get away from the crowds, make a point to get out of the car and take a hike.
♪ From here, we enjoy the easy walk across a dramatic escarpment called the Quiraing.
♪ Hikers are richly rewarded, enjoying unforgettable views of the Isle of Skye and the distant mainland.
♪ ♪ In addition to the stunning scenery, there's history and heritage in the land.
The fine little Skye Museum of Island Life explains how a typical Skye family lived back in the days when peat was vital to survival.
So what is this?
-So this is a crofting community and it shows how people used to live in Skye.
This was quite typical in the 1800s, and a croft is basically a small scale farm.
So small scale subsistence farming.
They don't own the land, but they lived off the land and paid the rent as well.
-So this is where the family gathered.
This is typical household setting for 1800s Skye.
-So the kitchen would have been where the action is.
So that all around the hearth.
You've got the peat burning in the fire, and that's burning day and night.
People gather around here and they've got things to keep them amused, keep them entertained.
They've got a Bible in the Gaelic language, because they spoke Gaelic here; they've got musical instruments and that would give them some entertainment as well.
People would get together and have a cèilidh -- a cèilidh is like a get-together, they have a bit of a gossip, bit of a drink, maybe some whiskey.
And then that leads into playing some music, some dancing.
And we still use the term cèilidh today.
-So they'd gather round the peat fire, they've got their whiskey, they've got their bagpipe, their fiddle and their accordion.
-Yep, what else do you need?
-The north tip of the Trotternish Peninsula is marked by the crumbling remains of the Duntulm Castle.
This was the first stronghold on Skye of the influential MacDonald clan.
It offers another windblown chance to savor how history and nature mix it up here on the Isle of Skye.
-For our final island, it's a four-hour drive across the mainland and up the northeast coast of Scotland.
The Orkney Islands, perched an hour's ferry ride north of the mainland, are remote, historic, and, for the right traveler, worth the effort.
Orkney's dramatic cliffs and rock formations seem to herald a different world.
The ferry lands in the tiny port of Stromness.
Stony and humble, you immediately feel an island kind of charm, Orkney's landscape is mostly flat and bald, with few trees and lots of tidy farms.
The blustery weather keeps the vegetation low and scrubby.
Trees just can't grow in the Orkney winds.
With its sparse population, the island has no traffic lights.
Most roads are single lane and driving here is a joy.
Fine sandy beaches seem always empty, as if lying on them will give you hypothermia.
Orkney, an archipelago of 70 islands, has about 25,000 people.
The main island is called, confusingly, Mainland.
The vast majority of Orcadians live in Kirkwall.
Tidy and functional, this town's buildings are more practical than pretty.
It's pedestrians-only main drag leads from the cathedral down to the harbor.
It's a workaday strip lined with simple shops and busy with locals who all seem to know each other.
At the harbor, fishing boats bob and ferries fan out to nearby islands.
Today's economy is based mostly on North Sea oil and fishing.
♪ The local pipe band brings a ready, distinctly Orcadian groove to the town center.
It's a toe-tapping energy as everybody gathers together.
♪ Orkney is small and it's countryside charms are just minutes away by car.
The island is dotted with monuments, recalling the island's distant past.
The Stones of Stenness, part of a dozen stones that made a big circle, are a reminder that 5,000 years ago Orkney had a busy civilization, with more people then than there are here today.
♪ I hope you've enjoyed our island hopping cruise to Malta, Capri, Skye, and Orkney.
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Support your public television station with an ongoing gift of $20 a month, or a one-time contribution of $240, and you'll receive all the gifts we're talking about today -- the newsletter, the DVD set with my travel lectures, the Europe Planning Map, the big box set of DVDs with the entire "Rick Steves Europe" library of over 100 shows, and my two new books: "For the Love of Europe," and "Europe's Top 100 Masterpieces."
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