"Like a cauldron on a great fire she would seethe up through all her troubled deeps and overhead the spray fell on the tops of the cliffs," said Homer of the mighty Charybdis. Ever since that ancient tale was told, the mystery and intrigue of the world's whirlpools have frightened the cautious and beckoned to the daring.
Although the whirlpools—the Corryvreckan in Scotland, the Moskstraumen and Saltstraumen in Norway, the Old Sow between New Brunswick and Maine, and the Naruto in Japan—are the products of natural occurrences such as strong currents, fierce winds and high tides, these phenomenas are not to be treated lightly. But with proper precautions, they can be visited and experienced safely. In fact, landlubbers can see the swirling waters of the Saltstraumen and Naruto whirlpools from bridges that span the straits. The best time to see any of them is when the weather is at its worst. Stormy seas heighten the effects of the currents, making the whirlpools even more spectacular.
If you're not up for a sail in a gale, in any given month tides are stronger when the moon is either new or full. And you'll find that in any given year, the tidal force is more powerful during the autumnal equinox, in late September. As it happens, notoriously vile gales also tend to occur at this time of year, so watch out. Warm and waterproof clothing is a must-have, and antidotes for seasickness are certainly advisable.
For your own odyssey, author Simon Winchester offers a compendium of lodging and dining experiences and other travel tips. Go forth, Odysseus.
From This Story
The Corryvreckan Whirlpool, Scotland
Getting There The Corryvreckan is located between Scarba and Jura, two small islands off the coast of western Scotland. The best way to find it is to rent a car in Oban (Practical Car and Van Hire, tel. 011-44-1-63-157-0900) and head south on the Lochgilphead road A815. You'll cross the renowned ClachanBridge, or the Bridge Over the Atlantic, whose humped back has linked the Isle of Seil to the mainland since the 18th century. Continue island-hopping down to Luing via a half-hourly ferry, £5 (about $7).
Seeing the Whirlpool Swirling through what locals call the Cailleach (Old Hag in Gaelic) is best done with the guidance of an experienced boatman. Try Sea.fari Adventures (tel. 011-44-1-85-230-0003), which offers a two-hour journey for £180, about $250 (less if others come along). Luing boatman Lachie MacLachlan (tel. 011-44-1-85-231-4212) gives private tours, enriched with his own blend of captivating stories.
Don't Drink and Drown After your ride through the rapids, unwind at the Oban Distillery. Established in 1794, the distillery offers tours and tastings of its malt whiskeys. The address is Stafford Street, Oban, Argyllshire, PA34 5NH; tel. 011-44-1-63-157-2004.
Keep Your Pants On The Tigh an Truish (Gaelic for the House of the Trousers) was where Scottish islanders stopped to change into trousers from kilts, which were forbidden by the English on the mainland, before proceeding to town. Also known as the T'n'T, this combination inn and pub on the Isle of Seil, 14 miles south of Oban, offers both a comfortable room for two and excellent fresh food, including venison, salmon, and homegrown vegetables (tel. 011-44-1-85-230-0242).
Home of Big Brother In the 1940s, author George Orwell rented a home on the island of Jura, called Barnhill House. There, he wrote his acclaimed novel 1984 and also recovered from a near-death experience in the Corryvreckan. Today, Barnhill House is available for rent from £400 (about $565) per week from April through December and sleeps eight to nine people in five bedrooms. Contact Mrs. D. Fletcher, Easter Lennieston, Thornhill, Stirling FK8 3QP; tel. 011-44-1-78-685-0274.
The Saltstraumen Whirlpool, Norway
Getting There From Bodø, take highway Rv 17 and travel some 20 miles to the bridge over the strait between the islands of Straumøya and Knapplundøya.
Seeing the Whirlpool To hire a boat (about $50), contact Saltstraumen Fishing Camp (tel. 011-47-7-558-7138) or view the whirlpool without getting splashed at the Saltstraumen bridge. The nearby SaltstraumenAdventurePark (tel. 011-47-7-556-0655) offers whirlpool models, exhibits and multimedia shows about the history, culture and everyday life revolving around the Saltstraumen. There, nearby picnic spots and rambling trails offer views of the whirlpool. Consult local tide tables to plan the best time for a visit.