Hebridean Island Cruising - Luxury Scotland

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Cruising The Scottish Seas On Hebridean Princess

by Viv Devlin (Archival Article 2012)

It’s a balmy June evening as Hebridean Princess makes steady progress up the Sound of Jura, the sea calm and sparkling in the amber summer sunlight.

A flock of Little Tern skim swiftly over the glassy water, undisturbed by the buzz of conversation and clink of glasses as a few dozen passengers sip cocktails on the sundeck.

To the port side is a painterly seascape of rocky cliffs and coastline. We are returning to Oban from the Islands at the Edge of the Sea – from the old Norse name Havbrodoy, the Hebrides - at the end of a fabulous luxury cruise. Scotland is surrounded by misty, magical islands: Arran and Bute in the Firth of Clyde, the long chain of the Inner and Outer Hebrides in the west, Orkney and Shetland in the far north.

This is island hopping in style, combining traditional Scottish country house living with the leisurely ambience of a cruise ship in miniature. Hebridean Island Cruises offer a selection of unique journeys visiting unusual hideaway places and ports of call complemented by top quality hospitality with a great value, all-inclusive fare.

    

scotland sunset


“Mull was astern, Rum on the port, Eigg on the starboard bow ….”

Robert Louis Stevenson

Hebridean Princess

on board Hebridean Princess

    

Formerly a Caledonian MacBrayne car ferry, the Columbia underwent a radical new design and refurbishment to be reinvented as Hebridean Princess, launched in 1989 since when she has developed a high reputation and loyal fan base. This majestic luxury ‘yacht’ accommodates a maximum of forty nine passengers in thirty Staterooms all named after Scottish islands, castles and lochs. Eleven bedrooms are for single occupancy. When you realise that some of the ocean going ships and Caribbean cruise lines may accommodate up to 3,000 people, or more, you can appreciate the privacy, relaxing atmosphere, gracious living and personal service on board. It is the smallest luxury cruise ship in the world.

Hebridean Princess has been given a Five Star rating by Visit Scotland and the Berlitz Guide to Cruising. The Princess is a past winner in the category of Best Deluxe Ship in the Daily Express Cruise awards.

“We were looking for a ship that delivers a four star plus experience in terms of onboard quality, service and cuisine. Eight ships were nominated in this category and we placed Hebridean Princess first, ahead of Seabourn Goddess II. Winning such a wide-ranging category with competition from the QE2 is a tribute to the all round quality and originality of the Hebridean Island cruises operation.”
Simon Veness, Co-ordinator of Cruise Awards.


The ship currently cruises from March to November around some of the most spectacular and beautiful scenery in Scotland, England and Norway. With a relatively shallow draught, she can anchor off isolated, inaccessible islands and rocky coastlines. These are voyages for discerning travellers who appreciate Scotland’s natural wild landscape, deserted sandy beaches, lochs and craggy mountain peaks.

Cruises depart from Oban, Gateway to the Isles, with coach transfers available from Glasgow airport and Glasgow Central Station.

My partner Ken and I were met here by tour guide, Sandra Felton-Edkins and together with another dozen Hebridean Princess guests, we were immediately treated like VIPs: luggage was taken off our hands and we climbed aboard the coach. First stop, the airport to collect more passengers before heading over the Erskine Bridge, north to Loch Lomond, and cross country over hills and glens north west to Oban.

And there was the gleaming white and black Hebridean Princess moored alongside the pier.

    

activities Hebridean Princess


After a security check, we walked up the gang-plank to the rousing sound of the bagpipes, greeted with a warm welcome in the reception lobby then personally taken upstairs to our cabin, the Isle of Iona on the promenade deck. This is a spacious double room, with two large windows, armchairs and a hotel-style marble bathroom. There’s a choice of double, twin and single bedded rooms of different grades, but you can be assured that all have homely comforts - satellite TV/ VCR, fridge, tea tray, quality furnishings and bedlinen, soft towels, bathrobes and twice-daily maid service. For a taste of extra luxury and privacy, reserve a cabin with private balcony or the Isle of Arran suite.

    

bedroom on Hebridean Princess


relaxing on board Hebridean Princess

    

The ship departed at 7pm with Pimms cocktails served in the Bar. It was a wee bit breezy but following sailaway tradition, we venture onto the top deck to toast farewell to Oban at the start of our Hebridean adventure.

Time for a wander around to find our bearings. The Tiree Lounge, stuffed with chintzy sofas, wing armchairs and open fireplace, has 360 degree panoramic views from its picture windows. This is where afternoon tea is served and drinks from the Bar, morning, noon and night. Elsewhere, relax in a quiet corner of the conservatory, the library or out on the sundeck. What you will not find is a swimming pool, casino, show lounge or dancing girls.

Meanwhile the ship has sailed at a gentle pace up the Sound of Mull for a peaceful night at anchor just off shore from the multi-coloured village of Tobermory, Isle of Mull. Guests have gathered in the Tiree Lounge for an aperitif as we begin to introduce ourselves. This first night the dress code is casual and soon we are invited downstairs to the Columba Restaurant for an excellent four course dinner featuring organic Scottish produce with house wine by the glass. (Dietary requirements can be catered for if requested in advance). Single travellers are invited to sit at an officer’s table each night to enjoy a special dinner party. Back to the lounge for coffee and a welcome introduction by Captain Hepburn and Chief Purser Charles Carroll, with information on the next day’s shore excursions and itinerary. Then over a nightcap or two, the guests (just 35 on this cruise) begin to mix and mingle as our small and very intimate house party at sea began. But soon, whether it was the fresh sea air, fine food and wine, or long journey, bedtime called and I was asleep well before midnight. 


   dining room Hebridean Princess   guest area Hebridean Princess

“O great island of my love… great beautiful bird of Scotland”

Sorley Maclean

dining on Hebridean Princess    

A breakfast banquet sets you up for an active day ahead: fresh fruit, cereal, porridge, bacon and eggs, omelettes and daily specials, such as pancakes or smoked haddock risotto. First port of call is Rum, a National Nature Reserve renowned for its rich bird life notably shearwater and sea-eagles. The island is also home to Kinloch Castle, a magnificent Edwardian shooting lodge, where today its furniture, antiques, tigerskin rugs, porcelain and paintings are all preserved in a time warp. HP guests were treated to a private tour. The busy itinerary each day offers optional morning and afternoon personally escorted shore excursions by Blue Badge guides - or do your own thing, go for a walk, borrow a bicycle, read and relax in the lounge.


Back on board, time for a G&T or Bloody Mary in the Bar before lunch (three course menu or sandwich and salad), as we sail over the sea to the Isle of Skye, immortalised in the poetry of Sorley Maclean. Motorboat tenders take guests ashore where a coach is waiting on the quayside to transport us to the Talisker Distillery for a tour – dram included.

Tonight is the Welcome Champagne Reception hosted by Captain Hepburn, followed by a fabulous Gala Dinner. All dressed up in Black tie, Kilts and evening dress, there’s a lively atmosphere as we meet new friends from Australia, Canada, Jersey, Dundee and the South of England. This is a lifestyle I could get accustomed to very easily and as our champagne glasses are topped up, one lady comments with a laugh, “At this rate by tomorrow night we’ll be overboard!.”

    

The Dinner menu is exemplary – pan seared scallops, leek and potato soup, Grampian venison or West coast monkfish, white chocolate mousse and Scottish cheese, with selected wines. The kitchen brigade of five under Head Chef, Paul Sim, have a long day’s shift preparing three freshly cooked meals as well as delicious cakes for afternoon tea and cocktail time canapes. The larder and fridges are stocked up in Oban with meat, fruit, vegetables, fish, eggs - about 1,000, - cheese and local lobster while en route they pick up specialities such as Colonsay oysters.

Next morning we sail on to the 13th century Dunvegan Castle, ancestral home of Clan MacLeod with a fine collection of Jacobite artefacts. From the castle jetty we then took a fascinating seal-watching boat ride, spotting grey-speckled mothers with newborn pups basking on the rocks. The sun is really bright today with hardly a breeze.

      

Over the next six days we visit the islands of Eigg, Colonsay, Islay and Jura as well as Gairloch, Crinan and Craobh Haven on the mainland. On Colonsay, we join an energetic group of ten on a two hour cross-island walk; we are driven in the school bus to Kiloran Bay, a stunning stretch of white sand, from where we begin the trek across moorland, forest, around Loch Fada, over a drove track until we clamber down a hillside to reach the pier - and the ship - at Scalasaig. It’s a fairly strenuous hike, with a few midges for company along the way, but exhilarating and fun.

Another opportunity for a long walk to burn off all those extra calories was on the Isle of Eigg, a delightfully unspoilt Hebridean island, where traditional croft farming is the livelihood. It’s famed for its wild terrain and rich geological features. The sandy bays and rocky coves around the coastline is the habitat for otters, dolphins and minke whales while eagles and ravens can be seen swooping above the high open moorland. There are marked walking trails to the island’s famous Massacre Cave and the Singing Sands beach. Four of us head up a ramblers’ path over the fields towards An Sgurr, the towering black volcanic plug which dominates the island. To reach the top of this sheer sided ridge takes over four hours and perhaps best tackled by experienced climbers.

Guests on board Hebridean Princess    

Each season there is a series of specialist Footloose cruises for serious walkers with professionally guided hikes every day. Described as a ‘stiff’ walk is the 5 mile trek to the summit of An Sgurr at 1,200 feet from where the views are fantastic, while on Harris, the cliff top Postman’s Route is also pretty tough. Footloose cruises also offer easier routes and excursions for strollers. This is how Sue Bryant described her experience of taking part in a Footloose cruise, “Walking cruises are a stroke of genius. What could be more blissful than a very small luxurious ship which takes you to wild beautiful locations every day for hiking through dramatic, glaciated landscapes, over volcanic outcrops and along historic clifftop trails.”

The Gulf Stream on the west coast of Scotland creates a warm micro-climate for exotic, sub-tropical trees and plants to flourish. We explored two gardens preserved by the National Trust for Scotland - Inverewe which boasts giant Chinese rhododendrons, gum trees and Australian daisy bushes. Down the coast, the tranquil oasis at Arduaine is renowned for Himalayan lilies and water garden. On “God’s Island”, Gigha, fringed by white sandy coves, we strolled in a glorious heatwave around the lush Achamore Garden blooming with azaleas and gunnera from the cloud gardens of the Andes.


" I think it was one of the best holidays we've experienced - I couldn't think of a fault".

John and Sheila, England

    

These island trips are meticulously organised by Blue Badge guide Sandra who offers every assistance to older guests, with alternative plans to suit everyone. One young woman preferred to go jogging; on Islay a keen golfer zoomed off to Machrie Golf Club; ship’s bicycles can be borrowed and one of the crew will take you fishing in the Hardy tender. The chance of an exhilarating speedboat ride one day proved very popular - “It’s like being in a James Bond movie”, said one adventurous grey-haired lady, zooming around the bay all afternoon.


Captain Hepburn and Chief Purser Charles Carroll ensure life on board is run in impeccable, shipshape fashion. With a maximum of 49 guests, the passenger/crew ratio is almost 1/1 and service - from the restaurant team to the motorboat crew - is first class and genuinely friendly. A definite added attraction is that alcoholic drinks and shore excursions are part of the all-inclusive tariff. Nothing is too much trouble for these VIP guests. Charles goes ashore at Bowmore on Islay to seek out bottles of Dubonet and Crème de Menthe liqueur to satisfy requests. The barman finds a specially ice-chilled bottle of Russian vodka for 85 year old John who likes his pre–prandial tipple; he downs the shot in one and challenges an officer to do the same.

On the subject of drink I was intrigued to find out just how many bottles of spirits and wine are consumed on a typical cruise. Can you guess? 30 bottles of gin, 25 bottles of champagne and 120 bottles of wine.

   


 

    

From the warm Spring tide to the cool Autumn months there’s a scintillating choice of around thirty cruises featuring island hopping itineraries exploring the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland, Inner Hebrides and North West Highlands. The ship also heads south to Ireland, England and northbound to the Norwegian fjords. Depending on the islands and ports visited the distinctly different journeys may cover a theme - gardens, distilleries and castles or the opportunity for bird watching, wildlife, golf and cycling.

According to Captain Hepburn, the enticing charm of the Princess is that the ship is a holiday destination in itself. Many repeat guests first book their favourite cabin for particular dates before even asking about the itinerary – where the ship may venture is secondary. Around 60-70% of passengers are repeat guests and solo travellers are particularly welcome with single cabins selling out quickly.

To celebrate her 80th birthday in 2006, Her Majesty the Queen chartered Hebridean Princess around the Western Isles for a family holiday. What an exceptional honour for this small yet superlative ship.

Highlights?  A shoal of dolphins diving alongside; stimulating walks across Eigg and Colonsay; blood-orange sunsets; the shapely silhouette of distant hazy islands at dusk; the vivacious house party of international guests. This luxury wee ship, gourmet cuisine, island tours and the enchanting ever-changing  seascape all exceeded expectations - magical, mesmerising, carefree. 

Further details: www.luxuryscotland.co.uk/hebrideanprincess

Hebridean Island Cruises
Kintail House, Carleton New Road, Skipton, North Yorkshire BD23 2DE
Tel: +44(0)1756 704 704        Fax: 01756 704 794

US callers should dial: Toll Free 1 800 659 2648

www.hebridean.co.uk
reservations@hebridean.co.uk


Luxury Scotland
Tel: +44(0)1786 821 860 
Fax: +44 (0)1383 825 700
E: dorothy@luxuryscotland.co.uk

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