I’ve been lucky over the years as a travel writer to have been able to cruise the Scottish islands on an array of ships, from rugged Russian expedition vessels through to plushly converted old fishing boats. There is no doubt for me, though, which is the most luxurious ship currently cruising Scottish waters, the stately old dame that is the Hebridean Princess.
I say old and that is one of her charms. She dates back to 1964 when she first started life as the MV Columba, a passenger and then later car ferry too. I love this old CalMac heritage. The kitchens still have the same half-century-old oven and the distinct Caledonian Macbrayne livery can still be spied if you look hard enough in the right light at the flanks of the ship.
The Hebridean Princess is a world away from a ferry when it comes to luxury though. She has been brilliantly converted into what amounts to a floating grand Scottish country house, where the maximum 50 passengers feel like privileged guests rather than just passengers.
I say guests, but many are repeat passengers who know other passengers and crew members well. So well that they have become friends. I’ve been on a number of cruise ships all over the world, but never experienced anything like this genuine warmth on any other ship.
Don’t take my word for the Hebridean Princess’s appeal. She comes with a royal seal of approval, literally. So impressed have the British Royal Family been by the charter cruises they have booked on her that she now has an official Royal Warrant, which is proudly displayed on ship.
Wandering around it doesn’t take long to see that she is genuinely fit for a queen. There is the elegant Columba Restaurant, where I feast on lobster, scallops and langoustines from the isles, lamb from the Borders and glorious cheeses from all over Scotland.
Another highlight is the recently refurbished Tiree Lounge. This is the social hub of the ship with complimentary drinks available all day and evening long. Everything is included onboard bar some of the more limited edition wines, which are squirreled away discreetly on a separate wine list.
Discretion is key on board. The crew are expert at quickly working out what each passenger wants. Dinner can be a social affair with new friends or a romantic date for two. Everyone has the chance to dine with the captain at some point too, on my cruise in the form of Trevor Bailey, a captain with a fun cheeky side.
Over the course of the week Bailey and his bridge crew do a brilliant job of displaying what he calls the ‘Carlsberg effect’, namely getting to places other bigger ships just cannot reach. We tender ashore on Rum, Skye and most impressively on the tiny Shiants, where the crew work hard to ensure a safe and remarkably smooth beach landing. I’d never been on the ultra remote Shiants so they are a real bonus.
Also a bonus is the wildlife we come across. On the Shiants it is puffins and a colony of Manx Shearwater. On other isles and at sea we savour everything from skuas and all manner of gulls, through to otters and sea eagles. I’m not lucky enough to see a whale, but apparently they are a common sight.
As this is a ‘Footloose’ cruise itinerary I spend a lot of my week ashore. Each day the trio of walking guides put together a testing walk and a gentler ‘strollers’ option. The former are proper walks taking on the otherworldly Quiraing on Skye and the Postman’s Walk on Harris from Urgha to Rhenigidale. Also one day I push myself by borrowing one of the ship’s bikes for a 25-mile cycle into the wind from Lochmaddy on North Uist down on to Benbecula.
Returning from each walk the Tiree Lounge beckons, or just a soak in the bath as my plush cabin has a full-length bath. Each evening I enjoy a local sundowner, with an ale or whisky from the isles. After dinner entertainment awaits. No dull lectures or communal movie screenings, but much more fun performances by our guide John with his accordion and Ted with his guitar, Scottish folk songs and tall tales. In Stornoway they even welcome a ceilidh band aboard!
The last night brings the second of the week’s gala dinners. I pop on my kilt and enjoy my last sundowner staring down the Sound of Mull towards the distant isles. I’ve explored these isles on all sorts of ships, but there is no doubting the most luxurious. She is literally a ship fit for a queen, or rather the Queen.
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