As Hebridean Princess celebrates its 25th anniversary, Julie Peasgood falls in love with HM The Queen’s favourite ship
When we first spot Hebridean Princess anchored in the port of Oban, it seems unassuming, without a particularly regal bearing, or a huge wow factor. But the traditional lines of its modest exterior give little hint of the delights within. Impeccable service, a piper to escort passengers on board individually, and décor more reminiscent of a luxurious country house hotel than a ship: think rich, classic drapes, antique furniture and cushions plumped to within an inch of their lives. There’s an inglenook fireplace in the lounge and a four-poster wouldn’t look out of place in the cabin.
This is the only cruise I’ve ever been on where we didn’t have to brandish a credit card on arrival, and received no extra bills whatsover when we departed. The initial outlay may be steep, but in this case ‘all-inclusive’ means what it says – there are no added gratuities (and the staff are exceptional), wifi is free, and if required, passengers can be collected by luxury coach from Glasgow Airport and taken through magnificent countryside to the departure port of Oban, gateway to the Highlands and Islands. Most importantly, the champagne is on tap – no one will bat an eyelid if you consume your entire body weight in bubbles.
My husband and I enjoyed some fine wines on board, and the food was consistently good (especially considering the tiny galley it’s produced in). The gracious restaurant staff paid meticulous attention to detail, and we liked the fact that regional dishes and fresh local fare featured prominently. Morning porridge could be garnished with whisky and honey fresh from the comb, while Clootie Dumpling – a festive fruit pudding boiled in a ‘clout’ or cloth – was one of several new and intriguing discoveries. (And I finally understand the true meaning of “Ne’er cast a clout till May be out”.)
All meals are served in the Columba Restaurant and most tables are for two – but there are several larger tables for groups journeying together, or for solo travellers wishing to meet fellow passengers. Given the size and intimacy of the ship (50 passengers and 38 crew) making new friends is guaranteed.
Hebridean Princess is a ship that inspires loyalty, and David Indge is a man who inspires. His official title is Chief Purser, but never have I seen a purser pop up in so many places. He not only welcomed everyone aboard, but after bracing walks he’d be waiting at the quayside with a silver tray bearing coffee, dangerously good home-baked biscuits and shots of single malts.
When we weren’t in David’s care we were in the capable hands of Anne Doig, our knowledgeable guide. Anne escorted us on all the shore tours – to castles, gardens and lochs – and what she doesn’t know about the West Highlands and its history isn’t worth knowing. The company prides itself on the quality of its guides and lecturers, and with Anne’s expertise and Nicholas Merchant’s entertaining talks, covering everything from tales of the Highlands to tiaras, we were kept well informed at every stage.
I’ll admit I hadn’t initially been as excited about visiting the Inner Hebrides as my husband, Patrick, who’s half Scottish and was longing to see the likes of Rum, Muck and Mull. I thought it might be cold and a bit bleak. It wasn’t. It was breathtakingly beautiful. And unlike the rest of the country, the sun was shining nearly every day. In fact, such was the lack of rain that the distilleries of Skye and Tobermory had even been temporarily forced to halt production – malt whiskies must be made with local water that’s seeped through the rocks and peat, giving each its individual flavour.
Our cruise was entitled Castles and Gardens of the West, and we witnessed some spectacular examples of both. Our first visit was to the Isle of Rum where we took a gentle morning stroll to Kinloch Castle, built by the industrialist and playboy, Sir George Bullough. No expense was spared when creating this lavish, Edwardian extravagance, crammed with rare artefacts and stags heads – and there was a severe case of tartan-itis – George was from Lancashire but loved all things Scottish.
Rum is mainly a nature reserve, home to red deer, Rum ponies, otters, seals, basking sharks, Golden Eagles, Manx Shearwater seabirds… and about 30 humans. We spotted seals in the afternoon too, when we walked around Loch Scavaig and its hidden partner Loch Coruisk. Reputed to be the most magnificent of all the freshwater lochs, they are cradled within Skye’s Black Cuillin mountains and are as dramatic as it gets.
At Inverewe gardens, a tropical sanctuary nestling at the edge of Loch Ewe in Wester Ross, the magical landscape is filled with extraordinary trees covered in ‘old man’s beard’ lichen – a sign of the unpolluted air of the Highlands.
One of the most unusual aspects of this cruise is that, as well as entry to the various castles and gardens, all drinks and snacks on shore are included. We savoured scones in Eilean Donan castle (the most photographed fortress in Scotland, gracing a thousand shortbread tins) and felt no guilt tucking in on the Isle of Raasay as we’d cycled round the island first – on bikes provided by the ship. I enjoyed retail therapy in the picture book town of Tobermory, and the imposing Duart Castle was our final destination, with a candlelit champagne reception to celebrate.
Hebridean Princess offers a uniquely personal service unlike anything I’ve experienced. Fresh milk in the fridge daily, Villeroy & Boch china and a baby whisky decanter were welcome touches in our small but sumptuous cabin. It’s obvious why this is The Queen’s favourite ship. It’s definitely now one of mine.
GETTING THERE: Hebridean Island Cruises offers cruises around the Highlands and Islands of Scotland from £2,395pp (based on two sharing). The five-night North Through the Sound of Sleat round-trip cruise includes Canna, Skye, Eilean Bàn, Inverie, Eigg and Ardnamurchan, departing on 12 September 2013. Prices include all meals, drinks, excursions, gratuities, relevant cruise taxes/fees, transport from Glasgow or free car parking, and single trip travel insurance*. For more information visit hebridean.co.uk or call 01756 704 700.