The Majestic Line’s newest ship Glen Shiel is ideal for exploring the Scottish highlands, discovers Sally Hales
We drop anchor somewhere in Loch na Droma Buidhe on the first night of our Majestic Line Scotland cruise on board Glen Shiel. The Hebridean waters are mill-pond calm and, on the ruggedly handsome green coastlines in the distance, there’s barely a dot of civilisation, and there’s almost total silence – apart from the jovial clink of glasses and the murmurs of good conversation coming from on board.
And so the delights not only of Scotland but also of small ship cruising begin to reveal themselves. After delicious appetisers are devoured in the back lounge, our jolly gang of 10 guests amble to the front dining area to sate themselves on some of the finest Scottish fare as dusk begins to fall. Dinner – halibut from the Isle of Gigha and Ayrshire potatoes – is served against a stunning panoramic vista of a rich purple sunset as Glen Shiel bobs about in gentle circles.
It’s a captivating moment and one that illustrates the spirit of this Taste of the Hebrides cruise. Over three days we digest and enjoy the food, culture and landscape of the charming and almost other-worldly region, all in good company. But the wonderfully relaxed and intimate atmosphere on board – although we are happily allowed to turn a little raucous if required – belies the superb skill and craftsmanship of the four-man crew, who diligently take care of every detail without it ever seeming like a chore.
Our smiling and hard-working skipper, Neil, has veered off our cruise’s loose itinerary and forsaken a first-night visit to Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull, because his deep knowledge of the region and laser eye for the weather tells him that a glorious sunset is on the cards at Loch na Droma Buidhe. And so it was.
Majestic Line keeps their cruise schedules flexible to allow the crew to respond to both the weather and the whims of guests. For example, a couple of evenings later, Neil gives the group some options about where we could go the next day and leaves us to decide over dinner.
Glen Shiel, launched this year, is the fourth addition to the Majestic Line’s fleet. Purpose-built in the stunning style of a 1930s gentleman’s yacht, it accommodates up to 12 guests in seven en-suite double cabins and keeps them luxury-hotel comfortable. Bathrooms are spacious and fully equipped, and climbing into the huge comfy bed and nestling into Harris Tweed cushions after a long day out in the fresh Scottish air is a joy.
A good night’s sleep is assured by the fact we don’t sail overnight and, just as importantly, this allows passengers to convene in the lounge of an evening to enjoy the spirit – both metaphorical and literal – of the Hebrides by getting to know each other and, of course, the local whiskys and gins.
The next day begins with a hearty Scottish breakfast of porridge (taking it with a ‘nip’ of whisky in is optional but encouraged) and smoked salmon, before we push on to the aptly named small isles. We see the worst of the weather – little more than a choppy hour or two at sea – which must then decide that our sea legs are too strong and proceeds to show us its best side for the rest of the cruise. By the time we hop on the tender and head over to Muck, outerwear is discarded and suncream is splodged on.
This little island has just 30 or so residents, and a gentle stroll takes us from the tiny harbour to a small, but spectacular, white-sand beach on the other side with crystal-clear waters. The only other inhabitants are a few friendly ponies in search of a nose scratch and a clutch of sleeping sleep. It’s the kind of place to spend hours lost in contemplation. It’s a strain to leave while new friends resolve to return to finally write that book.
After a sensational seafood lunch and spot of on-deck sunbathing as we sail, Glen Shiel weighs anchor at Loch Scresort and we take the tender on to Rum. A larger island with more infrastructure, it feels less remote than Muck, but still has just a handful of permanent residents. With a hostel, and gypsy caravans and eco-pods to rent, Rum has something of an eccentric character, too. This is no more so than at the vast Kinloch Castle, built between 1897 and 1900 for the industrialist George Bullough, who owned the island and would sail in on his vast yacht, the Rhouma, for the summer. No expense was spared during its costruction and the result is a late-Victorian extravagance.
Although the castle is facing an uncertain future, it remains open to the public and a charming tour reveals the fascinating foibles of its flamboyant owner, Sir George, and his feisty, irreverent and fishing-mad wife, Lady Monica. It seems in keeping that, far from being hoity-toity aristocrats of the time, Monica and George were adored by their employees on the island for their kindness – alongside the hearty salaries they paid.
Back on board Glen Shiel, we nod to the couple’s extravagance as we tuck into a decadent dinner of roast loin of Dunoon venison and decide to give Tobermory a try the next day. Our skipper obliged our whim the next morning as soon as we’d gobbled down our breakfast of eggs Benedict.
Tranquil Tobermory is picture perfect and positively cosmopolitan by Hebridean standards with its clutch of multi-coloured Georgian homes gazing listlessly over the harbour. Here you can buy whisky and trinkets, go for a wander or use it as a base from which to search out the region’s wildlife, (puffins, seals, porpoises, dolphins, whales and a raft of seabirds all lurk about the islands).
Back on board, the wildlife kindly comes to us. Seals are spotted on nearby rocks as we anchor for the night at Bernera Bay, in the Isle of Lismore. The tender is quickly readied to take us for a closer. We maintain a meditative silence in the boat as the curious creatures slowly surround us, dipping their heads in and out of the water as they work out what we’re about. Their ease must also have been contagious; by the time we head back to Glen Shiel three brave guests are resolved to take a bracing dip in the whisper-calm sea. And, carefully watched by the crew, they do.
The evening’s congenial atmosphere soon has them toasty-warm again. A sensational sea bass meal is greedily gobbled down before nips of whisky are poured by the captain – who tends the bar if needed – and furniture is pushed back so we can get stuck into a spontaneous onboard cèilidh – all with musical accompaniment from Rob, the multi-talented engineer, on the bodhrán and guitar.
A tour of the Hebrides with the Majestic Line may not always bless visitors with balmy weather like we were fortunate to experience, but Glen Shiel is sure to always welcome you with the spirit of Scotland.
A three-night Taste of the Hebrides cruise, departing from Oban, starts at £1,045pp. The Majestic Line offers 13 itineraries across its four ships covering three-, six- and 10-night cruises. Vessels are also available for private charter. For more information visit themajesticline.co.uk.