Our driver carefully navigates the final twisty turn down to the port of Oban gateway to Scotland’s Western Isles. There, bathed in the soft light of gloaming awaits Hebridean Princess – as pretty a picture and promising start to our seven-day “Flavours of Scotland” cruise of the Inner Hebrides one could possibly wish for. What happened to Scotland’s reputation for dreich weather? (dreary, damp, overcast).
Our smart-as-paint princess with her black hull, crisp white superstructure and red funnel reminds us of the guards at Buckingham Palace. Not such a stretch when you learn that Her Majesty has chartered Hebridean Princess on two occasions – her 86th birthday in 2006, and a family party in 2010.
Hebridean Princess was built in 1964 as a ferry, then in 1989 converted into a boutique luxury cruise ship. She is ideal for island-hopping itineraries, an occasional jaunt to Norway or across the channel to Normandy. The ship, crew and service are immaculate and a perfect match for the beautiful, thoughtfully-considered interior space, plush appointments and comfy cabins.
Often described as traditional Scottish country house in style we wonder whether this princess is a little bit Balmoral or a little bit Britannia? (the former royal yacht). This might explain why the Queen holds her in such affection.
As we approach the gangway we hear the sounds of a piper. Greeting us with warm handshakes and beaming smiles, we are welcomed aboard by Captain, Chief Purser and the official guide for this itinerary. No stiff, starchy formality here, just a genuine welcome aboard. “You’ll be wanting a cup of tea then” they chorus knowing we have flown in from Australia. “Och-aye, we have lots of guests from Australia. You’ll find tea in the Tiree Lounge and your bags in your cabin”.
We headed speedily up to the lounge where a robust afternoon tea awaited – scones, clotted cream and homemade berry jams – though some new arrivals were busily examining the single malts in the well-stocked bar. There is plenty of plaid and
paisley-upholstered furnishings and some fabrics emblazoned with flocks of ducks. There is even a real, brick-walled Inglenook fireplace. This is the social hub of the ship. Guests love its clubby ambience and the camaraderie of like-minded fellow guests who are primarily British, North American and Antipodean – often with Scottish ancestry. Many are repeats. One lady had made 70 cruises and considered the ship her stately home afloat.
All meals are served in the Columba Restaurant where the tone is a skilful balance between geniality and refinement. Dining is single-sitting service with assigned tables which are impeccably clad in crisp white linen tablecloths, elegant crystal, fine flatware and china. Chef Paul Sim’s menus are carefully-balanced and a brilliant showcase for regional produce – oysters, langoustine, salmon, as well as beef and lamb. On the breakfast menu there’s always porridge – with a wee dram if you fancy.
Or, kippers, Finnan haddie perhaps, egg any which way, fresh fruits, home-baked breads and more. In every respect, the food on board is exceptional, equal to, if not more so than the three fine-dining restaurants included on our itinerary.
Hebridean Princess’ is renowned for destination-immersive programs where ship board life and shore visits blend seamlessly. These include visits to distilleries, cheesemakers, oyster growers, and private receptions hosted by clan chieftains in brooding castles, walks through spic-and-span white-washed villages even our inclusion (unscheduled) in a wedding procession at pretty Plockton!
There are usually two shore trips per day. Some require transfer by tender, then coach. All are accompanied by a crew member or designated guide.
Those who remain on board can enjoy the mesmerising scenery, plump down in a leather library chair, play board games, or go ashore for a bike ride. Wi-Fi access is free, and the ship has a no-tipping policy.There are usually two formal nights per cruise: black tie for gentlemen and evening wear for ladies. By day, casual attire is appropriate but jacket and tie is required for dinner.
No time for a nap, we don our evening finery and head off to a cocktail reception in the banqueting hall of Duart Castle hosted by the Laird, clan chieftain of the MacLeans. On our departure, a lone piper patrols the castle’s ramparts, his bagpipes echoing poignantly across the Sound of Mull.
No prizes for guessing what was featured on the menu for our farewell gala dinner. It wouldn’t be complete without haggis and neeps and the traditional recital of poet Robert Burns’ Address to the Haggis, then Auld Ang Syne. Hebridean Princess may be small and slightly quaint, but she is top-drawer and ever-so-chic luxury boutique. Fit for a queen. •
Maggy Oehlbeck was a guest of Hebridean Princes
- Whisky-tasting at Laphroaig distillery on the island of Islay – famous for its peaty, smoky single malts.
- Oyster, and island honey tasting on the island of Colonsay in the community hall with the grower/producer then an amble back to the ship past black-faced sheep, and village gardens blooming with intense black tulips.
- Cheese tasting at award-winning Isle of Mull Cheese farm near Tobermory, then a stroll along the waterfront lined by vividly-coloured Georgian houses.
- Torridon Hotel – a luxurious Victorian hotel at loch’s edge with a backdrop of glacial mountains, guests practising fly-casting on the lawn, a whisky bar with 350 plus malts and an outstanding restaurant with fresh ingredients plucked from the kitchen garden and trout from the loch.
- Eriska Isle Hotel – a Scottish baronial pile where we feast on roast venison with ruby chard and red currants, followed by a creamy parfait, then nod respectfully to the woolly Highland cattle as we walk back to the tender.
- Three Chimneys – on the island of Skye, has just won 2018 UK Restaurant of the Year. Can’t go past their Skye, Land, Sea menus.
- Kinloch Castle, is a curious red-sandstone Edwardian extravaganza built by a wealthy industrialist on the island of Rum. Stuffed with hunting trophies, clunky furniture and an orchestrion, it would be a perfect setting for an Agatha Christie Murder Mystery.
- Dunvegan Castle and gardens on the island of Skye is the seat of Clan McLeod. Display cases contain Bonnie Prince Charlie memorabilia including Flora McDonald’s corset – she who rowed him to the Island as in the lyrics of the “Skye Boat Song”.
- Eilean Donan is a small tidal island where three sea lochs meet. The much photographed 13th century castle has been widely featured in films, and has an excellent visitor centre.
- Hebridean Princess carries 50 passengers, crew of 38 UK officers and a very-polished Lithuanian service crew.
- There are 20 double cabins and 10 singles. No two cabins are alike. Each is furnished individually. All have private bathroom or shower, ironing board, iron and trouser -press. (Who will press your kilt though?) There is a no-key policy on board, but you can lock your door from the inside and windows can be opened for fresh Hebridean air. There is no casino, no swimming pool, spa or hot tubs on decks.
- All meals on board and ashore – including those at the featured restaurants, are included, as are wines, spirits, and champagne except those on the Wine Library list.
- Entrance fees to castles, gardens and other places of interest are included, along with transfers between ship and shore destinations as published.