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Heading up the Forth

Nova Spero Cruises the Scottish East Coast

By Robin McKelvie.

Tell a Scot you plan to cruise the Scottish coast and they will presume you mean the west coast; a littoral served by an ever-growing flotilla of small ships. Nova Spero steers away from the herd though and not just because she also ventures to the east to take on the North Sea.

This former fishing vessel also likes to go alongside rather than anchor, and she still looks like a proper fishing boat. And she is definitely the only ship currently cruising Scotland’s waters that sports a wood-burning stove in her cozy saloon.

Scottish East Coast cruising

The Nova Spero. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Why Scotland’s east coast?

Ironically the man driving force behind the Nova Spero, John MacInnes, is Hebridean born and bred, earning his sailing stripes amongst the sheltered bays and numerous anchorages of Scotland’s west coast, then moving on to tankers. His first tanker trip took on the big seas across the Atlantic from Marseille to New York. In winter.

Standing proudly on the compact, working wheelhouse, MacInnes explains the thinking behind the Nova Spero:

We do offer west coast options, but I also wanted to try something a little different. No one else cruises the Scottish east coast, but I think it is seriously underrated with its big skies, wildlife and characterful harbors.

Swirl in the fact that the Nova Spero was built on the east coast and was designed here, and it all starts to make sense.

Scottish East Coast cruising on Nova Spero

Nova Spero home in Arbroath. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

A luxurious fishing boat

The rugged Nova Spero dates back to 1972, when she was fashioned as a sturdy fishing vessel built to take on the often-tumultuous North Sea. Arriving at Seaport Marina in Inverness I see immediately that she has retained that rugged feel. She startles in turquoise. Her wheelhouse sits low to the water, almost hidden into the foredeck, as if anticipating bad weather at any moment.

MacInnes has worked hard to retain her working boat spirit, and it has paid off as she turns heads everywhere we go. Being aboard again is like sailing in a different era. At her heart is a swarthy Caterpillar engine that makes short work of the seas.

Robin in the saloon.

The interior passenger space is entirely a different kettle of fish. The large wood-paneled saloon is bathed in light not just from the windows, but from the skylight where the fish hatch used to be. Two comfy benches with tables beckon at meal times, while further cushioned seats sit closer to that wood-burning stove.

MacInnes wants to sail when other vessels are shored up for winter so that wood-burning stove is inspired, coming into its own during the chilly, short days of the Scottish winter.

Canals and dolphins

The Caledonian Canal is a fitting start point for a vessel that celebrates great Scottish engineering. Thomas Telford’s 19th-century marvel was built to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the North Sea — 60 miles, three lochs and numerous locks away. We just have to descend a brace of locks to take us into the North Sea’s Beauly Firth.

I say just, but that involves rotating a swing bridge that brings all mainland train traffic from Inverness to points north to a halt. A crowd gathers as we descend like a submarine in the shadow of the bridge as a collie dog stares on in disbelief.

We gun due east now, soon swapping the Beauly Firth for the Moray Firth, the latter famous for its dolphins. It doesn’t disappoint as there they are in the narrows off Chanonry Point, one of the best places in the UK for shore-based dolphin spotting. They are a decent size too; in fact, the largest and most northerly pod of bottlenose dolphins in the world.

It’s not the only wildlife we encounter as we are accompanied by a never-ending array of seabirds, the odd pod of porpoises and — the highlight — a minke whale. We don’t see the sunfish — just days before we set sail a sunfish was spotted off Chanonry, a highly unusual sighting in these chill waters, but the east coast proves full of surprises.

Nova Spero on a North Sea cruise

Robin aboard the Nova Spero.

Built to take the big seas

As we enter the harbor at Buckie on the second night a northerly wind is gathering strength, never a good sign in this part of the world. As we motor out the next morning the big seas are soon upon us with 3-4m swells and breaking waves.

North Sea surf

The North Sea surf. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

“She’s built to take this weather,” smiles John in the wheelhouse as he stares out at cresting waves he greets like old friends.

Some of Scotland’s small ships tend to be a bit timid; a trip on the Nova Spero gives you the opportunity to sample some real weather. In safety. And staying dry too as they provide full wet weather gear.

scottish east coast cruising

Robin all geared up.

Kitted out from toe to tip I bash around on the stern feeling like one of the fishermen you see in those TV documentaries. I feel secure in John’s hands and doubly safe as there is never actually any time in the five-night voyage when we cannot see land. That said, it definitely helps to have your sea legs cruising in these parts.

waves on a North Sea cruise

Bashing through the North Sea. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Savoring seafood en route

The Nova Spero remains conscious of passenger comfort too, so we choose to take a break from the weather in Peterhead, a huge harbor that protects the largest white fish fleet in the UK. Just on the quayside sits the Dolphin Café — it seems a shame not to try the local seafood. You can get haddock and chips all over Scotland, but it’s boat fresh delicious here. They also offer sole and even queen scallops ‘suppers’ (with chips).

Our passage from Peterhead south to Arbroath is much smoother and even allows for a quick swing around the Bell Rock, where a famous lighthouse has stood tall since 1810. It’s a sturdy brute that not only stands firm against the North Sea, but also repelled repeated attacks from the Luftwaffe during World War Two.

Bell Rock on a Scottish cruise

The famous Bell Rock. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

We make good time into Arbroath, where more superb seafood awaits. This time it’s the famous Arbroath Smokies, which are caught locally then smoked in the traditional wooden houses I visit by the quayside.

Arbroath Smokies on a Scottish east coast cruise

Arbroath Smokies for breakfast. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

They are delicious fresh off the smoker and also when chef Jim serves them with butter for breakfast the next day. He proves a whiz with seafood, conjuring up a heaving platter on the last night of our cruise too.

Seafood on Nova Spero

Seafood platter on board. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The homecoming queen

It’s unusual as a journalist to be the story, but I am, or rather we are, in Arbroath. This is the first time MacInnes has sailed the Nova Spero back to the port where she was built. The wee shipbuilders, Mackays, is still open right by the harbor. The local newspaper is here to shoot photos and cover the return maiden arrival.

I speak to Harry Simpson who was just an apprentice when he worked on the Nova Spero in the early 1970s — he later went on to own the yard. Simpson admits to ‘having a wee tear in my eye’ when her steady bow appeared around harbor walls little changed since those days.

Nova Spero 'home' in Arbroath

Nova Spero ‘home’ in Arbroath. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Simpson explains to me that the Nova Spero was actually designed a little further south down the east coast at JW Miller in St Monans in the Kingdom of Fife. He is delighted to find her back in Arbroath rather than being cut up for scrap: “It’s interesting to see how she looks nowadays. A lot of the old fishing boats were decommissioned and cut up. It’s nice to see a traditional-style boat coming back into Arbroath harbor and actually be used for something else.”

Southwards in search of the Three Bridges

Under brilliant blue skies — and hardly a puff of wind — we set sail south again across calm seas in search of the mouth of the Firth of Forth, the last of the trio of firths we have to negotiate. It’s my home firth too, as I live in South Queensferry (just west of Edinburgh). The sail up the Forth alone is worth coming on this trip.

Heading up the Forth

Heading up the Forth. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

First up are its necklace of islands — the east coast may not have as many islands as the west, but it offers some gorgeous ones. Bass Rock stars with thousands of pairs of gannets, while Fidra blinks back, a wee isle said to have been the inspiration for author Robert Louis Stevenson when he penned his novel Treasure Island. Then it is on to the Scottish capital. Edinburgh looks every bit the ‘Athens of the North’ as she strides in the sunshine across a volley of hills, topped off by its vaulting medieval castle atop a hulking volcano.

Journey’s end comes in spectacular fashion cruising right under the trio of Forth Bridges.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnDFBMBhtLk

The Queensferry Crossing is a twenty-first century wonder, the largest triple cable stayed bridge in the world and the tallest bridge in the British Isles. The Forth Road Bridge was the longest suspension bridge outside North America when it opened in 1964, and its span echoes the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Last, but certainly not least, is the epic UNESCO World Heritage listed Forth Bridge. This striking red iron cantilever confection dates back to 1889, when the car had just been invented and before the advent of the airplane.

Forth Bridges Scotland

The Forth Bridges. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

This engineering drama is a fitting end to my cruise on the Nova Spero. She herself is a fine example of sturdy Scottish engineering, built to last and steadfast against anything the North Sea can throw at her. For now, she is the only small ship cruising Scotland’s beguiling east coast and if you’re looking for a life affirming cruise off the beaten charts John MacInnes and his steady steed await.

North Sea Sunrise

Gorgeous North Sea sunrise. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

map of Scotland

Robin’s route between Iverness and South Queensferry, just west of Edinburgh. * Goggle maps

QUICK FACTS

Itineraries/Fares

Skarv Lines are offering public cruises, plus private charters for single families, for the rest of 2020, with a full schedule of cruising for 2021 now available to book online. The full 10-night return Forth Bridges cruise from and to Inverness starts at around US$4,000 per person including all meals (lots of seafood!) and wine with dinner. (Robin only cruised from north to south one way.)

lobster on a Scottish cruise

Lobster served on the Nova Spero. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Getting There

The Nova Spero will primarily cruise out of Corpach or Inverness and on occasion Kyle of Lochalsh.

These days there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London. You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow. Trains run from Edinburgh and Glasgow direct to Inverness.

Tips

For those concerned about COVID-19 the Nova Spero is currently running at limited capacity (normally 11 passengers), with passenger temperatures checked daily, hand sanitizer available and face masks worn by the staff at all times. Guests have to wear them in public areas inside when not eating or drinking, plus when going ashore.

Robin with a mask

Robin all masked up.

Weather

Scotland is this green with a reason as it can rain whenever you visit. The cruising season usually runs from spring in April through to autumn in October, but Skarv Lines are breaking the mold with some winter cruising. May and September are good choices as they tend to be drier and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect ashore. August is the warmest month, but can also be very wet.

Money Matters

The British Pound is the official currency, with Scottish banks printing their own notes that are legal tender throughout the UK. Credit cards and cash widely accepted.

For more information on cruising on Skarv Lines check out www.skarvlines.com.

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The Majestic Line's Glen Shiel

Majestic Line’s Glen Shiel

By Robin McKelvie.

Eking into the remote bay the dolphins finally leave us, replaced by a brace of soaring sea eagles, arcing in languorous loops as we marvel from far below. Dead ahead awaits a ramble up a mountain path ashore, followed by a delicious dinner of local lobster risotto and a wee dram under the stars back aboard.

Dining on Glen Shiel

Robin dining on lobster risotto onboard. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Welcome to cruising on the Majestic Line’s Glen Shiel, an ideal cocoon for navigating troubled waters in these testing times.

Cruising in the time of Covid-19

Cruising itself — as COVID-19 ravages the world of travel — is a rare joy. Scotland’s flotilla of small ships, which take a maximum of 12 passengers, are able to sail, but of course nothing is quite the same with COVID.

A Glen Shiel tender to Rum

Robin going ashore on Rum. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

I wouldn’t want it to be as everyone needs to be safe — and I feel instantly safe with Majestic. In the days before we sail we all have to fill in a health questionnaire. That is no surprise as one of the owners, Ken Grant, is handily a respected epidemiologist.

We are temperature checked on arrival and hand sanitizer stations are dotted around the ship, with masks freely available.

Captain Peter Watt explains: “We all have to stay safe and that means using the gel. You must wear a mask at all times in the tender and when entering shops ashore.”

These measures prove both effective and reassuring. We are even given temperature checks every morning and Peter also clarifies that the crew are all regularly tested too. It feels safe as we cruise away from the mainland into a world of sparsely populated, or even uninhabited, islands, where social distancing is not a problem. It feels safer than going to my local supermarket.

There were seven passengers, including me, with one fellow Scot and five English people. All were looking for a safe, secure escape from the stresses and strains of these hard COVID-19 times and they found it aboard the Glen Shiel. Could almost feel their souls unclenching as the days went on.

Getting acquainted

Our six-night adventure is dubbed “Skye and the Small Isles,” but you must forget any firm itinerary when exploring Scotland’s wild and wildly beautiful west coast and its islands. Here the weather and the Atlantic are king and queen of everything you do.

For the first day and a half we seek shelter in brooding bays beneath mist shrouded Highland mountains as vicious winds ravage more exposed vessels. Indeed during the first night another ship moored in the same sea loch slips anchor. We hold fast.

West Coast of Scotland

The brooding west coast of Scotland. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The inclement weather allows us time both to get to know each other — a real joy with small ship cruising — and the trim shipshape vessel.

Only launched in 2019, the Glen Shiel is a sleek affair, more private cruising yacht than the monster cruise ships many people conjure up when they think of cruising. She was built at the tiny Ardmaleish yard on the Scottish island of Bute, the biggest vessel they have ever built. I know the yard well as my late dad built his own yacht and kept her there.

Majestic Line's Glen Shiel

The 12-passenger Glen Shiel. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

I have my own family connections to the Glen Shiel, but there is a family feel about her in general and cruising with Majestic. It really is so informal. Everyone is on first name terms with our skipper always just Peter, engineer Chris, bosun Jill and chef Molly.

The Majestic Line is a Scottish family-run company too, who have steered calmly through tough times for the industry back in 2001 and 2009 to offer efficient, enjoyable cruises that still feel personal; intimate even.

Glen Shiel's deck

The intimate Glen Shiel. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Over the years I’ve cruised on all three of the Majestic Line fleet, and soon the Glen Shiel, my fourth, becomes my favorite. She is slightly bigger than the Glen Etive, making her the largest in the fleet.

Like the Glen Etive she also has two indoor public areas: an aft dining room with a large hardwood table that you can use by day for reading, and a fore bar/saloon area with chairs, sofas and a bookshelf.

Glen Shiel's dining area

Glen Shiel dining room. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Glen Shiel's lounge

Glen Shiel’s lounge.* Photo: The Majestic Line

Cabins are fairly spacious, with calm not too “twee” décor and everything you need, including showers that are always hot.

Glen Shiel double cabin

A double Glen Shiel cabin. * Photo: The Majestic Line

Into the Sea of the Hebrides

The bridge is always open and comes with its efficient modernity given a more classic feel with a fully functional wooden helm and an equally useable ceiling binnacle.

Glen Shiel wheelhouse

Glen Shiel wheelhouse is always open. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

It is where I stand on the second morning as we make use of the easing weather to funnel down the historic Sound of Mull (checking out the flurry of castles on either flank as we go) in search of Ardnamurchan Point.

Ardnamurchan Point

Ardnamurchan Point.* Photo: Robin McKelvie

Here the Sea of the Hebrides proper unfurls. Mendelssohn always rings in my ears as I round the most westerly point in the UK mainland — he was so entranced by the ethereal Hebrides that he was moved to craft his Hebrides Overture here.

Muck

Our first island is Muck; it proves a perfect choice. While the rest of the passengers ramble around its tiny “capital” and check out the new café, I break west.

I hit Gallanach Bay where I catch sight of a pod of porpoises frolicking in the aquarium-clear waters off a white sand beach. The scene looks positively Caribbean, but you don’t get many otters there. Here one works his way along nearby rocks on the water’s edge.

Muck beaches

The beaches of Muck. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

It’s tempting to stay and hang out with my new animal friends, but I’m determined to haul myself up Beinn Airein, at 137m (450 feet), the island’s highest point.

Muck's highest point

Robin on Muck’s highest point. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

It’s worth the effort as I get a view of the three other Small Isles (Eigg, Rum and Canna), with the massive hulk of the Isle of Skye (the fourth largest island in the British Isles) haunting the background.

Muck looking to Eigg

Muck looking to Eigg. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Onwards to Skye and Canna

We spend the next two days wrapped in the wild charms of these dizzyingly beautiful isles. It’s a land where perspectives constantly change, along with the light. Islands veer in and out of view, while the distant mainland looms in the background.

Somewhere there out west I know the Outer Hebrides lurk too. It feels like sailing through an oil painting: shapes, textures and colors constantly shift with sweeping brushstrokes.

We’re not alone out here as we’re joined by an array of marine mammals. A pod of dolphins skip alongside playing with our bow wave, while porpoises make typically brief cameos.

Dolphins next to Glen Shiel

Dolphins alongside as Glen Shiel heads for Rum. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Then it’s the turn of the Atlantic big guns as we spot a brace of minke whales nearby. At first they look like giant dolphins, but their rear dorsal fin confirms the sighting; less clear are the orcas we spot thrashing around in the distance, but we conclude they are orcas nonetheless.

Homeward bound

We manage time ashore on Rum, Canna and Skye too, but not Eigg as the islanders there are still not keen on day trippers.

Canna

Beautiful Canna. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

With face masks on in the tenders to shore, and in the wee shops and cafes, we’re welcomed by communities who have had very little contact with the outside world since March 2020. It’s a privilege to spend time on the isles and learn about ways of living that seem idyllic — close to nature, indeed immersed in it — but which must be tough to live on in the long winter months.

Beauteous Sky

Beauteous Skye. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Steaming back south all too soon we again have reached Ardnamurchan Point and in the comparative urban charms of the picturesque settlement of Tobermory on Mull.

Tobermory on Mull

Tobermory on Mull. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

An afternoon and night passes here with a trip to the shops and a cozy pub, as well as to the local distillery.

Our last night is spent moored off the southwestern tip of Lismore, where we enjoy a spectacular, lingering Hebridean sunset, as we bob below a brooding ruined castle, then spot shooting stars and even a meteorite on an ultra-clear night.

Castle on Lismore

A castle on scenic Lismore. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Puttering back into Oban we talk about how refreshed we all feel, ready to take on the world of COVID-19, even our local supermarkets, after a life affirming adventure in Scotland’s incomparable Hebrides.

Glen Shiel

Glen Shiel heading back to Oban. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

QUICK FACTS

Itineraries/Fares

The Majestic Line is offering trips on the Glen Shiel until the end of October, then again from spring 2021. Their “Skye and the Small Isles” six-night cruise is priced from US$3,000 per person including all meals, wine with dinner and trips ashore.

Canapes served on Glen Shiel's deck

Canapes served on Glen Shiel’s deck. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Getting There

These days there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London. You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow. Trains run from Glasgow direct to Oban.

Tips

The Majestic Line has three other ships in their fleet. The Glen Etive is of a similar size and appearance — she is sailing in 2020 through end October. The smaller converted fishing boats, the Glen Massan and the Glen Tarsan, are available for private charter in 2020. All four vessels are planning on running full schedules in 2021.

RELATED: Reader Review of the Glen Tarsan.

Weather

Scotland is this green with a reason as it can rain whenever you visit. The cruising season runs from spring in April through to autumn in October. May and September are good choices as they tend to be drier and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect ashore. August is the warmest month, but can also be very wet.

Scottish skies

When the weather’s good, it’s amazing! * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Money Matters

The British Pound is the official currency, with Scottish banks printing their own notes that are legal tender throughout the UK. Credit cards and cash widely accepted.

Contact

For more information on cruising with The Majestic Line check out www.themajesticline.co.uk.

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gorgeous hike in Scotland

Hebridean Princess: Footloose to the Clyde.

By Ben Lyons

Choosing Scotland for a hiking vacation at the end of October admittedly carried some risk. With weather in the Hebrides hardly settled even in the height of the summer, many of our UK friends kindly offered us well meaning, but clearly skeptical, advice.

“The weather can be a bit… off… then. Bring a raincoat!”

It was on our first full day onboard Hebridean Princess’  “Footloose to the Clyde” itinerary, however, when we learned one approach to the country’s fickle fall climate. Towards the end of our first guided walk, up slippery, rocky hills and then along a ridge line bursting with vibrant golden grass and dramatic views to the stoic loch below, the skies opened up with rain.

John, a fellow passenger and proper English gentleman to his core, simply covered his head with his hood, took out the “Wee Dram of Whiskey” provided by the ship, and downed half in a quick swig. Others followed suit, and, properly fortified, on we marched through the rain.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II Charters the Ship

Carrying only 50 passengers looked after by 38 crew, the Hebridean Princess is perhaps best known today as the vessel that Queen Elizabeth II has twice chartered for a family holiday after the Royal Yacht Britannia was retired. (More on that at the end of the article!)

Hebridean Princess

The 50-passenger Hebridean Princess. * Photo: Ben Lyons

A seagoing parallel to a snug yet elegant country home, the ship is the perfect marriage of vessel and destination. Cosseting and cozy, she is one of those rare vessels that is a throwback to earlier times when ships developed a personality and following all of its own.

Hebridean Princess deck shot

The view from deck. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Makeover From A Ferry

Originally built in 1964 as the Columba, the ship plied the Hebrides for several decades as a ferry carrying up to 600 passengers and 50 cars. In 1988 she was purchased for conversion and a year later emerged as the Hebridean Princess following an extensive refurbishment.

Since then, she has been sailing almost exclusively around the maze of Scottish lochs and islands with a loyal, and well-heeled, clientele.

Occasional summer jaunts have taken her as far afield as Norway, England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales and France.

Hebridean Princess deck

The decks of the Hebridean Princess. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Footloose

While I had sailed the Hebridean Princess almost 10 years before, I had been eager for some time to try out one of the popular “Footloose” cruises.

The premise sounded delightful; approximately four itineraries each year are designed around some of the best walks in Scotland. They combine exercise with scenery; enhanced, of course, by the considerable comforts of the ship. With three experienced guides to lead the way and to help shepherd both the “Strollers” and the more energetic “Hikers,” we set sail from Oban complete with a serenading bagpiper.

Our first morning set the tone for the rest of the week. We had only traveled a few hours from Oban, but found ourselves anchored off the community of Tayvallich on Loch Sween. A few houses and a school up the hill seemed to be the only signs of life to greet us. With the sun peeking through occasional rain clouds, we hearty hikers quickly set off towards the ridge line on what would be a three-and-half-mile stroll.

hiking in the Hebrides

Lovely trekking. * Photo: Ben Lyons

On The Trail

Hebridean Princess passengers tend to be in their 60s and up, and Footloose devotees. Many of whom do at least one, if not two, Footloose trips every year and are almost universally fit and active. They confidently clambered up steep, slippery slopes and navigated uneven ground that would certainly be described as “strenuous” in most mainstream cruise line shore excursion booklets.

gorgeous hike in Scotland

Stunning scenery is business as usual on a Footloose cruise. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Walks were offered at least once a day, including three full-day hikes where the ship provided a boxed lunch and hot soup that we would eat midday.

tea time on a trek

Trekking tea time of course! * Photo: Ben Lyons

As these “all day” hikes were not more than seven miles, my wife and I were eager for a bit more of a challenge. Consulting with the guides when the ship docked in Campbeltown, they proposed that we break off from the main group and hike 12 miles of the Kintyre Way while the ship repositioned to the quaint fishing town of Tarbert. We eagerly accepted.

After the bus dropped off the regular hikers, the two of us were taken further north and turned loose. We began strolling under sunny skies along the coast with the Isle of Arran across the water; in two days’ we would be hiking across that very island.

path on Hebridean Princess trek

One of many gorgeous trails along the way. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Passing through the one-church and one-lane community of Skipness (population 100), my wife was cheerfully invited to a Halloween party the next night. Appreciating the invitation, we had to regretfully decline.

We then turned inland, hiking up through forest and peat bog over the Kintyre Peninsula along a well-marked trail that is popular in the summer. Today, we were the only ones on it. A few hours later, we triumphantly descended into Tarbert, where our fellow passengers, having sailed while we hiked, were exploring the ruins of the town’s castle.

We were greeted with hearty congratulations (and no doubt a bit of relief from our guides that we were safe) before stopping at the local café and bakery. There, Hebridean Princess’ Purser was waiting, hosting an informal tea ashore and picking up the tab for any guests who joined.

It was a wonderful gesture; whereas most companies search for ways to reduce expenditures, Hebridean Princess took “all-inclusive” to another level!

On The Trail To More Adventures

While not all hikes were as challenging as our 12-mile trek, they all provided good exercise accompanied by views invariably well worth savoring. In Lochranza on the Isle of Arran, we climbed out of a valley where sheep and herds of red deer grazed around us. Reaching a pass over the island, we took in a commanding view of the Firth of Clyde stretching below us.

trekking in the Hebrides

The views! * Photo: Ben Lyons

In Holy Loch, a six-mile hike through Puck’s Glen took us along a babbling river with dramatic waterfalls, dripping ferns and verdant foliage that seemed stolen from a Lord of the Rings set.

Puck's Glen in the Hebrides

Puck’s Glen hike. * Photo: Ben Lyons

On our last day, we hiked high above the River Clyde, just outside Greenock, and had sweeping views of farmlands and hedges reaching to the river below.

hearty hikes on a Hebridean Princess cruise

Hearty hikes daily. * Photo: Ben Lyons

guide on Hebridean Princess

One of the knowledgable guides. * Photo: Bey Lyons

The Weather Again

Despite the dire predictions of raging storms and torrents of rain, we found most days to be pleasant and cool with little precipitation. With temperatures in the 50s, it was mostly perfect hiking weather, and any rain that did come was generally short-lived.

The one exception was an afternoon at Largs; there, 40 knots of wind and unceasing rain battered our stout ship at the pier. After a short ferry ride, we felt equally battered as we hiked for three miles over the island of Great Cumbrae. At times, there was scarcely a few hundred yards of visibility, so we had only occasional glimpses of the countryside when the rain temporarily let up.

Still, almost all of the regular hikers joined this walk in good cheer. Not a single complaint was heard; if anything, we all seemed to relish this battle against the elements! It was a tale to tell others onboard, and only made the rest of our drier hikes that much sweeter.

rainy day in the Hebrides

Rainy patches didn’t deter us. * Photo: Ben Lyons

For the approximately one-third of the passengers that preferred a slower pace and a shorter distance, alternatives were offered. One guide always led the “Strollers” on more leisurely excursions. One morning, we were all taken to Ardgowan Estate, exploring a restored 18th-century estate rather than stretching our legs and challenging our stamina.

Those that wanted to go fishing or tour in the ship’s speedboat merely need ask; bicycles were also available free of charge.

Other Cruises

Conventional, non-Footloose cruises often have themes around gardens, manor house architecture or even cycling. All itineraries, however, tend to be geographically compact, rarely covering more than a few hundred miles each week, and always favoring small islands or remote communities over larger towns.

Hebridean Princess zodiac

The ship’s zodiac takes passengers to shore. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

In many ways, the exact itinerary matters little — each small community or loch seems more impossibly charming than the last, and wherever you sail, the experience is often similar.

Hebridean Princess at anchor

The Hebridean Princess at anchor. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

At least one afternoon is usually given over to scenic cruising. Scotland boasts a wild and rugged coastline, and sitting on the aft deck, snug in a wrapped steamer blanket sipping tea or hot toddy, is a very agreeable way to take it in.

Hebridean Princess lounge

The ship offers many cozy spots to relax and enjoy the scenery, outdoors and inside. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Now For the Cabins & Lounges

Whether stroller or hiker, however, everyone was delighted to have the comforts of Hebridean Princess awaiting us when we returned from shore. Utterly charming, the ship has only 30 cabins (10 of which are for singles), and each is individually decorated. Expect draped window treatments, sturdy wooden desks with a decanter of whiskey, brass-ringed windows, canopied beds and, in many cabins, full-sized bathtubs.

Hebridean Princess single cabin

One of 10 cabins for singles. * Photo: Hebridean Princess

While even the suites are not particularly large by today’s standards (and the smallest cabins are inside and amongst the smallest in the industry), each one possesses so much character that you tend to think of them more as your personal bedroom for a week.

Berneray on Hebridean Princess

The Berneray suite. * Photo: Hebridean Princess

All guests are accommodated in the Tiree Lounge that overlooks the bow through generously sized windows.

Hebridean Princess Kathryn reading nook

Reading time in a cozy nook. * Photo: Ben Lyons

A brick faux-fireplace forms the aft end of the lounge, and a bar, staffed by the ever-personable bartender Toby, dispenses complementary drinks.

There is a natural focus on whiskey; the ship boasts over 70 different types onboard, and tastings can be arranged upon request.

Hebridean Princess bar

A wee dram is always in order. * Photo: Hebridean Princess

Afternoon tea, complete with classic shortbread and clotted cream-filled scones, is served every day, and most guests gather before dinner for cocktails in the lounge.

After dinner, a quiet, low-key atmosphere usually prevails with perhaps the Purser telling a few jokes. However, at least once a trip a local band may perform prompting an energetic round of dancing and singalongs. It is a communal, friendly atmosphere that is readily idiosyncratic to such a small ship.

The Restaurant & The Food

For many, one of the special delights of sailing on Hebridean Princess is taking every meal in the clubby, wood paneled, Columba Restaurant. Each couple has the opportunity to enjoy a permanent assigned table for two for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Solo sailors usually join larger tables hosted — at almost every meal — by a ship’s officer.

Hebridean Princess dining room

Dinner is a high point of the day! * Photo: Ben Lyons

Meals are traditionally Scottish — think Welsh rarebit, or lamb with mint apple jelly — and perfectly prepared. Special requests can be accommodated. Fresh local products are used wherever possible — the wildflower honeycomb at breakfast was delectable — and a seafood buffet one afternoon overflowed with mouthwatering choices of oysters, lobsters, and freshly caught fish.

In keeping with the onboard ambience, the ship is very dressy at dinner, and on twice weekly formal nights, black tie is de rigueur. The formal setting and ambiance is a delightful contrast to modern Freestyle dining.

There is a genuine pleasure in being able to sit at an exquisitely set table with your traveling companion at every meal while occasionally leaning over and gossiping with friendly neighboring dinner tables.

The Last Evening Onboard

On our last night onboard we anchored just outside Greenock following a beautiful, slow sunset that lit the sky in myriad shades of cobalt.

sunset from the decks of the Hebridean Princess

Lovely sunset. * Photo: Ben Lyons

As we settled in for dinner, the Purser paraded haggis around the dining room, before turning the evening’s program over to one of the guides.

Dressed in a kilt and clutching a dagger he recited the traditional “Address to the Haggis” by Robert Burns. Alive with gusto and enthusiasm, his rendition brought us all to applause. It was a charismatically Scottish end to a cruise which exuded that same quintessentially Scottish character on display throughout our time aboard.

In 2021, Hebridean Princess will offer four 7-night Footloose itineraries round-trip from Oban, with sailings in April, June, September, and October. Fares start at £4,300 (British Pounds) per person, including all excursions, alcoholic beverages, meals on board and ashore, gratuities, and transfer to and from the ship. See more details here.

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Sidebar: The Royal Connection

The Ship of Queens

by Robin McKelvie

The legendary Orient Express is heralded as the Train of Kings. If that’s the case then I reckon the Hebridean Princess is undoubtedly the Ship of Queens. And not just metaphorically.

Hebridean Princess

Hebridean Princess. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

This grand British dame is a firm favourite with the British Royal Family and Her Majesty, the Queen, has chartered her on two occasions. I’ve been lucky enough to have been on her four times and have gleaned some inside information on the Royal connections during my voyages.

It is easy to see what Her Majesty, the Queen, finds so beguiling about the privately run Hebridean Princess. This elegant vessel is registered in the UK and is British built too, a rarity for a cruise ship these days. When I first stepped aboard I was struck by how much she echoes Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia. The Royal Family used to take relaxed escapes on Britannia around the Scottish islands most summers before she was retired and the Hebridean Princess plies the same waters.

Britannia departs Cardif

Britannia departs Cardiff for the last time. * Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/

When I stood watching HMY Britannia sail out of Victoria Harbour on July 1, 1997, with Princes Charles aboard, it was not just the end of an era for Hong Kong and the British Empire. Just months later Britannia was retired too.

Britannia is now an excellent floating museum in Edinburgh. I recommend a visit there as part of your Hebridean Princess vacation as it really opens a window into the similarities between the two and their shared world of understated, calm luxury.

RELATED: The Britannia Floating Museum.

Britannia museum

The Britannia museum in Edinburgh. * Photo: Britannia Museum

The Next in Line

Waiting in the regal wings was the 2,112 gross registered tonne, 235 feet long, 46 feet beam, five-deck Hebridean Princess. The owners of the Hebridean Princess are understandably discreet about their most famous passenger, but I learned more about her time cruising when I was aboard.

Her Majesty, the Queen, booked this independently-run ship for exclusive use her own 80th birthday in 2006 and then again with the same private hire set-up in 2010 for Prince Andrew’s 50th birthday.

Stepping aboard most recently I found the Royal connection impossible to avoid. Her Majesty, the Queen, still stands proud in the form of a signed portrait of her right at the heart of the ship in the reception area. She is pictured along with Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, said to also be a huge fan of the Hebridean Princess.

Hebridean Princess Queen portrai

Hebridean Princess Queen portrait. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Another visible Royal connection comes in the form of a commemorative plaque, dating back to 26 April 1989. This was when the former Columba car ferry was reborn as the Hebridean Princess. Her rebirth gained an immediate Royal seal of approval as the Duchess of York was there on her big day.

Every crew member I spoke to says the Royals are very comfortable aboard. All of her officers are British, including her current Master, Captain Richard Heaton.

Heaton remembers his two Royal cruises fondly: “The first time I was second officer so as the navigator I spent some time chasing the charts they enjoyed poring over in the lounge planning their adventures. The second time I was the Chief Mate in charge of the tenders ashore — I remember they were big fans of a beach picnic.”

Heaton adds with a quiet, modest smile, “Basically they were just a lovely family enjoying a lovely family holiday visiting many of the places they used to enjoy going to on Britannia.”

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Arch in Cabo on a Sea of Cortez cruise

“Searching for the Sea of Cortez” Cruise

By Elysa Leonard.

When I signed up for Windstar’s “Searching for the Sea of Cortez” cruise aboard the Star Legend  last October, from San Diego, California to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I knew it meant white-sand beaches, crystal blue waters, gorgeous sunsets, snorkeling with sea lions and tropical fish — and if I was lucky, some scuba diving.

Cabo San Lucas in the Sea of Cortez

The iconic arch of Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, Mexico, on the Sea of Cortez. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

Windstar is known for a diverse range of itineraries. Their ships are small and this gives them the flexibility to visit ports that the big ships can’t get to and in turn, enables them to develop creative itineraries that please loyal customers who keep coming back for more.

Star Pride pre stretch

Pre-stretch, the 212-passenger Star Legend in Loreto. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

NOTE: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Windstar has paused all of its cruises through year-end 2020.

San Diego to Puerto Vallarta via The Sea of Cortez

The 7-night Sea of Cortez cruise began in San Diego, and started with two sea days, followed by a day in each port — Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, and Loreto. There  was one last day at sea before the cruise ended in Puerto Vallarta. (For 2021, Windstar’s Sea of Cortez cruise route will be 10 nights and include two additional ports, Mazatlan and Ensenada.)

 Sea of Cortez cruise map

The 10-night Sea of Cortez cruise itinerary. * Photo: Windstar

Our trip was part of a long repositioning cruise for Star Legend as it made its way back to Italy for an extensive renovation and to be stretched. In the cruise ship world, stretching has become a fairly common way to “insert” new life into smaller, older ships.

The ship is literally cut in half and a new section, which was separately fabricated, is slipped into the middle section of the ship, like a puzzle piece. The new and improved Star Legend will have more suites, more dining options, a waterfall pool, more deck space, and overall updated modern feel throughout.

It will carry 312 passengers when it’s re-launched sometime in 2021.

(Due to the COVID-19 situation and subsequent shipyard delays, the stretching schedule has been pushed out; originally the Legend was to have re-launched in summer 2020. Currently the Star Breeze’s stretch and renovation is slated for a Q4 2020 completion, the Star Legend in first quarter 2021, and the Star Pride in Q2 2021.  Stay tuned for updates.)

You can read more about Windstar’s stretching plans for its trio of 212-passenger ex-Seabourn mini cruisers built in the 1990s in a great article by Anne Kalosh, below. (And we look forward to sharing articles about the Legend and her sisters post-stretch.)

RELATED: How Windstar Plans to Stretch 3 Ships.  by Anne Kalosh

While the interior will be vastly changed from what I experienced in October (2019) once Star Legend emerges from dry dock, I jumped at the opportunity to sample the Windstar experience. And so this article focuses on the Star Legend’s overall vibe; its food, service and the quality and nature of Windstar’s shore excursions, which have always been considered top-end.

A Recipe for Relaxation

Having the first two days at sea gave us time to explore the ship and bond with the crew and our fellow passengers. It also helped us get acclimated to our new day job… relaxing. As the ship’s Internet connection was weak while at sea, we took it as a sign to unplug and explore our new home for the week.

Windstar’s Star Legend had exactly the right ingredients for a relaxing small-ship cruise — large and luxurious suites with sliding glass doors, huge bathrooms and walk-in closets.

There were multiple dining venues, including outdoor options on deck, plus a spa, gym, small exercise pool and two hot tubs, perfect for sunset gazing.

The ship had 206 passengers onboard and there was never a moment that felt crowded, never a line to wait in, or a search for a deck chair.

In fact, sometimes you wondered where all the people were.

Below, a video tour of the Star Legend.

The Food — Plenty of Options

The dining options included the formal main dining restaurant, Amphora, where we enjoyed multi-course dinners made to order and paired with wine.

Veranda was a more casual option serving buffet-style breakfast and off-the-menu items for lunch. The Veranda transformed into a reservation-only Steakhouse restaurant called Candles in the evening.

Sea of Cortez Star Legend

Elysa & Bria enjoying Candles Sunset Dinner.

Room service had a good variety of options for breakfast, lunch or dinner and was available 24 hours a day.

On sea days, for those who wanted to dine al fresco (us!), lunch was served out on deck with live music. Delish dishes included Indian curry with rice, a Mexican taco bar with fresh salsa and guacamole, and a burger bar with steak fries and all the best picnic sides.

Sea of Cortez dinner

The James Beard Seared Scallops. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

BBQ Deck Party

Many of the passengers we met were Windstar alumni. They had been on several Windstar cruises all over the world and always looked forward to the famous deck BBQ offered on each cruise. The entire expanse of the lovely teakwood Deck 7 would be laid out for the event with table after table of salads, grills, seafood, hot plates, and saute’ stations.

crab legs served at deck party

Heaps of crab legs served at the deck party. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

There was also live music and dancing on deck.

The crew went to great lengths to make it special, including carving cute whimsical characters made out of vegetables, no detail was spared.

(Note, in the COVID-19 era, food at the BBQ deck party will now be plated and served by the crew.)

Vibrant Cabo San Lucas

Our Sea of Cortez cruise included three Mexican ports on the Baja Peninsula side of the Sea of Cortez, each with its own special vibe. Cabo San Lucas is a vibrant seaport surrounded by many open-air restaurants and bars, and even more luxury yachts and fishing boats.

My friend Bria went on a Windstar snorkeling and fishing excursion (highlighted in my video further on in the article). For me, I couldn’t resist going underwater for some scuba time. I booked a private tour with a highly recommended dive operator, Cabo Private Guide. A private boat with a captain and a dive master catered just to me!

We explored two famous dive sites, Pelican Rock and Neptune’s Fingers, in the waters surrounding El Arco. This famous rocky arch is a landmark at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez.

Arch in Cabo on a Sea of Cortez cruise

The classic Arch in Cabo. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

My tour guide for the day, Adrian, pointed out the beach on the Atlantic side of the rocks was called “Lover’s beach.” The water was calm and perfect for swimming. However, on the Pacific Ocean side, the beach was called “Divorce Beach,” because of its dangerous undertows, rip tides and large waves.

We stayed on the “Lover’s Beach” side for our diving and enjoyed calm seas, beautiful corals and fish.

Sea of Cortez beach stops in Cabo

One of Cabo’s dreamy beaches. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

The World’s aquarium

Jaques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez, the world’s aquarium, and now I know why.

The two dive sites were only a few minutes boat ride from each other, they were pristine and the amount of fish and sea life was remarkable. We saw more than 50 species of tropical fish, which is more than I have ever seen in one day of diving.

Just to name a handful, we saw pacific trumpetfish, reef cornetfish, leopard groupers, Cortez rainbow wrasse, panamic green morays, jeweled morays, giant hawkfish, moorish idol, yellowtail surgeonfish, finescale triggerfish, three banded butterflyfish, black nose butterflyfish, guineafowl pufferfish, sharp nose pufferfish, Mexican goatfish, porcupinefish, Cortez round rays and golden cownose rays.

The environment was healthy with many baby pufferfish and eels thriving in the corals.

Here is just a small sampling of the fish we saw:

Snorkeling, Sunbathing & Exploring in La Paz

Our second stop was in La Paz, which means peaceful, and it was completely opposite from our first day in Cabo. This small, sleepy Mexican town was much more traditional. We were greeted by a mariachi band and escorted to our small boat for a tour of the area and a stop at a small island to laze around on Balandra beach and  snorkel with sea lions.

There were also blue footed booby birds; yes the same cool birds you can see in the Galapagos Islands — they migrate to Mexico in the winter.  

Beautiful Beach on a Sea of Cortez cruise

Beautiful Balanga Beach in La Paz. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

This Windstar excursion was well executed; the tour operators were great and the tour wasn’t over-crowded. 

We returned to the ship by lunchtime and decided to go out and explore La Paz. We found a small boutique hotel with a restaurant that had a view of the turquoise blue water.

La Paz stop on Sea of Cortez cruise

A view of the sea from this lovely hotel restaurant. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

They served fresh raw ahi tuna with spicy cucumber relish on homemade tostadas.

It was the best of both worlds, a morning excursion and then just enough time to do a little more exploring and get a “taste” of the town. 

Raw Ahi Tuna Tostada in La Paz

Our delicious raw ahi tuna tostada. * Photo: Bria Lloyd

Loreto’s Coronado Island & the Sea Lions!

One of the most exciting things that I thought I would check off my bucket list on this trip was snorkeling with whale sharks. Unfortunately, the Mexican government squashed that dream for now.

We were in Loreto just a few weeks too early and there were not enough whale sharks in the area for the government to open the National Park for the season, so sadly the excursion was canceled.

Instead, we joined a trip to Coronado Island which was 10 miles off the coast of Loreto.

Loreto on a Sea of Cortez cruise

Lovely Coronado Island. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

This was by far my favorite excursion besides my diving trip in Cabo. It was well planned out and included multiple stops and cool things to do.

We started out snorkeling on the edge of the island and then hopped back into the boat and headed to another outcropping of rock formations that was home to a colony of very friendly sea lions.

Sea lions colony, Loreto, Mexico

California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) sunbathing on a rock near Loreto. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

We hopped back into the water and got to swim with them. They were very curious and came within a few feet of us. What an experience!

Here’s a peek:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qjSGswTspM&feature=youtu.be

Once back in the boat, we enjoyed views of the stunning  volcanic rock formations that rimmed this uninhabited island.

We then turned the corner of the island and the captain asked us if we liked dolphins. Just as we all said yes, a large pod of dolphins started swimming alongside our boat, as if on cue. They jumped out of the water to greet us.

He slowed down and let us take photos and enjoy them before heading to an uninhabited sandy beach. There, we spent time sunning, snorkeling and enjoying a feast complete with a grilled freshly-caught grouper.

The fish was served with tortillas, fresh salsa, and guacamole — a lovely lunch. Afterwards, we still had some time to stroll into town and do some shopping.

Below, enjoy this overview of our Windstar excursions: 

We returned to the ship for our last two evenings, with one more full day at sea as we crossed the Sea of Cortez to the mainland of Mexico for our final stop in Puerto Vallarta. Our flight home left early so unfortunately there was no time for a tour of this city, just a taxi ride from our port to the airport.

Windstar’s Loyal Fans

Small-ship cruises tend to have very loyal passengers, as the experience is more intimate and the destinations are special and often off-the-beaten-path. Happy passengers come back again and again to recapture the experience with new destinations.

But the extreme loyalty that we saw with Windstar was quite special. It wasn’t passengers taking two or three cruises with this line, it was 10 to 20 or even more. People were taking multiple trips a year, staying on for more than one week back-to-back and they gushed as they shared stories about past Windstar cruises. 

Don’t just take my word for it, you can listen below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkGQwDfAyRc

Since returning from the trip, I have spoken to some new passenger friends who have already booked another Windstar cruise. It’s clear Windstar has figured out a secret recipe for success.

They know how to make their passengers feel like the ship is their ship, with a welcoming crew that becomes part of the passengers’ extended family. Imagine traveling the world with a crew that makes you feel safe and relaxed, and knows you like your martini shaken not stirred. 

Why would I cruise with Windstar again? They have the right mix of casual fun and luxury. The small size means interesting destinations and unique excursions.

2021 Windstar Cruise Schedule

(Note, Windstar has paused all of its cruises through year-end 2020.)

The 312-guest Star Breeze (the first to emerge from the lengthening/renovation) is slated to debut in the Caribbean on January 2, 2021. It will sail on several Caribbean itineraries and then through the canal/up the coast of Mexico and the U.S. West Coast before it heads to Alaska for the summer. Here’s a link to Windstar’s Sea of Cortez cruise options for 2021.
The 148-passenger Wind Spirit is to resume sailing in Tahiti starting January 7, 2021.

The 148-passenger Wind Star will restart sailing Jan. 16, 2021, with Costa Rica and Panama Canal sailings and then head to the Mediterranean in April 2021.

The 312-guest Star Legend begins sailing April 7, 2021 in the Mediterranean and then Northern Europe.

The 312-guest Star Pride will begin sailing July 25, 2021 in Northern Europe.

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Scottish cruising on the Red Moon selfie

Cruising in Scotland

By Robin McKelvie.

In these turbulent times the idea of stealing away on a small ship to an uninhabited island or two with just your loved ones has never been more appealing. Handily Red Moon Cruises offer just that and the great news is that they have just started sailing Scotland’s spectacular coastline again.

Join me now as I take you on an adventure aboard Red Moon’s first post-lockdown sailing out of Dunstaffnage Marina last month.

Red Moon in Scotland

The charming Red Moon. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

The four-passenger Red Moon is a trim, little converted fishing trawler, which was launched by the British Admiralty in 1945 as a general-purpose vessel as World War II drew to a close. She has operated under many guises since and changed a great deal — for example she has lost a machine gun fore and gained a sail!

Red Moon vintage photo

A photo of the Red Moon in her previous life. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

Today she operates as an ultra cozy small cruise ship, lovingly looked after and operated by husband and wife team, New Zealander Scott Atkinson and English woman Mary Waller. They have clocked up decades of experience of sailing and working on vessels across the world, so you’re in good hands aboard Red Moon.

Covid-19 Cruising on Red Moon

The Red Moon at dock with owner-operators Scott and Mary. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Covid-19 Cruising

This experience and a steady hand have never been more important. On arrival at the marina, Scott welcomes my wife, two kids and me with a broad Hebridean smile, but no handshakes as they are continuing to take COVID-19 seriously.

galley and dining table

Red Moon’s interior galley-dining area. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

We have the run of the ship, but we’re asked not to touch any of Mary’s cooking facilities in the spacious galley and to give Scott physical distance in the lovely wooden wheelhouse. Our bathroom to be cleaned daily, but not our cozy cabins. There is one double and a pair of twin cabins, which share a roomy bathroom with shower.

double bed on Red Moon

The Red Moon’s double-bedded cabin. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

twin bed cabin

One of the pair of twin-bedded cabins. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

Hand sanitizer is readily available alongside wipes and regular gel use is a must, especially when going ashore on the tender.

The precautions don’t alarm us and are actually reassuring. We sail out of Dunstaffnage in our floating cocoon feeling like we are escaping a storm rather than sailing through one, a precious feeling these days.

Robin McKelvie and family

McKelvies on Red Moon. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

As Red Moon is only currently available for use by a single family, and takes a maximum of four guests, we have a great deal of freedom.

Skipper Scott explains he works around ‘themes’ so we tell him what we like and he helps us plan an itinerary that caters to our tastes and the weather conditions.

As a Scot I’m well aware that some of Scotland’s island communities are not too keen on tourists visiting at the moment, especially the Western Isles.

This is the only health board in Scotland not to have suffered a single COVID-19 death and the authorities want to keep it that way.

So, we choose a relatively modest plan for our three-night cruise that keeps us within sight of the mainland, whilst still being able to land on a couple of wee islands.

The 4-passenger converted fishing trawler Red Moon. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Wildlife & islands

Bashing out to sea our COVID-19 worries quickly dissolve as we spot porpoises to port, and then hulking bottlenose dolphins.

porpoise along Red Moon

Thrilling to see a porpoise hugging the hull. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

As we eke into a deserted bay just off the southwestern shores of the isle of Lismore a massive juvenile sea eagle greets us with a lingering fly past.

The scene is quintessentially Hebridean as we hunker in the shadow of a ruined castle and gaze out towards a sprinkling of other isles and brooding mountain peaks.

Castle Stalker on a COVID-19 cruise

Castle Stalker. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Meals prove to be quintessentially Hebridean too. First up is a heaving platter of boat fresh langoustines. We catch sight of the boat that caught them en route to Lismore. The main is perfectly pink salmon fillet, which we wash down with a local craft ale.

food on the Red Moon

Mary’s cooking is a delight. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Other foodie highlights include delicious venison, plump monkfish and massive king scallops. Mary works miracles in her wee galley including dishes with lots of herbs and spices flavoring the local produce.

dining on deck in Scotland aboard the Red Moon

Depending on the weather, cakes and coffee can be enjoyed outside on deck, while meals are served inside. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

Our first trip ashore comes the next morning on our second day to the uninhabited isle of Bernera. The revered Scottish saint St Columba is once said to have preached here under a giant yew tree. We walk through the wilds with his ghosts as we make for this tiny island’s highest point.

Bernera Scotland on a cruise

McKelvies on Bernera. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

From here the mists ease for a moment to allow teasing glimpses of Lismore and out west towards the remote Morvern Peninsula.

Scotland's Morvern Peninsula

The Morvern Peninsula. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Onwards to seals & seabirds

That afternoon we make it ashore in Morvern, delving up an emerald glen through the heather in search of red deer and golden eagles

We find them, but don’t see a single soul as we stroll without having to worry about physical distancing for a change.

On our third day we make landfall on another island. Balnagowan is a beauty.

going ashore in Balnogowan

Scott rowing us ashore to Balnagowan. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

We row in so as not to disturb the thriving local seal population. They watch us with great interest, especially the young cubs, as we make it ashore with a beach landing. We wait for the seals to come and check us out as my girls play with seashells.

Balnagowan Scottish cruising

Remote Balnagowan. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

On Balnagowan I strike out for a wee walk on my own and come across the owner of the island. Instinctively I recoil not wanting to offend or worry her. I needn’t have worried too much. She is delighted to see the friendly face of a stranger after what must have been quite a lonely lockdown.

We talk about her — to me — idyllic life on this gorgeous island paradise. She keeps goats and makes it clear I can ramble anywhere I like, but advises quite rightly that I stay away from the nesting birds.

A reassuring return

All too soon that night we are having our last supper.

We had all been nervous about heading out after being shielded away in our bubble during lockdown.

Scottish cruising has been in lockdown too and when we sailed we were the first small ship to get going again.

Red Moon chart house

Robin’s daughter Emma, aboard the Red Moon. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Literally we sailed on the first day permissible by the Scottish Government, July 15. We were reassured, though, by our open and professional husband and wife crew. It was encouraging too that it seems some islanders are keen to see visitors return.

Easing back into Dunstaffnage Marina we have returned with the suitcase full of epic memories that any adventure to Scotland’s incomparable Hebrides offers up in such life affirming abundance.

Scottish cruising is back and it has been a sheer delight being part of its rebirth.

If you’re looking for a heart-warming family-run small ship cruise experience in Scotland, you’ve just found it.

Scottish cruising on the Red Moon selfie

The author Robin McKelvie on the Red Moon in July 2020. 8 Photo: Robin McKelvie

RELATED: Cruising Scotland in the Age of COVID-19. By Robin McKelvie

QUICK FACTS

Itineraries/Fares

Red Moon Cruises have 4-night cruises available in 2020 from £4,800 for four guests all inclusive including all meals, drinks and excursions.

Red Moon is currently only available for single family use with a maximum of four guests.

Getting There

These days there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London. You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow. Trains run from Glasgow direct to Oban, which is a 10-minute cab ride away from Dunstaffnage Marina.

Red Moon map

Red Moon’s cruising area.

Tips

Red Moon Cruises offer a Bed & Breakfast option to stay the night before or after a cruise at the marina. This comes in handy for those who have just made a long journey or are about to embark on one.

Weather

Scotland is this green with a reason as it can rain whenever you visit. The cruising season runs from spring in April through to autumn in October. May and September are good choices as they tend to be drier and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect ashore. August is the warmest month, but can also be very wet.

Money Matters

The British Pound is the official currency, with Scottish banks printing their own notes that are legal tender throughout the UK. Credit cards and cash widely accepted.

For more information on cruising with Red Moon Cruises check out www.redmooncruises.co.uk.

Scotland's West Coast

Cruising the West Coast aboard the Red Moon. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

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emma jane hot tub

The Hebrides by Hot Tub

by Robin McKelvie.

I’ve long been a fan of Hebrides Cruises, whose sturdy wee Elizabeth G has spirited me out to the ultra-remote St Kilda archipelago and also on another adventure along the remarkable Caledonian Canal. Her sister, the 10-passenger Emma Jane, who joined her in 2017, is more luxurious and spacious with plush furnishings and fittings, a large owner’s suite and an outdoor hot tub!

(The Emma Jane was formerly called the Proud Seahorse and sported a red hull, before she was renovated, painted navy blue and renamed Emma Jane during the winter of 2017/2018. Read more about that at the end of this article.)

hot tub on Emma Jane

Robin having a soak in Emma Jane’s hot tub. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Over the years I’ve been lucky to head out on cruises through the Hebrides over a dozen times and have never been disappointed. How could you be when this vast island-studded oasis is awash with epic mountains, shimmering white sand beaches and stunning sunsets?

It’s also an oasis bursting with all manner of wildlife, from red squirrels to red deer on land, through to porpoises, dolphins and even whales in the sea. Then both golden eagles and sea eagles soar through the skies.

Golden Eagle spotted on a Hebrides cruise

A Golden Eagle. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises Wildlife Guide Nigel Spencer

Emma Jane makes the most of all this and I greatly enjoyed sampling the 6-night “Skye and the Small Isles” voyage.

The Hebrides on Emma Jane

The Emma Jane is named for Emma who is the daughter of Rob Barlow, owner and Skipper of Hebrides Cruises. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

RELATED:  Cruising Scotland’s Western Isles.   by Ted Scull.

A perfect Hebridean cruiser

Emma Jane is the ideal vessel for a comfortable cruise around the Hebrides. She only takes a maximum of 10 passengers and she earns her owner’s description as a “luxury mini-cruise ship.” It is worth splashing out on the master cabin suite with its separate sleeping and lounge areas.

On my most recent cruise aboard Emma Jane, I boarded in Oban and had soon bonded with my fellow passengers as we pushed out of Oban Bay bound for the Sound of Mull, gateway to the Hebrides.

At the helm we could not have been in better hands as our captain was James Fairbairns, a veteran of years of cruising with the Mull Sea Life Surveys and an authority on the local marine mammals. This knowledge has been accumulated over two decades working in Hebridean waters.

basking shark in the hebrides

A basking shark. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises Skipper James Fairbairns

We also had on board an excellent young chef, plus an ever-helpful bosun and an onboard wildlife and walking guide for trips ashore.

An overnight in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull allowed us a relaxed walk along the coast through thick forests to the Aros Centre, before it was time to push on to our targets on this 6-night “Skye and the Small Isles” adventure.

We eased around Ardnamurchan Point (the most westerly part of the UK mainland) and managed to make the Isle of Eigg for the night.

Skye and Big Isles map

.

Eigg – a star of the Hebrides

All four of the Small Isles boast their own charms, but Eigg may just be my favourite. It’s a dynamic wee place where the locals celebrated 20 years of community ownership in 2017. Eigg was on form offering up a glorious sunset before a large pod of common dolphins skipped by during breakfast the following morning.

common dolphins in the hebrides

A pod of common dolphins this close to the boat. * Photo: Nigel Spencer

We managed two walks on Eigg, punctuated with a gorgeous bowl of steaming mussels at the Galmisdale Bay restaurant.

Fresh mussels on a Hebrides cruise

Fresh mussels at Galmisdale Bay on Eig. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The first hike was to the baleful Massacre Cave, where the Macleods of Skye notoriously murdered almost the entire population of Eigg in 1577. They blocked the entrance to the cave where around 400 men, women and children were hiding and lit a fire.

Our second walk broke away from human tragedy to enjoy the natural wonder of An Sgurr. This 393m high volcanic plug is one of the most eye-catching mountains in Scotland and looks impossible to tackle from the Eigg quayside. It isn’t. As long as you have the right outdoor gear, plus a map and compass. After a hearty ramble around its back we scrambled up the rocks to the summit and enjoyed breathtaking views out over the other Small Isles of Rum, Muck and Canna.

Eigg on a Hebrides cruise

Walking on Eigg. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Hiking on Eigg in the Hebrides

Hiking on Eigg. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

From the summit of An Sgurr, Skye loomed large and the largest of the Inner Hebrides was our next stop. We anchored in Loch Scavaig, which let us ramble up to Loch Coruisk for a four-hour bash around this deeply dramatic natural amphitheatre on foot. As we eked our way around the crystal-clear waters, the mighty peaks of the Black Cuillin mountains soared like rock sentinels above.

Loch Corriusk

Jenny & Robin at Loch Corriusk. * Photo: Nigel Spencer

Sailing off to Canna

Back aboard, our by now nightly hot tub session benefited from the epic backdrop of the Cuillin as we cruised away from Skye by the wee island of Soay bound for the natural harbor of Canna.

We got ashore at Canna the next day, but not before more superb cooking. Our young chef grew up near Oban and learned his chef skills locally so he handily knew where to source all the best of the fresh local produce around Oban. Every meal was a delight — my favourite dish was the filet of perfectly pan-fried salmon laced with cream and spiced with chorizo.

Hebrides Cruises dinner

Delicious fare, like this crab cake with prawns meal. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

The rest of the passengers made it ashore on Canna after a hearty breakfast. I’d chatted to the captain who was kind enough to tender me ashore on to the neighbouring island of Sanday — the crew are always very helpful in getting guests ashore when it’s possible. This enabled me to hike along the cliffs checking out the puffin colonies on Sanday’s rock stacks.

puffins on a Hebrides Cruises adventure

Emma Jane sets the backdrop for a pair of adorable puffins * Photo: Wildlife Guide Will Smith

I joined the rest of the passengers to explore Canna’s coast before another wee solo hike up to Compass Hill. This brought great views and the company of a nosy golden eagle.

Cliffs of Canna in the Hebrides

The breathtaking Cliffs of Canna. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Onwards to Rum

Our last island was Rum, where we managed to get ashore again. By far the largest and most mountainous of the Small Isles is a brutal beauty.

Rum Mountain in the Hebrides

The peak of Rum in the background of Canna Harbour. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

Rather than tackle her daunting mountains (they offer no “easy walk”), on this trip I opted to stay with the group as our guide ushered us up around to the wee settlement and to the grandiose country house of Kinloch. In the Village Hall’s café, we met some engaging friendly locals, a feature of every island we landed on. They wanted to know all about us and our ship outside lying at anchor in the bay.

We were blessed with our weather aboard the Emma Jane. We enjoyed low winds, blue skies and lots of sunshine.

Emma Jane in the Hebrides

The coast is clear from the bow of the Emma Jane. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

For four days in a row we enjoyed glorious views of Skye’s omnipresent Cuillin ridge. Fittingly as we closed back in on the Sound of Mull the wind kicked up to make seeking sanctuary in Tobermory appealing.

On my last night I took advantage of the Emma Jane being moored alongside and nipped into my favourite pub on Mull, the Mishnish. Over a wee dram I gazed out towards Emma Jane. Already I missed the great company, the stellar cooking, the epic scenery and wildlife of those very special isles, and, yes, of course, that hot tub with a view!

The Hebrides sunset

Gorgeous sunset views from deck. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

QUICK FACTS

Itineraries/Fares

Emma Jane has an 8-night “Skye and the Small Isles” mentioned here on July 17, 2021, from $3,650 per person including all meals, wine with dinner and excursions.

The vessel is also available for private charters, which currently account for about 15-20% of all bookings.

Note, people often book cabins well in advance, often two years ahead, with much of the summer 2021 season already booked out, so do look to the 2022 season to avoid disappointment.

drinks on deck in the Hebrides

Drinks are included in the fares. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

Getting There

These days there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London. You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow. Trains run from Glasgow direct to Oban.

Tips

Emma Jane’s sister Elizabeth G is not as luxurious and spacious, though she is still comfortable, and her rates are lower so she is a better option if you are watching your budget.

After a refit a couple of years ago, Elizabeth G comfortably accommodates a maximum of 10 passengers (8 for individual bookings in four en-suite cabins, and 10 for full charters). She is smaller than her more luxurious sister, but Elizabeth G is a wee charmer, a sleek former Norwegian rescue ship that cuts through the Hebridean seas with ease.

She’s a trusty steed and one who has steered me out to ultra-remote St Kilda. For that reason alone she is a favourite of mine. Read more about them both here.

Elizabeth G & the Emma Jane together

The Elizabeth G & the Emma Jane. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

Weather

Scotland is this green with a reason as it can rain whenever you visit. The cruising season runs from spring in April through to autumn in October.

May and September are good choices as they tend to be drier, prices are a little cheaper and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect. August is the warmest month, but can also be very wet.

hebrides is green

The green green grass of An Sgurr on Eigg. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Money Matters

The British Pound is the official currency, with Scottish banks printing their own notes that are legal tender throughout the UK. Credit cards and cash widely accepted.

Emma Jane Backstory
Proud Seahorse was launched with Hebrides Cruises in May 2017. She was bought from an Orkney family, who were pleased she would be owned by another seafaring family. The vessel was built in 1978 as an ocean going stern trawler with twin Detroit 8v71 engines and Alison gearboxes, typical of Norwegian rescue ships.
Proud Seahorse in the Hebrides

The red-hulled Proud Seahorse gazing over to Skye. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

She was then commissioned for survey work in the Gulf of Suez and the Mediterranean Sea. In the 1980’s she was contracted by the British Royal Navy for 18 years, doing survey work around the coast of Britain and the surrounding waters. She was then bought by the Reid family in Orkney and fully converted into a luxury yacht, remaining in their ownership until sold to Hebrides Cruises in 2017.

During the winter of 2017/18 the vessel was resprayed to match Hebrides Cruises’ Elizabeth G and renamed Emma Jane (Emma is the daughter of Rob Barlow, Hebrides Cruises owner and skipper, and works for the company.)

For more information on cruising the Hebrides with Hebrides Cruises check out https://www.hebridescruises.co.uk/.

Emma Jane cruising the Hebrides

Emma Jane at sunset. Ahhh. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

RELATED:  Back Doon Tha Watter. by Robin McKelvie.

RELATED:  Capturing the Spirit of Scotland on the Caledonian Canal.  by Robin McKelvie.

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bag piper aboard the Spirit of Scotland

Capturing the Spirit of Scotland

by Robin McKelvie.

Want to taste the spirit and beauty of the Scottish islands, but not sure you’ve the stomach for the rough local seas? That’s where a canal cruise comes in. Even if you’ve got strong sea legs, we’re talking proper luxury, world-class cuisine and an outdoor hot tub aboard the Spirit of Scotland.

There’s a well-stocked (inclusive) whisky collection too to accompany your Nessie spotting as you ease through the mountains and lochs of Scotland’s otherworldly Great Glen.

The remarkable Spirit of Scotland only started plying Thomas Telford’s epic Caledonian Canal a couple of years ago. The aquatic artery was forged in the early 19th century through the Great Glen as a utilitarian project to prevent ships having to battle around Scotland’s northern wilds, but there is nothing utilitarian about the Spirit of Scotland.

The 12-passenger Spirit of Scotland

The 12-passenger Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Canal Cruising in Luxury

This exclusive hotel barge takes Scottish canal cruising to another level. She may be 126 feet in length, but there are only a maximum of 12 passengers. That means decent-sized en suite cabins and lashings (lots!) of public space. There is a large dining room and a comfy bar area too, but the real joy is outside with a small sundeck and hot tub, plus a large sitting area up top.

I join her in Inverness and she soon proves to be the ideal way of discovering Thomas Telford’s engineering marvel, which connects the North Sea at Inverness with the Atlantic at Fort William through a series of Highland canals and lochs.

Scotland's Caledonian Canal

Scotland’s Caledonian Canal. * European Waterways

Map of Scotland

Scotland map. * European Waterways

From the moment the ultra-friendly crew of six welcome me aboard everything is shipshape. The outdoor hot tub offers the surreal experience of cruising through a canal I know well. It is welcome during the day after a canal-side walk, but really comes into its own at night when you can sit bubbling away under the stars.

Spirit of Scotland hot tub

The cozy hot tub aboard the 12-passenger Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

History & Whisky  

We spend six nights gently venturing along a quartet of lochs — Oich, Lochy, Dochfour and, of course, Loch Ness — and myriad locks and canal sections. Handily there are two minibuses at our disposable to ferry us off for excursions twice a day.

On our first morning (day 2) we visit Culloden, where the last battle on British soil was fought in April 1746. It was a battle lost to the British Army, that saw the Highlands ravaged and the scene set for the baleful “Highland Clearances.”

During this time many Highlanders were prized off the land and many sought shelter or were forced to leave for the Americas. It’s a moving experience visiting a battlefield whose excellent museum really brings it to life. It also adds context as the Highlands looks the way it does today as a direct result of that tragic battle — this landscape you cruise through is very much a manmade wilderness.

After that dark experience the afternoon is a lighter visit to Tomatin Distillery, a gem of a Victorian whisky distillery (note not whiskey with an ‘e’ in these parts) in the hills to the south of Inverness.

Our private tour and special tasting even manage to win over the timid whisky drinkers amongst us. Over a dram we talk about how much people are looking forward to tomorrow’s adventure along…Loch Ness!

A visit to Tomatin Distillery on a Spirit of Scotland cruise

The Tomatin Distillery. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Meeting Nessie in Loch Ness

Loch Ness is the reason I find that two of the couples on the cruise chose it. It’s well worth seeing as it’s a remarkable phenomenon. Consider for a moment that if you took all the water in all the lakes in England and Wales together it still could not fill Loch Ness and you get an idea of the depth and scale.

Cruising into Loch Ness on Spirit of Scotland

Loch Ness. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

One Nessie-seeking couple enjoy their monster spotting from the comfort of the hot tub, while I’m more interested in the craggy hulk of Urquhart Castle. This 13th-century castle ruin hangs right on the banks of the loch and swims in history and legend. On this third day, we cruise tight beneath the ramparts, enjoying grandstand views.

Urquhart Castle on Spirit of Scotland

The 13th century Urquhart Castle. * Photo: European Waterways

On the Castle Trail

Our fourth day takes us deep into the pages of Shakespeare, who often used Scotland’s rich history as inspiration. The name “Cawdor” may be familiar to anyone who has read Macbeth. We head for Cawdor Castle, which is instrumental in the English bard’s “Scottish Play.” Unusually, it is privately owned. Cawdor Castle has retained its grand historical appearance, but inside it is alive with all manner of modern art and sculpture.

Cawdor Castle

The 15th-century Cawdor Castle. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Day five brings another castle. Not just any castle. This one lies as deeply scenic drive away to the northwest. It is an archetypal Scottish fortress that has graced many a shortbread tin. Eileen Donan is as striking a Scottish castle as you will find, standing proudly cross a wee bridge at the confluence of three sea lochs with the Skye Cuillin mountains providing a breathtaking background. Its beauty has not been lost on movie makers who have shot scenes for a multitude of films here, from Highlander to Bond.

Cruising Scotland

Beautiful Donan Castle. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

On our last full day (6), I opt out of the excursion to spectacular Glencoe and head off instead on one of their bikes. This is one of the beauties of the Spirit of Scotland. You can enjoy an excursion with a minibus no matter the weather, but can easily break off on your own.

You can just walk, cycle or jog along the tow path heading to the next mooring. As I am Clan Cameron, I instead cycle around the north shores of Loch Oich to make a pilgrimage to the Clan Cameron Museum at Achnacarry Castle.

A Thoroughly Scottish Experience

You could never mistake what country you are cruising through on this voyage. It’s richly Scottish; in a tasteful way that I appreciate even as a native Scot who has lived here all my life. The decor is pleasing with tartan and paintings that don’t go all Brigadoon or Outlander.

I appreciated that the itinerary was focused on culture and history rather than tourist and craft shops. We didn’t waste time with a sonar scanning the depths of Loch Ness for the monster, but instead delved into the depths of Scottish culture. 

The cruise reaches its zenith of Scottishness soon after we are all back onboard when a piper appears on the towpath to serenade us. He then hauls himself aboard in full Highland Dress and poses happily for photos. Afterwards we invite him aboard and treat him to a wee dram, which really gets his tall tales flowing!

bag piper aboard the Spirit of Scotland

A piper to serenade us! * Photo: Robin McKelvie

A special mention goes to the superb young, female French captain and Australian chef. The latter works wonders in the kitchen, with cooking that is a real breath of fresh air. It is often light, always creative and features plenty of delicious local vegetables, such a whole leek, as an unlikely but delicious main, cooked in inventive ways alongside the traditional Scottish red meats the likes of Scottish beef fillet, as well as seafood such as home-smoked salmon impressively smoked right in front of our eyes (and noses) in the galley.

Our skipper is expert at steering us through the canal network and ultra-friendly too.

Freshly smoked salmon aboard Spirit of Scotland

Freshly smoked salmon! * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Scottish beef filet aboard Spirit of Scotland

Scottish beef filet. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

elegant dining area aboard Spirit of Scotland

The elegant dining area aboard Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

If you’re not sure your stomach will enjoy taking on the Hebrides, or just dream of exploring the Scottish Highlands in calm luxury, the Spirit of Scotland is perfect for you. Even as a Scot I am totally won over and will be dreaming of a dram in that hot tub in the gloaming for years to come.

Spirit of Scotland's hot tub

Robin enjoying a soak in the lovely hot tub aboard the 12-passenger Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

QUICK FACTS

Itineraries/Fares

European Waterways’ six-night “Classic Cruise” on the Spirit of Scotland starts from $5,000 USD per person with all meals, drinks and excursions inclusive.

a twin cabin on Spirit of Scotland

A twin cabin on the Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: European Waterways

Scottish whisky

Drinks, including Scottish whisky of course, are included in the fares. * Photo: European Waterways

Getting There

Typically, there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London. You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Tips

European Waterways also operate another barge on the Caledonian Canal — the Scottish Highlander. There may be no outdoor hot tub, but she offers a similar level of luxury, is slightly cheaper and is handy when the Spirit of Scotland is full.

Weather

Scotland is this green with a reason as it can rain whenever you visit. The cruising season runs from spring in April through to autumn in October. May and September are good choices as they tend to be drier, prices are a little cheaper and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect. August is the warmest month, but can also be very wet.

the aft sun deck of Spirit of Scotland

Spirit of Scotland’s aft deck on a sunny day. * Photo: European Waters

Money Matters

The British Pound is the official currency, with Scottish banks printing their own notes that are legal tender throughout the UK. Credit cards and cash widely accepted.

For more info, contact www.europeanwaterways.com/destination/scotland.

UK: +44 (0)1753 598555; USA Toll Free: 1-800-394-8630; Canada Toll Free: 1-877-574-3404.

saloon aboard Spirit of Scotland

The comfy saloon of the Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: European Waterways

Spirit of Scotland bar

The bar aboard Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: European Waterways

charming Spirit of Scotland

See you soon aboard Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: European Waterways

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Cruising Scotland

Cruising Scotland’s Western Isles – An Overview

By Ted Scull.

Think Scotland geographically and its Highlands and Islands, Lowlands and Lochs, and people with heavy accents, some darn hard to understand at first, or even after a few days, straining and training your ears. They are friendly folks, to most visitors, and there is no need to launch into Brexit (Scots voted NO) or United Kingdom rule vs Scottish independence.

Let’s stick to why some of us love the place and return again and again, in my case approximately dozen times.

Cruising Scotland

Eilean Donan Castle. * Photo: Majestic Line

My Experience

My land travel has mostly been by train with some beautiful rides between Edinburgh and Inverness, either through the Highlands or along the North Sea coast. One of the best rides happened in May 2018 on the scenic route to Glasgow from Oban, cruise and ferry port for the accessing the Hebrides, Scotland’s Western Isles.

On that train, I met the captain of one of the cruise lines we cover — Trinity Sailing. The encounter can be accessed below.

RELATED: A chance meeting on a Scottish train. by Ted Scull.

Cruising Scotland

A pair of former Brixham fishing trawlers that cruise the Scottish Isles in the summer. * Photo: Trinity Sailing

One rail trip hauled me all the way to the north tip of Scotland to the end of the line at Thurso, a short bus transfer down to the port of Scrabster and a 90-minute ferry crossing to Stromness on Orkney for a stay.

Then it was more ambitiously by overnight ferry to Lerwick, located mainland Shetland above Orkney. And once on a three-night ferry cruise to both chains. The “North Boats” as they are locally known carry more than 300 passenger limit, so no special coverage here but do have a look. https://www.northlinkferries.co.uk/

Some of the QuirkyCruise cruise lines also visit these most northern isles with their ancient and visible connections to Neolithic sites and Viking settlements from ports (such as Oban in western Scotland).

Cruising Scotland

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Cruising Scotland: The Western Isles

Now for visiting Scotland’s Western Isles, the most popular destinations, other than Edinburgh and Glasgow, two very different cities in their upbringing and positions today. They are less than an hour apart by trains with departures every 15 minutes (30 minutes on Sunday). I like both for largely different reasons. Visiting both makes it whole.

Independent visits to the Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides (known as the Western Isles) can be made by ferry and then on foot, and occasionally by local island bus transit, and by car onto the ferries and independent touring once there.

Most Western Isles ferries, operated by Caledonian MacBrayne or Calmac, require reservations, and they are harder to come by as summer approaches, so advance planning is a must. Go to calmac.co.uk for sailings to nearly two-dozen island ports.

Cruising Scotland

A Calmac ferry leaves Oban for the Isle of Mull. * Photo: Ted Scull

In May 2018, our friends (Somerset inhabitants) had a car but we could not get space on the ferry to and from Oban and the island of Mull even with two weeks’ notice. A few islands are connected to the mainland by a bridge such as highly popular Isle of Skye, the exception rather than the rule.

Cruising Scotland: Islands Galore & More

Scotland counts nearly 800 islands in the four groupings (Inner and Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland), and less than 100 are inhabited. Population shifts to and from the islands are a complex topic, but it is safe to say, most have declined over the decades, others have held steady, and a few, such as the larger close in islands ones have grown in population.

A fifth island grouping is in the Firth of Clyde, the mouth of the river that flows west from Glasgow. The sea (salt water) lochs that branch off are the way to inland beauty spots.

RELATED:  Scotland Cruise — Back Doon tha Watter.  by Robin McKelvie.

Cruising Scotland

Paddle steamer Waverley is often seen in the Firth of Clyde. * Photo: Ted Scull

A completely different destination, yet partly within the same region, is the highly scenic Caledonian Canal. Some 60 miles long, it climbs through 29 locks and cuts across Scotland from the southwest to northeast linking stretches of natural waterways, Lochs Linhe, Lochy, Oich and yes, Ness. Fat chance of seeing the Loch Ness Monster but never say never given the sporadic sightings.

RELATED: Spirit of Scotland on the Caledonian Canal.  By Robin McKelvie.

Cruising Scotland

Clyde Puffer VIC 32 negotiating the Caledonian Canal. * Photo: Clyde Puffer

Cruising Scotland: A Fleet of Truly Small Ships

QuirkyCruise coverage of the region will center on the small ships, and some really tiny (6-10 passengers) and on up to 50, that are based here the whole season (May to October).

A few included lines also breakaway to Northern Ireland, Ireland, Wales, the South of England or to the Norwegian coast. Lines whose ships that just add a Scottish cruise or two are not included. Scotland based ships know the territory best.

Cruising Scotland

A Majestic Line ship is between trips at Oban, the main departure port for the Western Isles. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cruising Scotland: What’s the Appeal?

So what is the draw and what are these cruises like aboard a fleet that runs the gamut from being a charming conversion from other purposes, such as towing or fishing, or as a ferry, to purpose-built cruise vessels?

Some retain some character from their previous roles. Cabins are small compared to deep-sea cruise ships, but then it is just a few steps to the lounge, dining area or open deck.

Cruising Scotland

An Argyll Cruises’ cabin. * Photo: Argyll Cruises

Cruising Scotland

Alexander Graham Bell cabin aboard Lord of the Glens. * Photo: Lord of the Glens

It’s a social experience, especially at mealtime where it could be a single table for all or several as in a small country inn.

Cruising Scotland

A single dining table aboard VIC32. * Photo: Clyde Puffer

Cruising Scotland: Mal de Mer

Now those with worries about mal de mer should take note. Inland waters will be calm cruising the Inner Hebrides, while on short open sea passages the vessel may move about a bit. If storms are forecast, the route can be altered to a more sheltered passage.

Apart from longer runs from western Scotland to Orkney or Shetland, there are almost no overnight or open sea transits. In fact, most itineraries will see the vessel anchored in a sheltered bay or cove at night. Then after breakfast, passengers go ashore or the vessel spends a few hours en route to another destination.

Cruising Scotland: The Attractions Ashore 

There are colorful island villages such as Tobermory on Mull and nature walks amongst flowers and plants from there.

Cruising Scotland

A private garden in late May open to the public close to Loch Long, Cove, Firth of Clyde. * Photo: Ted Scull

Visit a lovely tearoom on the Isle of Muck or a stately ancestral home on Skye such as Dunvegan Castle, seat of Clan MacLeod, and open to the public as a museum of family history and island living.

Admire the standing stones and stone circles from Neolithic times such as Callanish on Harris as well as Neolithic sites and Viking fortifications on Orkney and Shetland.

And of course, fawn over the lovable Shetland pony and sheepdog.

Marvel at the ancient early Christian site, dating to 563 on Iona, and take a gander at the birds in the thousands such as gannets, fulmars and petrels. Be charmed by animals seen in the water — seals, otters and whales — and maybe have an opportunity for some fishing.

Cruising Scotland

Puffins abound in the Western Isles. * Photo: Argyll Cruises

Some cruises venture beyond the Outer Hebrides to as far out St. Kilda, a beautiful and remote island; expect some chop. (If the weather should blow up into a storm, the trip out in the open Atlantic may be cancelled.)

The island has remnants of a permanent population, one that extended back for a couple thousand years. In the 1930s, the tiny resident population, numbering two score volunteered to leave as life was becoming untenable. Now, St. Kilda is home for a small military base and tens of thousands of birds as mentioned just above.

Cruising Scotland

St. Kilda, the most remote of the Western Isles, is noted for its huge bird colonies. * Photo: Ted Scull

Most cruises are a week or slightly less, others just three or four days, and a few to more distant islands a week plus.

Cruising Scotland: Who Goes There? 

The operators with number of vessels and passenger count:

Operator # of Vessels Passenger Count
     
Argyll Cruising 1 8 passengers
Hebrides Cruises 2 8-10 passengers
Hebridean Island Cruises 1 50 passengers
Magna Carta Steamship Company 2 42 & 54 passengers
The Majestic Line 4 11 passengers (2);
12 passengers (2)
Puffer Steamboat Holidays 1 12 passengers
St. Hilda 3 6, 8 & 11 passengers
Trinity Sailing 2 7 & 12 passengers

Argyll Cruising
(1 vessel with 8 passengers)

Hebrides Cruises
(1 with 10 passengers, 1 with 8-10 passengers)

Hebridean Island Cruises
(1 with 50 passengers)

Magna Carta Steamship Company
(1 with 42 passengers, 1 with 54 passengers)

Majestic Line
(2 with 11 passengers, 2 with 12 passengers)

Puffer Steamboat Holidays
(1 with 12 passengers)

St. Hilda Sea Adventures
(1 with 6 passengers, 1 with 8 passengers, 1 with 11 passengers)

Trinity Sailing
(1 with 7 passengers, 2 with 12 passengers)

 

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Québec's Baie-Comeau

Canada Bans Cruise Ships Through Oct.

By Anne Kalosh.

Canada extended its ban of most cruise ships through October. This effectively kills the Alaska, Canada/New England, Great Lakes and Canadian Arctic cruise seasons for most operators.

canada cruise ban equals no Northwest Passage cruises

Canadian Coast Guard ship in the Northwest Passage will have no cruise ships to watch over. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Applies to ships carrying more than 100 people

Only the smallest vessels are allowed, those with overnight accommodations for up to 100 people.

The decision had been expected given that COVID-19 is still not under control, especially in the neighboring United States.

“Large cruise ships will not be allowed in Canadian waters until at least Oct. 31,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced during a daily briefing. “This decision extends the one we made in March, which was taken to protect our coastal communities. COVID-19 is still a very serious threat.”

The new regulation is stricter than the March ban, which had applied to ships carrying more than 500 people, including crew.

Canada ban cruise ships to places like Montreal

CanadaNew-England cruises known for their fall foliage are curtailed. Here Montréal. * Photo: Cruise the Saint Lawrence

RELATED: Small Ship Lines Likely the First to Resume Operations.  by Anne Kalosh.

Expedition operators

Also, passenger vessels with the capacity to carry more than 12 people continue to be prohibited from entering Arctic coastal waters. including Nunatsiavut, Nunavik and the Labrador Coast, until Oct. 31.

This means no Northwest Passage expeditions or Canadian High Arctic adventures that are often paired with Greenland and Iceland.

polar bears in the High Arctic

No expedition ships will be taking travelers to see polar bears in the Canadian Arctic this summer. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

canada cruise ban means no northwest passage cruises

No Northwest Passage cruises this year. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Victory Cruise Lines

Coastal operator Victory Cruise Lines, which had earlier decided to field just one vessel instead of two on the Great Lakes this year, scrapped the program altogether shortly before Canada’s notice because there had been too much uncertainty.

John Waggoner, founder and CEO of Victory’s parent, American Queen Steamboat Co., called it “a tragedy for us because the Great Lakes were so well-received, with such positive reviews.”

Canada bans cruise ships

Victory Cruise Lines will not be able to sail the Great Lakes this year because of Canada’s cruise ship ban. * Photo: Victory Cruise Lines

Impact on ports

Many ports will suffer economic losses without cruise ships. For example, the nine ports in the Cruise the Saint Lawrence association — Montréal, Trois-Rivières, Québec, Saguenay, Baie-Comeau, Sept-Îles, Havre Saint-Pierre, Gaspé and Îles de la Madeleine — said the overall economic contribution of the 2020 season would have been $1 billion. This includes direct, indirect and induced impact, as well as 7,000 direct and indirect jobs.

The region had been looking at a record season.

Québec's Baie-Comeau

Québec’s Baie-Comeau will not have any cruise visitors in 2020. * Photo: Cruise the Saint Lawrence

U.S. ports suffer, too

Ports in Alaska and New England will suffer, too. Due to cabotage regulations, non-U.S. flag ships sailing round-trip from the United States need to stop at a foreign port. Without being able to call in Canada, those vessels won’t be able to operate Alaska and Canada/New England itineraries.

However, one ray of hope for small-ship fans: U.S.-flag operators like Alaskan Dream Cruises, American Cruise Lines, Blount Small Ship Adventures and UnCruise Adventures don’t need to touch a foreign port, so they could still sail in Alaska and New England, provided states and communities allow it.

Safari Endeavour in Frederick Sound AK

Small ships like Safari Endeavour operated by UnCruise can still operate all Alaska sailings, as there’s no need to stop in Canada and they are not subject to the U.S. no-sail order. * Photo: UnCruise

Also, their ships are exempt from the United States’ current COVID-19-related no-sail order because they carry fewer than 250 people (passengers and crew) each.

RELATED: Alaska Adventures with UnCruise.  by Judi Cohen.

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Kyles ruins in Scotland

Scotland Cruise

by Robin McKelvie.

Scottish travel writer and the author of National Geographic’s guide to Scotland, Robin McKelvie has been cruising his country’s waters ever since he was a wee laddie sailing with his dad.

While Scotland’s famous Hebrides are the islands that traditionally get all the attention on the wildly beautiful west coast, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Firth of Clyde. These comparatively sheltered waters offer up a rich bounty of wildlife, superb seafood and spectacular scenery, infused with a romance that dates from the “doon tha watter” (down the water) years when Glaswegians flocked here for their holidays.

Today the legacy lives on as a family-run small cruise operator plies these waters.

Agyll Cruisings' Splendor

Looking over the bow of the 8-passenger Splendor. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Rebirth of an Old Dame

Argyll Cruising harks back to the glory days of Clyde cruising before the advent of cheap jet travel ended the popularity of the estuary from the 1960s onwards, when holiday seekers started heading for the sun in places like Spain.

Owner and skipper of the 8-passenger Splendour, Iain Duncan, has resurrected a 60-year-old 20m-long (66 foot) former North Sea fishing trawler to fulfil a long cherished dream, a dream of sailing his own wee cruise ship in his beloved Firth of Clyde.

Captain Iain Duncan on a Scottish cruise

Captain Iain Duncan at the helm. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Iain grew up in these parts on the shores of Loch Fyne, Scotland’s longest sea loch and a wild, sinewy loch famous for its oysters and big skies. Joining him on the bridge as we cruise out of their mountain fringed base at Holy Loch (once home to a British and US submarine base), I quickly realise no one knows the Clyde better than Iain.

“I learned to row in these waters just as soon as I could walk,” he smiles as the late afternoon sun reflects off his cobalt eyes and his waft of white hair breaks like a wave over his welcoming smile.

8-passenger Splendour in Scotland

The 8-passenger Splendour. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Sailing Through the Mountains

As the classic Gardner diesel engine chugs us out of Holy Loch the slender finger of the sea loch that splits the rugged mountains lends it more the air of the Norwegian fjords rather than an estuary just a stone’s throw from Scotland’s largest city of Glasgow. The mightiest of the mountains we encounter on our adventure soars over 1,000m (some 330 feet) skywards. That is all the more impressive when you get to see the mountains emerge all the way from sea level, through a thick cloak of emerald forest and swirling mists, up towards often snow-capped peaks.

scotland cruise landscape

The stunning scenery on “Kyles & the Isles” itinerary will take your breath away. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

You won’t forget the Argyll Alps and the Arran Hills. This is the epic land, after all, that gave Scottish-born John Muir a love of mountains that saw him go on to becoming instrumental in founding the US national park network. Muir actually left Scotland in 1849 as a boy by ship for good from Helensburgh, which we cruise near as we spill out into the Firth of Clyde proper.

Scotland cruise map

The “Kyles and the Isles” itinerary. * Map: Argyll Cruising

 Kyles ruins in Scotland

The breathtaking Kyles. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

The Unique Firth of Clyde

Iain’s own enthusiasm for the spectacular Scottish estuary is instantly infectious.

“You just cannae (can’t) beat the Firth of Clyde,” he expands. “The Clyde is sheltered, with little swell and alive with wildlife from dolphins to orcas, castles and a country house (Mount Stuart) built by the world’s richest man [Marquess of Bute]. Then there are the old resort towns, beaches and superb walks.”

Firth of Clyde scenery on a Scotland cruise

The scenic Firth of Clyde. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

It is indeed a varied corner of Scotland. I’m on one of their short three-night cruises, but we cover a massive amount. All at a suitably leisurely pace, though, with plenty of time for lazing around on the ample outside space, including the sturdy solid wood table Iain had built fore during a refit for the 2019 season.

That same refit saw upgraded cabins so the Splendour now sleeps eight in en suite comfort.

Splendour on a Scotland cruise

One of the Splendour’s 4 cozy cabins. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

The Firth of Clyde islands

We spend the first night at a tranquil mooring in the famed Kyles of Bute. It is easy to see why legendary film director Lord Richard Attenborough bought a house here — it is instantly cinematic.

Kyles of Bute in Scotland

A stunning sunset at the Kyles of Bute. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The mainland and the Isle of Bute ease towards sinewy narrows (kyle means narrows in Scottish Gaelic) as we sneak through safe in Iain’s experienced hands.

I used to sail these waterways with my late father in his yacht and I remember all the isles that to me engendered such a sense of romance — Arran, Bute, the two Cumbraes and the quasi-mystical rock stac of Ailsa Craig.

As we sail between Arran and Ailsa Craig, Iain sums it up neatly as I enjoy a wee dram of Arran single malt: “For me there is no finer place in Scotland to sail. There is such diversity of scenery and wildlife. You won’t find an island more dramatic than Ailsa Craig nor more beautiful than Arran.”

Ailsa Craig on a Scotland cruise

Close up of Ailsa Craig. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

We make landfall on Ailsa Craig, the towering uninhabited granite isle that lies halfway between Glasgow and Belfast, earning it the moniker of “Paddy’s Milestone” (as in St. Patrick). I manage to scramble up the rough ground to the 338m (1,110 foot) peak. From here all the Clyde isles unfurl below and the hills of Antrim beckon beyond the unmistakable peninsula of Kintyre. Remember the romance of Paul McCartney’s mystical “Mull of Kintyre?”

This is the Splendour’s glorious playground.

ruins in Scotland

The ruins of ancient Scotland are everywhere. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

whisky in Arran in Scotland

Robin enjoys a wee dram or two of whisky in Arran.

Epic Wildlife and Delicious Food

The Firth of Clyde may once have launched many of the world’s ships, but today it is more a haven for wildlife. The waters brim with life, from porpoises and dolphins, through to hulking basking sharks and even various whale species. On the (at least) daily trips ashore you can seek out red deer and red squirrels, while seabirds from puffins and gannets fill the skies. Iain stresses you’re always welcome on the characterful old-style bridge — it’s ideal for wildlife spotting.

puffins in Scotland

Adorable puffins. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

dolphins on a Scotland cruise

Watch dancing dolphins right from the boat. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

standing on deck of Splendour in Scotland

Standing on deck spotting for marine life. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

“We recently had a pod of orcas in the Clyde and I’ve had minke whales cutting right under us and humpbacks breaching just ahead,” beams Iain with pride.

Our third night is spent in the wee resort of Millport (our second had been at anchor off Arran), one of the holiday hubs during the “doon tha watter” heyday along with Dunoon and Rothesay.

After a wee trip ashore to a traditional pub to enjoy an ale from a brewery on Loch Fyne, it’s back aboard for another superb dinner.

The meals onboard are memorable, served in the cosy interior or out at that chunky outside table.

dining aboard the Splendour in Scotland

The Splendour’s dining room. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Our chef (who also doubles as the bosun) bustles away, working wonders with delicious fresh local produce such as scallops landed in Oban, lobster from Tarbert on Loch Fyne and smoked fish from Argyll Smokery in Dunoon, washed down with coffee roasted in the Kyles of Bute.

Local Scottish crab and prawns

Local crab and prawns. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Waving a Fond Farewell

Easing out on the deck I share a final dram, this time from Campbelltown, where the Firth of Clyde enjoys a dramatic dalliance with the Irish Sea, in the company of a colony of seals.

As the sun burns down over the brooding Arran Hills there is nothing to break the waters, the calm silence broken only by the call of an oystercatcher, which just adds to the sense of peace.

As my “doon tha watter” Scotland cruise draws to an end I raise a glass in toast with another traditional Scottish phrase — “Haste ye back!”

The Arran hills of Scotland

Looking across to Arran. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The Practical Stuff

Itineraries/Fares

A three-night “Kyles and the Isles” cruise on the Splendour round-trip from the Holy Loch Marina in Donoon starts from around US$1,200 per person with all meals, wine with dinner and excursions inclusive. The vessel is also available for private hire — contact Iain’s son Jamie for details, at the email below. Argyll Cruising offers 9 itinearies from 3 to 13 nights.

Getting There

These days there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London (and some Dublin). You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow, with the latter an hour’s drive closer to the marina in Argyll.  Or you can train it from Glasgow Central to Gourock and pick up a ferry to Dunoon, where you’d need a taxi to get to the marina.

Tips

If you’ve been to the Firth of Clyde already, or are just keener to check out the Hebrides, Argyll Cruising now also offer trips out beyond Kintyre. (The Hebrides are defined as the islands that lie beyond Kintyre.)

Argyll Cruising

When the weather cooperates, the Scottish scenery is stunning. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Weather

Scotland is this green with a reason as it can rain whenever you visit. The cruising season runs from spring in April through to autumn in October. May and September are good choices as they tend to be drier, prices are a little cheaper and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect. August is the warmest month, but can also be very wet.

Money Matters

The British Pound is the official currency, with Scottish banks printing their own notes that are legal tender throughout the UK. Credit cards and cash widely accepted.

For More Info

Contact Argyll Cruising www.argyllcruising.com; +44 (0) 7917 858 545; info@argyllcruising.com.

Scottish travel writer Robin McKelvie

Scottish travel writer Robin McKelvie knows his subject!

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Hawaii cruise

Hawaii Cruise Expedition

By John Roberts.

Hawaii is a destination that invites and instills a spirt of playfulness, wonder and awe. And I’m convinced that a small-ship expedition is one of the best ways to experience this tropical paradise.

So this is how I spent my summer vacation. Sailing in Hawai’i with UnCruise Adventures. Carefree, barefoot, bare-chested and bold.

This voyage was especially reinvigorating, full of opportunities to cut loose.

Hawaii Cruise

John jumping into a great week! * Photo: UnCruise

We spent our days playing in the water without a care in the world as the 36-passenger Safari Explorer moved from island to island during the weeklong cruise — transporting us to a new place each day to play in our vibrant giant aquarium with sea turtles, reef sharks, octopuses and colorful fish.

Safari Explorer Hawaii

The 36-passenger Safari Explorer. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii cruise aboard the Safari Explorer

The 36-passenger Safari Explorer is ideal for cruising Hawaii. * Photo: John Roberts

For a person who loves the water and outdoors, there is no better place than Hawai’i.

It has ideal weather throughout the year and offers an infinite number of activities to please foodies, nature lovers, sporty types, and history and culture enthusiasts.

UnCruise Adventures blends all of these passions in its jam-packed itinerary, sailing from Molokai and visiting the Big Island (Hawaii), Maui and Lanai.

Hawaii cruise with UnCruise

The 36-passenger Safari Explorer 7-night cruise route. * Map: UnCruise

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Hawaii Cruise: The Staff

“I feel that the staff was amazing,” said Sharon Navre, who is from New York and was sailing on her first UnCruise voyage with husband Jeff to celebrate their 35th anniversary.

“We were kept busy, and we like that side of things. We are impressed with how they can take care of everybody, including dietary needs. I would definitely do an UnCruise again.”

The expedition line has been in Hawai’i for more than a decade, and during this time, UnCruise has developed special relationships with members of the island communities. This gives travelers an opportunity to immerse themselves in an experience more representative of authentic “Old Hawai’i” than they would find elsewhere.

Authentic Hawaii Cruise

Experiencing authentic “old” Hawaii. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii Cruise: Connected to the Past

Since 2019, UnCruise now sails all year in Hawai’i, offering weeklong one-way expeditions between Molokai and the Big Island (Hawai’i). UnCruise decided it made a lot of sense to keep Safari Explorer running in Hawai’i all year to maximize the number of trips it could offer to this beloved destination.

We joined Safari Explorer for one of the last voyages of the summer — the end of UnCruise’s first season cruising Hawai’i during the summer months (the ship used to spend summers in Alaska).

Though summer is outside of whale-watching season (which is September until June), there is still plenty to do and see.

Hawaii Cruise: Molokai

Our cruise started and ended in Molokai, an island the big ships can’t get to. In fact, UnCruise Adventures is the lone cruise line making regularly scheduled visits to Molokai.

This island is just 38 miles long and 10 miles wide, and is the place most connected to Hawai’i’s ancient roots. A large proportion of the 7,000-plus residents are of native ancestry who proudly live a simple and rural lifestyle aiming to preserve their culture and history.

At the eastern tip of Molokai is the Halawa Valley, a lush place home to the island chain’s oldest continuously inhabited spot; the first Polynesian people arrived from the Marquesas, Tahitian and other neighboring islands around 650 AD. More than 1,300 years later, you can meet with Anakala Pilipo Soltario and his family who welcome visitors to their land and home.

Hawaii Cruise: Family Heritage

Anakala (or Uncle) Pilipo is the last resident of the valley who was born there, and when we arrive, we are greeted by him, his son Greg and two teenaged grandsons. The two teens lead a short hike around the property and up to the home.

In port in Molokai on a Hawaii Cruise

Uncle Pilipo and his grandsons. * Photo: John Roberts

Each member of the family wears a red kihei, a cape-like cloth that is knotted at the shoulder and draped around the torso. Uncle Pilipo and Greg then have us gather in a small grassy area to show us the traditional “welcome ceremony,” demonstrating how visitors from one village would seek permission to enter another village, perhaps to discuss trade.

Greg stands at the head of our group and blows into a conch (pu), awaiting a return call from his father. We may approach only when Uncle Pilipo returns the sound on the pu.

We then all line up for a “Hawai’ian handshake,” the traditional greeting called honi. This intimate custom requires the participants to press together their foreheads and noses while looking into each other’s eyes and inhaling deeply, sharing a breath.

the traditional "honi" on a Hawaii cruise

The traditional “Hawai’ian handshake,” a greeting called honi. * Photo: Colleen McDaniel

The entire group did it with all of our hosts and one another before moving to a set of picnic tables to hear Greg and Anakala Pilipo speak passionately about the customs and culture they are seeking to preserve. When Hawai’i became a U.S. state in 1959, the process of “Westernization” — which had begun decades earlier after the U.S. annexed the islands — became accelerated.

During this culture talk, we learn the traditional term for a Hawai’ian feast is pa’ina and not luau, which is actually a leaf of the sacred taro plant. Greg gathers a large board and a set of stone tools he uses to pound fresh poi from taro roots. These are family implements that have lasted six generations and are meticulously cared for. He pounds the poi and tells us how the food is a staple of the native Hawai’ian diet. He mixes a bit of salted fish into the sticky lump of poi, and we all eagerly grab a serving from the mound, many getting seconds as the fresh delicacy is passed around on a large taro leaf.

Making poi on an Hawaiian cruise

Greg uses stone tools to pound fresh poi from taro roots. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii Cruise: Natural Disasters

Anakala Pilipo recounts the days of his youth and the small schoolhouse he attended that once sat on the property — a cornerstone still visible under a tall palm tree. There were thousands of residents in Halawa Valley up until the late 1950s. A massive tsunami flooded the valley in 1946, when Anakala Solatorio was six years old. He recalls seeing a wall of water approaching as his family joined villagers retreating higher into the hills to avoid devastating flooding that killed more 100 people.

After another tsunami in 1957 wiped out the taro fields, most residents left the valley, leaving few remaining families.

Greg gives the culture talks and also leads hikes to a majestic waterfall for visitors (heavy rains left the trails unsafe for hiking during our time in the valley). He says preserving this lifestyle is his passion. The role his father had long held has been passed to him.

“Our culture is sacred, not secret,” Greg says. “When we don’t share our culture, will be the moment our culture dies.”

Hawaiian cruise

Uncle Pilipo and his family greeting UnCruise passengers. * Photo: John Roberts

Whether you start or end your trip at Molokai, you should consider spending an extra day or two there to further explore places like the Kalaupapa National Historical Park, a former leper colony — or just relax in the soothing serenity.

The lone resort on the island is Hotel Molokai, a lovely spot right on the waterfront.

This also serves as the hospitality site for UnCruise Adventures’ passengers beginning or ending their voyages in Molokai.

Below is a video tour of Hotel Molokai.

Hawaii Cruise: Quirky Ship Built for Island Adventures

Safari Explorer is a rugged yacht that carries up to 36 passengers in 18 staterooms spread over the ship’s three decks. There are two Commodore Suites and three Admiral cabins that offer between 200 and 275 square feet as well as amenities like a bathtub and hot tubs. So, you get a bit more space than the other accommodations, which all feature simple layouts, small marine-style bathrooms (with the toilet and shower in the same little space), comfy beds, and TVs with DVD players (DVD library in the lounge).

We stayed in a standard cabin, and our room was a tight fit for couples. The layout meant we had to take turns getting into the bed, which is fit into a tight corner area. There is no wi-fi or cable TV. But for this trip, you only really need a place to store your clothes and lay your head in comfort at night, and the cabins fit the bill just fine.

Safari Explorer cabin

John’s cabin. * Photo: John Roberts

The captain welcomes passengers onto the open bridge to see how the navigation happens or to get a good look at the wildlife at play in the waters.

Hawaii Cruise with Captain Tyler

Captain Tyler at the wheel. * Photo: John Roberts

Open bridge on Safari Explorer

The bridge is open for passengers to visit. * Photo: John Roberts

The top sun deck is a wide-open space that we used for a morning stretch and workout with a complement of free weights and yoga mats available. (Note: UnCruise did away with its wellness program, so no yoga or stretch classes led by staff.)

Hawaii cruise top deck

Morning stretches on deck. * Photo: John Roberts

Safari explorer gym weights

Some work-out equipment is available. * Photo: Colleen McDaniel

Safari Explorer’s main lounge is the heartbeat of life onboard, with a bar area and adjacent dining room serving as the prime gathering spots for cold drinks, hearty meals, snacks and lively conversation.

Safari Explorer bar

Drinks are included! * Photo: John Roberts

Two expedition guides (Lauren and Sophy) conducted enrichment talks in this space, discussing marine life, with a focus on turtles, fish and reef systems. There is a small library and game room with a piano and guitar for any musically inclined passengers.

main lounge of Safari Explorer

The main lounge is the ship’s hub. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii Cruise: Food Department

While the ship offers an efficient way to travel around the islands in comfort, the special formula that makes the UnCruise Adventures experience in Hawai’i so memorable is the activities, crew and food.

For a ship with such a small kitchen, it is amazing the array of fantastic locally-sourced fresh food that we were treated to.

Everyone on the ship during our sailing frequently rotated to create new groups at the tables for six, enjoying plated meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Safari Explorer's dining room

Safari Explorer’s dining room. * Photo: UnCruise Adventures

We loved that the portions were moderately sized, so there was very little waste. Many of the offerings were so tempting that we often ordered half portions of two selections (always one meat, one fish and one vegetarian).

Dinner on an Hawaii cruise

Yummy pork belly. * Photo: John Roberts

Check out some of the specialties that the kitchen created:

Thai basil red snapper, chicken curry, Hungarian mushroom soup with paprika oil, Kona coffee-rubbed beef tenderloin, pork belly, corn fritters, seared scallops, marinated rack of lamb, ahi tuna, chickpea tarts and venison loco moco.

Desserts included meringue fruits pavlova (below), ginger lemongrass ice cream and a daily afternoon assortment of fresh-baked cookies.

(I drooled just typing that paragraph.)

Dessert on the Safari Explorer

Dessert is served! * Photo: John Roberts

Check out John’s video tour of the ship below!

Hawaii Cruise: Four Islands & Endless Fun

Aside from Molokai, UnCruise Safari Explorer expeditions in Hawai’i feature stops at three other islands —  Maui, Lanai and the Big Island.

Colleen and I sailed with 18 other adventure-oriented travelers. Onboard was a foursome of friends from Seattle and a pair of best buds from San Fran, with all of these youngsters in their 30s or younger. There was a family of four from California with two college-age kids; couples from Virginia, New York and Florida; and a mom and daughter from Australia.

Hawaii cruise on Safari Explorer

Passengers bonded quickly on the intimate 36-passenger Safari Explorer. * Photo: John Roberts

The group quickly grew tight over the course of the week as we jumped into our exploration.

After departing Molokai, the next morning offered the first of many water activities. We snorkeled in secluded Honolua Bay and spotted green sea turtles as well as an array of tropical fish. In summer, the activities are focused on getting into the water for Zodiac rides, paddling, swimming and snorkeling.

kayaking on an Hawaii cruise

Kayaking is a big focus of UnCruise in Hawaii. * Photo: John Roberts

snorkeling on an Hawaii cruise

Snorkeling fun! * Photo: John Roberts

(In other parts of the year, these sailings will utilize more time for wonderful whale-watching outings.)

The sun was out every day, and the hot temps made the time in the water all the more inviting. So, we all took advantage.

Hawaii cruise swimming

John & Colleen enjoying the water! * Photo: John Roberts

Our expedition leader Lauren and expedition guide Sophy briefed us each night after dinner about the next day’s plans.

Hawaii cruise crew

Lauren and Sophy. * Photo: John Roberts

An UnCruise Adventures itinerary lays out a rough schedule for where the ship will sail, but is always considered an outline and a plan from which we could deviate because of weather or special wildlife activity that the team learns about and is eager to have us experience.

In fact, we depart the Big Island a day early to avoid rough weather that would make it tougher to cross the Alenuihaha Channel and back to Maui.

During the week, we mix time on the ship with time ashore. We snorkel at a green sea turtle “cleaning station” off the coast of Maui (the Olowalu “turtle reef”) and see the turtles as well as numerous white tip reef sharks, a mating pair of octopuses and harlequin shrimp.

green sea turtle on a Hawaii cruise

A big green sea turtle seen on a snorkeling excursion. * Photo: John Roberts

John snorkeling in Hawaii

John snorkeling.

Hawaii cruise snorkeling

Colleen is holding a pin cushion sea star for a moment. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii Cruise: Lanai

At anchor just off Lanai, we set out in kayaks at sunrise and get back in time for breakfast and a late-morning snorkel. After lunch, we got the chance to head ashore to explore historic Lanai City and take a hike to Sweetheart Rock.

Lanai is home to just 3,000 people, one of the pristine and isolated places that you visit on this expedition — far away from the crowds, making the overall experience that much more blissful as you can enjoy the natural beauty in its raw form.

Sailing from Lanai, we encounter dolphins eager to swim on the bow of the Safari Explorer. Multiple pods join through the rest of the afternoon as we make our way toward Kona on the Big Island.

I’m pretty sure that we saw dolphins nearly every day.

dolphins on a Hawaii cruise

Seeing dolphins up close! * Photo: John Roberts

Kona is a bigger city, bustling with tourists and resorts along its pretty beaches. Colleen and I go for a run, managing just a couple miles in the heat before we settle on a gentle stroll back to town, taking some pics along the way. We have a set time to join fellow cruisers Chris, Kevin and Garad to try our hands at paddling the traditional wooden canoe, called a wa’a.

Hawaii cruise wooden canoe

Tips for paddling the traditional wooden canoe, called a wa’a. * Photo: John Roberts

We have fun paddling in sync around the coastal waters and into the lagoon off Kona, taking some time to rest our arms and jump into the warm waters for a swim as well. The wa’a is an important boat in Hawai’ian culture. Long ago, these single- and double-hulled canoes with an outrigger were the sole means of transport around the islands. They are carved by hand from a tree, and the process of building one is quite sacred.

Today, Hawai’ians young and old use them for exercise and recreation and for racing competitions.

Hawaii cruise canoe

Paddling in sync around the coastal waters off Kona. * Photo: John Roberts

Our time at the Big Island included a diverse array of activities, indeed. That evening we went for a night snorkel in the hopes of seeing giant manta rays. We came up empty (frowny face) but were enthralled by the spooky illuminated waters filled with plankton and thousands of feeding fish. Some in our group even saw a rare Hawai’ian monk seal darting through the gauzy depths.

The next morning, we set out for a sunrise kayak along black lava cliff sides until we reached the “Blue Lagoon,” an area where black crabs crawled on the lava formations and turtles enjoying the calm waters and quiet shoreline where they rest and mate.

lava formations on an Hawaii cruise

Cool lava formations. * Photo: John Roberts

turtles in Hawaii

Turtle time. * Photo: John Roberts

Those who chose a skiff tour instead of kayaking were met by a curious pod of dolphins for an up-close interaction.

Dolphins on a Hawaii cruise

Dolphins spotted from a skiff! * Photo: John Roberts

In the afternoon, it was more snorkeling and a skiff ride along the shore where we witnessed thrashing waves shoot through lava tubes in a stunning display of the ocean’s force.

lava tubes in Hawaii

Lava tubes. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii Cruise: A Bit of Chop

With a storm approaching, Capt. Tyler Manning guided the ship back to Maui, navigating some fairly choppy waters. Colleen and I enjoy being rocked to sleep, while many other passengers were a bit worried about how they might handle rougher seas.

We all emerged the next morning, most of us looking quite chipper despite being tossed around a bit. Back in calm waters off the coast of Maui, we took advantage of the chance to snorkel, swim and jump into the water off the back marina and the second-deck platform, which offers an exhilarating 20-foot drop.

Safari Explorer in Hawaii

Weeee! * Photo: John Roberts

We were anchored off Lahaina Town, and most of us took the opportunity to go into town for some beach time and a refreshing shave ice.

Hawaii cruise snacks

Hawaiian shave ices anyone? * Photo: John Roberts

Safari Explorer stayed at anchor well into the night, and the crew put on a wonderful top-deck cocktail hour and dance party. It was Day 6 of our cruise, and by now, we all were getting along like a big festive family.

Jessica, our bartender mixed cocktails. Jose, our hotel manager and the rest of the crew handed out cold beers, wines and tapas. And most of us danced around the deck while the beautiful sun set.

Hawaii cruise aboard Safari Explorer

Life is good for John and Colleen. * Photo: John Roberts

We didn’t want the cruise to end. That always happens on these small ships, especially when you travel with people who love to stay active and share a passion for adventure.

Here’s John’s video recap of his UnCruise Adventures expedition in Hawai’i.

Hawaii cruise crew

Jose & Jessica. * Photo: John Roberts

Alas, the last day brought as back to Molokai to explore more. That night, we had a farewell pa’ina feast and music and storytelling from a hula master at the Molokai Museum and Cultural Center. A duo played ukulele and guitar music while singing folkloric songs. A hula dancer swayed to the tunes. We dined on pulled pork, seafood and pickled veggies.

Our souls were filled with the true aloha spirit of Hawai’i.

Hawaii sunset

Until next time …. * Photo: John Roberts

For booking info, contact UnCruise Adventures.

The 7-night Hawaii cruises start at $5,200 per person and include all excursions and alcoholic drinks.

SPECIAL OFFER FROM UNCRUISE: In celebration of its first year of year-round Hawaii sailings, save $700 per couple on weeklong Hawaii cruises departing between March 7 – September 5, 2020.  Mention code 700HI20.

Enjoy John’s video recap of his UnCruise Adventures expedition in Hawai’i.

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kayaking in Alaska

Alaska Expedition Style

By Cele & Lynn Seldon.

We have cruised in Alaska quite a bit over the years, but we had never done it expedition-style, on a small ship with few passengers, exploring the nooks and crannies of Alaska’s Inside Passage. So, we decided to pursue just that last summer and chose to take it one step further by sailing with Alaskan Dream Cruises—an Alaska Native owned and operated line—to immerse ourselves completely in the Last Frontier.

Whale watching in Alaska

Whale watching off the bridge deck of the Admiralty Dream, Alaskan Dream Cruises. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Offering both “Signature” and “Adventure” itineraries, we decided to channel our inner explorer and chose the new seven-night “Last Frontier Adventure” from Juneau to Sitka.

Inside Passage itinerary

The new seven-night “Last Frontier Adventure” from Juneau to Sitka.

It offered more wilderness and a higher level of activity than many of their other itineraries,

We were attracted to the idea of hiking in rainforests, kayaking amongst the glaciers and exploring the glacial fjords of Alaska’s more remote locations—places the larger ships don’t go—instead of simply watching from the ship.

And, we weren’t disappointed.

kayaking in Alaska

Kayaking amongst the glaciers of Fords Terror, Endicott Arm, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Our trip started with an overnight in Juneau to adjust to the time change and the light change. Yep, it’s true what they say about close to 20 hours of daylight in the summer.

After a good night’s sleep (with the blackout curtains tightly closed), we dropped off our luggage at the Alaskan Dream Cruises (ADC) hospitality desk in our hotel. Then we had the rest of the morning free to explore Juneau’s compact and very walkable downtown, as well as enjoy a cup ‘o joe and some breakfast at Juneau’s own Heritage Coffee Roasting Company’s Glacier Café.

We met back at the hotel at noon for an ADC-hosted tour of the Alaska State Museum featuring world-class exhibits on the history, art and culture of the diverse people of Alaska’s varied regions. One of the highlights for us was the more than 15,000 Alaska native objects that depicted daily life, as well as ceremonial events. Alaska’s Russian heritage was also well represented with varied objects from the Russian colonial era including one of only two bronze double-headed eagle emblems in the world, a medallion presented to Alexander Baranov by Catherine the Great, and much more from the period. We also enjoyed the extensive Alaskan fine art collection featuring paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures.

Afterward, we boarded a bus and headed 12 miles out of town to what would be the first of many glaciers to come, Mendenhall Glacier. With plenty of time to explore the glacier and take a hike, we knew we were off to a good start when we (and lots of other people) stumbled upon a mother black bear and two cubs off the boardwalk at Steep Creek Trail.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQApYMTFzVU

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The Cozy Admiralty Dream

Back on the bus, we drove the rest of the short distance to Auke Bay, the location of the 54-passenger Admiralty Dream, our home away from home for the next week. At 143 feet in length and with 27 cabins, the ship is the second largest in ADC’s five-ship fleet. And, with just 32 passengers onboard for this sailing, it was going to feel even more spacious.

The Admiralty Dream

The Admiralty Dream, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

We were escorted to our cabin on the Upper Deck (there are three decks in total) and given a brief introduction to the few amenities. At 95 square feet, it wasn’t the smallest cabin we had experienced, but it was cozy. With two fixed twin beds along two of the walls, the third long wall consisted of a “shoilet” (a combined toilet and shower unit), a sink and vanity, and a closet. There was a small window next to the door that opened to let the fresh Alaskan air in and to watch the scenery sail by.

Although there was plenty of storage on shelves above the beds, underneath the beds and in the closet, there wasn’t a lot of room to move about. So we chose to let one person dress at a time while the other waited patiently on the bed or headed to the lounge for a cup of coffee. Perhaps next time, we’ll consider a larger cabin option or even a suite.

There weren’t any amenities found on most larger cruise ships (like television and copious electrical and USB outlets), but the beds were comfortable, and we slept like babies in our snug abode.

cabin aboard Admiralty Dream

The basic cabin aboard Admiralty Dream. * Photo: Alaskan Dream Cruises

We then headed to the lounge for our passenger welcome which, with such a small ship, wasn’t hard to find. Our expedition leader, also an Alaska native, did the introductions of the entire staff, explained the ship layout and details, gave us a brief rundown of the itinerary and performed a brief safety drill.

The lounge was a utilitarian space, with a well-stocked bar, plenty of seating, a 24-hour beverage station, fresh fruit and granola bars stashed on the bar and games, books, reference materials and a real-time radar map at the bow. The bulletin board leading into the lounge housed the weekly itinerary, staff bios, daily activities and any updates that would need to be disseminated.

bar on the Alaskan Dream Cruises

The Admiralty Dream bar. * Photo: Alaskan Dream Cruises

Related: Ted’s Alaska Small Ship Primer

Related: Big Ships vs Small Ships to Alaska

Mingling & Mealtime

Once we set sail, we enjoyed the first of nightly happy hours, along with featured hors d’oeuvres. It gave us an opportunity to size up the rest of the passengers, most of whom were fit and active 50- to 70-year olds, although there was a smattering of mid-30-year olds looking for a bit of adventure.

We were looking forward to a unique evening, in that the ship was making its first stop at the company-owned Orca Lodge for dinner. Located about 10 miles from Juneau, it is a private retreat along Stephens Passage that hosts a seafood feast for almost all ADC sailings. Since our itinerary was traveling from Juneau to Sitka, it was a wonderful way to kick off the cruise. Housed in a purpose-built resort setting with all the modern conveniences, amidst the idyllic wilderness of Colt Island and the sweeping snow-capped mountain views of Admiralty Island, it was a perfect spot to stop for the evening.

Alaskan Dream Cruises’ Orca Point Lodge, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Featuring an open and bright dining room, gift shop, touch tank, deck with picnic tables, lawn games like cornhole, a simmering campfire and a beach for strolling in the near perfect weather, it had the makings of a quintessential Alaska evening. It was a great way to get to know our fellow passengers, enjoy a cocktail (the ship operates on a cash bar system, settled at the end of the cruise by cash or credit card), play a round of cornhole or listen to the Native interpreter tell Tlingit stories around the campfire.

When the dinner bell rang, it was a feast of Alaskan King Crab legs, salmon, prime rib, salad, sides and blueberry cobbler and chocolate fondue for dessert.

Alaskan King Crab legs

Alaskan King Crab legs at Alaskan Dream Cruises’ Orca Point Lodge, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

For an authentic touch, they even had the fixings for s’mores over the open fire. Once back on board, we settled in for our first night’s sleep aboard Admiralty Dream as we set sail towards Glacier Bay.

Orca Point Lodge in Alaska

Cooking up s’mores over the campfire at Alaskan Dream Cruises’ Orca Point Lodge, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Related: QuirkyCruise contributor Judi Cohen’s UnCruise Alaska Adventure

Alaska — Day 1

Mornings on ADC offer an early riser continental breakfast in the lounge or open seating breakfast with a full menu, including a daily special, in the dining room a bit later.

In the wee hours, we had stopped at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve where a park ranger and Tlingit culturalist had boarded the ship. So, during breakfast, we enjoyed a birding lesson of what we’d be seeing in Glacier Bay over our eggs and salmon hash. Shortly afterwards, we spotted dozens of nesting tufted puffins, horned puffins, pigeon guillemots, cormorants and more on South Marble Island. There were also seals, sea lions, otters and even a humpback whale welcoming us to Glacier Bay.

This video from ADC highlights the wildlife you’re likely to see in Alaska.

As we continued sailing into 65-mile long Glacier Bay, we spent time chatting with the first mate in the open bridge, listening to a history lesson of Glacier Bay National Park in the lounge, and bird (and mountain goat) watching at Gloomy Knob.

We arrived at Reid Glacier just about noon and enjoyed the view over lunch in the dining room, featuring a daily choice of soup, two sandwiches, a salad or a burger (including a unique and tasty black bean option).

After lunch, we donned our ADC-provided rain jackets, pants, boots and lifejackets and broke into three groups for a Demaree Inflatable Boat (DIB) ride to the gravel mouth of the glacier and a hike along the silt bed up to the mass itself. We were able to touch it and some even climbed its craggy face.

Demaree Inflatable Boat (DIB)

DIB ride, Alaskan Dream Cruises, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Reid Glacier

Exploring Reid Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

After a DIB ride back to the ship, we spent the rest of the day reading, chatting with other guests and quizzing the ranger about the history of Glacier Bay National Park. We asked him why some glaciers look blue (with little internal air or reflective surfaces, the frozen water is free of contaminants and the absorbed sun is transmitted through the ice and returns as blue) and about the mating habits of tufted puffins.

Happy hour featured smoked salmon with tomatoes, red onion and capers on crackers, while dinner was a three-course regional cuisine affair with a nightly choice of two salads, one soup, two entrees and dessert. Baked salmon and roasted chicken breast were available every night as ADC classics. One free beer or glass of wine is served with dinner, but you are on your own after that. As we enjoyed our meal, the increase of icebergs floating by let us know we were getting close to the epicenter of Glacier Bay.

Salmon in Alaska

Alaskan salmon dinner aboard the Admiralty Dream, Alaskan Dream Cruises. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Over dessert, we came into view of the crown jewels—Glacier Bay, Marjorie Glacier and Grand Pacific Glacier—and anchored for the night.

One of the biggest selling points of ADC ships is their ability to navigate and anchor in some of the most spectacular places within the Inside Passage due to their vessels’ small size.

Marjorie Glacier in Alaska

Marjorie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

The rest of the evening was spent viewing these majestic glaciers on the bow and in the lounge, along with commentary by the park ranger. Although it was nighttime, it was still light enough to ooh and aah over the brilliant blue ice and occasional calving.

Alaska — Day 2

After a hearty Alaskan breakfast (think smoked salmon and blueberry pancakes), we donned our rain gear and went wildlife viewing in Geikie Inlet, where we spotted otters and bald eagles.

wildlife viewing in Glacier Bay National Park

Wildlife viewing at Geikie Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

As we pulled up the anchor to head to Bartlett Cove, we enjoyed lunch and a cultural session—complete with stories, music and regalia—with Mami, our onboard Huna Tlingit cultural heritage ambassador. She shared stories of her ancestors, sang native Tlingit songs and described what it was like to grow up in rural Alaska.

Hoonah Tlingit cultural heritage ambassador in Alaska

Mami, the Hoonah Tlingit cultural heritage ambassador aboard Admiralty Dream. * Photo: Seldon Ink

We spent the afternoon exploring Glacier Bay Lodge in Bartlett Cove. The only commercial property within Glacier Bay National Park, the lodge features two Glacier Bay Visitor Centers, lodging, a restaurant, gift shop and Glacier Bay exhibits.

There are also hiking trails, kayak rentals, boat tours, a Tlingit totem pole and a Tlingit Tribal house with an on-site storyteller sharing history of the Huna people and their relationship with Glacier Bay. The evening was spent over cocktails, dinner and an evening presentation on plankton with the onboard naturalist.

Huna Tribal House, Glacier Bay Lodge, Alaska

Huna Tribal House, Glacier Bay Lodge, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Alaska — Day 3

Probably our favorite day of the cruise was spent surrounded by the waterfalls and icebergs of Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, a very steep, narrow fjord carved out by glacial ice within Endicott Arm. With sign-ups for kayaking and DIB trips, all guests could take advantage of both throughout the day.

Kayaking lessons in Alaska

Kayak briefing. * Photo: Seldon Ink

We opted to be one of the first groups to kayak in the morning, in case we wanted to go out again in the afternoon. After a brief safety lesson, we boarded our tandem kayaks and were free to explore the massive waterfalls and stunning blue icebergs up close and personal.

kayaking among the icebergs

Kayaking amongst the glaciers in Fords Terror, Endicott Arm, Alaska. * Photo: Bret Love courtesy GreenGlobalTravel.com.

After a late-morning DIB ride deeper into Fords Terror, we enjoyed a second kayak paddle that afternoon and literally had the waterfalls and icebergs to ourselves.

Kayaking in Ford's Terror,

Kayaking in Ford’s Terror, Endicott Arm, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Warm cookies and hot chocolate were waiting back on the ship (as they were every afternoon), along with happy hour, dinner and communal whale watching from the lounge, bow or bridge as we set sail for our next destination.

Open bridge on an Alaska cruise

Open bridge of Admiralty Dream. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Related: Ted’s Alaska Adventures Over the Years

Alaska — Day 4

Hump day was spent in our only true port-of-call, the town of Wrangell (population 2,400). Groups boarded small buses for a morning tour, including a tour of the well-done Wrangell Museum. We paid a visit to the Native American natural rock carvings that depicted whales, salmon, native symbols and faces of the community at Petroglyph Beach State Historic Site and we also did a mile-high hike up to Rainbow Falls.

Petroglyphs in Alaska

Petroglyphs at Petroglyph Beach State Historic Site, Wrangell, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Afterwards, we enjoyed a fish chowder lunch on our own at Hungry Beaver Pizza & Marine Bar (they only serve their scratch pizzas after 4pm) and explored the charming Northern Exposure-esque town.

Alaska — Day 5

Back in natural Alaska, we spent the morning hiking up to Cascade Falls in Thomas Bay—divided into three groups: active, intermediate and leisurely. With a short DIB ride to the shore, each group took off deep into the rainforest for a moist hike following along the pounding waters coming off the mountain. The active group made it all the way to Falls Lake, while the other two groups enjoyed shorter versions and lots of Alaska flora and fauna.

The violent waters of Cascade Fall

The violent waters of Cascade Falls, Thomas Bay, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Cascade Falls, Thomas Bay, Alaska

The crashing waters of Cascade Falls, Thomas Bay. * Photo: Seldon Ink

The plan after lunch was to take a DIB ride to Baird Glacier, but after a failed attempt by the first group—due to low tides—everyone spent the afternoon reading, napping, watching for wildlife or playing games in the lounge. Happy hour and dinner were pleasant affairs and the evening was spent with a Q&A about plankton with the naturalist and a bedtime story about the discovery of Alaska and how it impacts us today by the expedition leader.

Alaska — Day 6

The sun came out on our final day and we enjoyed an unseasonably warm hike through an old growth rainforest to Lake Eva on Baranof Island. Once back on board, a polar plunge was arranged off the stern of the ship for those interested. A hot bowl of smoked salmon chowder or spot prawn boil waited for lunch afterward.

Naturally the testosterone-leaning member of Team Seldon participated and he found himself questioning his manhood afterwards.

Another DIB ride to Basket Beach and a short walk for those interested was the afternoon activity.

After happy hour, everyone enjoyed the captain’s reception in the dining room, with the entire staff in attendance, the captain holding court and a celebratory dinner of Beef Wellington or butter braised halibut. The evening continued back in the lounge with a decadent dessert display and a slideshow recap of our wild week.

And, in fitting fashion, we were escorted by a group of frolicking orcas as we literally sailed into the sunset towards our port of disembarkation in Sitka.

For booking info, visit Alaskan Dream Cruises.

Read more about cruising Alaska on a small ship.

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