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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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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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Red Moon Cruises in Scotland

Scottish Cruising in the time of COVID-19

By Robin McKelvie.

Few things are simple in the age of COVID-19. Indeed sometimes it’s just tempting to just give up hope, which has happened to some lovers of cruise ship travel as sailings around the world first fell victim to the virus and then were cancelled en masse.

There are tentative green shoots, however, in a few places including Scotland, where it is small ships that are leading the way.

Scottish Cruising

On the face of it cruise ship travel doesn’t look possible in UK waters.

In a statement issued on July 9 the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advised “against cruise ship travel at this time. This is due to the ongoing pandemic and is based on medical advice from Public Health England.”

They do stress that this advice is constantly under review, but it appears unequivocal.

However I’ve just been out on a cruise in Scottish waters . . .

Red Moon Cruises in Scotland

Red Moon Cruises the Scottish West Coast & Isles. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

When is a cruise ship not a cruise ship?

I headed out with Red Moon Cruises on the very day that restrictions for general travel around Scotland were eased on July 15. How?

Well, it was possible due to another part of the FCO guidance that is easy to miss. It clarifies its definition of what constitutes cruise travel — “Cruise ship travel means staying overnight for at least 1 night on a sea-going cruise ship with people from multiple households.”

As the husband and wife duo who run Red Moon only take four passengers — in this case me and my immediate family — we did not constitute “cruise ship travel.”

Scottish Cruising with Robin and his family

Robin and his family on the Red Moon. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

So Red Moon is an option if you want to head out right now. They are good value too with exclusive use — including all food and drink — for four people for four nights from £4,800.

>>Watch this space for Robin’s Red Moon Cruises article.

River cruises are go

It is not just small ships running as de facto charters that already have the official, clear go ahead. The FCO makes a distinction between “sea-going” and river cruises as these generally tend to be taken on smaller vessels that do not have the same risks of mass spreading of the virus.

In Scotland a superb option is European WaterwaysSpirit of Scotland.

Spirit of

Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: European Waterways

It is easily the finest way of exploring Thomas Telford’s remarkable Caledonian Canal. They are cruising again on September 6 with a six-night adventure that will be repeated on September 13, 20 and 27.

You can read a full review of my trip on this luxurious river cruiser last year, below.

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

The rest of Scotland’s small cruise ships

There are yet more green shoots for people desperate to head off on “proper” cruise ships as it were.

Indeed I am booked on two more sea-going cruises next month  on the Majestic Line and SkarvLines. This is possible due to the small nature of the vessels, leading on from the FCO advice on river cruising.

Ken Grant of the Majestic Line explains how they plan to recommence sailing at the end of August: “We are cruising based on our own risk assessment and following all relevant tourism and hospitality guidance issued by the Scottish Government.”

Many matters of policy — especially apparent in the field of public health during this pandemic — are devolved from the UK to Scotland and come under the auspices of the Scottish rather than UK government.

Grant is keen to reassure passengers: “We will have health and safety protocols in place, including weekly testing of staff to ensure they are COVID-free. Passengers can wear face masks if they choose, but this won’t be made compulsory. Before boarding, all passengers and crew will have their temperatures checked and the ship’s public areas and touchpoints will be regularly cleaned and sanitised throughout the day.”

RELATED: Ken Grant is in fact a public health doctor and epidemiologist, and he shares his opinions about travel in the age of COVID-19 in a white paper here.

RELATED: Ken Grant was interviewed for The Telegraph by writer Dave Monk, where he’s quoted saying he’d rather not sail than force guests to wear face masks.

Their first cruise on August 29 was set to be a charter, but now has spaces for the public. The plan is to run using two of their four vessels and make 11 cruises in total this year.

It’s no surprise that they are running their larger vessels, the Glen Shiel and the Glen Etive, which both carry up to 12 passengers and have more space including, I think crucially, indoor public spaces fore and aft, as well as outdoor areas.

Glen Etive Scottish cruising

Glen Etive’s interior. * Photo: Majestic Line

Scottish cruising on Glen Etive

Glen Etive’s stern deck space. * Photo: Majestic Line

Glen Etive Scottish cruising

Glen Etive’s upper deck. * Photo: Majestic Line

A brave new cruise ship this year

There has never been a worse year for the cruise ship industry and it is certainly a terrible year to launch a cruise ship. That is the unfortunate position that SkarvLines have found themselves in. This is the first year for their 11-passenger Nova Spero, a converted fishing boat.

Skarv Lines cruising Scotland

The 11-passenger converted trawler Nova Spero. * Photo: Skarv Lines

For months they must have worried that they would not even be able to make their maiden passenger voyage in 2020, but now they are slated to set sail in September and I will be on one of their first voyages.

I spoke to their owner, who is excited at the prospect of finally getting going.

“Honestly, we can’t wait. We have spent a fair bit of time during lock-down working out social distancing measures and we’re happy that we’ve got it covered. Safety has always been of paramount importance and once the sea air has blown away any thoughts of COVID-19 I am sure we’ll all get along just fine,” said John MacInnes.

MacInnes provides a useful overview of how cruising more generally might be in the time of COVID-19:

“For the remainder of this year, we are limiting the number of guests on board and we’re offering single occupancy of cabins for no supplement. This reduced capacity means we can spread guests out more evenly throughout the boat with the required two-metre distancing enabled. Crew/passengers will be wearing PPE throughout the cruise (masks will be worn by all when outside cabins) and we will have strict cleaning regimens in place for public areas and shared shower rooms/toilets as well as all high-touch surfaces using COVID-effective biocidal cleaning sprays. All towels and linens will be washed at a minimum of 60 °C degrees.”

Lounge of Nova Spero

Nova Spero’s lounge. Photo: Skarv Lines

“Meals will be taken with increased spacing at tables. Payments will all be handled in advance or by contactless card transaction. Guests will be asked to complete a health questionnaire before arrival and as part of this they will need to agree to allow personal contact in the event of an emergency. Other than that, the guest experience will be much as normal and we still strongly believe a cruise on Nova Spero will be truly unforgettable.”

decks of Nova Spero

The Nova Spero. Photo: Skarv Lines

What about the others?

Not everyone has committed to cruising yet. Iain Duncan of Argyll Cruising is being more cautious, but still optimistic.

“We’re not out cruising ourselves at the moment. We too are waiting for word from the FCO and Department of Transport. We are hoping that we will be allowed out come September and resume cruising from 12th Sept to end of October 2020,” Duncan says.

RELATED: Back Doon the Watter, a Cruise on Argyll’s 8-pax Splendour. by Robin McKelvie

RELATED: Check out the Argyll experience below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW1icMOPbTA

 

One cruise line that definitely won’t be heading out is St. Hilda Sea Adventures, a company that runs a trio of characterful small ships. They may not be sailing, but they are showing impressive flexibility by now offering their vessels for stationary self-catering breaks.

If you’re not comfortable about cruising at the moment this is an option to get a slice of that romantic cruising ambience.

Seahorse II in Scottish waters

St. Hilda’s 11-pax Seahourse II. * Photo: St Hilda

Good news on the horizon

Hebridean Island Cruises, who operate the glorious 50-passenger Hebridean Princess, may have cancelled all sailings aboard the favourite cruise ship of British Royalty, but they have good news too.

In mid-August they announced that they have bought the plush Lord of the Glens, which cruises Scotland’s Caledonian Canal and isles. Look out for a step up in luxury as they strive to bring her up to a similar level as the Hebridean Princess next year.

Lord of the Glens update

Scottish yacht Lord of the Glens has a new owner. * Photo: Magna Carta Steamship Co.

RELATED: Lord of the Glens is Sold.  by Ted Scull

Looking ahead there is further good news.

All of the cruise companies I spoke to are planning on running full programmes in 2021, COVID-19 dependent of course.

With an eye perhaps on revenue, some are offering earlier than usual booking into 2022 and offering new programmes.

A shining example is the Majestic Line, who have announced that they are to be the first small-ship company (with vessels under 12 passengers) to pioneer trips out to the remarkable Orkney Isles off the northern tip of Scotland in 2022.

Amidst an ocean of depressing cruise news, Scotland’s small ships are plotting an impressively optimistic course for the future. Watch this space.

Cruising Scotland

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

Note

Before booking any Scottish cruise it is essential to check all of the constantly under review COVID-19 travel restrictions not only to the UK, but Scotland too as they can vary. Also it is essential to check the guidelines on spending time in Scotland safely in the time of COVID-19 as regulations again vary from England and other parts of the UK.

Clear advice is available on the Scottish Government website at https://www.gov.scot/collections/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance/.

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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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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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First Small-Ship Cruise

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise

By Ted Scull.

Heading into my senior year in college, I had one empty slot to round out my final academic schedule. Sitting with a good friend one day, we both decided to study Russian, the language. We were bound for Europe in the months after graduation, and the professor, though known to be a tough taskmaster, also had a great reputation.

At the end of the first day of class when we had been introduced to the Russian alphabet and how the letters were pronounced, Dr. B. gave us our assignment. Be prepared for a quiz, and if you passed to his satisfaction, you could continue, otherwise you will have to find another course to complete your credits.

We attacked the task with relish and stayed up half the night testing each other, and the next day we returned to class and passed muster. A few fell by the wayside.

The language study included quite a lot of Russian history and politics, and I became so intrigued by the world’s other superpower, I decided to plan a trip there. After graduation from college, I had six weeks between a summer job and starting an academic year abroad in Paris. My friend Bob planned a motorcycle trip deep into Eastern Europe, and we would rendezvous in Paris in October.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Russian riverboat AMUR, named after a river in eastern Siberia.

Heading off to Europe

After graduation, I sailed over on the German liner Hanseatic and connected to the boat train for Paris where I stashed my belongings, those not needed for traveling east. At Gare de L’Est I boarded an overnight train for Prague, the start of a month and a half of travel. The next day, while I was beginning lunch in the restaurant car, we made a stop at Pilsen. Cartons of Pilsner beer came aboard, my favorite foreign beer at home.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Prague (Praha) Central Station. * Photo: Ted Scull

Arriving at Prague Central Station late in the day, I had failed to look up where my hotel was located. So, I showed the taxi driver the name, Esplanade, and we took a strange meandering route arriving at my destination about 15 minutes later. When I entered my hotel room, I looked out the window and what did I see – the railway station just two blocks away.

I stayed two full days, seeing the city on foot, and while a beautiful and intriguing place, it had nowhere near the bustle and excitement of Paris. The train to Vienna took just four hours and there I teamed up with another college friend and his new wife for a Danube River cruise all the way to the Black Sea and onward by overnight ship to Yalta.

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Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise: Vienna & Boarding the Riverboat

All travel from now was through Intourist, the Russian government travel agency. One either picked the tourist or first-class level and the hotel charge included three meals a day. It was only permitted to stay in cities on the Intourist list, and the major ones had a limit of five days. Yalta, an inexpensive resort town, permitted up to four weeks. For travel between most cities, you could choose to fly or take the train.

First Small-Sip Cruise

Russian riverboat AMUR at a landing along the Danube, * Photo: Ted Scull

Two nights in Vienna revealed a stunning city of art, music and architecture, and its lively atmosphere would be hard to match in the Czechoslovakian, Yugoslavian, Romanian and Bulgarian cities in route to the Black Sea.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Vienna where private palaces and grounds are opened to the public. * Photo: Ted Scull

The Soviet-owned riverboat Amur (named after a river is eastern Siberia) we boarded had been built on the Danube as one of a pair, qualifying as war reparations for the damage done to Russia in WWII. Its purpose was to bring foreign currency to an economically struggling Russia. The riverboat was white with a red stripe along the main deck and hammer and sickle on the funnel.

Passengers occupied three decks, one full deck of windowed outside twin-bedded cabins with private facilities, and a second higher deck with more cabins, an observation lounge, large windowed dining saloon, and a bar. A wraparound promenade allowed complete circumnavigations. Open space included a large portion of the top (navigating) deck and a small area at the bow one level below.

Danube River

The Danube River & the Black Sea.

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise: Settling In

My first riverboat, fairly new and seemingly well-maintained, was a pleasant surprise, but then I had no idea really know what to expect. Upon casting off, we had some 60 passengers, about half capacity but then it was near the season’s end.

Dinner, however, got off to a shaky start. We were amongst the last to board, and there was no place for us to sit together at the long, shared table. As we knew no one and heard no English spoken among the others, we stood there looking helpless. Eventually one of the stewardesses came to our rescue, and I launched into my first attempt with Russian. She smiled patiently and moved around some chairs and set up a table for three off to one side. After that we would be assigned seats together at the main table. We did meet a few of the European passengers, but overall, not much English was spoken.

The food was decent and forgettable: soup, some sort of meat (occasionally fish), potatoes, and a vegetable for lunch and dinner. Breakfast offered a dollop of large lump red caviar, bread and a boiled egg. Drink choices were soda, beer and wine.

Our ports were Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade, Iron Gate (passage), Giurgiu, and Ismail.

The Iron Gate

The Iron Gate today has been tamed by a dam and locks.* Photo: Ted Scull

The real excitement began the next morning when we were underway. I had never sailed along a major river before, not even in a small boat, and this river was just amazing, taking us from Central Europe through the Balkans to the Black Sea, from democracies to Communist dictatorships. The era was the height of the so-called Cold War — for some, us against them, but it was more complicated than that. One could not simply say that Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania could be lumped together willy-nilly or that all four felt the same toward Moscow, capital of Russia and the Soviet Union.

Communist propaganda

Communist propaganda showing a heroic worker shoveling land mines marked US. * Photo: Ted Scull

RELATED: Mother Russia River Cruising.  by Ted Scull

Tricky Navigation

Back to the Danube. We were going with the flow and moving rather fast. From time to time we came up behind slower traffic such as powered barges and others that needed a tug to push or pull the load. They needed to be overtaken, and at the same time make sure there was enough room to pass, and taking into account the bends in the river, plus if anything was coming upstream.

First Small-Ship Cruise

A twin funnel sidewheel towboat down bound on the Danube. * Photo: Ted Scull

Barges and tows moved very slowly, and for the most part we were faster, bigger and more maneuverable. Cargoes consisted of coal, iron ore, rock, gravel, petroleum products, lumber and grain.

Following a few meets and overtakings, I began to realize that people actually made their homes on the barges. Clothes lines had laundry drying, some carried bicycles, and others an open deck for relaxing, attractively surrounded by plants.

Our vessel had an illustrated booklet of national flags so we could understand where the traffic came from or was going to. The Rhine-Main Canal was not open yet so southern Germany was as far inland as one could go.

During the day we passed the upbound sistership Donau with an exchange of whistles. Curiously, there were no cheers or waves between the sisterships, just people lining the railings. And we never saw another riverboat.

First Small-Ship Cruise

AMUR’s sistership DONAU (Danube) heading upriver. * Photo: Ted Scull

Bratislava

Our first port was Bratislava, a major city in Czechoslovakia, and before that a longtime German city with the name Pressburg. The Ottoman Empire attacked many cities along the Danube using it as the conquering route inland, but Pressburg never fell.

Because we were the only native English-speaking passengers on the boat, we were pretty much on our own, so we made our own way from the landing to the attractive city center and main square, churches that dated to the 14th and 15th century. Making a loop, we passed through small squares and along narrow lanes that led to wide boulevards. A fortified citadel towered over the city, but then there was not the buzz there is today.

Budapest (Two Cities)

Budapest was altogether different. Originally two cities, Buda and Pest were separated by the Danube, with the former overlooking the more important side with an imposing gothic-style Parliament modeled after the British counterpart fronting on the river.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Gothic-style Parliament building, modeled after the Btitish Parliament fronting on the Danube at Budapest. * Photo: Ted Scull taken aboard riverboat AMUR

Impressed by this architecturally rich city, we set out from the Pest side where riverboats dock today. Once a wealthy city, Budapest built the first subway in Continental Europe, had the first public telephone system and first telephone exchange, and stimulated by an order from the Parliament builders, the first mass production of light bulbs.

We zigzagged amongst the monumental buildings, many in Art Nouveau style, crossing to Buda on one suspension bridge to then climb up to the medieval battlements to a viewpoint overlooking the Danube. Winding back down, we took in the famous Gellert Hotel and its spa to then to cross back over a handsome suspension bridge decorated with tongue-less lion statues. The architect was said to have committed suicide when he saw the empty mouths at the opening ceremony.

Belgrade

For the stop at Belgrade, Yugoslavia’s capital, Marshal Tito, the dictator, did his best to keep the Soviet Union at bay. We tied up in a small cove off the main channel and had a bit of a climb to reach the city center. The city has foundations of many previous incarnations.

Belgrade experienced 115 major battles, and since Roman rule, has been completely destroyed 44 times, had 40 different names and served as a capital of five different states. It was a bit much to even try to take but a superficial overview in the time allotted.

First Small-Ship Cruise

It’s a bit of a climb from the Danube to the center of Belgrade. * Photo: Ted Scull

Drama at the Iron Gate

Continuing on down the Danube, we next came to the Iron Gate, a dramatic series of gorges created by the Transylvanian Alps crossing the river. The Danube changes its character to a rapidly flowing torrent with waters roughed up by its narrowing and dropping fast enough to create dangerous rapids. Our pace quickened, and I could sense tension in my body. To the left we passed a pair of steam locomotives standing by to haul the upriver traffic. Now, for safety reasons, that traffic had stopped to permit the downriver traffic to pass.

Today, the rapids have now been tamed by dams and locks providing safe navigation and hydroelectricity. The passage is scenic and safer but no longer genuinely dramatic.

Welcome to Romania (Not)

Cruising overnight, the Amur eased up to a landing marked Giurgiu, a river port with road access to Bucharest, the Romanian capital. Across the river was the port of Ruse in Bulgaria. Our crew had the lines ready to hand over to the Romanian receivers but they just stood there looking at us. With our boat now alongside the floating landing stage, the captain ordered the crew to jump ashore and tie up the boat.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Landing station at Giurgiu, Romania before troops arrived to prevent going ashore. * Photo: Ted Scull

The men hesitated, and then without any warning, a contingent of Romanian soldiers marched around both sides of the terminal and stood at attention. A Romanian officer yelled something across to our captain, now standing outside the pilothouse, first in Romanian (a Romance and not a Slavic language). There was silence, and the Romanian officer gave an order, and his troops lowered their weapons then took several thumping steps forward.

That was it, we were not welcome. Our captain rang the telegraph, and we moved off the landing and made a wide arc to dock at Ruse, across the river in Bulgaria.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Ruse, Bulgaria’s most prominent government, a billboard to post portraits of heroic leaders. The red letters are a salute to the 9th of September. * Photo: Ted Scull

Not Wanted

The Romanian demonstration provided an official snub against Russia, something that increasingly became a pattern prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union many years later. As the Bulgarian stop was scheduled for the upriver transit, nothing was planned, so we simply spent a few hours ashore wandering through a sleepy, medium-size Bulgarian river city.

With a full moon rising above the river, we proceeded in the growing darkness, and during the night, the Danube would turn north and then east through Romanian territory. In the morning we eased over to a landing at Ismail, a Romanian port about 50 miles in from the Black Sea.

RELATED:  Cruising the Danube River on the New AMA Magna.  by Gene Sloan.

RELATED:  Beer & Biking on the Danube River with Scenic.  by John Roberts.

Changing from a Boat to a Ship (Small)

The Amur pulled up astern of the small Soviet passenger vessel Kolchida. Those who were leaving here, including our trio, disembarked and walked forward a few hundred feet to the Black Sea ship and boarded for our one-night voyage.

We sailed about an hour later through the marshy, flat Danube Delta. There were lots of birds about and still enough evening light when the ship sailed out into the Black Sea for the overnight sail to Yalta.

The Kolchida on the Danube

The Kolchida.* Photo: Ted Scull

Chess, and the Winner Is …

Some Russians my age approached me asking, in Russian, if I played chess, and when I indicated yes, they set up a table at the stern. About a dozen others, college students returning home, surrounded the two players. Everything happened so fast, with my Russian opponent moving his pieces very quickly. I did not play that way. I concentrated as hard as I could and tried not to take too long, and after about 20 minutes, I had him in checkmate. I was not sure how it all happened. Did he let me win? Anyway, I was rewarded with a beer with the ship now rolling to the Black Sea swells.

Dinner was just passable as I assume all the ingredients had come from Russia, while the riverboat took on stores in Vienna its turnaround port. It would be an introduction to the Russian menus that would little from day to day and eventually became a non-topic. You just ate what was put in front of you. Then I took to my bunk, and in the morning, when I awoke, we were approaching a steep coastal landscape with Yalta sprawled at its base.

Yalta and Beyond

My friends stayed several days, and I remained in a seafront hotel for two weeks, as it was cheap and I could practice my Russian on anyone who would talk to me. My tourist level included a guide and car every five days, so I managed to see the site of the Yalta Conference and the Valley of Balaclava, the location for the charge of the Light Brigade, a battle between the British and Russians.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Ted atop a large hill overlooking Yalta and the Black Sea. * Photo: Tony Milbank

Leaving Yalta, I then another five weeks, traveling independently by train, and in between, a 21-day tour starting out in Moscow and then to Stalingrad (now Volgograd), followed by a two-day paddle steamer voyage to Rostov, Sochi, Kiev, and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

First Small-Ship Cruise

Soviet sidewheel riverboat at a landing on the Volga River. * Photo: Ted Scull

Again, on my own, by train to Riga, Latvia’s capital, Moscow, Warsaw and Paris where, in the latter, I resided for eight months. But that story is for another day.

RELATED:  Danube River Cruise with Aboard the New AMA Magna.  by Gene Sloan. 

RELATED:  Beer & Biking on the Danube with Scenic.  by John Roberts.

Looking Back

My basic Russian came in handy when traveling on trains, trams, buses, seeking directions, ordering meals and having a minimal chat. Visiting the Soviet Union was time well spent, if not unsettling at times.

During the group tour, one member, a young English fellow who spoke fluent Russian, vanished about 10 days into the itinerary, and there was no explanation forthcoming from our guide.

Ted in Red Square

The author in Red Square, Moscow.

On the riverboat between Stalingrad and Rostov, some of us apparently fraternized a bit too much with the Russian passengers. We were relegated to one lounge and sat at separate tables at one end of the dining saloon.

When in Moscow, I meet some students in Red Square, and they invited me to their homes. Later, when I returned to the city by train, I was discreetly handed a message as I walked along the platform warning me that my friends would be arrested if I met up with them again.

Ted in Paris

The author on the Pont Alexandre III, Paris, named after a Russian czar,

Soon after settling in Paris, my friend from college, who shared the Russian language class, came to visit for several days. We exchanged stories and there were plenty. He then sold his motorcycle and headed home. We still connect all these years later.

My six weeks in the Soviet Union and eight months in Paris were life changing. I had grown up quite a bit by the time I stepped onto the pier in New York.

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise Was Just the Beginning …

Beginning with the Danube just after graduating from college, I became smitten by rivers and river cruising. When I had the time and money, I began to collect them with subsequent travels: Rhine, Rhone, Moselle, Elbe, Soane, Volga, Don, Nile, Yangtze, Mekong, Amazon, and closer to home, St. Lawrence, Ohio, Mississippi, Columbia, Snake and less than an hour’s walk, the Hudson.

Every one is different and has stories galore to tell, and I find them all intriguing in their unique ways.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Pandaw’s colonial design fits well into the Mekong River setting. * Photo: Ted Scull

The growth of river cruising has been a phenomenon, adding a fabulous new way to see our world, and so much of it developed along rivers. They provided routes of discovery, development, conquest, retreat and travel before decent roads and steam railways.

Leisure cruising started first on the Nile in the late 19th century on a river that was the most important geographical factor in the development of early civilization.

Nile River cruise vessel

SS SUDAN recalls the early style of Nile River cruise vessels. 

Modern river cruising has developed so fast, especially in Europe, and the resulting competition has driven innovation and cruise ship-style luxuries. Travelers can still choose between the plain and fancy.

I happen to prefer the riverboats that don’t try to be the be all and end all of the latest luxury cruise package. I like to concentrate on the river, its scenic delights and commerce and to go ashore in ports to see what this river is responsible for.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Today’s much larger riverboats, seen here on Russia’s Volga River. * Photo: Ted Scull

My favorite riverboats have been the 1926-built Delta Queen, built for transportation, then a long life of cruising with a genuine link to the past, the outstanding replica stern-wheeler, American Queen, and Pandaw ‘s fleet of small-size boats with their fetching colonial atmosphere.

I would also be more than happy to sail again in the likes of the Amur, the riverboat that began my story. It gave me the initial entry into a new means of travel and the results are evident. I don’t know what happened to her, but her sister Donau has continued on for decades, most recently housing cyclists who sleep on board and cycle from a different port during the day.

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Viking Jupiter's terrace

Viking Jupiter

By Judi Cohen.

I am a small-ship “connoisseur” accustomed to ships under 300 passengers, which is how QuirkyCruise.com defines a small-ship cruise. However, when presented with the opportunity to cruise on Viking’s new 930-passenger Viking Jupiter in the Baltic Sea I immediately said “yes!”

Having never visited Russia, seeing St. Petersburg on the 8-night Baltic itinerary was a major draw. While it wasn’t exactly a “small-ship,” it featured the advantages of larger ships, while also offering some of the intimacy and highly personalized service of a true small-ship. I like to think of it as a “small big-ship.”

Viking Jupiter

The new Viking Jupiter. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The Viking Jupiter took us from Stockholm to Berlin, with stops at the ports of Helsinki, Tallinn and Gdansk. The historical and gilded riches of St. Petersburg, of course, were the big draw for most passengers.

My two-day visit to St. Petersburg provided just a taste of the city’s rich art, architecture and history. I hope to return to do a true small-ship river cruise, on the Volga River, and see more of Russia, including Moscow.

Russia cruise with Viking

Judi and Lawrence at the Church of the Spilled Blood. * Photo: Judi Cohen

In the spirit of Quirky Cruise’s small-ship ethos, Russia’s Volga River cruises are an ideal way to visit both Moscow and St. Petersburg in combination with a Baltic itinerary. Small-ship cruises to this region are offered by various cruise companies including a 13-day Viking cruise on one of their five 200-passenger boats.

Meanwhile, Ponant Cruises and Tauck both operate 12-day small-ship Russia/Baltic Sea cruises using Ponant’s 184-passenger Le Dumont D’Urville with two full days in St. Petersburg. Emerald Waterways does a 12-day river cruise on the 224-passenger MS Rosia with stops in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

6 “Small Ship” Moments on the Viking Jupiter

While the Viking Jupiter has features you would typically find on larger ships including a variety of dining choices, numerous bars with live entertainment, and a luxurious Nordic spa with gym and treatment rooms, the ship felt intimate and uncrowded giving it a small-ship feel.

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#1: Optional Small-group Shore Excursions

In St. Petersburg we chose to pay for two small-group tours in addition to taking the panoramic coach tour of St. Petersburg that was included at no extra cost (Viking offers one free tour option in every port). We did a full-day “Behind Closed Doors” tour of the 18th-century Hermitage Museums and a half-day walking tour of the 1950-era St. Petersburg metro system, museum-like itself.

With only 13 guests on each tour, they were similar to excursions and tours I have done on previous small-ship cruises.

 Winter Palace Hermitage Museum

The gorgeous Winter Palace Hermitage Museum. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Hermitage museum entrance

Entrance staircase in the Hermitage Museum. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Our Hermitage Museum guide was knowledgeable about architecture and art history, and contributed to our learning and enjoyment. Our guide during the metro tour, which was a highlight for me, led us into the system to see some of the oldest stations that were built as “palaces of the people” rich in Soviet history, with their fascinating art and sculpture.

St Petersburg Metro System

Kirovsky Zavod Station, part of the stunning metro system. * Photo; Judi Cohen

St Petersburg metro stations

Avtovo Station light fixtures. * Photo: Judi Cohen

These small-group excursions felt much like the tours I have enjoyed on other small-ship cruises along the Mekong and Irrawaddy with Pandaw and the Brahmaputra River with India-based Adventure River Cruises. As on these smaller ships, on board the Viking Jupiter, there were many opportunities to immerse myself in the artistic and historical presentations offered on board by local experts. There was even a magical performance one evening in the ship’s Star Theatre by the famous Russian Mariinsky Theatre.

Other passengers told me about the small-group premium excursions they took (ranging from about $75 to $300 per person), including a tour of the Stutthof concentration camp in Gdansk, Poland; reindeer feeding in Nuuksio National Park; and a bicycle tour in Helsinki, Finland. Several premium excursions at additional cost were offered in every port.

#2: Private Balcony in our Cabin

Our cabin had a private balcony that provided a quiet and private place to relax, read and reflect. It reminded me of smaller ships I’ve been on that also had private balconies, including the 195-passenger Viking Einar that I cruised on along the Rhine River in 2019.

RELATED: Cruising on the new Viking Einar … by Judi Cohen

balcony of Viking Jupiter

Judi’s husband Lawrence on their cabin balcony. * Photo: Judi Cohen

#3:  Intimate Dining Experiences

Mamsen’s is a small take-away café aboard the Jupiter named in honor of Viking founder Torstein Hagen’s mother. Located on Deck 7 in the Explorers Lounge, serving light traditional Scandinavian dishes, snacks and pastries, it was never crowded and became our go-to spot for early breakfast and light bites throughout the day.

With comfortable seating in sofas or at tables with chairs, Mamsen’s felt very warm, welcoming and cozy…and the open face shrimp sandwiches and signature waffles were delicious!

waffels aboard the Viking Jupiter

Mamsen’s signature Scandinavian waffle. * Photo: Judi Cohen

 #4: Afternoon Tea

Like many of the small European river boats, traditional high tea was served every afternoon in the Wintergarden Conservatory on Deck 7. Separated from the pool by floor-to-ceiling glass doors, I found the Wintergarden to be one of the most beautiful areas on the ship. The blonde wood ornamentation looked like trees climbing the pillars and covering the roof and created the feeling of being in a forest!

afternoon tea on the Viking Jupiter

Afternoon Tea in the Wintergarden on Deck 7. * Photo: Judi Cohen

#5: Explorers Lounge

The Jupiter had many comfortable and quiet sitting areas with books neatly organized on library shelves. However, we kept going back to the Explorers Lounge on Deck 7 and the upper level above it, called the Observation Lounge, to read, rest, have a snack or drink, or watch the waves through the expansive windows.

While seated in the sofas, complete with fur throws, we could also enjoy the warmth from the faux fireplaces. I never felt like I was on a large ship in these lounges.

Explorer's Lounge on Jupiter

The lovely ocean-view Explorers Lounge. * Photo: Judi Cohen

#6: Musicians in the Atrium

The multi-level atrium typical of big ships, felt cozy each evening when a pianist or a trio of musicians played sweet music there for hours. The Viking Bar and the surrounding Living Room lounge, that actually felt like our own living room at home, drew us back nightly for pre-dinner cocktails  and again following dinner.

After only one night aboard, the musicians welcomed us back warmly and it felt like they were playing just for us! Very few other passengers were there in the evenings, which made it feel even more intimate.

musicians on Viking Jupiter

Musicians performing nightly on Deck 1. * Photo: Judi Cohen

For anyone who wants to get the best of a larger cruise ship with many of the benefits of a small ship, I would recommend the Viking Jupiter.

The Jupiter’s attentive personal service, small-group shore excursions options, cozy and comfortable lounge areas with music, and casual dining all combined to create a wonderful “small-ship” feeling.

The added bonus was having some “big-ship” features such as a spa, gym and multiple pools, plus 24-hour room service so we could enjoy refreshments on our private balcony. Having been teased with the history and riches of St. Petersburg for only two days, I am ready to go back to experience Russia in depth!

Viking Jupiter's terrace

On the Aquavit Terrace leaving Stockholm. * Photo: Judi Cohen

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Sue in port on AmaKristina Rhine River cruise

AmaKristina on Rhine River.

REVIEWER

Sue Piergallini from the USA.

CRUISE LINE

Ama Waterways.

SHIP

AmaKristina.

DESTINATION

Rhine River to Switzerland, France, Germany & Netherlands.

# OF NIGHTS

7.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

December 2019/January 2020, from Basel, Switzerland.

OVERALL RATING

5 out of 5 stars (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 5

-Cabin Rating: 5

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 4

HAVE YOU BEEN ON A SMALL SHIP CRUISE BEFORE?

I’ve been on 4 small ship cruises.

REVIEW

AmaWaterways was first class all the way. We did the Romantic Rhine Cruise from Basel to Amsterdam. Everyday was a new stop with fantastic excursions and experiences. We went from large world-class cities to small French villages! Enjoyed wine tasting, beer tasting, and going to the top of the Swiss Alps! The river cruise boat was beautiful with outstanding wine (new ones every day) and amazing dinners with local cuisine. And, with going in late December there were no crowds and we were able to enjoy all the attractions to their fullest! A must do experience!

QuirkyCruise Review

 

RELATED: Gene Sloan’s article about the new double-wide AmaMagna.

RELATED: Getting Fit on an AMA Waterways river cruise in Europe.

RELATED: Anne Kalosh’s Mekong River Adventure with AmaWaterways.

 

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quirky-cruise-barge-lady-cruises-couple-drinking-wine-on-ship-deck

Barge Lady Cruises

Barge Lady Cruises, the inland waterways operator of roughly 50 luxury small-ship hotel barges, has been around for more than three decades expanding its reach throughout western Europe, the UK and Ireland, almost wherever their shallow craft can navigate. Europe is blessed with natural waterways and a rich heritage of canal building that goes back several hundred years to when shallow-draft boats called barges were vital in transporting goods between the major ports of Europe.

Today, commercial traffic still exists on some rivers and canals, though private yachting, barge travel, and on the larger canals and rivers, riverboats, dominate.

When we’re talking barge cruising, most are owner operated by passionate folks who enjoy offering a boutique hotel experience on these sturdy, charming and wonderfully quirky conveyances. Moving at just about four miles an hour, the point is to soak up the lovely scenery along the way while enjoying great food and wine.

Barge Lady Cruises

AMARYLLIS -6- star barge cruises in France. * Photo; Barge Lady Cruises

Barge cruising may be the slowest form of cruising (a walking pace), hence sightseers are rewarded with an up-close and highly personal take on the region chosen.

RELATED: Barge cruise newbie? These first timer tips will help!

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

The fleet numbers 50 moored all over Western Europe — some conversions from cargo barges and others newly-built specifically for the pleasures of canal cruising. Berth capacities range from 2 to 22.

The smaller capacity barges are perfect for private charters by families, good friends and affinity groups.

Against the backdrop of their longtime relationships within what is a small industry, Barge Lady Cruises will curate itineraries based on specific requests such as vineyard visits, historic destinations, birding, cycling, golfing, hiking, walking and so on. Otherwise the vessels operate as hotel barges where you book your cabin or cabins and share the experience with (hopefully) like-minded others. Though do keep in mind, if you don’t take a fancy to the other passengers on an intimate 6- or 8-passenger canal barge, you’re stuck. Definitely consider booking the whole boat with friends or relatives.

In 2018, the firm opened a Canadian office for barge cruising along the scenic waterways of Ontario.

Wine on deck anyone? * Photo; Barge Lady Cruises

Passenger Decks

Two or three decks; cabins, indoor public spaces and possibly a third open deck. Naturally, no elevators.

Passenger Profile

Anyone who wants to leisurely see a specific region, comfortably and close up without the hassle of having to cope with driving, trains, and dealing with an unfamiliar foreign tongue. Language on board is English, though the crew will speak the local language too.

Price

$$ to $$$entirely dependent on the star classifications. See explanation under cabins.

Itineraries
  • All cruises last six nights/seven days and cover about 50 miles.
  • Barge Lady vessels cruise virtually every region of France where canal and rivers exist;
  • Holland (especially in the bulb season) and some venture into Belgium’s dense network of waterways;
  • Germany along the Mosel to Luxemburg City and Trier (canal locks);
  • Italy following the Po River and Bianco Canal from Venice to Mantua;
  • England along the busy Thames lined with attractive villages and historic riverside pubs, all just west of London;
  • Scotland’s cross-country Caledonian Canal that links four lochs (including Ness);
  • Ireland’s eternally-green landscapes bordering the Shannon River.
  • Barge Lady Cruises

    Germany – cruising the Mosel River * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

Included Features

A dedicated crew including a chef and a tour guide; pre-arranged pickups and drop offs include nearby railways stations, hotels or rental car offices; open bar and paired wines with lunch and dinner; daily escorted sightseeing and entrance fees; daily maid service; and use of onboard amenities such as bicycles, hot tubs, and WiFi. Suggested tipping is 5-10% of the fare.

Why Go?

Barging is leisurely cruising par excellence. Travel on waterways at the pace of a fast walk, a bit faster by following the towpath on a bicycle, and dead stop in the evenings. You are amidst beautiful landscapes when under way, and when tied up, close to lovely villages for after-dinner strolls.

Daily excursions with no more than 20 people, often less, take you to beautiful spots, vineyards, chateaux, artisan workshops, and local produce and craft markets.

Barge Lady Cruises

Barge trips begin in Venice to travel inland along the Po River. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

When to Go?

While the barge cruising season runs from April to October, there are seasonal plusses and minuses. Early and late in the season will see fewer tourists at the most popular sights and fewer private craft on the waterways. However, it may be too cool to remain on deck when underway and in the evenings when tied up.

The beauty of barging is that you’re mainly cruising in the countryside, which substantially lessens being beset by teeming crowds.

Cabins

The cabin sizes generally dictate the star rating, with 3-stars at roughly 100 sq. ft.; 4-stars at 125-200 sq. ft.; 5-stars at 200 sq. ft. with hot tub; and 6-stars at 250 sq. ft. with hot tub. Because barge cabins are located at the waterline, they have portholes or small windows, not big picture windows as with riverboats.

Barge Lady Cruises

A cabin on the Amaryllis. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises                                                                     

Public Rooms

Barges have a lounge, possibly a second semi-partitioned seating area; dining area; forward outdoor seating on the same deck; and perhaps additional open and/or covered seating above the public spaces. Small book collections will reflect the cruising regions, often along with reading left behind by past passengers.

Barge Lady Cruises

Cruising the Canal du Midi in southern France. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

RELATED: Cruising the canals of France aboard the Esperance.  by Elysa Leonard

Dining

Food is most definitely a major attraction and will reflect the country and region. Breakfast and lunch will be buffet and dinner served with paired wines. Cooking and presentation will be of a high standard, and catering is for a few not hundreds or thousands as on ocean-going cruise ships. Often the chef will introduce the evening meal. A cocktail hour with canapés precedes dinner.

Barge Lady Cruises

Wine and cheese from France aboard Barge Lady cruises

Activities & Entertainment

The cruising day may start with an excursion, then return for lunch, cruise in the afternoon, and tie up at night or cruise in the morning with lunch aboard and an afternoon excursion. There may be evening musical entertainment and often a chance to visit the town on foot from the landing. Leisure time is spent viewing the scenery at four mph from the comfort of the deck, joining the captain in his wheelhouse, watching chef in his open kitchen, relaxing in a hot tub, tasting wine and spirits from the onboard cellar, socializing on deck, and of course good old fashioned reading and scenery gazing.

Special Note

If barging is of interest and you are a neophyte, compare how barge cruising is different or similar to riverboat cruising to determine if it fits your travel style.

Along the Same Lines

There are many barge companies and others will be added. Abercrombie & Kent gets a brief mention on QuirkyCruise as they charter some of Barge Lady’s vessels.

Contact

Barge Lady Cruises, 101 West Grand Avenue #200, Chicago IL 60654; 800-880-0071; bargeladycruises.com.

Barges often tie up alongside a village landing, where you want to be. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

Barges often tie up to a village landing, just where you want to be. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

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Pilates on the Sun Deck of the Emerald Destiny

Active European River Cruises on the Rhine & Moselle

By John Roberts.

When it comes to the great rivers of Europe, those often enjoyed on a delightful river cruise, the Moselle is too often overlooked.

This stunningly gorgeous river is a tributary of the Rhine, and it’s notable for its terraced vineyards that grow some of Germany’s best Riesling.

The Moselle is also where I started my “Legends of the Moselle, Rhine and Main” river cruise with Emerald Waterways, embarking in the scenic upriver town of Bernkastel-Kues.

Our ship for the week, Emerald Destiny, would take us on a journey to the towns of Cochem and Koblenz before reaching the Rhine River. Then along this great waterway we would visit Miltenberg and Wertheim in the Lower Franconia region of Bavaria and continuing to Wurzburg and Bamberg as we traversed the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal.

European River cruises with Emerald Waterways

Sporty John alongside the Emerald Destiny. * Photo: John Roberts

The entire voyage was similar in many regards to the more than a dozen European river cruises I have enjoyed on the Rhine and Danube rivers, with walking tours of the towns and villages alongside hearty meals onboard the ship. We also had a full menu of castles, ruins, churches, terraced hillside vineyards and charming towns that provided wonderful eye candy as we sailed lazily along the winding rivers.

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The cruise on Emerald Destiny, however, differed in many important ways to me. I was particularly drawn to try this cruise because of Emerald Waterways’ new EmeraldACTIVE program.

Offered on all of Emerald’s European river cruises, the program offers a wide range of cruise entertainment and activities led by activity managers. Traditionally, river cruises have entertainment offerings that typically include a piano player in the main lounge each afternoon and at night after dinner, as well as a selection of guest performers who come onboard in certain ports to highlight song and dance styles from their region of Europe.

You might also have cooking demonstrations or an activity like a painting class.

However, the EmeraldACTIVE program delivers a more energetic vibe, ideal for families with kids as well as any travelers who are simply young at heart.

Each day, passengers were offered a broad array of cool things to do, from exercises to interactive entertainment, led by our engaging Activity Manager Harry Jordan, who hails from the U.K.

The ship does not have a piano player, by the way. I dove right in to participate in as much as possible, and in fact, I had one of the most fun cruises I have ever had — on the rivers,  or anywhere else, to be honest.

Great beer on a European River cruise

Cheers! * Photo: John Roberts

A Week on the Move

Bernkastel-Kues, our embarkation port, is a small town of just more than 7,000 residents that sits in the Middle Moselle region, the heart of wine-growing Germany. Highlights include the colorful half-timber buildings and the Medieval Market Square.

We kicked off our EmeraldACTIVE week with a 12-mile bike ride around the town and countryside. Emerald Destiny carries a fleet of bikes onboard, and passengers can sign them out for personal use in each port or on guided bike excursions led by local guides.

bicycling on a river cruise in Europe

Emerald Destiny carries a fleet of bikes onboard for personal use or guided rides. * Photo: John Roberts

We docked for an overnight on the bank opposite the bustling town and with the iconic Burgruine-Landshut Castle ruins looming overhead. The castle has been a ruin since a fire in the late 17th century, and Harry led a large group of passengers on a post-lunch afternoon hike to take in the views from high above the river and town. The hike was the second active endeavor of that first full day.

I was really liking the active nature of the cruise so far. I mixed in a morning run, as well, to round out my day.

jogging along the Rhine River

John works in a quick jog whenever he can! * Photo: John Roberts

The full scope of the EmeraldACTIVE program became clear during that evening when Harry, who is a trained singer and dancer, gave his “Not Quite Diamond” cabaret performance in the ship’s main lounge. Harry ran down a nearly complete list of all the Neil Diamond classics, teasing us until the very end when he feigned signing off for the night with one notable omission from his song list. Alas, the night was complete when we all joined in to a rousing rendition of “Sweet Caroline” before finishing off our cocktails and heading back to our cabins.

Harry the cruise manager of Emerald Destiny

The multi-talented and multi-tasking activity manager Harry Jordan. * Photo: John Roberts

The EmeraldACTIVE program also features a lineup of fitness-focused sessions. Pilates took place outside on the Sun Deck; morning stretching classes were in the lounge; and yoga and aqua aerobics were conducted in the indoors pool area. (Emerald Destiny’s large indoor pool with a sun roof can be opened in good weather conditions.)

You also can enjoy petanque, a game similar to boules,  as well as golf putting competitions on the Sun Deck.

Pilates on the Sun Deck of the Emerald Destiny

Pilates on the Sun Deck. * Photo: John Roberts

Activities for all Fitness Levels

AmaWaterways was the first river cruise line to offer a wellness program and onboard wellness hosts, and that line’s programming is decidedly more challenging and aimed at exercise fanatics.

Related:  John’s QuirkyCruise article about his AmaWaterways fitness cruise.

But the Emerald Waterways program has more activities and a broader appeal — designed mostly to keep people entertained and interacting with one another.

The activity manager is essentially a co-cruise manager. The position adds a lot of value for passengers, says Ray Muehlbauer, corporate cruise director for Emerald Waterways.

“What our Activity Managers do is probably five main categories,” he says. “One is the EmeraldACTIVE program, supporting it together with the professional guides. That helped us massively because now we have the guides and someone from the ship who can help the guests and answer any questions.

Ray Muehlbauer

Ray Muehlbauer. * Photo: John Roberts

“Plus, all the wellness activities. We’ve had requests from people to be able to do morning stretch, yoga, Pilates and maybe some mild walking on the deck. On top of that, we do onshore activities (like the hike in Bernkastel-Kues) to show the guest a little more of the towns and cities. Maybe take them to a beer garden or something like that, or for bike rides, hikes, walks — whatever the city has to offer.

“When we’re cruising, we we provide nightly entertainment and game shows, trivia, karaoke, passenger talent shows and dance classes, you name it.”

I had fun doing  yoga, daily runs, bike rides, walks and hikes during the days in port. But it was indeed the daily afternoon and night-time activities that made this cruise a standout.

Most activities were well-attended, with more than a dozen passengers participating in the putting contests and Pilates sessions. The trivia sessions were packed and lively in the main lounge. A handful joined me as Harry led yoga and water aerobics classes.

Aqua Aerobics on a river cruise in Europe

Water aerobics is one of the many ways to keep fit and active on the Emerald Destiny. * Photo: John Roberts

That said, most passengers I mingled with didn’t book this cruise because of the focus on activities, though it was a bonus for many who enjoy being active and maintaining some daily fitness regimen.

The crescendo of the whole voyage, however, was the ship’s end-of-week disco dance party. Harry spun tunes as DJ, and the dance floor was packed with 70-plus people at a time. It was raining men, indeed — and women and crew members — as we were heaving and whirling all around the floor with arms pumping late into the evening.

entertainment on a European river cruise

Harry’s singing was a big hit! * Photo: John Roberts

The Week’s Itinerary

After leaving Bernkastel-Kues, it was on to Cochem, home of the imperial Cochem Castle and its majestic views over the Moselle Valley.

Cochem Castle on a river cruise

The beautiful Cochem Castle. * Photo: John Roberts

I began my day with run along the river before joining the walking tour of the town and shuttle ride up to the castle, which I think has the most picturesque and iconic river views of any destination along the Moselle or Rhine Rivers. We were blessed with an especially sunny day, which made the image even more stunning.

European river cruise castles

Check out the view from the castle! * Photo: John Roberts

Europe river cruise excursions

Stunning Cochem views! * Photo: John Roberts

Emerald Destiny set sail at 1 p.m., and we enjoyed lunch and activities onboard as we journeyed toward Koblenz, which sits at the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine. A few of us went out for an evening walk and a couple beers in Koblenz.

The next day, passengers rode the cable car up to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress during a drizzly morning. I ran across a bridge crossing the Rhine and then up to the fortress before taking the cable car back.

At noon, we set sail for Miltenberg. This period of afternoon cruising took us through the Middle Rhine Gorge, always a highlight of a Rhine River Cruise, as you get to pass the famed Lorelei rock and dozens of historic villages, castles and ruins.

Sailing continued overnight and into the next morning before we arrived at Miltenberg for a city tour and short hike up to Miltenberg Castle. The ship then sailed and we would meet it later as in Wertheim. We were free to carry on with our adventures in these two splendid German towns.

Miltenberg views

Views from the Miltenberg Castle. * Photo: John Roberts

I was able to break off for a quick run after our tour in Miltenberg, and when we arrived in Wertheim, I found a secluded hiking route up to the castle there. The weather was hot, and by the end of the day, after exploring the two cities, I was more than ready for a hearty dinner and cold beers back onboard Emerald Destiny.

dinner on board a European river boat

Dinner on board with a view. * Photo: John Roberts

Harry delivered his second cabaret act after dinner, sending us off the bed with the songs of the Rat Pack still on repeat in our heads.

Our ship arrived in Wurzburg harbor the next morning, and after a morning stretch session with Harry, passengers were off to tour the Wurzburg Residence — a UNESCO World Heritage site and a beautiful baroque palace — and a visit one of the country’s oldest and largest winery for a tasting session.

exercising on board a European river cruise

Harry’s morning stretch class was a great way to start the day. * Photo: John Roberts

We had free time to explore the historic old town area of Wurzburg, and many from our ship settled in for a glass of wine and snacks or a sausage at a café or wine bar near the Old Main Bridge (Alte Mainbrucke), while some ventured to the Market Square to pick up souvenirs and sweets.

We then sailed from late afternoon until the next morning until we reached Bamberg. During the evening, we enjoyed a festive time on Emerald Destiny with the farewell gala dinner featuring choices of Chateaubriand (roasted beef filet) or salmon and chorizo, followed by Baked Alaska for dessert.

Afterwards, dozens of people hit the dance floor as Harry played DJ for Disco Night. I have never seen such enthusiastic passenger participation on the dance floor. We worked up a sweat and sang along to familiar hits from the 70s and 80s.

In Bamberg, another city tour was on tap. The ship arrived after lunch, and we shuttled to town to explore the cathedral, a garden and other sights.

Bamberg visit on a Europe river cruise

Pretty Bamberg. * Photo: John Roberts

Bamberg's lovely gardens

Bamberg’s lovely gardens. * Photo: John Roberts

But the highlight on this day would a sampling of the city’s famed “smoke beer.” The stout dark brew owes its smoky flavor to the process that uses malted barley dried over an open flame. We all washed down a couple salty pretzels with the cold and flavorful beers.

beer and pretzels in Europe

Beer & pretzels in Bamberg * Photo: John Roberts

This unique taste of Germany was a pleasant way to toast the end of a great voyage with new friends — half of our week’s 170 passengers were from the U.S., with a quarter each from the U.K. and Australia.

The next morning, the journey would end in Nuremberg, and we would all go our separate ways, but with fond memories of a special trip.

Related: John’s QuirkyCruise article about his sporty Ponant & Backroads cruise to New Zealand.

Onboard Emerald Destiny

The ship carries up to 182 passengers in 92 staterooms (two solo cabins), and it basically owns the standard design you’ll find among almost every other European river ship. There are four decks, a Sun Deck up top, small gym, main dining room and a bar/lounge area that also has a small library and coffee area.

Emerald Destiny does Europe River cruises

The 182-passenger Emerald Destiny, on the left * Photo: John Roberts

But Emerald Destiny and all other Emerald Waterways ships are unique with a large indoor pool at the back of the ship. This space was my favorite aside from being out on the Sun Deck.

The pool area has loungers with soft cushions, foot stools and a bar. There is a swim-against jet in the large pool (4.5 feet deep), and the activity manager offers aqua aerobics classes in the water and yoga sessions on the pool deck. The roof opens above the pool when the weather is nice. The pool area also serves as a movie theater at night, as the water is drained and pool floor raised to provide more seating. A screen drops down, and a surround-sound system offers the perfect environment as you can watch select recent releases each night.

small pool on a European river boat

Emerald Destiny’s pool area is impressive. * Photo: John Roberts

The lounge also offers plenty of comfy seating, and an area near the front of the lounge offers bar-style seating or tables so you can enjoy the views over cocktails or during lunch or breakfast. A small buffet is set up daily in the lounge for a lighter breakfast and lunch option.

pretzels on a river cruise in Europe

Snacks … pretzels of course! * Photo: John Roberts

An outside deck at the bow in front of the lounge is also available with a few lounge chairs, and this is a relaxing spot to enjoy the scenery as you sail or navigate locks.

Cabins are spacious and comfortable enough, with plenty of storage. Minibar drinks and snacks come with an added fee, but water bottles are replenished in your room as needed. You don’t have a full walkout balcony but a flexible indoor/outdoor space that converts with the touch of a button that drops down the glass to railing level so you can enjoy the fresh air and views.

cabin view on European river cruises

The view from John’s cabin balcony. * Photo: John Roberts

Check out John’s video tour of the Emerald Destiny’s public areas and cabins!

Meal Time

The main restaurant features a breakfast and lunch buffet with select featured menu items daily. The highlight of the voyage for many was the traditional Bavarian lunch feast put out as we sailed from Miltenberg to Wertheim. This featured sausages, pork loin, sauerkraut, spaetzle and pretzels — with servers circulating around the room handing out mugs of German lager at a furious pace.

beer mugs on a Europe river cruise

Mugs of beer were plentiful. * Photo: John Roberts

Dinner includes appetizers, soups, main courses (meat, fish and vegetarian choices) and desserts. Wine, beer and soft drinks are included in your fare for lunch and dinner.

Some of the delicacies we enjoyed: onion soup, mushroom risotto, forest mushroom cappuccino, trilogy of lamb, breaded hoki fish filet, pork tenderloins, poke bowl (tofu) and sliced duck breast and leg.

dinner on board a European river boat

Dinner is served! * Photo: John Roberts

Desserts included panna cotta, pumpkin seed parfait and Black Forest cake.

I found the service to be excellent, and the crew always on the lookout for how they can help and ready with a friendly greeting and smile. This was a nice change from lukewarm hospitality I have seen on other river cruises in recent years.

I should note that the itinerary, sailing from the Moselle and on through to the Rhine-Main-Danube on the way to Nuremberg takes you through numerous locks and under low bridges such that the Sun Deck is off limits to passengers for most of the latter stages of the cruise. This could be a disappointment if you aren’t aware of this detail on these itineraries. However, Emerald Destiny handles this nicely by offering the pool area as an alternative, with wonderful panoramic views and an open roof to the skies above.

Next time you’re on an Emerald Waterways European river cruise, head out back to the pool, and you just might find me there again.

QuirkyCruise Review

 

 

In a nutshell, John says …

writer John Roberts

John Roberts

Why Go?
  • Emerald Waterways has carved out a space offering affordable and higher-energy fun river cruises.
  • The new EmeraldACTIVE program ensures passengers will always find an activity to keep them entertained and engaged.
  • The indoor pool (it transforms into a cinema at night) is a highlight of an attractive and comfortable ship, and service stands out.
Caveats:

At 182 passengers, the space-per-passenger ratio is a bit smaller than on the spacious boats of the luxury river cruise lines.

Video Overview:

 

 

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