A quirky cruise does not get any more offbeat than spending five days cruising canals, lochs and amongst islands aboard a tiny steam-powered, coal-fired Scottish coastal cargo boat built at the height of WWII maintaining the original design and concept that dates largely from the 19th century.
Snapshot: Meet VIC32, of Puffer Steamboat Holidays, a lifetime project for Nick and Rachel Walker, who during the first year of marriage in 1979 bought what is well-known in Scotland as a Clyde Puffer, once the backbone for supplying the islands and outlying areas in Scotland with everyday needs as well as heavy bulk cargo. Almost continuously since then, they have operated VIC32 as a cruise vessel. Since 2002, she has been owned by the Puffer Preservation Trust as one of about a half-dozen left, with most in stationary roles and none in cruise service. Friends of VIC32 help maintain her along with the passenger fares. The letters VIC translate to Victualing Inshore Craft.
Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers: VIC32, built 1943, 12 passengers. Its length is just over 66 feet, the maximum size to fit the canal lock chambers.
Passenger Decks: 3 decks, including the pilot house. Because of its historic nature, there is no elevator, and those with limited mobility will find it difficult to get about and on/off vessel into small launches.
Passenger Profile: They mostly hail from Great Britain, while drawing steam preservation buffs and the adventuresome worldwide.
Price: $ – Moderate rates
Itineraries: Cruises operate from late April into September with two to four 5-day cruises each month. Embarkation is Sunday afternoon after 3:30pm and disembarkation Friday afternoon. The start on a Monday morning and finish is most often at the tiny harbor village of Crinan (located on the west coast of Scotland in the region of Argyll), but also sometimes Ardrishaig, Glasgow, Corpach and Inverness. if the disembarkation port is different from the embarkation port, then arrangements are made, when required, to return to the originating port. An availability chart is available during the booking year.
Included features: Three meals daily, plus morning coffee and afternoon tea. Fishing, birding and sightseeing in small launches are included. A few boiler suits are available. Drinks are extra.
Why Go? There is nothing quite like sailing with just over a dozen souls (including crew) in a tiny, authentic coal-fired steamboat amongst the gorgeous Hebridean islands of Western Scotland and into its lochs and canals.
When to Go? Anyone who knows Scotland at all is aware that the fickle weather can be wet and windy for several days or just the opposite, or change every hour. An availability chart lists what cabin berths are still open. Space sells out quickly, so don’t wait too long to decide on dates.
Cabins: Six cozy double cabins in the hull, with four having double beds and two with upper and lower berths. Two shared washrooms have showers, WC, washbasin and electrical shaver points.
Public Rooms: A cozy single lounge with comforts for rainy or cool days. The pilothouse is nearly always open as is the coal-fired engine room.
Dining: A single dining table seats 12 and at night lighting is by oil l lamp. Breakfast is continental with fresh-baked goods; lunch is buffet; and dinner a served three-course meal. Drinks are bought at the bar. The food is reportedly very good with local Scottish produce available as well as fresh local fish and cockles, a common bivalve throughout northern Europe. Morning coffee and afternoon tea with fresh pastries are daily rituals in this part of the world.
Activities & Entertainment: Routinely, VIC32 sets off each morning to puff at about six knots amongst the Inner Hebrides to then tie up midday or early afternoon. Passengers then may go on hikes, birding outings, visit small towns and fishing villages, castles and craft centers, or perhaps fish from VIC32’s launch or use it to reach a special picnic spot. Fit souls who don’t mind coal dust can feed the hand-fired boiler; budding captains can have a turn at the wheel or handle the lines when docking.
Special Notes: To learn about Clyde puffers as well as this particular one, consider reading The Last of the Clyde Puffers by Keith McGinn and also Puffer Alphabet – 32 years of anecdotes by Nick Walker. Be aware that the season usually sells out, hence an early booking is highly recommended. The website features an availability chart. Payment in GB Pounds only. Casual clothing is the norm with perhaps a few garments you don’t mind getting soiled; dress in layers because of the temperature changes. You are requested to bring your own towels, and no laundry facilities available. Check out The Puffer Cookbook, full of recipes generated on board, photographs within and the scenery beyond the railing, and personal anecdotes..
Along the Same Lines: Nothing comes to mind that is remotely close except in size — Hebrides Cruises and Majestic Line — with both far more expensive. The maintenance of the Clyde Puffer is an ongoing project requiring constant funds beyond what the vessel raises during the cruise season..
Contact: Puffer Steamboat Holidays Ltd., Crinan Boatyard, Crinan, Argyll PA31 8SW Scotland; UK 01 44 1546 830 133. Savethepuffer.co.uk.
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