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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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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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Argyll Cruising

Argyll Cruising.

Argyll Cruising is a family-operated, one-ship line that got its start in 2015. Besides being local people, the skipper acquired first-hand training on the Majestic Line, another line covered and operating much the same wee type of ship cruises in the same region. The draws are Scotland’s outstandingly beautiful mountains and island landscapes and the complex system of waterways to explore what’s in and around the sea.

Enjoy the bird life, centuries of dynamic history, Scottish eats and its people with such pronounced accents, most a delight to the ear. The company’s base is the Holy Loch Marina about an hour west of Glasgow. Transportation from Glasgow may be by train, coach or car to Gourock on the Firth of Clyde then crossing by connecting ferry to Dunoon.

Argyll Cruising

Splendour – isn’t she cute? * Photo: Argyll Cruising

Amongst the more than four-score lines we cover on QuirkyCruise.com, Argyll Cruising carries the fewest number of passengers at any one time (eight), and qualifies as one of the smallest vessels, sharing the size category with a couple of competitors in the same waters of Western Scotland. Wait until you learn the size of the crew!

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

In this case, the ship is the former traditional wooden trawler Splendour converted to carry eight passengers in comfortable quarters within and a goodly amount of outdoor spaces. The crew numbers — captain and cook — one and one = two!

Passenger Decks

Three decks, with cabins located on the lowest deck; saloon and galley on the weather deck with multiple viewing areas and kayak and bicycle storage forward; and wheelhouse and open space aft of that on the bridge deck. Given its fishy history, there is no lift (elevator).

Passenger Profile

Most will hail from the UK as Scotland is a hugely popular destination for those living below Hadrian’s Wall.

Price

$$ Pricey, especially with so few passengers.

Included Features

Boat transfers ashore, excursions mentioned in the specific itineraries, and wine with dinner.

Argyll Cruising

Scotland and its Western Isles are beautiful. For the fit, this view is worth the climb. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

Itineraries

With 12 itineraries to choose from, it is a tough choice to make. Some eliminations come naturally as the varied lengths range from 3, 6, 10 on up to 13 nights. With such a small number of cabins, availability is always a factor, and the website clearly shows the latest booking numbers, including the availability of the single single. If 8 appears, then the vessel is also available for a group charter. The charterers may be involved in the planning of the route and the emphasis of the sights and activities.

While the listed itineraries mention specific destinations — islands, lochs, waterways, ports, and sights — there is some flexibility given the weather, wind and tidal conditions.

Examples are 6 nights focused on the Island of Mull for the colorful port town of Tobermory, Duart Castle (seat of the Mcleans), Fingal’s Cave, Iona’s monastery (founded 563 AD) and its association with St. Columba, and sightings of minke whales, sea eagles, dolphins, otters and super picturesque puffins.

Argyll Cruising

Did we say “picturesque puffins”? * Photo: Argyll Cruising

A 13-night granddaddy cruise of the Hebrides includes: Brodick Castle (Arran), Achamore Gardens (Gigha), Loch Tarbert’s beaches, Kissimul Castle high on a rock (Barra), the long stretch of Cuillin Hills often seen with amazing cloud formations above (Skye), and nesting grounds for a quarter million birds (The Shiants).

For those who have limited time or want a sampler, a 3-night getaway visits Mount Stewart House near Rothsay, fishing village of Tarbert, Arran distillery and golden eagles, and picturesque Tighnabruaich village, with an overnight anchorage in steep-sided Loch Striven.

Argyll Cruising

Far out to sea, the island of St. Kilda once had a permanent population. Today, it is a prized destination for its vast bird colonies, and historic remains. * Photo: Argyll Cruising.a

Why Go?

Scotland is so well known for its rugged beauty — mountains, valleys, islands, lochs, lovely villages, ancient sites, sea animals, bird life and warm hospitality — there is not a lot to explain. The weather can never be counted on, so it’s go with the flow — of sunshine, clouds, and the euphemistic Scotch mist that pretty much sums up all precipitation.

When to Go?  

The season begins in early April and runs through to the end of October. The peak holiday season is July and August when the most popular destinations can get crowded and the interisland ferries booked up. A cruise such as this one eases many of the frustrations.

Cabins

All accommodations have en suite (private) washing and toilet facilities, and the two-person cabins have double beds and one twin. One cabin is set aside as a single with no supplement.

Argyll Cruising

A double bed cabin, one of three such, with porthole. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

Public Rooms

The interiors are paneled with solid and veneer hardwoods, with shared inside spaces the dining saloon and pilothouse where the captain welcomes passengers to visit, share his knowledge, and socialize.

Argyll Cruising

Panelled dining saloon. * What’s for dinner? * Photo: Argyll Cruising

Dining

Two tables of four host the breakfast hour commencing about 8am, a half hour after the generator switches on for the day; lunch comes at roughly 1pm, and the pre-dinner hour begins about 7pm with the evening meal a half hour or so later. The vessel rides at anchor for meals, with the first activity after breakfast, unless the day starts with a sail to another location.

Food is a highlight for many. Dinner offers Argyll Hill lamb, Highland beef, local crab, langoustines, lobster, fresh fruits and vegetables. Finish off with sticky toffee pudding and butterscotch sauce. Wine included with dinner. BBQ lunches are held on deck in good weather. All dietary requests accepted, in advance please.

Argyll Cruising

What’s for dinner? Here is a sampling. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

Activities & Entertainment

The vessel carries kayaks, windsurfers, and bicycles. Fishing is an option as is preparing and putting out the lobster pots from the spacious working space on the foredeck. Ashore, there are walks, hikes, cycling, gardens and historic sites to visit, bird watching, and scouting for otters and seals.

Argyll Cruising

Kyles – Stately home and gardens. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

Special Notes

Be aware that the weather may not always cooperate, but it can change rather quickly.

Along the Same Lines

Western Scotland’s other competing high-end small-ship operators covered by QuirkyCruise in alphabetical order:

Contact

Argyll Cruising, 5 Crawford Lane, Dunoon, Argyll PA23 8JP Scotland; UK phone: 07917 858545;

— Ted Scull

 

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