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



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.


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.


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

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.

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 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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Magna Carta Steamship Company

UPDATE:  Magna Carta Steamship Co Sells Lord of the Glens. by Ted Scull  (Aug 16, 2020) … more details to follow.

Founded in 1999, the Magna Carta Steamship Company the LORD OF THE GLENS, a 27-cabin mini cruiser outfitted with classic interiors, on five- and seven-night cruises, April to October. One-way trips operate between Inverness and Oban via the 60-mile Caledonian Canal or between the coastal community of Kyle of Lochalsh and Inverness.

All three ports have train connections to the rest of Scotland, and south to England and Wales. Some mid-summer dates are chartered out to Lindblad Expeditions

Cruise the beautiful Caledonian Canal spanning Scotland from the North Sea to the West Coast and the sheltered Scottish coast aboard a comfy mini cruiser.

Beginning in May 2020, you will have the choice of two vessels when the LORD OF THE HIGHLANDS is delivered.

LORD OF THE GLENS passing Urquhart Castle. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

LORD OF THE GLENS passing Urquhart Castle. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

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Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

LORD OF THE GLENS was originally built in Greece in the 1980s and then rebuilt for the present owners in the year 2000, taking 54 passengers.

Note: In May 2020, the Spanish-built LORD OF THE HIGHLANDS will join the line taking 42 passengers in 21 outside cabins. Details will be added as they become available.

Passenger Decks

4 and no elevator.

Passenger Profile

Americans, Canadians, British and Europeans. Crew is British and European.


$$ to $$$ — Expensive to very pricey.

Included Features

Rates include excursions as outlined in the itinerary and transfers to/from Inverness at the start or end of the cruise. Suggested tipping is GBP 7 per person per day. Limited internet is available and WiFi generally not except in towns.


Two different itineraries are operated.

LORD OF THE GLENS in the Caledonian Canal. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

LORD OF THE GLENS in the Caledonian Canal. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

5 nights: Inverness to Oban via Loch Ness and through the locks of the scenic 19th-century Caledonian Canal. The route through the heart of the Highlands aims southwest to Scotland’s west coast entering the sea via Neptune’s Staircase, a flight of descending locks. The cruise continues to colorful Tobermory, the Isle of Mull for Duart Castle and finally to the port of Oban.

7 nights: Begins similarly then heads out to the Christian site at Iona, the Isles of Eigg and Skye, Eilean Donan Castle, the pretty town of Plonkton and finally to the Kyle of Lochalsh. Bird and sea life sightings are features of this longer cruise.

Docked at Tobermory. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

Docked at Tobermory. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

Why Go?

When the fickle Scottish weather cooperates, the shimmering lochs, deep glens, and high bens (mountains) are magnificent. Spring brings wild flowers and the autumn, an array of color. The landscapes change very quickly as the ship moves along the Caledonian Canal and crosses long deep lochs, including Loch Ness, perhaps the most famous of all.

When to Go?

Magna Carta Steamship Company cruises operate from May to October, and July and August are the busiest months for visits ashore to prime tourist spots. But Scotland is rarely a crowded scene, just the contrary.


The 27 cabins (average about 135 sq. ft.) are divided into four categories over three decks and accommodate 54 passengers, all with dressing table, hairdryer, satellite TV, radio, music system, air-conditioning/heating, safe deposit box, and private shower, toilet, and washbasin. Suitcases fit under the beds.

Windows bring in abundant natural light in all rooms apart from four lower deck units with double portholes. Beds are mostly twin.

Alexander Graham Bell cabin. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

Alexander Graham Bell cabin. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

Public Rooms

The highest of the four decks is given over to an observation lounge with a glass domed ceiling and a mahogany-trimmed bar lounge with good views, while the dining room seating all passengers at one time is on the deck below. The forward deck has uninterrupted views ahead and to port and starboard. For ocean liner buffs, some decorative features and some furnishings are from the SS France, RMS Rhodesia Castle and RMS Windsor Castle and the original Orient Express.


Breakfast (buffet) is available from 7 to 9:30am, lunch 12:30pm and dinner 7:30pm. Scottish produce is featured with angus beef and bounty from the sea. Passengers are asked to choose their entries in advance to give the chef an idea of how much to prepare. Most men wear a jacket to dinner and may dress up a bit more for a special evening.

Bar-Lounge. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

Bar-Lounge. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

Activities & Entertainment

Social life predominates aboard, and ashore with coach drives to castles and beauty spots of this green country, plus walks around pretty towns. A film is screened every night.

Special Notes

With the Scottish cruises of short duration, one week or less, plan on a larger itinerary than might include Glasgow and Edinburgh or even the Outer Hebrides.

Along the Same Lines

Hebrides Cruises, The Majestic Line, Hebridean Island Cruises.


Magna Carta Steamship Company Ltd, 136 Hamilton Terrace, London NW8 9UX UK; Tel: 020 7372 2077



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Europe Canal Transits

By Theodore W. Scull.

Many European river cruises include Europe canal transits in their itineraries, which adds an exciting element to any route.

Digging canals dates back to the Ancient World from simple shallow channels for irrigating fields to more substantial waterways to move building stones, crops and people. Wheeled transport, where it existed, was hindered by poor road surfaces and the loads carried could not approach what a canal barge transported.

England invested heavily in canal building in the 18th century greatly facilitating the movements of heavy bulk items such as coal for making iron and clay to manufacture bricks. The fine china industry took off when smooth canal transport greatly lessened breakage over the rough roads. Continental Europe got into canal building about the same time, creating thousands of miles of connecting inland waterways, many heavily used today by commercial traffic and cruising riverboats, hotel and charter barges. The Gota Canal across Sweden is the single most popular almost pure canal trip in Europe, and the Main-Danube Canal, not completely finished until 1992, in southern Germany did much to boost the popularity of riverboat cruises. More details on these latter two canals will follow.

Can at Paddington Basin, London

England produced a dense network of canals and added graceful industrial features that we can enjoy today – Here at Paddington Basin, London. * Photo: Ted Scull

Salt water canals for oceangoing ships came about in the 19th and early 20th centuries that resulted in cutting a week or two in transit times with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and even more savings for many passages when the Panama Canal was finished in 1914.

Passenger shipping, now today’s cruise industry, use canals for economy, convenience, and broadening the reach and interest of pleasure trips. A daytime transit through the Kiel, Corinth or Suez Canals will certainly prove to be a bonus in any itinerary. Mostly freshwater canals draw some of the smallest vessels in the portfolio such as The Gota Canal across Sweden and the Caledonian Canal across Scotland.


Although a canal across the Isthmus of Panama had been contemplated long before its actual completion, it was the opening of the Suez Canal, an Anglo-French project that revolutionized trade routes and passenger travel between Europe and Asia and Australasia. (Read more about the Panama Canal in an upcoming post about North American Canals.)

Suez Canal

Sea journeys from England to Australia via the Cape were shortened by a few days because of the Suez Canal, but a ship sailing from Marseilles, Genoa, Naples or Piraeus would save a week or two. For routes to East Asia, the savings were even greater for both Northern and Southern Europe. Today the canal is as vital to waterborne commerce as any on earth, and during peaceful times many world circumnavigations and positioning cruises between Europe and Asia use the canal. Suez is also the primary source of revenue for Egypt.

The 100-mile Suez Canal was dug through the desert, and while there is a slight flow between the Mediterranean and Red Seas, no locks were necessary, greatly cutting down on the cost of building and operation, and in transit times. While the mostly desert scenery is nothing to write home about, the landscape does take on a lovely glow at both sunrise and sunset. But more important, just think about the history that has transpired and the battles that have been fought over the canal and between armies fronting on the waterway. During one period during the war between Egypt and Israel, Suez was blocked by sunken ships and shut to traffic for seven years from 1967 to 1973. And it is well fortified with military presence on both banks and particularly on the Sinai side.

The southbound transit usually begins with a call at Port Said, the headquarters for the Suez Canal Authority and the disembarkation point for the long day trip to Cairo and the Pyramids at Giza. The Egyptian canal pilots join here and the ship takes its place in the southbound convoy that usually sails in the early morning. Most of the ships will be container vessels, bulk carriers and generally empty tankers heading to the Persian Gulf to take on oil. Draft is the only consideration and that applies mostly to loaded supertankers, so all the world’s cruise fleet is able to make the transit. At the southern end, the pilots disembark, and the ship resumes normal cruising speeds for the trip south into the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea.

Lines that transit the Suez include: Ponant

Europe Canal Transits

A British P&O liner passes through Suez many moons ago. * Photo: Chas Pears, Empire Marketing Board

Corinth Canal

Ancient writers relate that in 602 B.C., Periander, Tyrant of Corinth (Greece), was the first person to seriously consider the possibility of opening a canal through the Isthmus. Periander is said to have given up on his plans fearing the wrath of the gods. Pythia, the priestess of the Delphic Oracle, had warned him not to proceed. Roman Emperor Nero and the Venetians tried and failed.

Successful construction finally began in 1882 and finished in 1893 necessitating considerable blasting to make the cut through the rock. The four-mile canal closed for two years in 1923 when the sides caved in and when retreating Germans used explosives in 1944 resulting in five years of closure.

Europe Canal Transits

Approaching the Corinth Canal from the eastern end. * Photo: Ted Scull

Only relatively small cruise ships can make the transit, and the largest that are permitted often have to have tugs at the bow and stern to avoid scrapping along the rock walls that rise to a maximum of 58 feet. Tides are minimal and currents run about 2.5 knots. While the view ahead is quite dramatic, the only other points of visual interest are the bridges that cross carrying vehicular and railway traffic to the Peloponnese. Two low bridges, rather than lifting, actually sink to allow the ships to pass over. In the height of summer, the rock walls reflect the heat onto the ship’s deck, and I found it a huge relief to finally come out in the Gulf of Corinth when heading to the Adriatic.

Lines that transit the Corinth Canal include: SeaDream, Silversea & Windstar

Europe Canal Transits

The four-mile-long Corinth Canal cuts across Greece connecting the port of Piraeus (Athens) with the Adriatic Sea. * Photo: Ted Scull

Kiel Canal

With a length of 61 miles (98 km) the Kiel Canal cuts across Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany just south of the Danish border, connecting the North Sea with the Baltic Sea and providing a major passage for shipping and an attractive diversion for pleasure vessels. The canal extends from Kiel on the Baltic to Brunsbüttelkoog at the mouth of the Elbe River. Locks at each end of the canal minimize tidal variation. Built between 1887-1895, to facilitate movement of the German fleet, the Kiel Canal was widened and deepened from 1905 to 1914. Because of its great military and commercial importance, the canal was internationalized by the Treaty of Versailles (1919), though its direct administration was left with the Germans. In 1936 Adolf Hitler cancelled its international status in 1936 until free navigation resumed after World War II.

Europe Canal Transits

The Kiel Canal has a set of locks at either end to maintain a desired water level and eliminate tidal currents. * Photo: Ted Scull

The Kiel Canal is perhaps unique in its largely rural nature with little disturbance of the flanking countryside. On a passage I made, I could smell the manure from the bordering farms. Railway and highway bridges span the waterway, and several ferry crossings fill in the gaps between. An unusual transporter bridge (1913) uses a ferry-like gondola connected by cables to an overhead railway span to carry cars across the waterway so not to interrupt canal traffic. When operating, it is a most unusual sight to behold.

Lines that transit the Kiel Canal include: Windstar & Viking River Cruises

North Sea Canal

The port of Amsterdam is accessed via the 15-mile North Sea Canal (or Amsterdam Ship Canal) providing a mildly interesting transit from the North Sea port of Ijmuiden through the Dutch countryside. When completed in 1876, the North Sea Canal made Amsterdam one of Europe’s great ports. While still important, the rival city of Rotterdam has long surpassed it in maritime traffic, though many cruise lines still prefer Amsterdam. The transit from Amsterdam to the North Sea is more likely to be during convenient daylight hours than in the reverse direction where the ships pass through in the very early morning hours to be docked in Amsterdam by 8am. Many canalized waterways spread throughout The Netherlands and Belgium, and many riverboat itineraries take advantage of them especially during the spring flowing months.

The North Sea Canal links Amssterdam to the North Sea

The North Sea Canal links the port of Amsterdam to the North Sea.

North Sea Canal locking operations include the Northern Lock, one of the largest chambers in the world with dimensions of 1312 by 492 feet. That explains why the locking operation takes so darn long, while small pleasure craft and barges use smaller parallel locks. The arrival in Amsterdam is a treat as the ship passes the city center, river cruise and ferry docks, and the massive Central Station railway.

Lines that transit the North Sea Canal include: Windstar, with a full transit, while many river cruise lines that offer itineraries in Holland and Belgium during the spring bulb season will often use some portion of the North Sea Canal to reach inland ports.

Main-Danube Canal

Located in Bavaria, southern Germany, the Main-Danube was late in coming to the European waterways as the missing 106 miles was not completed until September 1992 between Bamberg via Nuremberg and Kelheim.

However, Charlemagne, as early as the late 8th century, hoped to connect the two rivers that would then create a waterway from the North Sea via the Rhine, his canal, and the Danube as it empties into the Black Sea. As an aside, several river cruise firms offer the entire route every year for those who have the money and time (three weeks).

A narrow version was completed in the first half of the 19th century with many locks to connect the two watersheds and insufficient water available during the summer when the demand was at its peak. It was allowed to languish until the late 1930s when the next more ambitious project was stymied by WWII.

The present canal with 16 locks rises to 1,332 feet, the world’s highest canal elevation where the waterway is connected to the sea and sea level. The locks are remotely operated at four centers, and besides a growing business in creative river cruise itineraries, a considerable amount of freight is also handled, fed by very busy Rhine River traffic and somewhat lower but still considerable volume on the Danube. A sampling of the heavy freight transported is fuel, food, fertilizers, ores, metals, scrap, stone, building rubble, and soil.

The geographically minded may be thrilled by the prospect of sailing across Europe from the Netherlands on the North Sea to Bulgaria and Romania on the Black Sea. However, not easily springing to mind, other than perhaps mine, one can sail from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea northward through the heart of Russia along the Don and Volga and various connecting waterways, lakes and reservoirs.

Lines that transit the Main-Danube Canal include: AMA Waterways, CroisiEurope, Crystal River Cruises, Uniworld, Viking River Cruises

Caledonian Canal

Scotland’s Caledonian Canal slices some 60 miles from northeast to southwest across the country between the North Sea at Inverness to Corpach on the West Coast. The famous Scottish engineer Thomas Telford supervised the building during two decades as the beginning of the 19th century. He was also involved in Sweden’s Gota Canal (see below). One-third of the Caledonian’s length is man-made while the rest is formed by connecting lochs, including the famous Loch Ness. Good luck getting a glimpse of its resident monster.

Lord of the Glens in the Caledonian Canal. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

Some 29 locks carry the waterway over the high ground, including the eight locks forming Neptune’s Staircase while ten bridges and four aqueducts cross it. Very small cruise vessels, several with overnight accommodations, cruise portions of the scenic canal and occasionally its full length.

Lines that transit the Caledonian Canal include: Hebrides Cruises, Magna Carta SS Co., Majestic Line, and Puffer Steamboat Holidays VIC 32.

Gota Canal

Sweden’s most ambitious construction project, lasting from 1810 to 1832, was largely undertaken by Scottish engineers and equipment, thanks to the many parallel canal projects in Britain happening at the same time. Thomas Telford, who oversaw the building of the Caledonian Canal, oversaw the Swedish project.

Europe Canal Transits

The lovely Juno passing through one of the Gota Canal system’s many locks. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The 382 miles extended from Gothenburg on Sweden’s west coast to Soderkoping on the Baltic Sea, south of Stockholm. Canal construction extended 120 miles, including 58 locks, while otherwise the waterway made considerable use of various rivers and two large inland lakes — Vattern and Vanern. While it was designed to carry freight as well as passengers, by 1855 the building of railroads doomed its profitability as passengers and higher value cargo took to faster trains. Heavy bulk cargo that did not require speedy delivery such as lumber, coal and ore continued to be carried for many decades.

The passenger trade became largely recreational and an estimated two million people take to watercraft from canoes and kayaks up to the Gota Canal Steamship Company vessels that offer overnight accommodations for from two to six days while enjoying a highly scenic cruise through the lovely Swedish countryside.

Lines that transit the Gota Canal: Gota Canal Steamship Company

Read Heidi’s account of her Gota Canal trip aboard the charming 1874-built Juno.

Sweden's Gota Canal Steamship Company

The charming 1874-built Juno. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

While not an exhaustive list of European canals by an means, the above include some of the most popular where QuirkyCruise ships may appear.

Next time, we will venture to North America and ferret out the canal transits.


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