Majestic Line’s Glen Shiel
By Robin McKelvie.
Eking into the remote bay the dolphins finally leave us, replaced by a brace of soaring sea eagles, arcing in languorous loops as we marvel from far below. Dead ahead awaits a ramble up a mountain path ashore, followed by a delicious dinner of local lobster risotto and a wee dram under the stars back aboard.
Welcome to cruising on the Majestic Line’s Glen Shiel, an ideal cocoon for navigating troubled waters in these testing times.
Cruising in the time of Covid-19
Cruising itself — as COVID-19 ravages the world of travel — is a rare joy. Scotland’s flotilla of small ships, which take a maximum of 12 passengers, are able to sail, but of course nothing is quite the same with COVID.
I wouldn’t want it to be as everyone needs to be safe — and I feel instantly safe with Majestic. In the days before we sail we all have to fill in a health questionnaire. That is no surprise as one of the owners, Ken Grant, is handily a respected epidemiologist.
We are temperature checked on arrival and hand sanitizer stations are dotted around the ship, with masks freely available.
Captain Peter Watt explains: “We all have to stay safe and that means using the gel. You must wear a mask at all times in the tender and when entering shops ashore.”
These measures prove both effective and reassuring. We are even given temperature checks every morning and Peter also clarifies that the crew are all regularly tested too. It feels safe as we cruise away from the mainland into a world of sparsely populated, or even uninhabited, islands, where social distancing is not a problem. It feels safer than going to my local supermarket.
There were seven passengers, including me, with one fellow Scot and five English people. All were looking for a safe, secure escape from the stresses and strains of these hard COVID-19 times and they found it aboard the Glen Shiel. Could almost feel their souls unclenching as the days went on.
Our six-night adventure is dubbed “Skye and the Small Isles,” but you must forget any firm itinerary when exploring Scotland’s wild and wildly beautiful west coast and its islands. Here the weather and the Atlantic are king and queen of everything you do.
For the first day and a half we seek shelter in brooding bays beneath mist shrouded Highland mountains as vicious winds ravage more exposed vessels. Indeed during the first night another ship moored in the same sea loch slips anchor. We hold fast.
The inclement weather allows us time both to get to know each other — a real joy with small ship cruising — and the trim shipshape vessel.
Only launched in 2019, the Glen Shiel is a sleek affair, more private cruising yacht than the monster cruise ships many people conjure up when they think of cruising. She was built at the tiny Ardmaleish yard on the Scottish island of Bute, the biggest vessel they have ever built. I know the yard well as my late dad built his own yacht and kept her there.
I have my own family connections to the Glen Shiel, but there is a family feel about her in general and cruising with Majestic. It really is so informal. Everyone is on first name terms with our skipper always just Peter, engineer Chris, bosun Jill and chef Molly.
The Majestic Line is a Scottish family-run company too, who have steered calmly through tough times for the industry back in 2001 and 2009 to offer efficient, enjoyable cruises that still feel personal; intimate even.
Over the years I’ve cruised on all three of the Majestic Line fleet, and soon the Glen Shiel, my fourth, becomes my favorite. She is slightly bigger than the Glen Etive, making her the largest in the fleet.
Like the Glen Etive she also has two indoor public areas: an aft dining room with a large hardwood table that you can use by day for reading, and a fore bar/saloon area with chairs, sofas and a bookshelf.
Cabins are fairly spacious, with calm not too “twee” décor and everything you need, including showers that are always hot.
Into the Sea of the Hebrides
The bridge is always open and comes with its efficient modernity given a more classic feel with a fully functional wooden helm and an equally useable ceiling binnacle.
It is where I stand on the second morning as we make use of the easing weather to funnel down the historic Sound of Mull (checking out the flurry of castles on either flank as we go) in search of Ardnamurchan Point.
Here the Sea of the Hebrides proper unfurls. Mendelssohn always rings in my ears as I round the most westerly point in the UK mainland — he was so entranced by the ethereal Hebrides that he was moved to craft his Hebrides Overture here.
Our first island is Muck; it proves a perfect choice. While the rest of the passengers ramble around its tiny “capital” and check out the new café, I break west.
I hit Gallanach Bay where I catch sight of a pod of porpoises frolicking in the aquarium-clear waters off a white sand beach. The scene looks positively Caribbean, but you don’t get many otters there. Here one works his way along nearby rocks on the water’s edge.
It’s tempting to stay and hang out with my new animal friends, but I’m determined to haul myself up Beinn Airein, at 137m (450 feet), the island’s highest point.
It’s worth the effort as I get a view of the three other Small Isles (Eigg, Rum and Canna), with the massive hulk of the Isle of Skye (the fourth largest island in the British Isles) haunting the background.
Onwards to Skye and Canna
We spend the next two days wrapped in the wild charms of these dizzyingly beautiful isles. It’s a land where perspectives constantly change, along with the light. Islands veer in and out of view, while the distant mainland looms in the background.
Somewhere there out west I know the Outer Hebrides lurk too. It feels like sailing through an oil painting: shapes, textures and colors constantly shift with sweeping brushstrokes.
We’re not alone out here as we’re joined by an array of marine mammals. A pod of dolphins skip alongside playing with our bow wave, while porpoises make typically brief cameos.
Then it’s the turn of the Atlantic big guns as we spot a brace of minke whales nearby. At first they look like giant dolphins, but their rear dorsal fin confirms the sighting; less clear are the orcas we spot thrashing around in the distance, but we conclude they are orcas nonetheless.
We manage time ashore on Rum, Canna and Skye too, but not Eigg as the islanders there are still not keen on day trippers.
With face masks on in the tenders to shore, and in the wee shops and cafes, we’re welcomed by communities who have had very little contact with the outside world since March 2020. It’s a privilege to spend time on the isles and learn about ways of living that seem idyllic — close to nature, indeed immersed in it — but which must be tough to live on in the long winter months.
Steaming back south all too soon we again have reached Ardnamurchan Point and in the comparative urban charms of the picturesque settlement of Tobermory on Mull.
An afternoon and night passes here with a trip to the shops and a cozy pub, as well as to the local distillery.
Our last night is spent moored off the southwestern tip of Lismore, where we enjoy a spectacular, lingering Hebridean sunset, as we bob below a brooding ruined castle, then spot shooting stars and even a meteorite on an ultra-clear night.
Puttering back into Oban we talk about how refreshed we all feel, ready to take on the world of COVID-19, even our local supermarkets, after a life affirming adventure in Scotland’s incomparable Hebrides.
The Majestic Line is offering trips on the Glen Shiel until the end of October, then again from spring 2021. Their “Skye and the Small Isles” six-night cruise is priced from US$3,000 per person including all meals, wine with dinner and trips ashore.
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.
The Majestic Line has three other ships in their fleet. The Glen Etive is of a similar size and appearance — she is sailing in 2020 through end October. The smaller converted fishing boats, the Glen Massan and the Glen Tarsan, are available for private charter in 2020. All four vessels are planning on running full schedules in 2021.
RELATED: Reader Review of the Glen Tarsan.
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.
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 The Majestic Line check out www.themajesticline.co.uk.
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