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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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Hebridean Princess is on the dream travel list

Places to Travel Next.

By the QuirkyCruise crew.

Many of us miss the ability to travel right now; to plan, book, dream, pine and take a trip with the ease that now seems unimaginable. For those of us who not only traveled for the love of exploring, but because we’re travel writers doing our jobs, it’s been especially trying to adjust to the new normal. We will travel again and are heartened to see travel bubbles emerging. The gradual return to small-ship cruising is on the horizon.

In the meantime, we can plan and dream and noodle on places to travel, and that’s exactly what Ted and I and our quirky contributors are doing.

Here are three places each of us is hankering to go to as soon as the coast is clear.

Ted Scull

I am based in New York City, and my hopes for travel are widely varied as they always have been.

1.  I have contracts, with Cunard, renewed on an annual basis, to serve as a lecturer twice a year aboard a Queen May 2 westbound crossing. Just being at sea for a week is pure joy, and with a purpose. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent April crossing was cancelled as has the next one scheduled for October. Prior to the transatlantics, my wife and I had planned to spend a week to 10 days either in the UK and/or on the Continent. I look forward to resuming these land and sea options in 2021.

Ted's Places to Travel

Ted before the Queen Mary 2 at Southampton.

2.  For a completely different experience, I would love a week aboard a small ship, and I mean a wee one, with from less than three-dozen passengers on down to 12, cruising Scotland’s Western or Northern Isles. It’s been my favorite inter-island cruising region since the 1970s. Happily — and Yikes! — there are so many new choices.

Ted's fave places to travel

St. Kilda, a bird sanctuary beyond the Outer Hebrides. * Photo: Ted Scull

RELATED:  Cruising Western Scotland, an Overview.  by Ted Scull 

3.  My most ambitious travel adventure would be an overland train journey from London to Shanghai, with a half-dozen stopovers such as Moscow and a couple of cities along the Trans-Siberian, thence to Ulan Bator (Mongolia), Beijing and finally Shanghai. I would allow a month, and we definitely want to share the trip with at least two or more people for company and security. Several friends have expressed interest. I made a similar-style adventure in 1976 traveling by train, ferry, smallish liner and bus from London via the Balkans, Turkey, Gulf States across India and finally by Toy Train up the narrow gauge to Darjeeling.

Ted's wish list include a London to Shanghai train journey


The end of the train journey: London St. Pancras to the Bund in Shanghai. * Photo: Ted Scull

QuirkyCruise.com co-founder Ted Scull is happiest near water, over water or better still on a conveyance moving through water. Over many decades, he has spent more than five years of his life on overnight vessels of all types — ocean liners, cruise ships, riverboats, night boats, coastal vessels, expedition ships, sailing ships and even a couple of freighters, while traveling to over 120 countries on seven continents. Read more here.

Heidi Sarna

I’m based in Singapore, so some of my “I-can’t-wait-to-go” places to travel are in the region, as regional travel will likely be more accessible for the near-term, as “travel bubbles” open between neighboring countries.

1.  I’ve been dreaming about doing the Upper Mekong in Laos and also the Chindwin River in northern Myanmar, both with Pandaw, one of my favorite small-ship lines. These itineraries are more off-beat and less traveled than Mekong river cruises in Cambodia/Vietnam as well as Irrawaddy river cruises, both of which I’ve done and loved. Ideally, I’d love to combine a Pandaw sailing with a guided Grasshopper Adventures cycling trip before or after.

A cruise on the Laos Pandaw is on Heidi's travel list

The 20-passenger Laos Pandaw. * Photo: Pandaw

2.  Definitely, a sailing cruise in Indonesia is top of my list, either around the Komodo Islands or further east in the stunning Raja Ampat region — both of these remote areas boast some of the best snorkeling and diving in the entire world, not to mention off-the-charts scenery. I’d love to do these trips with Star Clippers, Seatrek Sailing Adventures or Aqua Expeditions.

Komodo islands is a place to travel soon

Sparring Komodo dragons. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

3.  I’m really eager to do a Douro River cruise with a few days in Porto before or after. I love wine and loved a short visit to Lisbon a few years ago, so looking forward to spending more time in Portugal soaking it all up.

Douro River Valley is on Heidi's wish list

A river cruise through the breathtaking Douro River Valley. * Photo: Ama Waterways

QuirkyCruise.com co-founder Heidi Sarna has explored 78 countries around the world by boat, road, plane, foot, bicycle and camel. She started her travel writing career covering the big ships for guidebooks and magazines, though over the years she realized it was the small ones that really floated her boat. And so QuirkyCruise.com was born.  Read more here.

Peter Knego

1.  My first hoped for choice would be to sail on one of CMV ASTORIA‘s final cruises from the UK to Norway in the fall. Such a special, historic ship. See more about the Astoria here in Peter’s photo essay in USA TODAY.

The historic Astoria is the place Peter Knego wants to travel

Peter in front of the historic CMV ASTORIA.

2.  Second on my list would be to get on a sailing of the 95-passenger MV SERENISSIMA, a former Norwegian coastal liner operated by Noble Caledonia. A perfect itinerary on her would be a round UK cruise.

The MV SERENISSIMA is one of the places Peter Knego wants to go

The MV SERENISSIMA is a former Norwegian coastal liner operated by Noble Caledonia. * Photo: Noble Caledonia

3.  Finally, I’m long overdue to do a Galapagos cruise, ideally one that would include an extension to Machu Picchu.

Blue-Footed Booby birds in the galapagos

The famed Blue-Footed Booby birds of the Galapagos. * Photo: Quasar Expeditions

Peter Knego is a cruise journalist, as well as a historian and collector of ocean liner fittings and art — see www.midshipcentury.com. He writes for top cruise and travel pubs, including USA Today, Travel Weekly and Ships Monthly, and has been interviewed and quoted as an expert in The New York Times, SeaTrade Insider and others. Follow Peter on instagram @Knego.

John Roberts

1.   I’m hankering for a Morocco and Canary Islands cruise with Star Clippers.

Climbing the masts on a Star Clippers Greek Isles Cruise

Climbing the masts! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

2.  Douro River cruise with Uniworld. I’ve never been on this river and have heard so many great things.

Uniworld Douro river cruise is on John's travel wish list

A suite aboard Uniworld’s Douro River boat, the São Gabriel. * Photo: Uniworld

3.  Belize and Guatemala with UnCruise. It’s a new itinerary with great activities on the water and on land that really appeals to active travelers like me!

Belize is one of the top places John wants to visit

John chilling on one of Belize’s cayes.

John Roberts is a freelance writer and operator of InTheLoopTravel.com. He writes about cruising and active travel. He’s been on more than 60 cruises in destinations all over the world, always keeping an eye out for how people can connect with the world and other cultures through rewarding travel experiences. Follow John @InTheLoopTravel on Twitter and Instagram.

Anne Kalosh

I’m not thinking about personal or professional travel yet — by ship, plane or even on the local metro. My thoughts are with how the tens of thousands of crew members still stuck on cruise ships due to port closures can get home safely to their families.

Anne Kalosh

This is an urgent focus for the cruise industry, and I hope governments will have a heart and facilitate passage for the seafarers caught up in this crisis.

I’m also keenly interested in how society and the cruise industry will harness their ingenuity and drive to come up with technological advances, operational changes and innovative solutions to overcome this pandemic.

Let’s hope lessons learned will make travel safer and society more humane. Then I’ll begin to dream again about my own trips.

Anne Kalosh has written about cruises for decades and her favorites involve small ships. She writes a cruise column for Afar.com, is the U.S. editor for Seatrade-Cruise.com and Seatrade Cruise Review, and has contributed to a bazillion pubs, including The Miami Herald, Cruise Travel, USA Today and Cruise Week.

Gene Sloan

1.  Moldova. After my wonderful Ukraine visit last year (on a Quirky Cruise! …. read about it here), I am intrigued by that corner of the world. I hear good things about Moldova.

ukraine

Gene’s visit to the Ukraine last year got him thinking about Moldova next.

2.  Liechtenstein. This is purely a country count play. I had a 48-hour dash to Liechtenstein using frequent flier miles on the books for February that I had to cancel when corona-virus blew up. I want to get it back on the schedule. No idea what I will do there. But that’s the point sometimes. Maybe I’ll extend my timeline a few days and make the trip about hiking. I hear they have mountains in Liechtenstein. From where I am, I can get to Zurich nonstop (from Newark) on United and then be in Liechtenstein by train in a couple hours.

Vaduz Castle in Liechtenstein

Vaduz Castle in Liechtenstein. * Photo: Principality of Liechtenstein Tourism Board

3.  The Jersey shore. Hey, no judgment. It’s an hour away, getting warmer by the day, and I can hunker down in a rental house where no one will infect me in between days at the beach.

Cape May is on the travel list

Cape May, on the New Jersey shore. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Gene Sloan has written about travel for nearly three decades, with a longtime focus on cruising. He spent more than 20 years as a travel writer and editor at USA TODAY, where he co-founded the paper’s travel section and later founded and ran its online cruise site. At last count, he’d sailed on nearly 150 ships. Follow Gene on Twitter at CruiseLog & Instagram!

Ben Lyons

1.  Transatlantic crossing on QM2. For the pandemic, I’ve been (fortunately) holed up in Montana the whole time. Montana is beautiful, but it is also landlocked.

I haven’t gone this long without seeing the ocean for probably 25 years.

So when cruising is back, top on my list is a transatlantic crossing on QM2 — a glorious week just staring at nothing but North Atlantic.

2.  Antarctica. Post COVID, I think we’ll see an interest in getting as far away from large cities and back into pristine nature. And when it comes to pristine nature, you can’t do much better  than Antarctica. I’ve been going to the White Continent every year since 2007; for many, the experience of visiting somewhere without cell phones is a  bit of a reset in life, even in normal times. Post COVID, I think it will be even more welcome.

Ben in Antarctica.

Ben in Antarctica.

3.  Hebridean Princess. Footloose walking cruise in Scotland. I believe when it comes to quirky cruises, the smaller the better. Hebridean Princess, a former Scottish island ferry turned luxury cruise ship, is about as small as they come with only 50 passengers.

Small groups are the way forward in a post COVID world.

And so a week spent cruising the Hebrides, while going ashore for long extended hikes across sparsely populated islands, seems a pretty ideal return to cruising trip.

Hebridean Princess is on the dream travel list

The 50-passenger Hebridean Princess is a great way to travel to the remote western isles of Scotland. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Ben Lyons has been obsessed with ships since he was five years old. Since then, he has spent almost every waking moment figuring out how to spend more time at sea, ultimately deciding on careers as a ship’s captain and travel writer. Follow Ben on Twitter @EYOS.

Lynn & Cele Seldon

1.  East Coast with Pearl. We were scheduled to travel up the East Coast from Charleston to Halifax with Pearl Seas in April, prior to the coronavirus crises. Although we have been to the majority of the ports of calls, we were anxious to try Pearl Seas as a line. And sailing along the East Coast is somewhat reminiscent of river cruising, with easy access to exciting cities without the hassles of larger vessels.

And, now, at least for the short term, there is the added appeal of sticking a little closer to home.

Seldon Ink share their top places to travel

Cele & Lynn Seldon of Seldon Ink.

2.  Iceland. We traveled to Iceland several years ago on a land-based trip, spending the majority of our time in Reykjavik and the surrounding area. And we always said we’d go back. However, this time, we’d like to do it by sea and experience a circumnavigation of Iceland to be able to explore all of the small towns and nooks and crannies of the island.

"Adventure Canada" Specials

Iceland. * Photo: Michelle Valberg for Adventure Canada

3.  Patagonia and the Chilean Fjords. What a perfect place to combine a land and sea exploration of the stunning scenery of such a different part of the world. Add on a few days in the wine regions of Chile and Argentina and you’ve got the makings of a bucket list trip for these intrepid adventurers (and wine drinkers!).

Seldon Ink is the travel journalist team of Lynn and Cele Seldon. Lynn brings their travels to life in words and pictures, while Cele, after a corporate marketing career, writes, edits, shoots, and handles marketing and research. In their 25-year career, they have taken 100+ cruises and have written for more than 200 publications, including Cruise Travel, CruiseCritic, and others. Follow them @Seldon Ink on Twitter & Instagram.

Judi Cohen

My first trip when the border opens between Canada and the USA will be to New York to hug my son and his new fiancé. They got engaged on April 19 in Central Park.

1.  Then, I would like to do a small-ship cruise on Pandaw in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Judi on the Mekong

Judi on the Mekong River with Pandaw.

2.  Another small ship cruise with UnCruise in Panama, Costa Rica or Hawaii would be at the top of my list. I had to cancel a Costa Rica/Panama cruise on UnCruise for March 19, 2020, just as corona-virus was spreading internationally.

Alaska cruise writer Judi Cohen aboard UnCruise's Legacy

Judi Cohen at the bow of the 90-passenger Legacy. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

3.  I’d also love to do another river cruise with Viking in Europe very soon.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Viking Einar. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Judi Cohen has travelled to more than 80 countries with her family, and as a tour leader. Writing about her off-the-beaten track journeys by train, helicopter, plane and small quirky cruise ships is her passion. Judi is also an inspirational storyteller, social media influencer and speaker. Visit TravelingJudi.com and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @TravelingJudi.

Robin McKelvie

1.Home. In a slightly bigger sense. We’ve been restricted in Scotland to driving within five miles of our homes. I’m desperate to get out further and from July 15 we can. I’m celebrating by heading out on a cruise with Red Moon so look out for the write-up on QuirkyCruise.com!

Caledonian cruise is one of Robin's places to go

Bagpiper plays a tune for Robin’s cruise on Scotland’s Caledonian Canal.

2.  Slovenia. Meant to be updating my Bradt guide to Slovenia this summer, but that’s not happening. Was looking forward to heading back to a wee gem I consider Europe in miniature. Epic mountains, balmy coast, postcard pretty cities, welcoming people and Michelin just issued their first restaurant stars for Slovenia. Brilliant, world class food and wine.

Ljubljana, Slovenia is on Robin McKelvie list of places to travel

The rooftops of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

3.  Canal du Midi. Was booked to cruise along France’s famous waterway with European Waterways in a wash of fine wine, outdoor hot tubs and sheer luxury in May. Desperate to get back after seeing what they could do in Scotland with their Spirit of Scotland — you can read about that superb cruise on QuirkyCruise.com.

Hot tubbing with European Waterways for Robin

Robin loved the European Waterways hot tub on his Scottish cruise and is looking forward to more of the same in France.

Robin McKelvie is a Scottish based travel writer and broadcaster specialising in cruises, especially small ships. A native Scot, he’s the author of National Geographic Scotland and has been published across five continents in magazines and newspapers including CNN Traveller, The Daily Telegraph, Times, The Australian and The Straits Times. On Twitter @robinmckelvie and @scotcruises, Instagram @travelwriterinakilt and @scotcruises.

Elysa Leonard

1.  Bonaire. I have joined the board of directors for a charity called Aquarium Divers for Coral, but had to postpone a trip to the lovely island of Bonaire for a week of diving and learning how to restore coral reefs. I can’t wait to tell that story! Bonaire is definitely one of the places to travel for me.

Scuba Diving in St Lucia

I’ll be back. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

2.  Bermuda. Once my island home, my family and I will be headed there as soon as the coast is clear, to see friends and enjoy every nook and cranny of this amazing tiny country.

Bermuda's Horseshoe Bay is Elysa's next travel place

Horseshoe Bay on Bermuda’s South Shore. * Photo: Bermuda Tourism Authority

3.  A quirky cruise anywhere in the Caribbean where the diving and snorkeling are plentiful, with Island Windjammers or Star Clippers!

Quirky Island Windjammers Theme Cruises

The Vela under full sail. * Photo: Island Windjammers

Elysa Leonard is a scuba diver who sure knows her tropical fish — she can identify more than 100 kinds. Writing about diving and snorkeling while on a small-ship cruise is her new nirvana. When she isn’t underwater, Elysa is CEO of Splash Communications, a global marketing and public relations firm.

Chrissy Colon

1.   My partner Peter and I would love to do a Greek islands cruise on a small ship with outdoor dining, perhaps couples only. Walking the islands and exploring ruins are all safe outdoor activities.

The Greek Isles is on the travel places list

A Greek Isles cruise with Star Clippers. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

2.  We would do another driving tour of English estates, staying at small B&B’s often owned by the family members who inherited these expensive properties. When we’ve done them in the past, we rarely encountered other people, as the tours were often small and some even by appointment only. Audio guides with timed admission would allow for safe distancing between visitors.

3.  Also, we’d plan an overnight driving trip to a stately old private estate in the northeast of the US, with botanical gardens and formal landscapes. We will look for B&B’s that are a stand-alone cottage or secluded motels. We prefer to wait a while before we jump on a plane even after flights are allowed.

Travel places include the estates in Stockbridge MA

A moon gate on the grounds of the Naumkeag estate in Stockbridge MA. * Photo: Peter Barnes

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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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Hebridean Island Cruises

Hebridean Island Cruises

Based in Great Britain, the independently-owned British cruise line operates a single ship, HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS, a lovely floating country house hotel that has had no equal for three decades in atmosphere or price.

She is based largely in Scotland, with the most frequent base port being Oban, for the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Western Isles, occasional cruises that calls at Northern Ireland’s ports, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, and in 2021, several summertime cruises to the Norwegian Fjords.

This line should not be confused with the pair of 10-passenger yachts operated by Hebrides Cruises.

Note: The rest 2020 season has been cancelled, and the 2021 and 2022 seasons’ itineraries have been announced.  See the website for details, and we will update the review soon.

Hebridean Island Cruises

The Hebridean Princess. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Addendum: Hebridean River Cruises charters the intimate 70-passenger ROYAL CROWN to ply the Belgian and Dutch waterways in the spring and later in the season cruise the Danube between on two cruise between Passau, Germany and Bucharest, Romania. Fares include transfers between Britain and the riverboat, shore excursions, wines and spirits, internet and WiFi, and gratuities. See the website for additional details.

Note: The shortened 2020 season is expected to resume on 7th October.

Cocktail hour on the after deck anchored off Ireland. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cocktail hour on the after deck anchored off Ireland. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ships, Year Delivered & Passengers

HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS (Built 1964 as COLUMBA and rebuilt into a cruise ship in 1989 & 50 passengers)

Passenger Profile

Mainly British aged 50+ with many repeat passengers and occasionally Americans and other Europeans, Australians.

Passenger Decks

5, no elevator

Price

$$$  Very pricey, yet lots of included features.

Itineraries

Cruises operate from March to November to include lots of itineraries amongst Scotland’s Inner and Outer Hebrides, and depending on the year to Northern Ireland, Isle of Man, Ireland, South of England, the Channel Islands, French coastal ports, and via the Shetlands and Orkney thence across the North Sea to Norway’s coast and fjords. In any one season, no cruise is repeated. Here are samplings of  itineraries and be sure to check the line’s website for all the wonderful options.

Scotland, Hebridean Island Princess

Eilean Donan, Scotland * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

 

  • Secret Gardens of the Western Seaboard (7 nights) round trip from Oban, Scotland visiting Plockton, Loch Ewe, Ullapool, Skye, Mull, and Ft. William.
  • St. Kilda and Islands on the Edge (7 nights) from Oban, Scotland to Colonsay, Tiree,  St. Kilda (the most western isle), Lewis (Callanish Stones), Shiant Islands, Eigg,  and return to Oban.
  • Pearls of the Irish Sea  (7 nights) from Oban, Scotland to Islay, Bangor, Isle of Man, Cockermouth, Larne, Jura, and return to Oban.
  • Sea Lochs of the Lower Clyde (6 nights) from Greenock ( near the mouth of the Clyde) to Rothesay, Troon, Port Ryan, Holy Isle, Holy Loch and a return to Greenock.
  • Two cruises, marked as Spring Surprise and Autumn Surprise, are seven-night Hebridean itineraries decided upon by the captain. They leave from and arrive back at Oban and are popular with repeat passengers who like the ship so much that they don’t mind where she goes. Footloose indicates a focus on walking and hiking outings.
  • 2021 will see a return to Norway, a North Sea crossing to and from little and will known fjords and inlets and island between Bergen and Stavanger and a pair of cruises based at Bergen.

 

St. Kilda is a famous birding island in the far Western Isles.

St. Kilda is a famous birding island in the far out Western Isles.* Photo: Ted Scull.

Special interest cruises include: hiking (marked Footloose), golf, gardens, wildlife and nature, world and highland heritage, architecture, art, classical music, Scottish food and drink; bicycles available. Look for designations.

Generally, the vessel either docks or anchors at night and travels during breakfast or lunch to the next location. Occasional overnight sails take place when the itinerary stretches south to and from English Channel ports.

Included Features

All drinks; tips; shore excursions; bicycles; speed boat rides; fishing trips; Internet; transfers between airports and railway stations; free parking.

Why Go?

If you crave an authentic upscale Scottish country hotel atmosphere and would like it to move about seeking the most wondrous and obscure locales in the northern British Isles, this is your conveyance, and it is limited to 50 like-minded souls. Additional cruises, depending on the year, head south to Ireland, Wales, Channel Islands, South of England, Channel Islands and French coastal ports and coastal Norway.

Most amazingly, the HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS was created from a hard-working, well-engineered ferry that plied the Western Isles for a quarter century before being transformed into something quite different, yet retaining much of its traditional profile. Ted slept aboard her in one of the tiny below deck cabins as a ferry and returned for two wonderful cruise voyages in island-studded Scotland and coastal Ireland.

Scotland. Hebridean Island Cruises

Some cruises specialize in hiking. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

When to Go?

The weather in the British Isles is notoriously fickle, so you take your chances. You won’t find a cozier ship to retreat into on a foul day.

Cabins

All accommodations are individually decorated in beautiful colors and fabrics and are named after Scottish isles, castles, lochs and sounds, with wildly varying layouts. Many are roomy for a small ship, and those without windows have portholes, while six are inside without natural light. Beds may be king-size or twins, double or single. Two cabins have private balconies and ten are singles. Cabins along with the bathrooms were refitted for the 2019 season.

Cabin: Isle of Danna. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Above: Cabin: Isle of Danna. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

 

Renovated cabin - Isle of bute

Renovated cabin – Isle of Bute – use of Scottish plaids and Harris tweed

Amenities include a dressing table, ample storage space, fridge stocked with soft drinks, milk, coffee/tea making facilities, TV, personal safe, hairdryer, trouser press, iron and ironing board, bathrobes and slippers.

Public Rooms

In the forward-facing Tiree Lounge, the ship excels in that special small country hotel feeling with a brick and timber fireplace, comfy sofas and chairs and a cozy bar in one corner. The snug library draws readers to its tartan upholstered and leather seating, and two sides lounges — the Look-Out and wicker-furnished Conservatory are venues for morning coffee and afternoon tea.

In fine weather, passengers gather on the open afterdeck for pre-dinner cocktail receptions with hot hors d’oeuvres. On the topmost Boat Deck, windbreaks protect partitioned sections furnished with sun loungers and chairs.

Hebbridean Island Cruises

A cozy light-filled lounge. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Dining

The restaurant, refurbished for the 2019 season, operates like a hotel dining room with tables for two or up to eight for those traveling together. Single passengers sit at an officer’s table. Presentation and service from a European staff are tops with the menu thoroughly British such as a Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding and sliced duckling , while Scottish specialties may be highland game, sautéed and smoked salmon, and fresh oysters. You might wish to, or not, sample haggis, a concoction of calf or lamb hearts, lungs and liver with onion, suet and seasonings and kedgeree made from rice and smoked fish. Dinner sees men in jackets and ties with women in equivalent attire; some are formal nights.

Hebridean Island Cruises

Restaurant. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Activities & Entertainment

Shore trips (included) visit near and remote islands, castles, stately homes, and gardens, fishing villages and for walks of varying difficulty on rugged islands. The ship is also equipped bicycles for touring and fishing tackle, so you can try your luck.  In Scotland and Ireland, be prepared for Scottish mists and uncertain weather. Entertainment aboard is geared toward individual musicians.

Activities: How about enjoying a read on the top deck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Staying aboard and enjoying a read on the top deck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Special Notes

Children under the age of nine not accepted. With a high rate of British repeaters, Anglophilia helps.

Along the Same Lines

Equally small and less pricey ships of Hebridean Cruises, Magna Carta Steamship Company, and The Majestic Line.

Contact

Hebridean Island Cruises, Kintail House, Carleton New Road, Skipton, Yorkshire BD23 2DE, www.hebridean.co.uk; from the US 011 44 (0)756 704 704, UK 01756 704 704; Also, contact a US rep. at 877-600-2648. Be sure to mention promo code HEB2020.

— TWS

 

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The GLEN TARSAN in Scotland

Glen Tarsan in Scotland.

REVIEWER

Janine O’Loughlin from Australia.

CRUISE LINE

Majestic Line.

SHIP

Glen Tarsan.

DESTINATION

Oban to Inverness on the Caledonian Canal.

# OF NIGHTS

6.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

April 2018, from Oban, Scotland.

OVERALL RATING

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

-Food Rating: 5

-Cabin Rating: 4

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 5

HAVE YOU BEEN ON A SMALL SHIP CRUISE BEFORE?

I’ve been on 1 small ship cruise.

REVIEW

We had a delightful trip on the Glen Tarsan. The crew were amazing — charming, helpful, efficient — and a jar of vegemite appeared for breakfast on the second day which made two Aussies feel pretty special.

The only reason the cabins only rate a 4 is that the bathroom was very small — however the beds were very comfortable and warm.  To be honest we spent all day sitting upstairs chatting, eating, drinking coffee and watching the world go by so a small cabin didn’t matter at all.

The food was delicious and we loved sitting at the large table and getting to know out fellow travellers.

I will never forget waking up in the silence of Loch a Choire on our first morning with soft mist sitting on the hills and just the sound of waves lapping against the wee boat.

WE CAME A LONG, LONG WAY TO DO THIS CRUISE AND IT SURPASSED OUR EXPECTATIONS.

In fact we enjoyed our cruise so much that we are coming back to Scotland next year — this time to cruise around Skye and the Small Isles in one of the bigger boats — The Glen Etive.

 

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The Majestic Line

The Majestic Line specializes in small-boat cruises in Argyll, Western Scotland and the Hebridean isles, using two converted fishing boats and two custom-designed steel hulled gentleman’s motor yachts. While there is an outlined itinerary for every departure, the exact coastal and island calls and their sequence are dependent on the fickle Scottish weather. As the boats carry 11 and 12 passengers only, a cruise is very much a shared experience in close quarters. Every cruise has two single cabins offered and the booking chart shows availability.

If you ever wanted to explore Scotland’s coast line and the highly varied Hebridean Islands without fussing over ferry schedules for your rented car or resorting to a confining bus tour with too many others, HERE’s your answer, a local firm with a trio, soon to be a quartet, of wee ships.

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Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

GLEN MASSAN (built 1975 & converted 2005 & 11 passengers); GLEN TARSAN (b. 1975 & converted 2007 & 11p); GLEN ETIVE (b. 2016 & 12p); and GLEN SHIEL (b. 2019 & 12p).

The Majestic Line

Majesty Line’s trio at the dock before the GLEN SHIEL was delivered in 2019. * Photo: Majesty Line

Passenger Decks

Three decks and no elevator.

Passenger Profile

Primarily from Great Britain, ages 50 and up. Children under 12 not accepted unless part of a charter.

Price

$$$ Very pricey

Itineraries

GLEN MASSAN and GLEN TARSAN offer short-break 3-night and longer 6-night cruises and GLEN ETIVE 6- and 10-night cruises from Western Scotland to lochs and town landings in Argyll and trips out to the Inner and Outer Hebrides. In all, 14 different itineraries are offered with departures from April to October.

Nearly all embark and disembark in Oban, a port with ScotRail connections to the rest of Britain. Exceptions are one-way trips between Oban and Inverness and the first cruise of the season leaving from Holy Loch, Dunoon, Majestic Line’s base of operations.

The vessels usually anchor by dinnertime in a secluded setting, and get underway after breakfast. If the next stop is a bit further on, then the boat may depart before breakfast. GLEN SHIEL added the mix of itineraries in 2019, and her slightly higher speed allows for more far-ranging destinations.

In 2020, Argyll and the Clyde will be featured at the beginning and end of the season on 6-night cruises. As most of the route is along the river and into sheltered lochs it should be smooth sailing. Highlights are picturesque town of Rothesay, Loch Fyne’s access to Inverarary, Mount Stuart Mansion House, Carrick Castle and the narrow channel to the Kyles of Bute.

puffins on lunga

Puffins on Lunga. * Photo: The Majestic Line

Included Features

Good selected wines at dinner. The tender may be used for exploring at no extra cost while traditional shore excursions do not exist. With maps and guidance from the crew, passengers go ashore independently to visit towns and take walks.

Why Go?

Scotland is beautiful when the weather cooperates and is noted for its dramatic seascape scenery in many different lighting conditions, deep lochs to explore (similar to Norway’s fjords), a multitude of varied islands, castles and proud Scottish clans.

Wildlife is seen in the air, on the sea and on land during walks. Circumnavigate the Isle of Skye, cross Scotland via the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness and cruise out into the Atlantic to see the world’s largest gannetry hosting 60,000 pairs living and breading on isolated island of St. Kilda.

Iona. * Photo: Majestic Line

Iona. * Photo: The Majestic Line

When to Go?

With Scotland’s reputation for unpredictable and constantly varying weather, there is no best time. Be prepared for chilly and windy conditions at any time of the year as well as long days of sunlight in May and into August.

Cabins

The vessels are small hence the cabins are compact with either twin or double-bed configurations. Two singles are available on every cruise with no supplement. The newer GLEN ETIVE and GLEN SHIEL (2019) have larger cabins. All cabins are outside and feature en suite showers, toilets and washbasins.

Cabin on Glen Etive. * Photo: Majestic Line

Cabin on GLEN ETIVE. * Photo: The Majestic Line

Public Rooms

A passenger lounge with bar service, dining room, and open deck space. At times, the wheelhouse is open to visitors, and the crew is happy to share knowledge of navigation and geography. You might even have a hand at the wheel.

Dining

Communal table seats all. Typical meal times are: breakfast 8-9am; lunch 1pm; afternoon tea at 4pm; and dinner 7:30pm. Wine is included with dinner. Main courses feature local fish and shellfish (crabs and sometime lobsters), beef, lamb and venison all sourced locally. With so few to cook for, meals are a craft and a treat. An outside table may also be available when the weather is conducive.

Dining on Glen Tarsan. * Photo: Majestic Line

Dining saloon on GLEN TARSAN. * Photo: Majestic Line

Activities & Entertainment

On board, activities are board games, puzzles, and videos or relaxing and reading from the library selections. The tender takes passengers ashore to land on a beach or to a dock with sightseeing aids for creating short walks or longer hikes of one to two hours. Occasionally a one-way hike starts with a drop-off at the start and a pickup in an altogether different spot. Passengers may also fish, mostly for mackerel, or help lower and raise the lobster pots, and most likely the catch will be crabs.

Special Notes

All four vessels are available for charter, and such an arrangement can be researched first by looking at the cabin availability on the annual cruise schedule. No bookings indicate a charter may be possible, and rates are discounted by 10%. GLEN ETIVE and GLEN SHIEL (2019) have stabilizers and is used for longer trips that might encounter some choppy seas such as to the Outer Hebrides and to remote St. Kilda truly out in the Atlantic.

The Majesty Line's Glen Shiel

The Glen Shiel joined the Majesty Line fleet in 2019! * Photo: The Majesty Line

Along the Same Lines

Hebridean Island Cruises‘ 49-passenger HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS also cruises in Scotland’s Western Isles; as does an equally small pair operating for Hebrides Cruises; and the single vessel, LORD OF THE GLEN, for the Magna Carta Steamship Company. Also check out Argyll Cruising and St Hilda Sea Adventures, a pair of wonderful companies with charming vessels cruising Scotland.

Contact

The Majestic Line, Unit 3, Holy Loch Marina, Sandbank, Dunoon PA23 8FE Argyll, Scotland; +44 (0) 1369 707 951 or www.themajesticline.co.uk.

— TWS

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Oceanwide Expeditions new Hondius

Arctic Cruise.

By William J. Mayes, Editor of Sea Lines, The Ocean Liner Society (UK).

Oceanwide Expeditions, a company that has been providing expedition cruises on its own converted ships or on chartered ships for 25 years, finally got its first new ship in May 2019. Appropriately, the maiden voyage of this Dutch company’s new ship, Hondius, started in Vlissingen, in The Netherlands.

Hondius, named after the 16th-century Flemish engraver and cartographer, is the world’s first cruise ship to be built to the new Polar Class 6 specification, designed to withstand exposure to medium first year ice in summer and autumn.

Oceanwide Expeditions new Hondius

Hondius, new expedition ship for Oceanwide Expeditions. * Photo: Oceanwide Expeditions

Joining the Ship in Scotland

On this Arctic cruise, which I joined in Aberdeen, Scotland, we encountered and dealt with ice up to four feet thick, often pushing it out of the way, but just as often by driving straight through it in a spectacular fashion.

Wildlife spotting is a prime activity, and the chart outside the lounge listed all sorts of water and airborne creatures seen (but most of them not by me).

Hondius is not a luxurious ship by any stretch of the imagination, but the basic facilities serve their purpose well. There are faults in the design of the ship, which I will highlight later, but these did not detract from what was a very rewarding experience.

In full expedition mode Hondius carries 170 passengers, serviced by a crew numbering 70, including 14 expedition staff. All meals are taken in the dining room on Deck 4, from breakfast at 7.30 (wake-up call at 7.00 — not possible to switch off), lunch at 12.30 and dinner at 19.00. There is no other option.

Dining, Drinks & Inspecting the Ship

Both breakfast and lunch are served buffet style. If you are going ashore for a full day, to trek up mountains or along glaciers, then you need to make your own packed lunch at breakfast, supplemented with a bar of chocolate from the reception desk just forward of the dining room.

The reception area is where passengers first see the interior of the ship as the gangway on embarkation day is on the open deck, just outside. This deck has high sills and storm doors to protect the inside of the ship from water ingress. There is also a small shop in the reception area.

Forward of this is a block of cabins. Opposite the reception desk is a rather utilitarian staircase linking Decks 3 through 8. There is no lift.

The remainder of the public rooms are on Deck 5. Forward is the large observation lounge with its bar and, perhaps more importantly, the coffee machines. Coffees, teas and typically Dutch packet soup are available 24-hours-a-day. There is usually a decent supply of biscuits to accompany them — all free of charge.

Drink prices in the bar are slanted towards those who prefer alcohol; soft drinks are quite expensive and alcohol is relatively cheap (can of Coke is $3.40 USD vs $3.75 for Aquavit).

The main lounge of Oceanwide Expeditions Hondius

The main lounge. * Photo: William J. Mayes

Lectures & Recaps

Most of the lectures take place in the lounge, where the sight-lines are not good because the floor is level. Two foldaway screens at the front of the room are supplemented with a number of television screens, but even so it is sometimes difficult to see details during the talks.

Each evening there is a recap in the lounge covering the day’s events and a preview of what is planned for the following day. I say planned because this is expedition cruising and things often change depending on weather conditions and wildlife sightings. Adjacent to the lounge, and within easy reach of the coffee machines, is a small library. As the ship had been a few days late in being delivered, this was not yet fully stocked.

The only other public room is the lecture room, with fairly limited seating. Some of the more esoteric lectures take place here, and in the evening, there might be a film. It won’t be a blockbuster, but is more likely to feature wildlife conservation, geography, geology or volcanology.

Boarding partway through the voyage (20 passengers joined in Aberdeen) some of our mandatory lectures were held here, including the general emergency drill, which included instructions on how to don an immersion suit and the Zodiac safety talk, including the dress code for Zodiacs. After our talk it was time to go to the boot room to be measured for the compulsory boots. No boots — no Zodiac landings, and all on this trip were to be wet landings.

The lecture room is also home to the ship’s Internet centre, where wi-fi is available throughout the ship at a price. Packages are available to purchase, starting at $30 for 100MB. A more sensible option is to opt for a ship’s email address at a cost of $18 for unlimited emails without attachments for the duration of the trip. The price varies according to the length of the cruise and seems to work even when Internet satellite coverage is not available.

First Landing at Fair Isle

After leaving Aberdeen the first call of our Arctic cruise was Fair Isle, that sparsely populated island that lies between the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands, and actually part of the latter. Here the most difficult landing beach seemed to have been chosen, presumably to assess our capabilities while still within reach of shore-based medical facilities.

Landing at Fair Isle on an Arctic Cruise with Oceanwide Expeditions

Landing at Fair Isle. * Photo: William J. Mayes

Fully kitted up with boots, waterproof trousers, jacket and life vest we proceeded backwards down the incredibly steep gangway to join the Zodiacs. The ship is fitted with Zodiac embarkation doors on the deck below, but apparently these were not working. Best not to open them if you were not sure that you could close them again.

Fair Isle in the rain is not my idea of a good time, so after suggesting to one of the expedition leaders (I think she was vegetarian) some good uses of mint sauce and redcurrant jelly in conjunction with the freely roaming sheep, we went back to the ship.

Lucky Landing at Jan Mayen

There followed two quite rough sea days as we headed north, across the Arctic Circle to Jan Mayen, a remote Norwegian outpost some 370 miles to the north east of Iceland. The swell was too great to permit safe landing at our planned anchorage, so we sailed to the west side of the island and made our way ashore in the shadow of the magnificent Beerenberg volcano. Now things started to improve.

It was a much easier landing here and a couple of hours were spent on the black volcanic beach examining relics and collecting plastic waste. The station commander from the Norwegian base came and stamped our passports. I wonder how many people in the whole world have that stamp. Hondius was the tenth ship of the season scheduled to call here, but in fact was only the third to have made it due to adverse sea conditions.

Leaving Jan Mayen, we sailed north along the coast, past some imposing glaciers, before leaving land behind us as we headed towards the Greenland pack ice. We encountered ice at around lunch time on the next day, so the lecture programme was postponed to allow uninterrupted searching for wildlife. I saw quite a few seals as we skirted the edge of ice. We were not going into the ice today as it would slow the ship and put us behind schedule.

Heading into the Ice

When we were woken up at 7:30am the following morning Hondius was about to go into the ice, so after a hasty breakfast it was time to go out onto the fore deck in the freezing cold to see what was going on.

This deck is accessible right up to the bow and as we started to hit the ice the sound was amazing, not just as we hit but also as the large slabs of ice scraped their way down the sides of the ship. This was a real test of the ship’s construction.

Moving through the ice on an Arctic cruise with Oceanwide Expeditions.

Heading into the ice. * Photo: William J. Mayes

We remained in the ice all day, only coming out into open water late in the evening to allow a quiet night for sleeping.

Oceanwide Expeditions operates an open-bridge policy, so passengers are welcome on the bridge at any time, unless the ship is manoeuvring in port. Our Russian Captain, Alexey, was very welcoming, and it was clearly giving him a great deal of satisfaction in driving his new and untested ship through quite thick first-year pack ice on this inaugural Arctic cruise.

Open bridge on brand new Hondius

Hondius has an open bridge policy. * Photo: William J. Mayes

On the next day we were back in the ice early. Someone had put a wanted notice with a picture of a polar bear on the main notice board outside the lounge. There was enough evidence of their presence from the footprints in the snow that covered the ice. We were not disappointed.

Polar Bear Sighting

In mid-morning someone spotted the slightly yellow bear on a piece of ice about half a mile away. It didn’t seem to notice us at first and carried on going about its business and having an occasional roll in the snow. Then it spotted us, and I’m sure its first thought was ‘well, I haven’t seen that before,’ followed by ‘canned food, at least that will be a change from seal.’

Polar bear out on the ice at Spitsbergen. * Photo: Ted Scull

I had thought that ice was the highlight, but I think that seeing a polar bear in the wild probably topped that. Soon afterwards someone had added the word “another” to the polar bear wanted notice.

We sailed overnight to Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard Archipelago, and made two calls before heading to our destination at Longyearbyen. Our first stop was to see walruses at Poolepynten on the island of Prins Karls Forland, just to east of Spitsbergen. The second stop was to get up close to the glacier at Ymerbukta. In the late afternoon we sailed towards Longyearbyen and the end of our Arctic cruise adventure.

Hondius off Longyearbyn on its inaugural Arctic cruise

Hondius off Longyearbyen. * Photo: William J. Mayes

The Passengers & Staff

This cruise, starting in The Netherlands, had a large contingent of Dutch passengers, maybe as many as 75%. There were a few British, fewer Americans and a handful of other Europeans. The food was mostly International, but with a heavy Dutch bias, particularly at breakfast.

The cost of this trip was something of a bargain compared to the ship’s regular prices, due in part, no doubt to the fact that it was a positioning voyage to get Hondius in place for her first summer. Another factor could relate to maiden voyages and ice!

Hondius was built at Split in Croatia and has a gross tonnage of 6,603. The builders clearly wanted passengers to know who had built the ship, as there were probably 10 or 12 builder’s plates around the vessel.

On our voyage there were 150 passengers and the ship seemed uncrowded. She has a capacity for 196, although she is marketed with a limit of 170 in a variety of accommodations ranging from a berth in a shared four-berth cabin, to three-berth and two-bed standard cabins. There are several more luxurious cabins on Decks 6 and 7, including six suites with balconies.

Twin cabin aboard the Hondius

Twin cabin 407 on Deck 4. * Photo: William J. Mayes

The expedition staff, under a Dutch leader, was European, with several British members.  The remainder of the crew were an international mix under the Russian captain, and Dutch hotel manager.

Conclusion

Would I do it again? I don’t think that I would. Why? Well, not because our Arctic cruise wasn’t a great experience, because clearly it was; it might be difficult to equal the trip. Probably price would be a big influence as expedition cruises on small ships are generally very expensive. Mainly, I suppose there are so many ships out there that I would like to try and have only so much time and money.

 

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