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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All guests are accommodated in the Tiree Lounge that overlooks the bow through generously sized windows.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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