Green rolling hills of summer turning to shades of gold, yellow and brown as winter approaches, the sun, low in the sky glistens on open water, as the ship eases from our berth to the sound of the pipes. Yes, Scotland, a land of castles, lochs, clans and tartans, its history dating back centuries and what better way to explore this beautiful country and its islands than on a small unique cruise ship, and unique Hebridean Princess definitely is.
Leaving Greenock, we set course for Rothesay, the main town on the Isle of Bute, its history traceable back to the 13th century, the castle overlooking the town is worth exploring despite much of it in ruins, the beautiful Mount Stuart House standing in magnificent grounds on the banks of the Firth of Clyde. The original house, built in about 1716, was unfortunately destroyed by fire, but in 1877 rebuilding began, the current house is still claimed to be unfinished despite continual building through the 1900s. Entering the house, you arrive in the most magnificent colonnaded marble hall adorned on two walls by pictures, a large tapestry on another and in a corner, the organ that was played at the wedding of Stella McCartney.
A marble staircase leads to the gallery and bedrooms that have been occupied by the rich and famous over the centuries. The jewel in the crown for many, the white marble chapel, so plain, yet so exotic and beautiful, watch when the sun shines through the red glass dome transforming the white marble to a delicate shade of pink. The house is purported to be the first house in Scotland to have been lit by electricity.
The following day I stay on board, this is a wonderful ship to explore whilst others visit Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran. Built in 1964 as MV Columba, the ship operated as an inter-island ferry for Caledonian MacBrayne until 1988 when purchased by Hebridean Island Cruises. 1989 saw the vessel enter the yard of George Prior Engineering in Great Yarmouth as a ferry and exit as the luxury cruise ship MV Hebridean Princess. Sumptuous accommodation, lounges and viewing areas for 50 guests attended by 37 crew, a ship fit for a Queen and indeed in July 2006 the ship was chartered for a holiday by HM Queen Elizabeth ll to celebrate her 80th birthday and again in 2010.
Many have described the ship as a ‘Boutique Country Hotel at Sea’ and they’re not wrong. What other ship can offer a lounge with comfortable armchairs, settees, 270-degree views and a large brick fireplace complete with logs. The small bar at the entrance boasting 100 different whiskies, 28 different craft gins and just about any other drink you could wish for.
The library, again comfortably furnished with tastefully upholstered armchairs, open areas with immaculately varnished chairs just waiting for their cushions and tables to match. Search a little further and discover other small retreats to relax, read, snooze or take a drink whilst admiring the views through large windows.
Cabins, all named after Scottish isles, are equipped to a very high standard. My own, Isle of Danna, two comfortable armchairs to relax in whilst taking in the beautiful scenery. Large wardrobe, drawer space in the dressing table and bedside units, king size bed, one of the most comfortable I have ever slept in, extending bed side lamps, flat screen tv, discretely hidden trouser press, the front of which has attached a small ironing board with iron, what a brilliant idea. A small decanter of whisky and glasses await ready for that night cap.
The marble bathroom, glass shower cabinet, fittings including the shower unit in gold metal, extending magnifying mirror, heated towel rail complimented by large soft towels and luxuriously fluffy shower mat. Toiletries of, shower gel, shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, shower cap, soap and much more, all bearing the Molton Brown name.
Wish to keep fit, gym equipment is provided on the lower deck along with bicycles for use ashore. From this deck you embark the ships motor launches for land transfer when the ship’s at anchor. A visit to the ship’s engine room, what a surprise, the large diesel engines so clean, shiny controls, certainly not as you may possibly imagine and not an oil can in sight. Next stop the ships bridge, levers and handles in polished brass, spotlessly clean windows, dials, maps, radar, radio and much more to keep the ship safe. Finally, the galley, five chefs work tirelessly to produce some of the finest meals at sea from fresh locally purchased produce, fish, chicken, lamb, beef and more. If you like bread you will be in your element, a different type every day, beetroot, bacon and cheese, bread with seeds, oil and many, many more.
The Western Isles where the ship spends much of its time is a visitor’s delight. Inveraray Castle, 60,000 acres on the shores of Loch Fyne, dating back to 1746 but devastated by fire in 1975 requiring much restoration. The castle is still home to the 12th Duke of Argyle, his wife and children. In 2012 the castle featured in the Christmas edition of Downton Abbey and has a vast display of weaponry, over 1,300 items.
Dumfries House, built in the 1750s set among 2,000 acres of beautiful gardens and streams, trees that reach for the sky with enormous trunks, stroll amongst the grounds that change colour with the seasons. Hidden away amongst the trees, Woodlands Restaurant, producing mouth watering meals with wine. For those just requiring a snack or drink there is the cafeteria and souvenir shop next door. The house surrounded by gravel drives and pathways is breath taking, rooms that shout opulence and quality with lashings of gold leaf and Chippendale furniture. In 2007 the estate was purchased for £45million by a consortium headed by HRH Prince Charles, known in Scotland as the Duke of Rothesay and in 2008 the house opened to the public with guided tours. Look at the flagpole on the roof, observe which flag is flying, then check it against the information board by the entrance and ascertain who is in residence, on my visit it was HRH Prince Charles!!
The final day we journey to Hunterston House and Castle near West Kilbride. The castle dating back to 1263 is the ancestral home of Clan Hunter and to this day run by its descendants who reside on the estate. On hand to welcome us is the very informative Madam Pauline, Clan Chief of Clan Hunter. Attired in bright red hunting jacket and skirt of the Hunter Tartan she gives an enthralling talk on the clan and castle history. Time to visit the 4-storey Hunterston House, a venue often featured in television programs and films, especially the Outlander series. This unlike many historic houses is a home, home to Richard Hunter and his family, the Clan Chief’s brother. He displays a wonderful sense of humour as he guides us around the house regaling us with stories of his life there, the running of the estate, of film crews and famous actors who have visited.
Back on the ship, it’s our last night and the Captain’s Farewell Gala Dinner. The swirl of the pipes announces the entrance of the haggis followed by the Robert Burns poem ‘Address to the haggis’ after which, a sampling and wee dram, chicken liver parfait, onion chutney and melba toast, in preparation for herb crusted Borders lamb, potatos and swede with celeriac purée and rosemary jus. To finish, crème brulée, homemade short bread and a selection of cheeses all washed down with fine wines.
Dinner over, time to pack and reflect on the last 7 days that have passed so quickly. This ship is unique is several ways. The staff/passenger ratio means it’s almost one to one which in real terms translates into excellent service, unmatched by few and bettered by none. Everywhere you go on the ship it oozes quality, soft furnishings, gleaming brass, immaculately varnished outdoor furniture. Food that has to be some of the best any cruise ship can offer, locally obtained fresh produce complimented by fine wines poured into glasses that never seem to empty, truly all inclusive.
Without a doubt Hebridean Princess and Scotland are the perfect match.
Alan was a guest of Hebridean Island Cruises on their