Enchanted by Scotland’s idyllic Highlands and Islands

Taking a small ship cruise with luxury liner Hebridean Island Cruises, Silver Travel writer Kerry Gallagher sees Scotland in style and comfort.

I fell in love with the Scottish Highlands back in 2021. We were slowly emerging from the pandemic but still not able to travel internationally, so I took the opportunity to tick off a trip I had been dreaming about for some time – driving the North Coast 500. What an incredible experience – but that’s a different story. Needless to say, it sparked an affection for Scotland which has kept me returning time and time again.

However, this time I was in store for something altogether new. I’d be leaving the roads behind and instead stepping onboard a luxury small ship with my mum, to cruise the waters surrounding the Highlands and Islands of the west coast. It was a journey which would reveal so many new sides to Scotland I hadn’t seen before, and all within the utmost comfort and homely atmosphere of Lord of the Highlands, our home for the week.

Home from home

Arriving in Oban, we boarded the 36-passenger Lord of the Highlands – a sleek, attractive ship which has been completely transformed from its former life as an Aegean ferry. It now boasts just three decks, 19 cabins, a comfortable lounge and stylish restaurant. The elegant interiors are cosy and inviting, giving a very ‘country manor’ type feel, and the staff are warm and welcoming.

In our spacious cabin there were subtle splashes of Scottish touches, from the tartan soft furnishings to a tray of whisky on the dresser and, of course, the delicious Scottish shortbread biscuits! We feel at home in no time and quickly find ourselves on first name terms with not only the onboard team and crew, but our fellow guests too. With such an intimate atmosphere it doesn’t take long to get to know each other over pre-dinner drinks, shared tables at mealtimes and gatherings in the lounge as we sailed from port to port.

From ship to shore

Over the course of the week we’d weave our way through some of Scotland’s most impressive landscapes. Through narrow channels, passed craggy coastlines and around tiny inlets. Our daily routine became second nature. The mornings were spent enjoying a delicious hearty breakfast in the Caledonia Restaurant, followed by a relaxing few hours at sea, where we could soak in the scenery, unwind with a book and even indulge in a treat or two served up by the wonderful onboard team – my favourite being a Sunday morning mimosa as we made the most of the sunshine on the outside deck.

Our afternoons took us to an array of pretty port towns, small seaside villages, and idyllic islands which were a delight to discover. And, with all shore excursions included as part of the cruise package, we had the opportunity to visit some wonderful attractions from castles to gardens, and participate in some unique activities such as a guided nature walk in the UK’s most remote village of Inverie (it holds the Guinness World Record for the accolade).

Idyllic isles and plenty of ports to explore

Our itinerary started on the beautiful Isle of Skye with a stop in the colourful capital of Portree. The iconic brightly painted houses lining the shore were a sight to behold and further out across the bay mountains framed the dramatic backdrop. Here we wandered the shops and admired the views – made all the better thanks to some unseasonably sunny weather. Afterwards we hopped back across to the mainland for a visit to Eilean Donan – a fully resorted castle dating back to the 13th century and the setting for a showdown during the Jacobite risings which ultimately led to its destruction in 1719. It wasn’t until 1911 that the rebuild began and, over 20 years, it was restored to its glory.

Heading further north we made our way to Gairloch, which is a tourist hotspot during the summer months, but we managed to enjoy the best of both worlds – lovely weather without the crowds! The soft sandy beach is the main draw, and I particularly enjoyed an early morning sunrise walk along the deserted sands as the sky glowed in pinks and blues. There’s so much to explore in and around this area from a beautiful waterfall walk to quirky art galleries and the excursion over to Inverewe Gardens is a must – the rhododendrons were just coming into bloom showering the gardens in colour.

Our journey continued back onto the Isle of Skye with a visit to Armadale Castle. The ruins of the country estate stand proud on the water’s edge surrounded by well-kept gardens and a fascinating museum telling the tales of times gone by and the former residents – the oldest and most powerful of Scotland’s clans – Clan Donald.

The next stop was a real eye opener… the UK’s most remote village which has absolutely no road access, and is only accessible from the water, or a 17-mile hike across mountainous terrain! I’m glad we had Lord of the Highlands to make option one possible! It’s a unique little village and unlike anywhere I have ever visited. It’s a community owned estate meaning that the entire provision for the village and the surrounding 17,000 acres is entrusted to the Knoydart Foundation with the aim building a sustainable, responsible and impactful community fit for the future.

The Isle of Mull was to be our last, but certainly not least, stop of the week. And what better place to start our time on the island than in Tobermory (I still can’t say the name without the Balamory theme tune getting stuck in my head!). I could happily have spent much longer in this pretty port, again framed by its iconic colourful houses. The main street is awash with shops, restaurants, cafes, galleries, and museums. The Tobermory Distillery is perfect for a wee dram, while the Tobermory chocolate shop is perfect for those with a sweet tooth.

The next day we ventured further into the Isle of Mull – which is just breathtakingly beautiful – all the way across to Fionnphort where we picked up the ferry to take a short ten-minute journey over to the sacred Isle of Iona. This tiny island off the southwest coast of Mull is home to just 170 permanent residents and is known as ‘The Cradle of Christianity’ in Scotland. It’s delightfully picturesque. Turquoise blue waters, sandy bays, fertile green fields and the odd farmhouse dotting the landscape outside the main village. No visit to Iona would be complete without spending some time at the Abbey. Set in a peaceful location, the imposing building dates back to 563 and has an intriguing tale to tell from surviving Viking attacks to its disuse after the Reformation, and subsequent rebirth.

Looking back, it’s almost impossible to believe we fit so much into one short week. But the pace of the cruise never felt rushed, there was plenty of time to relax, and we had free time in all ports to do as we pleased. It really was a very special and unique way to see such remote and beautiful parts of our country.

Service that’s second to none

While it may seem like all the excitement and attractions took place on shore, it was always wonderful to return to the comfort and cosiness of Lord of the Highlands. After an outing the team would be waiting to welcome you back with a big smile and a small tipple.

The service we experienced during our week onboard was impeccable. The staff were warm and friendly, nothing was too much trouble. With a high staff to guest ratio the aim was to please at all times, but what I appreciated most was that the service never felt formal or stuffy. Everyone was on first name terms, there was a social atmosphere with the onboard team and plenty of chatty conversations making everyone feel at home.

A real highlight of life onboard and the exceptional levels of service we received, was the dining. Truly the best cuisine I have ever experienced at sea and an example of fresh, local produce at its finest. Breakfast offered self-service cereals, fruits and pastries, with a further option to order hot items and a daily ‘breakfast special’ such as smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. To start the day the Scottish way you could opt for porridge with an array of toppings – including a wee dram if you so wished!

At lunch there was a three-course option or a lighter bite such as a sandwich. On two occasions we were treated to a buffet-style luncheon with the most delicious choices. The seafood luncheon showcased platters of salmon presented in every way possible and fresh Oban Bay langoustines, accompanied by a tasty selection of salads and dressings. Simply divine, and impossible not to go back for seconds!

In the evening dinner was a full service, banquet-style, three course meal with mouth-watering menus – honestly most days it was almost impossible to choose. Delectable options such as fresh lobster, pan-seared turbot and maple-glazed pork to name but a few. And all cooked to absolute perfection by the head chef and his team. How it is possible to serve meals to such an incredibly high standard as this on a small ship at sea I will never know. Complements to the chef indeed!

Now if you’re thinking that all sounds wonderful but how on earth can you manage three delicious multi-course meals per day, I don’t blame you and I entirely agree. However, one of things I think the team did so well, was ensuring that each meal was very considerately served in fairly small portions to allow for a week of enjoying every mouthful. And you know, when on holiday you always find room. I may have even accidentally found space for a fourth-course cheese board on an evening or two!

Staycation with a difference

To sum up my week onboard Lord of the Highlands in a few short sentences is difficult. It encompassed so many highlights from the stunning Scottish scenery, to the service, to the ambience, to the shore visits, to the cuisine. Maybe it is all the elements combined that make for a truly unforgettable experience. While it might be a big wide world we live in, sometimes the most magical parts are right on our doorstep, and that’s certainly true for the magnificent Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Next steps

If you’d like more information on Hebridean Island Cruises and the itineraries available to explore Scotland, call Silver Travel Advisor on 0800 412 5678.

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Kerry Gallagher

Director & Travel Writer, Silver Travel Advisor

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