Despite my life-long love of big ships and all their amenities, I have to admit that many of my favorite shipboard moments have been on smaller boutique ships that are rife with personality. With more and more virtually identical mega-ships being launched, one after the other, it has become increasingly difficult to find colorful ships.
My recent sailing on the 49-passenger Hebridean Princess reminded me that such ships still exist.
Sailing from March to November, mostly around Scotland's west coast and the Hebridean Islands, Hebridean Princess was originally built as a car ferry in the 1960's. It was transformed into a cruise ship in 1989 after a massive refurbishment. In 2006, its fame soared when Queen Elizabeth II, having retired the Royal Yacht Britannia, chartered it for her 80th birthday.
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Before leaving, my girlfriend Jenny and I figured that, with fares averaging more than $1,000 per person, per day, our fellow passengers would be sophisticated and pretty wealthy. But, when I saw the pre-cruise questionnaire that offered the option of a private seaplane or helicopter to join the ship in Oban, I became a bit intimidated and wondered if we would be the first passengers ever to reach the ship via economy hire car.
Even without the helicopter, we were warmly welcomed at this exclusive house party, where several passengers already knew one another from previous trips. Wasting no time, we helped ourselves to Champagne (but left the decanter of whiskey in our cabin untouched at first) and went on deck to watch the sailaway. Exiting the harbor, we glided past the dilapidated but noble remains of a 13th century castle and left the rest of the word behind as we set out to explore the Hebrides.
There's No Rush to Go Anywhere
With only a few hundred miles to cover during our six days onboard, I noticed right away that there was no rush to get anywhere. Our agenda each day was simple: We spent a few hours cosseted on the very comfortable; serene ship amid magnificent scenery; we strolled ashore once or twice a day, amid magnificent scenery; and we anchored for the evening amid more (you guessed it) magnificent scenery. It seemed a remarkably simple and appealing concept.
We usually sailed no more than one mile offshore and were close enough to peer at small communities with their white-stone farmhouses and numerous sheep. Desolate mountains, still brown from the winter, loomed overhead. In April, Scotland's beauty came not from a variety of colors or tumbling waterfalls, but from the ruggedness and sheer strength of its stoic castle ruins, pounding sea and haughty mountains.
Despite our best efforts to read on deck, we mostly got distracted by the scenery, and with a map in hand, I tried to match points of land to their names. I found it wonderfully evocative to say, "We're sailing through Kyle of Lochalsh and the Sound of Sleat to our overnight anchorage near Eigg and Muck, and we recently passed the Sound of Arsaig near the Ardnamurchan Peninsula!" Hopefully, what I lacked in pronunciation I made up for in enthusiasm.
Soon, I gave up and took to enjoying a secluded, open-air nook off the lobby that no one else used. (It effectively became our private balcony.) We sat undisturbed, caught somewhere between idle gazing, pleasant reading and light snoozing; in my book, it was pure luxury.
Our First Port
Shortly after lunch on our official "first" cruise day, we arrived at Shieldhag. Seeing only a cluster of a few houses, I wasn't sure if we had arrived anywhere! With a population of only 175 people and no dock for our little ship or even its tenders, I felt confident that it wouldn't be appearing in cruise brochures anytime soon!
Hebridean's tour offerings, like those of river cruise lines, are included in cruise fares. Thinking that the ship's tour to the town of Applecross would be more exciting than strolling the local foot path, we spent an hour on a bus until we arrived at an equally small village where we had 50 minutes or so to explore. We joined our fellow passengers for a quick bite in the local pub but soon found ourselves back on the bus for the return trip to Shieldhag.
We learned a lesson on that first excursion: The cruise wasn't about shore excursions or seeing as many museums or historical sites as possible in six days. It was simply all about enjoying wherever we were, beautiful surroundings and all. How novel to find so enjoyable an activity as strolling on a footpath next to a 175-person village.
Alone on a Hill
If I thought Shieldhag was small, I was forced to reconsider the next day when we arrived at the Isle of Martin. Only a few square miles, the island is preserved by the National Trust of Scotland and has only one caretaker in the summer months. We wandered around the historical ruins of a 7th century Gaelic cross and a Reformation-era meeting house for a while before we'd seen most of everything. Jenny returned to the ship. Never one to turn down a good hike and seeing that I still had an hour and 15 minutes until the last tender, I decided to climb to the top of the island.
As I struggled through boggy, knee-high grass and occasionally slipped into soggy mud, I wondered if, perhaps, I should have returned to the ship as well. Those thoughts vanished upon reaching the summit and its spectacular view. Barren, wrinkled mountains rose sharply from the surrounding loch, and jagged, snow-capped peaks in the distance looked down onto the smaller hills in front. There was little sign of humanity, other than the snug ship anchored offshore.
Lingering at the top, I reveled in the slowly setting sun and drank in the intoxicating feeling of exploring somewhere removed from e-mails, schedules and hassles. With Scotland surrounding me, I was completely content, and I felt as if I was alone on the island.
As it turns out, I was. As I reluctantly returned to the pier, triumphantly timing my arrival a full fifteen minutes before the last tender, I asked the weathered, ruddy-faced Scot driving the tender who else he was waiting for.
"No one," he quickly answered.
My guilt only increasing, I continued with my questioning: "So, you've been waiting all this time just for me?"
"How long have I been the only person on the island?"
"Over an hour. Everyone came back early. Your girlfriend was the last one, except you."
My sincere apologies where met with nothing but graciousness, however, and we sped back to the ship, which was patiently waiting at anchor just for me.
The Jacobite Uprising, Recreated
Looking around at my fellow passengers chatting amiably in the lounge every night, I knew that casinos and production shows were not the reason they cruised on Hebridean Princess. Onboard, our only nightly entertainment was our guide and historian, Rita, who filled the role of port lecturer, shore excursion manager and cruise director by briefing us each night on local history or the next day's activities. I loved listening to her -- she was Scotland, come alive. Her voice was so wonderfully powerful and commanded such attention that I felt transported to Scotland's bloody past when she spoke about the fighting of the McLeod and Mackenzie clans.
One evening, we had an equally colorful guest entertainer, who was announced in a decidedly highbrow proclamation in the Daily Program: "Following dinner, entertainment will be provided by Andrew Ferguson, who will re-enact the Jacobite rising in traditional costume." I wondered just how, exactly, one man could re-enact the entire conflict, but seeing how seriously the other passengers took their history, I came prepared with paper and pencil in case there would be a test.
Most shipboard activities were simpler and often consisted of sitting in the lounge or the cozy conservatory, enjoying tea and conversation. It seemed an easy and very pleasant way to fit in with the almost exclusively British crowd that had an average age in the 70's.
The couple sitting next to us in the dining room became my discreet source of information when I puzzled over British menu items unfamiliar to Americans: what, exactly, was a Welsh Rarebit? Another gentleman took it upon himself to teach us about Scottish single-malt whiskeys and introduced us each evening to a different blend. Still clad in formalwear following dinner, I felt very much in Scotland as I learned to distinguish variations in the amount of peat in the whiskey. We had quickly and happily adapted to life onboard Hebridean Princess.
Our Visit to the U.K.'s Remotest Pub
As the days progressed, each port we visited seemed more isolated than the next, but only at Inverie did we see a claim for the most "remote pub in the U.K." As Rita led us on a morning walk into the surrounding hills and glen, she told us the area attracted numerous hippies in the 1960's. (It was able to operate outside the law with only one road into or out of the community.)
The few houses perched on the seaside hardly look rebellious today, but the community notice board fascinated me. One sign proclaimed, "Lost: Pair of Binoculars," while on the opposite side of the board, a mere half meter away, another sign advertised, "Found: Pair of Binoculars." I chalked it up to a remarkable coincidence of two lost pairs of binoculars and became taken by another sign posted for a "Lost Cooking Pot!" A third warned that any downloading of music from the Internet had to take place between 1 a.m. and 5a.m. so as not to take up excessive bandwidth. I needed no further proof that I was far, far away from my New York apartment.
In the afternoon, we landed at the bucolic Isle of Canna, where fields are a lush green and where impeccably maintained stone fences demark the pastures. With no real agenda, we spent an hour walking, cutting through fields, climbing over fences and ensuring we stay well away from the wary, bleating mother sheep.
Nearing the end of our walk, we met a life-long Canna resident. It didn't take long for us to start asking her about life there, and she explained how the population had recently grown dramatically -- from only 13 a few years ago to 23 people now! I refrained from asking whether the three churches on the island were all there before the population boom or if one had been built recently to handle the influx.
She invited us to see Canna's one-room schoolhouse. Teaching traditional subjects is easy, she said, but with only three kids on the island, teaching social interaction is the real challenge. At a certain age, the kids are sent to a school on the mainland to meet other children.
We strolled back to the landing and found our fellow passengers indulging in what became a ritual onshore -- enjoying tea and scones from the community's local shop, opened especially for us. Below us, the island's three children, whose school I had just seen, were playing on the beach, slowly learning social interaction while our small group of tourists observed.
Balancing Rugged Scenery with Onboard Luxury
Part of what I enjoyed so much during my time onboard was the contrast between rugged Scotland and the pampering we experienced onboard. How delightful it was to return to our cozy cabin after a chilly morning stroll or warm up in the conservatory amid potted plants, sun shining through the windows.
Each evening, the focus was on dinner, and like all couples, Jenny and I shared an intimate table for two in the cozy, wood-paneled dining room. (Single travelers, all of whom enjoyed dedicated single cabins, sat together at tables hosted by the ship's officers.) Forget "Freestyle" dining. We took every meal -- from breakfast, where "porridge with a whee dram" helped to open our still-bleary eyes, to our formal dinners, featuring dishes like roast Guinea foul, highland game pie and roast smoked salmon with papaya salad -- at the same table. Our last evening onboard Hebridean Princess wouldn't have been complete without the most Scottish of dishes, which the menu artistically described as "a tasting o' Haggis wi' bashed neeps an champit tatties." The Purser entered playing the bagpipes, the Captain wheeled in the Haggis, and the traditional "Address to a Haggis" was performed with the appropriate ceremony and brandishing of knives.
I did wonder, however, what they would offer Jenny, who was the only vegetarian onboard. With the personal touch that Hebridean is known for, placed at her seat was her own separately printed menu offering "vegetarian Haggis." It tasted strikingly similar to mine, but knowing it isn't a good idea to delve too deeply into the contents of regular Haggis, we decided not to inquire about the vegetarian version and simply enjoy the meal.
Disembarking the next morning, I couldn't help but feel a bit wistful at leaving Hebridean Princess. Of course, we had been superbly fussed over and enjoyed a refined and decadent week. What made it so special, however, was the distinctive ambience of this small slice of Scotland at sea. The experience aboard Hebridean Princess was truly irreplaceable.