We have just returned from what for us has to have been the most perfect cruise ever on the Hebridean Princess around the Inner Hebrides.
As a bit of background, we have cruised with Seabourn ten times, Silverseas twice and SeaDream once.
After the adventure of an overnight sleeper train from Euston to Glasgow, then a quick walk from Glasgow Central to Glasgow Queen Street, we caught the West Highland line which passes through beautiful scenery and past spectacular lochs to arrive at Oban. We were able to leave our bags with security at the ship's berth and complete our checking in (taking all of 30 seconds) before heading off to explore Oban and spend a few hours in a local spa hotel (Â£5 each).
Boarding is relatively late at 4.30 pm, but by that time we had refreshed and showered ourselves at the spa, so were ready to be piped aboard the ship, shown our cabin and be in time for afternoon tea in the Tiree Lounge.
After a short lifeboat drill and time to unpack (the cases had arrived within a few minutes of boarding), it was on to our first proper meal of the cruise and an opportunity to meet our fellow guests.
The food on board is truly the best of British cuisine, with the finest local ingredients cooked to the highest standard. There wasn't a meal that I didn't enjoy thoroughly. All meals are taken in the Columba restaurant, there are no alternative dining options, apart from a small room service menu. The food is the hottest (temperature wise) I have ever had in a restaurant!
Breakfasts are a buffet of cereals, cold meats, pastries and fruit along with a cooked to order hot breakfast. Every day there is the option of porridge with a wee dram of whisky and if you like, sweetened by honey from the comb.
Lunch is a three course meal, plus a cheese course if you are still hungry, with complementary wine, beer or soft drinks There is the option of sandwiches if you want a lighter meal.
The evening meal is four courses plus a cheese course again with complementary drinks. On the two Gala nights, there is a much larger, elaborate meal. I really couldn't fault it.
After dinner, the only entertainment is provided by the ship's guide who gives a briefing on what is happening the following day along with an historical background and stories associated with the places to be visited. One night a local duo of musicians came aboard to play traditional Scottish music, this then transformed into a Ceilidh with everyone getting up to attempt various Scottish dances under the instruction of the excellent musicians. A truly fun night! Otherwise, the evening's entertainment is chatting to the new friends that you have made on board whilst sampling the free drinks.
Out of interest, Cruise Critic's own Cruise Review of the Hebridean Princess is incorrect as all drinks, with the exception of a very few high end wines and champagnes, are included. So it is a good chance to sample the ship's excellent selection of Single Malts free of charge, maybe matching them up with the places you are visiting.
During the day, the ship tries to visit two places of interest. During breakfast the ship sails to its first port of call, so that once people have finished eating they can make their way ashore using the two tenders (always referred to as the Hardys [the make of the boats]), Shona and Sanda or a very fast speedboat for the more adventurous. Instead of being swiped off and on the ship as with other cruise lines, you collect a life jacket, which must be used when on the boats, and then take a small brass engraved tag that corresponds to your cabin. This is then placed into your lanyard and taken ashore. At the end of the trip, there is a reconciliation of life jackets and brass tags to ensure that everyone is back on board. The ship then sails to its second port of call during lunch.
The trips vary each day. We had a ride up to the top of the Ben Nevis Range by cable car, a visit to Glencoe, a very boggy and physically exhausting expedition to find a Broch (an ancient stone defensive structure) on the island of Lismore and a scenic coach journey to try to get to the Island of Iona. This proved impossible due to the sea state between Mull and Iona meaning that the ferry was in imminent danger of being cancelled, so stranding us on the island. Instead a hasty visit was arranged to a farm which makes designer knitwear from locally produced wool, or a long walk to be met later by the coach if one preferred. When we couldn't land on Jura, we diverted to the small harbour of Tayvallich at the top end of Loch Sween, where there was excellent walking along a beautiful wooded peninsular. Another day we had a close sail past Fingal's Cave on Staffa to musical accompaniment and tots of whisky. On the last day we walked along the Crinan Canal in the morning and we were then taken to have a look at the Arduaine Gardens in the afternoon.
Hebridean must be unique in that they pay for all drinks and snacks on shore as well as entry to any house, gardens, cable cars, etc you are visiting! The trips are also accompanied by a hamper containing flasks of coffee, melt in the mouth homemade biscuits (cookies) and several bottles of whisky so everyone can have a wee (or not so wee) dram to fortify themselves!
We had a lovely guide, Rita, who when she is not working on the ship, runs a farm in Perthshire. She was incredibly knowledgeable and entertaining and kept everyone together on the walking trips. Whenever we were unable to make our intended destination for the day, Rita would come up with an excellent back-up plan.
A very special mention must be made of David the Chief Purser, who not only ran the customer facing part of the ship, but also was the Master of Ceremonies at the Gala nights (including his "address to the Haggis"), comedian after dinner and also cut the wild salmon and mustard glazed ham at the two lunch buffets. David appeared to be everywhere at once and knew all the guests names and made sure that everyone was having a marvellous time.
This was also the first ship where I have been on first name terms with the Captain! The ship itself is charming. Certainly the smallest ship I have ever been on. Only 49 passengers and 38 crew. On board it is more like staying at a house party at a Scottish Country House. It has the most relaxed ambiance, without a queue in sight. There are no set times to do things except for meal start times (there is only one sitting for each meal and you go and eat when you feel like it) and the first and last boats ashore.
The cabins are relatively small (ours was just over 200 sq ft), but beautifully furnished and enough room to move around in. Most have a proper sized bath with overhead shower. The toiletries are Molton Brown. There is tea and coffee making facilities in the cabin along with a fridge containing milk and soft drinks. There is also a decanter of whisky or sherry that is constantly topped up. The air conditioning is a bit antiquated but works perfectly well and you can often open the windows. There is also a proper sized radiator which is ideal for drying wet boots and socks after a walk ashore.
We met the most charming fellow guests, all of whom knew exactly how to behave in keeping with the ship. There were 10 guests in our age range (late 40s/early 50s) with the rest being older, but very active. We have never swapped so many e-mail addresses as on this cruise.
The only downside I could spot was a lack of seating if you arrived early for embarkation, but provided you arrive after 4.30 pm, then you are taken straight on board the ship. Those passengers being met by the ship's coach at Glasgow Airport and Railway Station arrived at the dock at about 6.00 pm and so went straight on board.
One of my most enduring memories is taking the last Hardy back to the ship as darkness was falling and a full moon rose above the Scottish mountains reflected in the loch. Magical!!
All in all, it was the best cruise I have ever been on, and whilst it might not be for everyone (no bingo, art auctions, ship's photographers, constant sales pitches, etc), I can certainly see why the Hebridean Princess is a favourite of Her Majesty the Queen ..... and mine!