There are a number of extremely knowledgeable cruise guides onboard, who stay on for the duration of the cruise. On ours, Marilyn Hunter, talked of the islands' history, myths and legends, and gave us some fascinating information. In our case, this being a Scottish itinerary, she told us that Jura, a port of call, is believed to be the Tir Nan Og (or Land of the Young) of Gaelic mythology, and its greatest claim to fame is the gravestone of its longest-lived inhabitant, Gillour MacCrane of Kilearnadil, who was said to be 180 at his death in 1671.
As well as ageless inhabitants, Jura has Stone Age sites. Neighboring Islay boasts Iron Age burial cairns alongside Bronze Age standing stones, and is a haven for rare birds, including the chough, golden eagle, corncrake and hen carrier.
Other than that, when the ship is in dock overnight local musicians will perform onboard; the only other entertainment consisted of nightly TV-run films.
By day, the main entertainment on this ship is to be found ashore. Hebridean Princess carries five small boats -- the 12-seat motor launches Shona and Sanda; the Kiloran and Calgary inflatable landing craft (also 12 seater) and a nine-seat semi rigid inflatable called Ulva. Zip-up flotation jackets are provided and must always be worn when tendering ashore (not a hardship, as they provide protection from the wind -- a good idea even on a sunny day).
Twice-daily motorboat excursions took passengers onto the islands for guided cycle trip and walks -- and you're welcome to wander off on your own if you prefer. For instance, we preceded our inflatable craft's landing on mystical Iona with a breathtaking James Bond-style zoom around the bay, while on Skye we drank coffee with a dram on a deserted outcrop, then took a boat trip to view seals and red-billed oystercatchers.
And where there was a local tearoom available, afternoon tea (often with a spread of fabulous home-baked cakes and scones) was offered free of charge to Hebridean Princess passengers.
Fishing trips, high-velocity speedboat rides for thrill seekers and more gently paced wildlife watching boat trips can also be arranged free of charge on request (during my trip, inflatables were deployed to conduct a search for a basking shark and watch seals at play on a rock). Sadly, clay-pigeon shooting from the aft of the ship ended in 2009, due to health & safety concerns.
The large Tiree Lounge on Promenade Deck is the social heart of the ship. A life-sized wooden seal snoozes in front of its vast brick (electric fired) fireplace, and the deep pink and green decor is cozy and welcoming. Large brass-trimmed picture windows also make this lounge an excellent place for watching the world go by.
Flanking the Tiree Lounge and looking outwards from the port and starboard side of the ship are two lounges, which, together with the four Promenade Deck cabins, were added on when the ship's car deck was removed. On the starboard side is the cozy Conservatory, a "help yourself" fruit bowl, and a tea and coffee machine (though staff in the Tiree will serve you if preferred).
On the opposite side is the Lookout Lounge, with deep armchairs and an honesty bar.
Also on the port side of Promenade Deck is an oak-paneled library, which like the rest of the ship, has a country house feel, with deep leather armchairs and sofa, a solid table and desk and various watercolors on the wall. It also has a laptop for passenger use.
The library has a fairly extensive set of DVDs -- including several Jane Austen adaptations and classics like "Shadowlands", Cate Blanchett's "Elizabeth" and "The Madness of King George," alongside books ranging from biographies and travel guides to works by Ruth Rendell, Beryl Bainbridge, Patricia Cornwell and Ian McEwan.
There is a tiny shop selling branded goods, soft toys, postcards and picture frames. They're all useful options for present-hunters (though there are also some good shops, of course, at cruise ports of call).
There is free Wi-fi throughout the ship.
To the rear of Promenade Deck is a large, attractive outdoor eating/bar area with a wooden-fronted Skye Bar, white globe lamps, solid teak tables and chairs, and woolen rugs for chilly days.
One deck up (Boat Deck) is an astro turfed sunbathing area with deep-cushioned steamer chairs (and more rugs!). There are also two areas of open deck at the side of the ship, between the Lookout and Conservatory lounges and the Promenade Deck cabins.
All are kept in fine trim, as are the interior parts of the ship; walls are adorned with watercolors of island scenes, boats, dogs or wildlife, while odd pockets of space around corridors have been turned into seating areas with pretty silk-cushioned chairs, solid oak sideboards bearing flower arrangements and china-filled display cabinets.
All of this adds to the impression of being in a tranquil, well-run country house (and indeed, Hebridean is a member of the up-market Pride of Britain Hotels and Connoisseurs Scotland consortia).
This is not a ship for youngsters, though younger teenagers may enjoy the "Swallows and Amazons"-style messing about in boats before they get too sophisticated.