With the Royal Yacht Britannia now retired, when Queen Elizabeth II wishes to sail around the north coast of her realm or throw a birthday party for the whole royal family, she chooses the five-star Hebridean Princess. After a week of being treated like royalty ourselves we could easily understand why.
The Scottish experience began as we were invited, one couple at a time, from our seats in the dock-side lounge to board the ship. A lone bagpiper played on deck, piping us aboard to be greeted by Purser Charles Carroll and crew members who escorted us to our stateroom. Later we watched from the rail as each couple or party was piped on and welcomed individually by the purser and crew.
Our stateroom, one of four on the Promenade Deck and next door to the one chosen by the queen for her birthday cruise, was the size of a hotel room. There was plenty of space for the king-sized bed, a long dressing table/desk (in which we found personalized stationary), nightstands and two comfortable upholstered armchairs from which we could watch the island and coastal scenery through a picture window that stretched the entire length of one wall. The full-sized bathroom contained a thermostatic shower and large, deep bathtub, a luxury few cruise ships offer.
Luggage was already in our stateroom when we arrived, lying on the bed (well protected by a leather mat) and ready to be emptied into the copious bureau and the two closets. On our bureau we found a welcoming decanter of single malt whiskey. Empty luggage disappeared while we enjoyed tea in the lounge.
Personal Attention and Five-Star Service
The pipes and the personal attention set the tone for the whole week we spent aboard this floating country house. A crew/passenger ratio of almost one-to-one meant there was always someone to offer a cup of tea as we read in the lounge, or a wee dram of whiskey as we returned from the day’s shore excursion. No chits to sign or cabin numbers to give (in fact, staterooms are named, not numbered) on the Hebridean Princess, whose all-inclusive policy includes drinks in the lounge, dinner wines, all shore excursions and tips onboard and ashore for the entire cruise.
A maximum of 50 guests means that there are always seats in the Tiree Lounge for each evening’s after-dinner drinks, when onboard guide Rita Adams described the next day’s port. No one wanted to miss these talks, filled with lively anecdotes and enough about the history and natural environment of each island to set the scene for us and make each excursion more meaningful.
On-Board Luxuries and Fine Dining
When we were under sail there were plenty of places to settle in: the lounge, the well-stocked library, two solariums and deckchairs in sheltered promenades or open decks. The aft deck had café tables and its own bar for drinks or coffee. At the top was a large sun deck and access to the bridge, alongside which was the favored perch of a number of passengers who enjoyed conversations with the officers, and a lofty view of the ship and sea.
Meals in the dining room were a highlight, from the full Scottish breakfasts (fresh-baked pastries, fresh fruit and berries, and an ever-changing selection of entrees each morning) to the elegant dinners in the evening. The menus were varied enough to please any taste, always with several choices for each course. Local ingredients featured in all of them, delectable Scottish lamb and beef, Highland venison, fresh fish and shellfish, local vegetables and herbs, and Scottish cheeses. At the gala Captain’s Dinner we tasted haggis, which was piped in with full ceremony that included a spirited rendering of Robert Burns’ “Address to a Haggis” by a formally kilted passenger.
Two of the dinners were formal, with men looking distinguished in black tie and ladies in long or elegant dresses. Some men chose not to dress for the occasion, but fit in nicely in dark suits; others outdid the rest in full formal Highland dress.
At all dinners, the captain and other officers dined with passengers at larger tables, while most guests chose seating as couples or foursomes at smaller tables. Hoping to meet fellow passengers, we asked for one of the larger tables, where we were joined by two other couples and the captain, purser or another officer, each of whom kept conversation lively and interesting with stories about the islands and their travels.
Scottish Shore Experiences
A week on board would have been experience enough, but it was equaled by the Hebridean Isles we sailed among. The itinerary was so well crafted, and the guides so good, that we had an emersion in local life and culture along with memorable travel experiences. Landing on the remote St. Kilda archipelago, where only about 2000 people can visit each year, was a highlight for many of us, but not the only one. Watching little planes take off and land on a beach runway on Barra, exploring a ghost town on Isle Martin and wandering among the ruins of an abbey built by early Irish monks on Iona vied with crossing a swing bridge over the Corrieshalloch Gorge, walking among the Standing Stones of Callanish and climbing the Iron Age stone stairs of the Carloway Broch.
In between we shopped for Harris tweeds in Stornaway, listened to chords of Mendelssohn as we lingered off Fingal’s Cave on Staffa, wandered the paths at world-class Inverewe Gardens and watched sea birds circle above their nests high on soaring sea staks.
All the while we were cosseted, pampered and catered to by a crew and staff that seemed to be enjoying the cruise as much as we were.
Hebridean Princess is indeed fit for a queen.