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Caledonian cruise fit for a queen: on the mansion hotel ship beloved by the Royals

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The sound was unmistakable, but the seals swam up to see what the sound might be. As our small tender boat drew near, the silhouette of a lone bagpiper on a rocky outcrop that took us to the small jetty in the Highlands gasped with delight.

The scene was enchanting—his red kilt against the green seaweed, framed by dark Scots pine and all reflected in the glassy lake.

To arrive at the lush and beautiful Inverewe Garden before opening time via this special route meant we had the beautiful woodlands and beach to ourselves for well over an hour before other visitors descended the winding footpaths from the car park.

Get on deck: Caroline Hendrie boarded Hebridean Princess (above) – a ‘floating country house hotel’ – for a tour around the islands of the Highlands

Upstairs is the Arran Lounge on board.

Upstairs is the Arran Lounge on board. “The attentive and discreet service by the crew of 38 for up to 50 passengers creates a relaxed house-party atmosphere,” says Caroline

Hebridean Princess has 30 cabins on board, ten of which are singles, which

Hebridean Princess has 30 cabins on board, ten of which are singles, which “come in all shapes and sizes.” Pictured is the Bute Cabin

We are sailing: Above, the Queen is boarding the ship in 2010

We are sailing: Above, the Queen is boarding the ship in 2010

We may have been the first visitors, but it wouldn’t have been an early start. At 9:00 am we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on board Hebridean Princess, after anchoring overnight in Loch Ewe.

Launched as a car ferry in 1964 to serve the Western Isles from Oban, the sturdy and agile little ship was converted into a floating country house hotel in 1989, complete with tartan curtains in the dining room, a wood-panelled library, tweedy sofas and a fireplace in the lounge.

The attentive and discreet service by the crew of 38 for up to 50 passengers creates a relaxed house party atmosphere, and the varied itineraries on offer that can be quickly adapted to choppy conditions make Hebridean Princess a hit with loyal fans who book again and again , sometimes several times a year.

The most famous patrons are the royal family. In 2006, the Queen, who had gone hugely missing since her beloved yacht Britannia was taken out of service in 1997, to begin her annual vacation in Scotland with a cruise around the Outer Hebrides, chartered Hebridean Princess to celebrate her 80th birthday.

The family had so much fun going ashore for a picnic on deserted beaches, just like in the past, that they took over the ship in 2010 for another family vacation.

But it’s not just Royal guests who get special treatment. We had our own uninhabited island adventure on the second day of our cruise, landing on the uninhabited Isle Martin at the mouth of Loch Broom.

We had the run of the island which had been a center of herring treatment until the early 1800’s. Following a path past the ruined chapel and a medieval cross slab, we passed through overgrown meadows once used by long-departed crofters to graze cattle.

A lonely bay dotted with driftwood stretched out over the edge of the hill, the only sounds of the waves and foraging oyster catchers.

The Hebridean Princess, pictured at Tobermory Pier on the Isle of Mull, was launched in 1964 as a car ferry to serve the Western Isles from Oban, but was converted into a luxury cruise ship in 1989

The Hebridean Princess, pictured at Tobermory Pier on the Isle of Mull, was launched in 1964 as a car ferry to serve the Western Isles from Oban, but was converted into a luxury cruise ship in 1989

Passengers aboard the Hebridean Princess may have the chance to see puffins on the cliffs of the Shiant Isles (above)

Passengers aboard the Hebridean Princess may have the chance to see puffins on the cliffs of the Shiant Isles (above)

On our return to the jetty, what else should we find but one of the ship’s stewards unpacking a basket and setting a trestle table with tea and coffee, as well as a biscuit vat filled with shortbread and whiskey.

In addition to sturdy shoes and rain gear, and something smarter for the evenings, you should pack outfits for two gala dinners on a week-long cruise: black tie or the full Bonnie Prince Charlie for men and evening gown for women.

No two routes on Hebridean Princess are the same, and there are some themed around gardens or castles, or walking or cycling, guided by experts.

But one thing you can be sure of is that you will be surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful scenery at almost every moment of your cruise, whether the ship is anchored overnight in a sheltered lake or in front of the cliffs of the Shiant Islands. teeming with puffins, or sailing to the next destination for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

We were enchanted to see a rainbow around Lismore Lighthouse served with Oban Bay scallop appetizers as we sailed by on our first evening. Another evening we gazed at the Old Man of Stoer, the 200-foot sea stack, tucking into pudding (no one could resist the velvety cranachan made with a splash of Drambuie).

Caroline remembers looking at Stoer's old man over dinner.  She says there is a 'heartbreakingly beautiful scenery' at almost every moment of your cruise

Caroline remembers looking at Stoer’s old man over dinner. She says there is a ‘heartbreakingly beautiful scenery’ at almost every moment of your cruise

Caroline was enchanted to see a rainbow around the Lismore lighthouse, pictured, as she sailed past

Caroline was enchanted to see a rainbow around the Lismore lighthouse, pictured, as she sailed past

Caroline's itinerary included a stop at the 'lush and beautiful' Inverewe Garden on Loch Ewe, pictured

Caroline’s itinerary included a stop at the ‘lush and beautiful’ Inverewe Garden on Loch Ewe, pictured

Similar to a traditional country house party, guests change for dinner and gather in the lounge for drinks and snacks. While most passengers opt for tables for two, there are two large tables, cozy for singles but also popular with couples, mothers and daughters and a few friends who enjoy the conviviality of dinner each evening.

After dinner it’s time for coffee and petit fours or a nightcap in the lounge (so many single malt whiskeys to try!), or an evening stroll on deck to watch the sun set on the water and slip behind the mountains.

The 30 cabins on board, ten of which are singles, come in all shapes and sizes, and many have that rare cruise-ship luxury—both baths and showers. But they all have a carafe of whiskey and glasses on the dressing table, and a kettle along with fresh milk in the fridge.

Caroline enjoyed a 'desert island adventure' on the uninhabited island of Martin, pictured

Caroline enjoyed a ‘desert island adventure’ on the uninhabited island of Martin, pictured

Early risers can enjoy hot drinks on the Skye Deck from 7am while enjoying nature – it’s the best time to spot golden and bald eagles, otters and orcas.

Dolphins, porpoises and seals seem happy to be enjoyed from the lounge windows any time of the day.

Everything but souvenirs from the kiosk at the front desk is included in the not-inconsiderable rates – including free-flowing Taittinger champagne, whiskeys galore, excursions and tip-top service. But Hebridean Princess seems to be equally loved by her passengers for what’s not on board: no casino, no pianist, no dancing, no background music, no organized games or children under 12.

Peace and quiet, good conversation, excellent food and above all priceless sea and coast views, that’s what a Hebridean Princess cruise is all about.

TRAVEL FACTS

Hebridean Princess sails from Oban on several routes around the Scottish Highlands and Islands. For example, the seven-night all-inclusive Glorious Gardens Of The West Coast cruise, departing May 9, 2023, costs £5,490 pp (hebridean.co.uk).

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