There was no doubt about the noise, but the seals swam out to see what the noise might be. As our tender little boat drew nearer, the silhouette of a lone piper on a rocky outcrop playing us at the tiny Highland pier elicited gasps of delight.
The scene was spellbinding – his red kilt against the green seaweed, framed by dark Scots pines and all reflected in the glassy loch.
Arriving by this special route at lush and lovely Inverewe Garden before opening time meant we had the beautiful woods and beach to ourselves for a good hour before other visitors descended winding paths from the car park.
Hit the deck: Caroline Hendrie boarded Hebridean Princess (above) – a ‘floating country house hotel’ – for a tour of the Highland Islands
Above, the Arran lounge on board. “The attentive and discreet service of the crew of 38 for a maximum of 50 passengers gives a relaxed atmosphere of house party”, says Caroline
The Hebridean Princess has 30 cabins on board, 10 of which are individual, which “come in all shapes and sizes”. Pictured is the Bute Cabin
We sail: above, the Queen boards the ship in 2010
We may have been the first visitors, but that didn’t mean an early start. At 9am we enjoy a leisurely breakfast aboard the Hebridean Princess, after spending the night at anchor in Loch Ewe.
The sturdy and nimble little vessel, which was launched as a car ferry in 1964 to serve the Western Isles of Oban, was converted into a floating country hotel in 1989, with tartan curtains in the dining room, a paneled library, tweed sofas and cantou in the living room.
Attentive and discreet service from the crew of 38 to a maximum of 50 passengers lends a laid-back house party vibe, and the varied itineraries on offer that can be adapted quickly to suit choppy conditions make Hebridean Princess a hit with loyal fans who book again and again, sometimes several times a year.
The best-known regular guests are the royal family. In 2006 the Queen, who since her beloved yacht Britannia was decommissioned in 1997 had sorely missed starting her annual holiday in Scotland with a cruise around the Outer Hebrides, chartered Hebridean Princess to celebrate her 80th birthday.
The family had so much fun disembarking to picnic on deserted beaches, as in the past, that they took the ship back for another family vacation in 2010.
But it’s not just royal guests who get special treatment. We had our own desert island adventure on the second day of our cruise, landing on uninhabited Martin Island at the mouth of Loch Broom.
We had the island run which had been a herring salting hub until the early 19th century. Taking a path past the ruined chapel and a medieval cross slab, we crossed overgrown meadows once used by long-dead small farmers to graze cattle.
At the top of the hill, a lonely bay dotted with driftwood stretches out before us, the only sounds of waves and oyster fishermen foraging for food.
The Hebridean Princess, pictured at Tobermory Pier on the Isle of Mull, was launched as a car ferry in 1964 to serve the Western Isles from Oban, only to be converted into a luxury cruise ship in 1989.
Passengers on board the Hebridean Princess might be lucky enough to see puffins on the cliffs of the Shiant Islands (above)
On our return to the pier, what will we find but one of the ship’s stewards unpacking a basket and setting a trestle table with tea and coffee, and a biscuit barrel filled with shortbread and whiskey.
As well as sturdy shoes and raincoats, and something smarter for the evenings, you’ll need to pack outfits for two gala dinners on a week-long cruise – a black tie or the full Bonnie Prince Charlie for the gentlemen and an evening dress for the ladies.
No two routes are the same on Hebridean Princess, and some have themes such as gardens or castles, or hiking or biking, accompanied by experts.
But one thing you can be sure of is that you will be surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful scenery almost every moment of your cruise, whether the ship is at anchor for the night in a sheltered loch or in front of the cliffs of the teeming Shiant Islands. with puffins or sail to the next destination during breakfast, lunch or dinner.
We were delighted to see a rainbow around Lismore lighthouse served with Oban Bay scallop entrees as we sailed out on the first evening. Another night we gazed at Old Man of Stoer, the 200ft sea stack, while enjoying pudding (no one could resist the velvety cranachan made with a dash of Drambuie).
Caroline remembers watching the old man from Stoer above during dinner. She says there are “breathtakingly beautiful scenery” at almost every moment of your cruise
Caroline was delighted to see a rainbow around the Lismore lighthouse, pictured, as she drove past
Lush and lovely: Caroline’s itinerary included a stop at the ‘lush and lovely’ Inverewe Garden on Loch Ewe, pictured
Like a traditional country house party, guests change for dinner and gather in the living room for drinks and canapes. While most passengers opt for tables for two, there are two large tables, friendly to singles but also popular with couples, mothers and daughters and couples of friends who appreciate the conviviality of a dinner party every 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 the deck to see the setting sun swing over the water and slip behind the mountains.
The 30 cabins on board, including ten singles, come in all shapes and sizes, and many have that rare luxury of a cruise ship – bathtubs as well as showers. But all have a carafe of whiskey and glasses on the dressing table, and a kettle with fresh milk in the fridge.
Caroline had a ‘deserted island adventure’ on uninhabited Martin Island, pictured
Early risers can help themselves to the hot drinks provided on the Skye Deck from 7am while enjoying the wildlife – this is the best time to spot golden and white-tailed eagles, otters and killer whales.
Dolphins, porpoises and seals seem happy to show up to all from the living room windows at all hours of the day.
Everything but souvenirs from the front desk kiosk are included in the sizable rates — including unlimited Taittinger Champagne, whiskeys galore, excursions, and rush service. But Hebridean Princess seems to be just as loved by its passengers for what is not on board: no casino, no pianist, no dancing, no background music, no organized games or under 12s.
Peace and quiet, good conversation, delicious food and above all priceless views of the sea and shore are what a cruise on Hebridean Princess is all about.
Hebridean Princess sails from Oban on a variety of routes around the Scottish Highlands and Islands. For example, the all-inclusive seven-night Glorious Gardens Of The West Coast cruise, departing May 9, 2023, costs from £5,490 pp (hebridean.co.uk).