Hebridean Princess Ship Tour
Hebridean Island Cruises was formed with the acquisition in 1988 of the Caledonian-MacBrayne car ferry Columba, originally built in 1964 for the Oban-Craignure-Lochaline service of David MacBrayne. Following a complete internal refit, she reappeared as the luxury cruise ship Hebridean Princess in 1989. Originally she operated cruises of up to 14 nights out of Oban, around the Western Isles of Scotland. Itineraries were later extended to include Ireland, the Orkney and Shetland islands, and the Norwegian Fjords.
Hebridean Princess was chartered by the Queen for a private family voyage on her 80th birthday. Unfortunately the company fell into receivership in April 2009. However Hebridean International Cruises and Hebridean Princess, were purchased by U.K.-based ‘All Leisure Group’, which operates both Swan Hellenic and Voyages of Discovery.
I was fortunate to be invited to visit her when she did a promotional trip up the Thames and moored next to the historic battleship, the HMS Belfast, overlooking Tower Bridge.
The ‘Princess’ is a small ship, with a capital ‘S’. In fact the 72-metre vessel looked more like a tender for the HMS Belfast, being completely dwarfed by her. After all, at 2,112 gross tons and accommodating just 49 passengers and 38 crew, she is one of the smallest cruise ships in the world. To put this into a modern persoective, RCI’s ‘ Oasis’ will be around 220, 000 gross tonsand 5,400 passengers. In fact Oasis’s lifeboats will carry more passengers that Hebridean Princess does. However big is NOT always best.
Externally ‘Princess’ is no beauty, looking more like a fishing boat than a luxury cruise ship. However, internally her style is akin to a Scottish County House. I won’t even bother to use the words ‘small’ and ‘intimate’ within this ship review, they go without saying.
The Layout and Public Rooms
There are just five decks. Working from top to bottom, the decks are called: Boat (5), Promenade (4), Princess (3), Waterfront (2) and Hebridean (1).
The uppermost deck, 5, forward is the location of the ‘wheelhouse’ (no ‘bridge’ on this ship). It actually looks like a museum exhibit with a real brass ‘wheel’ and vintage looking controls. There are no ‘azipods’ and joysticks here. This deck also accommodates her fat red funnel, the two motor lifeboats, a port and starboard viewing area, and some astro-turfed deck space with steamer chairs. Deck 4, the promenade deck has two very short, partially covered Proms, both port and starboard. These are located between some cabins aft and the starboard ‘Conservatory’ a glass enclosed space with cane furniture and foliage and the ‘Lookout lounge’, a smoking area, port. If you pass through either of these public spaces you reach the main lounge, the ‘Tiree Lounge’ and Library. At the aft of this deck is a space called the ‘Skye deck’, which is an open air teak area at the very stern of the ship, with wooden tables and chairs. You don’t get a swimming pool or hot tubs. Deck 3 has ten cabins, amidships is the ‘Princess Foyer’ reception area (not an atrium), a lounge area and the Princess shop. Aft is the restaurant, the ‘Columba’. Deck 2 has nine cabins and a gym. Deck 1 has six cabins and no public spaces. The ships rock-wall and ice skating rink are located….only joking! Needless to say there are no children’s facilities.
Hebridean Princess carries five small boats for use as tenders/excursions craft. These are accessed by a pontoon, via deck 2. Life jackets must be worn by passengers when riding in these boats.
The heart of the ship is the ‘Tiree’ lounge. With green and pink décor, brick inglenook fireplace (actually electric) and plush armchairs it looks more like a county club than a ships lounge. The room also has a bar. The elegant Columba Restaurant is a formal dining room, with walnut-panels. The tables are laid with fine china and glassware and embellished with attractive coloured floral displays. There is a mirrored buffet station in the middle of the room. Large picture windows port and starboard ensure you have a meal with a view. There can’t be too many ships restaurants where you can sit in the middle and still see clearly out of both sets of windows. The majority of tables in the dining room are for 2 but there are two tables of 8 where the Captain or one of the Officers dine. Cooked breakfast is served form 8.00am, lunch at 12.00pm, dinner is served from 7.30pm. I did not dine in the restaurant on my visit, but Hebridean Cruises claim that the food is of the finest gourmet standard of fish, seafood and quality game. I did have some canapés which were very good and included mini-Haggis balls.
The promotional literature says that the serving of Hebridean’s very fine Haggis is a fondly anticipated ceremony. Robert Burns’ “Address to a Haggis” declaimed at every Burns’ Supper celebrated around the poet’s birthday on 25th January, is a regular ritual at our Farewell gala dinner on the last night of your cruise.
The vessel has 30 tartan clad cabins, 11 of which are dedicated to single passengers. There are four grades of cabin: Suite, Balcony Cabin, Double Cabin and Single Cabin. Most are located on decks 5, 4, 3 and 2, with just six cabins located on deck 1.
All cabins on Hebridean Princess are individually designed and vary in size, averaging 18 to 21 square metres (194 and 226 square feet) for doubles and twins, and up to 15 square metres (162 square feet) for singles. High-quality furnishings, bed linen, Molton Brown toiletries are standard. The cabins don’t have numbers; they have Scottish geographical names, such as: ‘Isle of Arran’ or ‘Sound of Mull’. All offer generous wardrobe space, including a personal safe, many drawers and a dressing table, hairdryer, trouser press and ironing facility. The cabins do not have any external locks either. Television, VCR (videos borrowed from the Library – maybe upgraded to DVD now) private bar, refrigerator and tea/coffee-making equipment (a proper china tea sets) are also provided – as well as a bathrobe. All guests enjoy the same high standard of service, irrespective of their cabin grade. Smoking is not permitted in the cabins.
The one ‘Suite’, located on deck 3, is called the ‘Isle of Arran’. It comprises a large, separate day room, a spacious bedroom and a luxuriously equipped, marble-tiled, Victorian-style bathroom, fitted with a bath and thermostatic shower.
Finding four cabins with private balconies on such a small ship was quite a surprise for me. Two are on deck 4 pointing aft, and two on deck 3, forward, looking out port and starboard.
The onboard atmosphere is said to be a ‘country house’ party one. Hebridean are proud to claim that “the emphasis is on no entertainment, apart from the occasional impromptu musical evening on the Skye Deck”. I’m told that the clay pigeon shooting competition is exciting and is an event not to be missed. Knowledgeable guides accompany all cruises and organize walking tours. Ships bicycles are available for independent exploration ashore. Fishing tackle is also available for free loan.
I understand that the engines vibrate, not surprisingly, and the air-conditioning is the old-fashioned ‘forced air’ type via pull down plates in the ceiling. If you are wondering about the ship’s sea-keeping abilities and the notorious seas off the coast of Scotland: you will be pleased to know that the ship often does not sail at night being either anchored in a shelter bay or docked.
So in conclusion, Hebridean Princess is a unique ship and offers a unique experience. Her size and interiors are quite unlike just about all other cruise ships. In fact she is almost totally beyond comparison with today mega-ships, which must make her a micro-ship. After a week on this charming vessel you would probably know most of your fellow guests on first name terms. As for ‘connection with the sea’, you cannot escape it on this vessel. The itineraries are somewhat specialist, mainly concentrating on the Scottish isles cruising from Oban, the English Coast and Norway. The fares are very high (maybe 3-4 times the cost of a mass-market Caribbean Cruise). She of course does not benefit from the ‘economies of scale’ that most modern ships do. However all bottled water, tea, coffee, alcoholic drinks, escorted tours, taxes and port fees are included in the fare. Tipping is actively discouraged. She generally attracts retired Brits who are well healed. She is also popular with mature singles. I’d certainly love to cruise onboard her when I am older, assuming that my pension will covers the cost (although unlikely).
(Images c/o Hebridean Island Cruises)