If the Orient Express is the Train of Kings then the Hebridean Princess is undoubtedly the Ship of Queens. Quite literally. This British registered and British-built cruise ship (a rarity these days) echoes the romance of the former Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia to such an extent that the Queen has chartered her twice. Taking afternoon tea in her plush lounge, it strikes me that this grand dame might just be Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor’s first experience of cruising that favoured holiday escape of the Windsors: the Scottish Hebrides.
When I stood watching HMY Britannia (now a floating museum in Edinburgh) sail out of Victoria Harbour on July 1, 1997, with Prince Charles aboard, it was not just the end of an era for Hong Kong. Just months later Britannia was retired and the Queen no longer had a stately, luxurious vessel on hand for cruising her beloved Hebridean archipelago, which shimmers off Scotland’s west coast in a sweep of rugged mountains, starched white beaches and spectacularly set castles.
In stepped the 2,112 gross registered tonne, 235 feet long, 46 feet beam, five deck Hebridean Princess. The Queen booked this independently run ship for her own 80th birthday in 2006 and then again in 2010 for Prince Andrew’s 50th. Her Majesty, the Queen, is still aboard today in the form of a signed portrait, pictured along with Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, which offers an apposite welcome to guests boarding at the ship’s reception.
On the face of it the Hebridean Princess was an unlikely stand in for Britannia. Although they are both Scottish-built she was originally constructed in 1964 as a utilitarian passenger vessel (the MV Columba) capable of ferrying hundreds of passengers around the Hebrides, latterly being converted to transport a sprinkling of cars too. She performed this role admirably right up until her CalMac retirement in 1987. Two years later, on April 26, 1989, she was reborn as the Hebridean Princess, receiving an immediate Royal seal of approval as the Duchess of York was at her renaming ceremony – a plaque on the ship commemorates the big day.
The massive refit that turned her from a functional ferry into a calmly luxurious cruise liner came courtesy of George Prior Engineering Ltd in Great Yarmouth. She went in a car ferry and emerged a glorious dame instantly echoing Britannia. She is all understated luxury, glamorous rather than glitzy, an oasis of soft fabrics, tasteful tweeds and well-chosen artwork. She is kept shipshape with an annual dry-docking, which spruces up the cabins and public spaces.
The Hebridean Princess’ Columba Restaurant may offer formal Scottish dining, with her white linen tablecloths, lavish salmon platters and piped in haggis, but her real success comes in that she is an ideal vessel for negotiating what can be testing waters that are often impossible for the larger ships to struggle into. Each year a number of trips bravely aim not to just tackle the treacherous Minch that separates the relatively sheltered Inner Hebrides from the otherworldly Outer Hebrides, but also to then push on a further 40 miles out west into the cobalt Atlantic in search of wild and unique St Kilda.
It is a St Kilda trip I’m on as I write this, my fourth cruise on the Hebridean Princess. It’s my fourth time out to St Kilda too, but I’ve never been to this dual Unesco World Heritage listed icon in anything like the style offered by the Hebridean Princess. It’s quite something to cruise into Village Bay enjoying Eggs Benedict and yet another again to cruise back out with a glass of champagne in hand scanning the waters for minke whales.
One of the things that surely tempted the Royals aboard was the sense of exclusiveness and quiet luxury. She only takes a maximum of 50 guests, who enjoy a floating country house ambience that is kept purring along by a crew of 38. All of the officers are British, including her master, Captain Richard Heaton. She has four crews really – the sailors, the equally hard working but largely unseen engineers, and the housekeeping team who basically run a luxury hotel.
Finally there are the restaurant and bar staff who work culinary wonders and are always on hand with a welcoming glass of Taittinger, or the tipple of your choice. Special mentions go out to Islay-man and chief purser Iain Gibson, whose joyful tales and gentle charm keep things ticking smoothly along, and debonair food and beverage Supervisor Louis Fabre.
Handily our captain for this cruise is Heaton himself, and he is one of the few staff to have been on board for both of the Queen’s voyages: “The first time I was second officer so, as the navigator, I spent time chasing the charts they [the Royal family] enjoyed poring over in the lounge planning their adventures.”
“The second time I was the Chief Mate in charge of the tenders ashore – I remember they were big fans of a beach picnic. Basically they were just a lovely family enjoying a lovely family holiday visiting many of the places they used to enjoy going to on Britannia,” Heaton adds with a quiet smile.
Whether the Royal family will ever enjoy cruising the Hebrides again aboard their preferred steed we don’t know but, in these more modern Royal times she awaits you too, if you want to savour an utterly unforgettable holiday cruising some of the most dramatic seascapes in the world on the Ship of Queens.
How to book it
Book ahead for the popular sailings to ultra remote St Kilda. The seven-night ‘St Kilda and Scotland’s Remote Archipelagos’ sails from Oban. From £4,450pp (including flights) departing June 2, 2020 (01756-704704; hebridean.co.uk). Further sailings to St Kilda depart on May 19 and June 23, 2020. Myriad other cruises are also available on their website.