OVER two decades as a travel writer I’ve been lucky enough to embark on cruises in more than 20 countries.
Friends often ask me which is my favourite destination. They are often stunned by the reply. It’s my native Scotland, which boasts the most spectacular scenery and wildlife, as well as a brilliant choice of vessels to suit all budgets.
Why is Scotland so special for cruises? For a start, the scenery is epic, with more than 750 islands.
Indeed, Scotland’s littoral makes up more than 10% of Europe’s coastline and is truly dramatic with stunning mountains, haunting sea lochs and starched white beaches. Then there is the wildlife. Everything from hulking red deer, through to soaring sea eagles and majestic whales.
Whirl in world-class local produce and it’s a winning mix.
I’ve watched over the last decade or so as Scottish cruising has come into its own with small, family-run operators popping up alongside the more renowned names.
One of my favourites is Hebrides Cruises (hebridescruises.co.uk), which now operates two boats.
Elizabeth G is a sturdy former Norwegian rescue vessel which was more than capable of tackling the big seas en route to St Kilda when I joined. Another vessel, Proud Seahorse, was launched in 2017. Catering for a dozen passengers, the rooms are plush and there is even an outdoor hot tub on deck.
A sister ship of the Elizabeth G is run by Northern Light Cruising Company Ltd (northernlight-uk.com). Hjalmar Bjørge also tackles the Atlantic swells and squalls well with twin engines and sleek profile. The highlight of the boat’s cruising calendar is the epic adventure to North Rona, the mystical isle 44 miles north of the Butt of Lewis.
I was lucky enough to land on this uninhabited and rarely visited isle a few years ago – a rare treat as even the local lighthouse is serviced by helicopter.
St Hilda Sea Adventures (sthildaseaadventures.co.uk) is another small, family-run operator.
The company started running cruises on the old training ship last spring and it also has a new vessel for the 2018 season. I love that you are able to muck in, helping to put sails up and lowering tenders into the water, but St Hilda may be a bit basic for some tastes. The new purpose-built vessel, the Seahorse II, looks more comfortable.
On to those big names. None are more renowned than the stately Hebridean Princess (hebridean.co.uk).
Literally fit for royalty, the former CalMac ferry is now so sumptuously luxurious that the Queen charters her for exclusive-use sailings around the Hebrides in place of her now retired HMY Britannia. The suites are glorious, with the restaurant more than matching any city’s best fine-dining restaurants.
Great day trips and nightly entertainment complete an unbeatable experience. Not cheap, but great value for what the Hebridean Princess offers.
Last but certainly not least, the National Trust for Scotland (nts.org.uk/Cruises) offers superb trips. The organisation charters a large ship, usually from Saga Cruises, to be sailed around the isles.
The focus is on NTS-managed properties and land such as the isles of Canna, Rum and St Kilda. What really enhances the cruises are the expert guides who not only show you around, but also provide engaging and informative talks. The nightly entertainment is the best on Scottish waters, featuring acclaimed traditional musicians.
There is always something new in Scottish cruising. As well as that new vessel from St Hilda, this spring I’m embarking on the Caledonian Cruise on a luxurious barge, the Spirit of Scotland (europeanwaterways.com/fleet/spirit-of-scotland).
As well as high-quality rooms and great food, she promises a hot tub on the deck, a unique way to relax with a dram as you look out for Nessie.
It is experiences like this that help make Scottish cruising so special, the best in the world for me.