Scottish Highlander barge cruise: Everything from castles to distilleries
Editors Note: W. Edward Garrett and his 26-year old son Will sailed on the Scottish Highlander luxury barge operated by European Waterways in May, 2011. Will filed a daily report and these can be read here.
By W. Edward Garrett
Over the past several years an emergent group of travelers have found European luxury Brge cruises a way to solve their “Been there, done that” dilemma, and few do it better than European Waterways.
Established in 1974, European Waterways offers 27 luxury barges that cruise throughout Europe and Great Britain with air conditioned en suite cabins, gourmet meals, fine wines and interesting shore excursions. Each barge is unique in its furnishings and cuisine, and gently cruises from one peaceful mooring to the next through carefully selected rivers and canals.
For this trip we selected the Scottish Highlander, which cruises Scotland’s’ Caledonian Canal (including Loch Ness) from Dochgarroch to Fort William. The cruise passes by ancient castles and navigates numerous locks as it passes through the heather-covered Scottish Highlands and past Ben Nevis, Scotland’s’ highest mountain at 1,344 meters. It is an absolutely beautiful trip and an excellent way to enjoy these somewhat remote environs in comfort and leisure.
This is a barge, not a cruise ship
Let me put this experience into perspective. This is a barge, not a cruise ship. The Scottish Highlander is 117 feet long and a little over 16 feet wide. There are no climbing walls, casinos, movie theaters or dance classes here. No television or internet (a very good thing indeed), and even cell phone connections are spotty. Interior space and cabin size is necessarily small, and the boat carries a maximum capacity of up to eight passengers.
With these things in mind, a review comparing a luxury barge cruise to a traditional cruise ship simply does not equate. With this understanding, let me introduce you to the Scottish Highlander experience.
Guests are met by the cruise tour guide Loren at the Glenmoriston Town House Hotel (more about this lovely hotel later) located on the River Ness in Inverness, and taken to the ship’s mooring in Dochgarroch or Fort William, depending on which way your individual cruise is passing through the Caledonian Canal (the direction alternates weekly). My first impression of the Scottish Highlander is that she has a first-rate appearance. She is narrow, has large windows on both sides of the boat from fore to aft, and looks well maintained.
Once on board, there are five steps down into a mahogany walled saloon with brass fittings, furnished in comfortable leather seating over tartan carpeting. The room includes the aforementioned seating area, dining room table for eight and large windows with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Finished off with landscape paintings and tasteful wall sconces, the room’s effect is that of rustic comfort. Coffee, tea, fruit and cookies are always available on a sideboard, and a self serve bar including a very nice assortment of single malt whiskies is located at the far end of the saloon.
Interior space and cabin size are necessarily small
Traveling forward along a narrow passageway are three twin- or double-bedded cabins and a suite, each named after a Scottish clan: Macpherson, Mackintosh and Frazer cabins and the Cameron suite.
Each accommodation continues the brass fittings, mahogany and tartan decor and includes en suite bathrooms. To be certain, the cabins are small at 11’ 6” by 6’ 10”, with the Cameron Suite larger at 12’ by 12’ 4”; but high wide windows (that open) and a good continuation of decor from the main saloon diminishes the effect.
The bathrooms are fully tiled and a tight fit with a toilet, sink and shower. Water pressure is good and hot water abundant. A drawback for a person of large stature are the cabin showers, which are quite small. At 5”11’ and 195 pounds the fit was tight but feasible for me. A rotund 250 pounder would probably not fit within its confines. Shampoo, washing gel, hand soap, hair dryers, towels and bathrobes/slippers are provided. The barge is wired for 240 volts throughout except for one 110 volt socket in each bathroom. Converters and adapter plugs are necessary for all 240-volt outlets.
The single beds are 3 ft x 6 ft. 6”, and doubles are 6 ft x 6” with two usable foam pillows provided for each bed. A thread count of about 300 is utilized for sheeting making sleeping arrangements less than luxurious, but quite comfortable.
Housekeeping was excellent and unobtrusive, with linen changes and general cleaning done while guests are on excursions. In the saloon, tables were cleared immediately and the seating area cleaned regularly. In general, the boat was spotless during our entire cruise. We even managed to get a small amount of laundry done.
Guests are met upon arrival with champagne, canapes and an introduction to the crew of four: Captain Dan, Chef Dale, Hostess Christine and Tour Guide Loren. I found the entire crew very gracious and professional in their abilities throughout the cruise. In fact, guests were warmly treated the entire time with no exception, adding a great deal to the overall experience.
Our traveling companions consisted of two well-traveled couples (one from London and the other from Sydney) who showed great consideration for other guests, an absolute necessity in such close quarters. In fact, it quickly becomes apparent that the good temperament of your traveling companions is essential for a pleasant journey. In fact, our traveling companions were so enamored with this type of cruising that they were on their second and fourth cruises with European Waterways, and assured me that they had never once experienced ungracious traveling companions.
Meals on board accommodate all guests at a single non-assigned seating, and were excellent. Rather than a menu, all meals are table d’hôte consisting of starters, a main dish and dessert dishes, and were introduced by our affable chef Dale just prior to being served. The cuisine was Scottish and always paired with a very nice selection of wines.
Special food requirements such as vegetarian or allergies are catered to if requested in advance (at least eight weeks prior to departure).
The galley was good-sized and immaculate
I was able to visit the ship’s galley on numerous occasions to observe the chef at work. To my surprise he used no recipes, but prepared everything from memory; sometimes changing preparation in midstream as his imagination dictated. Very creative indeed.
The kitchen itself was larger than you might imagine on a hotel barge, and well equipped. Food storage, handling and preparation followed good standard techniques and the cleaning and sanitizing of equipment followed industry doctrine.
Absolutely delicious full Scottish breakfasts were served at guest’s convenience including regional bacon and sausage, eggs (in various styles), porridge, haggis, black pudding, cereals, toast and breads, coffee, tea, fruit and juice.
I actually liked the haggis and black pudding!
I had tried both haggis and black pudding on previous trips to Scotland and found them, shall I say, unappetizing. Our chef, however, assured me that they had probably been prepared incorrectly, and urged me to try his. They were both delectable!
Lunch and dinner began with our guide introducing us to the wines that would accompany our meal: their origins, history and pairing rational. Wines from the U.S., Chili, Argentina, France, Spain, Italy and Portugal were served and all were first-rate.
Following the wines being served for our starters, the chef walked us through the meal offerings. He was indeed talented, combining texture, flavor, aroma and presentation in the creation of delicious dishes. His selections were imaginative and took full advantage of fresh local products. While the guests on board were well familiar with fine cuisine from their own experiences, all were impressed and appreciative of his skills. Table service was always friendly and attentive.
The regional cheeses were outstanding
Of special note were the offerings of regional Scottish cheeses following each meal. Not widely known for its cheeses, the assortments were absolutely delicious, high quality and surprising in their variety. There are currently more than two dozen cheese makers across Scotland, many from small creameries and farms. We were served excellent examples of Howgate, Scottish Brie, Brodick Blue, Crowdie, Swinzie and the perennial favorite, Scottish Cheddar.
By way of after-dinner entertainment, our group spent a little time each evening sampling the wide selection of single malt whiskies aboard, rating each in turn. On the last evening we had the “Final Four” playoffs to determine which whisky from which region of Scotland we enjoyed the most. My favorite has always been Lagavulin from Islay, but I was out-voted. The best? Sorry. It’s really better if you do your own research and gain valuable insight into the truth about Nessie sightings.
The Scottish Highlander offers a number of rather good excursions by minibus on a daily basis hosted by the ships very charming tour guide Loren.
Included on our cruise were beautiful Cawdor Castle immortalized in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness, Invermoriston Falls, romantic Eilean Donan Castle (the setting for the film “The Highlander,”) the WW II Commando memorial, Neptune’s Staircase — the longest staircase lock in the UK, which lifts boats 64 feet, the woolen mills at Spean Bridge, the mystic battlefields of Glencoe and the Ben Nevis distillery.
There are also bicycles available on board for use between locks or to visit local villages, walks following the same routes or hikes up into the surrounding mountains.
Fort Augustus offers a charming heather laced golf course where sheep act as greens keepers, roaming the course at will. The grinning starter pointed out in his best brogue that sheep droppings could simply be kicked off the greens without the loss of a stroke! And by the way, getting out of the heather is much more difficult that the rough found on American courses.
The last evening of the cruise is a farewell Captains Dinner; men wear jackets if they have them. Our genial captain arrived for dinner in kilt (which we hoped he would do), and talked to us of his life in the Highlands. During cocktails we were serenaded by a local piper in full kilt for about half an hour. He joined us for a wee dram after.
One gains a new appreciation for bagpipes when you see them played in full kilt with the misty Scottish Highlands as a background.
In fact, one gains a new appreciation of the Scottish Highlands from the deck of the Scottish Highlander. It’s as good as it gets in this rough Highland countryside, and a truly unique experience.
The Glenmoriston Town House Hotel
A brief word about the Glenmoriston Town House Hotel in Inverness. This lovely property is located in a beautiful setting directly on the River Ness, a five minute walk from city center.
Its 30 guestrooms are elegantly decorated with soft wool carpeting, comfortable beds, flat screen TV’s and wi-fi internet connectivity. The hotel’s Abstract restaurant is stylish and award-winning, and its piano bar offers a huge list of malt whiskies. The hotel is absolutely perfect for overcoming jet lag prior to boarding the Scottish Highlander. Call well in advance for reservations.