Review of the HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS: Redefining Luxury — in Timeless Elegance

” It feels as though all the beauty, wonder, charm and history of this largely undiscovered area are ours alone”

Hebridean Princess sails gracefully beneath a sunset streaked with orange, purple and gold. I stand on deck and am captivated by the awe-inspiring beauty of the Hebridean Islands, one of the most remote outposts of the British Isles. Mountains, carved from Lewisian gneiss, the most ancient rock in Britain, reach to the sky while in the crystal blue waters, a pod of dolphins frolic and a flock of gulls soars high above them.

If your idea of a luxury cruise conjures images of caviar, a lavish spa, a dozen specialty restaurants, a water park, production shows and an owner’s suite that features a grand piano in the living area, you likely won’t appreciate the timeless elegance of a ship like Hebridean Princess.

But if you are intrigued by the magic of an extraordinary and intimate cruise experience that features superb service and exquisite dining as you sail an archipelago of remote, jewel-like islands that offer breathtaking vistas at every turn, Hebridean Princess just might be the answer.

It was the answer for Queen Elizabeth II, who chartered this 2,112 gross ton, 48-passenger gem … twice!


Far from a newbuild, Hebridean Princess entered service in 1964 as MV Columba, a vessel that transported passengers, cars and goods through Scotland’s Western Isles. In 1988, as cruise ships were getting larger and larger, a 1.5 million GBP transformation converted the ship into the miniature luxury liner she is today. Astonishingly, many of Hebridean Princess’ technical features—the wheelhouse, engine room, bow thrusters and stabilizers—are unchanged from those installed nearly 60 years ago!


Even before boarding, the Hebridean Princess difference becomes clear. Documents, honest-to-goodness hard-copy documents along with four luggage tags, land in my mailbox a few weeks before sailing. No credit card information is required, and I learn from the information packet that it is only gift shop or premium wine purchases that will be billed to accounts and those may be settled with cash (GBP) or a credit card.

I begin my holiday with a two-night stay in Glasgow, selecting the lovely Motel One, located across the street from the city’s Central Train Station where Hebridean Princess’ included transfer to our Oban embarkation point will depart (the Voco Hotel, part of the train station itself, is another convenient though pricier hotel option).

Through a haze of jet lag, I fall in love with this vibrant city, wonder why I feel so at home here and soon learn that the city’s grid format is so similar to that of my native New York City that Glasgow often stands in for The Big Apple in Hollywood films—there’s even a replica of The Statue of Liberty at Glasgow City Chambers!  I navigate Glasgow’s streets, take its simple-to-use subway to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum where a Mary Quant exhibit is on display through October 22nd, and try my best to understand the rapid-fire English spoken by the very friendly Glaswegians.

It is when I meet some shipmates under the clock at Glasgow’s Central Station for our transfer to Oban that I find a surprise even greater than those hard-copy documents: I am not the only American! In fact, I am one of two New Yorkers, four Virginians, a Floridian and a solo traveler from Massachusetts who will board that day!

For most of her existence, Hebridean Princess attracted, almost exclusively, a U.K. clientele but today I discover that through British friends or exceptional travel agents, word has spread. Some of my countrymen, in fact, are repeat Hebridean Princess guests already.


A kilted bagpipe player welcomes us as our coach arrives at the gangway of Hebridean Princess. Gone is the typical drama of embarkation day—with such a small guest capacity, there’s no need for registration kiosks and baggage handlers. The coach driver and ship crew handle our luggage and we stroll onto the ship, welcomed by the Captain and Chief Purser, and head to our cabins, each designated not by number but by the name of an island or loch in the Hebrides.

I have heard that residents of the remote and sparsely-populated Hebrides never bother to lock their doors and the practice, I discover, applies here as well (although all cabins contain a safe and doors may be locked from the inside). As a paranoid New Yorker, I am at first traumatized by the ship’s trusting nature but, as one who typically misplaces her key card multiple times during a sailing, I soon learn to love this open-door policy.

A small ship often means small cabins, but from the most humble inside to the most lavish Isle of Arran suite, I find this is not the case aboard Hebridean Princess. Even the inside cabin features ample space for two, a pair of wooden closets, sitting area and modern bathroom with shower and excellent water pressure (though that toilet button sometimes has to be pressed a few times to trigger activation). A charming decanter of whisky sits on the night table and, like all cabins, art reflects images of the Isle or Loch the cabin is named for. These inside cabins, however, located on the ship’s lowest deck, are unsuitable for those with mobility issues as they are accessed via two very steep and narrow staircases.

Now let’s hear it for Hebridean Princess acknowledgement of the solo traveler! Ten of Hebridean Princess’ 30 cabins are specifically for singles, with no pesky single supplement imposed!


Plaid drapes frame the floor-to-ceiling windows of Hebridean Princess’ Columba Restaurant, the sole dining venue aboard. Breakfast, served from 8:00 a.m. offers a buffet filled with fresh fruit and juices, cereals, pastries, yogurt, cold meats and cheeses, and is supplemented by a full menu of hot offerings and a daily special. Coffee is French pressed.

At 1:00 p.m., lunch is served, typically a choice of hot dishes or lighter sandwich options, but occasionally a lavish buffet like the seafood feast we enjoyed with its elaborate carved fresh salmon, tender crab legs and huge briny mussels.

On most evenings, guests assemble in The Tiree Lounge, the social heart of Hebridean Princess, for pre-dinner cocktails and canapes and at 7:30 p.m. head to The Columba. Dinner menus aboard more closely resemble those offered on riverboats than cruise ships, with two or three options (locally-sourced and flawlessly-prepared meat, fish and vegetarian dishes) for each course. All dining requirements can be accommodated based on the information provided on the questionnaire completed prior to sailing.

Perhaps in a nod to years gone by, The Columba Restaurant adheres to assigned seating, with couples assigned to two-tops while singles and groups of friends are at larger tables, often hosted by a ship’s officer or the tour director. Dress, for all but the two gala evenings on our sailing, was very informal and, even on gala evenings, it appeared that men had the pressure for a change with most donning kilts or tuxedos while women could easily take the “black-pants-and-dressy shirt” route.


It is morning aboard Hebridean Princess and Cunard’s Queen Victoria sails by—she seems like an intruder, this massive ship, occupying a sea that until now we shared only with the odd fishing boat or inter-island ferry.

The system for leaving and returning to Hebridean Princess involves not a computerized photo identification but simply selecting the “boarding pass” that corresponds to my cabin from a wooden display and placing the pass back on its hook upon return. “What about security?” I ask the officer manning the board—again, that paranoid New Yorker thing. “The staff knows every guest on board and we sail to remote places, usually via tender or Zodiac,” he assures me.

And soon, as we experience this enchanting itinerary, I understand what he means. It feels as though all the beauty, wonder, charm and history of this largely undiscovered area are ours alone:

In Coll, population 150, we are introduced to another world that was created three billion years ago and impacted by volcanic activity, plate shifting and the Ice Age. The sea around us is every shade of blue and green, and as we walk the narrow paths, buttercups glow at our feet and wisps of bog cotton sway in the breeze. The bleating of sheep is the only sound.

On the Isle of Skye, we scale the massive boulders and navigate the boggy terrain that leads to Loch Coruisk and are rewarded with a dreamlike vision that, with the magnificent mountains surrounding us, feels like we have been transported to another planet.

Through stained-glass windows, we get a taste of the colossal wealth that had been Kinloch Castle, a late Victorian mansion on Isle of Rum, and marvel at its grandeur, its elaborate woodwork, furnishings and art…but get a bit squeamish from the moose heads on the wall of the entryway and the animal skin rugs.

On the Isle of Tiree, we visit a museum that shows how the heroic engineers and keepers maintained Skerryvore Lighthouse, Scotland’s tallest lighthouse…and discover that the lighthouse’s designer was Alan Stevenson, uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson!

We visit the Colonsay Smokery and taste varieties of the Hebridean oak-smoked salmon created by the owner as a labor of love to the isle where he spent his honeymoon, and on Mull, we meet a fascinating woman, Lucie MacKenzie, who single-handedly created Lip na Cloiche, an elaborate garden that covers an entire hillside, triggering a microclimate that, amazingly, allows non-native flora to thrive.

The sacred Iona Abbey, established in 563 and one of the oldest Christian religious centers in Western Europe, is a haunting vision as we explore its grounds, which contain the final resting place of so many medieval monarchs, including the real MacBeth.

A zodiac delivers us to the uninhabited Isle of Sandray, known for its seabirds, but chosen by Hebridean Princess’ captain for a beach day, drinks and snacks provided. My feet scream in agony as I wade ankle-deep into the frigid waters but a couple of my shipmates actually don swimsuits and dive right in!

We experience all these things through walks led by the ship’s tour leader or by setting off on our own, on foot or aboard one of the ship’s bicycles.


We’ve toured, we’ve dined, we’ve had a few drinks. Are you ready for some evening entertainment? I hope not. Aboard Hebridean Princess, there’s none:  No shows, no dancing…not even any music. In fact, that bagpiper who greeted us at embarkation provided the last note of music we heard.

And that’s how guests aboard Hebridean Princess like it.

As a destination-based experience, I soon realize that we, the guests, provide our own entertainment.

No piano stylist or karaoke night could top an evening in the Tiree Lounge reliving the day’s magical experiences with those who shared them with us. Hebridean Princess attracts friendly, well-heeled, well-traveled individuals, many of whom are exceedingly knowledgeable about the Hebridean Islands and its flora, birdlife, culture and history. Friendships bloom, conversation flows and knowledge is gained–particularly for this first-timer whose knowledge of Scotland comes almost exclusively from watching Outlander and Shetland and reading books by Peter May and Ian Rankin.

So instead of dancing, we sit back and chat and let Matt, the Tiree Lounge bartender who knows each of us, knows our drink preference and seems to intuitively know when we need a refill, remind us what real luxury is:  comfortable surroundings, magical experiences, wonderful dining, newfound friends…and an open bar.


Photos-credit Judi Cuervo

Ed. Notes:

Also see Hebridean Island Cruises – All Things Cruise


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