Saturday, September 14, 2013

Hebridean Princess... a good bet for those who want to avoid kids...

I posted the following review on Epinions.com back in December of last year.  I decided to repost it here because I didn't have this blog when I wrote the review and there are some cruisers who are looking for a line that is less kid populated.  Lately SeaDream Yacht Club's cruises are becoming more popular with people who want to bring their young kids.  Since SeaDream's ships are so small and not set up with activities for kids, this is a problem for a lot of folks.

I think Hebridean Princess is a good bet if you want to avoid cruises that are highly populated with children.  Our last SeaDream cruise was kid free, but if we had spent $10,000+ for a trip that billed itself as adult oriented, I would be very upset.


I made the above video...



These are videos I made of the gala dinners...

Hell yes, I took and enjoyed a November cruise in Scotland!


Dec 2, 2012 (Updated Aug 26, 2013)
Rated a Very Helpful Review by the Epinions community

    Pros:Truly all inclusive.  Amazing staff.  Comfortable cabins, good food, and plenty to do and see.

    Cons:Caters to an older crowd. Expensive. Limited itineraries.  No spa. Not for kids.

    The Bottom Line:I will never forget my time on Hebridean Princess.  You really can enjoy Scotland in November!


    Warning: This is going to be a very long and comprehensive review.  If you have a short attention span, you might want to move on now!Still with me?  Good.  I want to share a well-kept secret with my fellow Americans.

    If you read my review of the Carlton George Hotel, you know that my husband, Bill, and I just got home from a long trip to Scotland.  This trip has been a long time in the making.  I wanted to do something extra special to celebrate our tenth anniversary and get to know Scotland, a place that figures prominently in my heritage.  When Bill and I got married on November 16, 2002, I walked down the aisle to the beautiful tune "Highland Cathedral", sort of an unofficial Scottish anthem that was composed in 1985 by a couple of Germans, who no doubt appreciated the country's great beauty and character.  On a trip to Maine in June 2011, Bill and I heard a bagpiper playing "Highland Cathedral" on a street corner.  I took it as a sign we had to go to Scotland for the big tenth anniversary celebration.

    And by now, you might be thinking... "Why the hell would anyone go to Scotland for a vacation in NOVEMBER?"  Well, besides the fact that our anniversary is in November, I had also decided that I wanted to take a cruise on very tiny MV Hebridean Princess, an all-inclusive ship I first read about in an article on Cruise Critic.

    Bill and I aren't really big cruisers yet.  Counting the two five night back to back cruises we just took on Hebridean Princess, we have only been on five cruises.  Before we boarded Princess, we were devout fans of SeaDream Yacht Club, an all inclusive luxury line that has only two ships that carry no more than 112 passengers each.  We have been on two SeaDream cruises so far with another planned for May of 2013, but given my fascination with Scotland and the fact that SeaDream doesn't sail there, I decided to "cheat" on SeaDream with Hebridean Princess.  Bill and I are both glad we gave in to temptation.

    Hebridean's history

    Tiny Hebridean Princess started out humbly enough.  Originally, she was a car ferry and mail ship.  Built in 1964 and operated by David MacBrayne Ltd., the Princess was originally named RMS and then Columba, before she was purchased by Hebridean Island Cruises in 1988.  The ship was completely madeover into a luxury cruise vessel in 1989.  At first, she retained her ability to ferry cars, but was refitted again a couple of years later to add more staterooms and crew capacity.  Though the original Hebridean Island Cruises outfit eventually changed hands a couple of times and the Princess is now owned by the British firm All Leisure Group, she retains her elegant charm.  Indeed, she has carried Queen Elizabeth II and her entourage twice-- once for the Queen's 80th birthday in 2006, and once for a family holiday in 2010.    

    I figured that if Hebridean Princess was good enough for the Queen of England, she was good enough for me, even though I'd heard the Queen was not necessarily a benchmark for luxury!  Indeed, while we were on the ship, we heard that the Princess was pretty posh compared to the Queen's decommissioned ship Britannia, which is now a museum in Edinburgh.  A framed and autographed photo of the Queen and Prince Phillip hangs at the reception desk on the Princess and she was dedicated by none other than Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, in 1989.

    Our cruises

    Originally, I planned to just do the Castles of Argyll and Bute cruise running from November 17-22.  Bill and I usually schedule land vacations around our cruise vacations anyway and the Castles of Argyll and Bute cruise was closest to our actual anniversary date.  But then I realized that the cruise would end just in time for Thanksgiving, one of the busiest travel times of the year.  I was also mistakenly under the impression that Thanksgiving was a week later than it actually was in 2012.  Anyway, when I realized that Hebridean Island Cruises would give me a tiny (5%) discount on the second cruise if we did a back to back, I talked Bill into adding the last cruise of the season, Treasures of Kintyre, to our itinerary.

    We booked one of the cheapest cabins; the fare for each cruise including port fees and taxes was approximately $1960 per person.  All told, including the discount, we paid about $7400 for our ten nights aboard.  That may seem like a lot of money, and it is; but it's actually an excellent deal for the length of time we were on Hebridean Princess.  Some of her one week summer cruises cost several times that amount!  If you want a deal, look into early spring or late fall sailings which are definitely the least expensive!

    Our cruises would both sail out of Greenock, which is not Hebridean Princess's usual port.  The Princess usually sails out of Oban, which is further north.  Greenock is about 45 minutes from Glasgow and Hebridean does arrange coach transportation to the ship from either the airport or the train station.  A one way ticket for both Bill and me ran $80.

    All inclusive really means all inclusive  

    Bill and I were acquainted with "all inclusive" luxury cruising, having sailed twice with SeaDream Yacht Club.  Basically, it often means that there's no tipping expected and most beverages, including alcoholic ones, are included in the price of the cruise.

    However, when Hebridean Island Cruises says it's all inclusive, it really means it's all inclusive.  Almost everything is included in the price.  The published fares are the total fares.  There are no extra port charges, taxes, or fuel fees added.  The price you see is the price you pay, period.  We were not even asked for a credit card when we boarded the Princess.  Is it possible to spend money onboard?  Yes, it is.  There is a small shop and there are a few higher cost beverages and wines that are extra if you want them.  But you can easily get on this ship and not spend an extra dime.  And after ten nights onboard, Bill and I did not spend any money except for when we purchased a few souvenirs during excursions.

    Embarkation  

    The weather was pretty nasty when we were collected at the Glasgow Train Station.  We made a quick stop at the airport to pick up a few more passengers and were given lanyards to wear around our necks for when we were embarking and on excursions.

    On the first cruise, our guide was Andrea, a young looking woman-- okay, young being very subjective, since most of the folks on our cruise were elderly Britons-- who gave us a brief history of Glasgow and the Clyde that helped make it a great city.  I was happy to listen to her speak, especially when she informed us that most of the movie Braveheart, was utterly made up rubbish.  But, she admitted, it was a very entertaining film that brought a lot of folks to Scotland, so it wasn't all bad.

    When we arrived at the port, we heard the sound of a bagpiper.  Indeed, a chilly looking teenaged lad in a kilt was piping passengers aboard the ship, cabin by cabin.  I had to give him credit, since I know he was cold!  Once we were aboard, a staff member showed us to our low priced digs on the lowest deck.  It was a long way down to the waterline, but though our stateroom had no windows, it was quite pleasant.  We had a king sized bed which was surprisingly comfortable.  A small decanter of whisky sat on the counter next to a flat screen television.  A stocked mini fridge included water, soft drinks, fresh milk (for the impressive tea and coffee set up), and orange juice.  The bathroom had a thermostatic shower and was stocked with large bottles of Molton Brown toiletries.  There was a heated towel rack, bathrobes, and some of the thickest, most luxurious white towels I've ever seen.  

    The cabins on the Princess each have names.  Ours was called Loch Torridon.  No cabin door is lockable, except from the inside.  However, there is a safe in the stateroom for those who have valuables they want to lock up.  After we unpacked our luggage, the stewards stored our bags for us.  We had plenty of places to put our clothes, including drawers and closet space.

    The other passengers

    The Princess has several single cabins and actually caters to single travelers.  I noticed there were quite a few single elderly women aboard, though one of the first passengers we met was a man who had fought in World War II and still had plenty of stories to share with us young whippersnappers.  At age 40, I was the youngest person on the first cruise by about eight years!  And Bill and I were the only Americans on that cruise; there were two German couples and everyone else was either from England, Scotland, or Northern Ireland.  Children under age nine are not welcome on the Princess and, in fact, I highly doubt most kids would enjoy these very adult oriented cruises.

    Once we were unpacked, we headed up to the Tiree Lounge for the welcome cocktail party.  Since it was the first night, most people were dressed informally.  On most other nights, most passengers dress nicely for dinner.  On the last night of each of our two cruises, there were galas.  We saw lots of people in tuxedoes, cocktail dresses, and kilts.  Bill wore his Army dress blue uniform, which was a HUGE hit on both cruises.  He really turned heads and stirred conversation with his sexy uniform.  And I have to admit, I love a man in uniform, too...

    Food

    Food on the Princess is an elegant affair, distinctly British in flavor.  Every morning, there was a special dish, as well as eggs, breakfast meats, toasts, and scones available.  If you want porridge with a wee dram or kippers, you're also in luck.  Lunch consisted of three courses; one could have a sandwich and soup or a cooked entree.  One day on both cruises, there was a cold salmon buffet which was absolutely delightful!  A wine steward circulates and pours red and white wines freely.  It was during lunches on the Princess that I became reacquainted with foods I had almost forgotten about after having lived in England as a small child.  I also learned what Eton Mess is.

    Dinners are similarly elegant affairs, three or four courses, depending on if you want a cheese course after your dessert.  There were two choices for each course at both lunch and dinner.  I tend to be somewhat picky, but only on a couple of occasions did I not like either option that much.  There was plenty to eat and the food was mostly very well-prepared.  Each day in the late afternoon, there would also be sandwiches and cookies set out for tea, which one could enjoy with tea or coffee, a cocktail, whisky, or beer or wine.  There was no skimping on the bubbly, either.  Real champagne flowed freely.

    Excursions

    All excursions on the Hebridean Princess are included, unless you decide there is something else you want to do.  Moreover, fishing and small boating trips can also be arranged, or you can borrow one of the ship's bikes, though I didn't notice anyone doing that on either of our cruises.

    We were pretty lucky in that over the course of our back to back cruises, we were supposed to overlap on a couple of places.  But because of the weather and some last minute itinerary changes, only one pair of excursions was a re-run.  And on that day, when everyone else was headed to Kelburn Castle, which we had seen on the first cruise, we simply walked around the nearest city instead.

    We did have bad weather on one day that made it impossible for us to get off the boat.  That was a disappointment, but the staff on the Princess was ready to take care of everyone.  There was a bridge tour, an engine room tour, and a whisky tasting.  Several folks also got together to play bridge.  Jigsaw puzzles and board games are also available, as are movies and books.  You can even watch regular TV if you want to, since the ship is not far from shore.  Wi-Fi is free, though it's pretty unreliable.  And if all else fails, the captain will cruise the lochs, allowing passengers to see spectacular scenery... spectacular, even when it's raining outside!

    Remember, I said that on the Princess, all inclusive truly means all inclusive.  That includes trips to coffee shops.  On every excursion, there was coffee, tea, and cake made available, either pre-arranged at cafes or hotels or prepared by the ship.  When we stopped at privately owned Sanda Island which is mostly inhabited by sheep and seals, we were greeted with coffee, tea, cookies, and whisky after our hike!  And when we visited the men's room in Rothesay (which is special because of its Victorian styling), our guide even paid the 20 pence fees for the passengers.  In fact, all entry fees to all excursions are included as well.

    Turn around day

    There was one other lady on our first cruise who was staying aboard for the last cruise of the season.  The chief purser approached Bill and me and asked what we planned to do on Thursday, as everyone was leaving the ship.  I told him I planned to find a laundrette and wash underwear!  He said, "No worries.  We can take care of that for you."  Then he suggested that Bill and I, along with the other lady, an adorable elderly woman named Audrey who could outwalk both of us, go to Glasgow to visit the Burrell Collection.  The purser arranged for and paid for a taxi for us, then told us to bring him our receipts from lunch, which the ship would also reimburse us for.  The purser made a point of telling me to order whatever I wanted, too.  When has that EVER happened on a mainstream ship?  By the way, we were not charged for the laundry service, either.

    The second cruise

    I have to admit that while I think I liked the passenger mix on the first cruise better, I enjoyed the second cruise more.  I liked the itinerary better, as it took us to the gorgeous island of Arran.  We had much better weather.  And the guide and purser changed for this journey as well.

    Let me just say that I enjoyed almost every staff member I ran into, but I'm really glad we were around to meet the purser on the second cruise, David Indge.  He is truly a people person and has a way of making everyone feel special.  I never detected any insincerity from him.  He was warm, funny, and truly a delight.  I heard that the Queen also liked him on her first Hebridean cruise and specifically asked for his services on her second cruise as well.

    I also liked our second guide, Hugh, a vibrant Scotsman who looked like he really knew all the best places to hike.  He was friendly and engaging and we really enjoyed meeting him.

    Captain Richard Heaton is newly appointed, but a consummate professional.  He was very approachable and friendly, not to mention quite the hottie.

    Haggis?

    Yes, there is haggis.  Yes, I did try it.  And yes, I did live to tell the tale with the help of a double whisky.

    Places we visited...

    Here's a list of the places we visited on our cruises, some of which opened just for us.

    Castles of Argyll and Bute-- Ardgowan House, Mount Stuart House (amazing), Kelburn Castle, Rothesay-- the town and the ruined castle, Benmore Botanical Garden, Holy Loch, Lochranza and Arran Distillery.

    Treasures of Kintyre-- Campbeltown and Springbank Distillery, Sanda Island (we saw baby seals!), Largs (Kelburn Castle for those who hadn't seen it), Tighnabruaich, Isle of Arran, Arran Cheese Shop and Aromatics, Benmore Botanical Garden (I would have liked to have seen more of this amazing place, but skinned my knees), Tarbert Castle ruins

    The last night

    Bill and I thoroughly enjoyed our time on the Princess.  However , a small series of personal disasters made the last night of our cruise go badly.  First, we went back to the botanical gardens, which Bill and I had hiked during the first cruise.  I was excited, because it's a beautiful place and I wanted to explore more.  But I lost my footing and took a fall, which resulted in two skinned and bloody knees.

    When we got back to the ship, there were urgent emails from the kennel where our dogs were boarded.  Our older dog, MacGregor, had what we thought was disc disease.  We had him on Prednisone and were weaning him from the drug when he apparently took a turn for the worse and had to visit our vet.  The vet claimed that he had discovered a tumor on his cervical spine and the person running the kennel advised us to have our dog put down immediately (which we didn't do).  Bill called the vet using his cellphone while we were still on the ship.  As it turns out, MacGregor is still with us and not as bad off as he seemed.  But that's another long story which I'll get to eventually.

    Because of the distressing news about MacGregor, I had trouble enjoying dinner and eventually lost it.  Then I started my period unexpectedly and wasn't prepared.  Fortunately, the amazing staff on the Princess came through again and found me the necessary items to get me through the night.  I doubt this is a problem they run into often, though, given the average age of the passengers!

    Disembarkation

    This was a simple and organized affair.  We put tags on our bags letting staff know where we were going.  They were offloaded from the ship for us.  As we left the ship, we shook the captain's hand and Dave the purser gave me a hug and a kiss.  I left with an excellent impression.

    On to Edinburgh...

    Bill and I had plans to go to Edinburgh for four nights.  We were thinking of trying to take the train, but ended up hiring a taxi which David, Hebridean's purser, arranged for us at a slight discount.  The excellent cabbie took great care of us for 120 pounds plus a ten quid tip.

    Things to know...

     * We had no bill at the end of our cruise

     * The ship's officers are mostly British or Irish.  The rest of the staff mostly hails from Latvia and Lithuania.

     * There is no spa, pool, or hot tub, but the showers (and bathtubs in some cabins) have plenty of hot water.

     * There is no casino, but there is a nice library.

     * There was no live entertainment on our cruise, but I'm told that sometimes the ship brings on local entertainers or speakers.

     * Most passengers are well-heeled and well-traveled Britons, but just about everyone is active in mind and body.

     * There is no doctor on the ship, but you will rarely be more than a mile from the coast and medical care can be arranged quickly.  This ship is best suited for people who are able-bodied or can bring along someone who can help them get around.  There is no elevator and most of the doors are narrow and have "lips" on the floor that make them inconducive to wheelchairs.

     * The ship doesn't encourage passengers to use the laundry but will wash clothes in an emergency.

     * We tendered at some ports, which involved riding in a small boat.  Everyone must wear a lifejacket.  When you leave the ship, you carry a small brass tag with the name of your cabin on it.  It's important to always remember to take the tag (and they will remind you incessantly), because that's how they can tell who is on or off the ship.  If you leave the tag on the ship, you run the risk of being left behind.

     * I did not get seasick once.

     * There is a very small gym that consists of a treadmill and some weights.  You will likely get plenty of walking exercise, though.

     * If you go on this cruise and you are American, it's likely you will be the minority.  There was only one other American couple on our second cruise, also in their forties.  We felt very welcome on the ship, though, and most everyone we talked to was a delight!

    Overall

    Despite the unpleasant business with MacGregor, I don't regret one minute of our time in Scotland.  I especially don't regret our time on Hebridean Princess.  If you've always wanted to see Scotland and like hanging out with sharp witted and friendly Brits, I highly recommend checking out this line.  As much as I love SeaDream and look forward to our May trip, I have to admit in many ways, our experiences on the Princess matched or even surpassed our experiences on SeaDream, though it is a very different kind of cruise and caters to an older crowd.

    For more information: http://www.hebrideancruises.us

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