The Majestic Line – Hebridean Happiness
Just one of 10 passengers on a small cruise ship sailing around Scotland’s Southern Hebrides, Tricia Welsh is almost as impressed as 19th-century German composer Felix Mendelssohn by the natural scenic beauty untouched by time.
By train – Glasgow to Oban
‘Aye, thar’s your wee boatie!’’ exclaims my fellow traveller as we alight the Glasgow-Oban train and look across the town’s tiny harbour to a small moored wooden vessel dwarfed by North Pier. During the three-hour scenic rail journey – surely one of the prettiest in Scotland – I’d been telling my new acquaintance about my upcoming cruise on the Majestic Line’s little Glen Massan.
At the Caledonian hotel, I meet the other passengers on this Heritage and Wildlife week-long itinerary. Skipper Jim Campbell welcomes us and gives us a pre-cruise safety demonstration before going by tender to board the converted fishing trawler.
Looking for all the world like a bathtub toy, the jaunty Glen Massan is the flagship of a locally owned and operated two-ship company, the Majestic Line. Based in nearby Dunoon, owners Andy Thoms and Ken Grant bought the beautifully crafted iroko-and-oak vessel in 2004, saving it from certain demise.
Inspired by earlier holidays cruising the Mediterranean in traditional Turkish fishing gulets, the keen sailors converted the classic high-prowed wooden boat into a comfortable mini-cruise ship to cater for up to 11 people.
Leisurely Life on board
Accommodation is in six ensuite cabins with lounge saloon on the main level leading to a furnished aft-deck. Central stairs lead up to the wheelhouse with further spacious sun decks fore and aft. With drinks in hand, guests meet and mingle on the rear open deck as the summer sun lingers in a cloudless evening sky and the sea air freshens.
We cruise south to anchor at Fearnach Bay. In the galley kitchen, chef Andi Montgomery has been busy producing over-baked oysters and freshly cooked langoustines to savour with pre-dinner drinks.
These are followed by Scottish salmon wrapped in parma ham and a decadent Belgian chocolate and caramel tart. Wines are included with dinner and there is always a selection of interesting, mostly local cheese to finish.
Food on board the Glen Massan proves a real highlight – as is the beautiful cruising environment and the amenable crew of four: skipper Jim, engineer Ray, chef Andi and her nephew, Mark, as bosun. Next morning, we wake to a breakfast of steaming porridge ‘‘with the full Monty’’ – honey and a good glug of Scotch whisky. Abundant fresh berries and perfect eggs Benedict follow – setting us up well for the day.
There is no real itinerary, we learn, rather the captain taking his cue from his years of experience sailing these waters, the local weather forecast and guests’ preferences. But bad weather is predicted so we head further south hugging the rugged coastline and sheltering in secluded bays. We drop anchor at Toberonochy for morning tea while long-haired highland cattle graze on surrounding farmlands before we sail on to Crinan. Most of us go ashore by tender for an invigorating walk where woodlands shade thick carpets of bluebells and donkeys bray in paddocks.
Back on board, we continue south through the Sound of Jura and up narrow Loch Sween overseen by the 12th-century Norman Castle Sween to Tayvallich village where we moor for the night. Next morning, sailing out of Loch Sween, we train binoculars looking out for wild deer on the hillside.
We sail north to anchor at Dorus Mor in the south of Loch Craignish and that afternoon, we spy a pod of porpoises as we cross the Firth of Lorn to shelter overnight in Loch Spelve on the Isle of Mull.
On the water’s edge is Inverlussa Mussel Farm where an insulated container of mussels with honesty box offers them for £1 a kilo. The pristine cold waters around here abound with seafood. Chef has ordered fresh langoustines and oysters from Tobermory for a farewell seafood extravaganza.
En route we visit the impressive 13th-century Duart Castle, ancestral home of the McLean clan, where the 28th chieftain and his family live. It enjoys commanding views down the Sound of Mull through to Ben Nevis and the distant Glencoe Mountains.
Queen Victoria visited Mull, as did the composer Mendelssohn whose life-changing journey through Scotland inspired him to write one of his most famous works: The Hebrides Overture, Fingal’s Cave.
We can’t quite believe our eyes as Tobermory comes into view. It must be everyone’s idea of a fairytale village with its string of rainbow coloured houses along the foreshore and backdrop of castlelike hotels. There are signs such as: ‘‘Care – Otter on road’’, and ‘‘Five porpoise seen off Tobermory Lighthouse’’, with sightings of minke whales nearby. The town boasts the 1798-established Tobermory single-malt Scotch whisky distillery where we take a tour with tastings.
Next morning, almost on a whim, we motor early to the Treshnish Islands to view puffins flying around their natural sanctuary on rocky Lunga Island. With the sun on my back and the purr of the Kelvin diesel engine below, there can be fewer more peaceful spots onboard than pulling up a stool in the wheelhouse and chatting with the skipper.
I remark that we are not encountering many people en route and very few boats. ‘‘And that’s the way we like it,’’ adds engineer Ray. I realise that I’ve slipped into a zone where there is no real sense of time as we cruise the tranquil waters around the Hebridean Islands.
(Tricia Welsh is an Australian travel writer and was a guest of Cathay Pacific, the Majestic Line, Visit Scotland and ScotRail)
Scotland’s national rail carrier, Scotrail, has several services a day from Glasgow Queen Street Station to Oban, scotrail.co.uk
Itineraries: The Glen Massan is one of two traditional vessels of the Majestic Line, offering three, six and 13-night cruises around the islands of Argyll and the Hebrides on the west coast of Scotland. The company operates from April to October with the wildlife, scenery and seasonal gourmet food changing with the months; see http://www.themajesticline.co.uk
Special year: 2013 is the Year of Natural Scotland — and the little cruise incorporates all that this implies – nature, pristine waters, great local food etc.
More information: The Lonely Planet’s seventh edition of its Guide to Scotland 2013.