Travel: Inner Hebrides cruise

With impeccable service, an intimate atmosphere and heart-stoppingly beautiful scenery, a cruise around the Inner Hebrides recharges body and soul

NORTH-WEST seven to severe gale nine, backing south-west five to six. Rough or very rough." The forecast on the television in our cabin spoke volumes: for once, the crew of the Hebridean Princess would not be pushing the boat out for us. The sea was too rough to go ashore by motor launch for a visit to one of Islay's famous distilleries. Guests wouldn't have been digesting their breakfast, they'd have been wearing it.

Not that the 30 or so passengers aboard appeared to mind. If you're going to cruise the Inner Hebrides in early November you have to expect a few alterations to your schedule. And there can be few more pleasant places to be stuck than the Princess, a floating palace of pampering.

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From the minute you step aboard to be greeted by the chief purser, to the moment when you walk down the gangway for the last time, the officers and crew attend to your every need. When you enter your cabin, a decanter of malt whisky is waiting. Leave your cabin in a mess and it will be tidy when you return, however brief your absence. And there's no chance of emptying your wine glass at lunch or dinner before a sommelier arrives to top it up. The crew – a mix of British seamen and "hotel" staff who are mostly from the Baltic states – are there to please, and do their job superbly.

It's a successful approach. Though the nearest my girlfriend and I had previously come to a west of Scotland cruise was a five-minute ride on the Corran ferry, around half of our fellow guests had been on the Princess before and some were regulars: one woman was making her twentieth trip.

Another passenger, who was a veteran of cruises of all shapes and sizes, was keen to point out that the Princess experience was not typical. "It's very special," he insisted. "There's nothing else like it."

Well, there's certainly nothing like the facilities boasted by the big liners either: no swimming pool, no cabarets, certainly no on-board golf course, as offered by the world's biggest cruise ship, the Oasis of the Seas, a floating resort which accommodates 6,200 passengers.

But such diversions are not what the Princess is about. A converted ferry, she can accommodate a maximum of 49 passengers and is proudly claimed by her owners to be the smallest cruise ship afloat. And in the Hebrides that's a big advantage, allowing access to island anchorages that would be off limits to bigger vessels and visiting – weather permitting – two new locations every day. One thing the Princess does have is bikes, which are the perfect way for more active passengers to see the sights.

The ship's relatively compact dimensions also foster a friendly atmosphere. With only two public rooms of any size – the dining room and the Tiree Lounge – it's impossible not to get to know your fellow travellers unless you stay in your cabin.

The thought of what those other guests might be like had been my only slight misgiving. Would they be unbearably posh? After all, this was a ship where you had to dress for dinner.

I needn't have worried: largely older than me, they were a down-to-earth bunch, all happy to chat as the Princess cruised at a stately ten knots among the islands.

The cruise started from Oban on a dreich Wednesday that had never managed to get properly light. It was a relief to leave the town behind, and a delight to later enter the dining room for the start of what was essentially a week-long feast broken up only by trips ashore and sleep. The room is called the Columba restaurant in honour of the original name of the ship but perhaps Columbo – "Just one more thing…", as the TV detective said – would be more appropriate. A six-course dinner awaited, to be followed the next day by a lavish breakfast and a five-course lunch, a pattern only broken by the two gala dinners of the trip, when an extra course was added. Yet the size of the meals was so cleverly designed that I never felt I'd eaten too much.

Our first port of call the next morning was not an island but Fort William, where we were bused to the cable car at Aonach Mor. While our fellow passengers were content to ride up and down in the gondola, my partner insisted we should make our way down on foot – a 2,000 foot scramble that left me in awe of the mountain bikers who tackle the downhill track we crossed several times. It's terrifyingly steep.

Our decision to stretch our legs on Aonach Mor set the tone for our week of visits to some wonderful locations. We were "the active ones", the ship's guide, Ann, decided.

When we visited Torosay Castle on Mull, we walked back instead of waiting for the bus. And at Crinan, on the Kintyre peninsula, we borrowed bikes to cycle the length of the canal.

We also used the bikes for a round trip of the beautiful island of Colonsay, the visual highlight of a cruise filled with quite stunning scenery.

And when the ship moored at Tobermory for a morning's shopping – not something my partner or I regard as a legitimate leisure activity – the first officer was happy to take us for a spin round the bay in the ship's speedboat.

Less active passengers were just as well looked after. Every shore visit included the choice of a trip to a house, gardens or gallery and the cruise company's all-inclusive pricing policy – which includes free drinks – also extended beyond the boat. "Just tell them you're with the ship," said Ann when pointing people towards a caf after a visit to Arduaine Gardens at Craobh Haven.

Much of the pleasure on the cruise, though, was simply that – cruising slowly between the coast and the Inner Hebrides, sitting in the lounge or the glassed-in conservatories on each side of the ship, or standing on the open Skye deck at the stern, enjoying the kind of views that compare well with anything on the planet. One passenger who had never seen the west coast kept making exclamations of pleasure at the sight of the landscape.

The Princess arrived back in Oban all too quickly, and was due to head south to England for her annual refit, essential for such a venerable vessel. Built in 1964, the Princess has now been operating as a cruise ship for two decades. The loyalty she inspires in her passengers means she's likely to be going for a couple more yet.

FACT FILE

CRUISE

Hebridean Island Cruises begins its 2010 itinerary on 1 March. Its last sailing begins on 16 November.

Prices range from 986 per person up to 11,020, depending on which cruise you opt for, the time of year and the type of cabin.

For more details call the company's Skipton head office on 01756 704704 or visit www.hebridean.co.uk

Brochures are also available in travel agencies.

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 24 January, 2010