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Cruising on Scotland's West Coast - a friendly and awe-inspiring adventure

Cruising Scotland's Hebrides was an adventure - and one full of new friends and incredible wildlife and nature

A cruise boat on the Scottish Highlands and Islands
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It's a moment etched in cinematic history; Kate Winslet stands on the bow of the Titanic, arms wide. "I’m flying!’ For me, it's early evening on the second day of my Scottish cruise adventure and I am standing high above the bowsprit of my ship, Splendour. No Kate Winslet in sight, but the view is surely nowhere surpassed in all Scotland’s wondrous West, as we slip along the mountainous east coast of the Isle of Arran on an evening of exquisite sunshine. 

What is cruising in Scotland really like?

We are on a 3-night 'Kyles and the Isles tour' with Ted Creek’s family-owned Argyll Cruising and it’s going well. Splendour, a traditional clinker-built fishing trawler, has been converted into a cruise ship so well-appointed that last year it won first prize in the Luxury category of BBC TV's ‘Greatest Escape’ series.

Argyll Cruising ship pictured on Scotland's West Coast
Argyll Cruising - a cruise ship with a difference!

Ten bespoke cruises range from our taster tour to a 13-night exploration of the Islands and Wildlife of the Southern Hebrides. The Hebrides is a group of islands on the mainland of Scotland’s west coast. There are about 200 of them.

Below deck, five wood-panelled, centrally heated, en-suite double-bedrooms (with portholes of course) lead upstairs to a comfy saloon and galley kitchen, where on-board chef Tom Canning dispenses his particular magic. Beyond lie two decks for al fresco lounging, eating, drinking or fishing and, of course, the Bridge, to which you may be invited to rest a hand on the Captain’s wheel, while Splendour’s 8-cylinder Gardner engine, re-tuned to purring perfection, re-lives her long memories at sea.

A luxurious bedroom on a Scottish cruise ship
The luxurious bedroom inside the cruise ship

Sighting wildlife is a theme whichever cruise you choose. When Splendour slows it is probably an alert from Captain Ted, a marine biologist by training, to rush to view sea-birds, seals, dolphins, minke whales or white-tailed eagles. 

Activities include kayaking, fishing (rods are provided) and wild swimming, and after breakfast each morning Splendour’s motorised dinghy whisks you away to onshore destinations most reachable by sea. 

The first night of a Scottish Cruise 

A storm on the Firth of Clyde
A storm on the Firth of Clyde

It's our first night on board. As we set off down the Firth of Clyde in Splendour a storm is brewing. Mist shrouds the darkening hills and we concentrate on the ship’s bar and kitchen. After a lordly spread, of which a magnificent salmon is the centrepiece, I reflect that with a captain called Creek and a cook called Canning we must be in good hands.

We drop anchor in a narrow channel at the sheltered mouth of Loch Riddon. Ted knows his safe anchorages. The gentle breathing of the oaken ship and the swishing and galloping of the sea against her hull takes some beating as a lullaby. 

Next morning, the storm has passed and the plan is to go by dinghy to Glen Caladh. The dinghy looks to be far away below us, but in our captain’s care we feel like royalty stepping onto a barge. And what is that melodious moaning we hear up ahead? It is the singing of seals basking on outcrops known as Burnt Island.

The hike, in light rain through rhododendron strewn Glen Caladh, beneath a canopy of ancient oak, is so fresh, and a rushing waterfall sublime.

Scotland's stunning Hebrides© Argyll Cruising
Scotland's stunning Hebrides

Back on Splendour, after carrot and leak soup, pastrami sandwiches and locally smoked trout, we are off again, docking at Lochranza. I decide to set off alone towards a local whisky distillery and leave my fellow travellers (all in pairs) to themselves. 

But the lovely thing about this small, intimate cruise is you make friends quickly. No sooner had the idea taken hold than two enigmatic ladies in our free-wheeling group catch up with me and press-gang me into an improvised blind-tasting, the details of which will remain locked in my hippocampus for all time, for ironically the clarity of the water up here does nothing to make one’s thinking clearer. 

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The camaraderie of adventure - making friends on a Scottish cruise

With eight passengers the maximum load on Splendour, the constant lament on larger cruise ships that socialising and friendship are too often sacrificed to big name entertainment does not apply. 

four friends chat as they sit on deck of a Scottish cruise ship© Argyll Cruising
Making new friends on deck

Making friends is unavoidable. You could of course bring your own (and a Private Charter is available), but there are unseen advantages in a more spontaneous arrangement. 

People wonder whether sitting around a dining table with your fellow diners all perfect strangers is like walking into an Agatha Christie novel. How does it work? Do you introduce yourselves one by one with a story about what you do, who you are? 

Thankfully no. We get to know each other, but not in that way. A certain mystery is preserved. Definitely more Agatha Christie than 'I'm a Celebrity!'

 We create a group with with laughter and a growing sense of allegiance. Our group ranges from Gen-Z Zoomers to Baby Boomers, yet we feel so comfortable together I know we will greet each other like old friends were we ever to meet again.

A trip to Holy Isle

Having anchored at sundown in the lea of Holy Isle, a place of retreat owned by Tibetan Buddhist monks, the next morning finds us standing before eight large white stupas, recreations of shrines built to house the ashes of the Buddha some 3,000 years ago. 

The Argyll cruise ship in Scotland
The Argyll cruise ship

We are all genuinely taken with the tranquillity of Holy Isle, with its traditional Tibetan rock paintings and messages of enlightened ‘Buddha Nature’ in Tibetan and English. And as link up with Ted for the return to Splendour, a weather-beaten fisherman comes alongside with a huge bucket of langoustines and squat lobsters, which he trades for £20.

a langoustine on a bed of salad© Argyll Cruising
Seafood as fresh as it comes

Dinner that evening, our third and last, features these unbelievably fresh crustaceans, served in a lemon and garlic sauce with sliced radishes soaked earlier in iced water - perfection!

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On the final morning, as Splendour’s engines slow, we rush to the bow to find a family of dolphins – symbols of friendship for all sailors – piloting us to safe harbour.

Dolphins spotted swimming in Scotland
Dolphins lead us home at the end of the unforgettable cruise

I look back on our experiences as part of a love affair with the timeless beauty of this part of Scotland and a reminder of something we have perhaps lost in our fast moving urban lifestyles. I feel rested and re-set. As I return to Holy Loch marina for my onward journey the peace of Holy Isle remains. We will manage the hour-long, Friday morning ferry queue to Gourock, and life beyond, with equanimity.

The Kyles and the Isles tour costs from £1,165 per person for an ensuite cabin - a great introduction to cruising in Scotland. Late availability and inspiration available at ToWanderUK

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