It was a beautiful, clear and sunny day when we gathered at Dunstaffange Marina, Oban, at 11am to meet the crew for a sailing trip around Scotland’s stunning western isles.
A party of seven passengers from America, Canada, Belgium, England and Scotland, we were greeted by Captain Dougie, bosun Mark and chef Ian, who then escorted us to our vessel, the 72-foot long Gemini Explorer – a converted cruising lifeboat and our home for the next eight nights.
Run by St Hilda’s Sea Adventures, the company offers a range of tours of Scotland’s scenic west coast. We were on the Skye and the small isles trip, which – weather dependent – would offer a range of sightseeing options and promised a cruise with a difference.
Once on board we met in the salon for a safety briefing from the captain as our luggage was deposited below decks in our cabins, then we explored. It was a lovely vessel – as a former lifeboat, it was built to withstand the toughest of Scottish seas and was reassuringly robust.
The accommodation had three forward en-suite cabins and three aft cabins, the main deck with the salon – where we had breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks (with honesty bar) – the bridge, captain’s cabin, kitchen and the engine room. Outside was the fore and aft deck, and an upper deck that commanded stunning views.
The weather was beautiful as we raised anchor and set sail bang on schedule. After an afternoon of pleasant cruising we were scheduled for captain’s table that evening, where Dougie joined us for the first meal.
It was expertly prepared by Ian who, as it turned out, had cooked on the last three Harry Potter films – and had even cooked for the young wizard himself, Daniel Radcliffe.
In fact, Ian had clearly picked up a few wizarding tricks himself. The food he whipped up in the tiny galley kitchen was a superb mix of vegetarian, gluten-free and regular menu, cooked expertly.
Dinners were entertaining affairs. With a musical captain (he played a mean guitar), a chef to the stars, a TV executive producer, a political campaigns manager, an end-of-life doula, two Continental insurance brokers, a psychiatrist and a journalist, all at sea on a boat in the Atlantic, it read like the opening chapter of an Agatha Christie novel.
Fortunately, there was no dark mischief to be to be had and no one was likely to end up overboard. In fact, the hallmark of the trip was the unusual grouping of people from all walks of life – it made for many interesting discussions with people we may not normally come across on holiday.
The next day took us on a walk around Loch Coruisk on Skye. An overnight berth at Loch Slapin saw us wake to clear skies, warm sunshine and glorious views towards towards Ben Meabost.
Conditions were idyllic as we headed for Eigg. And what an entry – the landing was very “special ops” as the tender took us straight to the beach where we were met by taxi / bus driver Charlie.
His face adorned side of the bus with ‘Don’t believe a word he says’. His face was also on the T-shirt he wore. When I asked if the T-shirt was available to buy, he removed the pipe from his mouth, regarded me for a moment, then said: “It is now.”
After offering everyone a (10am) dram and a few sage tales, we set off to see the island, which is energy self-sufficient with wind, wave and solar power, with communal ownership and a community that shares shop-keeping duties. It was a refreshing insight into cheerful self-reliance and environmental awareness.
We set sail for Raasay, a location for SAS training. That evening we speed-boated our way to Raasay House Hotel, James Bond-style – we were heading for cocktails, after all. Later, we recalled our late-night tender taxi, with a few cheeky aqua donuts from Dougie before re-boarding.
We took a trip to Raasay distillery the next morning, then up to Rona where we met Bill Cowie, an extremely knowledgeable deer herd manager, who greeted us with the (customary) morning welcome dram, followed by a delightful walk across the island.
The highly experienced and capable Dougie has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the islands, communities, people and the peculiar temperaments of the seas. Much like Ian and his cooking, it meant he adapted to conditions at a moment’s notice to deliver an eclectic and surprising trip.
Other stops included Plockton, where Hamish Macbeth was filmed, Armadale, Rum and Canna, which offered tranquil walks with an end-of-the-earth feel. It had an isolated beauty with vast, endless skies and seas that made our cities feel a million miles away.
Our final night in Tobermory gently reintroduced us to ‘normal’ life. With its tourists and rows of shops, it felt like a metropolitan hotspot compared to the peaceful (often silent) destinations on the small isles.
During a walk along the harbour I was delighted to see a film crew with Greg Hemphill and his wife, Scot Squad actor Julie Wilson Nimmo (DC Squire) filming a scene for their current BBC TV show Jules and Greg’s Wild Swim. This was not on the ship’s itinerary. I fangirled and took a pic, as one of the guests on board was a keen fan of Still Game.
By the end of the cruise the captain and crew had skilfully navigated the challenges of changeable weather – as well as the guests’ quirks! – with humour, patience and warmth.
Thanks to them, the St Hilda small isles trip was everything it had promised to be – a remarkable voyage of discovery, and an experience unlikely to be matched for a long time.
Tel: 01631 564121
Cost: Forward cabins £350pp/pn, (en-suite), aft cabins £240pp/pn, all inclusive.
Departure: Dunstaffnage Marina, three miles north of Oban. If driving, Dunstaffnage Marina offers secure parking for a small fee.
Trains depart from Glasgow Queen Street directly to Oban. Take a taxi for the seven-minute drive to the marina.
All pictures: Felicity Donohoe