20th November 2015 – Visit to Hebridean Princess

A conducted tour of Hebridean Princess at Greenock
as she prepares for winter lay-up after another busy season
Report and Photographs:  Andrew Clark 

 Hebridean Princess at Greenock on 20 November 2015   Columba at Oban on 23 August 1967 
For two hours on 20 November 2015 the CRSC was given the run of Hebridean Princess, the elite cruise vessel that serves as a floating hotel for millionaires and a holiday ship for Britain’s royal family. This exclusive visit, restricted to 50 CRSC members, underlined the advantages of Club membership. Under normal circumstances the only way to access the ship, built in 1964 as the MacBrayne car ferry Columba, is by paying a four-figure sum for a fully inclusive cruise. On this occasion the lucky 50 paid nothing.
Now managed by Skipton-based Hebridean Island Cruises (www.hebridean.co.uk), Hebridean Princess wears her age well. Since her conversion in 1989 into a cruise ship, with berths for 50 passengers and a crew of 38, she has carved a hugely successful niche for herself on the west of Scotland. Occupancy runs at 91 per cent, with returnees accounting for 65 per cent of her clientele. The season now extends from early March to late November, with an itinerary embracing destinations, such as St Kilda, that are beyond the reach of most people. The CRSC visit, organised by Club president Angus Ross and cruise coordinator Neil Guthrie, coincided with the ship’s de-storing at Greenock after her final voyage of 2015.

 Angus Ross (left) and other
CRSC officials prepare to board
Gangway being craned ashore 
 Waiter service with welcome 
from Ken Charleson (left)
Ship’s restaurant 

Silhouetted by blueish sky and benign cloud above the Lomond hills, Hebridean Princess made an impressive sight as she made a gingerly approach to Custom House Quay around 10 o’clock on the morning of our visit. A gangway was hoisted ashore from her foredeck, and soon we were filing aboard to be name-checked in the reception vestibule. Then it was a case of sitting back in the sofas of the forward observation lounge, admiring the brickwork of the central fireplace and enjoying a waiter-service welcome of coffee and biscuits.
In his résumé of the ship’s career and current capabilities, chief operating officer Ken Charleson explained that her accommodation includes 20 double cabins (including one with its own day room) and 10 single cabins. Prices start at around £1,800 for a four-night early-season cruise on the Clyde (lower-deck cabin with no porthole), while a single berth with sea view for seven nights at high-season could cost nearer £10,000.

Port side small lounge  Starboard promenade deck  The former car deck  Superior twin double room 

There are specialist cruises for walkers (accompanied by three guides), and most nights are spent at anchor, not piers. For shore trips the ship boasts two 20-foot tenders (capacity: 10 passengers, two crew), two beach-landing craft and a speed boat, all stowed on the foredeck where the vehicle lift was originally positioned. In an average year passengers consume 3,000 bottles of champagne, and the bar carries 50 different whiskies and a dozen specialist gins. It’s a free bar: the only paid ‘extra’ is a bottle from the select ‘library list’ of wines. Like ship enthusiasts, Hebridean Princess’s ‘guests’ have quirks: one paid-up passenger submitted 27 pages of handwritten instructions in advance of a cruise.
The overriding impression of the ship’s accommodation is of a small hotel — comfortable, cosy and compact, as we discovered when we were divided up into four groups and taken on a guided tour. Although the former car deck is now occupied by cabins, crew accommodation and a large bike rack, it was fascinating to see traces of its former existence — especially the ramp, just aft of midships, where the deck level rose to create greater headroom in the engine room below (the one area of the ship to which we were not given access). In contrast to her CalMac successors, internal passageways are narrow but open deck space is plentiful. Sun chairs on the top deck were admired as much for their craftsmanlike finish as for their all-weather qualities, while the ‘veranda deck’ aft looked the perfect space for a cocktail.

 View forward on top deck  Captain Trevor Bailey in the wheelhouse Foredeck with two tenders   Cocktail corner

Externally, Hebridean Princess has a spruce appearance, her teak decks and Chadburn bridge telegraphs lending an appropriately ‘retro’ feel next to her stylishly remodelled funnel. The wheelhouse itself hasn’t changed much, though it is now fronted by a narrow walkway. She still has her original Crossley diesels and Denny-Brown stabilisers, and the bow thruster has an equally ‘period’ quality: Captain Trevor Bailey (associated with the ship since 1990) explained that the thruster takes 30 seconds to answer each instruction, while a change of course from hard a-port to hard a-starboard requires 38 turns of the immaculately polished brass wheel. Cruising speed is 10 1/2 knots.

Deluxe single berth 
Menu card for
November 19 
bridge telegraph 
 Vote of thanks from Angus Ross (centre),
with Neil Guthrie (third from right) and Ken Charleson (right)

The visit evoked memories of the past for those who had known her as Columba — especially Alasdair McLelland and Walter Bowie, who had worked on the ship in her CalMac days. When we gathered back in the observation lounge for a vote of thanks to her friendly crew, someone was heard to dub the ship a ‘working museum’. But as we went ashore, ‘luxury old-timer’ seemed a fairer description. This visit, a landmark in recent CRSC annals, gave us all an exhilarating glimpse of how a much loved former ferry had been transformed, renewed and carefully maintained for ongoing commercial use. Long may Hebridean Princess continue to turn up in unlikely places on the west coast — even if, for most people, opportunities to admire her are from the decks of passing CalMac ferries rather than, as on this occasion, from the up-market ambience of her quietly relaxing hearth.

To take advantage of other exclusive CRSC visits and benefits, sign up for membership here.
Photographs:  Roy Paterson
Approaching Custom House Quay  Approaching Custom House Quay  Lounge Bedroom 
 Bedroom Bedroom  Ship’s restaurant   Ship’s restaurant  
Ship’s lounge area Ship’s lounge area  Ship’s lounge area  Ship’s lounge area 
Around the decks Around the decks  Around the decks  Around the decks 
On the bridge On the bridge   On the bridge End of a great visit

Hebridean Princess off Shiant Islands