Raucous laughter greeted the farewell brunch aboard the Hjalmar Bjorge. The rain was seeping from the sky and Oban was doing its best to display all the shades of grey imaginable. After four nights aboard, and copious amounts of fine food the brunch (including haggis, three types of sausage, bacon and black pudding) was the perfect riposte from chef Mark following our plaintive complaints of too much fine food.
A Hebridean Island cruise brings with it expectations of wildlife and stunning scenery, but it was the unexpected that proved the highlight. I thought we would be spending most of our time aboard, but there was loads of time to fit in some of the best walking I’ve done all year (on Rhum and Canna Islands). The aforementioned food was easily the superior of any upmarket chalet I’ve stayed at in the Alps and the tales of island life and small community gossip shared over dinner gave a real insight into the peculiar ways of the Islands. Admittedly I’m in the business of hyperbole, but bringing all these elements together this must be one of the best walking and wildlife holidays available in the UK.
A typical day would involve a hearty breakfast at around eight-ish, before we set out to sea. After a couple of hours of cruising (with loads of opportunity for wildlife spotting or just musing over the seascape) we would reach our destination for the rest of the day. We’d have (you’ve guessed it, a hearty) lunch before being dropped ashore to explore on our own. Skipper, Mark, always has some suggestions on hand, just don’t trust his walk lengths, which are usually based on his own running time rather than the loping gait of your average hiker. Back at the boat there would be a freshly baked cake and tea waiting, which would quickly blend into a sundowner and dinner. Meals were all taken communally in the saloon area which is snug for the maximum of 12 guests but spacious when there were only seven of us on-board.
As is typical of so many holidays we feature on Tourdust, repeat customers are a big feature. On board, the majority had been at least once before and the cruise was an annual fixture for them. This is always a good sign, and I must admit I departed with a strong urge to return for a trip out to the wild outpost of St Kilda one day. Ages onboard ranged widely but it was never a handicap to the conversation onboard and didn’t get in the way of being as active or inactive as you like.
If I had to criticise anything about our Hebridean Island cruise (and the Scottish weather doesn’t count) the bunks in the cabin were a little snug for my 6ft 1” frame and the mattresses were perfunctory at best. To be fair though, this is a small ship, and if you want luxury cabins then you have two choices really, (1) build a fortune to buy your own yacht or (2) go on a ghastly cruise liner. There were three toilets / showers on board and they were always spotless. I’ve spent a fair amount of time on yachts of different shapes and sizes and the Hjalmar Bjorge is a superb ship with great space below decks.
We got away lightly, but the seas in this part of the world can get a little hairy at times and you won’t find a better ship for the purpose, the Hjalmar Bjorge is an ex-Norwegian rescue ship built to withstand the harsh seas of the Arctic. Similarly, the skipper Mark is an ex-para built to withstand both the harsh jibes of his guests and the worst the seas round here can throw at him. Seasickness is a distinct possibility in these seas. Only one succumbed on our journey, but it didn’t seem to ruin his enjoyment of the cruise. Ultimately the journeys at sea are only a small part of the time you’ll spend aboard.
The Islands themselves blew me away (literally and metaphorically). I enjoyed a superb hike up on the hills of Rhum, where I didn’t see another person, just deer, sheep and birds. Canna in particular was a real gem, less hilly than its neighbours, it is easily explored, has some beautiful beaches and fascinating historic buildings and relics. Part of the joy of exploring the islands is in trying to comprehend how people live in such isolation. Whilst their population has receded dramatically, many hardy soles still hang on, with only the regular Calmac ferry connecting them to the mainland. I like a bit of wilderness but I’m not sure I could live out there. Still the stories and gossip that bounced around at dinner time about the latest happenings on each island really helped get a feel for the place.
I’ll be back one day, and I’d recommend anyone with a passion for walking and hiking to visit this beautiful outpost. Read more or book a Hebridean cruise here.