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July scotlandtravel1se travel-006


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Cruise on the Hebridean Princess - the UK's most luxurious small ship which has been chartered by the British Royal Family.

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July scotlandtravel1se travel-006

  1. 1. 6 July 30, 2017 The Sunday Times Travel Themed trips on Hebridean Princess, top and above, include castles such as Eilean Donan, above right ALLABOARD ONATRIPFIT FORAQUEEN Katie Wood discovers the scenery and service that attract even royal visitors to the Hebridean Princess I t’s the poshest CalMac ferry you’ll ever sail on. The Hebridean Princess has even played host to the Queen, who chartered it twice after the Royal Yacht Britannia was decommissioned and made it the venue for her 80th birthday celebrations — the only time the vessel relaxed its no-pets policy, to allow the corgis on board. The ship began life as a car ferry, but was transformed into a cruise ship in 1989. This floating country house hotel offers luxurious trips in UK, Irish and Norwegian waters. It has an elderly, 95% British, clientele and it’s not just the Queen who returns to the ship — 65% of passengers come back for more. The 30 boutique hotel-style cabins are named after west coast Scottish islands, castles, sounds, lochs and bays, and are comfortable, spacious and well furnished. From the moment you’re piped aboard, you are treated like royalty. When the attentive crew aren’t stocking up your bathroom with Molton Brown goodies, they’re filling your cabin’s whisky decanter with their own-label malt. This sort of luxury doesn’t come cheap — prices start at £2,260 for four nights in November on the Highlights of the Firth of Clyde trip — but everything is included. If you want to drink champagne all day, you can fill your boots. All excursions are also part of the package, and tips are not expected at the end of the cruise. The food is excellent, too, as I found when I joined the Hidden Gardens of the Highlands and Islands cruise, for which our guest lecturer was the horticulturalist and broadcaster Stefan Buczacki. It offered the chance to see some of the finest gardens in Scotland, ranging from small, privately owned ones, such as the enchanting five-acre An Cala, on the Isle of Seil, to the 20,000-acre Armadale Castle estate on Skye, with its 40 acres of gardens and woodland. My favourite was the lovely Attadale, in Wester Ross, where there are 20 acres of stunning conifers, rhododendrons and sculptures in gardens designed to show off the outstanding views of Skye. Gardeners are a sociable lot, and the on-board events encourage guests to mingle, so by the end of the week several friendships had been made. A week’s cruise includes two formal evenings on which the kilt or DJ get an airing, and you can choose to sit with others at dinner or have a table à deux. Cruises of between four and nine nights depart from Oban and Greenock. They concentrate on destinations that are inaccessible to larger vessels, and most of the Hebridean islands are covered. Some cruises have themes such as castles, gardens, walking or cycling, but the common denominator is spectacular scenery, abundant wildlife and remote locations. Most nights, the ship anchors in sea lochs or bays far from habitation and well protected from bad weather. On the Hebridean Princess you’ll meet peers of the realm, retired company directors, doctors and lawyers. Famous past passengers include the retired racing driver Jackie Stewart, who hired the ship for his 75th birthday party in 2014 — an event that included a performance by Chris de Burgh. Other famous voyagers include Princess Anne and Sean Connery, who, legend has it, disembarked after two days because “James Bond got seasick”. As a Scot — there were only three of us on board — there were times when, during the daily briefings, the staff’s mispronunciation of such words as “loch” grated, and they could make more play of Scottish culture and history but, overall, the attention to detail and quality of the service, accommodation and excursions were all impressive. Meanwhile, as a backdrop, the Hebrides — even in the rain — are still as breathtaking as ever. Costs from £4,150 per person (sharing a double) on the Secret Gardens of the Western Seaboard, starting May 15, 2018, for seven nights; SCOTTISH NEWS lStep back in time and travel by steam on the Borders Railway, Fife coast and Forth Bridge. The Black Five locomotive will, for the first time, take to the rails on the route. Every Sunday in August, passengers can board at Linlithgow, Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy, Dalgety Bay or Edinburgh Waverley to Galashiels and Tweedbank. From Tweedbank there are optional tours to attractions including Abbotsford House, Sir Walter Scott’s ancestral home. Prices start at £59 for adults, and £39 for children. lScottish travellers can book flights to long-haul destinations including Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle and Dubai, from Edinburgh and Aberdeen, thanks to a deal between Virgin Atlantic and Flybe. The airlines have extended their codeshare agreement to include Heathrow. Flybe will connect customers to Virgin Atlantic flights to America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. lVisitors to Edinburgh Festival seeking accommodation outside the city can stay at the Dundas Castle’s Glamphotel, near South Queensferry, about half-an-hour’s drive away. Its August glamping options of luxurious canvas cottages set around a loch all have beds, en suite bathrooms and wood floors, as well as barbecues and patio heaters for alfresco dining. From £169 a night. lAir Transat is increasing its winter flights (December-April) from Glasgow to Toronto from once a week to twice weekly. There will be departures every Monday and Thursday. Return fares start from £383 per person. lThe first air service between Edinburgh and the Isle of Man since 2013 has taken off. Operated by Loganair, there are up to four flights a week throughout the summer, and weekday services during the winter. Until August 31 bookings can be made via franchise partner Flybe, after which Loganair flies solo. 0344 800 2855,
  2. 2. The Sunday Times July 30, 2017 7 W hen I told my twenty- something friends I was going on a barge holiday with my mother, I was asked whether I had finally gone mad. It wasn’t being cooped up with my mother that worried my pals, but rather the idea of eating, sleeping and relaxing on a barge for six days when my experiences of barging — and swimming — were limited. I knew only of the narrow boat type that chugged down the Grand Union canal and looked as though it involved hobbit-like living space and buckets for bogs. I needn’t have worried. My stay aboard Enchanté, a former cargo vessel that is now a double-decker floating hotel, could not have been more luxurious. Equally beautiful was our route along the Canal du Midi, a 330-year-old Unesco waterway in southern France’s Languedoc-Roussillon wine region. The barge has room for up to eight guests, plus a crew of five, including a captain, chef, and tour guide. Our two hosts, Barbara and Sheryl, looked after our every need, from providing artful table decorations to expert knowledge at meal times. A spacious wood-panelled saloon is set up for meal times, with an open-plan kitchen that allows you to sneak a peek at the day’s menu. The decking area, which comes complete with a hot tub if you’re feeling brave, is a sun-lover’s paradise in summer, but don’t expect heat until mid-May to early June. At other times, be prepared with a fleece and a hot drink if it gets windy. Of the four twin cabins, I stayed in Orion, which had a homely feel, a modern bathroom, conventional lavatory — hooray — and enough storage space to hold the armfuls of cheese and postcards I ended up buying. The cabins’ location, close to the waterline, means night-time temperatures can be chilly. If Mary O’Connor immerses herself in luxurious living and a slow pace of life on a French barge A MEANDER ON THE MIDI you’re cold, simply ask one of the crew members to keep the generators on at night to heat the room. The barge cruises at a gentle 3kph, so it’s ideal for a stroll alongside, or a cycle along the towpath, using one of the eight bikes provided. As the vessel shuffles through the Midi’s locks, you watch the scenery slowly change from mountain ranges fringed by cloudless blue skies to lusciously green towpaths overhung by the dappled canopies of those plane trees that have survived the disease that has destroyed so many. Enchanté meanders through low, narrow bridges, with just a hair’s breadth of manoeuvring room, so make sure excursions. One took us to Lagrasse, part of “the most beautiful villages of France” association, where we toured its abbey. On another we gawped at Minerve, a 12th- century Cathar fort perched on a rocky outcrop in the middle of two limestone gorges. A visit to L’Oulibo, an olive-oil co-operative in Bize-Minervois, offered a tour and tasting of lucques green olives. Most appealing was the wine tour at Château Massamier La Mignarde in Minervois, one of a few wine regions to earn the Appellation d’Origine Côntrolée seal of approval. The vineyard’s cuvée Domus Maximus 2000 was internationally recognised as the best French red wine in 2005. Mind you, all the wines I tasted were delicious, as the weight of my baggage at the airport check-in attested to at the end of the trip. Another tour not to be missed is of the formidable walled fortress city of Carcassonne. While you soak up the castle’s fascinating history, stroll along the ramparts for superb views of the less well- known lower town and the Aude river. Our daily gallivanting certainly worked us up an appetite, and the gourmands among us were spoilt for choice with the eclectic menu designed by Sylvain, the chef. Breakfast was a continental spread with cold meats, croissants and the option of cooked eggs. From digestive experience, I would strongly advise starting off small, as the three-course lunches and four-course dinners that followed, which were expertly paired with local wines — and cheese with supper — are worth leaving room for. From the typically French dishes of escargot and French onion soup to oysters, delicately seared tuna and a positively epicurean last supper, featuring profiterole swans, you are likely to leave at least a stone heavier. Ryanair flies from Edinburgh to Beziers, from £19.99 one way; A six-night cruise aboard Enchanté are from £3,750pp in a twin/double cabin, including meals, wines, open bar, excursions and local transfers. Charters are also available for families and groups; 01753 598555, you’re not standing up while on deck. Grab a camera for the picturesque, pastel-painted villages en route, including Le Somail with its hidden gem, Le Trouve Tout du Livre, a wonderfully antiquated bookshop. Housing 50,000 books, its collection ranges from crime thrillers to far rarer tomes, all at reasonable prices. And just outside the small village of Puichéric, between Carcasonne and Narbonne, is Joël Barthes’s surrealist sculpture garden made from old exercise bikes and gas canisters. I’m a sucker for a hands-on city break, going exploring on foot, but the ethos of this trip could not have been more hands-off for its passengers. We were chauffeured by private minibus on daily You’ll need a camera aboard the luxurious Enchanté Onboardthe gourmands amongus werespoilt forchoice