Standing on the bridge of the small cruise ship Seahorse II, a flash of white catches my eye.
Grabbing the binoculars scattered around the cabin for interested holidaymakers, I’m just in time to watch as a sea eagle soars over the ship and onwards, towards the rocky outcrop of its island home.
This meeting of nature, land and sea is part of the magic of a Western Isles cruise holiday.
The other is the informal and restful break that awaits aboard this little floating bothy at sea.
Dressing for dinner on the Seahorse II means taking off waterproof trousers and hiking boots and cosying up for the evening in pyjamas and slipper socks.
Sailaway drinks involve putting a pound in the honesty box for a whisky or gin and tonic before dinner, or in our case, warming our hands on a mug of hot tea, freshly baked cake still warm from the oven, wrapped in a Harris tweed blanket while reading a book, discussing yesterday’s headlines from newspapers gathered during our last stop on dry land, or watching the scenery go by.
After-dinner entertainment is supplied by fellow guests. Without access to Wi-Fi and out of range of mobile phone networks, it is the perfect place for conversation and board games, each becoming more raucous as the gin and whisky bottles empty.
Daytime adventures are to be had walking onshore, sightseeing around distilleries, seeking out wildlife or enjoying fireside drinks at a local hostelry before heading back to the boat in darkness, lit only by the moon, the stars and the lights from Seahorse II guiding us to dinner and a comfortable, gently rocking bed in which to enjoy the deepest sleep after a day of fresh sea air and island adventures.
The itinerary on each cruise is as changeable as the weather allows, and passengers become part of the journey. Each evening after dinner, the ship’s Captain, Charlie McLeish, take us through the next day’s route. Having listened to the shipping news, he explains the wind speeds and direction and sea tides to take us the most comfortable routes to the most beautiful places.
In his capable hands, not one of us became sea sick as we travelled between anchorages, finding calm waters and even sunny places to enjoy – quite a feat for a late-season west coast holiday.
Making our way along the coastlines of Mull and the mainland, Charlie and first mate Roy told us about the islands we passed, the channels between them hiding whirlpools and currents, which were inhabited or deserted during the clearances, and pointing out the occasional seal, eagle or goat watching us as we made our way to our next stop.
Some lucky passengers have seen a humpback
Earlier in the season, passengers have been entertained by basking sharks, minke and killer whales, porpoises and dolphins, as well as the seabirds and common and grey seals which accompanied us on our way. Some lucky passengers have even seen a breaching humpback when the timing has been right.
Each St Hilda Cruise holiday sails away from Dunstaffnage marina near Oban, where the owner of the Wide-Mouthed Frog Inn was happy to let me park my car for six nights, for the small price of a coffee.
St Hilda has two small cruise ships – the classic, ex-tall ship St Hilda, and the sturdy, mini cruise ship Seahorse II, which in its past life was a post ship sailing the Norwegian Fjords, and as such is perfectly built for the roughest waters of the west coast.
Our cruise itinerary changed immediately due to inclement weather – what began as a journey around Skye and the Small Isles, became an adventure a little closer to home, exploring the beautiful sea lochs around the Sound of Mull, including the coasts of Ardnamurchan, Mull, Luing and Jura.
The first night was spent in the quiet waters of Loch Drumbuie, where the braver among us attempted paddle boarding followed by a cold dip in the freezing water before breakfast. The rest of us enjoyed the cosy comforts of our three layers of thermals and waterproofs, taking photographs of the more athletic and letting them have first dibs on the coffee pot afterwards.
Travelling to Loch Sunart, we went ashore at Salen to visit the otter hide where we watched in vain for an elusive sighting along the kelp and bladderwort-lined coastline. Our next anchorage was Strontian on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, where we joined the locals in the pub and grabbed yesterday’s papers in the tiny shop on the main street.
A trip to Tobermory to see the sea eagles the following day was wet and windy. A bag of chips from the harbour van warmed us for the trip back to the boat, where we threw our wet clothes into the drying room and snuggled down for the night to a wonderful meal of scallops, shucked by Charlie, shells launched back into the water by us and cooked to perfection by Ian, our on-board chef.
Another day brought us to the sunshine of Luing, where we skimmed slate as they do in the championships held each year.
In Ardfern, we spent the night at Loch Craignish before moving on the Jura, where we visited Craighouse Distillery and learned the process and history behind the island’s famous amber nectar.
Evening saw us anchor at Tayvalloch, where we had a walk and found the local pub, indulging ourselves in the free Wi-Fi to catch up with family and friends.
Our last stop was Loch Spelve in Mull, where our rainy walk was rewarded by deer at the roadside, golden eagles above our heads, and the most beautiful beaches and woodland at Lochbuie, with Moy Castle towering above us and seals on the rocks below.
As with all good cruises, we sailed off into the sunset on the final night, heading back to Dunstaffnage with a rainbow rising up behind us, a golden glow ahead and a feeling that we may have left our hearts in the Highlands.
- St Hilda Cruises host a maximum of 11 guests on each voyage.
- Berths can cater for couples, singles, groups and families – with some weeks available for charter for a special occasion.
- Cruise itineraries visit locations around the inner and outer Hebrides such as Skye, St Kilda, Mull, Jura, Islay, Staffa and Iona
- Sonja Rasmussen spent six nights on board the Seahorse II on the Hebridean Cruise: The Sounds of Mull, Luing, Shuna and Jura.
- Prices per person this October range from £1,350 to £1,740. Find our more about St Hilda Sea Adventures on www.sthildaseaadventures.co.uk