There was no mistaking the sound, but the seals swam up to see what the noise might be. As our little tender boat got closer, the silhouette of a lone piper on a rocky spur playing us in to the tiny jetty in the Highlands drew gasps of delight.
The scene was entrancing – his red kilt against the green seaweed, framed by dark Scots pines and everything reflected in the glassy loch.
To arrive by this special route at the lush and lovely Inverewe Garden before opening time meant we had the beautiful woodlands and beach to ourselves for a good hour before other visitors had made their way down winding footpaths from the car park.
Hit the deck: Caroline Hendrie boarded Hebridean Princess (above) – a ‘floating country house hotel’ – for a tour around the isles of the Highlands
Above is the Arran Lounge on board. ‘The attentive and discreet service by the crew of 38 for a maximum of 50 passengers gives a relaxed house-party ambience,’ says Caroline
Hebridean Princess has 30 cabins on board, ten of them singles, that ‘come in all shapes and sizes’. Pictured is the Bute Cabin
We are sailing: Above is the Queen boarding the ship in 2010
We may have been the first visitors, but it had not meant an early start. At 9am we were enjoying a leisurely breakfast aboard Hebridean Princess, having anchored overnight in Loch Ewe.
The sturdy and nimble little ship, which was launched as a car ferry in 1964 to serve the Western Isles from Oban, was transformed into a floating country house hotel in 1989, complete with tartan curtains in the dining room, a wood-panelled library, tweedy sofas and an inglenook fireplace in the lounge.
The attentive and discreet service by the crew of 38 for a maximum of 50 passengers gives a relaxed house-party ambience, and the varied itineraries on offer that can be adapted quickly around choppy conditions make Hebridean Princess a hit with faithful fans who book again and again, sometimes several times a year.
The best-known repeat guests are the Royal Family. In 2006, the Queen, who since her beloved yacht Britannia was decommissioned in 1997 had been greatly missing starting her annual holiday in Scotland with a cruise around the Outer Hebrides, chartered Hebridean Princess to celebrate her 80th birthday.
The family had so much fun going ashore for picnics on deserted beaches, just as in times past, that she took over the ship for another family holiday in 2010.
But it’s not just Royal guests who get special treatment. We had our own desert island adventure on the second day of our cruise, landing on uninhabited Isle Martin at the mouth of Loch Broom.
We had the run of the island that had been a hub of herring curing until the early 19th Century. Taking a path past the ruined chapel and a medieval cross slab, we walked through overgrown meadows once used by long-departed crofters to graze cattle.
Over the brow of the hill, a lonely bay strewn with driftwood spread before us, the only sounds from the waves and foraging oyster catchers.
The Hebridean Princess, pictured at Tobermory pier on the Isle of Mull, was launched as a car ferry in 1964 to serve the Western Isles from Oban, only to be transformed into a luxury cruise vessel in 1989
Passengers aboard the Hebridean Princess might be in with the chance of seeing puffins on the cliffs of the Shiant Isles (above)
On our return to the jetty, what should we find but one of the ship’s stewards unpacking a hamper and setting a trestle table with tea and coffee, as well as a biscuit barrel filled with shortbread and whisky.
Along with stout shoes and waterproofs, and something smarter for the evenings, you’ll need to pack outfits for two gala dinners on a week’s cruise – black tie or the full Bonnie Prince Charlie for gentlemen, and evening dress for ladies.
No two itineraries on Hebridean Princess are quite the same, and there are some with themes such as gardens or castles, or hiking or biking, accompanied by experts.
But one thing you can be sure of is that you will be surrounded by heart-stoppingly beautiful scenery at almost every moment of your cruise, whether the ship is at anchor overnight in a sheltered loch or in front of the cliffs of the Shiant Isles teeming with puffins, or sailing to the next destination during breakfast, lunch or dinner.
We were enchanted to see a rainbow round Lismore Lighthouse served up with Oban Bay scallops starters as we sailed past on our first evening. Another night we gazed at the Old Man of Stoer, the 200ft sea stack, while tucking into pudding (none could resist the velvety cranachan made with a dash of Drambuie).
Caroline recalls gazing at the Old Man of Stoer, above, during dinner. She says that there’s ‘heart-stoppingly beautiful scenery’ at almost every moment of your cruise
Caroline was enchanted to see a rainbow around Lismore Lighthouse, pictured, as she sailed past
Lush and lovely: Caroline’s itinerary included a stop at the ‘lush and lovely’ Inverewe Garden on Loch Ewe, pictured
Like a traditional country house party, guests change for dinner and gather in the lounge for drinks and canapes. While most passengers opt for tables for two, there are two large tables, sociable for singles but also popular with couples, mothers and daughters and pairs of friends who enjoy the conviviality of a dinner party every night.
After dinner it is time for coffee and petit fours or a nightcap in the lounge (such a lot of single malt whiskies to try!), or an evening stroll on deck to see the setting sun shimmy on the water and slip behind the mountains.
The 30 cabins on board, ten of them singles, come in all shapes and sizes, and many have that rare cruise-ship luxury – baths as well as showers. But all have a decanter of whisky and glasses on the dressing table, and a kettle along with fresh milk in the fridge.
Caroline enjoyed a ‘desert island adventure’ on the uninhabited Isle Martin, pictured
Early birds can help themselves to hot drinks provided on the Skye Deck from 7am while enjoying the wildlife – it’s the best time to spot golden and white-tailed eagles, otters and orcas.
Dolphins, porpoises and seals seem happy to turn out for all to enjoy from the lounge windows at any time of the day.
Everything except souvenirs from the kiosk in reception is included in the not-unsubstantial fares – including free-flowing Taittinger champagne, whiskies galore, excursions and tip-top service. But Hebridean Princess seems to be loved by her passengers just as much for what is not on board – no casino, no pianist, no dancing, no background music, no organised games or under-12s.
Peace and quiet, good conversation, superb food, and above all priceless views from sea and shore are what a cruise on Hebridean Princess is all about.