‘You can do twins in there’ said Chief Purser, Dave Inge. Despite the fact that the ‘Hebridean Princess’ had been termed ‘a love boat’ by speaker, Martin Bell OBE on account of the frequent marriages between passengers and passengers, crew and crew, and possibly passengers and crew, Inge was not speaking with innuendo. In fact the stateroom’s king-size double splits on request.
Coinciding with the launch of the world’s largest passenger ship, ‘Oasis of the Seas’, I boarded one of the most bijou for afternoon tea. Because of force 10 gales, Hebridean Princess had taken an extra two days to motor from Oban to Canary Wharf. Unlike Oasis’ seven themed ‘neighbourhoods’, the ‘unashamedly elitist’ Princess offers ‘a very British country house party atmosphere’, according to Royal Hebridean’s Chairman, Lord Sterling.
Whilst 37 crew look after a maximum 49 passengers (Oasis carries 5,400), the 72-metre vessel (as opposed to Oasis’ 360) started life humbly. Launched in 1964 as ‘MV Columba’, she ferried passengers and cars between Scotland’s remote islands until conversion into a luxury cruiser in 1988. Life must be gentler now, as she meanders Scotland’s volcanic landscape and Norway’s Fjords at a stately 11 knots, pausing to float passengers closer to wildlife in inflatable Zodiacs. Still sentimental for Britannia, the most notable charge has been the Queen who chartered the vessel for her 80th birthday at a reported £125,000.
I went for crust-less finger sandwiches, baby scones and Duval-Leroy fizz against the electric glow of an inglenook fire. Next to me, Director of the Real Food Festival, Philip Lowery had just an inch clearance from the 6’4” ceiling.
Introducing the on-board programme of talks, Editor of BBC History Magazine, Greg Neale said: ‘passengers are fascinated by where they’re going – they’ve paid to be here and can be a tough bunch for a lecturer.’ Also present, man in the white suit Martin Bell talked about his recent exposé on MP’s claims, ‘A Very British Revolution’ (aka ‘Swindler’s List’). ‘A ship is one of the best places to write a book’, he said. ‘I produced 21,000-words in a fortnight.’
Unlike large cruise ships which thaw much of their offering from frozen, the Princess is stored weekly, according to Sous Chef, Michael Hall. Blessed with a generous budget ‘and very few vegetarians’, five chefs craft ‘classic British’, with staples like the Sunday roast as well as highland venison, Oban lobsters, seabass and scallops. In addition to main meals and afternoon tea, sherry decanters are kept topped in cabins and fruit and other nibbles are always available. Guests are also welcomed to see the galley on the evening of the seven-course ‘gala’ dinner.
Most crew spend five weeks on-board, with two weeks off. Amongst their benefits, a dedicated staff chef works on themed meal evenings, including ‘successful Indian and Polish nights.’
Unlike Oasis, cabins have names rather than numbers and cannot be locked. Should we both live to a decent age, I may well embark for a break one day. A far more elegant way to expand my waistline than a plastic-fantastic, 16-storey leviathan…