Our joining point was a hotel in Inverness where our tour guide for the week was waiting to welcome us with tea, coffee and pastries before our coach collected us for the journey to Kyle of Lochalsh where we embarked on Lord of the Highlands for a seven-day Caledonian Canal Explorer cruise.
Our welcome on board was quick and we were shown immediately to our cabins with our bags to shortly follow before heading to the Panorama Lounge where champagne was served and we had the opportunity to meet our fellow guests - a total of 22 for this cruise; a mixture of couples and singles.
The Panorama Lounge is situated on the top deck - Tweedsmuir Deck - and has expansive windows through which we enjoyed the changing scenery as we cruised. The furnishing is very comfortable with armchairs and couches and enough seating for everyone even when the ship is sailing at full capacity. Glass of champagne in hand we moved to the outside observation area to enjoy the glorious sunshine - and with it not getting dark until around 11pm every evening, this was a lovely place to relax.
After unpacking and getting to know our Category 1 deluxe cabin located on Richard Hannay Deck, with twin beds, a large picture window and decorated with tartan fabrics, I knew that we were in for a very comfortable cruise.
Every evening before dinner, all guests gathered in the Panorama Lounge for pre-dinner drinks and canapés and on this first evening we were introduced to our captain, hotel manager and guide Jean, who was to accompany us on all our tours.
With an open seating policy for all meals, we enjoyed the opportunity to dine with different guests each meal time. We were a very friendly, happy group and quickly got to know one another. After dinner the first evening, we were entertained by a duo who sang and played for us in what was a very enjoyable first evening on board.
After breakfast on our second day we were taken to visit Plockton, claimed to be the Jewel of the Highlands. A picturesque village situated on a bay overlooking Loch Carron, we had free time to explore this hidden gem before returning to the ship in time for lunch.
The afternoon tour was to the privately owned Eilean Donan Castle, situated on an island where three sea lochs meet, where we were entertained by a guide in two of the castle rooms. As well as bringing the history to life with tales about the MacRae family we also learnt that the castle had been featured in many films including James Bond!
We returned to the ship for a later afternoon sail, which was lovely in the warm sunshine, to our overnight dock at Inverie and the first of two Gala Dinners, the Captain's Welcome Gala Dinner.
Full evening dress was not required, but everyone did take the chance to dress up a little for the occasion. We enjoyed a superb meal with a choice of venison or lobster as the main course before enjoying entertainment in the Panorama Lounge by Andy the hotel manager - the first of many 'Andy's Tales' which were very funny and well received!
Each evening meal in the Caledonian Restaurant offers two choices per course plus a vegetarian option and a cheese board, accompanied by premium wines - and if they offer a wine that you are not keen on, they will quickly find an alternative, as well as providing dessert wine and port.
Every evening, dining at the six-seat table would be by invitation with the captain, which was a great opportunity to learn more about the history of the ship and the itinerary.
Our tour the next day was to the Armadale Castle on the Island of Skye - and while the castle itself is a ruin, it's still a wonderful place to explore, sitting majestically overlooking the Sound of Sleat and surrounded by 40 acres of woodland gardens. We were told that the trust that owns Armadale is confident that in time the castle will be re-built.
Hebridean set up a tab up in the coffee shop for all guests to enjoy food and snacks of their choice, a small gesture but one that was much appreciated and made things run smoothly before we all returned to the ship for lunch. It was then time to sail to Tobermory where we spent the afternoon with free time to explore this lovely colourful fishing port on the Isle of Mull.
The following day, a visit to the Isle of Iona was one of my particular highlights for this cruise, as our new granddaughter was named Iona by her Scottish mother. It was very special to visit her 'namesake' and as the island has its own tartan, a tartan pashmina made the perfect gift for our granddaughter. Again, our guide Jean provided a tab at the café overlooking the sea where we could all choose and enjoy our lunch.
The drive across Mull to get to the ferry port for the short ride to Iona was spectacular in the sunshine; we were just so lucky to have such lovely weather for this cruise! We returned to the ship and before dinner were asked to meet in the Panorama Lounge for an itinerary announcement.
Unfortunately for us, the lock at Fort Augustus had a problem, resulting in needing repairs which would take five days. This meant that we would not be able to make the complete transit of the Caledonian Canal which, while disappointing, was unavoidable.
We arrived in Oban - the capital of the West Highlands - the next morning, and a local distillery came on board to conduct a whisky tasting - though I chose to have a wander around the port instead. After lunch we were taken to Glenfinnan to view the viaduct - which you may recognise from the Harry Potter films!
A visit to the visitor's centre gave an overview of the historical significance of the Jacobite rising in 1745 and the story of Prince Charles Edward Stuart - known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. After dinner, a local dancing school came on board to entertain us with very energetic Scottish dancing and Gaelic singing which was a delight, with everyone greatly appreciating their performance.
The next morning, we started our ascent of Neptune's Staircase on the Caledonian Canal. It is the longest staircase lock in Britain climbing 180 feet and our slow transit of the eight locks was watched by many passers by on the towpaths.
We then continued onto Cullochy - our last stop on the canal. For our final full day, we were taken by coach to Fort Augustus where we could see for ourselves the underwater divers working to repair the damage to the loch gates before joining a one-hour tour on board a Loch Ness cruise, a replacement for cruising the full 23 mile-long loch on board Lord of the Highlands. And no, we didn't see the monster!
Our afternoon tour was to Urquehart Castle, situated beside Loch Ness; the on-site visitor centre provided an excellent film explaining the history of this spectacular ruin.
Dinner this evening was the Captain's Farewell Gala Dinner and we had a Scottish piper to pipe in the arrival of the haggis followed by a reading of Robert Burns poem 'Address to a Haggis'. Andy performed his duties perfectly and the dinner was truly delicious.
And then it was time to say goodbye - due to the canal closure we had an early transfer the next morning and guests were dropped in Inverness at the station, the meeting point hotel, or the airport, whichever was most convenient for them.
We all thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality, fine dining, exemplary care and service from all staff on board - as well as wonderful weather in this beautiful part of Scotland and the completely all-inclusive nature of our time on board. Our guide Jean was superb and all guests were sorry to say goodbye! Overall, I had a great time and will definitely return to the Lord of the Highlands.