Like many people, the global pandemic scuppered my long haul travel plans this year and I’m ashamed to say it took this dramatic change in global circumstance for me to rediscover Britain’s own remarkable natural beauty.
Cruising through the Sound of Mull aboard the 48-metre expedition yacht Hanse Explorer, even our American guide Michael Moore got a jolt gazing at the dense woodland on the islands surrounding us, stretching lushly from hilltop to seafront. It looked, he exclaimed, just like the temperate rainforest he more routinely encounters in British Columbia and Alaska, “only with castles”.
Confronted later with the barren, bleak beauty of the Isle of Skye, his Scottish colleague Kelvin Murray commented on its similarity to stark, spectacular Svalbard - although the lack of polar bears meant he hadn’t had to pack a rifle to lead us along the hiking route, only accessible by boat. With nobody else around, and the only animals in eyeshot a distant herd of red deer, we walked quietly, savouring the sights and sounds of a wilderness so close to home that bore no evidence of man and felt like ours alone.
The organisers of this luxury cruise through Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, adventure specialists EYOS Expeditions arrange bespoke superyacht expeditions to some of the most staggering places on earth. In ‘normal times’ Kelvin and Michael are more likely to be found in the polar regions or sailing the Northwest Passage, but everything is different now.
Deterred by the prospect of multi-leg long-haul flights and limited access to medical facilities, the company’s ultra-privileged clientele this summer called for new voyages that would offer spectacular scenery and thrilling wildlife encounters, but with relatively easy accessibility and flexibility (and stringent COVID-19 testing procedures in place for passengers and crew alike).
While largely overlooked by the superyachting fraternity, it was determined that Scotland’s soaring Highlands, uninhabited islands and surprisingly abundant sea life fit the brief perfectly. And I joined the maiden trip.
Boarding Hanse Explorer at the coastal town of Oban, I knew EYOS would deliver. I had travelled with the company two years previously around Antarctica aboard the 77-metre expedition yacht Legend - it far surpassed anything I had experienced on superyacht tours in the Mediterranean and Caribbean and is a trip I still refer to as the most impressive I have ever undertaken. But I hadn’t anticipated the beauty and biodiversity that they would reveal to us in somewhere as supposedly familiar as Scotland.
Our first exposure to the region’s natural wonders came almost immediately: near Mull’s capital of Tobermory, a vast pod of dolphins flocked along the front of the ship, leaping in the waves we cut through still waters.
We dangled our heads over the prow to better catch the acrobatics below, an extended display of pure joy that seemed to wash away the stress of the last few months we had all carried aboard. As we sailed on, porpoise and a minke whale breached the surface as Manx shearwater flew overhead.
Always at our disposal were Hanse Explorer’s on-board amenities, including a sauna, bar, lounge and numerous viewing platforms, but other than to eat elaborate, delicious multi-course meals and to sleep soundly at night, we rarely remained on board. There was too much to see closer to the water’s surface.
With a maximum of 12 clients per voyage, every passenger can secure a spot on Hanse Explorer’s two Zodiac boats. On our second day we cruised to Soay Island, where curious grey seals popped and dipped as though participating in some nautical take on whack-a-mole.
We sailed on towards a Jaws-like fin that protruded from the water. Scotland, we were shamefully surprised to learn, is the best place in the world to see basking sharks. Peaceful plankton feeders that reach up to 12 metres in length, they are the second largest fish on the planet. We watched agog as one gentle giant circled our boat, its huge mouth agape.
The wonders continued. We kayaked emerald waters to empty golden beaches and sailed into ancient caves that perforated Hebridean cliffs, their walls rainbowed with golden barnacles and algae that sparkled electric green and glitter pink.
The most remarkable cavern of all was undoubtedly Fingal’s Cave embedded in the Isle of Staffa, uniquely formed of hexagonally jointed basalt. We entered by Zodiac at sunset, where, brilliantly, a tin whistle-playing local was testing out the cathedral-height ceiling’s acoustics.
We returned to the open water in awe at the setting’s majesty, thoughtfully complimented by the crew’s hospitality. As golden rays turned the ocean’s surface molten, they whipped out bottles of champagne and homemade Negroni so we could enjoy sundowners bobbing on the water. It was made all the more remarkable by gannets kamikaze-diving into the sea nearby and the sight of another basking shark and minke whale.
It seems almost excessive to mention that at that moment another pod of dolphins appeared and we turned childlike and jubilant as they raced around us. While a sailing tour of Scotland may have been a late inclusion in EYOS’s 2020 itineraries, we were all staggered by just how generously this land and sea, so close to home, delivered.
For more information on future Scotland expeditions with EYOS, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit eyos.com. Hanse Explorer charters for €155,000 per week plus expenses, and the vessel will be available for charter in 2021 in Scotland, Norway and Svalbard. EYOS plans to offer sailings on a single cabin basis, rather than a full yacht charter, in both 2021 and 2022, with all inclusive prices starting approximately $16,000 per week per person. Dates will be determined by early October.
Sign up for the Telegraph Luxury newsletter for your weekly dose of exquisite taste and expert opinion.