When did you last share a bedroom with a stranger on holiday? I’ll wager it’s been a while. But if, like me, you’re an enthusiastic solo traveller, and sick of contending with single-occupancy supplements, take note. Last July, eager to get away for a while without paying a premium, I took a calculated risk and booked a room-share.
Despite being little talked about, these are relatively easy to come by, with few types of trip off limits. Finding options including city breaks, safaris and even an Everest trek, I opted for a restored schooner, bound for a six-night sailing around the Inner Hebrides, including Skye and the Small Isles (Canna, Eigg, Rum and Muck).
Although I was apprehensive about sharing a small space with a stranger, the almost 50 per cent saving helped ease my trepidation, and with plenty of walking, loch swimming and wildlife spotting on the itinerary, I reasoned my cabin-mate and I would at least have similar interests.
I made my way to Glasgow, then travelled to the west-coast port of Mallaig on the loch-hugging West Highland Line. I arrived as golden sunshine lit the harbour, so I dropped my bag at the Marine hotel and ate a fish-and-chip supper on a seafront bench.
Next morning, I strolled across to the boat-filled bay, where it wasn’t hard to find the graceful bow and wooden masts of the Blue Clipper – owned by skipper Steve Swallow, whose Maybe Sailing company channels all profits from cruises into its youth initiative, offering underprivileged young adults the opportunity to take part in sail-training experiences.
I reached the long arm of the jetty, where I was greeted by the first officer, Jack, then – as I stepped on deck – by guest host Kat, who took me below to a wood-panelled twin-bunk cabin with a small porthole. There was a small desk, a basic head (shower and loo), and a narrow wardrobe and cupboard. I shoved my bag in a corner and decided to practise the manually operated lavatory pump.
“Hi, I’m just pumping the loo,” I said to Kat, who arrived minutes later with my cabin-mate – calm, friendly, self-composed Jess, who chose the upper bunk. We found places for our things before heading to the galley for a cup of tea, where the conversation pivoted to shared interests – which included scuba diving – and I was thrilled to learn that my half-Balinese cabin companion even had a species of squat lobster named after her.
At full capacity, Blue Clipper carries up to 16 passengers in six twin-bunk cabins, and four more in a family cabin. A couple of last-minute cancellations meant that we were a group of seven: Monika and Bert from Switzerland; honeymooners David and Wendy, who had plumped for the Hebrides over St Lucia; solo traveller Dave, and Jess and me. We soon found an easy rapport, which extended to both captain and crew.
“That’s the last time I want to hear the word captain,” said Steve, over tea and cake in the saloon.
Our first port of call was the pub – the Old Forge, on the Knoydart peninsula. Within minutes of weighing anchor at Mallaig, we’d seen our first harbour porpoise, a grey seal and a soup of jellyfish, and by the time we pulled alongside the pier at Knoydart, an hour and a half later, we’d seen a minke whale and a pair of sea eagles, too.
We ordered pints of Old Forge Revival, and soon struck up conversation with the locals. Kenny, who had come to the jetty to help moor the ship, told me the captain owed him a pint, then one of the Clipper’s trainees arrived with a guitar and a singsong got underway.
A feeble wind the next day meant slow progress, but as the ship rounded the Sleat peninsula after lunch, the saw-toothed ridges and velveteen flanks of the Cuillins swept into view. We dropped anchor in Cuillin Sound and took a dinghy round to a concealed opal sea loch, where steep steps led to a promontory of luminous grass. In the distance lay Eigg and Rum, as shades of green unravelled like a Pantone swatch.
Bert, Monika, Dave and I turned inland, crossing a trickling loch-to-sea river on stepping stones, and followed the shoreline of Loch Coruisk towards the hills that dominate the landscape. Scrambling over boulders and striding tussock to tussock across a peat bog with all the resistance of tiramisu, we reached a vantage point where the loch narrowed and crept towards the Black Cuillin. It was high drama indeed.
Meanwhile, Jess and I had slipped into an easy co-sharing routine. I was showered long before Jess stirred, and most of the cabin doors were hooked open for ventilation during the day. We were both tidy, and Jess’s choice of the top bunk suited our sleeping habits. If the door was shut, a courtesy knock was code for “I’m coming in”. We got on well, and our sharing setup never once felt claustrophobic.
Passengers were encouraged to get as involved in the technicalities of sailing as they wished, so – instructed by Jack – we helped raise and lower the sails, knotted ropes and took the helm in the wheelhouse with second officer George. I didn’t mind heave-hoing on ropes, but my nautical knots left room for improvement.
Sometimes we’d shimmy along the boom in a harness to sit close to the water. By the end of the cruise, we had all climbed the rigging for stupendous views of the islands, the 10 sails and deck in miniature at our feet.
Our final morning was spent on the Isle of Canna, where the harbour’s community shop sold essentials, local art and postcards, while a one-room “museum” told the island’s story and was well stocked with maps and suggestions for walks. The only staffed business seemed to be the delightful Café Canna, overlooking the picturesque harbour, which had a pint of langoustines on special, and its own pale ale on tap.
Anchored off Mallaig that evening and girdled by hills, we raised a Talisker whisky toast to our week in the remote and beautiful Scottish isles. I’d swum over forests of algae and in some of the clearest sea and lake water I’ve seen in the UK, and we’d seen 20 minke whales, four puffins, several porpoises, an otter, guillemots, sea eagles, oystercatchers, hooded crows and too many seals and dolphins to count.
But more than that, I thought, as I bade farewell to Jess the next day at Glasgow Central, promising to drop her a line next time I was in Cornwall, I’d made a friend, too.
Teresa Machan was a guest of Venture Sail Holidays (01872 487288; venturesailholidays.com), which has the six-night Tall Ship Sailing Skye & the Small Isles cruise on Blue Clipper from £1,760 per person (sharing a twin cabin) or £2,640 per person (single-occupancy twin cabin), including all meals, soft drinks, a glass of wine with dinner and use of kayaks. Departs on August 18
The Marine Hotel (01687 462217; marinehotelmallaig.com), in Mallaig, has double rooms from £108