Phil Hawkes reminisces about Royal Yacht Britannia, before boarding a retired vessel ingeniously converted into a luxurious boutique hotel.
It’s July 1, 1997 and emotions are running high around Hong Kong Harbour. We’ve just watched the British contingent – Prince Charles, Governor Chris Patten and PM Tony Blair – sail away precisely at midnight on Her Majesty’s Royal Yacht Britannia, steaming slowly into the dark night as the last of the fireworks celebrate this momentous occasion…the handover of Hong Kong to China.
There are cheers and tears – and more than a few beers – at this event, described by some as “the last call” of the British Empire and its colonies. Over two million people are at the harbour or watching from the surrounding hills, and not only the few British, Australian and other expats. There is also a huge turnout from the local population, each of them wondering what the next chapter would be like after 100 years of Colonial government.
Fast forward to July 2019, 22 years later, and we find ourselves in Edinburgh, Scotland. To be more specific we’re at Leith, the capital’s port precinct just a few miles away from the famous castle. And here, in all her glory, rides RY Britannia afloat in her enclosed dock, fully restored and looking like the princess of the waves she once was.
Again, we can feel the emotion as we’re met by charming host Roger Moran, a retired police security officer now proudly welcoming guests and showing them around the ship with its precious treasures. He tells us that more than 400,000 visitors came aboard last year to marvel at the royal living quarters, the dining rooms which have hosted the world’s business and political leaders, artwork and photographs of the ship’s colourful history, the bridge and crew decks, the impressive engine room…and now a smart café added for public enjoyment. One interesting fact: many of the overseas visitors are Chinese, old and young. They too have a sense of history, it seems.
But wait, there’s more. Permanently moored nearby is Britannia’s little sister MV Fingal, a retired Lighthouse tender which has been converted into luxury boutique accommodation. She has 23 guest rooms, each named after one of the lighthouses Fingal used to service and supply around the wild and treacherous seas of western Scotland. Fingal has put in the “hard yards”, so to speak, and now in retirement she’s welcoming guests who are looking for a very different accommodation experience while visiting big sister Britannia close by.
We walk the plank, literally, and enter Fingal’s classy reception area where our engaging hosts Charlotte and Charlie explain that the Foundation responsible for RY Britannia saw the opportunity to give Fingal a new lease of life, pumping over five million pounds into the ship’s transformation. And it shows. Every detail down to original brass fittings and Davy lamps is perfect, mirroring the Art Deco interiors of Britannia and a hint of royalty. Princess Anne occasionally visits, and has her own suite on board, we’re told.
Our guest cabin is named Cape Wrath, which seems a bit ominous for a married couple, but we enter anyway and are immediately reassured as we look around at a tranquil interior, and out through the porthole window to the dock. A king size bed beckons, and on it we notice the beautiful woollen tartan throw and cushions specially created by local weaver, Araminta Campbell whose designs were inspired by the lighthouses and their beams. We later visit her at the studio nearby, but textile lovers be warned: she has irresistible hand-crafted woven items for sale you may not be able to resist.
In the cabin there’s a desk, a wardrobe, and a bathroom almost as big as the bedroom. There isn’t a bath, but a monster rainshower compensates, as do the Noble Isle toiletries, slippers, fluffy robes and huge towels. Best of all, there’s underfloor heating as well as reversible aircon for those cool Scottish nights.
A ship’s tour reveals a private dining area which can seat 60 of your closest friends for a banquet, or more likely a royal occasion when Princess Anne throws a party (she’s the Patron of the Northern Lighthouse Board). Down below, engineering buffs will appreciate peering through the glass wall showcasing Fingal’s impressive engine room, beautifully lit and polished to within an inch of its life.
Now to the upper deck Lighthouse Bar for an evening cocktail or glass of pinot, and a selection of share plates such as Scottish salmon smoked on board, or a tasty cheese platter. This is not a full dining menu, rather the kind of supper you enjoy after too many of those big fish ‘n chips lunches that Edinburgh is known for. The Bar is also famous for its decadent afternoon teas and full Scottish breakfasts, which can keep you going all day, and this is our well-rehearsed technique to avoid unnecessary lunch calories (and extra expense).
Fingal is certainly our idea of luxury and comfort in a unique floating ‘hotel’ that goes hand-in-hand with a tour of the Royal Yacht Britannia, an experience not easily forgotten… much like the events of July 1, 1997.
Video from Fingal.co.uk