Publicised as ‘Scotland’s only international cruise ship’, the Hebridean Spirit underlines the flag she flies with the names of her cabins, haggis for gala dinners, a piper to play her out of port and kilt wearing on formal nights.
With a maximum of 98 passengers, the compact ship (just 4,200 tons) was formerly a Renaissance vessel before becoming Star Gemini for a couple of years. Now she is a low-key, non-glitzy comforting presence that welds the passengers into a floating country house party. It’s not surprising The Queen chartered sister ship Hebridean Princess for her 80th birthday family get-together in Scotland.
Cruises kick start with a captain’s welcome Pimms party on the sailing evening so that passengers get to meet the officers and department heads straight away (although more than 70 per cent are repeat travellers).
Hebridean Spirit also has illusions of stately home grandeur, particularly in the Skye Lounge with baronial stone fireplace and deep sink-in sofas and armchairs. This is the gathering place for afternoon tea with piano accompaniment, lectures, port briefings and after-dinner coffee with gentle entertainment from the piano player.
A guest list of passengers with their home towns is circulated early in the cruise to help knit the group together. The sense of being a house guest rather than a paying passenger is heightened by the lack of need to sign drinks bills, sign up for excursions, order wine at dinner or tip the staff. Virtually everything is included in the cruise price (from around �2544-�4656 per week, including flights during summer 2008), even basic consultations with the doctor.
The Hebridean party starts at Stansted where, from this year, passengers have dedicated check-in for its private flight and an exclusive lounge in the Stansted Inflite Terminal separate from the main building.
Here, Buck’s Fizz, coffee, Danish pastries, fruit kebabs and croissants precede the flight, which also offers a cooked breakfast, more Buck’s Fizz and free bar service.
On landing, passengers merely identify their baggage then board coaches for a guided drive to the ship.
After re-identification of baggage for security purposes, boarding and check-in are swift; production of cruise tickets seems unnecessary and guests are in their cabins along with their luggage in minutes.
There are two suites on the Promenade deck with imposing tartan headboards, big windows and Jacuzzi bath. The Glens on the Mizzen deck are eight cabins with balconies; below are the Clans on the Promenade deck; the Isles are on reception level; and lowest are the Castles, with portholes instead of large windows, on the restaurant deck. The Glens and Isles cabins have marble baths in addition to a shower.
Otherwise, amenities are identical: a free mini-bar stocked to personal choice; tea and coffee making facility (with fresh milk provided and sachets of Horlicks for night-time comfort); big wardrobe areas with iron and board; and TV with CD and DVD player.
There are brass-bound clocks and nautical-looking temperature gauge and fleece blankets for balcony use (although the hard wooden furniture could use some softening cushions). A thoughtful touch is a large world atlas in each cabin so passengers can chart their progress. A copy of the cruise itinerary is presented at the end of each cruise.
Decor is chintzy tinged with tartan; cabin curtains are thick and long with tasselled tie-backs; bedheads padded and piled with cushions; a couple of comfortable armchairs and sofa by a coffee table.
In the bathrooms, thick towels hang on heated rails, generous sized Molton Brown toiletries are provided, along with robes and slippers. As guests go to breakfast, stewardesses slip in and make the beds and tidy cabins, although they wait until guests are ashore for the full clean.
The daily events programme is succinct and fits on one side of an A5 sheet. There are few announcements, no pressure to do anything. With a book from the well-stocked library, free service of champagne or other drinks and a sun lounger, many rest up on board. Individuals may potter ashore armed with cards in the appropriate language containing the ship’s location and telephone numbers, which is useful for taxi drivers and when lost!
Daily excursions are included – tours of archeological sites (Butrint in Albania and Leptis Magna in Libya were 2007 highlights); architecture, vineyards, perhaps a special gallery opening, theatre performance or private palazzo visit with local guides and guest speakers. In the small ports accessible to the ship, tenders are often used; two sturdy boats lowered from the ship’s aft section a firm platform that makes stepping on and off easy.
For 2008, Hebridean Spirit is introducing a series of six ‘Footloose’ cruises in spring and autumn which have been popular on the Princess. These are cruises with programmed walks built in. Some are gentle strolls while others are full-day treks with picnic or restaurant lunch and standby car for those who tire. Footloose destinations will include the Azores, Spain (following donkey trails in the Rhonda Mountains), Italy and Croatia.
The ship will also visit Palazzos and gardens of the Mediterranean as well as Monaco to cover the Grand Prix, with Murray Walker on board to interpret the scene. Historians, archeologists, botanists and ex-ambassadors as well as broadcasters like Richard Baker and Humphrey Burton accompany cruises and give lectures.
Hebridean Spirit spends the summer in the Mediterranean area and winter in the Caribbean and South America. Most cruises are 7-11 days in length and there is a reduction for taking two back-to-back cruises as the ship moves round without repeating its ports of call.
On board entertainment is largely passenger-made, as at a house party; card games, Scrabble, listening to the Public Rooms Supervisor (a trained concert pianist) giving a recital, working out in the small gym, using the steam rooms, having an Elemis spa treatment (one of the few paid-for extras), taking the on board bicycles and snorkel equipment ashore.
The sunny day social hub is the Mizzen deck aft where breakfast, lunch and occasionally dinner are served. The small Jacuzzi-like pool has, in this year’s refit, been replaced by a real Jacuzzi, which will no doubt get greater use than the tiny pool.
Passengers are predominantly British, with a sprinkling of North Americans and occasional Japanese. In keeping with this, food is French-influenced British. Menus run on a two-week cycle so passengers taking more than one cruise don’t get the same dishes.
Fruit and vegetables are picked up weekly, and Scottish beef, venison and game are shipped to the vessel. Breakfast can include porridge with a wee dram, Eggs Benedict, kippers, apple pancakes with Greek yoghurt and maple syrup, or the full Scottish with black pudding and potato scone.
On the Mizzen deck there is a small kitchen/buffet servery. Guests wander in and select what they want but the plate is filled for them and a bell rung to summon a waiter to carry it the few yards to the table.
At lunchtime, the procedure is the same – seafood and local fish, salads, fish and chips with mushy peas and shepherd’s pie. Pasta dishes can be ordered in advance and, for those wanting plainer food, chicken, steaks and jacket-baked potatoes are always available.
With liberal glasses of champagne and wine, tea and coffee, lunches drift on against the backdrop of a small harbour, such as the overhang of the Roman citadel and 18th century fort on Ustica off Sicily.
The formal Argyll Restaurant is large enough to take all at one sitting. The ship requests jackets for men after 7pm and black tie is ‘preferred’ for the gala nights. Most of the tables are for two but it’s easy to talk to neighbours. Single travellers (and the ship has many, since cabin surcharges are reasonable) are placed on larger tables hosted by officers and encouraged to move around to get to know more people.
On gala nights, a captain’s champagne reception precedes dinner with an impressive seven-course menu. The farewell dinner has a Scottish theme including cock-a-leekie soup, the haggis properly paraded, piped and addressed. Venison Wellington, vanilla souffl� and deep fried Camembert may complete the meal. Each night there is a cheese board set up in the centre of the room to which guests are encouraged to help themselves.
White and red wines are provided each night but special connoisseurs’ choices can be ordered at extra cost from the list. In the Panorama Lounge, where games, books and binoculars are available, there is a help-yourself tray of spirits, mixers and fortified wines, bowls of fresh fruit and tea and coffee makers.
Of the 82 crew, the officers are British, deck and engine crew are Filipino, hotel staff Ukrainian from Odessa, an India chef works alongside Executive Chef Phillip Ashman and the security officer is a Gurkha.
And when the last morning arrives, like all good house parties, the parting is gracious and leisured. Guests can use the public rooms or go on a tour of the port with lunch, for example in a little mountain restaurant above Palermo or a private palace in Venice, before arriving at the airport for the private flight back home. Truly the luxury touch.