Hebridean Island Cruises

For those who fervently believe that “less is more” and “smaller is better,” we recommend Hebridean Island Cruises, Ltd. (Griffin House, Broughton Hall, Skipton, North Yorkshire, BD23 3AN, England; phone 44 [0] 1756-704704 or visit www.hebridean.co.uk).

This English line operates two ships. We cruised on the Hebridean Princess in 1994, 1998 and 2000 and on the Hebridean Spirit in 2002 and in October ’04. Described best as “floating country house hotels,” they offer the special ambiance of individually decorated, charming and comfortable staterooms — understated luxury.

The staterooms are not numbered but named after Hebridean islands and Scottish clans. Each provides spacious closets and TV set with tape player. Mini-bars hold bottles of water, soft drinks, beer and various liquors. Large bathrooms are well stocked with Moulton Brown accessories and luxurious robes. Some have full-length English bathtubs among the marble facilities. Cabins for single travelers are available at no additional charge.

Public rooms include lounges with brick fireplaces plus soft chairs and sofas for lectures, afternoon tea or cocktails. The bar features many examples of Scotland’s famous malts. There are cozy nooks throughout the ships: interior lounges, libraries (with reading material and a selection of videotapes) and a conservatory where coffee and tea is always available amid fresh and potted plants. Huge windows in the lounges offer panoramic views. Reproductions of 18th- and early 19th-century antiques are on display throughout.

Contrary to the reputation of English cuisine, Lucullan food emerges from the tiny galleys. A full English breakfast can include porridge served with a “wee dram” of whisky. Lunches and dinners feature fresh local foods. Red and white wines are complimentary with meals.

Single travelers are invited to dine together at a large table hosted by the ship’s officers. Other tables are set up for couples and may be combined, if passengers wish. The ratio of crew to passengers is almost one to one. The passengers are mostly English, with some other Europeans and very few Americans; Hebridean Island Cruises is not widely publicized in the U.S.

Two nights on the week-long cruise and three or four on longer-duration cruises are formal; officers wear dress uniforms and guests also rise to the occasion — either black tie or the kilt. One of those evenings is Scottish night; the haggis is ceremoniously brought into the dining room and Robert Burns’ ode to that curious viand is reverently recited. (Actually, it’s not really horrible, especially if washed down with that “wee dram.”)

A knowledgeable guide travels on each voyage. Local guides are always of the highest caliber — and have keen senses of humor to keep up with the mostly British clientele. Shore visits are beautifully arranged. Tenders and Zodiacs take guests to lovely unspoiled islands and, considering Scotland’s capricious weather, Wellington boots and rain gear are on hand. For private viewings, visits to stately homes, distilleries, gardens and other venues are scheduled either before or after regular opening hours.

Local entertainers, such as folk dancers and singers, perform on board on several evenings. Skeet shooting on the sun deck is a regular feature. For those who don’t get enough exercise traversing the Scottish banks and braes, there are stationary bicycles on the lower deck.

Our first experience with this line was on the older and smaller of the two ships, Hebridean Princess, which holds 49 passengers. For the most part, she plies the waters among the islands off the west coast of Scotland, beginning and ending in the port of Oban, though we did cruise once from Bergen, Norway, to Oban. Twice we enjoyed the comforts of “Isle of Coll” room and once the “Isle of Benbecula,” which has a balcony. Meals were served in the Columbia Restaurant, with an occasional barbecue on deck, weather permitting.

The Hebridean Spirit differs from its smaller sister only in size; it carries 80 passengers. Even though larger than the Princess, the Spirit claims to be the smallest international cruise ship afloat. It cruises the Baltic and Mediterranean seas and the Indian Ocean. We have wallowed in its comfortable “Clan Drummond” cabin on a cruise from Tallinn, Estonia, to Stockholm and on another cruise from Venice along the Dalmatian coast and back to Molfetta, Italy.

Shore excursions have been uniformly excellent. Owing to the small number of passengers, groups are welcomed into intimate venues for private receptions, concerts, ballets and demonstrations by artisans. (We had a police escort from St. Petersburg out to Peterhof to assure our arrival well before the crowds!) Here, too, the local guides have been well chosen.

The ship’s officers, including a medical doctor, are British and European. The Eastern European hotel staff was equally as accommodating as their Celtic counterparts.

Cocktails were served in the Skye Lounge, and all drinks (with the exception of some premium brands) were included in the cruise tariff. Since the Spirit operates in areas with temperate climates, breakfast and lunch may be served al fresco. The larger Spirit offers a spa and fully equipped gym.

In keeping with the overall Scottish theme, a resident bagpiper piped the ship in and out of port. A young pianist provided background music in the evenings and a concert of classical music one morning.

Cruise tariffs are quoted in English pounds and in March ’06 were posted at £6,495-£10,392 (near $11,279-$18,048) for a 10-day cruise on the Hebridean Spirit (including air transportation between London and the ship) and at £2,990-£6,370 ($5,193 to $11,063) for a 7-day cruise on the Hebridean Princess. The no-tipping policy is rigidly enforced, and all shore excursions are included on both ships.

Florham Park, NJ