There are some things I did not think I would do in this lifetime: play golf, go out with an estate agent or take a cruise. Having just experienced the last of the no-goers (aboard Hebridean International Cruises’ Hebridean Spirit), my attitude has changed so profoundly that I may shortly be off to buy a set of Calloway irons and to have a bloke from Foxtons round to value my flat.
Hebridean International Cruises, which owns two beautifully appointed ships, is one of the leaders in the up-scale, small cruise market. Indeed, the Spirit’s sister ship, Hebridean Princess, was chartered by the Queen last year for her 80th birthday celebrations, and if it is good enough for her, it is certainly good enough for a Jewish cruise virgin from North-West London.
Launched in 2001, the Spirit accommodates a maximum of 96 people, looked after by a crew of 70. It has a restaurant, bar, sun deck, gym and spa. There’s no swimming pool, but there is a plunge pool. Everything about the ship — which describes itself as a “five-star country house hotel” — is understated luxury. Even travel to and from the ship is by fast-track charter — executive class, of course — from Stansted.
Spirit sails throughout the year: it follows the sun south in winter and then returns north. I joined the cruise for six days on the Sicilian leg of a 13-day voyage which began in Cagliari, Sardinia, and took in a different port each day, including La Gouletta in Tunis and Valletta in Malta. My itinerary included calls at Syracuse, Panarea Island and Catania.
I have to own up: when I first boarded the ship and saw my fellow passengers, my heart sank. How could I enjoy a cruise which was largely geared to those four decades my senior? But initial appearances can be deceiving, and although a majority of the ship’s guests post retirement, this is not a blue-rinse brigade.
The cultured passengers (doctors — medical and PhD kind — professors, judges, the odd baronet, squillionaires) had class and energy in abundance, many in contrast to couch potato moi. Privately organised on-shore tours, with guides to archaeological digs would leave me scanning the horizon for any kind of seat — even a rock would do. My fellow guests, however, would devour the commentaries and stride around the sites. Each evening before dinner, too, they would attend a lecture by a guest speaker (invariably an eminent academic) on the history of the city we were visiting the following day.
Rather than providing the slew of organised activities which most cruise lines offer, Hebridean gives its guests an opportunity to engage in the art of conversation. Do not expect a roulette table, disco or any other form of entertainment. Instead, within the intimate surroundings of the ship, after dinner — and, of course, throughout the day — guests indulge in animated tete a tetes.
An interesting statistic is that a quarter of Hebridean guests travel alone. According to one woman I spoke to, the line makes solo passengers feel comfortable and welcome, with solo guests encouraged to meet and dine with others.
Entering my stateroom, it was hard to believe I was on a ship: each bedroom is individually styled and decorated in classic country-house style. Mine included a magnificently large walk-in wardrobe, a writing desk, a DVD player and a huge TV. In the smart en-suite bathroom were all my favourite Molton Brown goodies, which were regularly replenished.
As you would expect with its astonishingly high crew-to-guest ratio, the service is impeccable. The well-trained and exceptionally courteous staff are attentive to everyone. They know your name — and your tastes — and do their utmost to ensure that you feel you are their chief concern. A perfect example of this was late one evening as I relaxed on deck under the stars. A waiter asked if I would like a coffee calypso, remembering that I had ordered one the previous night.
If, like me, you enjoy your food, you will not be disappointed by the fabulous nosh aboard Spirit. Breakfast and lunch can both be eaten indoors or al fresco and both are buffet style, but after you have selected from the dazzling array of fresh everything, the waiters carry your plate to your table in case, God forbid, you were to strain yourself.
Dinner is formal and is served in the plush, wood-panelled Argyll restaurant where guests can dine á deux, or take a larger table with new-found friends or join one of the senior officers’ tables. The menu at every meal includes meat, fish and vegetarian options, but if you do not like the choice, they will prepare something else.
As the ship has only a small number of guests it is never crowded or noisy, but for those who wish to be utterly alone, there are plenty of quiet sanctuaries. A particular favourite of mine was a sun-lounger on the bridge deck where I was never disturbed. I also enjoyed spending time in the travel library, which is stocked with reference books, board games and a computer with internet.
While the trip is not cheap — from £500 per night — it is totally inclusive. Once you are on board, you need not spend another penny — not even on the private excursions, which are all included, nor on glasses of pink champagne, to which I became mildly addicted.
And there is also no tipping — the ship discourages it; another reason why a very high percentage of Hebridean passengers are returnees.
It is amazing what a holiday can do for you. This break made me realise the importance of having a generous pension. I am getting in touch with my financial adviser any day now (after I have been to the golf shop and the estate agency) to arrange a policy that will guarantee I can enjoy this level of luxury when I reach retirement age.
Alternatively, I could marry a humungously rich estate agent, or become a golf champion, and then I could afford to take a Hebridean cruise any time I liked…
A 13-night Carthage to Sicily cruise with Hebridean International Cruises (01756 704704) from £5,380 per person (based on two sharing). Includes flights, transfers, private tours, all meals, house wines and spirits. Hebridean offers JC readers a complimentary overnight stay per individual booking (room only) at the Radisson SAS Hotel at Stansted Airport prior to departure and meet-and-greet valet parking with the following cruises: Mysteries of the Moors (Oct 12-23); Islands of Contrast (Oct 23-November 1), Through the Fortunate Isles (Nov 1-13) or Verdant Isles (Nov 13-26). Quote HS10/11 when booking.