Laughter and noisy banter drifts up from The Club, where the after dinner crowd looks ready to dance, if Alwin on the piano can step up the pace from his usual gentle Cole Porter. He does, and they do. But I’ve slipped out onto the teak deck, still warm from the sun, even though it’s long after nightfall. The ship’s foamy wake is almost phosphorescent in the moonlight, and the sky is carpeted with stars. Island Sky is steaming across the inky-black Mediterranean to her next port. I’m all alone up here, and incredibly content.
A voyage on Island Sky is as far removed from the traditional concept of big ship cruising as it’s possible to get. Imagine a sleek little ship like a gentleman’s yacht, all brass and polished wood inside, with a cosy bar where the bartender knows exactly how many slices of lime you prefer in your gin and tonic.
With only 114 guests on board who eat, drink and explore ashore together, the ship exudes a country house atmosphere – complete, I might add, with the kind of good-natured intrigue and gossip you’d expect at a large house party, as friendships are formed and life stories exchanged.
Because Island Sky is so small, the ship can call at exquisite smaller ports overlooked by bigger ships; Chania in Crete, with its Venetian inspired architecture, or Delos in the Cyclades, steeped in mythology. Or it can go island-hopping through the Azores, or drop anchor in the sheltered bay of Iles des Saintes in the Caribbean.
Wherever in the world the ship is sailing, life on board quickly settles into a civilised and unhurried pattern. Days begin with breakfast on deck in the early morning sunshine. When the ship is in port, guests set off on tour together. Often, visits to more popular sites are timed so that Island Sky’s guests arrive before the hordes, or stay long after they have departed. Full-day excursions include a magnificent lunch in a local restaurant and a chance to sample regional specialities and wines.
Much later, back on the ship, everybody miraculously manages to find room for afternoon tea, a decadent affair with a different variety of hot scones every day topped with huge dollops of jam and cream, and tea served from an ornate samovar. Some days on my Eastern Mediterranean voyage brought special treats; the chef whipped up a cinnamon and rum concoction of Bananas Foster on deck as we transited the Suez Canal, while on another occasion, we tucked into crepe Suzette as the anchor was hauled in the late afternoon. Early evening is a time for reading in one of the deep, squashy chairs in The Club, the ship’s convivial bar, or listening to Alwin at the piano, or soaking up the last of the sun’s rays on deck. Some days, we’d attend a lecture before dinner. Guest speakers accompany every voyage and there were two on mine: Dr Alan Borg, librarian of the Order of St John, who took us on a fascinating voyage back in time through the Crusades; and veteran Middle East news correspondent Robert Fox, who spoke about the complex political situation in the region.
Dinners are long, drawn-out affairs in which everybody dines together and the adventures of the day are discussed over delights such as honey-glazed duck, or spiced samosas with palm heart salad, or fresh fish scored by the chef in the local market that day. Needless to say, bedtime is most welcome after long days ashore and, for some, much postprandial merriment in the bar. The suites on Island Sky are a joy, adorned with sumptuous fabrics and polished wood. Mine was furnished in subtle shades of green and gold, and the bathroom featured a marble-topped vanity unit and walk-in shower.
The ship’s crew are clearly chosen for their powers of recall, as everybody knew me by name from the beginning. The lengths that crew members would go to never ceased to amaze me. When I lost the back of one of my earrings and asked my cabin stewardess to look out for it, she knocked at the door minutes later with a replacement. The maitre d’ did a spectacular job matching people with suitable tablemates at dinner, always discreet and always professional. Even the welcome back on board every day was thoughtful. We’d be greeted with a different refreshment every time we returned from a tour; fresh orange juice and ice-cold towels on a hot day and hot, spiced apple tea when the weather turned cold. Not surprisingly, there were more than a few damp eyes among the guests as the whole crew lined up on the quayside to wave us off on the last day.
Island Sky was originally built in the mid-1990s for a cruise line called Renaissance Cruises and unimaginatively named Renaissance VIII. She was the last in a series of eight small ships. Renaissance Cruises didn’t survive, and all eight sisters were sold off and scattered across the world. Noble Caledonia acquired Island Sky in 2004 for long term charter, and in 2010 it bought the ship and spent several million pounds on an extensive facelift.
The company has now also taken over two of Island Sky’s sisters, Renaissance VI and Renaissance VII. These ships both underwent refits to bring them into line with the style and quality of Island Sky, with the first joining the fleet as Caledonian Sky in May 2012 and the second as Hebridean Sky in May 2016.
Essentially, those seasoned travellers who have fallen in love with this style of small ship cruising now have three superb choices in Europe and across the world. And without doubt, Caledonian Sky and Hebridean Sky are inspiring the same devoted following as their sister vessel, the wonderful little blue ship Island Sky.
Sue Bryant is contributing editor to www.cruisecritic.co.uk and Cruise International magazine.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Noble Caledonia
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