Cathy Bartrop joined a cruise on board Noble Caledonia’s Hebridean Sky and here considers the advantages of small ship cruising.
How small is a small ship? In 2018, the world’s current largest cruise ship, Symphony of the Seas, was launched carrying up to 6680 passengers. I guess compared to that, anything under 1000 passengers could be considered small. So a ship like the Hebridean Sky (along with sister ships Caledonian and Island Sky) with a maximum capacity of just 118 guests can justifiably be categorised as TINY.
The experience on board a ship of this size is completely different to most people’s concept of a cruise. It’s a bit like comparing a stay in a family run boutique hotel with an all-inclusive, international resort complex. In other words, there is no comparison, it’s chalk and cheese. Many guests I spoke to on board Hebridean Sky recoiled in horror at the thought of cruising on a mega liner – a few had tried it, the vast majority would not dream of it. All on this ship, bar a handful of first timers, were loyal repeat passengers – one lady on board had clocked up no less than 37 cruises across the three Sky ships. So, what is it about small ship cruising that keeps them coming back.
Topping the list for most passengers is the social aspect – these cruises attract ‘like- minded’ people – in other words, affluent, extremely well-travelled, largely retired professionals. The age range fluctuates depending on the physical demands of the cruise itinerary – longhaul and expedition cruises which involve zodiac excursions will naturally be slightly younger, but the average age tends to be somewhere between 65 and 75. These are most definitely not party ships and that is also part of the appeal. The entertainment comes largely from interaction with each other. Age aside, you meet all sorts of people, from all walks of life, often with fascinating life stories to share and always, regardless of age, with a lust for life.
Within a matter of days, faces become familiar and the conversation flows… and flows. Whether you are travelling solo or as a couple, single sitting but open dining means that you share all meals with a constantly circulating selection of guests. Over time, groups of new friends form but generally, if you prefer splendid isolation, I would suggest this is not the the type of cruise for you!
Of course, the size of the ship also dictates the extent of the facilities. On board Hebridean Sky, the Club Bar, the Lounge and both the interior restaurant and al fresco dining deck are the main gathering points. Aside from eating and drinking entertainment is limited to the background of a pianist in the bar, the occasional quiz or, if you happen to have a Cruise Director with a talent, they will most likely do a ‘turn’ at some stage. On our cruise, cruise director Neil Horrocks turned his 20 years working at sea into an hilarious evening of anecdotes. There may be a small group of night owls keeping the barman busy until late, but the vast majority are happy with dinner, possibly a few drinks afterwards and bed. There is also a strong educational bent to this type of cruise – the lectures, designed to either reflect the theme of the cruise or share specialist knowledge, are always well attended.
Many passengers also have a keen interest in all things nautical and love observing operations coming in and out of ports. An open bridge policy allows them to inspect charts and chat freely with the captain and his crew. For more nautical types, the ‘motion of the ocean’ is also apparently a joy! These ships do not have the sophisticated stabilisers of their larger peers. On the plus side, small ships are nimble and the itineraries are designed for flexibility, should you run in to bad weather. I am not saying it will never be rough but when it is, usually, it is short lived.
If you do feel like escaping, your options are to find a quiet spot out on deck or retreat to your cabin. No hardship, the cabins are lovely – more spacious than you might imagine, comfortable, well equipped and immaculately maintained by housekeeping. Cabins on the upper two decks have balconies – always a bonus in fine weather and an extra bit of privacy.
In truth though, there isn’t masses of time to idle away – the nature of the itineraries mean you arrive somewhere new every day. Sea days are rare, generally you will cruise in the evening and overnight, arriving early in to port next day, ready to set off on another adventure.
The excursions are all included in the cruise price. There will be at least one half-day trip per day, sometimes two and occasionally a full day with lunch ashore. Excursions are not compulsory of course but the vast majority do take them. When a drive is involved there will generally be three coaches, each accompanied by a local guide as well as a member of the Noble Caledonia team. From Figuera da Foz we took the short drive to Coimbra – home to Portugal’s oldest and surely most beautiful university campus. Our well organised visit in small groups included not only a tour of the key buildings but, because of our limited numbers and, by special permission from the Dean, access to the extraordinary and priceless Joanina Library.
The nature of the beast (and marketing spend) mean that small ship cruises do not seem to get anywhere near the same number of column inches as the big cruise lines. As a result, many ‘new to cruise’ passengers still seem to have an idea that all cruise ships are equal – in fact, these days, nothing could be further from the truth. Through my video work, I hold my hand up to having experienced perhaps more than my fair share of cruises, both big and small. The success of the choice depends very much on your stage of life, your interests and what type of things you like to do on a holiday. Both have their pros and cons but the experience for sure is entirely different. If it is size alone that is putting you off the idea of a cruise, my advice is to think small – I think you might be pleasantly surprised.