Transported to all the best destinations

A cruise can be classy and exciting, find Karen Robinson and Audrey Ward

16 October 2011
The Sunday Times

The Island Sky navigating smoothly into harbour is not, it is fair to say, a toweringly majestic sight. The cruise vessel, which takes a maximum of just 114 passengers, certainly looks spick and span, but its dimensions at 295ft by 49ft would be dwarfed by the latest mega-liners that ply the world’s oceans. Aboard, however, the wow factors reveal themselves.

Starting with the 57 suites (“cabin” hardly denotes the comfort and luxury of this shipboard accommodation): the lowest of the five decks, Magellan, has the largest suites, with portholes rather than windows. Above this deck is Columbus, close to the lounge and reception area, above that Marco Polo, handy for the library. Erikson and Explorer — the penthouse of the vessel, if you like — both have private balconies. A lift takes passengers to all decks. The suites themselves are fitted out with wood panelling and brass, and each has an ensuite bathroom with marble-topped sink units and walk-in shower. The wardrobes offer plenty of storage. There is also a minibar, flatscreen television with DVD player and a telephone in each suite. Fluffy bathrobes and slippers add to the luxury-hotel feel.

It’s a cosseting haven to retire to, but some top-deck Island Sky passengers report having little time to spend lounging on their private balconies. Every Island Sky voyage is a trip packed with experiences, with a carefully planned programme of shore visits. And here’s where the advantage of being on a small ship really hits home: it takes hours to disembark a massive cruise liner’s passengers — and to get them back on again. The Island Sky’s guests will find the transit to shore rapid and efficient. And what different, wilder shores they will experience — places the giants cannot squeeze into. From tiny harbours to rugged shorelines inhabited only by populations of seabirds and wild creatures, the Island Sky — owned by specialist cruise operator Noble Caledonia — has access to them all.

Sometimes the ship drops anchor and out come the Zodiacs, large and sturdy inflatable outboard dinghies. Climb in for a snorkelling trip, a beach landing or some bird-watching. And if you want to know exactly what you are pointing your camera or binoculars at, the on-board guest lecturers have all the information you’ll need. On a recent Mediterranean cruise, they were Professor John Ray, a mine of information on the lasting legacy of the Roman empire; Major-General Arthur Denaro, an extra equerry to HRH the Prince of Wales, who added not just information but poignancy and atmosphere to war sites; and host of Radio 4’s Just a Minute, Nicholas Parsons, who was just very entertaining. Broadcaster and journalist Matthew Parris will be joining Passage to Tristan da Cunha and Beyond on December 22, 2012 (see pages 12-13).

Mental sustenance is all very well, and the on-board library is a haven of well-chosen volumes, plus whatever newspapers the staff have found in port. But what about the food?

“Think fresh and local” could be the motto of hotel manager Wendy Gouws, a no-nonsense South African who dispatches the provisions master almost daily to supplement stores by buying fish, fruit and vegetables at the Island Sky’s ports of call. These are transformed by the kitchen brigade into buffet-style breakfast and lunch — eaten whenever possible on the outdoor deck — and à la carte dinner in the dining room. A typical Mediterranean menu might include strawberry soup or calamari, followed by baked lobster tail with garlic and lemon butter sauce served with saffron rice, or roast honey-glazed duck in Grand Marnier sauce. Glasses of red and chilled white wine are served with lunch and dinner; beer is also offered. While some ships allocate seats during mealtimes, passengers aboard the Island Sky are free to choose where to sit for each meal. Round-the-clock tea and coffee are available, and early morning pre-breakfast pastries.

All these creature comforts, which include a hairdressing and beauty salon, are administered by a highly trained crew. There are 75 staff and crew members on the Island Sky, and the captain and first officer are both Scandinavian. The self-assured Swedish captain, Torbjorn Svensson, runs a relaxed but efficient ship. Thanks to his open-bridge policy, the passengers — or guests, as he prefers to call them — can stop by at any time to watch him manoeuvre the ship into a tight space.

The service starts well before you board. A tour manager joins the passengers at the airport at the start of the trip, travelling with them from London. She ensures the tour guides and bus drivers know where and when to meet the passengers. There is also an on-board doctor, who is available 24/7. Generally, all the senior staff work two and a half months on and off. The rest of the mainly Filipino and east European crew work on seven- or eight-month contracts. It’s not unusual to find that while the “welcome on board” cocktails are being served, staff and crew are shaking hands with regular Island Sky cruisers, welcoming them back to the ship. They extend a similar welcome to newcomers, and it’s impressive how quickly they learn their names too.

However, unlike many other cruise ships, a “no tips” policy operates on the Island Sky. All gratuities have been included in the price of the trip. The assistant cruise director is on hand to tip all the tour guides and drivers along the way, and passengers no longer have to worry about carrying loose change in various currencies. The policy was introduced last year following feedback from Noble Caledonia’s passengers.

So while prices are hardly bargain basement, they do include almost every expenditure except bar bill and souvenir shopping.

The Island Sky format has proved so popular that Noble Caledonia has acquired a second cruise ship to operate as an owner. Purchased in 2011, the newly christened Caledonian Sky (formerly Hebridean Spirit) will be refurbished in Gothenburg over the coming winter. She will be ready for her maiden voyage under new ownership in May of next year, sailing around Britain before heading to Australasia. Although slightly different in configuration from the Island Sky, she will be kitted out similarly to her sister ship and will also have a capacity of 114 passengers. The Caledonian Sky brochure has just been launched: call 020 7752 0000 or visit noble-caledonian.co.uk.

Meanwhile, in this supplement you can read about the highlights of the Island Sky’s itinerary. It’s a small ship with a winning format — and gets booked early. Some cruises are filled up to a year before departure, so it pays to plan ahead and book early (for this reason, we list some cruises as far ahead as 2013). All the Island Sky packages featured have special offers, which apply for bookings before December 30 this year.

Around the world with Island Sky

Island Sky’s itineraries follow the best weather, loveliest sunlight and calmest seas around the world, to visit each area at the ideal time to cruise its waters and take in the glories of its ports of call, be they deserted islands or cultural gems.

The adventures described in this supplement begin in May next year, with various expeditions around the most far-flung of the British Isles. As the nights lengthen, the Island Sky heads north, to Scandinavia and the Arctic Circle, then swings round to take in the glories of the Baltic. High summer sees a return to the British Isles, and, as the season’s fiercest heat starts to soften, it’s destination Mediterranean, followed by the Black Sea.

Then it starts to get really adventurous: heading into the Atlantic, Island Sky will follow the west coast of Africa to Cape Town, before spending Christmas and new year on a pioneering voyage to the remote islands of Tristan da Cunha and on, via the Falklands, to South America. Progressing in stages up the western side of the continent, there’s a final chug through the Panama Canal and into the wild tropical heat of the Caribbean Sea in February. So it’s a world of cruises in one small ship. Which leg of its epic journey would you choose?