High tea on the Med: cruising as it used to be

by Joanna.Booth

For gentle pleasures and old-school glamour, sign yourself up for a Hebridean cruise to Italy and the Balkans

If cruise ships are hotels afloat, then Hebridean’s two small, historic vessels are boutique country house properties. The décor is tasteful yet understated, the other guests cultured and well-off and the staff not only know your name but also which brand of single malt you favour. The Queen has been known to hire out a whole Hebridean vessel and sail off up the coast, corgis in tow.
Most cruise companies spend a large amount of time and a significant chunk of their marketing budget trying to prove that cruise holidays aren’t what they used to be. ‘They’re for young people!’ they trumpet desperately, pointing to the wave machines, the Nintendo Wii and the fact you can rock up to the dinner buffet in your pyjamas, should you so wish.
Classic style
Venerable British brand Hebridean has maintained a dignified silence. They have nothing to prove. This is cruising as it used to be. One dresses for dinner. One can sit on one’s own table, or at a table hosted by one of the ship’s officers. (Beware the single 60-something lady who wants the seat next to the captain. The butter-wouldn’t-melt expression belies elbows of steel.) The food is classic British and French; rich, plentiful, and silver-served by waiting staff who materialise like clockwork the minute your glass is in any danger of emptying.
The entertainment is classic in its nature too. There’s a musician tinkling away at the ivories in the lounge, and there may be a quiz after dinner. But the focus of the cruise is the destination. Each itinerary will be matched with a guest speaker, who’ll not only give two or three lectures during the cruise, but will also accompany the party on excursions, throwing tidbits of historical, cultural or horticultural knowledge into the mix.
The experience is all about exclusivity. Hebridean’s ships are small – 50 cabins in the largest – and seem to be fashioned exclusively from teak, brass and velvet. Many of the cruises begin with a flight on a privately-hired plane after free champagne on tap in the private terminal at Stansted. Security on board ship is provided by a team of meticulously polite ex-Gurkhas. A tour may include a specially-negotiated evening opening of a particularly popular tourist sight, to avoid the crowds.
Small is beautiful
The Hebridean difference was writ large for me in Venice. We cruised in at night – a magical experience in itself – passing the illuminated Piazza San Marco and making our stately way down the Giudecca Canal to our mooring. After an evening of wine and wandering through the labyrinthine streets we were enjoying fresh coffee and eggs on the sunny Mizzen Deck when we saw the other cruise ships coming in. These monsters, unable to moor at the central Maritime Station owing to their size, had to crawl their slow way up to a port far out of the centre. Every observation deck and balcony was lined with watchers, thousands of them. It was like something out of Village of the Damned.
However, Hebridean is not for everyone. You need to be happy to spunk £5,000 on a week’s holiday, for starters. And as a 28-year-old, I was emphatically not their target market. Without the presence of other, similarly-aged journalists on my press trip, I would have felt seriously out of place. Hebridean’s cruises are for people of 50 plus. Specifically, monied, educated, cultured (and dare I say it? slightly upper class) people of 50 plus. Getting off one’s face on the alcopops and attempting to goose the captain would be frowned upon, whatever one’s age.
Location, location, location
Itineraries reflect this age bracket too, with an emphasis on locations that are big on history, with a mixture of classic and more off-the-beaten track choices. We began in Rab, a picture-perfect island off the Croatian coast. Winding, cobbled streets lead to quaint churches and Roman remains, and the pace of life is relaxed. After the tour there’s time for a coffee in the main square, and a swim in the clear-as-crystal water, which even in October is warm enough (though only just!). The island recedes behind us as we quite literally sail off into the sunset. Particularly bad sailors may be better sticking to the mammoth cruise ships, but I found the slight rocking motion better than a lullaby.
The next morning we wake up in Pula, on the leafy Istrian peninsula. Italy’s influence is heavy, with Roman ruins at every turn. Most striking is the Colosseum, which makes you feel as if you’re in a mini-Rome. There’s evidence of more recent historical events, too – the city was under the control of Mussolini’s fascist administration and was occupied by the Nazis during WWII. A short coach journey away is the Paulist monastery of St Peter in the Forest. After a friendly monk shows us round, we’re taken to a local restaurant for lunch. Without our friendly waiters some guests struggle – try as I might, I could not persuade my neighbour that what she thought was white wine was actually grappa, though she seemed happy enough after two large glasses.
Next stop is Rovinj, a town where brightly-coloured buildings line the bay and streets spiral up the side of the hill to a large, white church with a tall belltower. We also make a short stop in Koper, Slovenia, where we bump into a local wedding and explore the town museum, before we taste the local wine. Each evening we’re given detailed itineraries for the next day, and told, even down to the number of steps we’ll climb, how strenuous each tour will be. For guests too elderly, infirm or simply too lazy to make the journey, refreshments are constantly available on board.
La dolce vita
Then it’s on to Italy, and Venice. It’s a perfect autumn day; the sky is electric blue and it’s warm enough for a t-shirt. There’s no pressure to join the tours – having visited Venice before, I choose to wander the streets rather than be shepherded round. I’m merely handed a card embossed with an explanation, in Italian, that I’m a British visitor staying on the ship and a contact number, should I become lost and require the help of a friendly local. There’s no space here to adequately sing the praises of Venice, save to say that it lives up to its reputation. In the evening, guests are treated to a baroque music recital in a church.
The final port of call is Trieste, a city with its Austro-Hungarian heritage oozing from every imposing façade. Sights include the cathedral, the Miramare Castle and the Teatro Verdi, modelled on Milan’s La Scala.
The cruise is a week long, and on a small ship the feel is more of a communal holiday than you would find on the larger cruise lines. You’re never forced to interact, but it’s very easy to make friends, and this is probably why Hebridean’s cruises are popular with older singles as well as couples. They’re tailored to a very specific market, but they’re obviously a good fit, as 60 per cent of the passengers rebook.
Hebridean has two ships. The Hebridean Princess cruises predominantly around the Scottish islands with occasional forays to Norway. The larger Hebridean Spirit ventures around the Mediterranean and Adriatic in summer and autumn, and during winter offers fortnight-long cruises in long haul destinations such as the Caribbean and Indian Ocean.