From small ships in the Baltic to floating cities in the Med, the Travel Weekly team give their views on the cruises they took in the second half of 2008
Hebridean International Cruises: Hebridean Spirit
Joanna Booth spent a week on board Hebridean Spirit from Istria, Croatia to Italy, last October, visiting Trieste and Venice, Rab, Pula, and Rovinj in Croatia and Koper in Slovenia.
Size is everything on a Hebridean International cruise, but the cruiseline does not see bigger as better.
Hebridean's two ships are small – only 30 cabins on Hebridean Princess, and 50 on the 98-metre-long Hebridean Spirit – so they can’t compete with the bells-and-whistles facilities of the larger ships. However, you get an entirely different cruising experience, rich in understated luxury and personal service – cruising as it used to be.
From the minute I walked into the private lounge in the separate Inflite terminal at Stansted I felt like a VIP. Replete with complimentary champagne, we boarded our chartered aircraft bound for Trieste, where the cruise began.
The atmosphere and decor are very much country-house-hotel-afloat, with maple and cherry wood, thick carpets and soft furnishings in rich shades. There are a couple of suites and a handful of cabins with balconies, but most guests are happy to get some fresh air by wandering around the promenade deck, overseeing progress from the observation platform or taking breakfast or lunch on the terrace of the Mizzen Deck.
A couple of decks below this more informal brasserie, the Argyll restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is old-school cruising, so everyone makes an effort to dress up, and single passengers vie for the opportunity to sit next to the officers and captain (all British) who host the communal tables.
Average weight gain is apparently four pounds per week, and I can see why – the meals are vast, delicious and rich. And the staff are very courteous and attentive.
All this suits the Hebridean demographic well. Its passengers tend to be 50-plus, well-off, and looking for luxury rather than bling, and cultural experiences rather than a mass of activities. The formula works: a massive 60% of passengers rebook and many are so attached to the ships that they request specific cabins, and are even willing
to alter their holiday dates to get their chosen room.
The whole experience is very carefully tailored to suit the customer demographic. There are plenty of cultural excursions, and each day’s programme is detailed the night before. Plus, each cruise has an expert speaker who gives lectures on a relevant topic.
Hebridean cruises are perfectly suited to wealthy, educated and middle to upper-class clients aged over 50 who like to be part of a small, select group. Due to the small size of the ships, passengers can feel like they are on a communal holiday – you haven’t got the opportunity for anonymity that exists on larger vessels.
Sample package: A seven-night cruise from Istria, Croatia to Italy costs from £4,912 per person twin-share, full-board departing on August 12 and including private flights and transfers. (01756 704 704 or log in to Hebridean's agent website)
Princess Cruises: Crown Princess
Janine Kelso spent a few days on board Crown Princess last year as it called at Scandinavia, Russia, Poland and Estonia.
Passengers are treated like A-listers while aboard Crown Princess. It might be an American company, but the ship has an international feel thanks in part to its friendly, multi-national staff.
The ship is only two years old, so the decor is shiny and new. My balcony suite was spacious and bright. I’d never been on a cruise before and I approached it with some trepidation, expecting poor quality food, old folk and seasickness. But I found great food, clientele of all ages and a smooth ride.
Beginning the trip in St Petersburg, we were bussed about the city’s main sights before spending the evening at the Russian ballet. The next morning we checked into the ship and headed straight for the buffet, which offered a huge choice of well-presented main meals and tasty desserts.
I spent the afternoon soaking up the sun while relaxing in one of the many whirlpool baths, before hitting the ship’s swanky spa for a facial.
After a great night’s sleep we woke up in Estonia’s pretty capital, Tallinn, where we took a walking tour around the old town. We were back on board by the afternoon, and set sail for Gdynia in Poland, where we arrived the following morning. Gdynia is the gateway port to the beautiful and historic city of Gdansk.
The cruise and the ship were great. Crown Princess is big and glitzy and offers plenty of eating options, ranging from an eight-course feast at Sabatini’s Italian Trattoria to a steak and fish extravaganza at the Crown Grill. The atmosphere is laid back and not at all stuffy. While some guests choose to glam up in the evenings, others are more relaxed.
Sample package: Princess Cruises offers the 10-night Scandinavia and Russia cruise for £1,079 per person for an inside twin room, including flights, transfers, accommodation, meals and entertainment, departing May 16. (0845 678 0014, princess.com)
Royal Caribbean International: Navigator of the Seas
Patricia Thomas went on a cruise with her husband and parents from Barcelona – Cannes/Monte Carlo – Rome (Civitavecchia) – Florence (Livorno). The group paid £380 each for an inside cabin excluding flights.
We chose Navigator of the Seas as we had heard good reports about Royal Caribbean. The ship was impressive and lived up to expectations, with all the comforts and facilities you would expect on a ship of this size. As the cruise started in Barcelona there was a mix of international passengers.
In some cases the ship docked quite a few miles away from the main tourist attractions, so it was useful to book excursions, which made it easier to get to the popular sights.
The highlight was a visit to the Vatican in Rome, which was awesome. One of the few low points was the amount of time it took to get to Rome city centre and Florence from the docks.
I would definitely recommend Navigator of the Seas and the itinerary to friends. This five-day cruise in the Mediterranean is ideal for people who want a mini-cruise with interesting places to visit.
Sample package: A seven-night western Mediterranean flycruise costs from £908 per person, departing September 13, based on twin-share in an ocean view cabin. Price includes return flights to Rome, transfers, meals and entertainment on board, all cruise taxes and fees. Ports of call include Genoa, Nice, Barcelona, Majorca and Cagliari in Sardinia. (0845 165 8330, cruisingpower.com)
Norwegian Cruise Line: Norwegian Jade
Michelle Perrett went on her first cruise last summer – a two-night weekend break, travelling from Southampton to Le Havre and back on Norwegian Jade, staying in a stateroom cabin with a balcony.
A weekend cruise means passengers only have two days on the ship to enjoy themselves and many were in the pool and hot tubs before the cruise left Southampton. The average age of the passengers is much lower than on a normal cruise – from 20 upwards – so agents need to make that clear to their customers.
This was my first cruise experience so I didn’t know what to expect. I was concerned about how I would feel on board. But my concerns were unfounded as the ship was so large you couldn’t feel any motion and the service and quality of the surroundings made me feel at ease.
Norwegian Jade has 12 restaurants and dining rooms and 11 bars and lounges, which can cater for all passengers dining at the same time. This means no restricted dining times like some other cruiselines.
The highlight of the ship was the quality of the food on offer under its Freestyle concept. The Teppanyaki restaurant, which is an extra $25 a head, offers great food and a fantastic dining experience.
Norwegian Jade also has two swimming pools, hot tubs, a sports court, fitness centre and casino as well as the Bora Bora Health Spa, so there is plenty to keep passengers busy.
On the downside, if your customers are looking to enjoy some peace and quiet on a cruise then this ship might not be the right choice, as the late night bars can get quite lively. Another low point is that the ship is very busy and it can take a long time to disembark back at Southampton.
Sample package: NCL’s three-night Summer Getaway cruise departs on June 25 and costs from £299 per person, including meals and entertainment on board, taxes and fees. It is a return cruise from Southampton, visiting Le Havre and Guernsey. (0845 658 8010 or log in to NCL's travel agent website)
- More on cruise at travelweekly.co.uk/cruise
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