Review by Fiona Duncan, published 21st February 2008.
Readers of my Hotel Guru column may have divined that the hotels I appreciate the most are timeless and gentle, still in their prime in terms of service, food and facilities, but mellowed by years of hospitality.
Such places are becoming as rare as a scandal-free episode of The Archers, but they do still exist. I'm in one now. After checking in at reception, I'm ushered to my room, glimpsing on the way an inviting drawing room with a baronial stone fireplace at one end.
In my commodious room, there is a wealth of polished wood, two prettily upholstered armchairs, a ticking clock, thick-pile carpet and gracious, floor-length curtains held by tassled tie-backs.
There's a large television, a DVD player and, neatly stowed behind a cupboard door, a cleverly designed drop-down ironing board-cum-trouser press, with iron. In the marble-trimmed bathroom, I find a deep bath, warm fluffy towels on the heated rail and piping hot, high-pressure water gushing from sensible taps.
I put away my clothes, books and toiletries with care, everything neatly arranged, partly because it's the sort of room that deserves to stay as smart as I found it, and partly because I am going to be living in it much longer than the average two-night stay in a country hotel. Straight away it becomes my home-from-home, with its own lilting name, Isle of Kerrera.
All the rooms in this hotel - 48 in total - are named after Scottish isles, glens or clans. Twelve of them have balconies but I don't mind in the least that mine doesn't. It still provides a wonderful view from its picture window.
And there lies the magic, the element that sets this hotel far, far apart: it moves, and the scenery - in my case not British but Mediterranean - changes every day.
During my stay my window frames a stream of memorable sights: Stromboli shooting fireworks from its crater into the night sky; Taormina perched dizzily on its ledge to the east, Mount Etna to the west; the exuberant façade of the Duomo in Siracusa, a moving fusion of styles dating back 2,500 years; the enchanting island of Panarea; and Valetta's great natural harbour. Here, as we glide past the forts of St Elmo and Ricasoli, we gather on deck to hear the events of the relief of Malta in 1942 and the great siege of 1565 vividly described by guest speaker Graham Archer, formerly the island's High Commissioner.
Yes, Hebridean Spirit is a ship, but it's as intimate a ship as you will find and one that thinks of itself as a country house hotel, a Scottish one. "Private escorted tours" is the nearest Hebridean comes to admitting it offers cruises (on the Hebridean Princess in Scottish and Norwegian waters, too). It's even a member of Pride of Britain, a consortium of traditional hotels that includes such stalwarts as the Goring in London and the Devonshire Arms in Yorkshire. It was the Hebridean Princess that the Queen chartered for her 80th birthday.
As far as cruising is concerned, Hebridean is royalty; so regal that cruise line is a term it prefers not to entertain. Fair enough, especially as these small and very elegant vessels can sail where other, larger cruise ships have no hope of venturing.
Of course there are differences, apart from the motion and the view, between a stay on the Spirit and a land-based hotel. For a start, in a hotel, however classy, you are not provided with a list of all the guests' names and their places of residence. Socialising among the post-retirement (but game) guests remains optional, but friendships are made and lasting romances have even been recorded. Most people circulate and chat in the welcoming Skye Lounge before dinner in the Argyll Room where there are tables for two as well as larger ones hosted by the captain and officers, at which guests travelling on their own are placed.
No one is neglected on trips ashore, either, especially by Marjorie, the excellent and warm-hearted tour manager, who becomes the friend and companion of many, as does the resident pianist (and bagpipe player) who also lends a hand.
Having unpacked, I wander to the Skye Lounge, filled with comfortable armchairs, for afternoon tea to the strains of the grand piano. While pastimes on board Hebridean Spirit are gentle - Scrabble or jigsaw puzzles in the library, turns around the promenade deck, hair and beauty appointments in the tranquil health spa, an evening film - there's no shortage of fun.
Guests might find themselves Scottish dancing in the moonlight, teaming up for a quiz night (protest cards provided) and (don't ask) frog racing. At gala nights the haggis is piped in to the dining room and properly addressed. As for excursions ashore, there are often surprises in store, such as specially arranged visits to private palazzi.
My final day on board brings just such an unscheduled surprise. "We've added an excursion… who would like to go up Mount Etna?" asks Marjorie. A few hours later, a couple of dozen of us are in bouncing four-wheel-drive vehicles (stiff upper lips all round) on the vertiginous final 40-minute ascent through an ethereal black and white landscape of lava and snow, to the summit of Europe's highest volcano. Cracked open and spewing steam, its sides tinted pale green by sulphur, the volcano's cone resembles, we all agree, nothing so much as a delicious Sicilian pistachio and almond pastry, oozing frothy cream.
As with most hotels offering five-star service and deeply relaxing comforts, a stay on the Hebridean Spirit is far from inexpensive. The price, though, includes everything: private charter flight to the start of the cruise and back to Stansted, and food, drink, entertainment and excursions.
Hebridean operates a strict no tipping policy resulting in a crew who are friendly and helpful but never obsequious, and the staff to guest ratio is almost one to one. Officers are mostly British, with a strong dash of Scots, while the waiters and chambermaids are from Eastern Europe (no change from a British hotel there).
As for the food, it would put many a luxury hotel to shame. Like the ship's conservative interior decoration, the menu sticks to old favourites and traditional dishes, with such stalwarts as eggs Benedict, black pudding and bacon, cock-a-leekie soup, Scottish salmon and baked Alaska all making appearances.
It's true that a holiday with Hebridean is expensive; exclusive even, but that's what transforms a cruise ship into a country house hotel, and one where 70 per cent of the passengers are return visitors. We have been very well looked after, made friends and learned a great deal on a trip that has taken us from Carthage to Sicily. And yet, despite all those exotic sights from my window, it feels as if I never left my own shores.
The next Carthage to Sicily cruise aboard the Hebridean Spirit is scheduled for June 2008; specific dates and prices are not yet available. For further information, contact Hebridean International Cruises (01756 704704; www.hebridean.co.uk). A seven-night cruise on the Hebridean Spirit costs from £2,975 per person.