Old-time charm through Europe on cruise ship Hebridean Sky

There's a lot to like about Hebridean Sky, with its classic navy-blue hull and jaunty white superstructure. The interior is big on wood panelling, brass railings and teak decking that providing a pleasingly old-fashioned, nautical air that is complemented by its artwork, which features framed maps, drawings of polar wildlife and black-and-white expedition photography that makes you glad you weren't a sailor in the early twentieth century. Decks are named for explorers such as Scott and Shackleton, and Zodiacs are stacked on the upper deck for use in small ports and remote cruises.

In short, in a cruise industry increasingly focusing on ever newer and bigger ships, Hebridean Sky has old-time charm. This isn't a ship for those looking for the latest in style, but its passengers derive a rather smug satisfaction from docking beside big-name ships, which look boated and impersonal in comparison.

The ship, launched in 1992 as Sea Explorer, has complicated ownership arrangements, but the brief version is that in 2014 the ship was acquired by APT and partner UK-based cruise operator Noble Caledonia. APT charters the ship for specific cruises and has its own expedition team on board. In 2016, Hebridean Sky had a $10-million refit, in large to cushion engine noise and vibration, enhance stabilisation, and improve fuel efficiency and communications. All those are very welcome on a small ship that often tackles rough seas, but the vessel is elsewhere showing its age: tired furnishings in places, poor lighting (particularly in cabins), and haphazard upgrades that have produced an inconsistent décor.

One of Hebridean Sky's great pluses is the size of its cabins. I could take up the tango in my premium suite (number 424), which has enough space for a three-seater sofa, an armchair, a dresser and a TV cabinet. The bed is backed by a wall of mirrored panels which makes the cabin look even larger. There's also a (just about) walk-in wardrobe and 20-odd drawers that make we wish I possessed an aristocrat's luggage. The en-suite is a decent size too, more contemporary in style than the cabin, with a gushing shower. Even the bath towels are enormous.

There's no doubt that Hebridean Sky's greatest asset is its friendly atmosphere. APT expedition leader Emma is endlessly cheerful in a way that seems natural, not forced. Many crew members are chatty and helpful, offering cold drinks and wet towels on re-boarding and remembering passenger names. Lecturer Michael Schuster gives interesting talks with quirky angles, and mingles with guests both on the ship and during shore excursions.

Waiters in the main dining venue too are very attentive, and canny enough to know which passengers enjoy a chat and which prefer just to be served their meal. Virgo and Jerry in particular do an outstanding job of keeping an eye on guests and remembering individual preferences in breakfast egg choices, teas and dinner wines.

The main restaurant provides a small buffet breakfast complemented by hot dishes ordered from the kitchen: the omelettes and eggs benedict are excellent, as is the bread. Lunch and dinner are à la carte, offering a choice of always very fresh salads, interesting soups (cream of red capsicum; hot-and-sour chicken; pear and roast pumpkin) and three main dishes, followed by desserts. Mains might include pan-seared fillet of rainbow trout in beurre blanc; beef stroganoff with wild rice garnished with gherkin, beetroot and sour cream; and a vegetarian option such as grilled polenta with roasted vegetables, feta cheese and nuts.

Some meals are themed to reflect the destination – France, Portugal and Spain on my cruise – and I'm pleased that there's also a Filipino night in acknowledgement of the largely Filipino crew. Complementary wines, a mix of both European and New World, are mostly impressive, and waiters go out of their way to pour your favourite Shiraz or Chardonnay, even if it isn't the table bottle of the day.

The restaurant has open seating, with a few tables for two but most shared, attractively presented with gleaming glasses and white tablecloths. With a maximum 118 passengers, you get to know your travel companions in short time, and there's a distinct sense of camaraderie that develops over the course of the journey. Ambiance is hard to achieve on a cruise ship, but Hebridean Sky excels on this intangible level. No surprise, then, that a significant number of passengers are repeat APT customers.

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Small ships, of course, have no room for shows, nightclubs and group activities. Hebridean Sky manages only to squeeze in a small hairdresser/massage area and, in lieu of a gym, a 170-metre promenade circuit around the deck. Passengers, almost entirely Australian, are generally on the youngish side of retired, amiable and adventurous, and looking more for a warm atmosphere than glitz and glamour.

There are several places for a good chinwag. Alternative dining venue The Lido, entirely outdoors, has round tables for six or eight and is especially convivial over lunchtime buffets. Deck Four's lounge-bar, simply called The Club, has big windows to provide a sunny outlook to the sea and passing scenery when entering ports. It's lively both before and after dinner, when passengers slump on scattered armchairs for gossip and tea, or prop up the small bar (drinks are inclusive) as the piano tinkles. Occasionally, parties and cocktail get-togethers are held in The Lounge below, though its rigid arrangement of chairs makes moving around difficult. The chatter subsides early: night owls are a rare species on this ship.

There are a couple of quiet spots on the ship as well. The light-flooded library has two computer stations, comfortable armchairs and shelves full of useful reference books and puzzles, and is always peaceful. If you look hard enough, you'll find a diminutive sunbathing area on Deck Five, seldom frequented. The outside deck at the rear of the ship is another pleasingly tranquil spot, mostly in the shade and providing a good vantage point over the ship's wake. Sit here with a cold beer and squint at the dwindling horizon or an approaching coastline, and you'll know the lazy satisfaction that comes from small-ship cruising.

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Hebridean Sky sails a   13-day Iceland and Faroe Islands exploration in 2019, departing 16 June, from $15,495 per person, twin share.The writer travelled on a 15-day "Southern European Sojourn" itinerary between London and Barcelona. Phone 1300 196 420; see aptouring.com.au

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of APT.

WHY SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL Cruise on a small ship and you won't get the range of dining choices, bars, entertainment and on-board activities available on larger vessels. But small-ship cruising does offer considerable advantages and compensations. Here's how.

TRANQUILLITY If you're put off by a cruise vision of mega-ships carrying 6000 passengers jostling at the buffet, hogging deck chairs and hollering in corridors, then take heart. Small ships carry a few hundred passengers at most and are often quiet but friendly.

BOUTIQUE EXPERIENCE If large ships are akin to beachside resorts, then small ships resemble boutique hotels. They have more character, even occasional quirkiness. You get to know like-minded people quickly, with resulting ship-wide camaraderie.

SMALL PORTS Small ships don't avoid mainstream destinations, but they can also visit small ports inaccessible to big ships, or even tender passengers ashore in remote destinations. Itineraries often differ year on year, unlike the fixed, generic routes of big ships.

ACTIVE OPPORTUNITIES Small-ship cruising is booming because cruise passengers are getting younger and more adventurous, and demanding active alternatives to the slow-shoe shuffle of standard tours. Active shore-excursion options are the norm.

MORE TIME ASHORE The lack of varied amenities on board places the focus firmly on the destinations visited. Ships often linger in port all day and sometimes into the evening. Zodiac excursions immerse you in the environment.

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