By Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor
In 2010, the British-owned tour operator Noble Caledonia acquired Island Sky after using it for a series of long-term charters and spent several million pounds doing it up. Now, it roams the world, spending winters in the southern hemisphere and exploring Europe in summer, from the Black Sea to the far north of the Arctic.
The 114-passenger ship was originally built for Renaissance Cruises, launched in 1991 as Renaissance Eight. Its sleek profile will be familiar to anybody who has cruised on the old Hebridean Spirit (shortly to join Island Sky's owner, Noble Caledonia, as Caledonian Sky), Corinthian II or Orion Expedition Cruises' new Orion II, all part of the original series.
The ship is stunning, filled with Art Deco touches and great swaths of polished walnut and cherry wood panelling. The overall feeling is of a smart mega-yacht, as it's so small with elegantly appointed public areas.
A very specific type of passenger is attracted to this vessel and to Noble Caledonia. These people see a cruise as an escorted tour, rather than a cruise. In other words, they might be just as likely to book a land tour as a sea cruise; the ship, despite its comforts, is simply a means of getting there. Many passengers on my southern Mediterranean cruise had also tried Noble Caledonia's river cruises. The conversation onboard, therefore, is about broader travel experiences, rather than cruising specifically.
Lifestyle onboard is very casual, with no dressing for dinner required, apart from the Captain's farewell, when ladies wear cocktail dresses and men wear jackets and ties, or jackets and smart shirts.
What really stands out on this ship is the service. The crewmembers are almost all Filipino, while the officers are Scandinavian, German, Canadian, South African and British. Everybody knew me by name on the day I boarded, and I often saw the bartenders bringing passengers their favourite drinks without being asked. When I lost the back from one of my earrings, my cabin stewardess knocked at the door with a replacement. The maitre d', always discreet and always professional, did a spectacular job matching people up with suitable tablemates at dinner. A Q&A was held on one of the sea days when passengers could fire any question they wanted at the captain and hotel staff, who seemed happy to provide frank and honest answers.
Island Sky Fellow Passengers
Fellow passengers are almost all Brits (apart from a handful of Australians) and almost all 60 or older. They're well-travelled and well-informed, mostly retired professionals with a keen interest in culture. There were a few single ladies on my cruise, as well as a couple of younger women who were accompanying their mothers. Friendship groups formed quickly, as they do when you're on tour all day and dining together at every meal. Almost everybody I spoke with had sailed or travelled with Noble Caledonia before, and without exception, people considered Island Sky as big a ship as they would enjoy. A few had sailed with Viking River Cruises, Star Clippers, Spirit of Adventure and on Noble Caledonia's other trips, while others alternated Island Sky cruises and land-based tours. There was a great sense of fun and camaraderie, and on some nights, the dancing in The Club went on late.
Island Sky Dress Code
The dress code is completely relaxed. Smart-casual day and night is the norm, apart from the Captain's Welcome and Captain's Farewell, when people dressed up a bit more. Good walking shoes are essential, as the included shore excursions are pretty intense and long. (Some people brought walking poles, too.)
Island Sky Gratuity
Onboard currency is the pound sterling. Gratuities are included in the cruise price, and nothing is added to drinks or beauty treatments. Many people, though, said they were going to tip the crew extra, as the service was so good.