Coming to America (Sort of): Luxe and Leisurely Hebridean Island Cruises

February 16, 2011

(1 p.m. EST) -- Travelers looking for something a little less epic and little more refined, take note: Hebridean Island Cruises has come to the U.S.

Well, not the ship. Fifty-passenger Hebridean Princess will continue to sail its signature cruises to the Western Isles of Scotland, the Orkney and Shetland islands, and Northern Ireland, as well as new-for-2011 destinations like Scotland's Northern Isles and Ireland.

But the line -- which is a sister to Swan Hellenic and Voyages of Discovery, owned by All Discovery Cruising -- has begun marketing to U.S. travelers with a new Web site, prices in U.S. dollars and a Fort Lauderdale office. "We look forward to welcoming our U.S. and Canadian guests aboard the Hebridean Princess and reaching a similar level of recognition as she received in Europe over the years," said Steve Novello, All Discovery's North American president, in a statement.

Because Hebridean -- which describes itself as a "5-star, all-inclusive cruise experience that is remarkably exquisite" -- has catered mostly to British cruise travelers until now, many Americans may not be familiar with the line. Here's a quick primer on Hebridean Princess:

It sports an elegant, British-country feel and caters to solo travelers with its social nature and 10 single cabins.

All meals (even onshore picnics), drinks (including select wines and spirits), gratuities, tours and active pursuits (bikes and fishing equipment) are included in the cruise fare.

Service is said to be outstanding, given the 37 crewmembers for just 50 passengers.

It's got a loyal following with an 80 percent rebooking rate, and you're likely to find lords and ladies and the creme de la creme of British society onboard. Case in point: This is the cruise ship Queen Elizabeth chartered for a birthday sailing.

So who should consider trying out this low-key gem of a cruise line?

Certainly, it's great for luxury travelers looking to upgrade to an intimate, inclusive ship that's more floating manor house than Vegas at sea. Anyone looking for a quirkier style of luxury that's very British, with a focus on good conversation and scenery-gawking, will likely enjoy these sailings, and you might get as much of a cultural education onboard as you'll get ashore. Well-traveled sailors looking for off-the-beaten-path destinations will be thrilled with the unique four- to 10-night itineraries.

Of course, there's the matter of money. But, if you've already got a hefty vacation budget, the prices aren't so bad compared with other luxury lines. Shoulder-season fares in the lowest double-occupancy categories start at less than $400 a night, per person, though entry-level fares do climb to nearly $1,000 a night for summer sailings ($2,000 for the poshest suite).

Our advice: Look for sales on remaining cabins for close-in sailings on the line's Special Offers page. However, you're on your own for flights.

Interested? Take a look at this first-person account of a Hebridean cruise by Cruise Critic contributor Ben Lyons.

--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor