Hebridean Island Cruises Launches River Programme for 2012

September 1, 2011
(12:45 p.m. EDT) -- Hebridean Island Cruises is about to take the plunge into river cruising -- and at prices that befit its standing as a luxury boutique line.

The company, which made the announcement today at a London press conference, currently operates one tiny ocean-going ship, the 50-passenger Hebridean Princess. To fuel its river initiative, it has chartered the Dutch-owned river boat Royal Crown to sail four voyages in 2012 (two on the Rhine in spring and two on the Danube in autumn).

The 79-passenger Royal Crown, which features a 1930's art deco style, was built in 1996 and refitted in 2010. Although the ship is described by Hebridean and the various other lines that sell it as ‘five star plus,' only the top suite has picture windows; the regular cabins have portholes – a far cry from the French balconies and hotel-style suites we're seeing on the new river cruisers that have launched this year.

So what's Hebridean's big selling point? It's that Hebridean club-like ambience, which includes an open bar, fine wines, gourmet food, guest speakers, excursions and no extras (all tips and taxes are part of the fare). In addition, crewmembers -- including cruise directors, pursers and musicians, all of whom have loyal followings -- will be brought from Hebridean Princess to look after guests, and with 42 of them caring for just 79 passengers, service should be as good as it is on Princess. That ship, it should be noted, is a favourite of Queen Elizabeth II, who charters it for her personal holidays.

What's interesting about Royal Crown, though, is that other British operators already work with this ship and sell it at considerably lower prices than those Hebridean has announced.

Web-based eWaterways sells one week, cruise-only, on Royal Crown from £928.32 per person, while Noble Caledonia has chartered the ship for one cruise and is selling 10 nights on the Danube from £1,695. Hebridean's price? A week starts at £2,995. Admittedly, what's included is different; the Noble Caledonia price includes air travel and house wine with dinner onboard, while excursions are extra.

But even when the fare covers absolutely everything -- including an open bar and all tours -- Hebridean's tariff seems like a big difference.

--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor