An APT small-ship cruise on Hebridean Sky around western Europe’s coast from London to Barcelona packs in two weeks of stunning variety, as Brian Johnston discovers. And check out some special offers at the end of the story.
For many, cruising in Europe is all about the Mediterranean, Baltic or Norwegian fjords. Turn to the continent’s Atlantic coastline, however, and you’ll discover plenty of history, culture and scenery around the shores of France, Spain and Portugal. APT’s 15-day Southern European Sojourn highlights its variety, combining small ports with big-name cities, the misty landscapes of Brittany with the sun-dazzled shores of Andalusia.
Hebridean Sky sets sail from Portsmouth as seagulls shriek. Mid-water fortified towers guard the famous British naval port. Our ship, decorated in wood, brass and black-and-white photos, has old-time charm. It carries just 118 passengers looking for an intimate, friendly atmosphere rather than glitzy amenities.
Next morning, the advantages of expedition-style cruising become apparent as we head by Zodiac into the Channel Islands’ tiny Saint Peter Port on Guernsey. That afternoon, we’re on the even smaller island of Sark, where the only transport is horse and cart, and cottages hide behind hydrangea bushes.
From the Channel Islands, you can almost see Saint-Malo on France’s Brittany coast. Only small ships can sail into this harbour. Hebridean Sky slips past watchtowers and battlements to anchor at the old town’s gates. A shore excursion takes us to Mont St-Michel, a fortified granite outcrop approached along a causeway that vanishes at high tide. The citadel appears to float in the bay like a picture in a fantasy novel. The Renaissance town is topped by a superb Gothic abbey from which sea views are spectacular.
Next day we plunge into the Bay of Biscay to the aptly named Belle-Île, or beautiful island. Zodiacs bring us ashore for a panoramic tour to the rock needles at Port-Coton, Grand Phare lighthouse and the dramatic scenery of Pointe des Poulains. Belle-Île has a wild, windswept beauty where sandy coves meet jagged rocks and blue-green waters.
Next destination Bordeaux is quite the contrast. This is one of France’s most beautiful cities, a stately collection of merchant mansions, Gothic chapels and tree-shaded squares around a graceful sweep of the Garonne River. Flower-bright promenades lead along the river past grand 18th-century facades that eventually dissolve into startling contemporary buildings.
The coach ride back to our docking point at Le Verdon-sur-Mer is a meander through the fabled vineyards of Margaux, Pauillac and Médoc, tidy with pegged vines surrounding chateaux and limestone villages.
There are complimentary French wines accompanying dinner as we sail that evening. Hebridean Sky’s main dining room (there’s also a more informal, outdoor dining venue) has an always interesting array of appetisers, salads and soups. Mains might include pan-seared fish with risi e bisi (rice and peas) and tomato salsa; oven-roasted duck breast with honey sauce and red cabbage; and a vegetarian option such as leek filo parcel with herb-roasted tomato concasse. There are frequent nods to regional cuisine: our taste of France will soon be a taste of Spain.
Bilbao, an industrial city changed forever by the stunning Guggenheim Museum, is our introductory teaser to Spain. Portugal begins at Leixões, where a full-day excursion takes us into the dramatic vineyard terraces of the Douro Valley for lunch with the owners of a wine estate, the sort of personal experience that makes small-ship cruising such a pleasure.
Next day, we sail into the Tagus River with the sun shining on Lisbon. The Portuguese capital boasts grand palaces, stately residential areas and elegant, tree-shaded boulevards. I’ve opted for a tour of the bohemian Alfama district. We push past street stalls and duck under washing to explore alleyways topped by a fortress whose terraces overlook the tumbling city. We sail out of Lisbon in the late evening. The sun has set but church domes remain outlined against a darkening sky. As we sail under Lisbon’s enormous bridge, lights twinkle like a chandelier above the deck.
Lisbon is magnificent, but Spain ups the cultural wow factor. Powerful Cádiz was the port of choice for early Spanish expeditions to the Americas. Its seaside promenades, landscaped with exotic trees and gardens, are the place to stretch the sea legs. Most passengers, though, opt for a day-long excursion to Seville, city of clip-clopping horse carriages, orange trees and shady alleys. The imperious cathedral is a monument to the great monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. Across the square, the Alcázar palace has exquisite Moorish arches and patios. The vast walled gardens are an oasis where roses and oleanders compete.
For a double whammy, Granada is another unforgettable spectacle. We approach the town from the port of Motril across a patchwork of ochre fields under clear blue skies: suddenly on a hilltop, backed by the snow-dusted peaks of the Sierra Nevada, rears the Alhambra. Built in the thirteenth century for the Moorish monarchs of Granada, this is the greatest triumph of Islamic architecture anywhere. The adjacent Generalife – summer palace of the sultans – is another masterpiece whose landscaped terraces of orange trees and perfumed roses provide unforgettable views of the pink-tinted walls of the Alhambra.
Onwards we sail along Spain’s Mediterranean coast, stopping at Cartagena, an important naval seaport since the 16th century with an impressive Roman amphitheatre, and at Valencia, a city that startles with its ultra-modern architecture. Outdoor tables at the Hebridean Sky’s Lido are in demand as the weather turns balmy. Before dinner, The Club is lively with chatter about each day’s experiences over wine or cocktails. Outside its big windows, the Mediterranean winks as we slide towards Barcelona, two weeks of memories tucked into our luggage.
HIGHS: The combination of small ports, big cities and out-of-the-way (though interesting) destinations showcases the benefits of small-ship cruising. The itinerary also has agreeable cultural and scenic variety. Guides and APT’s expedition staff are excellent.
LOWS: Hebridean Sky has an old-fashioned look and needs a refresh in places, though it gets a big thumbs-up for cabin size and its very friendly small-ship atmosphere.
BEST SUITED TO: Active and sociable 40-plus couples. There are no amenities specifically for children.
CRUISE LINE: APT
VESSEL: Hebridean Sky
Star Rating: 3.5
PASSENGER CAPACITY: 118
TOTAL CREW: 70
PASSENGER DECKS: 5
ENTERED SERVICE: 1991, renovated 2016
FACILITIES: Hot tub, library, dining room, outdoor dining area, lounge, bar, marine sports platform, promenade deck, Zodiacs.