Sailing the small ships, Scottish style

The MS Hebridean Spirit cruises include all tours and activities. The Spirit is a self-contained "house party," sailing to adventurous ports. Images courtesy of Hebridean-The Small Cruise Ship Company

Cochin, India- The 49-stateroom MS Hebridean Spirit, imbued with a nautical spirit of adventure unsurpassed for serious sea goers, sails into ports where nary a behemoth cruise ship like the Queen Mary would venture.

Mike Deagan, director of this “spirited” cruise line, which operates another small ship, the Hebridean Princess, says about 60 percent of their passengers are repeat clients. The reason, he explains, is that all onboard feel as though they “are a guest of the house party the moment they embark.” And this self-contained house party is making waves in the cruise world.

Designing itineraries that challenge the largest cruise ships afloat, the Hebridean is a pint-size Goliath. For instance, there is the Barbary Coast to Tripoli route, on which this intrepid ship, proudly flying the Union Jack, visits Leptis Magna, a Roman archaeological site rarely visited by tourists during the last 35 years because it happens to be in modern-day Libya.

The itineraries for the 2004/2005 season are remarkable considering world events in geographical hotspots around the world. Intrepid and adventurous, Hebridean has passengers transferring to hodi’s (small wooden boats) and tenders in order to explore fortresses that the big ships often cruise right by. Our shipmates, mostly British and many past retirement age, braved it all, undaunted by landings such as one at the “impregnable Janjira fortress,” guarding the entrance to Murad, in India. As we landed at this once proud bastion, now in a state of arrested decay, tales of the British Raj came to life.

As our cruise, evocatively titled “Return of the Dhows,” neared the port of Muscat, in Oman (one of the United Arab Emirates), the scene was exquisite, with mountains plunging into the Arabian Sea. The port was immaculate as was this legendary city, considered one of the cleanest in the world, second only to Singapore. Ruled by a savvy Sultan, who assumed power in 1970, Oman is a delight to the eye with fanciful roundabouts designed to move traffic-one park-like roundabout commemorates Oman’s ornate brass coffee servers.

Back on board, after full days of exploring UNESCO World Heritage sites such as Indo-Portuguese sites in old Goa, India, passengers can relax in the ship’s spa. Serious spa goers will find the two spacious suites on the Promenade Deck a perfect solution to blending a personalized spa retreat with luxury accommodations. That’s because the Spirit’s Spa, operated by Espa, Britain’s leading spa expert, has a full service sanctuary next door. While there is but one treatment room, a small gym, relaxation salon, beauty salon and private deck, there are more than 55 services on the “spa menu,” from a holistic aromatherapy back, face and scalp treatment with hot stone therapy to specially designed treatments for men such as an aromatherapy face treatment using Espa products. Afternoon tea is served daily and I was invited to present a lecture, “Tea With the Spa Diva” during the two-day crossing between Mumbai and Muscat. Lectures are broadcast into each stateroom, on closed circuit television.

Staterooms aboard the MS Hebridean Princess are all outside and spacious, with large windows or portholes. Each is named for a Scottish clan, glen or isle, such as Isle of Hellisay, Glen Kinglass or Clan Campbell. A physician accompanies all cruises, and travels with passengers on excursions as well. A visit to the ship’s physician for most problems is covered, as are gratuities to the ship’s staff. Even better, the world-class wine list is also included in the cost of the cruise, as is the bar menu featuring popular cocktails such as Singapore Slings.

The Hebridean prides itself on including all tours and activities, which is not the case on the a la carte tours on most mega cruises. Imagine a seafood barbecue on Tarkhali beach, in India – our group was brought to a magnificent red and orange tent, with banners swaying in the breeze, set with tables draped in white and chairs tied back with glittering ribbons. Fresh lobsters, too many to count, were grilled by the chef. Guests gradually slipped away to the fine sandy beach, which was part of a government-operated tourist resort and maintained impeccably. The buffet was a feast of Indian specialties from curries to tropical fruit tarts.

The Indian Ocean Island Tapestry cruise, sailing from Port Victoria in the Seychelles to Columbo, Sri Lanka (scheduled for Feb. 24 to March 10, 2005) is another stellar itinerary from the Hebridean Spirit’s 2004/05-cruise roster.

Visiting atolls in the Maldives and stunning beaches and virgin forests in the Seychelles, this cruise is perfect for those who are ready for a smaller cruise ports of call that are quite happily off the map.

Contact information: 800.659 2648; fax 44.1756.704.794.

The Return of the Dhows, Cruise No. 80, starts at approximately $11,000 per person, double occupancy. Other cruises on the Hebridean Princess and Spirit range from five to 17 days and are priced starting at $4,797. Rates dependent on current exchange rate. The Web site often offers lower fares. Check out nonstop flights between Los Angeles and London. 800.AIRWAYS; 800.247.9297.

Ask about the “flatbeds” in First Class service. The ultimate “sleep statement” in air travel-you are literally sleeping in the clouds, with first class comforts. This includes your right to “raid the larder” during the flight, for treats from Cadbury chocolates to fresh fruit.

Pamela Price is the co-author of “100 Best Spas of the World,” published by the Globe Pequot Press,