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Hebridean Princess

The Best Small Ship Cruise Lines for British Isles Cruises

Hebridean Princess
Roxanne Wells
Kerry Spencer

Last updated
Mar 21, 2024

Read time
6 min read

Small-ship cruising is a fantastic way of getting into the British Isles' difficult-to-reach places, while also visiting small islands and larger ports such as Belfast and Edinburgh.

How small is a small ship? Usually, cruise ships carrying anything up to 1,000 passengers are classed as small ships, though they mostly tend to carry well under 500 passengers and often also fall into the luxury category.

While you inevitably forgo whizzbang facilities on small ships, there are numerous benefits. With a couple of hundred or fewer passengers onboard, as opposed to thousands, it's much easier to get to know your fellow cruisers and there's more of a community feel onboard.

Similarly, food quality is often superior as crew are catering for far fewer passengers. Plus, while the megaships are all about flashy facilities, small ships are all about personal service, enrichment lectures and the destination.

From boutique cruising with Saga Cruises' upmarket ships to a favourite of Queen Elizabeth II, Hebridean Island Cruises, here are some of the best small ship cruises to plump for.

Hebridean Island Cruises is the Best Small Ship Line for Exploring Scotland

A plush cabin on Hebridean Princess (Photo: Hebridean Cruises0

The Scotland-based Hebridean Cruise Line has two ships, Hebridean Princess and Lord of the Highlands, carrying 50 and 38 passengers, respectively. Both ships have the feel of a quaint country house hotel that you might find nestled in the Highlands, cosy, welcoming and twee.

Given the small capacity, passengers can get to know each other and the crew very quickly. Suffice to say, there is no swimming pool or a casino onboard, though both ships offer fine dining in an elegant restaurant, with gala dinners and cocktail receptions. There are also outdoor barbecues and exquisite picnics.

The line sails the Scottish Highlands and islands, calling in at the Inner and Outer Hebrides, which offer incredibly diverse scenery from white sand beaches to volcanic landscapes; and the islands of the Clyde, where medieval castles, grand mansions and ancient ruins await exploration. Hebridean offers cruises from four to nine nights, and is the perfect choice for active adventurers who want to discover the lesser-travelled gems that Scotland has to offer — in complete luxury.

On Hebridean Princess, of the 30 cabins, 10 are for solo cruisers — an unusually high proportion. Hebridean offers an all-inclusive experience with ultra-personal service, including expert guides to enrich each port stop and excursion.

Noble Caledonia is the Best Small Ship Line for Adventurous Itineraries

Hebridean Sky (Photo: Noble Caledonia)

Similarly to Hebridean, Noble Caledonia is a small-ship operator with a focus on visiting a mixture of Scottish and the wider British Isles' lesser-trodden locales. There are two ships, the elegant 118-passenger MS Island Sky and MS Hebridean Sky.

The line's itineraries are adventurous and enriching, and often involve themes, such as the "Birds of the Scottish Isles" and the "Iconic Gardens, Birdlife & History of Britain & Ireland" voyages.

The 10-night "Britain & Ireland Odyssey" from Portsmouth to Aberdeen is a thrilling voyage aboard the line's all-suite, MS Hebridean Sky. Leaving Portsmouth, the ship visits Guernsey in the Channel Islands, but moving onto the Isles of Scilly, before sailing to Mizen Head, the most southern point on mainland Ireland; Skellig Islands and Donegal, also in Ireland. The route then takes in remote destinations in Scotland, such as the island of Iona and St Kilda, before ending in Aberdeen.

Onboard, passengers can relax on the Lido Deck, at the Library or Hair Salon. There's a plush Lounge and a viewing platform on the top deck, at the front of the ship from where passengers can drink views of lochs, mountains and the windswept Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland.

Silversea is the Best Small Ship Line For a Luxury Experience

Several new suites will be added to Silver Endeavour during a drydock (Rendering: Aaron Saunders)

If you want to splash your cash, Silversea is hard to beat. It's not a British line, but it does offer seasonal British Isles' cruises during spring and summer.

The line's Northern Europe and British Isles programme features several port-intensive voyages on the sensational expedition ship Silver Endeavour, plus further itineraries on Silver Dawn and Silver Spirit.

The 220-passenger, 207-crew Silver Endeavour, launched in November 2022, is a true show-stopper, with spacious all-suite accommodation that starts from 1,873 square feet. There are four restaurants; the Arts Café; Explorer Lounge; Connoisseurs Corner and the Otium Spa, plus a gorgeous pool deck and sweeping Observation Lounge.

Silversea includes all dining (except for La Dame), drinks, excursions, Wi-Fi and gratuities within the cost of the cruise fare. The line's British Isles cruises range from an Edinburgh to Portsmouth voyage to a London Greenwich to Edinburgh route — the latter mooring next to Greenwich's iconic Cutty Sark.

Silversea also offers a round-Britain sailing from Southampton to Southampton on Silver Dawn and Silver Spirit.

Saga Cruises' Two Ships Are the Best Small Cruise Ships for Adults Only

Saga Cruises' new ship, Spirit of Discovery, at the shipyard. (Photo: Saga Cruises)

Saga has a two ships, the 999-passenger Spirit of Discovery and Spirit of Adventure, catering exclusively to an over-50s crowd — so there are no children onboard at any time of year. The ships are beautifully designed and feel more like luxury than mainstream vessels, with all-balcony, marble-clad accommodation.

Inclusions are high — including all speciality restaurants, tips, WiFi, drinks and shoreside transfers — and dining is superb, especially at pan-Asia eaterie East to West. We also love the ship's resort-style pool deck, with an Art Deco style pool and plush loungers.

Saga offers a number of cruises from Dover and Portsmouth, including itineraries that visit the beautiful Isles of Scilly. The itinerary includes a visit to Scilly's verdant Tresco Abbey Gardens, plus other calls to Belfast and Falmouth.

The Majestic Line is the Best for an Ultra Small-Ship Experience

Glen Massan (Photo: The Majestic Line)

The five-ship Majestic Line focuses on Scotland's magnificent west coast, with most sailings departing from Oban to the Outer and Inner Hebrides. The line's small ships includes Glen Massan and Glen Tarsan, accommodating up to 11 guests; Glen Etive and Glen Shiel, accommodating up to 12 and the ultra-small Glen Rosa accommodates up to six.

Sailings take place between April to October, making the most of Scotland's long summer days and many migratory birds that enjoy the region's silky shores and rugged cliffs. Destinations include St Kilda, the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness, plus the northwest and northern coastlines of Scotland on to the beautiful Orkney Islands.    

As Cruise Critic member, CJBRJB, points out, one advantage of sailing on a small ship, such as Majestic Line's Glen Tarsan, is the flexibility the captain has to tweak the ship's precise route, depending on weather and passenger preferences.

"The itinerary is very relaxed and Mark our Captain did consult us on where we might like to travel to within the confines of the cruise area. We were lucky to only be a group of 8 passengers and we all got on really well.

"We visited Jura, Islay and Gigha and some of the sea lochs and smaller islands. I had no expectation of Gigha but it was delightful with a beautiful beach, some lovely gardens, a pub, shop & church. We were able to visit a couple of distilleries on Islay but the Jura distillery was closed as we visited on a weekend.

"We were also lucky enough to see White Tailed Eagles & Osprey on our last day, thanks to our steward Cam knowing where to find them. We also spotted jelly fish and seals."

Publish date January 08, 2020
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