Snacking aside, Hebridean Sky has just two places to eat, the Restaurant and the Lido. Both are open seating. There are no speciality restaurants with an extra charge. On Noble Caledonia's cruises, food is aimed at the British palate, mixing classic comfort food such as roast lamb, fish and chips, trifle, steamed puddings and custard with more international dishes. There's a decent fry up at breakfast, including sausages, English-style bacon, baked beans and eggs to order, and a good choice of buffet or sit-down for lunch, depending on which restaurant you choose. Some dinners are themed (Italian and, to reflect the culture of the crew, Filipino on our cruise) and there's always a wide choice. We were especially impressed with the amount of fresh fish served on our cruise in Sicily; the chefs were in the local markets most days scouting out that night's meal.
Menus for lunch and dinner are posted at reception each day. We indicated in advance that we had special dining requests (one vegetarian, one dairy free) and were invited to meet the chef and maitre d' on the first day to go over these in detail.
Service is excellent -- swift and friendly, with efficient speed at seating everybody and no queues at all for either venue. Staff remember passengers' names with astonishing efficiency. Tables are often hosted, usually by the tour managers and cruise director than the captain, so there's a good chance that most passengers will find an invitation sitting on their bed at some point during their cruise.
The Dining Room (Amundsen Deck): The ship's main dining room is open for buffet breakfast (7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.), lunch (noon to 1:30 p.m.) and dinner (7:30 p.m. to 9p.m.). Times may vary according to the tour programme for the day.
Situated aft on Deck 1, the dining room is bright and elegant, with lovely art deco touches in the decor. Most tables seat six, although there are four eights, four seating four passengers and five for twosomes. The idea, though, is to join bigger tables at mealtimes and socialise.
Breakfast is a buffet with waiter service for hot dishes. Typical items include eggs Benedict, omelettes made to order, scrambled, fried or poached eggs and a full English fry-up: bacon, sausages, baked beans, mushrooms, tomatoes and hash browns. There's a wide array of pastries, a selection of fruits and four or five juices, although it's a slight disappointment that the orange juice is not freshly squeezed.
Lunch is a choice of a starter, soup or salad; three mains; a sandwich of the day and an always-available menu of beef, chicken or veggie burger with fries and garnishes. Typical starters include smoked mackerel and potato salad; cream of red bell pepper soup; Caesar salad; or Greek salad. Mains varied from pan-seared fillet of hoki in a lemon butter sauce; chicken Madras with poppadums; Moroccan couscous with roasted red peppers; and on Sunday, fish and chips with mushy peas, or roast beef with all the trimmings. Desserts are really traditional; steamed puddings with custard, jelly and ice cream, a cheese board and some local dishes; on our Italy cruise, ricotta-filled cannoli, a Sicilian speciality, were a big hit.
At dinner, the menu is exactly the same as the Lido, with three starters, one of which is a salad; two soups, one of which is vegetarian; three main courses, again, one of which is veggie; two desserts, a fruit platter or a selection of cheeses. There's a healthy option and an always-available selection of chicken breast, salmon or rib-eye steak with steamed vegetables. Starters on our cruise included millefeuille of marinated vegetables with mozzarella; Cobb salad; cream of broccoli soup; or chicken consomme with a thyme dumpling. Mains were generally really imaginative and unexpected; fillet of wild boar in a Merlot sauce, pheasant wrapped in bacon; and a wonderful spinach and mushroom fricassee. Top marks to Noble's chefs for the 'Fresh catch of the day', which varied from pan-seared sea bass, fresh from the market, to monkfish with a shrimp risotto, a rich octopus stew and sea bream with a tomato, almond and caper relish.
Occasionally, theme nights are planned; our cruise included an Italian night, with things like Caprese salad and tiramisu on the menu, and a Filipino night which included variations on spring rolls, oriental-style pork in a sticky bun and beef, Tagalog-style. After the dinner, the crew sang Filipino songs in both restaurants.
Complimentary wine is served with lunch and dinner. There's a choice of 10 wines, and although each day there's a recommended red and white, passengers who want something different from the list are catered for. Wines are a mixture of New World and European (we tried wines from Italy, Spain, Argentina, Chile, France and South Africa) and again, some local vintages are sourced wherever possible. The wine steward found out how much I liked dry rose and several bottles of a local Sicilian wine suddenly appeared on the always-available menu.
There's a specialty wine list, varying from £16 for a Chilean Merlot and £20 for a Muscadet to £98 for a Margaux and £120 for a Baron Philip Rothschild Almaviva. The reality, though, is that barely anybody bothers with this as the daily selection is so good.
The Lounge (Byrd Deck): Hot and cold canapes, including tiny blinis, spring rolls and satay chicken, are served in the Lounge before the cruise director's daily briefing, which is usually around 7 p.m..
The Club (Mawson Deck): In the Club, there are two cookie jars and a fruit bowl, as well as always-available teas and a coffee machine that produced a decent cappuccino. Afternoon tea is laid out daily from 4p.m. to 4:45 p.m. (depending on when the tours return), comprising three different types of sandwiches, three cakes, cookies and a proper cream tea, with warm scones, jam and a mound of real clotted cream. In the evenings, warm toasted peanuts are offered at cocktail hour.
The Lido (Scott Deck): An outdoor alternative to the restaurant, the Lido serves the same hot dishes for breakfast and dinner but offers lunch as a buffet. All tables here seat six or eight. Some are under a fixed canopy while others are protected from the sun by big, blue umbrellas. Fleecy blankets are provided for colder days. At lunchtime, it can be difficult to get a table in the shade and on warm evenings, there's a sprint up here from the cruise director's briefing to bag a table with a prime view. On polar cruises, the Lido is rarely used as it's too cold.
Breakfast includes a big display of pastries, as well as a buffet of cereals, cold cuts and cheese, fruits and yoghurts. Eggs are cooked to order, scrambled included, with bacon, baked beans, sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes and hash browns available from a buffet. Waiters circulate with tea and coffee but cappuccinos and espressos are only available in the Club.
Lunch includes some of the same hot dishes as the Dining Room menu but a much bigger salad bar and some wonderful local specialities; on one day, we were treated to a beautiful display of grilled Mediterranean vegetables and a giant platter of oysters, which, unsurprisingly, went down very fast.
Meals ashore: Full day excursions include lunches ashore, which were excellent. A beautiful winery in Sicily served Prosecco as an aperitif, followed by wonderful Sicilian snacks (chickpea fritters, omelette, olives, prosciutto, cheese, ricotta and bread/tomato), and a main of tomato and aubergine pasta, served with delicious whites and reds from their own vineyard. Dessert was a custard and grape tart with a sparking rose. On another night, a concert in a local palazzo was preceded by early dinner onboard and finished off with canapes, wine and Aperol spritz.
Room Service: There is no room service menu on Noble Caledonia charters; the ship is not geared up for cabin service in terms of storage areas or crewing. Having said that, if a person is seasick or generally unwell, the crew will happily bring plain food to their cabin.