Britannia rules: UK cruises on your doorstep

Date Posted: 03/12/2014

Jeannine Williamson discovers a world of cruising on her doorstep.

With its lopsided eyes made from tissues and a saggy looking ‘shell’, it’s fair to say my crab didn’t resemble the one in the photograph and would probably only be loved by its maker. For my first effort at towel art I’d flicked through the book to find a creature that only required one large bath sheet rather than a complicated mix of large and medium towels or the added intricacy of flannels.

Cruises, to the uninitiated, conjure up images of days at sea interspersed by ports of call with not much to do in between. The converted know this is far from the case, with an array of onboard experiences available from early morning to late at night.

If you want to dip the proverbial toe into the water to see if cruising is for your group, prefer not to fly to a destination to set sail or simply want to enjoy the British Isles from a new perspective, then a UK cruise ticks all the boxes. From cosmopolitan cities such as Newcastle and Liverpool, to Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and Channel Islands, they’re also a great way to see coastlines and explore land-based attractions whilst only having to unpack once.

The to-do list

You can, of course, just sit back and go with the flow, but I threw myself wholeheartedly into the three-day voyage from Liverpool to Newcastle on Thomson Spirit, one of the ship’s last 2014 UK voyages before moving to Turkey for the 2015 season.

Each morning I’d pore over the Cruise News left in the cabin to decide whether to join the earlybird fitness and yoga sessions (for some inexplicable reason that never happened), try my luck at the light-hearted daily quiz, listen to talks on topics such as Faberge art, go to the cinema, attend a wine tasting or hone latent skills at sushi, ice carving, napkin folding and the towel origami demonstrations. And that was before I’d even decided where to eat or watch the sunset over the tempting daily cocktail of the day.

Arriving early

To get a cruise off to a relaxing start it’s worth arriving the day before and spending time in the embarkation port. This is what I did in Liverpool, where many hotels line the historic waterfront near the cruise terminal. Several cruise lines use Liverpool for round coast sailings or voyages to Ireland, and there’s plenty to see when you’re on dry land. 

In keeping with the maritime theme an excellent starting point is Albert Dock, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site that includes the UK’s largest group of Grade I listed buildings. Attractions include Merseyside Maritime Museum, with wonderful memorabilia charting the early days of cruising. In 2015 it will be the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania off the Irish coast. Many crew members were from Liverpool and poignant exhibits chart the tragedy.

After hours

On a cruise around the British Isles the majority of passengers will be from the UK, and my fellow shipmates were a happy bunch. Short voyages in particular attract a mixed crowd and they included groups, families, couples and some hen parties. 

There’s never a shortage of things to do, and mealtimes are always a highlight with a choice of buffet or waiter service restaurants, which is common to all ships. In the evening the enthusiastic and energetic team of entertainers turned their hands to songs from the shows and dance revues. For those in search of a quieter time, the spacious card and reading room was laid out with board games and jigsaws. It was still warm enough to enjoy a dip in the pool and I enjoyed walking around the deck as we sailed between Scottish islands shrouded in early morning mist.

There were plenty more photo opportunities as we sailed beneath the towering engineering marvel of the Firth of Forth Bridge. Our one port of call in Rosyth included a choice of shore excursions and we enjoyed an insightful coach tour around Edinburgh with a very knowledgeable guide, which ended at the top of the city’s imposing castle.

Back on board, greeted by the sight of a perfect penguin expertly shaped by our cabin steward Jenny, I quickly washed my hands of any more attempts at towel art. That said, my questionable crustacean was all part of a fun home from home seafaring experience.

UK cruise news

Southampton, Britain’s largest cruise terminal, offers a choice of itineraries and is home to Cunard and P&O Cruises. Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines also sails from Southampton and other ports including Dover and Tilbury. Cruise & Maritime Voyages offer good value UK cruises from London Tilbury, Edinburgh Leith, Bristol Avonmouth, Liverpool and Newcastle, while upmarket line Hebridean Island Cruises specialises in luxury small-ship sailing around Scotland.

Launching in spring 2015, P&O’s Britannia is the largest ship to be built exclusively for the home market and will have the first cookery school onboard a British ship. Carrying 3,611 passengers, the maiden season will include a round Britain voyage and two-night sailings to Guernsey. Other P&O ships offering UK itineraries include the adults-only Adonia.

Next year is also an exciting one for Cunard as it will mark the 175th anniversary of the first ship, also called Britannia, setting sail for America. UK sailings during 2015 include a Southampton cruise on the Queen Mary 2, with ports of call in Ireland, Scotland and Guernsey, and two-night mini-cruises on Queen Elizabeth.

In addition to its regular programme of UK cruises, which include two-night Liverpool to Dublin sailings and one-night 70s party cruises, in 2015 Fred. Olsen is introducing the garden-themed Floral Britannia cruise on Boudicca.

Other lines operating cruises around the British Isles include Saga, Swan Hellenic and Voyages of Discovery.

Photo credit: Visit Scotland

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