As a cruising destination, the UK’s coastline and rivers have never been more popular – and with spectacular scenery, amazing wildlife, an abundance of historical sites and excellent food, is it any surprise?
A UK cruise requires neither yellow fever jabs nor the pre-holiday exchange-rate vigil. There is no waiting in airport lounges for hours when your flight is delayed, and nor will the empty baggage carousel grind ominously to a halt with your bag still absent because it was put on the Malaga flight by mistake.
As with any destination with interesting nooks and crannies to explore, it pays to cruise the UK by small ship – particularly when it comes to the coastal routes, where smaller craft are able to dock or land by tender in shallower ports. This makes gems such as Tobermory on Mull and Tresco in the Isles of Scilly – with its subtropical Abbey Gardens and Caribbean-like beaches – accessible. The same applies to Kirkwall in Orkney – home to the 4,000-year-old village of Skara Brae – and the Channel Islands, with their familiar British yet pleasingly continental feel.
Nor is it necessary to decamp to Europe for rivers that pass beneath castles or beside abbeys and medieval timbered towns: the Thames has Windsor; the Severn flows beside Worcester Cathedral; and the Caledonian Canal allows you to ascend Neptune’s Staircase (and to search for the Loch Ness monster, should you so choose).
If you prefer less elusive wildlife, never fear – there is plenty of that on offer too, from sea eagles wafting majestically across the bow and stags calling against the dawn sky, to basking sharks and dolphins and the incredible spectacle of a thousand gannets and puffins circling above the deck.
Truly, the UK is at its best from the water – so skip the jet lag and added expense and plan your next cruise closer to home. Here are some ideas.
It would be remiss to talk about British river cruises without mentioning the Severn – our longest river, at 220 miles, snaking from Wales’s Cambrian Mountains, down through Shropshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, and eventually into the Bristol Channel.
And the best way to take it all in? Hop aboard the Edward Elgar hotel boat, which carries just 22 passengers and takes in the river’s entire navigable stretch, between Gloucester and Stourport. Your first excursion is a guided tour of Worcester Cathedral, which dates from 1084 and overlooks the banks of the river, followed by a visit to the Royal Worcester porcelain museum. Next, a short coach ride will take you to the Severn Valley Railway for a fascinating 16-mile steam train journey through beautiful countryside, followed by a visit to Bewdley and Bridgnorth.
You will also visit the 12th-century Tewkesbury Abbey, do a walking tour of Gloucester Docks (the most inland port in the country), and spend an evening exploring Gloucester Cathedral – originally a Norman abbey whose nave has changed little in 900 years – before finishing with a tour of Painswick Rococo Garden, surrounded by the stunning scenery of the Cotswolds.
English Holiday Cruises (01452 410411; river.englishholidaycruises.co.uk) offers the six-night Classic Severn Cruise from £1,850 per person, calling at Gloucester’s Historic Docks and Cathedral, Worcester Cathedral, Museum of Royal Worcester, Severn Valley Railway, Bridgenorth, Tewkesbury Abbey and Painswick Rococo Garden in the Cotswolds
Walk the Waves
Tucked away towards the back of many a cruise brochure, you will find specialist activity holidays – the likes of bridge or watercolour painting courses – but if you are a keen hiker, among the finest are the cruise-and-walk options. These provide a fascinating look at the UK and its waterways, allowing you to explore each destination’s hidden side while enjoying the delights of cruising.
Each day brings a different port, and while the rest of the passengers go off by coach to that day’s excursion, you can board a minibus that takes you deep into the port’s hinterland to explore on an organised walk with a qualified guide. Quite often, the route brings you back to the ship through the port, allowing you to sample everyday life with the locals at markets or pause for a glass of wine at a harbourside café and watch the day’s catch being unloaded.
Fred Olsen, with Ramblers Worldwide Holidays (01707 537200; ramblers holidays.co.uk), offers the 11-night Roaming around the Islands of the UK cruise from £2,160 per person, calling at St Peter Port in Guernsey, Belfast, Stornoway on the isle of Lewis, Lerwick in Shetland, Kirkwall in Orkney and Invergordon in the Scottish Highlands
West Coast Blarney
All right, you will need to buy some euros for this one, but when you are sailing blissfully down the west coast of Ireland, pausing at Cork to kiss the Blarney Stone and Killybegs to admire Ireland’s largest fishing port, you won’t mind. This is a cruise for those with a keen interest in history, hopping from Stornoway on Lewis – which has ancient stone circles and many street signs in Scottish Gaelic, which is widely spoken – to Orkney, where the signs change to Norse. A short shuttle ride from the ship brings you to Kirkwall, the Orkney Islands’ ancient capital, which is well worth exploring for St Magnus Cathedral and the two ancient palaces nearby.
It is a cruise of pleasant contrasts, too: from the old part of Lerwick – the only town on the Shetland Islands – with its quiet, narrow alleys, dotted with shops and restaurants and ideal for an afternoon stroll, to the bustling streets of Greenock; Belfast, with its marvellous Titanic Centre; and Liverpool’s glorious Grade I-listed Royal Albert Dock. There is also a gin distillery in the city by the Mersey (where you can sample different varieties), plus fascinating maritime and musical histories to explore (getting your photo taken with the Beatles statues may be a bit of a cliché, but do it all the same).
P&O Cruises (01793 967913; pocruises.com) offers a 16-night British Isles cruise from £1,599pp, calling at Lerwick, Stornoway, Killybegs, Holyhead, Belfast, Greenock, Liverpool and Cork
Wet and wilderness
This cruise is a good option for those who want to see the UK’s wildlife in all its splendour – but it is an added bonus that Hebridean Princess is also, quite literally, fit for a queen: Elizabeth II chartered the ship twice, combining as it does English country-house style with the perks of a luxury cruise ship.
The itinerary includes stops at the archipelago of St Kilda, out in the North Atlantic, where you can explore the abandoned village on the isle of Hirta from which the inhabitants were permanently evacuated in August 1930; the Flannan Isles, home to guillemots and puffins; and the tranquil island of Barra, with its golden beaches and wildflower- dotted machair.
There is a dose of history in Stornoway on Lewis, courtesy of the majestic Callanish standing stones and the Iron Age Carloway Broch, then it’s back to wildlife on the misty isle of Skye, with its rocky landscapes and resident population of golden eagles. Finish with a tour of the Trotternish peninsula and a visit to the pastel-painted houses of Portree.
Hebridean Island Cruises (01756 704704; hebridean.co.uk) offers the seven-night St Kilda and Outer Isles cruise from £6,130 per person, calling at Oban, St Kilda, Barra, Skye, Tarbet and Lewis
In royal footsteps
If the Severn doesn’t pique your interest, perhaps the UK’s second-longest river is more your thing. Playing a vital role throughout British history, the Thames flows from Gloucestershire through Oxford, Reading, Henley-on-Thames and Windsor, before winding through London and out into the North Sea.
It is a route that has carried kings, queens and, now, the eight-passenger Hotel Barge Magna Carta, which wends its regal way along a 45-mile stretch of the river.
If you choose to head eastwards, you will start at the magnificent Hampton Court Palace, touring Henry VIII’s apartments and the Royal Chapel before cruising on past Runnymede Island, where the barge’s namesake was signed. Next is Windsor, where an afternoon excursion to the largest inhabited castle in the world takes in the State Apartments, Queen Mary’s Dolls House and St George’s Chapel.
Then it’s on through Bray, where rolling countryside gives way to sprawling high-end homes on the waterfront. The barge berths at the exclusive mooring on the Cliveden estate, famous for its Chinese water garden and wonderful topiary, and the next morning guests are driven up to Highclere Castle – more commonly known as the filming location of Downton Abbey – to explore its 1,000 acres of parkland.
Now that you are feeling suitably aristocratic, continue upstream to Cookham, through Marlow and on to Hurley, then finally to Oxford for a tour of Christ Church, founded by Cardinal Wolsey and (again) Henry VIII.
European Waterways (01753 598555; europeanwaterways.com) offers the seven-day Classic Cruise England from £3,950 per person, calling at Windsor, Henley, Hampton Court, Cliveden, Highclere and Oxford
A Highland fling
The Great Glen splits Scotland in two, with the Caledonian Canal running its length – from Fort William in the south-west, via freshwater lochs, Highland villages and striking wildlife, to Inverness in the north-east – and this cruise is a wonderful way to experience every inch of it.
Starting further south in Oban, the eight-passenger Seahorse II takes in Castle Stalker on its tiny islet before sailing up Loch Linnhe while you watch for sea eagles, dolphins and seals. Then, as Ben Nevis looms into view, the ship begins to ascend Neptune’s Staircase: a seven-lock engineering marvel of the Victorian age that raises boats an incredible 70ft from the sea to the canal itself.
There are stops at the bustling town of Fort Augustus, the ideal spot to pause at a pretty canal-side pub, before descending the locks once again into legendary Loch Ness. Prepare for a bit of inevitable Nessie spotting, but make time too to look out for ospreys in the pretty village of Drumnadrochit, home to the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition, before the ship anchors off Urquhart Castle for the night. In less than a week, you will find yourself in Inverness, the historic capital of the Highlands – where, purely for bragging rights, it is well worth following the towpath to the canal’s official end at Clachnaharry, where it spills into the sea.
St Hilda Sea Adventures (01631 564121; sthildaseaadventures.co.uk) offers the six-night Loch Ness and the Caledonian Canal cruise from £1,960 per person, calling at Oban, Castle Stalker, Loch Ness, Fort Augustus, Drumnadrochit and Inverness