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cruises around Britain
Cruising Beautiful Britain

by Bob Barton

Queen Elizabeth II chose to celebrate her 80th year not with a holiday in a far-flung corner of the globe nor in an exotic European palace, but on a relatively small cruise-ship sailing around the Scottish isles. 

Britain’s monarch chartered the Hebridean Princess in August 2006 and, accompanied by Prince Philip and other members of the Royal Family, set off for a private week’s sailing around the peaceful Western Isles with their spectacular scenery, including deserted beaches of soft white sand.

With its “country house ambiance and stately home service” the Hebridean Princess is known for her fine furnishings and extraordinary level of service and cuisine. Guests – no more than 49 in number – enjoy the comforts of a luxurious lounge, peaceful library and formal wood-panelled dining room before going on deck or the cosy Look Out Lounge to be reminded of the spectacular coastline.

The vessel goes to remote locations where only private launches normally moor so that guests can explore beautiful gardens and castles and take invigorating guided walks in the fresh, clean air.

A programme of mainly week-long cruises runs from May to November and, while most set sail from Oban for Scotland’s ethereal coastline, the last cruise in 2007 follows England’s South Coast from Portland, on the breathtaking Jurassic coastline of Dorset, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and up the River Thames to London. Called “Jewels of English Heritage” it visits some royal palaces including Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s favourite, Brighton’s oriental-style Royal Pavilion and, while berthed in Dover, a private tour of Walmer Castle.

Cruising is not just for monarchs though, and there are several ways in which to cruise beautiful Britain.

Rounding the legendary coasts of Britain and Ireland are several major cruise lines among them Silversea Cruises which in 2007 (from August 21) has a marvellous 10-night London-to-London cruise which leaves from The Tower Bridge, London and takes in Edinburgh (Leith), Invergordon, Kirkwall (Orkney Islands), Oban, Dublin, Waterford, Fowey, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the south coast of Cornwall, and back to London (Tower Bridge).

Among the cruise lines that feature the British Isles on their annual programme is Fred Olsen which has smaller ships than most other cruise lines, enabling them to moor in the heart of ports rather than a tender ride away. Black Watch is the line’s flagship and has undergone a refit to give her more cabins with balconies, a popular choice with guests.

Passengers on Fred Olsen ships like the Black Prince, Braemer and Boudicca will discover the delights of many British destinations from the Orkneys in the north to the bustling harbour town of St. Peter Port, Guernsey in the south.

The visits to the Channel Islands and the Scilly Isles with over 100 islands in one of the world’s most beautiful archipelagos, Milford Haven with Pembroke Castle, one of the largest castles in Wales, nearby, and historic Fowey, among others, will show cruisers that there is as much beauty close to home as the far flung destinations Fred Olsen ships also travel to.

Mature travellers will be able to immerse themselves in British culture during two 14-night circumnavigations of Britain with Saga Holidays. Saga Rose will be sailing round the British Isles from August 30 on its “British Isles Explorer” cruise and among the many highlights are Scotland’s highlands and islands, Dublin, Ireland’s vibrant capital city, and St Peter Port on Guernsey.

On her sister ship Saga Ruby cruise passengers can kiss the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle, visit Belfast, Dublin and pretty St Peter Port on Guernsey on the 10-night “Charms of the Emerald Isle” cruise on August 24.

The two vessels share qualities such as wide open decks and spacious interiors, with Saga Rose’s rooms and cabins quite traditional in style, while her sister has a more contemporary look having undergone a major refit.

For those who find cruise liners too conventional and are prepared to trade a few luxuries for something more bohemian, the Glen Massan may appeal. This is an 85-ft traditional wooden fishing vessel, converted in the style of a Turkish gulet to carry 12 passengers in six en-suite cabins on “laid-back luxury cruising” trips around the Argyll coast, Scotland and sea-lochs, normally inaccessible to larger vessels. 

On the three to six-night voyages, run by The Majestic Line, guests enjoy fresh local produce prepared on board by a cook/hostess, while a engineer, bosun and the captain make up the rest of the small crew. There is a large deck saloon for relaxing and watching the scenery float by and after dinner it doubles as a cinema or ceilidh area (Celtic music and dancing). There is a bar stocked with Scottish malt whiskies. Trips are all in sheltered waters, ranging from two nights around the local lochs to six-nights including Loch Long, Inveraray, Loch Fyne and the Isle of Arran.

Cruising Britain’s 3,000 mile network of navigable inland waterways is another option. The most popular way of doing this is by renting a self-drive narrow-boat and these are fully equipped as comfortable, floating holiday homes. This is not as daunting as it may sound: the controls are straightforward, the cruising speed is just three miles-per-hour and full instruction is given at the departure point.

Drifters, a consortium of holiday boat companies, offers only quality tourist board-inspected vessels and its website shows their availability on-line. The latest boating base is Black Prince’s smart marina at Napton in the Heart of England which offers three directions in which to sail, including Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick Castle and big-city Birmingham or south towards Oxford.

With distinctive humpback bridges, lock-side cottages and wooden lift-bridges, it is easy to imagine yourself back in 1790 when this canal opened, yet the boats are recently built and fitted with all mod-cons including comfortable berths, a bathroom with shower and plenty of hot water and a kitchen and lounge area with television. Meals and drinks are served at friendly waterside pubs. Do not expect to cover large distances this way: the adventure is in the journey and there is some physical work involved in operating locks and boat handling. 

Photo : Silver Cloud passes under London’s famous Tower Bridge. Photo courtesy Silversea Cruises

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