Set sail on a cruise of the spectacular British coast and discover the wealth of culture, history and entertainment to be found within the many miles of English, Scottish and Welsh coastline.

SHAKESPEARE’S This sceptered isle soliloquy in his infamous play King Richard II, includes the line “This precious stone set in the silver sea” that encapsulates an idyllic version of Britain. Four centuries later, I doubt this famous playwright could have envisaged his paean would have such resonance in the world of cruising.

Seeing Britain from the sea was fashionable in the 1920s and now, after decades of decline, a voyage around this isle is once again a highlight of the cruising calendar. Such is the success of these summer voyages that for the first time in its venerable history, P&O Cruises scheduled a round-Britain sailing aboard their 1,200-passenger Artemis; so popular was this debut 2009 voyage that it sold out within weeks.

Cunard, that other revered name in British cruising, is no stranger to showcasing its illustrious vessels in historic ports around Britain, and in the last two decades QE2 undertook nine such sell-out voyages. Since the retirement of this dowager of the seas last year, the mantle of this voyage has been assumed by her successor, Queen Mary 2.

First time cruisers and regular voyagers alike have become increasingly attracted to these summer sojourns. For British passengers it’s an opportunity to see their own backyard from a most unusual perspective, while for visitors to these shores, a cruise offers the most relaxing way to enjoy contrasting images of Britain, and often Ireland. The advantages are obvious: Brits can join their ship in convenient ports without ever having to fly, there are no luggage restrictions, and parking is usually free, while overseas visitors flying into London’s airports can access the departure ports easily before sitting back and relaxing as vistas of this historic land unfold.

Cruising British Isles

Spoilt for choice

Most round-Britain cruises last between nine and 14 days and there’s usually a different port of call each day. British passengers tend to cruise with Fred Olsen, Cunard and Transocean Tours (the company which has taken over the much-loved Marco Polo, a great favourite with British cruisers); while American-orientated companies are the preferred choice for visitors from the US. Niche vessels such as Hebridean Princess and Silversea’s Prince Albert II attract both nationalities, as do the ultra-deluxe ships of Crystal Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

The diversity of vessels undertaking round-Britain cruises often surprises those new to this eclectic holiday, and with passenger capacities ranging from 12 to 3,080 the variety could not be more pronounced. From quirky, intimate vessels with a country club ambience to titans with vast show lounges and a host of diversions, there’s a ship for everyone.

On the whole, passengers on these cruises tend to be over 50 and have enquiring minds that appreciate the enrichment lecture programmes which often feature on board; indeed Fred Olsen’s dedicated ArtsClub has a Wildlife & Nature cruise scheduled for this September. The cruise will be hosted by an expert in British wildlife and the talks on board are included in the cruise fare. Long walks and the chance to explore historic sites in the company of an expert are part of the attraction of a round-Britain cruise, where more is demanded from the excursions than a potted version of local history.
The headland of Land’s End

A sense of direction
With 7,500 miles of coastline of amazing scenic variety, it’s no surprise that cruising around Britain and Ireland is so high on many travellers ‘must do’ lists. Setting sail from Dover, Greenwich, Tilbury, Harwich or Southampton, cruises either head west through the English Channel, then set a course for Ireland and a navigation close on Scotland and its islands before hugging the east coast of Britain. Other itineraries call for a passage along the North Sea coastline before reaching the Scottish ports. From there, the compass is set in a southerly direction as vessels traverse the Irish Sea then round Land’s End, Britain’s westernmost point to visit some of the exquisite Cornish ports, before returning to their port of embarkation.

Sights and sounds

Summer is a perfect time to explore this diverse coastline with glistening castles, picture-perfect gardens, and vibrant ports. When I visit Invergordon in Scotland, a tour of romantic Dunrobin Castle with its superb art collection is an undoubted highlight; a call at Glengarriff on Bantry Bay in south-west Ireland allows me the chance to head to Garnish Island, renowned the world over for its prolific Italian Gardens; while at St Peter Port, the bustling harbour town that’s the capital of Guernsey, La Fête d’la Maïr celebrates the produce of the sea and a lunch of fresh langoustines is pure indulgence.

The contrasting variety of ports ensures these voyages are always stimulating. Many cruises schedule an overnight in Edinburgh; this allows time not just to visit the former Royal Yacht Britannia, which has played host to some of the most famous people in the world, but also, if you happen to be there during August, the chance to take in the spectacular Military Tattoo that this year is in its 60th season. And shoppers, too, are spoilt for choice when it comes to Scottish cashmere and Irish crystal, Highland tweeds and single malts.

History comes to life in the summer sun: the Benedictine Priory of St Michael’s Mount rises dramatically from the Cornish sea and is a popular tour when ships call at Falmouth; Torosay Castle, surrounded by magnificent and unique gardens on the tranquil Sound of Mull, is a highlight of a visit to the Scottish fishing port of Tobermory; while when visiting Kirkwall, capital of Orkney – the Orkney Islands are found off the northern tip of Scotland where the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean meet – there’s the opportunity to explore the enigmatic 5,000-year old Neolithic village of Skara Brae.

Cruising amongst the breathtakingly beautiful remote islands of the Hebrides and Western Isles as well as the intricate lochs and sounds of Scotland’s West Coast, Hebridean Princess is an unalloyed delight. This anachronistic vessel sails between March and November each year. Included are escorted tours that capture the cultural essence and historical significance of each port.

Many travellers come to Britain and Ireland on the literary trail, tracing the footprints of Thomas Hardy and Daphne du Maurier in the West Country, William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter in the Lake District (an easy add-on to a cruise) and the great Irish writers, among them Jonathan Swift, W. B. Yeats and James Joyce.

Staying on

The sheer diversity of Britain’s coastline makes these voyages unique, even more so because this type of holiday offers the opportunity to visit parts of Britain that would be out of reach to regular visitors. Overseas guests booked on a round-Britain cruise are spoiled for choice when it comes to pre- and post-cruise options.

There’s the chance to stay in London and explore the vibrant capital, perhaps indulging in a West End musical, heading to Royal Ascot in Berkshire for the horse racing, or, in July, taking in the tennis at Wimbledon. Alternatively many travellers opt for day trips to beautiful Leeds Castle in Kent or Stonehenge, Wiltshire’s prehistoric monument. Another rewarding tour visits Stratford upon Avon – the birthplace of Shakespeare in the rural Warwickshire countryside.

Where better to enjoy one of the Bard’s plays or recall that other line from This sceptered Isle before you set sail, “This other Eden, demi-paradise”.

[allships]