No fly cruise: The joys of ex-UK
Anthony Pearce recalls his first cruise – from Tilbury to the Norwegian fjords – and explains the convenience and simplicity of stepping on board and setting sail
I was sat on top deck on the Marco Polo with a book and a beer, basking in the July sunshine as we sailed out of the Thames. It was 2014 and I was an hour or so into my first cruise, an ex-UK voyage with Cruise & Maritime Voyages (CMV) from London Tilbury to the Norwegian fjords.
I took the above picture 36 hours later, after a leisurely day at sea, as we moored at the end of a narrow fjord in the west of the country, capturing one of the most picturesque places on Earth. With the ship’s engine off, the fjord fell silent and we took in the view, mountains reaching up and over our ship. I had heard a lot about cruises – much of it negative – but, stood before such magnificent scenery, I couldn’t help but think: who wouldn’t enjoy this?
Drop and go
With Tilbury just 40 minutes from London and, having embarked almost seamlessly – bags dropped, passports checked – within 15 minutes or so, it was one of the most relaxing beginnings to a holiday I’d experienced. A short while later, the annoyance of the muster drill out of the way, the adventure began properly.
It’s clear that cruise attracts an older crowd generally, and that is true even more so of ex-UK cruises because it’s such a stress-free way to travel. With plenty of regional departures, and the general ease of a cruise, it’s the perfect holiday for those with mobility issues. But, of course, it suits anyone who doesn’t want the hassle of flying, and with kid-friendly ships such as Independence of the Seas (Royal Caribbean International), Britannia (P&O Cruises) and Norwegian Jade (Norwegian Cruise Line) sailing from Southampton during the summer months. These cruises make a lot of sense for families who can’t bear the stress of taking young ones through airport security.
In fact, the landscape of ex-UK – like cruise as a whole – is changing. The industry is still heavily weighted towards the south coast (Portsmouth, Dover and, in particular, Southampton), but there are actually 22 ports in the UK that offer ex-UK departures.
The aforementioned CMV, as well as Fred Olsen Cruise Lines and Marella Cruises all make use of regional ports. CMV has the likes of Cardiff, Bristol Avonmouth and Dundee to itself, sharing Liverpool with Fred Olsen.
From UK ports, customers can sail almost anywhere – from mini-cruises to Amsterdam or Bruges, longer itineraries that take in St Petersburg, Bergen, Copenhagen, Barcelona or Venice, to world cruises that explore, well, everywhere. It’s incredible to think that you can leave Southampton and take in New York, the Panama Canal, San Francisco, Bora Bora, Shanghai, Cape Town and Tenerife – all in one cruise.
Most common are British Isles, Baltic, fjords and Mediterranean cruises. Baltic cruises will often take in one or two Scandinavian cities – Stockholm, Copenhagen or Helsinki – as well as Hamburg and nearly always Tallinn and, the highlight of the cruise, St Petersburg. Some fjords cruises will contain a non-Norwegian call – some even pairing it with British Isles stops – but most will concentrate on Norway, with the likes of Bergen, Geiranger and Olden. Some even head into the Arctic Circle, calling at Tromsø – although calls at the city are often paired with Iceland, Arctic and Northern Lights cruises.
British Isles and Ireland cruises also remain very popular. It may not seem like the most exotic choice for a holiday, but these cruises provide a chance to see small towns and islands – particularly in the north of Scotland – that would otherwise prove a logistical nightmare to explore in depth.
There is, of course, also the Mediterranean – Britons’ favourite cruise destination. These itineraries alone are incredibly diverse, with amazing stops such as Marseille, Lisbon, Barcelona, Rome (Civitavecchia), Kotor, Dubrovnik and Venice.
There is also more diversity than many would believe, in terms of the hardware on offer. It may be so that the newest ships don’t sail from the UK (Symphony of the Seas won’t visit Southampton, unlike its sister ships Harmony and Anthem, for instance), but there is still an incredible range to choose from.
Outside of the main players – P&O Cruises, Cunard, Saga, Fred Olsen and CMV – there are many cruise lines that have a handful of sailings each. Between them, they cover the cruise industry, from small-ship expedition, to big-ship family cruise to premium and luxury.
For example, there’s Lindblad Expeditions’ unique 48-guest Lord of the Glens, which sails seven-night itineraries through the lochs of Scotland (and the locks of the Caledonian Canal) from Inverness.
There’s Princess Cruises with its largest-ever ex-UK season to date (2019 will be even bigger) on four different ships – from the 3,600-passenger Royal Princes to the 688-passenger Pacific Princess – sailing from Dover and Southampton.
There’s ultra-luxury line, Regent Seven Seas, which has Seven Seas Explorer in Southampton for four sailings, plus Seabourn has Seabourn Quest and Ovation sailing out of Dover; Silversea has Silver Spirit and Silver Wind in the capital (Greenwich and Tower Bridge), while French luxury line Ponant has a mini-cruise from London and a seven-night sailing from Edinburgh.