British holidaymakers have been quick to snap up the array of UK cruises on offer this summer. Nearly every major cruise line has announced fresh itineraries, from Viking Cruises launching the maiden voyage of its newest ship, sailing from Portsmouth, to Virgin Voyages offering at-sea “staycations” this August.
Those with a ticket to sail might find themselves exploring Edinburgh Castle, tracking the Beatles’ rise to fame in Liverpool or spotting guillemots on Rathlin Island (Northern Ireland’s largest seabird colony).
Some lines will require passengers to be vaccinated against Covid-19, for others a negative PCR test will suffice.
Saga Cruises was one of the first to announce that inoculation will be mandatory. Guests will join one of two ships, the brand new Spirit of Adventure or the still fresh Spirit of Discovery, on which I sailed around the British Isles pre-pandemic. I’d taken river cruises, small ship cruises and joined a large ship on a Caribbean sojourn – but this was my first taste of sailing in home waters. Here’s what I wish I’d known beforehand:
Map out your meals
Veteran cruise passengers will have revised the itinerary and committed the ship’s layout to memory. As such, once on board, they’ll likely hot-foot it to book a dinner table for each night of the voyage. Follow their lead to ensure you sample all your ship has to offer. Saga’s vessels, for example, have a main dining room, where dinner will never disappoint – but also a selection of specialist options. A favourite on Spirit of Discovery was East to West, for a mix of Asian-inspired cuisine.
Dig out your black tie outfits
Lockdown has left the most fashion proficient living in jogging bottoms or pyjamas, with unruly hair to match. Cruise evenings are the perfect opportunity to break out the sequins. Floor-length frocks, jazzy bow ties and elaborate up-dos add to the old school glamour of holidays at sea. Really indulge with a trip to the on-board salon – a blow dry, followed by a manicure. After all, it’s the most socialising (at least with strangers) many will have experienced since last March.
Age puts no limit on wanderlust (but it can slow things down)
Keen cruisers who’d usually set their sights on the Mediterranean or Caribbean may be taking a punt on British Isles sailings this summer. This could well skew the UK cruise cohort to younger than average. But the stalwarts, typically 70-plus, may well dominate some sailings. Indeed, when I joined a Saga voyage, many of my fellow passengers were in their eighties. If you’re joining any fully-vaccinated voyage, it’s likely 50 will be at the bottom-end of the age range. Be aware that somewhat reduced mobility might slow down the process of getting on and off the coach during excursions. If you’re able bodied and raring to explore, sit up front: this also lets you eke out the last photo-ops before heading back to the ship (Scapa Flow and The Giant’s Causeway quickly filled up my phone’s camera roll).
Plan your sea days around the deck views
Cruising among the Inner and Outer Hebrides was a highlight of my voyage. It offered a reminder that venturing to the far corners of our isles can offer up views that feel oddly exotic. On a balmy July afternoon, I was longing to dive from the deck and wander along the empty beaches and clamber the craggy, vivid green, grass-carpeted hills. You might also be lucky enough to spot whales swimming nearby (some lines will provide binoculars; check beforehand and pack a pair if not). If your daily itinerary doesn’t provide timings for where you’ll be passing and when, then quiz your crew. As new sailors soon learn, you’d be hard-pressed to find more helpful hospitality staff than on board a cruise ship.
Your UK holiday wish list will fill up fast
You’ll likely see previously visited cities, or new-to-you corners of the country. Guided tours with local experts in Edinburgh and in Northern Ireland (to Giant’s Causeway), left me with a long list of places I hope to return to – 2021 is the ideal time to prioritise exploring closer to home. Do pull your guide aside and quiz them for some extra tips of what to see and do in the area. I also got a little excursion envy: you can’t experience everything on one cruise. On my sailing, a highlight was seeing the Italian Chapel in the Orkneys, which was built using any materials they could get their hands on – the main structure was two conjoined Nissen huts – by resourceful Italian prisoners of war.
Afternoon tea is a main event
Cruise lines such as Saga and P&O put much pride into their afternoon tea offering. You’ll soon get used to the sugar fix (Chelsea buns were my go-to), with oodles of caffeine. The genial atmosphere is ideal for long chats with tablemates – albeit at a safe distance, post-Covid. Unlike the Ritz, you won’t be admonished for wearing jeans to tea, but the daily ritual still offers a very British sense of occasion.
Don’t forget the spa
The spa on board Saga’s Spirit of Discovery felt like a little escape within an escape. Covid rules will, of course, apply this summer, but it tended, alongside the thermal suite, to be most popular on sea days. Time it right and you’ll be able to enjoy treats such as a hydrotherapy pool (like a giant hot tub) all to yourself. Personally, I’d devote as much sea time as possible to this area of the ship, especially if heat waves prove sparse.
You can enjoy travelling solo
Cruises are often seen as the preserve of couples, indeed cabins can be priced as such that travelling as a pair can make things more cost-effective. That said, with plenty of time at sea (and group excursions to enjoy), there’s ample opportunity to get chatting to other passengers. Indeed, one lunch I sat with two women in their seventies who’d first met on a cruise decades previously. An amiable atmosphere – helped by a shared language and few cultural barriers – characterises UK voyages. Following a year in which interactions with strangers have been limited, stretching your small talk muscles could prove a real joy.
First-timers will turn into fans
My first UK cruise was also my mother’s first cruise full stop. She quickly fell for the all-inclusive meals, stress-free planning (all the dull logistics are taken care of – including, with Saga, a chauffeur ferrying you from home to the ship) and plush surroundings soon won her over. “When are you taking me on our next cruise holiday?” was her verdict. Cruise ships are often compared to floating hotels, and in a year where booked-up Britain has become the norm, bobbing along our shores in luxury would make you the envy of many a British holidaymaker. Plus, you’ll mix-and-match the ever-popular summer destinations (a trip to Durdle Door, in Dorset, features on a Saga itinerary) with the slightly more esoteric (such as the highlights in the Orkneys).
Carve out your own plans
If your itinerary allows, it’s well worth earmarking some independent trips that can be made during your time ashore. I signed up for every excursion available, but admired passengers who’d had the forethought to find new spots to explore. Taxi drivers will be used to picking up from cruise ports and a little extra planning could allow you to reach that lesser-known beach or see a National Trust property you’d never otherwise visit.