Great Britain is back on the map as a great cruise location. Credit: Shutterstock/RRM

Why Great Britain makes for a great staycation

Author: Gillian Carmoodie

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British staycation cruises have become incredibly popular. Thanks to renewed appreciation for treasures around the UK coastline, alongside a desire to avoid post-Brexit complications, cruisegoers have reignited a love affair with Albion soil. So, should you stay put via cruise ship?

Enjoying a staycation cruise around Britain is proving surprisingly popular for a variety of unexpected reasons.

Prior to spring 2021, many Brits had never contemplated taking a cruise to anywhere other than far-flung and exotic shores. We seemingly preferred Rome over Stornoway. But that began to change in March 2020 as the Covid-19 virus surged through the country, instigating several lengthy and monotonous lockdowns.

Brits stayed at home under virtual house arrest, left to gaze longingly out of their windows. Going outside was questionable, and taking a holiday felt impossible. It became a situation that greatly tested the resilience of the British public.

Then, to many people’s joy, MSC Cruises announced the launch of several UK ‘staycation sailings’ over the summer of 2021. Had it not been for enduring what felt like endless Covid restrictions, the proposition of a UK staycation sailing might otherwise have been scoffed at. By this point, however, desperate Brits were more than eager to enjoy their own coastline and a willing cruise ship seemed heaven-sent.

Still following some Covid restrictions, MSC Virtuosa set off from Southampton on a circulatory tour around the British Isles. The ship became the first cruise vessel to leave a UK port since the Covid pandemic had begun.

Liverpool remains one of the UK's finest port calls. Credit: Shutterstock

The itinerary for MSC Virtuosa included a four-night cruise as well as a stop off at Portland, a rugged island southwest of Dorset. Upon the vessel’s return, the trip was considered a hearty success, kickstarting an emergent trend for ‘Around Britain’ cruises.

Other lines were quick to join the party, including Fred Olsen Cruises, P&O Cruises and Princess Cruises. Paul Ludlow, president of P&O Cruises, said: “We have never before seen such significant and immediate demand. It certainly shows the effects of lockdown and everyone’s need for a holiday.”

Since then, staycations at sea have and continue to be a massive hit with UK cruisers. Not only have many Brits come to realise what splendour awaits them around their own shoreline, but complications arising from Brexit and associated passport issues have somewhat soured the experience of going abroad. This is particularly true within Europe, further emphasising the convenience of a staycation sailing.

Among Brits, there is a growing realisation that a cruise ship is perfectly placed to provide an incredibly enjoyable getaway without the need for flights, or having to take ferries out to more remote locales. Instead, a cruise ship can dock at one of the numerous UK ports and, from there, the majority of attractions throughout the country can be accessed with ease.

From pristine beaches to magnificent castles, and ancient heritage, Scotland has it all. Credit: Shutterstock

Indeed, most ‘Around Britain’ cruises take in the full length of the country, as well as Irish hotspots and several off-shore isles. The sheer variety of Britain’s topography and attractions, amid its eclectic culture as a nation, is often staggering. A circumferential cruise therefore provides an ideal platform for appreciating the country’s diversity.

Combined with luxury facilities, fine dining and a sense of exploration while onboard, it is easy to see how the staycation cruise has become a hit with UK customers. They are also an ideal sampler for those who herald from elsewhere with a curiosity for Britain.

To cater for the increased demand, Ambassador Cruise Line has begun to provide a selection of British Isles tours. These include stops around the mainland, with excursions to Ireland, the Channel Islands and Scottish Isles.

Excitingly, in May 2024, Cunard’s newest ship Queen Anne will commence a 14-night British Isles Festival cruise as she embarks on her maiden voyage. The ship will attend a spectacular naming ceremony in Cunard’s spiritual home of Liverpool.

You don't need to venture abroad for stunning views. The United Kingdom offers stunning beauty. Credit: Shutterstock

Cruise ships provide a renewed appreciation for Britain’s coastline

For a small country, Britain possesses an impressive 2,795 miles of accessible and breathtakingly varied coastline. It is around this island nation that a new demand has emerged from those who reside there – the capacity to explore home turf via cruise ship.

From craggy headlands to open sandy bays with gleaming white sand, iconic striped lighthouses, dramatic cliffs, thriving cities, ancient castles and coastline defences, abundant wildlife upon rocky outcrops and quaint fishing villages located far from the bustle, Britain’s coast is as varied as it ever has been. The ironic part? This has been on offer all along!

Beyond the coast, the UK is small enough for most notable attractions to be within a reasonable distance from wherever a cruise ship may opt to dock. It is possible to fly from London to Edinburgh in less than 90 minutes or to reach more remote locations with a brief train or car journey. And who wouldn't want to visit Scotland?

The main challenge for any budding tourist in Britain, including those choosing a staycation at sea, is narrowing down where you’d like to go and what you’d like to do. Backpackers have the dilemma of whether to choose the Lake District, the Cotswolds, the Yorkshire Dales, the Peak District or the Scottish Highlands for their next hike. Elsewhere, city-goers can choose between the modern urban thrum of London or the antiquities of York, Oxford, Cambridge or Edinburgh.

Wales is often overlooked as a cruise destination, but the proud country has loads to offer. Credit: Shutterstock

For those who love to be beside the seaside, there is the tussle between the stunning beaches of Cornwall, the fun of holiday resorts of Blackpool, Whitby and Llandudno or the remote tranquillity of hidden coastal nooks nestled within the Scottish Isles.

An ‘Around Britain’ cruise allows an enveloping array of diverse locations and experiences to charm and connect travellers with British culture, while sustaining national tourism during economically-testing times. Banding together with dexterity, what-what.

Wherever you find yourself, ensure to pack for the ever-changing British weather; which is unpredictable at best! Yet, that just adds to the fun to make a memorable experience.

However, don’t let the weather put you off booking a cruise staycation. Britain is more than adept at adjusting to an unexpected downpour or two. A surprise wet spell is the perfect opportunity for exploring some of our revered historical houses, national treasures or of course, yet another old English pub (brace yourself for some trademark British comedy).

Afterwards, the comfortable, dry and cosy interior of a plush cruise ship awaits your return. It’s a win-win all round!

Southampton is more than simply a port. There's a huge range heritage and activity on offer. Credit: Shutterstock

UK cruise ports: So much more than just an arrival and departure point

Being an island nation with long-standing and historical links to every continent in the world, Britain isn’t short of a port or two.

Among the most popular mainland ports for cruise ships are London Tilbury, Southampton, Dover, Liverpool, Newcastle and Port Leith. Not only do all these locations have a surprising quantity of attractions in their own right, they also all serve as gateways to other cities throughout the UK.

Even smaller cruise ports such as Ireland’s Cobh, as well as Greenock and South Queensferry in Scotland are handily connected by rail. Were you to stop at the last of these destinations, you could take in the cantilever engineering genius of the Forth Railway Bridge – now deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site – before being whisked away by train to arrive in Edinburgh city centre only 20 minutes later.

London Tilbury is one of the most popular cruise ports in the whole of the UK. Not only is it a short distance from bustling London, but an enviable view of Britain’s capital can be obtained from Tilbury itself. It was here, in 1588, that Queen Elizabeth I delivered a powerful speech to her troops (as showcased by the wonderful Cate Blanchett), setting them up for success against the Spanish Armada and forming a key moment in Britain’s history.

Further afield, ports such as the newly-opened Deep Water Terminal in Stornoway open up exploration opportunities in much more remote locations. Stornoway is based within the Isle of Lewis and possesses a historical harbour, waterwheel and Lews Castle. It is a charming town that will greet you as you begin to discover the Outer Hebrides.

Whichever staycation cruise you opt for, be sure to allow time to explore the port towns you visit along the way. Each has an intriguing past, serving as so much more than merely a point of arrival and departure.

London's bustling city centre makes for a memorable trip destined to showcase the benefits of a staycation. Credit: Shutterstock

Spoilt for choice: Notable British attractions

After exploring the port towns on the itinerary of a British staycation cruise, the next task is to work out where else to enjoy some holiday time. You may opt to go with a scheduled excursion tour or book a private tour. Striking it out alone is also a perfectly viable option, for you’d be surprised how quickly you can reach destinations in Britain that you hadn’t previously considered while out at sea.

Among Britain’s top visitor destinations are the city of London as well as Edinburgh, Newcastle, Liverpool and Belfast. If city life doesn’t float your boat, the Scottish Highlands and Welsh mountains are renowned for their stunning landscapes and tranquillity.

There are also numerous national parks located throughout Britain including the Lake District, Snowdonia, Northumberland, the New Forest, Dartmoor, the Broads and the South Downs. Each has its own unique character and, despite being wild and peaceful, most are fairly easy to access from busier locations.

For those interested in shipping history, Ireland’s Belfast is an absolute must for it is where Harland & Wolff built the Olympic-class liners - including RMS Titanic and the indefatigable RMS Olympic - as well as many other notable vessels.

Belfast offers a serious amount of shipping heritage. We'd heartily recommend a visit! Credit: Shutterstock

Not far away from Belfast is another UNESCO World Heritage site in the form of a unique geological formation steeped in mythology known as Giant’s Causeway. You simply can’t visit Ireland without adding this to your bucket list.

Beyond the British mainland, Kirkwall in Orkney is a special treat that promises Viking origins, invigorating sea air at Scapa beach, a wealth of ancient island culture and perhaps even an opportunity to spot the Northern Lights, of which there are dedicated Northern Lights cruise itineraries.

If warmer climes appeal, you will find a subtropical paradise in the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago off the southwestern tip of Cornwall. The islands are considered the warmest places in the British Isles. St. Mary’s is the main port of Scilly. Here you can visit the castle as well as the old town, and enjoy impressive gardens host plants and flowers from all over the world – while the local seafood is considered a wondrous delicacy.

Be sure that, wherever you choose to explore during a British staycation cruise, you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to destinations that are enjoyable, surprising and invigorating. Staying put never felt so good!

Ireland can provide enough culture to create a lasting impression. You'll be back time and time again! Credit: Shutterstock
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About Gillian Carmoodie

Gillian has been a part of the heritage world for longer than she would care to admit. From piloting pre-war racers across Montlhéry and traversing the Cumbrian mountains with an Edwardian automobile, to flying a WWI Tiger Moth and obsessing over all things shipping, Gillian lives for history.

When not buried in a book or lost to the archives, you'll usually find her under the bonnet of her classic Rover or exploring the old shipyards of the North East. When partaking in work for RNLI, Land Rover or RRM, Gillian mostly runs on high-octane Earl Grey.