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Travel

Cruise Special: Around Britain by Boat

A luxury liner cruise around the British Isles gives Norman Wright a fresh perspective on our captivating coastline

Towering above the Liver building at Liverpool's famous Pierhead we had a wonderful view across the city from deck 18 as, with a mighty blast from the ship's horn, our liner gently drifted away from her berth and moved slowly downriver towards the Irish Sea.

Astern, the brightly coloured Mersey Ferry nipped past and headed for Birkenhead on the oposite side of the river.

For an hour or so we made stately progress past New Brighton promenade and Fort Perch Rock on the Wirral side and seemingly endless docks on the Liverpool bank, which eventually made way for the golf links-dotted coastline of West Lancashire.

It was a lovely way to spend the early evening, and while the rest of the country sweltered, and while the rest of the country sweltered in the Jly heatwave we basked in the sun but were cooled y a constant sea breeze.

This evening summed up why cruises around the British Isles work so well for overseas tourists and native cruisers alike.You get to see the counry froma different perspective as well as to explore places again that you may not have visited for years.

Them when the coastline is left behind of the light fades, you have all the culinary and entertainment delights of a modern cruise ship to enjoy, knowing there will be more of our beautiful islands to be seen tomorrow. And Britain and Ireland are very beautiful, especially from this angle.

I have only heard good things from people who have tried this cruise, and now I understand why.

For us British it is easy, especially if you live in driving or raildistace of the departure port, in this case, Southampton. With no airline restrictions, packing can be liberal and my wide took full advantage of this.

For once this didn;t mean me manhandling havey luggage. No, for a similar parking fee to an airport all I had to do was pull up practically at the bottom of the gangplank where a porter unloaded the cases and whisked them off for them to appear later in our cabin, or stateroom as the cruise companies somewhat grandly call them. 

Then hand over the car keys to one of th car park staff and forget about driving for 12 days. We just hadto walk into the cruise terminal, get our boarding and room cards issued, and wait for a few minuted before stepping on board and exploring the ship and sampling the lunch offering.

Sailing away is always a mixture of emotions- anticipation, excitement and just a bit poignant. It was a glorious evening as we slipped away through Southampton Water and into the Solent. The evening sun hughlighted the turrets of Netley Castle and further along the channel the supola atop Netley Hospital Chapel. A little later we cruised past the Portsmouth navel base with a glimpse of the masts of HMS Victory and of the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth- still waiting for its aircraft. 

Then it was out past Bembridge on the Isle of Wight and the Nab Lighthouse and a cruise overnight to the Channel Islands. We woke to the best view of St Peter Port going, anchored just outside the harbour from our balcony 15 decks up

The tender boats were already busying to and fro from ship to shore with passengers setting out on various tours around the island. We toook it easy, had a leisurely breakfast, went ashore later and toured teh many jewellers' shops in the town. Wel lI sneaked into the computer store for a while, too.

At dinner, as we headed past Land's End for Ireland, we shared a table with a primary school head from Edmonton, Canada, and her husband, two friends from their children's schooldays from Las Vegas and Salt Lake Sity, and a Florida physician and her husband.

That's one of the bug benefits of cruising: ou meet a very wide variety of people you wouldn't otherwise come across. By itss nature this cruise will attract plenty of Americans, Canadians, Aussies and New Zealanders as it is an excellent way to see a lot of Britain and Ireland in a short time.

There were also Chinese, Mexicans and a group of French passengers who boarded the day before is when the ship called at La Havre.

As well as being right in the middle of the British heatwave our cruise also enjoyed 12 nights of very smooth seas, so we made a very stately progress as we sailed into the second biggest natural harbour in the world- Cobh (formerly Queenstown), the port got Cork. The Emerald Isle was still very green, so not such a drought here. The patchwork of golden fields of grain and lush pastures gave the reeling countryside its rural depth.

Our dinner companions from the previous evening were off on various tours: Blarney Castle was the most popular although few were planning to lean out across the abyss and kiss he stone. Some took the tour into Cork itself and others to the Waterford Crystal factory. Cobh itself is interesting, as the final call of Titanic before she set sail on her first and last Atlantic crossing. 

In the town are memorials to victims of the tragedy and a Titanic museum. The museum in the old railway station right at the cruise terminal is worth visiting too.

Dublin was next and we then criss-crossed the Irish Sea to Liverpool and back to Belfast before heading for Glasgow. 

For these cities we didn't take official tours but opted for hop-on-hop-ff buses to see the essentials. Belfast's tour is the best an d longest, taking in the castle, Stormont and the centre, as well as the sectarian areas of the Falls and Shankill Roads.

In Liverpool the Terracotta Army exhibition was in town and we had booked online a few weeks before. We also paid yet another visit to The Beatles Story at Albert Dock with a new section on their flirtation with India.

A brilliant tribute band, Beatles Yeah, came on board and played two sets as we sailed through the Scottish Islands. They went down a storm- it could have been that most of us were from the Beatles era and their early music was familiar to the younger passengers.

Sailing into and away from our great ports and waterways was a highlight of this cruise. The Mersey, then the Clyde where we earthed at Greenrock and sailed away past the isles of Brute and Great and Little Cymbrae then Arran, and finally towards sunset around the Mull of Kintyre.

after a day sailing through the Hebrides and leaving Harris and Skye in our wake we turned along the northern coast of Scotland at Cape Wrath. Luckily it was still millpond-flat and the Cape could have been renamed Calm.

Then a spot of drama. A passenger needed a medical evacuation. The ship turned into the wind and a coastguard helicopter landed and whisked the patient off the hospital.

By evening we were cruising the Pentland Firth past one of the entrances to Scapa Flow, our most important naval base during both World Wars.

During the night we turned southwards and by the early hours we were nosing along the Cromarty Firth past oil and gas platforms in for repair or mothballing to tie up at Invergordon. From here coaches headed off for Loch Ness, Culloden Moor, scene of the English victory against Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746, or a choice of castles including the Castle of Mey, home of the late Queen Mother.

For passengers who stayed in the little town of Invergordon we followed a tip from my sister who had visited before. The parish church welcomes passengers with a cup of tea or coffee and a shortbread. This is a most friendly welcome, with the volunteers cheating to all. there is also a crew section with free Wifi and support- all in a non-preaching Christian spirit.

From the Cromarty Firth we headed to another spectacular mooring practically under the mighty red girders of the Forth Railway Bridge. In fact the tenders that took us ashore travelled under one of the spans to land at South Queensferry.

From there we travelled into Edinburgh to look round another cruise ship, the rather smaller Royal Yacht Britannia, now one of Scotland's most popular tourist attractions at its mooring in Leith. This is superbly well done and gives a real insight into the way the ship was run and how the royal family used it for both state occasions and private times. I i easy to see why the Queen was so sad to see her yacht retired and to wonder why it wasn't replaced. 

If the cafe on board is full, try the Britannia View restaurant in Debenhams in the adjoining shopping centre. You do get a great view of the ship, and the food and service was well up to Britannia's standards during the vessel's active service. 

Again, the sail away out from the Firth of Forth past the fishing-village coastline of Fife gave a lovely evening of fresh air after the heat of the day.

The next day gave us the opportunity to relax aboard as the ship cruised down the east coast of England past the white cliffs of Dover and across the Channel to Le Havre, where the French contingent disembarked and some replacements got on board. 

It also gave us the chance to take a full day tour to Upper Normandy, first to Giverny and the famous garden of painter Claude Monet. The garden really is spectacular and to keep the level of colour and care is a huge task. It is one of France's biggest tourist attractions, with three million visitors during its fur-moth season.

This is one place to go to on a tour, with instant entry for our group while individuals queued for hundreds of yards. In the gardens it didn't seem overwhelmingly crowded. Then it was off to lunch on the way to visit the cathedral at Rouen and the market place where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake. 

This was the last act of our superb British Isles cruise- in France/. In the early hours we were back in Southampton and by 9am in the car on the way home. Oh well, I suppose Normandy was once governed by England...

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