And it's not just Brits embarking in Southampton, Dover, Harwich and Liverpool. Although Celebrity Cruises' associate vice president and general manager for U.K. and Ireland Jo Rzymowska expected some 90 percent of passengers booking Celebrity Eclipse out of Southampton to be British, the reality has turned out to be 75 percent British and 25 percent international, including many Americans.
So what's the story with these up-and-coming homeports? Southampton -- the U.K.'s biggest cruise port -- welcomes one million cruise passengers per year (an estimate from Associated British Ports), and in 2010 it saw a boom with new vessels like P&O Cruises' Azura, Cunard's Queen Elizabeth and Celebrity Cruises' Celebrity Eclipse, all based at the port. Plus, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas started its year-round operation from Southampton in the spring. 2011 is also looking rosy for Southampton -- the port has won over MSC's cruise business from Dover, and Celebrity Eclipse has signed up for a second season from the south coast port.
The U.K.'s second-largest cruise port is Dover. Although it's losing some business in 2011, it's home to many classic ships, including Fred. Olsen's Black Watch and Braemar, Holland America's Ryndam and Eurodam, and Saga's Saga Pearl II and Saga Ruby.
And, don't forget Harwich and Liverpool, which both serve as embarkation ports. Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas and Voyages of Discovery's Discovery both call Harwich their home, while Liverpool plays host to Fred. Olsen's Boudicca and Cruise and Maritime Voyages' Ocean Countess.
Over the next few years, look for an influx of spending at budding cruise ports in the U.K. Cardiff Council, for example, is looking to boost cruise tourism in the Welsh city and is planning on spending £200,000 to renovate the harbour.
If you've never cruised out of a U.K. homeport, or just want to know how to get the most out of your pre- or post-cruise experience, we have compiled a handy roundup to help you out. Also, be sure to check out our port profiles for Southampton, Dover, Liverpool and Harwich for more in-depth information and hotel recommendations.
Who's Sailing from There? It's more a case of who isn't sailing from there. As we've already mentioned, many of the big guys -- including the Carnival U.K. brands (P&O Cruises, Princess Cruises and Cunard), Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas and Celebrity Cruises' Celebrity Eclipse -- depart from Southampton. Fred. Olsen's Balmoral and Black Watch also have a number of departures from Southampton.
Spending a Day: Southampton offers a mix of attractions to travellers on pre- or post-cruise stays. Of the city's multiple museums, the Maritime Museum, which houses a permanent Titanic exhibition, is best for ship-lovers. If you need a shopping fix before you board your ship, West Quay Shopping Centre is packed full of large stores, including John Lewis, Marks and Spencer and Next. It's very close to the cruise terminals.
Longer Trips: There is plenty to do along the South Coast, particularly during the summer months, so be sure to get out into the surrounding counties. Close by is the stone circle of StoneHenge; the picturesque and tranquil New Forest region where horses roam free; and the Isle of Wight, which can also be visited in a day by taking a short trip across the Solent (less than an hour) on the Red Funnel Line ferry.
How Do I Get There?
By Rail: South West Trains from London Waterloo and other southern stations stop at Southampton Central station. From there, your cruise line may have a shuttle to the port, or you can take a taxi, which will cost about £5 and take about five minutes. Train journeys take 1 to 1.5 hours from London.
By Car: The M25 and M3 Motorways link to M27, which goes right through Southampton. The docks are clearly signposted in the city, and parking (usually pre-bookable) is available at the port.
By Bus: National Express runs coaches to Southampton Coach Station from across the country, including London Victoria and London Heathrow Airport.
By Plane: Southampton Airport has a number of regional and European flight departures.
Who's Sailing from There? Dover is the second-busiest cruise port in the U.K. It is often a base for Northern Europe cruises, due to its location on the east coast of England in Kent. Ships sailing from Dover in 2011 include Fred. Olsen's Black Watch and Braemar, Saga's Saga Pearl II and Saga Ruby, Princess Cruises' Ocean Princess and Holland America's Ryndam and Eurodam.
Spending a Day: A first-time visit to Dover isn't complete without a trip to see the White Cliffs. The National Trust (runs guided walks from April through October. Dover Castle, which was built in the 12th Century by Henry II, is also worth a visit if you want to brush up on your English heritage. Meet Medieval characters, and even take a look at the secret wartime tunnels that acted as air-raid shelters and then military command centres during World War II.
Longer Trips: The county of Kent, known as the Garden of England, offers plenty of history and heritage. If you have the time, visit Canterbury and its Cathedral -- the city is famed for Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The ancient town of Sandwich has well-preserved Medieval buildings -- a visit there is like stepping back in time!
How Do I Get There?
By Rail: Southeastern trains depart from London Victoria, London St. Pancras, London Charing Cross and other southern railway stations. Journey time varies from 70 minutes to more than two hours.
By Car: Both the M20 and M2 Motorways have good access down to the port where car parking is available.
By Bus: National Express coaches depart regionally and from London Victoria to Dover. Journey time from London is approximately two hours.
By Plane: There isn't a local airport in Dover, but Gatwick and Heathrow are both about an hour away. Transfers can be arranged from airport to port. Both airports also offer rail links via central London stations.
Who's Sailing from There? Harwich International's port in Essex prides itself on being placed perfectly for Scandinavian and Baltic cruises, as well as round-Britain cruises. For 2011, cruise lines choosing to embark at the port include Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas and Voyages of Discovery's Discovery.
Spending a Day: If you fancy a spot of shopping, head to the main retail centre of Harwich or nearby Dovercourt. There are also a number of retail outlets close to the port, including Peacocks, Argos and Lidl. The fact that Harwich is only 70 miles from London means that many cruise passengers will opt to spend time in and around the city pre- or post-cruise by catching the cruise train (see "How Do I Get There?" for more information). In Harwich's surrounding areas, you can take a trip to Mersea Island, famed for its native oysters, or tour Colchester and visit the Castle Museum.
Longer Trips: If you have more time, take a trip to Constable Country to view the landscape that inspired artist John Constable. The beautiful and scenic countryside and the River Stour make beautiful photographic subjects.
How Do I Get There?
By Rail: During the cruise season, there is a train scheduled specifically to take passengers from London to the cruise port (specific times only). This cruise train is operated by National Express East Anglia -- head to London Liverpool Street to catch the train to Harwich Port. Journey time is approximately 90 minutes.
By Car: Easy road links from the M25 and M11 Motorways. (Access to the port is via small A roads, which will be signposted.) Car parking is available at the port.
By Bus: Bus links are available from central London to Harwich.
By Plane: The port is located about an hour from London Stansted airport.
Who's Sailing from There? Liverpool, which is situated an equal distance between London and Edinburgh, is hoping to boost its cruise tourism in the future with Liverpool City Council and Peel Ports announcing a 10-year master plan to turn the River Mersey into a leading cruise destination. Now however, embarkation is carried out at the not-so-glamorous (and out-of-town) Langton Docks. Only Fred. Olsen's Boudicca and Cruise & Maritime Voyages' Ocean Countess are operating out of the port in 2010 and 2011. Ships visiting for the day stop at the City Terminal (five minutes' walk from the city centre), which offers a more scenic cityscape arrival into Liverpool than the industrial docks.
Spending a Day: There is a lot do in a day in Liverpool, so it may be worth considering a night's stay prior to your cruise to maximise your time in the city. If you have limited time, head to the Albert Docks where you will find an array of shops, bars and restaurants. There, you can also sample a Liverpool must-do -- The Beatles Story. The exhibitions relive the musical life of the Fab Four. The Merseyside Maritime Museum is nearby, too.
Longer Trips: Beyond Liverpool lies the Mersey Waterfront Regional Park, which spans 145 km along the coast. You'll find plenty of beaches and coastal walks well worth treading. It's a great trip for bird-watchers, and you can expect to see the endangered red squirrel there, too.
How Do I Get There?
By Rail: From the south, catch a Virgin train from London Euston to Liverpool Lime Street station. Journey time is approximately 2.5 hours. From the station, hop in a taxi to the port -- it will take about 20 minutes and costs approximately £15.
By Car: The M6 Motorway has links from around the country, including the M58, M56 and the M62 Motorways to the city and the port.
By Bus: The National Express runs services from around the country to Liverpool -- although if you are coming from the south, this could be the longest journey time option. (We're talking more than five hours.)
By Plane: Liverpool John Lennon Airport is located eight miles from the city centre and offers flight connections to and from European destinations.
--by Kelly Ranson, U.K. Editor