As a cruise region, the British Isles and Western Europe are basically lumped together more because of geographic proximity than any real similarity -- and most cruise itineraries actually pull from both areas. The bottom line? These European/U.K. voyages are typically crafted to offer a fantastic blend of cosmopolitan appeal (Paris, London, Amsterdam, Dublin, Edinburgh, Brugge), the gorgeous outdoors (in particular, Scotland's Orkney and Shetland Islands, not to mention its northern coastal areas) and charming villages (Honfleur and Guernsey's St. Peter Port come to mind).
And seeing your own back garden and Western Europe via cruise ship is a convenient, hassle-free travel option. With fuel costs rising to more than £1.15 a litre, seeing the U.K. and the continent by car could be pretty costly. Cruising is also much easier on both the feet and the pocket than schlepping around by air, rail or coach.
Itinerary possibilities offer a range of choices. The most common cruises generally last between 10 and 14 nights. But if you don't want to dedicate too much time to a U.K. holiday, you can also find three- to five-night "short break" options, which are terrific for a bit of rest and relaxation and taking minimal time off work. You can explore the lovely Scottish Islands or zap over to France for world-class cheese and wine; stroll the flower-strewn cliff-top paths of the Channel Islands, or live it up like a European MP on a visit to Belgium.
Choosing a Cruise Line
For classic British cruising, try Cunard Line, P&O Cruises or Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines. You can feel continental with Italian-style Costa Cruises or MSC, or act like a Scot with Hebridean International Cruises.
Our region is, of course, big business for culture vultures from across the Atlantic so to be sure, American-friendly big ship operators like Princess, Royal Caribbean, NCL, Celebrity and Holland America have set up home in our waters. It also draws small and mid-size cruise lines like Crystal, Silversea, Seabourn, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas.
All offer round-Britain and near-Europe cruises this year, many sailing from regional ports like Southampton, Dover, Leith (for Edinburgh) and Greenock (for Glasgow) -- so for most, there will only be a short car or train journey to get to your chosen port -- another big plus of cruising!
One major appeal of sailing the British Isles is visiting villages in areas of outstanding scenic beauty that you will never see from trawling along the M25. And don't forget that the smaller isles -- the Orkney and Shetlands to the north and the Channel Islands to the east -- are also occasional cruise stops.
Western Europe ports of call, on the other hand, include various urban spots in France, Amsterdam and Brussels. Urban sophisticates will undoubtedly head from the port of Le Havre for Paris (but repeat visitors may stay put, as Le Havre is convenient to many of Normandy's greatest sights). Brussels is a logical destination when ships dock at Zeebrugge, on Belgium's coast, but Brugge itself is fascinating and fabulous -- and only a half hour away. Amsterdam is a destination in its own right.
Narrowing It Down: What Are the Options?
Looking for a short cruise? P&O offers a handful of three-night trips from Southampton to Brugge (and St. Peter Port). Fred. Olsen offers the occasional short trip; its Black Prince sails a four- night mini-cruise from England's Southampton, calling at Caen and Antwerp.
There's more variety, though, with the traditional longer options -- the 10- to 12-night itineraries -- so if you have the time off, definitely give it a go.
Equally luxurious -- and definitely more exclusive -- are cruises around the Scottish Islands, available from Hebridean International Cruises aboard the country-house-style, 49-passenger Hebridean Princess. River cruise operators famously ply the waters of Western Europe; check into spring tulip-themed trips through the Netherlands, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and beyond. These ships offer a pared down version (with passenger counts in the 100-plus range) of a big ship experience (onboard entertainment to some extent, deluxe dining and comfortable cabins).
Even more exotic are canal barging cruises. While France is perhaps the best known region for these slower-paced trips, you can also find canal trips in England and Scotland -- and beyond.
Travel Plans: Embarkation & Disembarkation
The most common embarkation and disembarkation ports for a big ship in this region are Dover and Southampton (Harwich, not as convenient, fills in as a third port). The very, very lucky -- and this only applies to the smallest of cruise ships -- may actually board in London itself and can watch the bustling capital as the ship travels along the Thames. You'll also see Copenhagen and Lisbon as bookends. There are a variety of roundtrips as well as one-way voyages.
Canal and river cruises often tend to depart from smaller cities or, in the case of the former, tiny villages. Typically, though, these embarkation ports are linked with major cities like London and Paris.
Depending on the heritage of your cruise line, onboard currency could be the British pound, the U.S. dollar or the euro. For instance, folks cruising on P&O will find onboard charges reflected in sterling. Those sailing on Holland America, Carnival, Royal Caribbean or NCL will pay bills in U.S. dollars. And European lines, like Costa and MSC, use the euro.
--Updated by Kelly Ranson, Cruise Critic's U.K. Editor