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? As a European/U.K. cruise experience, these voyages are typically crafted to offer a fantastic blend of cosmopolitan appeal (Paris, London, Amsterdam, Dublin, Edinburgh, Brugge) and the gorgeous outdoors for nature buffs (in particular, Scotland's Orkney and Shetland Islands, not to mention its northern coastal areas) and, finally, charming villages (Honfleur and Guernsey's St. Peter Port come to mind).
And seeing the British Isles and Western Europe via cruise ship is a convenient, hassle-free travel option -- 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 you can also find three- to five-night "short break" options, which are terrific for a bit of rest and relaxation after visiting friends or relatives in Britain. 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
The region attracts, to be sure, American-friendly big ship operators like Princess, Royal Caribbean, NCL, Celebrity and Holland America (though you won't find their super-sized ships trawling these waters) but it also draws small- and mid-size cruise lines, like Crystal, Silversea, Seabourn, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas.
But the area offers a chance to experience a more exotic onboard milieu. 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 Island Cruises.
All offer round Britain and near-Europe cruises this year, many sailing from British ports like Southampton, Dover, Leith (for Edinburgh) and Greenock (for Glasgow) -- so you can combine your cruise with a Scottish short break or a longer stay exploring London and the south east of England.
Broadly speaking, the British Isles region consists of England, Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Beyond its well-known cities (from Waterford to Belfast and from Edinburgh to London), one major appeal is villages in areas of outstanding scenic beauty. 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 an 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.
Equally luxurious -- and definitely more exclusive -- are cruises around the Scottish Islands, available from Hebridean Princess 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 and 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.
And for the first time in ages, budget-seekers have a new option! easyCruise, which last year launched its easyCruise2 in Western Europe, trawling the waterways of the Netherlands and Belgium, has the industry's lowest rate (and offers a back-to-basics atmosphere onboard) and returns there again this summer, spring and fall.
Travel Plans: Embarkation & Disembarkation
The most common embarkation and disembarkation ports for a big ship in this region are England's Dover or 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. 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 British pounds. 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 Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief