Despite its small size, the British Isles is one of the most culturally diverse regions on earth; a mixture of two worlds -- traditional and modern -- with separate customs, languages and political histories.
First, a primer: The 'British Isles' refers to the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, including the Republic of Ireland, as well as the 5,000 or so smaller islands around the coasts. The name is purely a geographical term, nothing to do with nationality. While the Republic of Ireland is part of the British Isles, its people are not British -- an important distinction to make.
Most lines offer cruises round the British Isles, including Cunard, Celebrity, MSC, P&O, Regent Seven Seas, Princess and Fred. Olsen. From Dover's white cliffs in the south and the mysterious islands of Orkney in the far north to the port cities of Portsmouth and Cork, British Isles cruises are packed with immense variety -- and allow you to access places that would be difficult to reach on a land trip.
Click through this slideshow to discover some of the highlights of a British Isles cruise.
--By Gilly Pickup, Cruise Critic contributor
Marvel at historic ships in the Historic Dockyard, the most famous of which is HMS Victory, Lord Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. Historic hotspot The Point, also called Spice Island because it was the landing point for the spice trade, is part of 'Old Portsmouth' and the site (in days of yore) of press gangs and all manner of skulduggery. There are plenty of museums to visit, many have a maritime theme including the Mary Rose Museum, home to King Henry VIII’s pride and joy, his 16th-century warship. Those who enjoy juicy views might clamber up Spinnaker Tower where on a clear day, you can see 23 miles out into the Solent, a strait separating the Isle of Wight from mainland England. There is a restaurant at the top.
Tip: Gunwharf Quays with its 95 designer outlets and 14-screen cinema draws shoppers into the heart of Old Portsmouth.
Guernsey, Channel Islands
The Channel Islands, though not the United Kingdom, are part of the British Isles and Crown Dependencies. Guernsey's capital, St. Peter Port, rises majestically from its picturesque harbor to keep a protective eye on Guernsey's sister islands Sark, Alderney, Herm and Jethou. Stacked with old-fashioned charm, the town gained fame in 1855 when Victor Hugo made his home here. During that time he wrote three novels, the most enduring of which is "Les Miserables". Myths and legends abound in Guernsey, which is punctuated with witches' magic resting stones, creepy ruins and fairy rings.
Tip: The Little Chapel of St. Andrews is the charming creation of a Benedictine monk. He recreated a scale model of the Basilica at Lourdes and painstakingly encrusted it in pebbles, seashells and colorful pieces of broken china. Inside, there is space for the priest and five people, quite possibly making this the world's smallest church!
With a rich seafaring history dating back to the 14th century, Fowey (pronounced "foy") is still a busy Cornish port. Cornwall was a kingdom for over four-hundred years and the county's special relationship with the crown continues to the present day. Set in an area of outstanding natural beauty, Fowey is a pretty town with Georgian buildings, quirky, independent shops and the medieval St. Catherine’s Castle looking out over the harbor entrance. Stately Pencarrow House, a Georgian mansion nestling in a woodland setting, is where Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan, composed the music for "Iolanthe". Enjoy a guided tour of the house and gardens and subject to availability, meet the owner, Lady St. Aubyn.
Tip: Local cafes and restaurants offer fabulous local produce. Fowey River mussels are a highlight or treat yourself to a typical 'Cornish cream tea' -- loose leaf tea, scones, locally made strawberry preserve and thick, delicious Cornish clotted cream.
Photo: ian woolcock/Shutterstock
Though this is Ireland’s second largest city, its compactness makes it easy to explore on foot. Popular with visitors, medieval Blarney Castle, with its majestic oblong keep and battlements, towers above the village of the same name. High up in the castle is the legendary Stone of Eloquence, known as the Blarney Stone. If you lie back over a sheer drop to kiss the stone, legend says you will be blessed with the gift of expressive speech and never again be lost for words! Surrounding the castle, paths lead off to natural rock formations such as Druid's Circle, Witch's Cave and the Wishing Steps.
Tip: Perched on a hillside overlooking the city centre, Shandon district is where to revel in top-notch views as well as galleries, antique shops and cafes.
Holyhead, Isle of Anglesey (North Wales)
King Edward I built the castle and walled town of Caernarfon. It is one of his most impressive castles, providing pretty much everything his glossier visitors would have required. In 1969, the castle gained universal fame as the setting for the investiture of HRH Prince Charles as Prince of Wales. A must-visit, if only to have your photo taken beside the signpost, is Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyllllantysiliogogogoch. This is one of the world’s longest place names and means 'St. Mary's church in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio of the red cave'. These days, locals abbreviate the title to 'Llanfair PG', certainly less of a tongue twister!
Tip: Popular with tourists since Victorian times, fairytale village Betws-Y-Coed, which translates as 'prayer-house in the woods' is in Snowdonia National Park.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland's capital is home to a thriving arts and cultural scene. Trendy bars and historic buildings sit side by side in the Cathedral Quarter, while redevelopment means the old shipyards are making way for luxury waterfront apartments in the Titanic Quarter. In the visitor center explore ill-fated liner SS Titanic’s life from construction up to her last poignant moments in the Atlantic Ocean’s savage depths. The dramatic Giant's Causeway, around one hour's drive from Belfast, is on the Causeway Coastal Route. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the result of a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago. Amphitheatres of stone columns have whimsical names: the 'Honeycomb', the 'Organ' and 'Giant’s Harp'.
Tip: Pop into Belfast's Crown Bar, the only U.K. pub owned and preserved by the National Trust. Bursting with Victorian opulence, its snug booths and homely atmosphere have made it world famous.
Photo: Gigi Peis/Shutterstock
Greenock is the port for Glasgow, one of the world's most cultured and increasingly affluent cities. Bursting with raw energy, passion and as much shopping and entertainment as you can handle, this metropolis has drive and vision. Victorian, Regency and ultra-modern styles abound though the prevalent style is Art Nouveau, signature of distinguished architect and local boy Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Visit Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park where for centuries, dense forest-covered mountains and glens have fired imaginations of writers and artists. Auburn deer and wild mountain goats roam hillsides, wide skies boil with birds you’ve probably never seen before, while forests provide shelter for red squirrels.
Tip: Glasgow's 'style mile' comprising Sauchiehall, Buchanan and Argyle Streets, is largely responsible for the city's reputation as the U.K.'s top place to shop outside London.
Photo: Joop Snijder Photography/Shutterstock
Kirkwall, Orkney Islands
The Royal Burgh of Kirkwall is capital of the Orkney Islands, a virtually treeless archipelago lying six miles off Scotland's most northerly tip. The name 'Kirkwall' comes from the Old Norse 'Kirkjuvagar' meaning 'church-bay' and refers to a much older church than the present-day 12th-century St. Magnus Cathedral, a powerful place with red sandstone walls, columns, ramparts and vaulted ceiling. The islands, a mass of standing stones, ancient ruins and spectacular scenery, are one of Europe's richest Neolithic landscapes. The settlement of Skara Brae is where Stone Age people thrived. This ancient housing complex unexpectedly reappeared from the sand after a severe storm in 1850.
Tip: Orkney’s craft jewelers draw on the islands' culture and natural beauty for their unique designs. Why not treat yourself?
Surrounded by a primeval landscape – mist-shrouded mountains, rushing waterfalls, rugged moorland and mysterious glens, Invergordon also has the unfathomable depths of mysterious Loch Ness and its elusive monster as a backdrop. The region is littered with castles, one of which is magnificent 14th-century Cawdor Castle. Reputed to be Macbeth's home, it contains a fine collection of rare tapestries, portraits and furniture. Nearby Cairngorms National Park is awash with ancient pine forests and high upland plateaus with habitats similar to the Arctic.
Tip: Sip a 'wee dram' at Glenmorangie Distillery, a producer of malt whisky for over 150 years. The pure, mineral-rich waters of the Tarlogie Springs, Glenmorangie’s water source, were once considered sacred.
Rosyth is the gateway to Edinburgh, Scotland’s proud capital city. A plethora of visual treats await to delight including the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's official Scottish residence, drenched in history and tapestries. There’s blockbuster attraction, majestic Edinburgh Castle too, perched on an extinct volcano at the top of the Royal Mile, dominating the skyline. Linger to contemplate the Scottish Crown Jewels, displayed beside the Stone of Destiny, coronation seat of Scottish kings, and take the obligatory photos of mighty Mons Meg, a 15th-century siege cannon.
Tip: Fans of the supernatural will love the decidedly spooky 'Real Mary King's Close' lying beneath the City Chambers. Tales here are based on historical fact. Other ghost tours, including those leaving from Mercat Cross, are mainly fabricated, using actors to add to the sense of drama.
Photo: Pedro Diaz/Shutterstock