The U.K.'s love of cruising shows no time of slowing down anytime soon -- there are now more ships and cruises to choose from than ever before. 2015 has been a particularly auspicious year, with the launch of two huge ships in Southampton in the space of a few weeks. The biggest ever built purpose-built ship for the U.K. -- P&O Cruises' Britannia -- launched in March. Royal Caribbean's second all-singing, all-dancing Quantum Class ship -- Anthem of the Seas -- followed a month later. You've also go perennial U.K. favourite -- Celebrity Eclipse -- which has just returned from a significant makeover. All three are based out of Southampton -- so you don't even need to fly.
All this means that U.K. cruisers can choose from a seemingly endless list of contrasting countries and cruising styles, whether it's Britannia's traditionally British feel, or Anthem's Las Vegas vibe or Celebrity Eclipse's sophisticated ambience.
For first time cruisers, the sheer volume of options can be bewildering at first -- but fear not -- we've created a potted guide to some of the best options around for new-to-cruisers looking to find their sea legs.
Why? P&O Cruises is the longest and most established cruise line sailing from British shores, with 178 years of history. It has a fleet of ships sailing from Southampton, including its newest ship, the 3647-passenger Britannia; and twin sisters Azura and Ventura, which carry 3,100 and 3,080 passengers, respectively. All three are family friendly ships. Celebrity Cruises, a premium U.S. cruise line, offers a growing variety of ex-U.K. cruises out of Southampton on multi-award winning Celebrity Eclipse, part of the line's Solstice class.
Ship Highlights: Britannia takes all the most popular aspects of P&O Cruises' ships -- Olly Smith's The Glass House, Atul Kochhar's Sindhu, the line's link-up with Strictly Come Dancing, The Crow's Nest -- and includes or enhances it on Britannia. You'll find 56 craft beers in Brodie's Pub; 20 or more different types of British gins in the Crow's Nest and Anton du Beke on the dancefloor on selected cruises.
As well as The Glass House and Sindhu, passengers can enjoy the three-deck atrium overlooking an art gallery, bookshop, library, shops and a dance floor. Sea days are enhanced with an open-air cinema, The Playhouse Theatre, a gym featuring ocean views and the relaxing Oasis Spa.
Ventura also adds some glitz and glamour to the usual cruise repertoire by teaming up with famous names like celebrity chef Marco Pierre White, who offers fine dining in his own signature restaurant, The White Room. Circus workshops and a giant Scalextric track for electric car-racing also keeps families amused on sea days. Diners can choose from 11 cafes and restaurants and 12 bars and lounges.
Eighty-five percent of Celebrity Eclipse's cabins have balconies. It offers restaurants that range from unique upscale dining with Qsine to the Tuscan Grille for Italian fare and the suite guests-only Luminae. Passengers can walk on fresh grass in a country club atmosphere at the Lawn Club, take a global wine tour in Cellar Masters, enjoy therapeutic rituals from all around the world in the AquaSpa or sit in on Apple workshops in the world's first iLounge at sea.
Where do they go?Britannia, Azura and Ventura spend the summer season sailing to the Mediterranean, Canary Islands, Norway and Fjords, and the Baltic; as well as short break cruises to the Channel Islands and Belgium and Holland. Cruises ranging from two to 17 nights.Celebrity Eclipse offers a range of eight- to 14-night cruises from Southampton to Scandinavia and Russia, the Mediterranean, Iceland, the Canaries and the Azores.
Best for Trans-Atlantic: Cunard
Why? Cunard has been celebrating the 175th anniversary of the first Transatlantic crossing from Liverpool to New York throughout this year (2015). Today, it is the only purpose-built cruise liner in service, and offers a six-night crossing from Southampton on Queen Mary 2, the biggest and most amenity-laden vessel in the fleet. The six-night sailings are well known for their traditions, service and style, and aim to recapture the golden era of shipping before the days of flying.
Ship Highlights: The most elegant big ship at sea, Queen Mary 2 harks back to the romance of ocean cruising -- and the old traditions, such as class, with passengers divided between the Queens Grill, Princess Grill and everyone else. Dining is a grand occasion, while afternoon tea is a formal, white-gloved affair. Yet, the ship still offers modern comforts like a state-of-the-art gym and health spa, one of the largest libraries at sea and the first -- and only -- planetarium on a cruise ship.
Where does it go? Queen Mary 2 spends the majority of the year (spring to autumn) crossing the Atlantic between Southampton and New York. Some transatlantic cruises start in Hamburg.
Why? With a heavy-leaning Italian ambience and year-long sailings throughout the Mediterranean, it's no wonder MSC declares the Mediterranean the heart and soul of its global operation. Winter cruise ports of call include such cities as Messina, Barcelona and Santorini. MSC Preziosa is MSC's Mediterranean flagship, the line's biggest, splashiest ever, which debuted in 2013.
Royal Princess -- which made headlines in 2013 when it was named by the Duchess of Cambridge (her last official engagement before giving birth to Prince George) -- is based in Rome and offers traditional seven-night Mediterranean and Adriatic cruises.
Ship Highlights: The 12th ship in the fleet -- and the fourth in MSC's flagship Fantasia Class -- Preziosa is making its mark with all-new facilities that include the longest single-rider body waterslide on the waves, a children's aqua park, an expanded shopping mall and the first two Eataly restaurants at sea. And, it's all coupled with the company's distinctive Mediterranean atmosphere.
Princess Cruises doesn't set out to dazzle with gimmickry (no bumper cars at sea, ropes courses or simulated surf pools for this Princess), and it's never wanted (or needed) to. The line opts for a more traditional style of cruising, even as it does occasionally push the bounds in terms of innovation. It's certainly come up with some great ideas -- Movies Under The Stars, the adults-only Sanctuary and the transformation of a functional ship's atrium into the buzzing Piazza -- that are now widely copied by other lines.
Where do they go? During the summer months, MSC Preziosa sails between Italy, Spain, Tunisia and Malta; in winter, it adds France, Gibraltar and Morocco to its routes.Royal Princess is offering seven-night Mediterranean and Adriatic cruises until autumn 2015. Best for Caribbean Fly-Cruises: Norwegian Cruise Lines
Why? Having begun operations under the name Norwegian Caribbean Line, this line claims to have invented modern Caribbean cruising more than 40 years ago and was in fact the first contemporary ship line to develop new ports throughout the islands. Norwegian also started the move toward more onboard flexibility with its "Freestyle Cruising" concept, enabling passengers to eat where, when and with whom they want. The 4,100-passenger, 155,873-ton Norwegian Epic, one of the largest cruise ships in the world, is the latest and greatest offering from the line; it sails to Caribbean destinations.
Ships Highlights: Passengers are never bored on Epic, which hosts the first Blue Man Group performances at sea, the Cirque Dreams dinner theater, an Aqua park, bowling alleys, a chilly ice bar, a state-of-the-art fitness centre with rock climbing, and a teen disco. Meal options include more than 20 different dining facilities, though some -- like Shanghai's Chinese Restaurant and the Brazilian steakhouse, Moderno Churrascaria -- require additional cover charges. Lodging options range from studios for solo travellers to private courtyard villas, complete with concierge and butler service.
Where does it go? Norwegian Epic sails a series of seven-day Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises departing from Miami.
Best for Traditional Cruises: Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines and Voyages of Discovery
Why? Fred. Olsen is a family-owned company with a strong following among British cruisers who love the cosy, friendly atmosphere aboard its ships. The line offers more of a taste of how cruising used to be -- before the age of the mega-ships -- with set meal times, formal nights, captain's cocktail parties, onboard lectures and after-dinner quizzes. While Fred. Olsen does attract families on some of its ships, the line mainly appeals to an older clientele. Fred. Olsen's Balmoral, which launched in 2008, is the fleet's biggest ever, but there are cosier choices like Boudicca, Braemar and Black Watch.
Simplicity is at the heart of Voyages of Discovery; the 'fleet' consists of just one ship -- 550-passenger Voyager -- and there are neither extra or hidden onboard fees nor a casino in sight. Known for its insightful lectures at sea, extended time at each destination and a more intimate atmosphere, Voyages of Discovery attracts like-minded passengers seeking simpler, more traditional cruises.
Ship Highlights: Fred. Olsen ships have all the expected amenities -- swimming pools, hot tubs, beauty salons, card rooms, etc. Boudicca, refitted in January 2011, now sports a new gym facility with sea views and additional passenger cabins, while Balmoral, launched in 2008, features three restaurants, a grill and cafe, plus a small casino.
Voyages of Discovery's Voyager, refurbished in 2011, includes pools, Jacuzzis, bars, lounges, alfresco dining, libraries, card rooms, gyms and cinemas. The standout onboard activities are the destination-themed talks and lectures given by experienced cruise staff and guest speakers in the ship's lecture theatre. Excursions onshore are a main highlight of these cruises, and passengers are given ample to time to explore their destinations.
Where do they go? Fred. Olsen ships depart from a huge range of U.K. ports on cruises to the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, the Caribbean, and the Baltic, as well as sailings to the Americas and round-the-world cruises to the South Pacific, Australia and Asia.
Voyages of Discovery offers myriad cruise types and destinations from U.K. ports, including no-fly cruises to the Baltics, the Caribbean, Northern Europe and Scandinavia, as well as a 147-day Grand Voyager journey.
Best for Family Cruises: Royal Caribbean
Why? Royal Caribbean International is one of the largest U.S. cruise lines, with a very family-friendly focus, and the company has been gradually increasing its presence in the U.K. Based out of Southampton, Independence of the Seas is a member of the line's Freedom-class of ships; all have extensive children's facilities, indoor shopping malls, ice-skating rinks and water parks.
Ship Highlights: From the ship's Royal Babies & Royal Tots program offering interactive activities for the youngest of travellers and Adventure Ocean youth programs with educational and entertaining experiences meant to put the "cool" back into learning for ages 3 to 11, to tween and teen programs, nursery services and sitters at sea, Independence of the Seas is a veritable family-friendly oasis. Adults and children alike can take their pick from a mouth-watering array of activities that include the FlowRider surf simulator, H20 Zone water park, rock-climbing wall, ice-skating rink and even a full-size boxing ring. Adults are not forgotten, as they have a total of 25 restaurants, bars and lounges from which to choose.
Where does it go? Independence of the Seas offers sailings that range from four-night mini-cruises to 14-night voyages to the Mediterranean and Canary Islands. The ship leaves the U.K. during the winter to sail the Caribbean, but it comes back in the spring.
Best for Luxury Cruises: Seabourn
Why? Seabourn prides itself on being at the very top of luxury cruises, with impeccable service, desirable destinations, inclusive extras like coffee and cocktails, and the highest ratio of space per guest in the industry, all in an intimate and unpretentious setting with like-minded passengers. The fleet's latest and most luxurious are Seabourn Odyssey (introduced in 2009), Seabourn Sojourn (2010) and Seabourn Quest (2011).
Ship Highlights: All three ships include the signature Seabourn Square, a "living room" instead of a lobby with easy chairs, sofas, cocktail tables and concierges; the largest indoor and outdoor spa on any luxury ship; private verandas on 90 percent of suites; whirlpools, swimming pools and sun decks; a nine-hole putting green; and a panoramic Observation Bar. Various dining options allow passengers to eat restaurant-style whenever, wherever and with whomever for every meal. They can also sample tasting menus or enjoy grilled specialties on the patio.
Where does it go? From seven-night Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises and journeys throughout Southeast Asia, South America and Africa to 100+-night jaunts around the globe, these ships offer a virtually endless range of destinations and cruise types.
Best for River Cruises: Viking River Cruises
Why? This Norwegian-owned company is one of the most established operators on Europe's waterways, with a fleet of 25 vessels that offer sailings on the major rivers of Europe, Russia, the Ukraine, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. The latest and greatest are Viking Prestige, Viking Legend and sister ships Viking Helvetia and Viking Sun. It's slated to be a big year for Viking River Cruises in 2012, with the fleet expecting six new additions by fall.
Ship Highlights: All four ships are slightly larger than their predecessors, but they feature sleeker shapes for added flexibility. The ships' amenities include sun decks with 360-degree views, restaurants, bars and boutiques. Viking Prestige also features the Aquavit Terrace, an indoor/outdoor area for viewing, relaxing and dining at the bow of the ship. The newest vessels, Prestige and Legend, are the first "green" ships to sail the fleet, boasting hybrid diesel-electric engines, which allow for 20 percent fewer emissions and reduced noise and vibrations.
Where does it go? All these vessels cruise the Rhine or the Danube, offering trips from eight to 10 nights.
Best for Cultural Cruises: Voyages to Antiquity
Why? Combining meticulously planned itineraries, destinations and speakers with the luxury of boutique-style cruising, Voyages to Antiquity offers cultural travel at its best, from explorations of western civilisation to excursions through the Orient. Voyages to Antiquity's unique amenities include guided sightseeing at each port of call and economy flights with British Airways to and from your cruise. The mid-sized Aegean Odyssey is ideal for Mediterranean island and coastal cruising, visiting smaller, less-crowded ports, charming villages and ancient sites inaccessible to big cruise ships, as well as navigating the rivers of Southeast Asia.
Ship Highlights: With a mere 350-passenger capacity, Aegean Odyssey is great for those looking to avoid crowds and experience a more intimate cruise setting. With open-seating restaurants and an outdoor terrace, afternoon tea, room service, seven bars and lounges, a library, a lecture theatre, a pool, spa and Jacuzzi, Aegean Odyssey's size does not restrict its amenities. In addition to the included excursion programs and a knowledgeable onboard staff, guest speakers accompany each cruise to give talks relevant to each itinerary.
Where does it go? Aegean Odyssey sails the Mediterranean, Aegean, Adriatic, Black and Red Seas from spring to fall, offering winter cruises to India and the Far East.
Best for Value-Priced Cruises: Cruise & Maritime Voyages
Why? Britain's newest privately owned cruise line prides itself on offering exceptional value, undercutting the competition with low rates and special offers and fostering a leisurely and traditional cruising atmosphere. Cruise & Maritime offers various group discounts, Super Fare discounts up to 25 percent off for early bookers and a "Bring a Friend" option from only £39, which allows a third or fourth passenger to share select cabins with two full-fare-paying adults. The fleet consists of sister ships, adults-only Marco Polo and Ocean Countess, both carrying around 800 passengers and departing from a range of British ports that include London Tilbury, Hull and Liverpool.
Where does it go? Both ships offer a range of destinations, including the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Baltic, Norwegian Fjords, the Arctic Circle and South America's Amazon.
Best for Over-50s: Saga
Why? Saga is a British-based cruise line that's exclusive to passengers 50 years of age or older. The ships and cruises are designed specifically with this demographic's needs in mind, placing an emphasis on comfort, service and ease of travel. Saga Ruby is the fleet's ocean-cruising flagship.
Ship Highlights: With just about one crewmember for every couple onboard the 661-passenger ship, Saga Ruby prides itself on its attentive service, from porters carrying your bags upon arrival to tuxedo-clad waiter service in the Dining Room and pampering experts at Ruby's Spa Aquarius. Additional amenities include a welcome cocktail party, a theatre, a traditional library, a ballroom, 24-hour room service, bars and lounges.
Where does it go? Saga Ruby travels all over the world, with one 100+-night world cruise each year. In addition, Saga Ruby offers a variety of cruises to the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Far East, Europe and the Netherlands.
--by Sara Macefield, Cruise Critic contributor; Updated by Christina Livadiotis, Cruise Critic Contributor