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9 Classic British Cruise Lines

Britannia in Norway (Photo: P&O Cruises)
Britannia in Norway (Photo: P&O Cruises)

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Much as we love to travel, us Brits often prefer a taste of home while on holiday. Whether it's a morning cuppa -- made with boiling water of course -- Marmite, fish and chips, British beer, a restoring artisan gin and tonic, or comedians tuned into our idiosyncratic humour; all of these things can add extra appeal to a cruise. There are plenty of lines that offer the best of British sailing and here is our selection.

Updated October 10, 2019

1. Cunard

Echoing the style and allure of cruising in days gone by, to many passengers the Cunard name alone epitomises Britishness. Having sailed from Southampton to New York and back since 1847, a transatlantic crossing with Cunard is the essence of life on the ocean wave, and today the Queen Mary 2 is the world's only real ocean liner -- a vessel primarily built for long sea journeys.

Onboard, Cunard ships boast a number of superlatives, including the biggest ballroom and largest library at sea, along with notable British partnerships. The line has an affiliation with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), arguably the most famous acting school in the English-speaking world, to present specially edited versions of renowned plays and adaptations of literary classics on transatlantic crossings. Passengers can even hone their own skills at RADA workshops. Other partnerships include the English National Ballet and Cheltenham Literary Festival.

Signature Cunard experiences include impeccably served afternoon tea with freshly-baked scones and finger sandwiches -- served on the dot of 3:30 p.m. daily -- and opulent gala balls. The "Cunard Insights" enrichment programme features eminent guest speakers from the world of politics, science, the arts, entertainment and more.

2. P&O Cruises

P&O Cruises "Astonishing" A Revolutionary Magic and Illusion Show (Photo: P&O Cruises)

The fab-u-lous glitz and glamour of the UK's favourite dance show takes to the seas on P&O's exclusive partnership with "Strictly Come Dancing," featuring couples and judges from the series. In fact, everything on P&O is geared to British tastes, including brand partners, decor, bars, food (think 52 varieties of British beer, artisan gins, fish and chips at the Beach House and curry nights) and entertainment. The new "Astonishing" passenger interactive magic and illusion show on Azura, Ventura and current flagship Britannia was produced with BAFTA-winning presenter Stephen Mulhern, performer Jonathan Wilkes and illusionist Guy Barrett.

P&O's "Food Heroes" are celebrity chef Marco Pierre White, wine expert Olly Smith and master patissier Eric Lanlard, who join selected cruises and host excursions. The line's Cookery Club is also joined by guest chefs such as host of BBC's "Saturday Kitchen" Matt Tebbutt and chef and author Sabrina Ghayour who offer masterclasses, guest dinners and Q&A sessions.

A new 5,200-passenger flagship, Iona, launches in 2020 and will be the largest ship built to serve the British market, followed by a yet-to-be-named sister ship in 2022. In the meantime, P&O has tuned in to the British aversion to tipping, with discretionary service charges removed altogether as of May 2019.

3. Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines

Widely known as the "friendliest fleet afloat", kettles in cabins and Sunday roast (with top-notch Yorkshire puds) are just a part of the archetypal Fred. Olsen experience. Although Norwegian-owned, the line's four ships -- the 1,360-passeenger Balmoral, 929-passenger Braemar, 856-passenger Boudicca and the 804-passenger Black Watch -- are unashamedly British and as a result virtually all the passengers are from the UK.

Satisfying the British sense of curiosity and exploring destinations in depth rather than just scratching at the surface, Fred. "brings the world closer" by docking in destinations larger vessels are unable to reach and increasing scenic cruising in between. Catering for the increasing number of Brits that travel alone, Fred. has fantastic facilities for solo travellers, from cabins with balconies to exclusive onboard events.

Life onboard has a British slant with West End-style shows, well-stocked libraries featuring familiar-name authors and accounts payable in pounds. The price of beer and drinks is refreshingly inexpensive, too, with no pesky service charge added. A standout treat is the white glove service afternoon tea (in addition to daily afternoon tea in the buffet restaurant) available a couple of times a week on every cruise and featuring dainty finger sandwiches, cakes and scones with jam and cream.

4. Saga Cruises

 Concept Art of the Britannia Lounge onboard Spirit of Discovery (Photo: Saga Cruises)

In 2019 Saga enters a new era with the introduction of its first brand-new ship -- Spirit of Discovery -- which is also the first small ship built for the British market since the turn of the millennium. In 2020 it will debut the sister vessel Spirit of Adventure, signalling the retirement of its older vessels Saga Pearl II and Saga Sapphire.

Tailored specifically for British cruisers aged 50 and over, the new vessels will have all the hallmarks that make Saga such a firm favourite with Brits -- right down to small details such as the Werther's Original sweets handed out on shore excursions -- coupled with exciting new elements.

There will be balconies for all 999 passengers, including 109 single cabins, and new venues will include The Club by Jools music lounge with a menu featuring Cornish crab cakes, Dover sole and steaks. Jools Holland and his band will be playing live on several cruises. The ships will also have the all-new Coast to Coast restaurant, serving British and locally-sourced fish and seafood, along with Saga’s first theatre at sea, the Playhouse, with West-End style shows.

5. Cruise & Maritime Voyages

Boasting wraparound teak promenade decks and classic lines, Cruise & Maritime Voyages' (CMV) fleet of six vessels conjure up an image of what many British cruisers would deem "proper" ships. CMV is Britain's leading independent cruise company and 2019 marks the 10th year of operating no-fly cruises from 15 British and Irish ports, more than any other line.

While the ships don't have the razzmatazz of all-singing all-dancing modern vessels, British cruisers return time after time for the country house home-from-home atmosphere, bar prices on a par with your local, lots of traditional British fare -- from full English breakfast to nightly five-course dinners -- and Brit-focused entertainment, such as the Themed Cruise programme of arts and crafts, comedy and cricket. The 800-passenger Marco Polo and intimate 550-passenger Astoria are adults-only ships, while Columbus and Magellan cater for families during the school summer holidays.

Onboard talks on cruises of five nights or more are geared to British interests and there are also arts and crafts sessions on these longer sailings, such as bead jewellery, mosaic decoration, calligraphy and decorative card art. There are also "A Laugh on the Ocean Waves" itineraries where passengers can enjoy the talents of guest comedians guaranteed to tickle the British funny bone.

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6. Marella Cruises

Champneys Spa on Marella Explorer 2 (Photo: Marella Cruises)

Owned by TUI, Britain's largest travel agency and tour operator, Britishness runs through Marella Cruises like a stick of rock. In fact, you won't find a line that's more British in terms of food, drinks and entertainment onboard. Marmite, HP Sauce, Tiptree jams, Yorkshire Tea and Wall's sausages -- along with every other component to create a full English -- can be found on the breakfast buffet, along with shepherd's pie, fish and chips and curries later in the day.

Tipping has long been a thorny subject with Brits, but on Marella all gratuities are included in the fare. Plus, from May 2019 all ships became all-inclusive as standard; not just limited to drinks, but including dining in at least four restaurants, too.

Marella introduced the first ever Champneys Spa at sea -- plus a bar stocked with home distilled gin and whisky brands -- when the 1,924-passenger Marella Explorer joined the six-strong fleet in 2018. The 1,814-passenger Marella Explorer 2, which debuted in spring 2019, features the Snack Shack, with the feel of a seaside resort, and the golf-themed 19th Hole clubhouse bar. In addition to sailing from the U.K., with its clout as the biggest tour operator, cruise passengers can fly from regional airports throughout the UK and combine their sailing with a land-based stay at worldwide hotels used by TUI.

7. Noble Caledonia

Carrying a maximum of just 118 passengers, Noble Caledonia's trio of ships -- Island Sky, Caledonian Sky and Hebridean Sky -- recreate the atmosphere of a country house party, albeit one that's afloat. Many of the 70 plus crew members have been with the company for years, welcoming back loyal passengers; mostly discerning Brits looking to travel in quiet surroundings with like-minded shipmates.

Drinks with meals and all tips are included, as well as guides and drivers along the way. From spring 2019 complimentary Wi-Fi was added to the inclusions on all three vessels -- one less pesky charge for British cruisers -- and any extras are payable in pounds.

Showcasing high quality and attention to detail, the immersive global itineraries appeal to the culture vultures. Passengers can also expect to hear from eminent guest speakers such as Japan expert Reverend Dr Judith Thomas, honorary fellow of Trinity College Cambridge and former Bishop of London Lord Chartres, and Major Gordon Corrigan, military historian and the author of a number of books on subjects ranging from the Hundred Years War to the Peninsula War to the First and Second World Wars.

8. Hebridean Island Cruises

Passengers Exploring Ashore on Port (Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises)

Well, if it's good enough for the Queen, who in 2006 celebrated her 80th birthday on Hebridean Princess and chartered the ship again in 2010, then it's certainly going to be acceptable for her subjects. The line's one ocean-going vessel carries 50 passengers around Scotland in style, and around 95 percent of them are British. This upmarket company has links with The Arts Society and members benefit from fare savings in addition to supporting the society by booking a Hebridean cruise.

The Queen famously never carries cash, so it's probably no surprise that Hebridean Princess offers completely all-inclusive sailings; a big appeal for Brits who don't mind paying for an expensive holiday (nine-night sailings can go up nearly £13,000) but object to a sting in the tail and having to fork out for tips and extras at the end.

Another inherent fear among many British cruisers is dining with strangers, and although the onboard atmosphere in very convivial, solo passengers can choose to dine on their own if they wish or, conversely, join a table hosted by one of the ship's officers. Food and drink showcases local products, naturally including Scottish whiskies, and no cruise is complete without a recital of Robert Burns' "Address to a Haggis".

9. The Majestic Line

Crew members taking the tender to fetch morning newspapers is part of the attention to detail that is part and parcel of the personal service on The Majestic Line. The fleet comprises four vessels, Glen Massan, Glen Tarsan and Glen Etive, with a fourth ship, Glen Shiel, joining in summer 2019.

Glen Massan and Glen Tarsan are beautifully restored classic fishing vessels, converted to cater to the comforts of fare-paying passengers, and the other vessels were especially built for The Majestic Line. All of them are filled with traditional wood and gleaming brass along with a country house-style decor which lends itself to the relaxed onboard atmosphere. Carrying just 11 passengers, the vessels explore the lochs and islands off Scotland's western coastline.

Meals are a highlight and showcase local produce that is often unique to the area. Meat comes from the three-generation family-owned Jackson Brothers Master Butcher in Oban and seafood is sourced within a six-mile radius of Oban by Watts Fish, another small family business. Passengers can also fish from the boats, and creels are laid down for lobster, crab and crayfish. Anything caught will feature at the next meal, creating a wonderful farm -- or fish -- to-fork experience.

Crew members taking the tender to fetch morning newspapers is part of the attention to detail that is part and parcel of the personal service on the Majestic Line. The fleet is made up of four vessels, Glen Massan, Glen Tarsan and Glen Etive with a fourth ship, Glen Shiel, joining in summer 2019.

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