by Fred Mawer, The Telegraph, January 22, 2019
Many British Isles cruises stick to the same major ports – places like Southampton, Liverpool, Dublin and Edinburgh – and concentrate on offering excursions to famous and very busy sights such as Stonehenge and Edinburgh Castle.
These itineraries can work well for first-time visitors from abroad. But especially for British and Irish residents, of more appeal may be cruises on smaller vessels that take you to much less visited ports, and to off-the-beaten-track or far-flung corners of Britain and Ireland. Here is a selection:
A birdwatching voyage
Noble Caledonia's exploratory voyages of less-discovered parts of the British Isles include a journey from Plymouth up to Oban that focuses primarily on seabird-rich islands. Among the stops are the Isles of Scilly, Lundy (famous for puffins), Skomer and Grassholm off Pembrokeshire, Ailsa Craig (large gannet colony), Northern Ireland's Rathlin Island (auks, kittiwakes and grey seals) and remote St Kilda, home to Britain's highest cliffs. Zodiac landing craft are sometimes used to get ashore.
The 10-night Bird Islands trip is on the 84-passenger Ocean Nova. From £3,795pp, departs May 1, 2019 (020 7752 0000; noble-caledonia.co.uk).
An Outer Hebridean exploration
Majestic Cruises' pint-sized but comfy vessels explore the secluded parts of the west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides. A fourth ship, the 12-passenger Glen Shiel, is joining the fleet in 2019 (with cruises also scheduled for 2020) and will offer trips from Oban to the Outer Hebrides, taking in Barra (where planes land on the beach), Taransay (put on the map by the BBC reality TV show Castaway) and the Callanish Standing Stones on Lewis.
The Outer Hebrides – The Islands on the Edge of Europe 10-night cruise sails from Oban. From £4,480pp, departs June 6, 2020 (01369 707951; themajesticline.co.uk).
The unfrequented Scottish mainland and Inner Hebrides
Hebridean Island Cruises is another prime choice for off-the-beaten-track Scottish cruises. With just 30 cabins, its luxurious and elegant Hebridean Princess can also reach areas of the west coast and islands that are inaccessible to larger ships. This is very much the case on the Sea Lochs and Small Isles itinerary from Oban. It travels up Loch Linnhe to Fort William, stops at the private, wildlife-rich island of Carna in Loch Sunart, and visits the Inner Hebridean isles of Muck, Eigg and Rum, and mainland Britain's most remote pub – The Old Forge at Inverie.
The Sea Lochs and Small Isles seven-night cruise sails from Oban. From £4,240pp, departs October 15, 2019 (01756 704704; hebridean.co.uk).
An educational, cultural and wildlife trip
Sign up with Lindblad Expeditions for a no-expense-spared journey around the outer reaches of the British Isles on the National Geographic Explorer. On-board naturalists, historians and a certified photographic instructor will enrich the trip, and a fleet of Zodiacs and kayaks facilitate trips ashore.
Starting in London and ending in Bergen, you'll visit a host of remote spots, among them the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, the sacred Scottish isle of Iona, lonesome St Kilda, Orkney with its world-class prehistoric sites, and the far-flung Shetlands.
The 15-day Ancient Isles England, Ireland and Scotland cruise sails from London. From $14,990pp (around £11,640), departs May 8, 2019 (001 212 261 9000; expeditions.com).
Lighthouses and buoys tour
THV Patricia is the flagship vessel of Trinity House, the General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales and the Channel Islands. Equipped with towing winches and a 20-tonne crane, it spends its time maintaining navigational buoys, lightships and offshore lighthouses. From April to October, up to 12 passengers can travel on the Patricia, observing the work and enjoying sightings of seabirds and other marine wildlife. There are comfy en-suite cabins, a dining room and sitting rooms, and an open-bridge policy usually applies.
Itineraries have to be very flexible – the ship sometimes responds to marine rescues – and normally you know your embarkation and disembarkation ports only about 10 days before sailing, though Harwich and Swansea are commonly used.
A one-week voyage on the Patricia sails from a variety of ports. From £1,600pp (0117 9658 333; wildwings.co.uk).
Isles of Scilly under sail
VentureSail specialises in voyages on classic sailing boats. Among its many West Country options is an island-hopping exploration of the Isles of Scilly, 28 miles south-west of Land's End, on the Pilgrim of Brixham, an historic, 16-berth wooden sailing trawler with eye-catching red sails. Departing from and returning to Falmouth, you have the best part of a week pottering around the magical archipelago, and visit less-explored islands such as Bryher and Samson. Sightings of dolphins and seals, barbecues on deserted beaches and clifftop walks are on the menu. You are encouraged to get involved with the sailing, but there's no obligation to.
The eight-day Scilly Isles Traditional Sailing Holiday is a round-trip from Falmouth. From £899pp, departs June 5 or June 18, 2019 (01872 487288; venturesailholidays.com).
Unspoiled Irish ports of call in luxury
Take a round trip from Dover on the five-star, 229-suite Seabourn Quest across to the west coast of Ireland, stopping at Bantry at the head of beautiful Bantry Bay, the village of Foynes on the Shannon Estuary, Galway and the important Donegal fishing port of Killybegs. After a few days in Scottish waters – an excursion to the geologically-dramatic little island of Staffa is a highlight – it's back down the Irish Sea via Belfast, Dublin and Dunmore East, a pretty summer retreat for residents of nearby Waterford.
The 15-day Gems of the Irish Sea and Hebrides voyage is a round-trip from Dover. From £6,799pp, departs July 1, 2019 (0344 338 8615; seabourn.com).
Would you go on a cruise around the British Isles? Which off-the-beaten-track or far-flung corners of Britain and Ireland would you most like to visit?