Imagine sailing around an island that boasts hundreds of beaches, a stunning coastline, some 30 UNESCO World Heritage sites, 15 national parks and cities bursting with history and culture. Picture arriving in a land known for its green hills and fertile plains, for its palaces and castles, for its music, its sport… and its fish and chips. And then think about the joy of getting there without all the hassle and expense that air travel involves.
The fact is that a cruise around these wonderful British Isles of ours can be hard to beat. And in these difficult times which the COVID-19 pandemic has forced on us, the idea of a no-fly, stay-close-to-home holiday might be even more appealing.
When I was a child, holidaying in Britain was the norm. A journey to Devon or Cornwall was an unbelievably exciting adventure that entailed leaving before dawn and motoring all day. If you lived in the south, Scotland seemed so far away that it might as well have been the North Pole. But, as air travel expanded and the globe seemed to shrink, chasing the sunshine of foreign beaches became routine. And the result is that some of us have left many corners of this extraordinary island unexplored.
A few months ago, I filmed a TV series in which I lived on a narrowboat and travelled the length of six British canals. My companions were the TV presenter Anne Diamond, the music producer Pete Waterman and the ornithologist Bill Oddie. The sheer beauty of the British countryside all around us as we drifted along was incredibly soothing. And there was so much to learn about the history and evolution of our native land: from the fortress castles built as defence, to the textile mills which drove the industrial revolution. It was an enriching experience that made me appreciate how much this country has to offer a traveller.
The lockdown of recent weeks has caused us all to rein in our horizons. Suddenly, an hour’s walk became an adventure. A view of anything beyond the four walls of our home became quite thrilling. It could easily become tedious but curiously, I think many of us lucky enough to have a garden or at least some outdoor space, began to find this smaller world and slower pace quite relaxing.
From our house, on the very tip of South Devon, we sometimes see cruise ships in the far distance either heading off or returning from their voyages. We always imagine what’s happening on board. With our long experience of cruising, we can so easily picture passengers relaxing by the pool, enjoying the delights of the dining room or making their way to the theatre or ballroom. And we always long to be with them!
A few weeks ago, with the cruise industry at a standstill, I was surprised to see both Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria out at sea and wondered what they were up to. It seems that with no passengers on board, they were heading to Weymouth to anchor offshore until restrictions are lifted and cruising can recommence. Hopefully, that day is not too far off.
And, it may be that, in the uncertain months ahead, some of us will want to embrace a less complex life, keep that horizon close and enjoy all that the UK has to offer… from Southampton to Belfast, Edinburgh to Skye. One of the great things about a no-fly cruise is that it’s never more than a few hours from when you leave home until your holiday truly starts. We always feel a deep sense of relaxation as soon as we step aboard.
One of my favourite nearby destinations is Guernsey. It has a unique charm, lots of sunshine and some great restaurants. There’s also a lot of history to absorb, particularly about the German occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War - and their liberation exactly 75 years ago. It brings home just how close to defeat we were. On one voyage, we had time not only to explore Guernsey but to take the ferry to the tiny island of Sark. I’d always wanted to visit this quirky place, where cars are banned and the main way of getting around is either by tractor, bicycle or horse and cart. In fact, you can walk around the 4.5 square miles of the island in not much more than a couple of hours.
Sark feels like another world from another era and there are some wonderful sights to see. We took a horse-drawn carriage ride up to La Seigneurie, which has been the traditional residence of the Seigneur of Sark for centuries. The building itself is worth seeing and the gardens are simply spectacular. There’s a Victorian glasshouse, a windmill and even a maze to get lost in.
Most domestic voyages take in Scotland and I often think that those of us living south of the border don’t appreciate all that it has to offer. When the Queen Mother was alive, I used to travel up to the Castle of Mey in Caithness, which is about as far north as you can get. There is something magical about the clarity of the light and the quality of the air up there. And from that coast, you can look across to the Orkney Islands. I’ve never been but I’d love to visit them. That’s another destination on many British Isles cruises. Another favourite of mine is the Isle of Skye. With its sometimes-brooding skies and dramatic scenery, it has an atmosphere all of its own. And don’t miss out on its seafood… it’s among the best you could ever imagine.
Away from the islands, a cruise around Scotland will also give you the chance to enjoy all that Edinburgh has to offer. We were lucky enough to dock there during the famous summer festival. The city was abuzz with shows and entertainment of all sorts.
Even without going to a show, we were swept up in the vibrancy and excitement of this wonderful old city. Even though I’ve travelled the world with the Royal family during many years as a BBC correspondent, there are still so many places close to home that are on my wishlist; Cork, the Scilly Isles and Rothesay, to name but a few. I hope very much that we shall soon be able to take a cruise to some of them.
I know the industry is working hard to get up and running again, putting every possible measure in place to safeguard us all when we get back on board. And I’m sure that, like me, your thoughts will already be turning to where to go - be it close or far - as soon as the lockdown is eased and we can all start voyaging again.