Watching a white-tailed eagle soar above the glistening pewter waters of the Inner Hebrides from the deck of a cruise ship — freshly-brewed coffee in hand — is one of those moments only holidays on the sea can deliver.
Being out on the waves, feeling the gentle roll of the water, is like no other sensation. And the good news is that cruises could start up again very soon — if we stick to trips around the British Isles, that is.
After almost a year of government advice against cruise holidays, Maritime Minister Robert Courts this week put the industry on the same footing as domestic tourism, signalling a restart from English ports from May 17.
The good news is that cruises could start up again very soon — if we stick to trips around the British Isles, that is
And some are regarding the moment as a turning point for the beleaguered cruise industry, which has suffered a disastrous year ever since the Covid outbreak on the Diamond Princess ship outside Yokohama in Japan brought the world’s attention to the disease on ships.
The knock-on effect has been enormous. Last month, Royal Caribbean reported its fourth straight quarter of $1 billion (£720,000) losses. Meanwhile, Carnival is undertaking a $1 billion share issue to raise funds.
Extraordinary times. Yet UK cruise lines have been quietly using the past 12 months to invest millions in health and safety measures, and many are now tweaking itineraries to sail in home waters.
Last week, P&O and Princess Cruises rescheduled this summer’s sailings to include a programme of long weekends and short breaks from Southampton, while Saga and Fred Olsen Cruises will start up in June. Both companies are expected to test passengers for Covid before boarding and Saga will also require proof of vaccination.
With the vaccination programme well under way, there is growing confidence among industry leaders the Government will give the thumbs up to international cruises later in the year
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT ON BOARD?
We have all got used to face masks, hand sanitising and social distancing — and life on board will be little different.
Cruise lines have invested in onboard Covid testing labs and new air ventilation systems, while health and safety protocols have been overhauled. Ships will be sailing with reduced capacity to make social distancing easier.
So far, only Saga Cruises, American Queen Steamboat and Victory Cruise have ruled that passengers must be fully vaccinated before embarkation.
Health and safety protocols have been overhauled on cruise ships
Norwegian Cruise Lines, Regent Seven Seas and Swan Hellenic have stipulated crew must be vaccinated.
Crystal Cruises will also require vaccinations ‘once they are widely available’ while Royal Caribbean says it is ‘committed to requiring crew to have the vaccine’.
BOARDING: Expect extra queuing for testing and electronic form-filling. Results of tests take 10-15 minutes if negative and 30-40 minutes if positive.
IN YOUR CABIN: There will be a digital-first approach, including daily newsletters and online restaurant, spa, tours and entertainment bookings.
MEALS: Forget buffets. Waiter service will be the norm. Expect to sit in your ‘bubble’ (sizes depending on cruise line) and there could be two sittings.
EVENING ENTERTAINMENT: Nightly shows will have more performances to allow for comfortable social distancing.
ONBOARD ACTIVITIES: Tighter availability owing to reduced group sizes for fitness classes, swimming, craft sessions, games and children’s clubs. Spas will accommodate fewer guests and some spas may request that face masks are worn by people during treatments.
TOURS ASHORE: Excursions are likely to be in smaller groups, again in your bubble. As well as being made up of friends and family on board, they might also be arranged by cabin deck. Temperature tests before and after tours.
And with the vaccination programme well under way there is growing confidence among industry leaders the Government will give the thumbs up to international cruises later in the year.
‘It’s a relief to have a definite date to sail,’ says Lynne Heathcote, 67, from Southbourne, Dorset, who is booked on the Spirit of Adventure cruise from Tilbury on July 27. It will be anti-clockwise round Britain sailing to Dover.
The decision to allow sailing in home waters follows policies in other countries. In Italy, MSC Cruises and Costa have been cruising in the Mediterranean since last summer. Hapag-Lloyd and Aida Cruises have been sailing from Germany to the Canaries, and Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas is due to sail in a loop from Israel in May.
Antonio Paradiso, MSC Cruises UK & Ireland managing director, said: ‘Since our European restart in August last year, we have carried more than 40,000 guests. We are delighted by the decision to enable UK passengers to cruise again.’
Hear, hear — and let’s hope international cruises are next to open up.
Our guide to sailing off the British coast
Cruises around the British Isles from English ports are back — and there are discussions with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for a UK-wide restart (likely by June).
This does not prevent cruises from England travelling around British waters; they just cannot, as things stand, stop at ports in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
However, when these countries give the green light, as is expected next week, yet more British-based holidays are likely from Scotland on Hebridean Island Cruises (hebridean.co.uk) and the Majestic Line (themajesticline.co.uk). The earliest cruises from England start in June, as it will take time for ships to be prepared. Here’s our pick:
See the islands of Iona and Oban, pictured, on the MS Hebridean Sky’s June 3 sailing from Plymouth
Sail from Plymouth for the sunshine Isles of Scilly before cruising north to Scottish islands of Iona and Oban on 100-passenger MS Hebridean Sky’s June 3 sailing.
Price reduced by £200 to £3,595pp for the seven-night cruise which includes wine with meals (noble-caledonia.co.uk, 020 7752 0000).
Cork, Connemara, Kilkenny Castle and Kylemore Abbey are all on MS Seaventure’s Cruising the Emerald Isle itinerary on July 19.
The eight-night round trip cruise from Greenock, Scotland, also features sightseeing tours of Dublin, Belfast and Kilkenny. Prices from £1,999pp (rivieratravel.co.uk, 01283 880170).
On a 13-night British Isles cruise in August aboard the MS Maud, guests will see Rathlin Island, pictured, Northern Ireland’s largest seabird colony
Choose from four departures on MS Maud from Dover this summer with 20 per cent off when booked by the end of this month.
The 13-night British Isles cruise on August 15 features Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland’s largest seabird colony, and a landing at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of St Kilda. Prices from £3,329pp (hurtigruten.co.uk, 0203 9933 121).
A gala ball is the highlight on board Queen Elizabeth 2 when she sails from Southampton to Liverpool, Belfast and Glasgow on June 24.
Seven nights from £1,149pp (cunard.com, 0344 3388641).
LOCHS AND LEGENDS
Borealis’s eight-night Lochs & Legends of Scotland cruise covers Loch Linnhe (pictured), Dutchman’s Cap and Fingal’s Cave
Borealis’s eight-night Lochs & Legends of Scotland cruise starts from £1,399pp. The Liverpool round trip on July 29 covers Loch Linnhe, Dutchman’s Cap and Fingal’s Cave (fredolsencruises.com, 0800 7870733).
Silver Spirit’s 12-day Southampton round-trip on September 3 includes an overnight call at ‘Auld Reekie’, Edinburgh. From £5,990pp with a 10 per cent early booking bonus and includes butler service, fine dining, drinks, wifi and gratuities (silversea.com, 0844 2510837).
Q&A: What’s the forecast?
Q. How likely is it that I will be able to go on a summer cruise?
A. Very strong, when it comes to British Isles cruises. This week’s Government announcement that domestic voyages are OK from English ports from May 17 has effectively restarted cruise holidays. The first are likely in June.
Q. What do you mean ‘restarted’ — haven’t all holidays been illegal recently?
A. Yes. However, even before the lockdown, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office advised against all ‘sea-going’ cruises.
Most cruise holidays in hot places are not being offered until October, as cruise lines are wary of travel restrictions in the UK and overseas
CRUISING BY NUMBERS
57 years: Average age of UK and Ireland cruise passengers.
Two million: UK and Ireland ocean cruise passengers annually.
£10bn: Value of the UK cruise industry.
88,000: Jobs created by industry in the UK.
Q. You say ‘sea-going’ — what were the rules on river cruises?
A. River cruises were not included in the FCDO ban, so these had been possible.
Q. I want to go to the Caribbean, the Med or somewhere else hot. Can I?
A. Not unless Government rules change to allow foreign travel. The FCDO advice against ‘sea-going’ trips would have to be cancelled, too. If both of these happened then, in theory, yes.
Q. Great, so I can book a cruise trip to the sun this summer right now?
A. Not so fast. There are two further considerations. First: most cruise holidays in hot places are not being offered until October, as cruise lines are wary of travel restrictions in the UK and overseas (though msccruises.co.uk, tui.co.uk, royalcaribbean.com, iglucruise.com and celestyal.com do have a few).
Q. Wait, you mentioned a second consideration — what is it?
A. You must carefully read cruise line terms and conditions. The key word is ‘flexibility’. Cruise lines have been introducing flexible terms so you can postpone or receive a credit voucher if you cancel.
Cruise lines have been introducing flexible terms so you can postpone your trip if necessary or receive a credit voucher if you cancel
TALES FROM THE RIVER BANK
Whether river cruises for UK passengers will be allowed this summer is down to what the Government decides on April 12, when its Global Travel Taskforce reports on its findings. But it doesn’t hurt to start planning. Here is our pick of what’s on offer:
Titan’s ‘Voyage to the Danube Delta’ ten-night sailings on MS River Discovery II from June 21 to July 21 start from £2,999 pp and include a two-night hotel stay in Bucharest. Fly to Budapest from a choice of regional airports, with VIP chauffeur transfers (titantravel.co.uk, 0800 9885823).
Viking offers a 12-day Pharaohs & Pyramids round-trip from Cairo, Egypt, on the Nile, pictured
Viking’s 12-day Pharaohs & Pyramids round-trip from Cairo, Egypt, on Viking Ra starts from £4,665 pp including a £1,000pp saving on January to May and August to December 2022 sailings when booked by June 30. Price includes a four-night hotel stay in Cairo (vikingcruises.co.uk, 0800 3196660).
The Dutch bulb fields have been a no-go for two seasons so get in early for 2022 deals. MS Amadeus Silver III’s seven-night ‘Springtime Tulips and Keukenof Gardens’ fly-cruise on April 8, 2022, starts from £1,895 pp with on-board talks from TV gardener Charlie Dimmock (greatrail.com, 01904 527180).
Amawaterways plans is its longest river cruise for 2023, sailing 46 nights from France along seven rivers to 14 countries before arriving in Bulgaria. Price from £21,061 pp with reservations open on March 15 (amawaterways.co.uk, 0800 6260126).
Book early for festive cheer on APT Travelmarvel’s 2022 Rhine & Moselle Christmas Markets cruise from Amsterdam to Basel. Price reduced £2,195 pp to £1,695 pp on December 16 and 23, 2022, departures (aptouring.co.uk, 0800 012 6686).
Q. But what happens if the cruise line itself cancels my booking?
A. You will be due a refund under the Package Travel Regulations, if your trip involved a flight. If it did not include a flight, most companies will offer refunds anyway.
Q. Can you tell me if I’ll need a Covid test before boarding? And will I need to prove I have been vaccinated?
A. Saga is the only UK cruise line currently requiring all passengers to be vaccinated. It is expected that others will use rapid Covid tests before boarding.
Q. How about if I test positive for Covid before I board the ship?
A. The cruise line will probably allow you to postpone your trip; again, check the terms and conditions.
Q. I love a cruise and all this sounds worth the risk. Are there any good deals?
A. Possibly: check for incentives such as free spa treatments, cabin upgrades, free wifi and onboard credits, says Adam Coulter, managing editor of Cruise Critic. Richard Downs of iglu.com agrees, and adds that last-minute deals may be possible.
NEW SHIPS, NEW ROUTES, NEW DEALS
Swan Hellenic is launching Minerva, one of three expedition-style cruise ship, in November with 16-day trips to the Antarctic from £14,400 pp (swanhellenic.com).
The Golden Horizon is a new sailing ship — a replica of the 1913-built ocean vessel France II, with 35 sails — from Tradewinds that is due to launch ‘Staycations at Sea’ from the UK in June (tradewindvoyages.com). Five-night trips from Harwich to Leith are from £1,049 pp departing on July 1.
Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady, a carbon-neutral ship which took three years to make, is due in summer (virginvoyages.com).
Virgin Voyages’ new Scartlet Lady ship pictured in Port Miami
Norwegian Bliss has slashed £416pp off its five-day Mexican Riviera, Cabo and Ensenda cruise which will be departing from Los Angeles on January 22, with the new price from £329 pp (ncl.com).
‘Ultra luxury’ ship Silver Dawn is launched by Silversea in November (silversea.com).
Expect a surf machine and dodgems on board Royal Caribbean’s new 4,200-passenger Odyssey of the Seas, which launches in April (royalcaribbean.com).
A gin distillery is among the attractions of the new LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) powered, 5,200- passenger Iona from P&O Cruises (pocruises.com).
Iona from P&O Cruises, which can carry 5,200 passengers
Meanwhile, world cruises are proving incredibly popular with Oceania’s 180-day World Cruise 2023 sold out on the first day (oceaniacruises.com).
Some bargains are to be had while 14 million annual U.S. cruise passengers are unable to sail. P&O Cruises (pocruises.com, 03453 555111) has a 14-night December 10 sailing on Azura from £1,549 pp including flights. It begins in Barbados and sails into Tobago, Bonaire, Curacao, Aruba, Tortola, Guadeloupe, Dominica and Martinique.
Uniworld (uniworld.com, 0808 3012561) is reporting a 425 per cent rise in 2022 exotic destination bookings. Most popular is Ganges Voyager II’s 15-day India’s Golden Triangle & Sacred Ganges cruise holiday. The New Delhi to Kolkata sailing plus five nights in Oberoi hotels starts from £5,279 pp, reduced from £5,999 pp, including a one-way business-class flight during January and February 2022.
New from Mundy Cruising (mundycruising.co.uk, 020 7399 7670) is a Great Lakes, New Orleans and the Mississippi itinerary on September 17, 2022, with prices from £27,720 pp. ‘Undiscovered Great Lakes’ from Thunder Bay to Milwaukee features six nights at the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans, seven nights aboard Viking Octantis and 14 nights aboard Viking Mississippi.