Monday, 30 November -0001

Rocking the boat

Cruising has become the holiday of choice. Charlotte Metcalf reveals what’s on offer in 2012 for water-loving holidaymakers

Written by Charlotte Metcalf
Last June I invited a friend to join me on board Seabourn Quest's inaugural voyage along the Côte d'Azur, stopping at Monte Carlo, San Remo and Saint-Tropez. My friend had never been on a cruise and a day after boarding she was a convert. 'I've been in a lot of good hotels in my life from the Cipriani to Claridge's but I've never known anything like this,' she enthused.

Quest is not merely a five-star, but a seven- or eight-star experience. Unlike the shopping-mall experience of some bigger ships with their self-service restaurants and vast public poolside areas seething with people, Quest is a serene, elegant haven. Though expensive at first glance, Quest, with just 450 passengers, is a ship built for pleasure and the all-in packages give guests the feeling they are being nurtured by an invisible host, rather than being fleeced. Everything is included, tipping actively discouraged and in austere times, there's something sublimely relaxing about knowing that you're not incurring a £10 charge every time you go online or open the mini bar.

Quest is the most luxurious cruise I have experienced but cruise lines across the board have been raising their game in response to passenger demand, so it's no surprise that cruising continues to outperform other areas of the holiday market. This year an estimated 1.73 million passengers will take a cruise holiday and 835,000 will join their cruise ship in Britain, a 28 per cent increase over the past two years, as the choice of destinations continues to expand.

Anyone who continues to be sniffy about cruising is wildly out of touch with the vast variety of itineraries and types of ship now on offer. Nowadays, you can board the Royal Mail Ship St Helena, which takes the mail from Cape Town to the remote island of St Helena or Royal Clipper, the tallest sailing ship in the world, which feels like being aboard a comfortable Cutty Sark. Just as there is a plethora of hotels so that everyone can find one to suit them, so there is certainly a cruise to please even the most pernickety of passengers.

Gardening is obviously not a pastime associated with being at sea but, in response to Brits' enduring passion for it, this May Azamara is offering a 12-night Chelsea Flower Show voyage aboard Azamara Journey. Beginning with an overnight stay in Amsterdam and sailing back to Southampton via Flushing and Antwerp, guests will be able to attend the RHS Chelsea Flower Show while berthed at Greenwich.

In fact, this year marks 20 years since first hosted a gardening cruise aboard Fred. Olsen's Black Prince. To celebrate, Fred. Olsen's Balmoral will revisit the Canary Islands and Madeira on a very similar itinerary to Black Prince's cruise in 1992. The November cruise will be hosted by David Hurrion, horticultural editor of Gardener's World magazine, Matthew Biggs, a regular panellist on Radio 4's Gardener's Question Time and broadcaster and tree expert, Tony Russell.

Fred. Olsen was voted the best cruise line for groups at the 2011 Group Travel Awards. I boarded Black Watch last summer: with 804 passengers, it is the smallest of the cruise line's four ships and calls at 247 ports annually with 115 different global itineraries. Like many Brits of a certain age, I have begun to tire of chaotic airports and to appreciate the enormous variety of landscape, beauty and culture in my own country, so my itinerary began at Dover and called at Guernsey, Dublin, Greenock, Bangor, the Isle of Mull and Orkney. After Seabourn's Quest, Black Watch was hardly glamorous but to yearn for luxury was to miss the point. The ship is like a cosy old reliable Duchess, carrying on strong and not about to change her personality for anyone and she's so loved that eight out of 10 people return for her Christmas cruises.

With no-fly cruises becoming increasingly popular, many lines, apart from those operating specifically within the UK, are now making it possible to evade airports altogether. MSC Cruises, the world's leading cruise company in the Mediterranean, South African and Brazilian markets, is adding Cork and Dublin to four new itineraries in August and September, enabling Irish passengers to embark and disembark in Cork.

One of my earliest cruising experiences was taking my five-year-old daughter aboard Celebrity Equinox two years ago. With 2,850 fellow passengers, I initially balked at the sheer size of the ship but was completely won over by the superb service and friendliness of the crew, plus the impressive amount of activities on offer that made my daughter believe she was in a floating fairyland. It was unbeatable value for around £125 a day and Celebrity has plenty of ships operating this year, including Millennium, offering the line's first-ever Asia season, visiting nine countries including Vietnam, Thailand and China. Celebrity will also have eight ships in the Caribbean with new itineraries and five ships in Europe, including the brand-new Silhouette. It also launches its fifth Solstice-Class ship, Reflection, with an additional deck and capacity for 3,030 guests.

If the idea of organised family fun and entertainment on a big scale appalls you, there are plenty of gentler, elegant river cruises from AMA Waterways, APT, Avalon Waterways, Elegant River Cruises, Noble Caledonia, Page & Moy, Uniworld and Viking. Some companies discourage children altogether. Cruise itineraries range from the Danube and the Rhone to the Mekong and the Nile.

If your New Year's resolution is to be adventurous or try something new, book a river cruise before 31 January and you could be eligible for a huge discount. Certainly Avalon Waterways is offering up to 50 per cent off its river cruises and Viking's sale is giving up to a £2,000 discount per couple.

Before I went on a cruise, I sneered. I simply had no idea I was about to board such an adventurous and innovative world. Now I am struggling to describe the enormous range of new cruises on offer. When so many of us are worrying about having to cut back on holidays, cruising is booming. It's only common sense to explore what over 1.5 million passengers a year have already discovered.

For more on cruises available in 2012:

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