IT'S a big year for British tourism, with the Queen's diamond jubilee celebrations taking place next month, followed by London's Olympic Games in July. The region is also experiencing a surge in cruising options.
For Australians, the strength of the dollar against the British pound is undoubtedly one factor encouraging renewed interest. Having spent many of my formative years there, I know a cruise visiting England, Scotland or Ireland offers an unusual diversity of experience, from ancient castles and stately homes to quaint coastal towns.
It would seem a number of cruise lines agree and are betting Britain's popularity with cruise fans will continue into next year and beyond. Royal Caribbean is one.
After first basing a ship in Britain in 2005, the line is doubling its presence next year. It is sending the 3114-guest Adventure of the Seas to Harwich, while its sibling, the 3634-guest Independence of the Seas, will be based in Southampton for a fifth season. Both ships will offer a series of seven- to 16-night cruises featuring ports in Britain, France and Spain.
Princess Cruises is also expanding its presence in Europe next year, deploying the new Royal Princess there for a maiden season. Sister ship Caribbean Princess will spend 12 nights exploring the British Isles, featuring landmarks including Blarney Castle and Loch Ness.
Not to be outdone, Celebrity Cruises has recently revealed plans for its biggest European season next year. Following the enthusiastic reception for Celebrity Eclipse's debut in Southampton in 2010, the Celebrity Infinity will join it next year, offering British and Norwegian fiord cruises from Harwich.
Finally, Cunard's newly refurbished Queen Mary 2 will be busy this year. Starting this month, it will embark on 25 trans-Atlantic crossings, 19 between Southampton and New York and the remainder from Hamburg, Germany.
Package of the week
Cruise in style between Australia and south-east Asia on a choice of two Celebrity ships, with packages from Cruiseco. The first is 17 nights on Celebrity Millennium: departing from Sydney on November 22, it includes a two-night post-cruise stay at the Fairmont Hotel in Singapore with breakfast and flight back, priced from $2794 a person, twin share.
The other is 16 nights on Celebrity Solstice from Singapore to Sydney, departing on November 23. Priced from $3062 a person, twin share, this includes the flight from Sydney and a two-night pre-cruise stay at the Fairmont with breakfast. Both fares cover shipboard gratuities, taxes and port charges. (02) 9492 8520, (02) 9492 8506, cruising.com.au.
P&O Cruises has launched an interactive website to give Australians access to a wide range of information, from insights into life on board to shore tours. It allows guests to post comments and create personalised lists of experiences in a community forum (discovercruising.com.au).
In response to demand for all-inclusive packages, MSC Cruises has launched a European Signature Series. Fares will cover accommodation, flights, transfers and land touring options, including special events.
In its longest round trip from Australia next summer, Classic International's Athena will make maiden visits to four Asian ports: Taiwan's Keelung; Manila, the Philippines; Busan, South Korea; and Kagoshima, Japan.
LAUNCHED 1996 PASSENGERS 350 REGULAR HAUNTS The Mediterranean, the Baltics, western Europe, world cruises BEST FOR Couples THE DETAILS A 15-day cruise from Naples to Piraeus (Athens), departing on October 24, is priced from $2575 a person, twin share. (02) 9959 1382, swanhellenic.com.au.
Need to know
1 Minerva replaced Swan Hellenic's Orpheus in 1994. The ship built in 1989, was originally designed as a Russian spy vessel and features and ice-classified hull from the Ukraine. It was launched by the Duchess of Gloucester in London.
2 A number of its popular predecessor's luxury facilities were replicated, including an open promenade deck, a huge library featuring more than 5000 books, and a lecture theatre. Late last year, Minerva underwent another extensive upgrade.
3 For a small ship, it has a wide choice of accommodation. One hundred of its staterooms have ocean views, 44 with private balconies, including 32 newly added in the upgrade. The elegant decor features plush furnishings in a soft palette of colours.
4 There is one dining room, the Swan Restaurant, which is open from early until late and operates without formal sittings; you can choose to dine with friends or on your own. Menus often feature dishes reflecting the area in which the ship is cruising.
5 Facilities include several bars, an internet lounge, pool, fitness centre and spa, beauty salon and complimentary launderette. There is a new wraparound observation lounge canopy on the Bridge Deck for alfresco dining.
Port watch: Buzios, Brazil
Need to know Originally settled by European pirates and slave traders, Buzios is a multi-ethnic town famous for its rustic charm. Ships anchor off shore and use tenders to transport guests to a pier in town, pictured. From there you can explore on foot, rent a taxi or a dune buggy, or take a tour on a Buzios Trolley.
Do not miss Brigitte Bardot holidayed here in 1964 and a snap of the statue erected in her honour is a must-have. There aren't many local sights, as Buzios is primarily a beach resort, but if you want to shop head for Rua das Pedras near the pier.