Want to try a cruise but not sure it’s for you? It’s a bit of a gamble, after all. What if, after a few days, you decide you’re not keen – but still have to stick out a week or more on-board, and possibly 3,000 miles from home?
It’s a tricky conundrum for prospective cruisers – but the solution may be closer than you think.
Most cruise lines offer “short cruises” which start at just four days duration, though that’s not really viable if you’ve got to fly to the Caribbean or Mediterranean first. Luckily, there is another way – the “taster” cruise. These sailings typically last just two or three nights, and depart from and return to UK ports: perfect for a risk-free sample of life at sea.
It’s not just first-timers who can benefit from these micro-cruises: they’re also an ideal option for seasoned seafarers or city-breakers looking for a weekend escape that comes free of airport delays, lost luggage and budget airlines – and at a reasonable price, too. Many cruise lines even offer a door-to-ship pick-up option, so you don’t have to find a place to park.
These short cruises open up places such as the Channel Islands, Paris and Bruges via their maritime ports of Le Havre, Cherbourg and Zeebrugge. There are plenty of excursions to choose from too, allowing passengers to tailor their cruise beforehand, or explore independently.
So, whether you’re looking for a first-time taste of cruising, a hassle-free minibreak, or a combination of the two, these excellent options offer the perfect way to spend a long weekend without boarding a plane.
Find culture and carats in Antwerp
This cruise lets you explore Antwerp, a vibrant city famous for its diamond industry, and filled with magnificent gastronomy, art and architecture. Take a tranquil cruise along the historic river Scheldt to experience it from all sides, then explore its fascinating medieval heart with its Market Square, café-filled cobbled side streets and Belgium’s largest Gothic cathedral.
The city’s top draws, however, are its vibrant fashion and entertainment scenes, and its fascinating (and occasionally startling) Flemish and French architectural and cultural contrasts. You can even visit the mansion built as a home and studio for renowned painter Pieter Paul Rubens.
Ambassador Cruises (0808 102 8062) offers the three-night Festive Weekend Getaway cruise from £269 per person, on board Ambition, sailing December 8 2023 (round trip from London Tilbury to Antwerp)
Seek continental cool on Guernsey
From the Roman era through the German occupation of the Second World War, Guernsey’s capital, St Peter Port, has been a busy hub. Here you’ll find Georgian and Regency houses mixed with a continental café culture, plus tumbling terraced gardens, winding streets and hidden leafy alleys begging to be discovered.
Take a taxi to explore the Ruettes – tranquil, quiet lanes that are dedicated to walkers, cyclists and riders – and to Castle Cornet, home to several museums and theatrical events. Fort Grey holds a fascinating Shipwreck Museum, while the German Occupation Museum gives a vivid account of island life during this period. Don’t forget, Guernsey is tax free, so leave time for shopping, too.
P&O Cruises (0344 338 8003) offers the three-night Guernsey Getaway cruise from £429 per person, on board Arcadia, sailing June 6 2024 (round trip to St Peter Port, Guernsey from Southampton)
Spend a serene day at sea
While a two-night cruise from Southampton to Newcastle (with one day at sea) might not immediately scream excitement, it does in fact provide the perfect opportunity to experience the delights of “sea days” on a shorter cruise – and comes complete with evening entertainment.
There’s off-ship fun to be found, too: in Southampton itself, explore ancient town walls and God’s House Tower, a 13th-century gatehouse which leads into the old town and hosts arts and heritage attractions, including fascinating exhibitions. When you reach Newcastle, stride out on foot to see its bridges and bustling quayside, as well as the Baltic Arts centre, which offers a tremendous amount to discover.
Fred Olsen Cruises (0800 677 3995) offers the two-night cruise to Newcastle from £249 per person, on board Balmoral (sailing February 28 2024 from Southampton)
Soak up history in Bruges and Mont St Michel
Of course, a visit to the Unesco World Heritage city of Bruges is not complete without a boat trip on the canals – the arteries of the city – but it is Burg Square that is truly the city’s soul. Take a horse-drawn carriage through the centre, visit the Hanseatic Quarter and revel in the museum of Flemish Art. Next, it’s on to Mont St Michel – also a Unesco World Heritage city. Perched on a pinnacle of rock rising from the sea and accessed by a tidal causeway, its walls encapsulate more than 60 medieval buildings and a 1,000-year-old abbey.
MSC Cruises (020 3909 5432) offers the three-night cruise to Zeebrugge (Bruges) and Cherbourg (Mont St Michel) from £399 per person, on board Virtuosa, sailing May 6 2024 (round trip from Southampton)
Sail beneath starry skies in Scotland
This short break cruise around the sheltered waters of Mull provides stunning views of sea eagles and ancient castles, plus a chance to really appreciate the region’s magnificent coastal scenery. The cruise begins and ends in Oban, taking in Loch Linnhe, Glencoe, the Sound of Mull and Loch Sunart, including a visit to the community at Tobermory with its pretty coloured houses. Come nightfall, the cruise anchors in secluded bays, where you’ll have only the seals and stars for company.
The Majestic Line (01369 707951) offers the three-night A Taste of The Hebrides cruise from £1,360 per person, departing weekly from March to October, on-board Glen Massan (round trip from Oban)
Count the Severn’s Wonders
If you’re keen for a taster of small-ship or river cruising, the 22 passenger Edward Elgar provides an opportunity to do both. This sailing journeys along the Cotswolds escarpment, the upper Severn estuary and Forest of Dean, pausing for guided tours of Berkeley Castle and the Purton Hulks graveyard of 80 barge wrecks scuppered to shore there.
There’s also time to visit the Wildfowl & Wetlands Centre founded by the “father of nature conservation”, Sir Peter Scott, and an excursion to the Cotswolds Canal Trust Heritage Centre, where you’ll discover the history of the local waterways.
English Holiday Cruises (01452 410411) offers the three-night Ship Canal Explorer cruise from £595 per person, on board Edward Elgar, departing March 29 2024, (round trip from Gloucester)
Feast on culture in Zeebrugge and Le Havre
For incredibly fresh seafood and excellent beer (frequently served together), you needn’t look further than Zeebrugge, Belgium’s biggest fishing port. There’s a unique mix of sights and sounds to absorb here, but the nostalgic gem of Admiral Keyes Square is the town’s most enchanting corner, a haven of peace and quiet.
Next it’s on to Le Havre, which lost most of its medieval buildings during the Second World War. Yet from the ashes rose an incredible concrete mix of industrial and natural grandeur – an extraordinary combination, which has since seen it honoured by Unesco.
Cunard (0344 3388641) offers the three-night Bruges and Le Havre Short Break cruise from £689 per person, departing May 30 2024, on-board Queen Mary 2 (round trip from Southampton)
Take the tykes to Belgium
If you’re searching for a great first-time cruise for young children, it makes sense to opt for Disney, with its pools, on-board shows and range of kids’ clubs. Spend time exploring Southampton before you board, with its glimpse into the past at the Tudor House and Garden or the Maritime Museum, then its onward to Zeebrugge. Here, the children’s beach village – with swings, climbing frames and even a life-size play boat – are guaranteed to please, but if you’d like to add a bit of culture, Brussels is a short hop away.
Disney (001 407 566-3457) offers the three-night Belgian Cruise from £1,152 per person, departing August 16 2024, on board Disney Dream (round trip from Southampton)
Choose an adventure in Paris and beyond
See Paris at your own pace (perhaps by narrated mini coach tour, or lunch on a riverboat up the Seine?), or skip the City of Light altogether and head for the D-Day beaches and Bayeux Tapestry on a day-long historical excursion that spans the Middle Ages to the liberation of France at the end of the Second World War. You’ll have two nights here, so there may even be time to squeeze in a visit to the glory of Versailles, too.
Royal Caribbean (0344 493 4005) offers the two-night Paris Cruise from £357 per person, on-board Anthem of the Seas, sailing May 10 2024 (round trip from Southampton)