Holly Cave dives into some of the top operators making waves for groups.

Recent findings tell us that Great Britain became an island almost 8,000 years ago when a tsunami rolled in from the North Sea to split us away from mainland Europe. This cataclysmic event set the scene for us Brits to develop into a nation of mariners. From the vicious Vikings to the Spanish Armada – we have a history of travelling by sea which continues to flourish to this day.

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Brittany Ferries provides a number of routes to France and Spain which trace the coastline.

Although we now have the subsea Channel Tunnel at our disposal, nothing beats the romance of travelling atop the waves to such attractions as France, Spain and beyond. Luxurious cruises from some of the UK’s most famous ports can take travellers even further. For many of us, ferry trips remind us of childhood school trips to France or ‘booze cruises’ to stock up on cheap wine and spirits for Christmas parties. But operators are fighting back against the lure of cheap international flights and the convenience of the Channel Tunnel to provide great value and a better experience than you might remember on your last trip.

Catching the ferry means that your holiday starts sooner, taking much of the hassle out of the journey itself. Individuals and groups can bring their own onward transport – equipment such as bikes and even treasured pets. You can take the time on board to relax in the bars, lounges and restaurants. Larger ships often have plenty of entertainment on offer, from cinemas to live music and shops to swimming pools. You might strike lucky and spot dolphins or whales during your voyage, however short, because UK and European waters are home to over a third of the world’s whale, dolphin and porpoise species. Brittany Ferries have joined with the conservation charity, ORCA, to provide information about marine life for travellers aboard the Cap Finistère. Wildlife Officers deliver presentations and oversee deck watches to spot any nearby sea creatures.

Europe From The South Coast

Sailing from Dover to Calais is the fastest sea link on the continent. P&O, MyFerryLink and DFDS Seaways make the journey in as little as 75 minutes. The competition keeps prices low and early bird bookers will get some great rates. Although Calais itself is nothing special, you’re linked immediately into the French motorway network. From here, it’s a short drive to Belgium and to such popular destinations as Bruges and Brussels. Many travellers drive along the battlefields of Northern France and Flanders. It takes approximately one hour and 30 minutes to reach Ypres. Brittany Ferries provides a number of routes to France and Spain from the South Coast of England.

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Brittany Ferries will be offering up to 118 sailings a week, with routes linking 11 ports.

Central to its sailings are the Portsmouth to St. Malo and Plymouth to Roscoff services, which run daily for most of the year. Although the company will be offering up to 118 sailings a week in peak season, with 10 routes linking 11 ports. New routes for 2015 include speedy crossings from Portsmouth. The ferry to Caen in France sails three times a day in each direction, with crossings scheduled on most days of the week. The seasonal ferry to Cherbourg (April 29-September 8) takes just three hours and is the speediest crossing to France on the Western Channel.

The pretty port of Cherbourg is rich in culture. From here, it’s easy to explore the rural, coastal scenery of the Cotentin Peninsula and the Cap de la Hague, while the countryside, towns and villages of the Saire Valley draws visitors inland. From 2015, Brittany Ferries popular Barfleur cruise ferry will operate along the Poole to Cherbourg route almost year-round, connecting the Dorset port of Poole with Cherbourg on the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula. Cherbourg now offers fast-flowing road connections to the French motorway network thanks to a newly-completed dual carriageway, which links the N13 and A84. Also from Portsmouth, the route to Le Havre will run for most of the year, with no-frills departures on offer until early January, resuming in mid-March. From mid-May until early September, the Normandie Express will offer high-speed departures every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with a crossing time of just three hours and 45 minutes. Le Havre is Brittany Ferries’ closest port to Paris – less than 200kilometres using the A13 autoroute or two hours by train. Aside from the town itself, most of Normandy’s best sights are easily accessible from here.

It’s a couple hours driving time to the famous Mont St. Michel, but a host of attractions lie nearer, including Bayeux, Honfleur, Dieppe and the picturesque white cliffs of Etreat. Ferries to Spain are increasing in popularity and in response the 2015 schedule will once again include five weekly round trips from Portsmouth to Bilbao and Santander, and one weekly round trip from Plymouth to Santander. Not only do these routes allow groups to bypass the roads of France when driving to Spain, they also offer some of the very best whale-watching opportunities in Europe.

And From The North

In 2012, P&O Ferries celebrated the 175th anniversary of the company’s foundation. As well as the ever-popular Dover to Calais route, the company sails from the North of England across the Irish Sea and the North Sea. Routes include Liverpool to Dublin, Cairnryan or Troon to Larne, Hull and Teesport to Rotterdam and Zeebrugge. The DFDS Seaways car ferry takes passengers to Amsterdam from Newcastle on daily overnight crossings. The ship departs Newcastle at 1700hrs every day and arrives in Ijmuiden, near Amsterdam, at 0930hrs the following morning.

With no baggage limits and a private ensuite cabin for all passengers, this is a relaxed way to head out to Holland. You can start your holiday as soon as you board by making the most of the facilities, which include bars, restaurants, live music, cinema and a casino. Ferries to and from Ireland remain the best way of navigating across the Irish Sea. P&O’s Larne-Cairnryan ‘superferries’ make the journey in exactly two hours, while the Troon to Larne ‘express’ ferry speeds between Scotland and Ireland, taking just 15 minutes longer.

Cruising From The UK

It’s not just ferries that set sail from UK waters. As air travel becomes more stressful and time-consuming, no-fly cruises are increasingly in demand. But choosing the right cruise can be tricky.

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Ferries offer great value travel for groups.

Over 300 ocean cruise ships operate around the world, from large ships and small ships to formal ships and informal ships – even ships that are family friendly and others that are adult only. As a result, there are lots of broad considerations to take on board when choosing a cruise, such as destination, the best time to travel and which company to travel with.

Companies such as Go Cruise are great at offering advice and guidance, boasting cruises from the UK to European destinations, with operators such as P&O Ferries, Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean, Oceania and Celebrity Cruises. Most routes leave the UK from the historic port of Southampton, which is easily accessed from the rest of the country. If you catch the train to the city, it’s just a mile in a taxi to the port. Southampton Airport is just five miles away and those arriving by coach or car can park a short walk from the cruise terminals. The Celebrity Eclipse is a consistently popular choice, specialising in one and two week jaunts around Europe during the summer months, departing Southampton and calling in at ports around the Mediterranean, Norwegian Fjords and the Baltic and Canary Islands. In the north, Newcastle is the port from which cruise ships depart. Newcastle Cruise Terminal has great transport connections to the rest of the UK. The city’s Central Station is about nine miles from the terminal and is less than three hours travelling time from London by train. If you’re coming by road, the terminal is handily connected to the North and South by the A1(M), whilst the A69 caters for East and West destinations.

The main season for Newcastle departures tends to be between May and September, with companies such as Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, Thomson Cruises, Voyages of Discovery and Cruise & Maritime Voyages regularly using the port. Leaving the River Tyne, ships take passengers on a wide variety of cruises to the Canaries, Portugal, Spain and North Africa. Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines even offers an 11-night cruise around the UK on Boudicca, calling in at Portsmouth, Falmouth, Cork, Dublin, Belfast and a number of Scottish ports. Excursions to the Baltics and the Arctic are very popular from Newcastle. Although summertime cruises are de rigueur, nature offers other attractions in the winter months – cruises to see the Northern Lights offer both the cruising experience and the viewing of a natural phenomenon. Cruise & Maritime Voyages alone offer five different 14/15 night Northern Lights itineraries, departing from London Tilbury or Bristol on the Marco Polo or Azores. Many voyages call in at Tromso and Bergen, head high into the Arctic Circle, stop at Alta’s unique Northern Lights Observatory and offer sightings of the Svartisen Glacier in Norway. Christmas mini-cruises are also wintertime winners with cruise lovers.

Generally lasting a few days to a week, these trips take passengers to the twinkling lights of some European Christmas Markets. Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth departs Southampton for three nights to and from Bruges – the perfect place to get into the seasonal spirit and buy beautiful gifts and chocolates. A four-night cruise will take you to Amsterdam and back for an authentic Dutch Christmas Market experience. Several other similar cruises head out from Tilbury.

Keeping It Green

Ocean liners have been criticised in the past for their impact on the environment, but many ferry and cruise operators have invested a lot of time and resources in cleaning up their act. The sheer number of people on a standard cross-Channel ferry means that the carbon emissions per person are relatively low. While fast services, such as the Catamarans that zip out to the Channel Islands guzzle more fuel – it remains the greener option compared to a short-haul flight. This is largely because, unlike planes, the emissions aren’t released at high altitude where carbon dioxide has a greater impact on the environment.

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Dover boasts direct transport links to various overseas destinations.

In 2011 and 2012, P&O Ferries made a large investment with the introduction of two new ships to its Dover-Calais service – the Spirit of Britain and the Spirit of France – at a combined cost of £360million. Although these sister ships are huge, the unique design of their hull reduces drag in the shallow waters of the Channel. This enhances fuel economy, carrying twice the payload of standard ferries for the same running costs. This autumn, Brittany Ferries is embarking on an ambitious renovation and renewal plan in order to reduce the impact of its fleet on the environment.

The programme includes fitting large exhaust filters to the funnels of three ships – Normandie, Barfleur and Cap Finistère – all designed to reduce emissions. Meanwhile in 2015 and 2016, Pont-Aven, Mont St. Michel and Armorique will be converted to run on liquefied natural gas (LNG), which involves each ship being fitted with brand new hybrid engines and fuel tanks. LNG emits considerably less carbon dioxide during combustion than oil-based fuels, as well as virtually eliminating other harmful emissions. Brittany Ferries also has plans for a new LNG-powered cruise-ferry. The new £225million flagship – codenamed PEGASIS (Power Efficient Gas Innovative Ship) – is scheduled for delivery in 2017. All this work will lead to a minor reduction of sailings in the coming months as ships are withdrawn from service for refits. Routes such as Plymouth to Roscoff will be subject to a limited service during certain periods. The work represents and investment of £320million over the next three years and will make these fleets one of the greenest on the planet.

Get Set To Sail

Why not take a trip to the 7th annual London CRUISE Show, held at Olympia London on February 14 & 15, 2015? One of the biggest events in Europe, it makes a brilliant introduction to the industry and is especially useful for first-timers. The show offers plenty of free talks and show-only offers, as well as ship and destination insights, tips and advice.

For more information visit www.cruisingshow.co.uk