Take to the waters without the need for a skippers’ license on these buoyant getaways
Barging up the Thames
Kick back and watch the world go by from a floating hotel. Hop on the Baglady (07758 272212, www.hotelboatbaglady.co.uk; from £319pp for a two-night cruise, or £827pp for six nights), a Dutch barge floating in the Thames (www.visitthames.co.uk) between London and Oxford, for a weekend break or week-long holiday motoring along the river through the rolling Chiltern countryside. The owners drive the boat, pour the wine, cook breakfast and lunch (riverside picnics, when weather and route allow), and do all the hard work, leaving you to enjoy your cosy private quarters – with luxurious bedlinens, comfortable mattress and stylish private en-suite bathroom. Days are spent lounging on the bow, strolling or cycling along the towpaths, going for rambles or checking out the village pub, where you might have dinner that night, with aperitifs back on the barge’s bow or in the living room shared with affable hosts Roy and Sue. Since you’re the boat-hotel’s only guests, you can dictate the itinerary, but our favourite route is from Hampton Court upriver to pretty Abingdon, just outside Oxford.
Who says you have to go to Greece for island-hopping? Explore the Great British Isles on a holiday that won’t break the bank. In our coastal waters, you’re spoilt for choice, but Scotland has more than its fair share of off-shore beauties. Ferry company Caledonian Macbrayne (0800 066 5000, www.calmac.co.uk) offers bargain island-hopping tickets with a choice of 25 routes. The Hopscotch 8 island-hopping ticket takes in The Hebrides (www.visithebrides.com) and costs from £29 for foot passengers, or £188 for a car with two passengers, and is valid for the entire Hebridean island-hopping route for a month. Walk or drive on the ferry at Oban, three hours by direct train from Glasgow (the Oban ferry terminal is conveniently right next to the rail station), then watch the native dolphin population swim alongside the ferry as you cross to tiny Barra. From here, it’s a mix of buses, cycling, rambling or driving to get to the ferries that take you to Eriskay, South Uist, North Uist, Harris and Lewis, returning to the mainland at Ardrossan. You’ll want to plan at least a week to explore the islands, but once you discover The Hebrides’ little-known attractions – pristine beaches, green mountains, dramatic cliffs, freshwater lochs, archaeological sites, adrenaline sports and twitching galore at the RSPB reserves – you might just decide to stretch it out for the whole month of your ticket’s validity. Plus, the islands are littered with Great British pubs – a winning combination even Greek islands can’t beat.
Slow-boating in the Midlands
The Venice of Britain? It’s got to be the Midlands (www.visittheheart.com). Go for a walk in Birmingham or Worcester, and you’re tripping over waterways every few streets, which explains why canalboating the Stourport Ring, which goes through these two cities, is so popular. But it’s not all urban jungle. This popular 74-mile route is mostly spent in peaceful Black Country and Worcestershire countryside and will take at least a week. With 105 locks to pass through, the Stourport Ring isn’t one for those who prefer life in the fast lane. It’s all about slow travel, with plenty of time to wander off on walks, to pubs and even city-centre shops. In addition to the Midlands’ picturesque countryside, you’ll pass by Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, the Black Country Museum and Worcester Cathedral. Pick up the Thrush 402 narrowboat (01905 734168, www.waterwaysholidays.com; from £860 per boat per week, plus £125 fuel and other charges) at Alvechurch Marina, from March to October. This 66-foot beauty holds up to six people (but better for four), has two bathrooms with showers, central heating, TV, DVD and CD players, galley kitchen and requires no boating experience – but lots of entertaining anecdotes for the friendly lock-keepers.
The Broads way
Soak up the Norfolk scenery in style in a stunning cruiser that looks more suited to the French Riviera than the River Yare. There’s something rather decadent about exploring East Anglia’s (www.visiteastofengland.com) bucolic countryside in such a beauty. The glamorous new Alpha Tornado (0844 847 1356, www.hoseasons.co.uk; from £971 per boat per week, plus £75 damage waiver) sleeps up to four, but is best for two or three, and will have high-spec interiors when it hits the water for the first time this June, with two en-suite bathrooms, TV, DVD, central heating and galley kitchen. An elevated stateroom with sliding canopy means you can marvel at the Broad’s brooding scenery with unhindered views from the sofa or steering wheel. Pick up the Tornado in Brundall, then motor along the river to Norwich to moor for the night under the city’s glorious Norman cathedral. Head back downstream via Whittingham Country Park, Strumpshaw Fen, the Oulton Broads and Beccles. With no locks to contend with, you’ll go faster than on the canals, leaving you plenty of mooring time to wander off for bike rides, rambles and bird-watching in Britain’s largest wetlands – or you could take it more slowly and just relax with a G&T, watching the world go by.
Devon house and home
Enjoy the water without the waves on a luxury houseboat in Devon’s Salcombe Harbour (0845 2020820, www.homeaway.co.uk) from £995 per week for up to eight people). This five-star-quality boat has four spacious double bedrooms, TV, DVD, barbecue, terrace and huge living-dining-kitchen area. From the top-deck hot tub or bar, you might spot otters, seals and, occasionally, dolphins and basking sharks in the waters around you. Hang out on the water with family or friends, or hop in the houseboat’s small craft to go ashore and explore this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Salcome is on the southern tip of Devon, and you’ll find some of Britain’s most beautiful sandy beaches nearby. But if you want to see more than the beach or boat, hop in your car or on your bike to check out the area’s historic seaside towns, fishing villages, exotic Overbeck’s gardens, coastal views from Salcombe Hill and the undulating scenery of Dartmoor National Park.
British coastal explorer
If you’ve been hooked on BBC’s Coast, you’ll love Saga’s Treasures of Britain and Ireland cruise (0800 096 0079, travel.saga.co.uk; 14 nights from £1,919pp, full board). Starting in Dover on 21 July, you’ll board the Saga Ruby, a 1,000-person ship with all the bells and whistles – live evening entertainment, fine dining, fitness centre, spa, bars, swimming pool and all the glamour of life at sea. The ship sails west along England’s south coast, around the Isle of Wight, the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall, then over towards the Irish coast, stopping on the second night in Dublin. From there, you’ll cruise the Western Isles on Scotland’s west coast, passing The Hebrides and the Orkneys, all the way up to the far-away Faroe Isles. The return route takes you back through the Western Isles over to Belfast, then along the Welsh coast to Holyhead and Milford Haven before sweeping back around Cornwall to the white cliffs of Dover. Once you’ve ogled Britain’s coastline in such depth, cruising the Caribbean will never seem quite as appealing again.