Last month, the “pause” button on cruising was finally released with ships permitted to weigh anchor once more.
First out of the starting blocks were voyages around the UK, with more than 15 cruise companies having announced sailings in home waters this summer. While the FCDO has failed to give the green light to sea-going cruises beyond the UK – against the advice of the government’s Global Travel Taskforce – the green list has, like the much-disputed amber list, provided an element of choice.
Now, cruisers are able to travel to green-list approved destinations without the need to quarantine on return. Admittedly, there’s unlikely to be a stampede of travellers heading to the remote South Sandwich Islands or Tristan da Cunha. But the inclusion of Portugal and Gibraltar has given a vote of confidence to two cruising stalwarts. Iceland is another winning addition, as is Denmark’s Faroe Islands. A fair wind is starting to blow and while it may be too early to steam ahead, recovery is picking up speed.
Below, our experts reveal what the green list means for cruises, and how to make the most of what is a limited list so far this summer. All dates are for July onward – in the hope that the FCDO advice will soon change to reflect the government’s recommendations.
Crack open the port and strike up the cigars, because such a celebration is a truly fitting way to mark Portugal’s return to the holiday landscape for British cruisers. With river cruises exempt from the FCDO advice, sailings along the Douro River are looking to be the best option for those who simply can’t wait to get back on board.
This exotic backwater – which carves through the heart of the Douro Valley; its precipitous slopes sculpted with vines bearing the fruit of its renowned tipple – was already regarded as one of the rising stars of the river cruising world. Unlike Europe’s busier waterways, the appeal of the “River of Gold” lies in the somnolent ambience of this remote landscape. Sleepy settlements cling to dramatic inclines and hillside quintas, tucked into chiselled terraces, make perfect vantage points for drinking in gorgeous views while savouring the region’s silky port wines.
Portugal is also an established destination for ocean cruises; its Atlantic coastline attracting ships visiting the Iberian Peninsula or making the trip between the UK and the Mediterranean. Lisbon regularly appears in cruise itineraries, with its sweeping boulevards and graceful squares hinting at its 15th-century former self as the world’s most prosperous trading centre.
Portugal’s island territories of Madeira and the Azores are also popular stops. The former boasts a subtropical climate and flora that has given it the reputation as the flower garden of Europe. Ships dock at the capital Funchal, set in what was once a volcanic caldera with a mountainous backdrop and an atmospheric old town. The remote and rugged Azores, sitting in the Atlantic Ocean nearly 900 miles off the Portuguese coast, are a pristine natural oasis often described as the Hawaii of Europe. The volcanic archipelago not only serves up spectacular scenery and a fistful of intrepid activities, from game-fishing and canyoning to hiking and biking, but the off-shore waters are whale and dolphin watching territory, too.
While attracting mainstream cruise companies on transatlantic and Canary Islands sailings, the islands’ unblemished natural appeal also draws smaller, boutique ships that can explore the nine-strong island chain in more depth.
With such strong environmental credentials, how apt it is that these islands, along with the rest of Portugal, have been among the first to be given the green light.
A one-week Douro cruise departs Porto on July 30. From £2,139pp (01283 888 458; rivieratravel.co.uk). A 14-night round-trip Canary Islands voyage from Southampton, including calls at Lisbon, Madeira and Cadiz, departs on October 9. From £1,399pp (0344 338 8003; pocruises.com). A seven-night round-trip sailing of the Azores departs on April 6, 2022, from Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel and calls at five other islands. From £3,385pp (01432 507 280; small-cruise-ships.com).
Cruising into Reykjavik’s Old Harbour is unlike arriving into most ports. The Icelandic townscape quickly fills the horizon, with its glacier-blue warehouses and seafood-processing factories, but that’s not what makes it so extraordinary. Neither is its white-capped Mount Esja in the middle distance, nor Hallgrimskirkja, the capital’s monumental Lego-block cathedral, that will have you grasping for superlatives in the cool air.
Come in summer and it is still light at midnight and there might be a minke or humpback whale welcoming you. Arrive later in September, and it’s the Icelandic disco above your head that will have you believing in Valhalla; at times, the Northern Lights stream in so fast they could be witchcraft. Iceland has always done things a little differently. But with its unique geography and splendid isolation, it’s a country perfect for cruisers.
For starters, the Land of Fire and Ice can be expensive and time-consuming to get around, yet pick the right cruise and it’s a breeze to escape from well-worn territory. From expedition-style zodiac landings in the rugged Westman Islands to the uninhabited islands of Borgarfjordur, you’ll gain a different perspective on the country’s tight knit remote communities and highly charged landscape. It’s almost as if the long, empty contours of the fjords have been purposefully designed for cruise ships.
Most cruises concertina the country into one to two days on a transatlantic odyssey or combination trip with Greenland or Svalbard, but I’d recommend a more immersive, one to two-week circumnavigation. That might include visiting the main ports of Akureyri (Iceland’s second largest city), Husavik (northern Europe’s whale-watching capital), or Isafjordur (the largest town amid the twisted Westfjords). Itineraries vary, but as a rule of thumb, most take in elemental landscapes with endless skies that remain aloof to those in a car or campervan. Iceland doesn’t give up its treasures that easily for road-trippers.
Then there are the gripping excursions. There’s Grimsey, a puffin haven straddling the Arctic Circle; Heimaey, a northern Pompeii engulfed in volcanic ash; or the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, the movie set-like backdrop for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
Those of you who feel bewildered by everything that’s so wild in the world at the moment might not even raise an eyebrow at the prospect of elf-hunting. Huldufolk, or “hidden people”, are the supernatural characters of Icelandic folklore and I remember searching for them in Borgarfjorour Eystri, a hobbit-sized village in northeastern Iceland.
No matter how absurd it might sound, looking for elves on a mountaintop with a mesmerising view of the vast Norwegian Sea is completely magical. The true purpose of a cruise is to open your mind and that’s a given in Iceland. The country remains weirdly wonderful and wonderfully weird – a reassuring constant in such strange times.
Hurtigruten’s 11-day cruise on-board MS Fram, with lectures from a professional photographer, departs July 28; from £3,971pp (hurtigruten.co.uk). Crystal Cruises offers a 10-night circumnavigation departing Aug 6 onboard Crystal Endeavor; from £10,600pp (crystalcruises.com).
With untouched landscapes, deep fjords, dramatic cliffs and crashing waterfalls, the Faroe Islands are a brilliant stopping-off spot for cruise ships exploring the North Atlantic. The islands – 18 in all – sit halfway between Scotland and Iceland, have seabirds aplenty and more sheep than islanders. You can fly in, but the best views are reserved for those who arrive by cruise ship, sailing into Torshavn, “Thor’s Harbour”, which is surely one of the world’s most colourful capital cities – certainly more peaceful than its thunderous namesake might suggest.
A 12-day Reykjavik to Leith cruise departs on July 14; from £5,800pp (0844 251 0837; silversea.com).
Attain an appropriately languid colonial mood strolling from the terminal, past heroic Napoleonic siege tunnels and Winston Churchill Avenue, cartoonishly carrying traffic right across the airport runway between take-offs. Thirty minutes from the gangplank you round the far base of the famous lump to reach little-known east shore beaches.
A week in Gibraltar would be squeezing that Rock dry but for a day in port, it’s cruising gold. If you’ve done the monkeys, forts and factory shops, head to Catalan Bay, a sheltered sandy crescent. Sit on The Seawave’s terrace and order a tapas feast no cruise buffet could match.
A 14-night cruise on Sky Princess, departing Southampton on October 22; from £1,249pp (0344 338 8663; princess.com).
Best of the rest
What about the other green-listed countries, the ones with closed borders or prohibitive restrictions? Australia, New Zealand, Singapore: all carrots dangled in front of cruisers? Sailing there may be a little way off, but some spectacular cruises beckon when the good times roll once again.
Cunard’s 25-night Australian Circumnavigation is a continent-covering gem. Queen Elizabeth sails from Perth on Nov 7, 2022, heading to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, the Whitsunday Islands, Cairns, Port Douglas (for the Great Barrier Reef), and Darwin – plus a side-trip to Bali. From £3,149, cruise-only (0344 338 8641; cunard.com).
A rare find is Azamara’s 16-night New Zealand Intensive Voyage, departing Jan 20, 2022. Sailing round- trip from Auckland to both North and South Islands, it cruises the Milford Sound and includes port stops at the Bay of Islands, Kingston, New Plymouth, Wellington, Tauranga and others. From £3,409, cruise-only (0344 493 4016; azamara.co.uk).
Royal Caribbean’s seven-night Spice of southeast Asia cruise aboard Voyager of the Seas departs Jan 3, 2022. This round-trip sailing from ‘green list’ Singapore visits Port Klang, Kuala Lumpur; Penang in Malaysia; and Phuket, Thailand. From £568, cruise-only (0344 493 4005; royalcaribbean.com).