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Wednesday, 30 November -0001

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

The lure of the unknown is drawing cruise passengers to far-flung destinations as well as our beautiful native shores.

Written by Clare Russell

Counterintuitively, one of the major events on the 2012 cruising calendar is the 100th anniversary of the Titanic tragedy. Going down with all hands while the band plays a selection of heartrending tunes may not be the image of choice as you embark on a ship bound for the New World, or indeed any ship at all. But that hasn't stopped Fred. Olsen from arranging a commemorative 12-night cruise, following the Titanic's original planned itinerary, aboard the Balmoral – nor the Azamara Journey (one of Azamara Club Cruises ships), which sets sail on an 11-day cruise for New York on 18 April, marking the occasion en route.

Both these waterborne events coincide with the launch of the Titanic Visitor Centre in Belfast, not to mention the no-doubt blockbusting TV serial on the Titanic by Julian Fellowes. So, apart from the ever-present ghost of the unsinkable, what else can you expect from a cruise in 2012?

Cruise Critic, the online cruise guide, suggests that river journeys and 'refurbs' will be the order of the day. As recession bites, cruise lines are spending a lot of money upgrading older ships, rather than building new ones. Oceania Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, P&O and Cunard, among others, are all planning upgrades on many of their ships, involving new fittings in cabins, new carpets and beds, swisher restaurants, more children's play areas and in one case, new tequila and rum bars. Cruise Critic has a refurbishment chart on its site, which might be worth a glance before booking.

By contrast, river cruise lines continue to churn out new ships. Viking launches six new builds in 2012, and Uniworld is working to make its ships as much part of the river experience as the river ports they visit. European Waterways is one such company. The 12-passenger vessel Panache is the newest addition to its fl eet – a 128ft Dutch hotel barge with six air-conditioned double/twin en-suite cabins. Between April and May it's embarking on a series of six-night, round-trip 'Tulip' Cruises. They start and finish in Haarlem, take in the famous Keukenhof Gardens, the Delft Pottery and the Gouda Cheese Centre. An optional excursion to Floriade 2012, the massive horticultural exhibition, is also included. After the Tulip Cruises, Panache will embark on canal cruises from Mittersheim to Strasbourg in Alsace. Bicycles, including a tandem, are available on board for countryside exploration, and the galley chef will be providing dishes from the regions through which you are floating – sea bass with cucumber, smoked eel or roast duck à L'Alsacienne.

Other hot destinations for 2012 include the Canary Islands, enjoying a surge in popularity after acquiring business from trouble-torn areas such as Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon; also river cruising in Vietnam and Cambodia (Mekong cruises are already sold out for most of the year). And, perhaps as a result of the worldwide recession, coupled with the grim experience of spending time in an airport, round-Britain cruises will be huge too.

Hebridean Island Cruises departs from Oban and visits Hebridean islands (Eigg, Muck, Ulva, Iona, Jura, Colonsay; Shiant Isles, Harris, Mingulay or Pabbay or Berneray, Barra).

Noble Caledonia offers a late-spring, 10-day journey to the mountains, island and seaside gardens of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and Channel Islands, aboard the MS Quest. Gardens include Arduaine on the shores of Loch Melfort and Achamore House on the island of Gigha in Scotland; Bodnant in Wales, Powerscourt and Mount Usher in Ireland, as well as a brief foray into the subtropical gardens on Tresco, Sark and Herm.

Azamara Club Cruises: www.azamaraclubcruises.co.uk

Cruise Critic: www.cruisecritic.co.uk

European Waterways: 01753-598555, www.gobarging.com

Fred. Olsen: 01473-746175, www.fredolsencruises.com

Hebridean Island Cruises: 01756-704700, www.hebridean.co.uk

Noble Caledonia: 020-7752 0000, www.noble-caledonia.co.uk



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