The cruise industry has grown enormously since Jane McDonald was a singer on several liners in the 1990s.
“It’s changed such a lot because when I first started working on them it was only for people who had money,” recalls the Loose Women panellist, who was catapulted to fame in 1998 by the BBC docusoap The Cruise. “Now it’s an affordable luxury for anybody who wants to go, which is wonderful.”
In 2015, there were a record 1.7 million UK and Irish cruise passengers, and the figure for last year is expected to be another all-time high; only the Germans are sailing away in greater numbers. Affordability isn’t the only reason Brits are increasingly opting for cruise holidays. There’s a lot more variety on offer these days, including many more river cruises and specialist sailings catering for passengers with an interest in everything from wine to wildlife.
In her latest series for Channel 5, McDonald tries out four cruises she would never have booked for herself: a mega-ship with 4,300 passengers, a converted Scottish trawler, a riverboat up the Danube and an Alaskan cruise.
“Even when I stopped doing The Cruise, I still took a cruise holiday every year and, like most people who go cruising, I found a ship that I liked and kept going back,” she explains. “I never would have gone anywhere cold because I wanted to sunbathe with a pina colada. But it was exhilarating going to Alaska; seeing the icebergs, dogsledding, flying over a glacier in a helicopter – it was like being in a Bond film! The scenery was breathtaking.”
She’s also a river cruise convert. “You pull up in the middle of Vienna or Budapest – these places of fantastic interest and culture – which you can’t do on a big ship. Vienna was fabulous. They’ve got massive windows on a river cruise, which you can open to get the fresh air off the water and hear what’s going on outside. And I loved just watching the world go by. Every single time I gazed out of the window it looked like a postcard.”
Exploring the Inner Hebrides; main picture: on an adventure cruise in Alaska
But the biggest revelation was the trip round the Inner Hebrides in a refurbished herring trawler, which she shared with ten other passengers and four crew. Boutique cruises like these come with a bigger price tag, but, “It was like having your own private yacht and because it was such a small ship, we could get into all these little nooks. We docked every day and could look all over the different islands, and then the captain served us dinner every night.
“This show has changed my perception of cruising. I think there’s a cruise for every person on the planet. You can go on a cruise with eight people or with 5,000 people, so it depends entirely what you’re looking for.”
Cruising with Jane McDonald is on Channel 5 on Fridays, 9pm
Radio Times Travel: Luxury European river cruises down the Rhine, Rhone and Danube from £1,099pp
Jane’s top tips…