Around Britain in 12 days - with the help of a comfy cruise ship and a (very) trusty laptop
We visited Edinburgh Festival, walked right round one of the Channel Islands, trekked to see some mountains, browsed Liverpool's galleries and toured Loch Ness looking for the monster. We went sightseeing in Cork harbour, walking in Belfast and shopping in Dublin and even had time for a day on the beach in France.
Viewpoint: Urquhart Castle, on the banks of Loch Ness, was one of the most spectacular sights of the cruise
Looking back, our family's 12-day summer holiday sounds like a mad dash around Britain, Ireland and France... but it was really relaxing. That's because our long catalogue of completely different experiences came courtesy of a no-fly cruise around the UK.
Our 3,500-passenger mega-ship Crown Princess did all the hard work, sailing us from Southampton on a circuit of the British Isles, calling at Guernsey, Cobh (the port for Cork), Dublin, Liverpool, Belfast, Greenock (for Glasgow), Invergordon (for Loch Ness and the Highlands), Edinburgh and Le Havre before returning to Southampton.
I was apprehensive at first. I didn't fancy spending my family holiday in the docks of Liverpool, Belfast or Glasgow. My children, Harry, nine, and Millie, seven, were unlikely to enjoy trudging round the cities en route and if the weather was typically British, neither would my wife Joanna.
Of course I was soon proved hopelessly wrong. The sun was blazing for our first stop of St Peter Port on the Channel Island of Guernsey. There were no smelly docks, just a pretty harbour.
We headed for the beach via a ferry to the small island of Herm three miles away. We had a blissful walk right round the peaceful, traffic-free island and sipped cold drinks gazing across the sparkling water to the biggest thing in sight...the Crown Princess.
The next day was more like what I'd feared: a cold drizzle welcomed us to Cobh in Ireland. I couldn't persuade anyone on to the train to Cork. It was hard enough to get them out of the cabin.
The children defiantly voted for the ship's kids' club, so Joanna and I strolled round Cobh's quaint shops, cafes and fine cathedral.
The best sight was watching scores of American passengers head straight for the nearest Irish bar on the quay to order a pint of Guinness first thing in the morning. The barman in the sleepy pub looked bemused as the Americans photographed each other sipping the world-famous beer.
Monster moment: The Heptinstall kids get to meet 'Nessie'
The next day it was a long walk from Dublin docks to the city centre. The children were soon tired and grumpy. Ice creams failed to lift their mood, so we got a taxi back to the ship. James Joyce and Trinity College will have to wait till they're older. The pattern was set: it was worth taking the children away from the kids' club only for an interesting adventure. So each evening I retired to the cabin with my laptop to research the next day's activities.
In Belfast we found a good family walk along the River Lagan and in Invergordon I hired a car for a family tour of Loch Ness and Black Isle. In Edinburgh it was Festival time so we explored streets teeming with buskers.
Our last stop in Le Havre, Normandy, was a success too. I'd discovered the nearest sandy beach on my laptop. It was a short walk away, the sun was out and we had a great day at the seaside.
Arriving by sea gives you a different view of familiar cities. It felt grand and romantic sailing into Liverpool's historic waterfront, for example. I've certainly never felt uplifted arriving in the outskirts of Liverpool by car.
We visited the Albert Dock where the marvellous Maritime Museum's display on great cruise liners that had sunk was particularly entertaining for the children. We took them back on board, then spent a grown-up afternoon picking our favourite paintings at the Walker Art Gallery.
As we left Liverpool, more than a thousand friendly Scousers gathered to wave and cheer our huge ship away from the waterfront by the Liver Building as the port Tannoy played You'll Never Walk Alone.
The best views came further north. Cruising between the mountains of Skye and the Hebrides was so spectacular I was distracted from the pools, gym, spa, adult-only Sanctuary and sports court for a whole afternoon.
The picturesque journey up the Firth of Clyde ran it a close second. That was when we were heading for Greenock, which I suspected would be a dour port on the way to Glasgow. But locals in this Clydeside town gave the world a lesson in how to welcome cruise passengers.
A cheery team of volunteers in Highland dress had set up an impromptu visitor centre in a marquee on the quayside, advising passengers on transport, attractions and even conducting their own free bus tours.
One lady told us how to reach a walk in the hills I'd found on the internet. From the Greenock Cut trail across the high moors, the mountain views were spectacular. At a humble fishermen's cafe in a hut by a reservoir we had lunch of classic local delicacies: Pot Noodles and Irn Bru.
Back on the quay, the Greenock newspaper was handing out a hurriedly produced special edition with photos of the ship arriving and interviews with the first passengers ashore. It made a great souvenir and will spread the word about Greenock's hospitality. Expect more cruises to call into this friendly little town.
Inspirational: Simon makes land at Liverpool - and feels thankful that he packed his laptop
By now the majority of the passengers were won over by little Greenock's heart-warming efforts. We lined the railings waving farewell as the ship sailed.
But there was no stopping the volunteers. They arranged for a giant inflatable Highlander to dance along the quay while a team of pipers played.
As we sailed away into the sunset, the sound of Scotland The Brave lingered long after the pipers faded from sight - and the memory of that moment will linger even longer.
Princess Cruises (0845 3555 800, www.princess.com) offers a 12-night British Isles cruise aboard Crown Princess with prices from £1,199pp (based on two adults sharing an inside stateroom) and £1,699pp (based on two adults sharing an outside stateroom).
Departures this year from Southampton are on: May 22, June 15, July 16, August 4 and August 16.
Other operators offering cruises around the UK include Shearings (0844 209 7143, www.shearings.com).
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