Once around the British Isles

Invaders have long stormed Britain's shores from ships. Now, increasing numbers are storming ashore -- waving wallets instead of swords -- from cruise ships.

Some of the world's largest cruise lines have developed niche sailings this year for those who might want an ocean cruise with a visit to some of the most popular and, at the same time, some of the most undiscovered parts of the British Isles.

Three years ago, travelers could find only a limited number of vessels making this journey, but this summer they'll find more than 5,000 berths offered by well-known lines such as Cunard, P&O, Fred. Olsen and Princess as well as British boutique sailing companies. Cunard's 2,014-berth Queen Victoria, for instance, will undertake a 10-day cruise in July. Cabins begin at $2,010.

There is no doubt that there is a market for these cruises: Cruise Scotland estimates that more than 200,000 visitors, many of them returning Scots from North America, will land in Scotland this year by liner.

Many of these cruises start at Southampton, London, Tilbury, Liverpool or Dover, one of the world's fastest-growing cruise ports, and set off in either direction around the islands. To wit:

* Silversea's Prince Albert II will operate back-to-back cruises from Portsmouth to Leith, Scotland, and then Leith to London. Cabins start at $3,364 for the May cruises.

* Crystal Cruises is offering its 922-berth Crystal Symphony on a cruise in June with fares from $4,210.

* Fred Olsen is offering four cruises, from May to September, with fares starting at $1,450 on its 800- to 1,350-berth ships.

In September last summer, I joined 1,300 other passengers on Balmoral, a ship belonging to Fred Olsen Line, on a tour organized by specialist travel operator Ramblers Worldwide Holidays, which arranges hiking holidays in some of the more challenging locations in the world.

Like many passengers on these cruises, I was using the ship as an opportunity to visit a country my family had left generations ago. And it had been almost 30 years since I had last set foot in Scotland.

I joined the Balmoral at Dover and settled into my outside cabin. Despite the little space it takes on the world map, the British Isles take a surprisingly long time to navigate around: Some estimates say the drive around the coastline is 7,500 miles. With port calls, our journey back to Dover, including calls in Scotland, Dublin, Falmouth and the Channel Islands, was to take nine days.

One misconception is that on a round-Britain cruise, you actually see a great deal of the coast line. In fact, after we left Dover we sailed northeast and were soon nearer the coast of Denmark. This is because, like the Gulf of Mexico, oil drilling takes place off the coast and cruise ships give the affected areas a wide berth.

The passenger profile was predominantly retirees, couples traveling without children. Despite the summer date, this is a cruise in the northern latitudes, so few sun-seekers or lotus eaters; windcheaters (windbreakers, as we say) and warm trousers are the order of the day.

Some of the other passengers flocked to luxury coaches at each port of call, but our group donned serious walking attire and set off for earthy hikes.

After our first day at sea, we called at Invergordon, Scotland, and headed for the Fyrish monument, the 1782 folly said by some to have been built to alleviate the poverty created by the Highland Clearances, the removal of residents from the land. In Britain, you are never far from history.

If this sounds too much like hard work, the reward was the magical silence of a Scottish forest and air as clean as good mountain air. After all, we were in the Scottish Highlands.

We had gone from the crowded southeast of England to the breathtaking Highlands of Scotland in one day, bringing our hotel room with us. This is what cruising offers.

After a call at Kirkwall in the Orkeny Islands was canceled because of hurricane-force winds (always a risk this far north), the Balmoral called at Tobermory, the pastel port almost too perfect to be real. A beautiful walk took us to the remains of a Highland estate open to the public. We enjoyed a picnic before returning to the ship.

In Dublin, the hiking party split as the ship docked in the city's busy port. Some Ramblers set off for independent sightseeing; others took the DART railroad out of the city to the picturesque Howth peninsula.

After the cold Northern waves, Dublin felt good, bathed as it was in warm sunshine.

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