HIGH DRAMA: The stunning Giant’s Causeway, considered by some to be the eighth wonder of the world
MID-AFTERNOON and I’m standing outside Kehoes Pub on a narrow cobbled street in Dublin. I’m holding two drinks which look identical but one’s a Guinness and the other’s an Irish coffee. As I tentatively sip the Guinness (it’s my first ever taste), an Irishman watches me screw up my face.
“If you don’t like Guinness,” he laughs, “you’re not trying hard enough!” I hand him my Guinness and stick with the Irish coffee which, incidentally, is divine.
I’m in the middle of a 12-day British Isles cruise and this pub visit is the finale to a half-day guided walking tour around Dublin which has led us through handsome Georgian squares – Oscar Wilde lived on one – and Trinity College to get here.
Too often I holiday abroad instead of exploring my own backyard which is madness. And with vast swathes of Britain and Ireland still unfamiliar to me, I decided a cruise would be a cost-effective, pleasurable way to visit several places in one go.
My 3,600-passenger ship is the Royal Princess and, despite being christened by the Duchess of Cambridge almost six years ago, it sparkles as if brand new. The atrium dazzles gold, with gleaming, sweeping staircases and the ship’s Kir Royale and Royal High Tea live up to its regal credentials.
LAND AHOY: Jo Kessel joined the sumptuous Royal Princess for a relaxing 12-day British Isles cruise
The next day we’re in Belfast, where a full-day excursion takes us away from the city and on a two-hour bus drive towards the Antrim coast. The scenery is so vivid it looks Photoshopped: rolling lush fields; pristine white-sand beaches; ancient castles perched dramatically on clifftops.
It’s a cinematographic dream and it’s no surprise to learn that several locations we pass have featured in HBO’S Game Of Thrones or U2 videos.
The pièce de résistance is 63-million-year-old Unesco World Heritage Site the Giant’s Causeway, a formation of 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns which stick out of the sea like a gargantuan geometric sculpture.
I spend hours clambering among and over these columns, watching the sea crash into them. I feel like I’m abroad in some far-flung land and forget it’s the UK. Some even consider this the eighth wonder of the world.
The Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
For one final thrill our guide takes us to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge – a flimsy construction 98ft in the air that connects an island to the mainland. It resembles the eviction bridge on I’m A Celebrity
and sways ominously as waves foam far below my feet. I take a deep breath and cross.
It’s a relief to return to glamorous, calm Royal Princess where mine’s a Royal Bellini – well-deserved after that bridge.
And as I later tuck into filet mignon – cooked to perfection – in speciality steakhouse Crown Grill and watch a ventriloquist act – an audience member becomes the dummy – in the ship’s theatre, we sail from Ireland towards Scotland.
First stop is Greenock. Most passengers travel 30 minutes from here to Glasgow but instead I stay to explore locally.
RICH HISTORY: Trinity College Dublin
The town sits on the south bank of the River Clyde and a walk along its esplanade takes me past well-preserved Victorian mansions – No.56 was owned by the Tate and Lyle family – towards a coastal trail.
This in turn leads to the Argyll hills and the sleepy village of Gourock where fishing boasts bob in the harbour. It’s quiet and isolated and feels like the end of the country.
The next day is spent at sea, hugging the coastline at the top of the UK.
We sail past the Outer Hebrides and Orkney and when mist mars the view I head to the ship’s Enclave.
This is like a spa within a spa, with a hydrotherapy pool, steam room and sauna.
GRAND ADVENTURE: The imposing Royal Princess, named by the Duchess of Cambridge in 2013
All I do, however, is alternate between a hot stone bed and a hot water bed and I’m so relaxed I nearly fall asleep.
Just 24 hours later we reach Invergordon. This pint-sized Scottish town serves as gateway to Loch Ness, somewhere I’ve longed to visit since childhood.
So that’s where my final half-day excursion takes me, driving past firths where seals breakfast on salmon and through the foothills of snow-capped Highlands en route.
As we get closer, guide Pat – clad top-to-toe in tartan – explains that the legend of the loch’s monster dates back to 565AD.
“My grandfather saw Nessie and I believe there’s definitely something with a humped back and long neck in the water,” he tells us.
The ruins of 13th-century Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness
My first glimpse of the loch comes as I wander around the ruins of the much fought-over 13th-century Urquhart Castle which sits on its banks.
I make my way to the shoreline and stare at the inky-dark water which is more like a wild sea than the flat lake Pat assures me it can be.
The waves whip and whirl and it’s easy to imagine that there’s something there but, alas, today Nessie hides.
More important than seeing Nessie, however, is the lesson I have learned.
Crossing the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge in County Antrim makes for a breathtaking experience
For all these years I’ve been complacent about the history, scenery and diversity of the British Isles – flying off to foreign lands instead of witnessing the wonders on my very own doorstep.
What this cruise has shown me is that there really is no place like home.
GET ON BOARD
Princess offers a 12-night British Isles round-trip sailing departing from Southampton on August 29. Crown Princess will call at Guernsey, Cork, Dublin (overnight), Belfast, Glasgow, Invergordon, Edinburgh and Le Havre and prices start at £1,447 per person.