A new way to see the British Isles

By Annie DavidsonAZURE seas, glitzy entertainment and palm-fringed beaches are just some of the images summoned up by the word "cruise".Lighthouses, buoys and the UK coastline may not figure quite so highly.

By Annie Davidson

AZURE seas, glitzy entertainment and palm-fringed beaches are just some of the images summoned up by the word "cruise".

Lighthouses, buoys and the UK coastline may not figure quite so highly.

But an initiative that was launched last year has proved there is a market for these more unusual cruises.

Trinity House in Harwich has made its flagship vessel, Patricia, into a holiday venue while still running it as a working ship.

The public can pay £200 a day to sail around the UK and do not even know their definite destinations, as the ship could be called to emergencies or maintenance work at any time.

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But this, it seems, is part of the attraction, along with an unusual view of Britain's coastline and the opportunity to see a working ship at close quarters.

The trips were first launched in March last year and although Trinity House was pleased with the response, it was affected by world affairs and a downturn in the holiday market.

But trade for 2004 is looking better, with two or three weeks completely booked up.

Steve Dunning, head of marketing for Trinity House, said the idea arose because Patricia had a lot of unused accommodation.

The vessel, which was built in 1982, was used for navigation and the inspection of lighthouses.

Since lighthouses became automated, many of its cabins are hardly used, but offer a high standard of accommodation. Indeed, as master of Trinity House, the Duke of Edinburgh has often gone on board.

The ship has six double cabins with en-suite facilities, satellite television and e-mail links.

Mr Dunning said: "Recently, the law changed to enable us to use spare capacity which we had not been able to use up until now. We took professional advice, did some market research and the evidence was that it was a goer.

"Patricia is mainly a working vessel and it has to go where work takes it. We may have to deal with emergencies at sea, or start off going one way and have to turn round and go back.

"But that is the attraction to a lot of people. A lot of people don't want a predictable cruise. A lot of people have done the Caribbean cruise and they don't want Butlins on sea."

He added: "On the Trinity House ship, you get a high standard of accommodation and there is no hot and cold running entertainment. They make their own entertainment.

"People want to get away from it all and see the coastline from a different perspective. It is a bit of a niche market in some respects.

"Quite a high number of people who came in 2003 are coming back again in 2004, which we found quite reassuring."

With space for only a few guests, the 22 crew are better able to show the passengers their day-to-day work, without being too crowded.

"Because we are not talking about a lot of people, the crew make people feel very welcome," said Mr Dunning.

"They are allowed on the bridge and most places on the ship, once the captain has got to know them and they know their way round a bit."

And in the rare case the ship could not drop passengers off who wanted to leave, the Patricia has a helideck and could airlift them to dry land.

Patricia is operational 365 days a year, but the cruises run from the end of March until the beginning of October.

The £200 a day charge may sound a bit pricey, but Mr Dunning pointed out it covered all meals, including some wine, and high-quality accommodation.

"Just an ordinary hotel is about £120 a day with nothing included," he said. "We have heard from a lot of people who have been on it that they think it is good value for money."


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