Cheap as chips ship sets sail, but the only way is Essex

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The Independent Online

Europe's biggest holiday firm has launched a £100 austerity cruise for the peak summer season – with all meals and tips included. But hard-pressed customers who sign up for this recession getaway aboard a fully-fledged cruise ship will discover that the only way is Essex: the Thomson Spirit sails from South Shields to Harwich, taking only 16 hours and venturing no further than 30 miles from the English coast at Skegness.

This year's programme for Thomson Spirit includes great maritime cities such as Alexandria, Casablanca and St Petersburg. But on 2 August, while her three sister ships explore the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, she will trim her ocean-going ambitions for a 16-hour trip down England's east coast from the Tyne to the Stour.

Demand for the £100 special cruise has proved remarkably high, with all deluxe cabins apparently sold out. Standard cabins are being sold at £200 for two, the same as a night with breakfast at the Newcastle Malmaison.

The hourly rate for the cruise works out at £6.25 and the price includes a free bus transfer from Harwich to South Shields before the cruise, or back to the Tyne afterwards.

A comparable off-peak return fare by rail between Newcastle and Harwich is £139.30. Unlike rail passengers, the 1,250 cruisers aboard the Maltese-registered vessel can feast in three restaurants, or make use of the two pools and five bars.

Compared with sailing through the Strait of Gibraltar or the Bosphorus, the voyage through Sea Area Dogger – in which the ship will spend most of her journey – does not offer quite the same glamorous scenery. But the ship will pass Lord Byron's old stamping ground of Seaham, Captain Cook's home port of Whitby and Flamborough Head in east Yorkshire before the sun sets – whereupon the band in the Broadway Show Lounge will strike up.

When dawn breaks, Thomson Spirit will be off the Suffolk coast. After she docks on the River Stour, artistically inclined passengers will be able to find Constable Country a few miles inland.

Fraser Ellacott, managing director of Thomson Cruises, promised customers "a home from home with great food and fantastic entertainment" – although the customary Captain's Cocktail Party and Gala Dinner will not be offered.

He said the voyage was aimed at "customers that have thought about a cruise holiday but are not quite sure what to expect".

Penny Guy of the Passenger Shipping Association welcomed the concept: "This is a great idea for those who haven't experienced a cruise before – a taster which will show the value and all-inclusive nature of a cruise holiday."

While an August voyage for £100 is highly unusual, the smaller Marco Polo – belonging to a different line – is scheduled to make a positioning voyage from Tilbury to the Tyne in May, with cabins starting at £79. The Thomson Spirit celebrates her 30th birthday next year.