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The Traveller's Guide To: European boat trips

From ferries to Calais, to city cruises around the Baltic, the waters of continental Europe offer plenty of distractions for the flight-phobic traveller. Cathy Packe makes some waves

Do I have to start with the Channel tunnel?

Not necessarily. When the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994, the future of the cross-Channel ferry looked uncertain, but worries have proved unfounded. P&O (08716 645645; www.poferries.com) is sufficiently confident about the future to have ordered two new ships for the Dover-Calais route, which will be the largest ferries ever to operate on this stretch of water. The first will come into service in December 2010 and will complement the frequent sailings already operated throughout the day and night by both P&O and SeaFrance (0871 423 7119; www.seafrance.com). Norfolkline (0844 847 5007; www.norfolkline.com) runs a service from Dover to Dunkerque, while SpeedFerries (0871 222 7456; www.speedferries.com) links Dover and Boulogne in 50 minutes.

I don't want to start from Dover

There are plenty of other ferry routes to continental Europe, with connections to Spain (Santander and Bilbao) from Plymouth and Portsmouth; to the coast of Normandy and Brittany from Plymouth, Weymouth, Poole, Portsmouth and Newhaven; and to the Flemish port of Zeebrugge from Hull and Rosyth. In the Netherlands, Amsterdam (or at least the nearest port, Ijmuiden) can be reached from Newcastle, Rotterdam from Hull, and the Hook of Holland from Harwich. DFDS Seaways (0871 522 9955; www.dfdssea ways.co.uk) is the main operator between the UK and Scandinavia, with services from Harwich to the Danish port of Esbjerg, and from Newcastle to Stavanger, Haugesund and Bergen in Norway. A good source of routes and prices is Directferries.co.uk (0871 222 3312; www.directferries.co.uk), which sells tickets for 51 ferry companies covering more than 700 routes.

A life on the ocean wave?

The starting point for one of Europe's best-value cruising operations is Athens, although the flight-free journey of more than 48 hours to get there may prove prohibitively time-consuming for some people. Easycruise (0871 210 0001; www.easycruise.com) is based in Piraeus, a few miles south of Athens, and offers cruises of varying lengths around the Cyclades, the Aegean and Ionian islands and some of the main classical Greek sites. Further north, the Baltic is ideal for exploring from a cruise ship. The main cities – Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga and St Petersburg – are all within easy reach of one another, which means more time can be spent ashore and less time travelling between them. Among the operators in this area is P&O Cruises (0845 678 00 14; www.pocruises.com) whose starting point is Southampton. The company also operates its Mediterranean cruises from here, avoiding the need to fly to a departure port like Barcelona or Palma.

Country-hopping by boat?

Long overland trips can often be shortened and made more relaxing by taking a scheduled boat part of the way. Boats depart several times a week from Marseille on the French Mediterranean coast to Porto Torres in Sardinia (www.southernferries.com); from there, there are frequent sailings to the Italian port of Genoa. Ancona and Brindisi on the east coast of Italy are useful departure points for trips to Turkey using Marmara Lines (00 90 232 712 2223; www.marmaralines. com); there are two departures a week to Cesme, an hour by bus from Izmir. There are daily departures from Bari, slightly north of Brindisi, to Durres in Albania (00 39 081 0171998; (www.tirrenia. it) and to Patras on the Greek mainland, using Superfast (www.superfast.com) or Blue Star Ferries (www.bluestarferries.com).

River cruising?

Cruise boats operate on all the main European rivers, including the Rhine, Rhone, Danube, Douro and Elbe. Other choices include some of the itineraries included by Blue Water Holidays (01756 706529; www.cruisingholidays.co.uk), which offers a four-night trip along the Seine to the Normandy coast, beginning and ending in Paris, and a five-night cruise around the Venice lagoon and River Po. And on major rivers, scheduled boat services are an integral part of the local transport system. KD Rhine (www.kdrhine.com), for example, operates a scheduled passenger service between Cologne and Mainz, stopping at Bonn, Koblenz and plenty of picturesque villages. Boats run daily from late April until early October, with limited services on parts of the route in winter. The total journey takes around 11 hours, and a single ticket for the whole journey costs €49 (£41). On the Danube, a hydrofoil service (00 361 484 4010; www.mahartpassnave.hu) operates daily in each direction between Budapest and Vienna, departing from both cities at 9am and arriving at the other end at 3.30pm and 2.30pm respectively. Stops are made at Visegrad and Bratislava on the way. The service runs from late April to early October, and single tickets cost €89 (£74).

And steaming across a lake?

The Italian Lake district is one of the jewels of Europe, and exploring the larger lakes – Garda, Maggiore and Como - by water (www.navigazione. it) is much easier than attempting to drive around a perimeter road which is likely to be congested. On Lake Garda, for example, regular boats link Desenzano, Sirmione or Peschiera at the southern end of the lake, with Riva del Garda at its northern tip, with stops at many of the 25 other lakeside settlements in between. In addition to these north-south services, ferries run east-west between Torri and Maderno, and from Malcesine to Limone. In Switzerland, services on each lake are run by different companies: see www.cgn.ch for Lake Geneva, for example, which includes ferries to the French lakeside towns of Yvoire, Thonon and Evian; and www.lake lucerne.ch for Lake Lucerne. There are links to the transport services on each lake from the main Swiss tourism website, www.myswitzerland.com.

I'd like to head west

Year-round services link several British ports to northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Stena Line (08705 707070; www.stenaline.co.uk) runs services from Fleetwood to Larne, and Stranraer to Belfast; and from Fishguard to Rosslare, and Holyhead to Dublin and Dun Laoghaire). Irish Ferries (08705 171717; www.irishferries.com) also sails between Holyhead and Dublin, and from Pembroke to Rosslare. Once you are across the Irish Sea, there are several inland waterways to explore, including a long stretch through the middle of the island from Lough Erne to Killaloe, south of Lough Derg. Based close to Lock 1 is Corraquill Cruising Holidays (028677 48712; www.corraquill.co.uk), one of several companies that hire out barges on the Shannon Erne Waterway. And if you are more interested in seeing the coast than the interior, Page and Moy (08708 334012; www.pageandmoy.com) is running a nine-night cruise, departing from Harwich on 26 June next year, and visiting Belfast and Dublin, as well as Leith, Falmouth and London.