The UK is famous for its weather and its coastline. The weather is so reliably unreliable that we often forget how fortunate we are to have such an enormous, temperate ocean on our doorstep. For it is our culture of four-season seafaring that has made the nation what it is today, and made it difficult to choose just 10 out of the dozens of possible "best" UK boating destinations.
Once the UK’s premier seaport, Falmouth is now home to the National Maritime Museum, a famous oyster festival and a vast array of cruising possibilities. The estuary is long, deep and impressively varied, with plenty of offshoots where pretty waterfront pubs happily coexist alongside large-scale commercial shipping. The landscapes are lovely, beaches are plentiful, the fishing is great and Falmouth itself is a city of remarkable charm and vigour.
Having been named Britain’s sunniest town and the UK’s most holiday-friendly destination, Eastbourne is a much better place than its vapid reputation suggests. Sandwiched between the vast chalk cliffs of Beachy Head and the immensely impressive Premier Marinas development, the town is full of entertainment. In addition to a fine pier and a famous bandstand, its prolific events calendar includes plenty of gastronomic and sporting shows, plus the brilliant weekend-long International Air Display and the Eastbourne Extreme watersports festival. Brighton may get all the headlines, but with great walking, top class marine facilities and rock-bottom prices, Eastbourne is a real surprise package. See also Pier or no pier: Eastbourne is Britain’s coolest town.
Perched on a hill above a colourful, hut-lined beach, Southwold sits deep in the heart of the Suffolk Coast National Nature Reserve. With low-lying marshes perennially stalked by excitable twitchers and a pier that is more classical than brash, it feels like a very civilised place. Launching and berthing facilities on the aptly named River Blyth are small scale but engagingly intimate – and in addition to great seafood, pretty buildings, fine pubs and rural seclusion, Southwold is also home to the excellent Adnams brewery. Okay, so the waters can get a bit muddy and the atmosphere is a touch genteel, but as low-octane getaways go, Southwold ticks all the boxes.
Propped up on the side of a hill at the apex of a panoramic seascape, Tenby is a memorable destination. You can relax with an alfresco drink among the cobbled streets or take advantage of the active watersports culture with some coasteering, sea kayaking or windsurfing. The cruising is also a treat. For vast landscapes, you have the Gower Peninsula, for chocolate tastings and monastery tours, you have Caldey Island and for untamed wildness, the furthest outcrops of western Wales are just around the corner. As a base for wildlife tours, island hops and epic offshore passages, it takes some beating.
The historically besieged island of Jersey is a great place for a week away. It has a vibrant events calendar, excellent boating facilities, a delightful seasoning of Frenchness and easy access to a range of memorable cruising destinations. There is also plenty to see. How about the German War Tunnels or a wine tasting tour at Le Mare Wine Estate? How about the Atlantic surf beach at St Ouen’s Bay or a trip to the famous Gerald Durrel Zoo? It’s all on hand here, but perhaps the greatest joy is simply a hidden bay, a dropped anchor and an impromptu picnic in the sun.
The medieval settlement of Caernarfon is in the county town of Gwynedd and home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the form of a vast 13th century castle. With its narrow streets, bustling market and easy waterfront access, the town is worth a visit in its own right, but it also happens to sit in a great cruising spot. Here, at the western edge of the Menai Strait between the north Welsh coast and the Isle of Anglesey (right on the edge of a proposed Marine Nature Reserve), you have access to every form of marine entertainment, from verdant estuary-style waterways to rapid, rocky channels and the wide-open swells of the Irish Sea.
The pretty Cornish seaside town of Fowey (pronounced ‘Foy’) was reputedly the inspiration for Kenneth Grahame’s ‘Wind in the Willows’. It’s also been voted the UK’s most desirable place to live and when you visit with your boat, you can see why. Its narrow streets and pretty buildings tumble down to the water’s edge, where you can rent powerboats, canoes and kayaks. Restormel Castle, the medieval town of Lostwithiel and the famous St Austell Brewery are all nearby. And if you can drag yourself away from Sam’s (a wonderful fish restaurant) and Pinky’s (a super cool café), the neighbouring ports of Charlestown and Looe offer plenty of cruising entertainment.
(8) Milford Haven
With more than 30 miles of sheltered waters, the Milford Haven Waterway is the largest estuary in Wales and one of the deepest natural harbours in the world. Set within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, it extends inland toward the River Cleddau, with plenty of towns and tributaries to explore. Back out between the heads, the wildlife-rich islets of Skomer and Skokholm lie in wait – and in addition to winning fame for its sea bird colonies and its boatbuilding, this region also enjoys a prolific succession of lovely beaches, each linked by means of the well-maintained clifftop coast path.
Known as the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’, the isle of Islay (pronounced Eye-La) dangles out into the Atlantic Ocean off the craggy west coast of Scotland. With Northern Ireland just a short hop south, that puts it in a great spot for all kinds of boating fun. You can seek out the ferocious bottleneck flow of the Skerries, you can ride the oceanic swells or you can investigate the sheltered waters between the region’s maze of knife-edged landmasses. Having said that, with no fewer than eight first-class whisky distilleries on site, Islay might just tempt you to leave your boat at the pontoon...
With seven or eight estuaries between Plymouth and Exmouth, the beautiful town of Dartmouth sits in an area of outstanding natural beauty at the heart of a very special stretch of coastline. The Dart estuary is long and lovely, with everything from castles to vineyards, pretty villages to boat-friendly pubs, and steam trains to historical boathouses. In addition to plenty of great walks and hidden coves, it’s also a handy departure point for a trip to the Channel Islands. And happily (in stark contrast to a lot of the south Devon), the continued presence of a fishing fleet, a boat building industry and a naval college means that the town’s buzz is robust enough to endure the seasonal tourist exodus.
For more great guides to cruising the coast of the UK, see: Six short sea passages around the UK or Seven special British boating pubs.