Boats in harbour in front of colourful houses on a hill in Somerset
Boats in harbour in front of colourful houses on a hill in Somerset

Unmissable locations for your boating bucket list

If you’re the type of person that itches to get out on the open water however and whenever you can, the UK has a huge range of ways and locations for you to scratch that itch. We’ve compiled a list of some of the absolutely must-see locations for messing about on the river… or loch.

Loch Ness, Inverness-shire

Although Loch Ness is perhaps best known for the legendary and elusive, Nessie, it’s also a fantastic natural beauty spot steeped in history and brimming with wildlife. Gorgeous and unique, you've never truly experienced the Loch until you've explored it by boat, so a trip around Loch Ness is a bucket-list necessity.

There are a number of options for guided day cruises and trips that take in the history, wildlife, and folklore of the area. Cruise Loch Ness in Fort Augustus has fast RIB tours for small groups or slower-paced scenic tours on larger, covered vessels. These depart from the southern bank and take you past the Loch’s only island, Cherry Island, spoiling you with a waterside view of striking Fort Augustus Abbey. Plus, if you’re curious about the creatures lurking beneath the boat, keep an eye on the onboard sonar equipment, which beams live images to the passengers.

Lake Windermere, Cumbria

Ok, ok, so maybe it’s not terribly original, but it’s hard to refuse this celebrated Great Lake a place on any boating wish list. Sitting proudly in the heart of the Lake District National Park, Lake Windermere is the biggest of our natural lakes, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the UK, and has inspired artists, poets and writers for centuries. And for good reason. The scenery really is something else.

Whether you’re looking to pootle about on the water in your own time, or you prefer to be chauffeured, there are different routes and options that allow you to hop on and off or just sit back and watch the mountains, woodlands and islands slip by.

You also have the choice of pretty much every type of water transport you can think of: motorboat, sailing dinghy, rowing boat, kayak, canoe or paddle board. If a historic steamer appeals, Windermere Lake Cruises will float you slowly through this picturesque stretch of water, calling at Bowness, Lakeside and Waterhead.

The Thames, London

Arguably one of the most famous cities in the world, London is teeming with historic landmarks and unique things to do. A cruise along the Thames is a great way to see the city from a new perspective, and without the crowds. The river is still a key feature of the capital, dividing it into North London and South London, with many of London’s most iconic landmarks lining or – in the case of the bridges – crossing it.

Hop-on hop-off river cruise passes are available to buy, and trips run roughly every 30 minutes from various points including Westminster Bridge, Big Ben, the London Eye and the Tower of London. You can get off at each stop and spend as long as you like exploring the nearby attractions before getting back on the boat and heading to the next stopping point. If the fancy takes you, you can extend your trip to include afternoon tea or evening dinner.

The River Cam, Cambridgeshire

There’s no way any list of boating ‘musts’ would be complete without a mention of punting on the River Cam. Cambridge has earned its reputation as one of the most popular punting destinations thanks to its beautiful waterways and ancient architecture - a true feast for the eyes. There’s no doubt that a leisurely punt along the river is one of the best things you can do in Cambridge.

Gliding along the river opens up some glorious sights that are otherwise almost impossible to see. You’ll have a unique view of world-renowned Cambridge University, with its fascinating museums and libraries, and famous locations like the Bridge of Sighs, the Mathematical Bridge and the back of King’s College. It’s hard to think of a better way to spend a summer’s day than punting in the summer sunshine.

There are two main places where you can hire a punt: one is at the Backs, where your route will take you past the Bridge of Sighs, the Mathematical Bridge and King’s College. The other place is Grantchester, which is a lot quieter. So, if you’re thinking of doing the punting yourself, then this is the place to do it. You can also stop off at a riverside pub for lunch.

If having someone else to do the hard work is more your thing, you can hire a private punt just for your group or share a punt with strangers to keep costs down. Many of the punting guides are Cambridge students and have impressive knowledge of the history of the places you pass.

Llangollen Canal, Denbighshire

The Llangollen Canal is a beautiful waterway in Wales and includes the tallest navigable aqueduct in Britain, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which carries the canal over the River Dee. It’s a masterpiece of engineering and an icon of the Industrial Revolution. In 2009, along with 11 miles of canal, the aqueduct was awarded UNSECO World Heritage Site status. You’ll travel through varied scenery such as the verdant farmland pastures and ancient peat mosses, tree lined lakes and craggy outcrops of the Berwyn mountains.

For a really unique treat, take a horse-drawn boat ride along the Llangollen, which and floats you over narrow aqueducts and through charming backwaters in authentic ‘olden-day’ style. The trip is the perfect way to enjoy a few moments of tranquillity in the middle of a busy day as you drift slowly between the majestic peaks of the Snowdonia National Park.

Norfolk Broads

It’s impossible to leave this iconic network of Norfolk waterways off the list. But just to be a little bit different, instead of hiring a motorboat, why not explore this unique, protected wetland by paddle board? It’s less disruptive for local wildlife, gives you access to some of the quieter backwaters of the Broads and is great for keeping fit.

The Broads is dotted with slipways and launching points where you can get your craft in and out of the water - many of which are free to use. All canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards (including inflatables) that are used in the Broads area have to pay either an annual or short visit toll. Unless you’re a member of the British Canoeing governing body, in which case you’re exempt.

Starting from the River Wensum in Norwich offers winding meadows and wildlife such as kingfishers, herons, swans and even a group of non-native terrapin turtles. It’s an escape from reality only minutes from the busy city centre and there are a few paddle board companies that will hire you the equipment you’ll need and give you guidance on the best access points and routes to follow.

Another superb starting point is Salhouse Broad as it’s sheltered, completely still and ideal for beginners. And there’s a good chance you’ll see a wide range of woodland and wetland animals throughout the year.

So, there you have it. Our list of some of the places that we think deserve a place on your boating bucket list. Hopefully we’ve piqued your interest. Happy exploring!