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London (Southampton) Overview
Located on the south coast of England, Southampton served as Britain's historic ocean liner gateway for the British Empire and the intense North Atlantic passenger trade to the U.S. and Canada. Today it is the U.K.'s leading cruise port. For most cruise passengers, it's the first and/or last port on a European cruise or Atlantic crossing. Best known as the homeport of Cunard's Queen Mary 2, it now hosts a wide variety of cruise ships in the booming European cruise market with the principal lines being Cunard, Fred. Olsen, Royal Caribbean, P&O Cruises and Saga Cruises.
A pleasant, bustling city of around a quarter of a million inhabitants, Southampton has several areas of interest, though much of its historic medieval character was destroyed during World War II. Today, it is a modern shopping destination, business center and university town (the University of Southampton is a major British research university; among its well-known alumni is QM2 designer Stephen Payne OBE) with a large commercial port in addition to its year-round cruise operations.
Most visiting cruise passengers will use Southampton as a gateway to nearby London. In addition to the city's own attractions, it is also a good starting point for the Isle of Wight and the surrounding county of Hampshire. In 1620, the Mayflower left from just outside the existing city walls, and the waterfront recalls this historic voyage. From Mayflower Park, you can enjoy watching the container ships pass en route to and from the freight terminal beyond the Western Docks, cruise liners departing from three separate locations, and excursion boats and cross harbour ferries flitting around the harbour.
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Other British Isles & Western Europe Cruise Ports:
Amsterdam • Antwerp • Belfast • Berlin • Bilbao • Brugge • Brussels • Dublin • Edinburgh • Ghent • Hamburg • Holyhead • Lisbon • Liverpool • London • London (Dover) • London (Harwich) • London (Southampton) • Newcastle • Paris • Paris (Le Havre) • Paris (Rouen) • Prague • Rotterdam • St. Peter Port (Guernsey) • Vigo
This is England, so English, of course! But you'll hear many different accents by both native speakers and immigrants.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the British Pound (the U.K. has opted out of the euro); for current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. You will find ATM's at many bank branches. Banks usually take a commission from exchanging currency, while some travel agents and exchange offices advertise commission-free exchange. Check the rates they offer, as they do need to make their profit somehow! Credit cards are widely accepted, but please note that many taxis do not take them.
Southampton is a prosaic city with little originality to offer in terms of souvenirs. However, the Art Gallery shop (Civic Centre, Commercial Road) features items ranging from jewelry to cushions made by local artists. Gift shops at museums and country houses in the surrounding region frequently stock gift items specific to them.
Where You're Docked
Southampton has four widely separated cruise terminals. Two -- Ocean Terminal and QEII Terminal, accessible via gate 4 -- are located at the Eastern Docks, while the others -- Mayflower Terminal and City Terminal, accessible via gates 8, 10 or 20 -- can be found at the Western Docks, about a five-minute taxi ride from the Southampton Central railway station, which is close to the city center.
The compact city center runs roughly from the Town Quay and the SeaCity maritime museum on the harbour front to the Civic Centre with its tall grey bell tower and art gallery just off Above Bar Street, the principal access to the shopping precinct. You can walk from one end to the other in less than a half hour.
In Southampton: AutoEurope (800-223-5555) is a good first call. It represents a range of car rental agencies such as Avis and Hertz (and often offers better rates than the individual agencies). In this case, AutoEurope works with Avis, which has an at-the-dock office at Gate 8.
Between Southampton and London by train: Go to Southampton Central station for Southwest Trains to London. You have the option of four departures an hour and journey times of 70 to 90 minutes. To check schedules, visit Southwest Trains or National Rail Enquiries online. You can also call 0871-200-4950 for train timetable information. Fares are cheapest for departures after 10:00 a.m., so ask for a "cheap day single or return."
By bus: National Express coaches operate between Southampton's bus station and London's Victoria Coach Station, as well as between Southampton and the Central Bus Station at Heathrow Airport. Allow about 2.5 hours.
Watch Out For
If you come from the U.S. and touch land here for the first time, please remember that people drive on the left-hand side of the road in the U.K. When crossing the streets, it is always best to look both ways. Drivers have the right of way, and they take it unless you cross at a lined or "zebra" crossing.
SeaCity across the road from the Town Quay houses a good collection of artifacts related to Titanic, which sailed from here on April 10, 1912, and went down with heavy loss of life five days later. A scale model depicts the port in its ocean liner heyday before World War II. The city was proud enough to send the complete setting to the 1939 - 1940 New York Worlds Fair. Upstairs, ship aficionados will find a wonderful collection including models of the Queen Elizabeth 2 and the original Queen Mary, plus other less familiar but nonetheless superb examples of the fine art.
Additional Titanic connections are memorials to the ship's musicians and engineers, none of whom survived. The former is located at Cumberland Place and the latter near the Civic Centre. This is the home of the municipal art gallery that houses an eclectic collection of art from medieval to modern with a focus on local artists, although it also has works by well-known British modern painters such as Laurence Stephen Lowry and Duncan Grant.
The Southampton Tourist Guides Association offers free Heritage Walks, daily at 10:30 a.m. in the summer (also 2:30 p.m. in August) from Bargate, which dates back to the 12th century. The route visits the medieval town walls and vaults, St. Michael's Church (oldest section from 1070), and the site where the Mayflower and Speedwell sailed for America in 1620.
Southampton Shopping: Walk along Above Bar Street towards the waterfront, and you will see the West Quay Mall on your right. It houses large stores, such as John Lewis, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, plus a number of specialty shops and boutiques. The Bargate Centre and Mall Marlands will also help in your efforts to get in ship shape before your cruise. Above Bar and its continuation, High Street, have a number of pubs, cafes and restaurants to rest your feet and have a meal or drink ... or both. The 15th century Red Lion pub is one.
For More: Virtual Tourist's Things to Do in London
Been There, Done That
There are a number of harbour and ferry trips worth considering. All leave from landings at the Town Quay, and a free shuttle bus runs from Southampton Central.
The shortest trips are run by Blue Funnel Cruises, a one-hour docks tour best enjoyed when one or more cruise ships are in. The ferry to Hythe, a small town on the far side of the harbour, runs close by the ships docked at the berths 38/39. The 11-minute trip connects at Hythe Pier with an ancient miniature train that rattles along the length of the pier to the town. A pub with outdoor seating affords a good view of the ships sliding by. Departures are every half-hour.
For a half-day or all-day trip, ride the Red Funnel Line ferries to East Cowes, Isle of Wight. Take one of the roomy passenger and vehicle ferries (not the hydrofoil) for the leisurely 55-minute trip past the southernmost berths then down Southampton Water and the Solent.
At East Cowes, a Southern Vectis #4 or #5 bus will take you the two miles to Osborne House, a large Italianate-style villa and Queen Victoria's favourite residence. If you want to visit the house and gardens, ask for a combined ticket for the ferry and the house. It was here that Victoria died on January 22, 1901, at 6:30 p.m. at the age of 81. For further details, check the English Heritage Web site or call 0198-320-0022. The house is open year-round.
A second I.O.W. destination is the town of West Cowes, reached from East Cowes by using what is called the floating bridge (free) that crosses the narrow river dividing the two. The attractive main street is lined with antique stores, pubs and restaurants, and there you'll find Beken of Cowes, a famous photography store that chronicled the comings and goings of the great ocean liners and sailing yachts.
Hampshire Country Houses and Palaces: The home of the late Earl Mountbatten, Broadlands was the site of two royal honeymoons, those of Queen Elizabeth II (then Princess Elizabeth) and Prince Charles. The New Forest showcases old shipyards and a museum; the New Forest was created by William the Conqueror. Broadlands is roughly 12 miles from Southampton, a 20-minute drive.
While in New Forest, check out the Beaulieu Abbey-Palace House -- dating back to 1204 -- and the surrounding gardens. Also worth seeing is the National Motor Museum -- one of the biggest automobile museums in the world -- with some 250 vehicles, from antique to electric. These particular sites in New Forest are 12 miles from Southampton; driving time is 30 minutes.
You can also jump on a train in Southampton for a half-hour ride to the market town on Salisbury. The early gothic cathedral, built from 1220 to 1258, houses the oldest working clock in Europe (it dates back to 1386) and features the tallest spire in Britain. The town also has a number of museums, and nearby you will find a number of other attractions. The huge prehistoric stone circle at Stonehenge is located near Amersbury.
A number of great country houses are in this area as well: Longleat and Stourhead near Warminster and Wilton House just outside the town at Wilton. The last named is a former convent and the seat of Earls of Pembroke since the 16th century. The Double Cube Room features a magnificent painted ceiling and splendid works of art by Sir Anthony van Dyck, furniture by William Kent and Thomas Chippendale, and an Axminster carpet. For further information, visit Salisbury's Web site or call 0172-233-4956.
History Afloat: Heading east, you can visit the Royal Naval Museum at Portsmouth. Via a train to Portsmouth Harbour, the journey will take about one hour, and the entrance to the museum area will be opposite a small square in front of the station. The museum itself tells the story of the Royal Navy from early days to the present, and you can also visit HMS Victory, a three-deck ship built in 1766 and the flagship on which Admiral Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. The ship remains commissioned in the Royal Navy, and it is the flagship of the Second Sea Lord (in plain English, the personnel director of the Navy). Nearby is HMS Warrior, a much larger steam frigate built in 1860, which is also open to the public. More information is available at Portsmouth's Web site or by calling 02392 826 722.
Head over to Southampton's upscale district – a few block stretch along Oxford Street –- where places like the Oxford Brasserie (33 Oxford Street, (02380 635 043), for bistro fare. The White Star Tavern and Dining Rooms (28 Oxford Street, 02380 821 990) started life as a seafarers' hotel, and since opening early in the new millennium, it has proven itself to be a flagship establishment in Southampton. The interior pays homage to the history of the building, with chandeliers and comfy leather sofas. and cuisine is "modern British" with familiar names such as local sausages and mash, beer battered fish and chips and something on a healthier side, such as pan fried fillet of salmon or breast of free range chicken. There are also three different canape menus.
On the Quayside, the Italian Ennio's (Town Quay Road, 02380 221 159) is a favourite for lunch and dinner. Cuisine is hearty, service is lovely, and the ambience is charming. Another popular choice on this stretch of road is the Spanish La Regatta (Town Quay, 02380 223 456 ) for tapas and seafood; it's open for lunch and dinner and has outside seating. Cuccini's on the Quay (02380 335 045, open 11 a.m. until late) is another Italian option for lunch and dinner; evenings it features a jazz musician.
Other recommendations in the city include Que Pasa (104-108 Above Bar Street, 02380 235 930), a lively bar cafe right in the center of the city. The location is good if you've worn out your feet while shopping, as it is only a stone's throw from the West Quay Mall. The restaurant overlooks a small park, and it has tables outside as well. The menu is an eclectic collection of Spanish (catalan lamb or Paella Valencia), Oriental (crispy aromatic duck spring rolls 3.95) and British food (club sandwiches). This is a casual place that starts to serve lunch at 11:30 a.m. and remains open past midnight each day.
If you fancy Indian food, two of the best in town are: P.O.S.H. (1 Queensway; 0870 742 6282), a spacious Indian Colonial restaurant with a superb lunch buffet that is hard to beat. Dishes run from distinctly regional Indian cooking to the type of curry lunches with all the condiments that the British colonials once enjoyed. Open Sunday to Friday for lunch and daily for dinner. And Kuti's (39 Oxford Street; 02380 221 585), where you'll find eclectic and inventive fusion cuisine, such as aloo brie tikki (potato balls flavoured with ginger and cashew, filled with Brie and served with tamarind sauce). Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.
In Town: The four star De Vere Grand Harbour (02380 633 033, West Quay Road) is the most luxe-oriented hotel within Southampton city limits but it's not all that luxurious, feeling more like a 3-plus star hostelry. There's an in-house restaurant and bar, and an indoor swimming pool (that's a plus). Rooms are pretty tiny -– make sure to splurge for one with a balcony overlooking the harbour if you want to watch your ship come in.
Nearby, the Holiday Inn Southampton (Herbert Walker Avenue, 0870 720 1252) also has an enviable location just outside the gates to one of the port's terminals. Options for those wanting port proximity at a value price also include a Novotel, Etap and Jury's Inn.
Southampton's most delightful boutique hotel is the six room Ennio's (02380 221 159, Town Quay Road, above the Italian restaurant); it's located at the foot of the Red Funnel ferry and rooms, while cozy in size, are decorated in spare Scandinavian style with funky touches. All have ensuite bathrooms.
For a well-located bed and breakfast, try the Linden Guest House,(51-53 The Polygon, 02380 225 653). It is up the hill from Southampton Central railway station and on a street with several B&B's. The cheapest rooms have shared facilities. Several other B&B's are located on the same block.
The newly-opened The Pig in the Wall B&B (8 Western Esplanade, 02380 636900), is the small, but perfectly-formed sister hotel to The Pig in the New Forest, from the co-founder of the Hotel du Vin chain of hotels. It's a 19th-century pub and townhouse in Southampton's medieval walls, knocked together to create 12 "shabby-chic" bedrooms, a bar and a charcuterie. The hotel is in a perfect spot to explore the city's sights and stone's throw from the dockside.
Great Splurge-worthy Stays: A recent post-cruise stay at Lime Wood (Beaulieu Road, Lyndhurst, England
02380 287 171) was actually more fun than the voyage itself! The relatively new country house hotel is sleek and trendy without being ostentatious. There are two restaurants on site (one's an Alex Aitken helmed gourmet venue, the other's more casual), bikes for borrowing, and serene New Forest trails to hike.
Another favourite is the 11-room Hotel TerraVina (174 Woodlands Road
Woodlands, Hampshire, 0238 029 3784), located as well on the outskirts of the New Forest. TerraVina is known as much for its wine list as it is for its chic -- but comfortable -- lodgings. The hotel, owned by the proprietor of the highly lauded Hotel du Vin chain, features a restaurant, bar and swimming pool.
If you want to splurge and don't mind a 45-minute car journey to get there, then it's well worth starting or ending your cruise at the Four Seasons Hotel (Dogmersfield Park, Chalky Lane, 01252 853000), which has a property in deepest Hampshire steeped in history (the village is mentioned in the Domesday Book). It's the ultimate in five-star luxury accommodation, set in its own vast grounds with an adjoining farm and fishing lake; breathtaking suites and the finest locally-sourced food from Laverstock Farm. It also has a "Ship to Shore" offer for cruise passengers, which includes a transfer to or from Southampton and daily English breakfast for two included in the price of the accommodation.
Check out our U.K. blog post on Southampton's accommodation offerings.
Staying in Touch
In Southampton, the Bargate Internet Cafe on the lowest level of the Bargate Centre is the easiest to find; Blue Star Internet Cafe at 97 St. Marys Road is just north of the town center.
For More Information
On the Web: Visit Southampton, Discovery Hampshire and Visit London
Cruise Critic Message Boards: British Isles/Western Europe
Independent Traveler: Europe Exchange
--Updated by Kari Reinikainen and Theodore W. Scull. Reinikainen, based in the U.K., is a regular contributor to the cruise industry's top business publications, from Fairplay to Cruise Business Review. Scull, author of 100 Best Cruise Vacations, has spent five years at sea aboard almost every type of passenger carrying vessel imaginable. His newest book, Ocean Liner Twilight, personal accounts of his early sea travels, came out in October 2007.