Nine ships docked over the August bank holiday weekend, one of the busiest of the year for the port, including Cunard's Queen Mary 2, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas, Grand Princess and P&O Cruises' Ventura.
The hour-long tours, which departed from the waterfront Ocean Village and toured the Eastern and Western docks, did not allow for onboard exploration. Buses stayed outside the fenced-off security zones right next to the ships, but did stop at all the best vantage points for photographs, allowing visitors uninterrupted views of the vessels.
There was no charge for the tours, but visitors were invited to donate to a local hospice -- raising over £2,000. Security checks were not necessary as the guests were not allowed off the buses.
The concept, says port director Doug Morrison, was meant to help the general public feel a closer connection to the docks in Southampton, England's busiest cruise port. "One criticism we've had is that Southampton has all these wonderful ships visiting, but people can't access them as the port itself occupies the waterfront," he explained. "We advertised that there would be bus tours starting at 10 a.m., but people were queuing from 7 a.m., and in the end I had to charter a boat as well to fit them all in."
Visitors had arrived not just from the local area but as far away as the Midlands and included, Morrison said, "ship spotters, people who already liked cruising and others who were contemplating their first cruise.
"Fred. Olsen's Black Watch was squeezed in between Independence of the Seas and Grand Princess and looked tiny," he continued. "I think everybody did well out of it because it gave perspective on the size of the ships relative to one another -- and some people like a smaller ship."
Southampton is not the first port to offer tours for ship fans. German enthusiasts flock from miles around on a busy day in the northern port of Rostock, one of the gateways to Berlin. Sightseeing boats are laid on not to admire the historic city -- but to look at the cruise ships. And in Finland's city of Turku, boat tours that cruise right up alongside ships being built at STX Europe's shipyard there are hugely popular, particularly now that Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, in its last phase of construction, is on full display.
Next year will see further open days in Southampton, particularly with two big launches coming up for Cunard's Queen Elizabeth and Celebrity Eclipse. "I did tell my staff to shoot me if I offered to do this again on such a busy day, but it really was a success, for the cruise lines as well as the port," Morisson concluded.
We'll post the next date on Cruise Critic, so watch this space!
--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor