Ever since the Pilgrim Fathers set sail aboard the Mayflower in 1620 bound for the New World, the importance of Southampton has been assured. This thousand year old city is situated on a peninsula where the Itchen and Test rivers flow into an inlet from the Solent known as Southampton Water – reputedly where King Canute tried to hold back the tides. Here, deep water quays can accommodate the largest cruise ships in the world at four modern terminals, little wonder this is Britain’s principal cruise port and plays host to over four million visitors a year.
Beneath Southampton’s modern streets there’s evidence of the Roman settlement of Clausentum and the Middle Saxon town of Hamwic. The 14th century Medieval Walls are well worth visiting as are the 11th century St Michael’s Church, the late 15th century Tudor House and Gardens, the 13th century Bargate and the Medieval Merchant’s House built in 1290.
Most of us heading for the armada of cruise ships that set sail from this maritime gateway have little time to delve into the annals of history as our modern stateroom awaits – along with a livener in the Crow’s Nest Bar. If truth be told, Southampton isn’t the most attractive of cities, as many of the post-war buildings are heavier on the concrete than on architectural inspiration. If you have time to kill before you sail into the blue yonder, the SeaCity Museum is great for a maritime trip down memory lane.
For cruisers travelling from the regions, it makes sense to spend a night or two in the area before or after your cruise. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Southampton isn’t exactly overflowing with top-notch hotels. The Grand Harbour Hotel is certainly convenient for the passenger terminals, there are packages which include parking and access to a dedicated cruise lounge, but in my experience service levels leave a lot to be desired.
A new entrant on the luxury hotel scene rears up like a futuristic liner from the Ocean Village Marina. Shaped like a super-yacht and sheathed in glass, the Southampton Harbour Hotel and Spa has stunning contemporary interiors that are also a feature of the Jetty Restaurant – domain of award-winning Chef Patron Alex Aitken; as well as the rooftop HarBAR on 6th – a perfect hangout for cocktails, relaxed dining and sunset views. The hotel also offers attractive Park and Cruise packages.
Set within Southampton’s medieval city walls, The Pig in the Wall is a classy boutique hotel with just 12 bedrooms that the on-trend designer Judy Hutson refers to as ‘shabby chic’ and come with assorted furnishings, oversized showers, plus ‘larders’ stocked with snacks and drinks. The hotel also has a delicious deli counter serving charcuterie, salads and great wines.
Savvy cruisers have tumbled to the fact that just 15 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the port city lies the tranquil New Forest. Situated to the north of Europe’s largest heathland, the Bell Inn at Brook is an 18th century coaching inn, independently owned by the same family for over 200 years. In this authentic Grade II listed building you’ll find flagstone floors, open fireplaces and beamed reception rooms, not to mention 28 tasteful bedrooms infused with countrified-chic trimmings.
Built in 1627, the Thatched Cottage at Brockenhurst is a charming Grade II listed hotel that offers cottage rooms as well as luxury garden rooms and suites. There’s also a tea room and garden as well as the New Forest’s only gin bar.
Other options include The Pig at Brockenhurst – the first of this group of rural-themed hotels; as well as the inimitable Chewton Glen at New Milton – one of the most sublime country house hotels in Britain.