Ciara McDonnell travelled the quick journey to Southampton on the recently launched flights by Aer Lingus from Cork.
Knowing absolutely nothing about Southampton, except that my grandfather spent a huge amount of time there as a cattle dealer in the 1960s, my mother and I took a short flight to the city of cruises in search of some weekend relaxation.
As Aer Lingus have recently launched a new route from Cork to Southampton, our visit was a timely one.
A city built on the success of its port, it is no surprise that the Southampton waterfront remains where it’s at.
We stayed at the Grand Harbour Hotel, a monument to the glamour of cruises past, and a testament to the amount of short-stay visitors who come through this city (over 4 million a year) on their way to a cruise holiday.
As well as spa and stay offering, the hotel has a cruise lounge, where guests can relax for the day while waiting on their ship.
The rooms were spacious and well appointed with extremely comfortable beds and powerful showers — just what you need before or after a long cruise holiday.
A trip to the pool and spa area revealed a spacious place to unwind and a well-equipped gym, should you find the need during your break.
Shopping is one of the city’s main occupations, and as well as a huge IKEA on the waterfront, it is home to two sizeable shopping centres, which house all of the most popular high street brands.
Westgate, the more modern of the two, is undergoing a huge expansion at the moment, and will shortly be the hub of the city’s cultural quarter, housing restaurants like Bills and Wahaca as well as a concert venue and gallery offering.
Despite the lure of emptying our wallets, we chose to investigate the city proper.
It is steeped in history, with over ninety historical buildings scattered across its centre.
Southampton has a hugely important aviation and maritime heritage, dating back to the 1600s.
Henry V marched his troops through the Westgate of the city to sail for France and The Mayflower sailed from Southampton to take its voyagers to what would become the New World of America.
The Titanic embarked from Southampton on its fateful voyage, taking over 500 of the city’s residents with it.
The Old Town is host to a wealth of historical treasures.
The Bargate was the original gateway to the medieval city and still stands as an impressive entrance to the Old Town, which has the third longest stretch of unbroken medieval defensive walling in England.
The easiest way to get around Southampton is to walk, and the QE2 Mile is a great way to do it.
Running from the Cenotaph in the heart of the city to the waterfront at Town Quay, the walk takes in the city’s parks, new cultural quarter, shopping districts and historical waterfront.
The mile takes in the Titanic memorial, the majestic Guildhall, which hosts the city’s best concerts, the Marlands and Westquay shopping centres and The Bargate.
For those looking for rural idyll just outside the city then the New Forest is unmissable.
We took a private tour through this stunning national park, where animals roam free and you are just as likely to have to stop the car for a group of ponies crossing the road as you are some hikers.
Brian Perry, our tour guide and owner of New Forest Platinum Tours has a deep passion for the area, and had a plethora of interesting tidbits to tell us about the national park.
We travelled through chocolate box perfection in the villages Brockenhurst and Beaulieu, where horses loiter outside local ice cream shops in the hope of getting a treat or two, and into lush forested areas which housed seemingly hidden luxury hotels.
It would be easy to lose a day or two wandering around this expansive conservation site, and there’s lots do — there are a huge amount of B&Bs scattered around its main villages.
After a restorative glass of wine in the Grand Harbour Hamtun Bar, we walked across the road to the Pig In The Wall, a gorgeously homey B&B, housed rather terrifyingly in the medieval walls of city.
The Pig is one of four hotels in the area, each offering a high-end boutique experience.
Over some of the best old-fashioned’s we have enjoyed in quite a while, we ate our way through a platter of Piggy Bits, which was heaven on a pork-scented plate.
A pork extravaganza, it housed locally produced chorizo, prosciutto, sausages and pork scratchings with some delicious olive sourdough, apple sauce and capers
A flatbread pizza came next and while we denied dessert, we enjoyed a fabulous coffee.
The Pig In The Wall offers a free shuttle for guests to its hotel in the New Forest where a large a la carte and full on dining experience is available.
We drove to the hotel to have a look, and it is well worth a visit — think romantic forest retreat in five-star surroundings.
Southampton is a wonderful gateway city to so many of the UK’s spectacular sights.
With a huge amount of destinations flying out of Southampton airport and sailing out of its port, it offers fantastic value for those heading off to far flung places, and respite for those returning.
As a weekend destination, it offers a cityscape that is small enough to be manageable in a small time period, and enough decent eateries to provide a few good meals, but the real treasure of the city is to be found by travelling 20 minutes outside its environs and visiting the New Forest for a day; that’s where the real magic happens.
Aer Lingus Regional began operating a new route from Cork Airport to Southampton on March 14.
The new route, operated by Stobart Air, will operate up to five times weekly with fares from €29.99 each way.
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