Stranded tourists return from Bilbao on Eclipse cruise
BBC Radio Solent reporter on board Celebrity Eclipse
Celebrity Eclipse arrived into Bilbao early on Thursday morning
The sight of a gleaming new £500 million luxury cruise liner emerging out of the balmy, early morning mist must have made tourists stranded in Spain feel like they had "arrived in heaven".
Coaches snaked along the coast road into the port of Bilbao, past the moored yachts, to meet the cruise ship.
Celebrity Eclipse had been hastily dispatched to northern Spain to pick up around 2,200 stranded tourists.
When they had left the UK, Easter breaks, honeymoons, or just relaxing weeks in the sun lay ahead of them.
That was before the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud shut down European airspace and they were left stranded in destinations around the world.
The tourists had been on package holidays
The brand new Celebrity Eclipse had been scheduled to be on a mini-cruise from Southampton for the travel industry and media, followed by glitzy launch events.
Instead its first journey was to northern Spain to repatriate customers of package tour companies - Thomson, Co-operative Group, First Choice and Thomas Cook.
On the dockside Liz Fox and Lisa Hudson were among the first passengers off the coaches.
Along with their children they had a week's holiday away from husbands and partners, but found themselves unable to fly home last week.
Liz said: "We've been trying to find any way of getting back to England. We considered hiring a car but this is fantastic - we've ended up on a brand new cruise ship."
Of course for some, the past week has been a real adventure. Teenagers Ben and Megan could hardly contain their excitement.
"It's immense!", they exclaim. What is the first thing they plan to do onboard? "Sleep - we've been on a coach for 14 hours."
Celebrity Eclipse arrived in Southampton on Tuesday
The massive cruise ship was almost empty on our trip from Southampton. Around 100 Spaniards stranded in Britain had hitched a ride and, for them, the Biscay coastline was a very welcome sight of home.
Daniel from Valencia explained how surprised he was when he discovered how he would be travelling home.
He said: "I was expecting a ferry but we found it was this! We though our real boat was behind it. It's fantastic, fantastic."
Over 2,000 passengers boarded Celebrity Eclipse in Bilbao
Although the sight of Eclipse was no doubt welcome, for many elderly holiday-makers the journey was beginning to take its toll.
Waiting on the coach, the exhaustion was telling on Sharon and Sandra who were close to tears after an overnight journey from Alicante Airport.
They said: "There's nothing to smile about - we're tired, shattered, exhausted and fed up waiting all this time."
Bilbao is not an established cruise port, so checking in over 2,000 passengers with baggage in a couple of hours is a logistical challenge for Celebrity Cruises.
The crew prepared for an influx of rescued tourists
Arrangements with immigration authorities have meant that passport control is being done on board. Chairman of Celebrity Cruises Richard Fain insisted the 1,300 crew members were geared up to giving their unexpected passengers the "cruise experience" of their usual clientele.
He said: "We want to make sure they experience the ship as well as get home. Our biggest concern is that they won't want to leave when we get to Southampton!"
Waiters, more used to serving cocktails to sunbathers, took drinks and food to people waiting on the dockside to check-in.
The Alderslade family from County Durham were the first to step onboard - Lindsay, Ian and Robert were returning from an Easter holiday in Spain.
Lindsay explained: "We went from Salou to Barcelona by train, caught a flight from Barcelona to Bilbao and finally ended up here - we're going to get some luxury on board."
For 12 year-old Robert, the ship was "really good..." but missing school was "...even better!"
However, like many, their journey will not end when the Eclipse docks in Southampton. Ahead of them is still a journey to Liverpool to pick up their car so they can drive home to County Durham.
But for now at least there is a chance to relax onboard the cruise ship, knowing that it is the beginning of the end of their holiday nightmares.
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