The lights in Southampton quayside flickered in the darkness as the Flybe plane from Edinburgh made its approach.
The South Coast port is, of course, synonymous as a gateway for cruise ships, but April is not high season and there was only one ship, a German liner, in dock.
That is one of the reasons why this port city is pitching for more tourism business from the Lothians.
Like Edinburgh, it is constantly searching for new attractions to extend its tourism years and a 90-minute flight from Scotland’s Capital makes this city so accessible.
Beware the luggage rules with Flybe which are stringent and rigidly applied to every passenger at the gate. If your case does not fit then cough up £50.
On arrival, it was a swift 15 minutes by cab – you can take the train to Southampton Central from the terminal only 99 steps away and it takes five minutes and a bus also goes – to the city centre, four-star, 99-room Mercure Southampton Centre Dolphin Hotel.
It was just after 9pm and I had work to do. The restaurant was open until 10pm and the menu appealed but work dragged until after that and my hunger pangs had increased.
A Tesco Express was a minute away and, on the way back, I spotted a busy Wetherspoon with a Real Ale Festival on (25 UK brewers including Fyne Ales from Argyll, five international brewers and three UK ciders). Ruddles at £1.89, a snip and one had to be tried.
Back to the Mercure. It is Southampton’s oldest hotel having been on site for more than 500 years.
Jane Austen held her 18th birthday here and Lord Nelson and Queen Victoria have stayed. It enjoyed a £4m facelift in 2010 and is used regularly by cruisers.
Why? Because it is minutes from the cruise terminal. The staff are obliging and my spacious room was comfortable. It housed a deep bath, ideal after hours spent walking around the city.
There are six resident ghosts, by the way, and Dan Wilson, the general manager, said that people come because of that.
For others, the hotel is ideally placed for those who wish to explore the city and surrounding area including the New Forest. Breakfast is buffet-style or specially-cooked and the ham, cheese and tomato omlette was well-filed. Also try the local sausages.
However, what about the city. Local tourism bosses say it is “the biggest and brightest city in the UK that you have never been to”.
It is also ranked one of the three top places to live and work in Britain and it houses the new Cultural Quarter which includes one of the UK’s few remaining production theatres, Nuffield Southampton, and a world-class contemporary art gallery. A Leonardo di Vinci drawings exhibition is on until May.
Southampton has a thriving music scene and boasts more than 400 shops. The Westquay development is impressive with large department stores and household retail names.
The city also has independent boutiques and it is understood from locals plans are being considered to bring small, unique goods traders back into the city, like The Shambles in York.
There are more than 150 different cuisines on offer in the city and Ennio’s is a favourite. That is no surprise. It is a few minutes stroll from the town centre and there is a feeling of relaxation as soon as you enter.
The cosy bar is an ideal place to order and then you are led to a two-tier dining area for around 70 covers. It is tastefully decorated and lit.
The extensive menu includes chefs specials. Try the calamare with a crunchy coating and a small rocket, cucumber, onion and tomato salad with a wonderful, tart lemon dressing.
The seafood main, another signature dish, was a joy with the fish flaking on the fork and the parsley adding to the rich flavours of the sea. The juice did tend to flood the potato accompaniment but, over all, this was special.
Across the road is the old pier building which houses a traditional Indian and a new upstairs British restaurant called Gatehouse which is owned by the same company.
It’s a new concept but the Romsey chalk stream cured trout with capers, cornichons, shallot rings and soda bread appealed on paper but disappointed on arrival.
The lamb breast croquette which comes with charred cucumber, wild garlic puree and peas was only marginally better.
We moved on to self-funded Solet Sky, a hugely-impressive preservation of the heritage of British aviation. Well-versed volunteers take you around and there is nothing stuffy about this museum.
You are allowed onboard to sit the pilot seat of former fighter planes and try getting schoolchildren out of the pilot seat of a former military aircraft which was turned into a commercial plane after the war.
The museum chronicles flying during peacetime and war and details the bombing of Southampton, the home of the Spitfire which made a major contribution to winning World War II. I’m no air buff but loved it.
We made our farewells and the city wall soon loomed into view. Yards from it stands Tudor House, one of the city’s most historic buildings with 800 years of history.
It has recently been repaired and refurbished and you discover who lived and worked there through a variety of displays and a simple-to-operate audio guide.
The Tudor knot garden provided a peaceful haven. We found another peaceful haven after that, the cosy and atmospheric, oak-beamed Duke of Wellington pub.
It has a tempting portfolio of real ales including the rich, dark and thirst-quenching Strongbow served by a chatty barman with a splendid waistcoat.
It was then on to the Seacity Museum detailing the lives and the times of Southampton focusing on the city’s Titanic story – it set sail from here on its fateful voyage – the port as a Gateway to the World and also The Pavilion, looking at local history.
It also has a learning deck educational zone which is popular with schools.
We then completed a city wall walk with award-winning guide Ally Hughes? The extensive tour is packed with interesting facts, figures and anecdotes.
They included the plunder of the town by French raiders one Sunday morning in the 13 hundreds while people were in church, the reclaiming of a sizeable chunk of seashore and the policy machinations of council chiefs which have impacted on the city’s history.
Southampton is, of course, dominated by water with The Test – one of the best fly fishing waters in Southern England – and The Itchen flowing into the sea.
Local enthusiasts are working hard at connecting more of the population with the water and we sailed out of the magnificent new Ocean Village Marina which is surrounded by a plush, ship-type designed hotel, trendy bars and restaurants and a cinema.
St Mary’s, home of Southampton Football Club was clearly visible as we slipped under the Itchen Bridge and we then headed leisurely out towards the sea in full sail at five knots as the Isle of Wight Ferry (quick one 25 minutes) blasted past us.
The sun split the blue sky and we were in tee-shirts on April 1, it was that warm even in mid-channel.
Other sporting events in the city include a Marathon – very few hills – and a sailing event, both organised be Rees Leisure.
And the city will raise its profile significantly next year when they celebrate 400 years since the Mayflower set sail.
It actually turned back because of a leak and docked in Plymouth and they two cities are still squabbling over where the Mayflower actually sailed from to the New World.
Pubs are also part of the culture and history. A pub in Oxford Street is famous as three crew members had one too many and missed the Titanic but lived to tell the tale. Another we gem from the city tour.
Jane Austen’s house is no more but a plaque on the Juniper pub indicates where it was so there is much to see and do. That is why tourism chiefs have upped their game to entice more visitors, particularly those on air routes like Scotland’s Capital.
I found it was worth the effort and remember that Southampton is only 90 minutes from Edinburgh.