Liner Heads Home With Stranded Passengers

Relieved holidaymakers left stranded by the Icelandic ash cloud are due to finally set foot back in Britain as they arrive in Southampton after being rescued by a luxury cruise ship.

Around 2,200 people were expected to dock in Southampton refreshed by the 30-hour trip aboard the £500 million Celebrity Eclipse. The tourists - many of whom had been stranded for up to seven days - embarked in Bilbao, northern Spain, on Thursday.

Many endured overnight coach journeys of up to 16 hours to get to the port and tempers for some were short. Guests were treated to beds, food and entertainment aboard the ship, which cancelled its inaugural celebrations to come to the rescue. Tour operators Thomas Cook, TUI and Co-Op Travel Group gave their guests in each cabin £40 to spend on the five-star ship.

But on Thursday, many holidaymakers complained of chaos about plans to get them home. Scores were told they would first be going to Calais by coach before the change of plan and the trip to Bilbao - some enduring two long legs in coaches

over the last few days. Some tour operators were criticised for not keeping holidaymakers informed but other tourists said the companies were fantastic.

However, the mood aboard was more relaxed today. Harry and Marion Flitcroft from Stockport had been stranded for four days on their Spanish break to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

Mrs Flitcroft said: "The ship is fantastic and we're very grateful they have come to take us home. We have never been on a cruise before and we probably never will, so I have bought a purse as a little token. It's a compensation for us after a 16-hour coach ride to get here.''

Tour operators requested the voyage to get the Britons home and Celebrity Cruises responded in what was described as "an act of goodwill'' and it set off on Tuesday. Those lucky enough to get a berth travelled back in luxury and were treated like normal cruise guests.

President and chief executive of Celebrity Cruises Dan Hanrahan said: "Embarking just over 2,000 guests in Bilbao took a little longer than we anticipated, but we are still on track to get everyone into Southampton early tonight (Friday). "We are so grateful to our tour operator partners for working with us to get everyone to the ship on time - there have been some incredible logistics involved in the last 24 hours.''