Travel Review: Southampton has plenty to offer – not just an escape to far-flung places
Aah, Southampton. It's 'the gateway to the world' they say and, certainly, we all dream of escaping to exotic places at times.
Watching magnificent ships heading out of the docks and sailing to far-flung places, it is easy to forget what you actually have on your doorstep.
But, take a step back, and Southampton is a perfect location for a long weekend, or a base to explore the south coast and New Forest, blending the richness of history with a modern touch.
Speaking of modern, we stayed in room2 Southampton for two nights on our visit to the city.
It is described as 'the world’s first hometel' providing the comfort and flexibility of home with the service and facilities of a hotel.
I was immediately struck by the smart location we found ourselves in, opposite the delightful Queen's Park and in walking distance of the port.
The outward appearance, as we arrived at night, was impressive, with building beautifully lit and, on entering the reception, the venue immediately delivered cool, chilled out vibes.
This included the bar area, nice seating facilities for families to sit and relax – large windows allowing you to watch the world go by – while a DJ played music to add to the atmosphere.
There’s also a studio gym, laundry room and a well-stocked pantry with drinks and snacks and room2 is dog friendly too.
A quote adorning a wall on the climb up the stairs to our room said 'home is where our story begins' and room2's emphasis on a 'homely feeling' really comes to the fore when you enter your room.
Ours was delightful and felt like a true home from home. It included a kitchen area with all the mod cons you need, plus a nice spacious living area to sit and relax, along with a television.
There were two king-sized beds – one on the ground floor – but we also had a 'loft area' with a second bed.
This immediately caught the attention of my wide-eyed and excited daughter Eleanor. After all, what kid doesn't like to have there own separate space to chill?
One thing that really impressed me, away from the look and feel of the room, was the positive messages the staff at room2 bring with them.
For example, recycling – there were containers for plastics, cardboard and paper but also one for food.
I was also impressed by the fact that check out time is 2pm. That's something that really sets room2 apart from its rivals, offering you the chance to enjoy a whole additional morning in the city before checking out.
It felt like the perfect base to explore the city and surrounding attractions, a few minutes away from the docks as well as the shops, museums and art gallery.
There are also a whole host of bars and restaurants, meaning the city does have wide appeal.
After a relaxing night, our first destination was The Sea City Museum and, as a family – my partner Amy, daughter Eleanor and I – we found it a fascinating few hours.
The museum tells the story of the people of the city, their fascinating lives and historic connections with the sea. There a whole exhibition celebrating all that's great about Southampton and there are plenty of reasons for that.
The museum offers so much interaction, which was a real selling point for me, providing puzzles and games for children as well as video interaction.
The biggest draw of the museum, though, is the Titanic Exhibition. To this day we have a fascination with the ill-fated journey of the Titanic and this exhibition really brings home the vast scale of the disaster and its aftermath.
The brilliant part of this is that, through a series of audios, alongside pictures and descriptions of some of the people on board, it almost feels like you are in Southampton at the start of the journey.
Audio with memories from survivors is both interesting and heartbreaking and there's a fantastic part at the end where you get to sit, as if in court, and listen to the inquiry which came after the disaster.
We spent a good couple of hours looking around and could have spent longer, such was the range of interesting subjects within the museum. Incidentally, as well as visiting the museum you can also download Titanic Trail.
The 75-minute walking tour and map features key locations in and around the city and port providing a fascinating backstory to the ship, its passengers and crew.
Feeling peckish at this point, we enjoyed lunch at Piecaramba, in Carlton Place.
As a child of the 1980s and a big film and comic fan, I didn't have to think twice about making a beeline for this restaurant, after seeing a surfboard and ET outside.
Even before you sample the food, this venue is a dream for someone like me.
The walls are adorned with anything from Jaws to Batman and Robin, the toilets are dedicated to Star Wars and there was a Nintendo attached to the wall by our table so we could play Super Mario while waiting for our order.
The food, incidentally, is a joy for pie lovers.
The choices are so varied and tempting that you find yourself making a choice and changing your mind several times.
For her choice, Amy chose the hen party – a right knees up between free-range, British chicken, ham and leek with a bit of thyme as a plus one.
She chose mustard mash and mushy peas to go with it and was more than pleased with the selection. The flavours worked well and the mash was creamy but not too rich.
She was concerned that pie might be too heavy for a midday meal, but the lightness of the pastry and the flavours meant it was just right.
I was tempted by the Chick Norris, a pie filled with chicken and a chip shop curry sauce as well as the Notorious P.I.G, slow roasted pulled pork in a sticky barbecue sauce, with sauteed cajun potatoes.
But, in the end, I went with Bounty Hunters Chicken Pie, chicken, with crispy bacon, melted cheese and a barbecue sauce.
This was served with cheesy mash and peas and 'kapow!' I wasn't disappointed. The filling was a delight, a whirlwind of flavours, and while pie pastry can be a bit hit and miss for me, I found this just right. The children's menu was equally impressive and, having torn Eleanor away from Super Mario, she enjoyed a sausage and bean bake pie which got the thumbs up.
It was a quirky and original restaurant and we left well fed before spending the afternoon at Southampton City Art Gallery where entry is free.
This is a perfect place to spend some time if you appreciate art with paintings by Monet, Gainsborough, Maggi Hambling and Paula Rego to admire, from both the Southampton and the National Gallery's collection.
After our visit, we headed to Westquay shopping centre, which attracts over 16.5 million visitors a year. This is impressive with large department stores and a whole host of household retail names.
As evening came, we enjoyed a meal at Thaikhun, located on the outside of Westquay shopping centre overlooking the Esplanade.
The combination of the unseasonably warm British weather and Thai decor meant it felt a bit like being on holiday, even in the middle of a city.
There's dining inside or lots of seating outdoors where you can better appreciate the view of old city walls contrasting with the newer buildings of West Quay.
Amy obviously decided to go with the vacation vibes and ordered a virgin colada while she perused the menu (although anyone who wants to go for an alcoholic drink is well served with their array of tropical cocktails).
For the main meal, she wanted to try something a bit unusual and the menu has yellow heart symbols to recommend special dishes. Still enjoying the pina colada mocktail, she chose one of these meals; the prawn pineapple fried rice.
It was a dish that had almost everything. There's obviously prawns and pineapples involved, but there was also, cashew nuts, raisins, crispy shallots, peppers and onions – basically a collection of many of her favourite things. It was all bound together in a tasty turmeric fried rice with a dash fresh corriander.
Cooked pineapple can be a controversial ingredient in this country, but Thai cooking embraces it, and although there wasn't an overwhelming amount of pineapple chunks in the meal there was enough to showcase it to its full potential.
With so many ingredients competing for attention things could have gone south in the wrong hands, but the chefs here knew what they were doing. It ended up as an exciting dish unlike anything she'd really eaten before, with a natural sweetness added to the rice that made it so moreish.
I opted for Thai Green curry served with sticky rice and this proved a great, mouthwatering choice.
Whether mixing with the rice, or taking a spoon on its own, the blend of coconut milk, courgettes, green beans, sweet basil and chillies was delicious and more-ish.
There was a delightful little kick but not too much of one to make it overbearing.
For her meal, from the children's menu, Eleanor enjoyed chicken satay with fries. She hadn't had this before but enjoyed it enough to say she would have it again.
For dessert, Amy really struggled to choose between the options, which all appealed. However, she went for the Ultimate Chocolate Fudge Cheesecake. Again, this was spot on, with the chocolatey flavour packing a real punch. She ended our meal out wishing she could go back in time and eat it all again. What better compliment than that?
It was suggested to me that I try banana fritters and, though I was unsure, I decided to give it a whirl.
I do have to say I love the blend of hot and cold in a pudding and this, of course, provided that.
The deep fried bananas were served with a coconut ice cream and sesame seeds, offering a lovely partnership.
The fritters also topped with syrup and honey drizzle, meaning the dish was full of sweetness, flavour and texture.
I soon understood why it was recommended to me. Wonderful food aside, the beauty of Thaikhun is you can see the chefs at work, while staff were very pleasant and courteous, making it a lovely dining experience.
Back at room2, we listened to some more music downstairs before heading to the comfort of our room. The new DJ series is every Friday and Saturday night through the summer, which sees the space transform to provide evenings full of music and dancing for all ages.
Having the luxury of a late check out, we decided to experience more of what Southampton had to offer on Sunday.
Housed in one of Southampton’s oldest and most important historic mediaeval buildings, God’s House Tower opened last year following a £3.1million restoration fund.
The venue’s interactive programme features installations that weave together contemporary art and heritage and this is conveniently just a minute's walk from where we were staying.
The venue was hosting an Art for Climate Action event, featuring sustainable products from local artists and independent businesses and it was lovely to interact with the talented and inspiring traders.
Needless to say, we left with a number of environmentally-friendly products, including some fantastic artwork.
We also enjoyed a walk around the old city walls and more shopping before our delightful weekend came to an end.
It might be a port city offering escapes to sunnier climes but, rather than a quick escape, you could do a lot worse than spend some time enjoying what Southampton has to offer.
You can find out more about Southampton at https://visitsouthampton.co.uk
You can book rooms at room2 by visiting www.room2.com/southampton
For more on Piecaramaba, visit https://www.piecaramba.co.uk/southampton
For Thaikhun Southampton, go to https://www.thaikhun.co.uk/thai-restaurant/southampton/book