Rescued Britons set sail on luxury cruise liner

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The Independent Travel

Relieved holidaymakers left stranded by the Icelandic ash cloud finally set off back to Britain today after being rescued by a luxury cruise ship.

Around 2,200 tired - and sometimes angry - people reached Bilbao to get aboard the £500 million Celebrity Eclipse and the chance of food, a bed, and entertainment.

Many had endured coach journeys of up to 16 hours overnight to get to the port and finally home after being stranded for up to seven days.

A fleet of coaches pulled up at the quayside with passengers told they could only take onboard hand luggage to minimise the time it would take to get going.

Tour operators Thomas Cook, TUI and Co-Op Travel Group gave their guests in each cabin £40 to spend on the five-star ship during the 30-hour voyage.

Many 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.

Prison officer Kev Whitley, 55, from Lincoln, was supposed to return from a holiday in Fuengirola, Spain, on Sunday and described the 14-hour coach journey to the ship as "chaos" with the coach driver getting lost.

But George Brash, 48, from Liverpool, said people were "moaning for moaning's sake" and he was very happy with his treatment

The insurance underwriter was with his three children, Emily, 17, Lucy, 13, and William, eight, along with wife Helen, who is 45 today.

Retired Andrea Carlie, 59, from South Anston near Sheffield, said she and her husband David had been treated "like cattle" by tour operator Thomson after their holiday in Nerja ended and they were stranded for seven days.

"They have traipsed us about. We have not been told the correct information. We have been treated like cattle," she said.

"Thomson have taken the cheapest option and now they are trying to make a publicity stunt out of it, saying how generous they are, but I'm told they are not paying for it."

Other passengers talked of several days of hell as they tried to get home and they had to spend thousands.

Wendy McCulloch, the wife of snooker player Ian McCulloch, said her four-day holiday to Alicante turned into a seven-day nightmare that was "the worst experience of my life" after spending £2,000 on hotels and food.

Beautician Mrs McCulloch, 39, from Preston, was on holiday with her children Melissa, eight, Samuel, four, and her mother Dorothy Eccleston, 70, when their EasyJet flight was cancelled on the first day of the ash cloud.

"My husband paid £900 for a coach to Calais but I have a friend in the travel trade who said they could get us on the ship for £125 each - otherwise it was 22 hours on the coach," she explained.

"A four-day break has turned into an absolute nightmare. The Spanish people have not been helpful and they put the prices up.

"It has been the worst experience of my life. There have been tears from everyone."

Businessman Andrew Wood, 45, his wife Susan, 41 and their children Kimberley, 18, Lucy, 14 and Alex ten from Eccles, Manchester, were holidaying in Cancun, Mexico, when the ash cloud descended.

But despite being forced to fly to Spain and being seven days late, the family were happy with their treatment.

Mrs Wood said: "It's certainly been a holiday we will remember."

Before the ship docked, Celebrity Cruises warned other Britons desperate to get back home not to turn up at the port to try to get aboard because they will not be allowed.

Security in the port area was tight and there were no reports of trouble.

A ship's spokeswoman called the mission a "massive logistical operation".

Tour operators requested the voyage to get the Britons home. Celebrity Cruises responded in what was described as "an act of goodwill" and it set off on Tuesday.

Eclipse, which can carry 2,850 passengers, will get back to Southampton tomorrow and should dock at the City Cruise Terminal at around 6pm.

Those lucky enough to get a berth will be travelling back in luxury.

Apart from a real lawn measuring nearly half an acre, the ship has the usual facilities including bars, 10 restaurants, a casino, a theatre and swimming and spa pools.

Alcohol will be available but passengers will have to pay for it, the spokeswoman said. Meals and entertainment are included.

"They will be treated to as much of a regular cruise as possible," she added.