Thousands of people soaked up the last of the day's sun as they picnicked at Pilot Bay and waved farewell to the cruise ships.

Michelle Wise and a group of about 15 of her family and friends had set up camp with tables, chairs and a large spread of food.

The group often picnicked at Pilot Bay in summer but had seen the advertisements encouraging people to come down to the beach to see off the three cruise ships that were in port yesterday - the Dawn Princess, Oosterdam and Silver Whisper.

Mrs Wise had been enticed down by the beautiful weather and the boats.

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"It's great," she said.

Lynda Marshall, another member of the group, said it was a nice way to end the school holidays.

"The kids get to go in the water and it's safe," she said. "The cruise ships are quite an attraction."

The free sausage sizzle and advertising was a great way to get people out and promote Tauranga as a great place to come, Mrs Marshall said.

"It's good for Tauranga. It makes people want to come back."

Other groups enjoyed fish and chips or queued up for a free sausage while children splashed about in the water and dug holes in the sand.

Mount Maunganui mainstreet manager Leanne Brown said the evening was all about getting locals to enjoy the ships.

"We want people to get down here and experience what it's like to see the ships going out."

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Most people had seen the ships from the Harbour Bridge but few had seen them up close and could appreciate how monstrous the ships really were, she said.

She was hoping to see at least 1000 people enjoying the beach but the turn out far exceeded that.