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The giant Queen Mary 2, one of the world's largest passenger ships and the largest ship to visit Auckland, glided up Rangitoto Channel this morning with a fleet of welcoming small craft.

QM2 is in Auckland for the day as part of its inaugural voyage -- and 80-day around the world trip.

Before sunrise a flotilla of small craft was out on Waitemata Harbour to welcome the 151,400-tonne ship.

As she went past Rangitoto Island, several planes and helicopters flew overhead.

Vantage points around the harbour were jammed with thousands of cars, full of people eager to catch a glimpse of the famous visitor.

As the ship entered the harbour it sounded its horn to the several thousand people on North Head who had been there since before daylight to watch the arrival.

Ahead of the ship was a craft which fired two huge water spouts to port and starboard as QM2 made its way slowly up the channel towards the wharf.

It sounded its horn again, a sound that reverberated around the harbour as a helicopter hovered just above.

Scores of small craft, including two former America's Cup yachts, welcomed her into Auckland.

The ship, the biggest but one in the world, is too high to sail under the Auckland harbour bridge and cannot berth at the international cruise liner terminal at Princes Wharf because it is too long.

Instead it will berth at a container wharf and passengers will be taken through a high security area and bussed into town.

The ship was due to leave late tonight. Its departure will be marked by a large fireworks display.

Auckland harbour master John Lee-Richards said it was a "magnificent and fantastic" sight to see the ship slowly making it way up the channel.

He said Auckland turned on a perfect day.

"The passengers on board must be just over the moon to come to New Zealand for the first time and be confronted like that. It is amazing the way Aucklanders turn out.

"The waterfront both sides has just been lined. North Head and Mt Victoria has been covered with people."

He said because the ship was oversize and so big, port authorities insisted the pilot fly to Tahiti to join the ship for familiarisation.

The ship was also put into the navy simulator at the Devonport Naval Base.

"We had to make sure we had left no stone unturned."

He said the Ports of Auckland tug which provided the water spouts as Queen Mary steamed up the channel and into the harbour, led the hundreds of small craft which turned out for the welcoming flotilla.

Several ferries and large private yachts anchored outside the channel east of the harbour bridge and small craft of all shapes and sizes went out before dawn for the welcome.

One of the few steam tugs still operating in New Zealand, the William C Daldy, also turned out and waited on the northern side of the channel with a wisp of black smoke coming from its funnel as the Queen Mary glided past.

Few passengers could be seen on the ship, although about 20 people stood on the very top deck for the arrival.