The new ship from Saga Holidays is a boutique delight – all pale wood and seaside stylings – that takes the company once known for its elder customers in a very different direction. Even the captain is different – Nick Sunderland is only 40, one of the youngest in the cruise world.
The contemporary decor of The Grill, all white and wood and with glass walls overlooking the ocean, sets the tone for the first ship Saga has had specially built (the others were taken over from other companies).
Launched in July (with Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall as her godmother) this is a ship for a new generation – although Saga still only caters for over-50s, they’re the new over-30s, relative youngsters in the modern world.
As such the big name here is Jools Holland. The TV star pianist has his name on a restaurant and has signed up to play on a number of cruises each year – his first being the one I was on in late July.
Saga caters for the youthful over 50’s.
Your stateroom or suite
In the way of modern luxury ships, everyone has a balcony. All are smartly decorated with the feel of a real hotel room. The oversize double beds convert to singles should you wish. From the gently mottled carpet to the modern art on the walls they are places to relax, with even singles cabins having French windows on to the balcony with table and chairs.
Our Mid Ship Suite had a sitting room with sofa and TV with UK channels, a bedroom which had a second set of French windows opening on to the balcony with comfy rattan chairs with cushions as well as table and chairs. A walk-in closet led into the bathroom with both bath and walk-in rain shower, twin sinks and large bottles of smart toiletries. Suites also have waiter service and free mini-bar, including bottles of brandy, gin and more plus (again showing the breadth of clients) both a kettle and pod coffee maker.
Food and drink
The main restaurant is the Grand Dining Room, a nicely cosy yet stately affair with chandeliers and pillars, serving five-course menus, including an impressive cheese trolley. It’s open to everyone at whatever time suits you.
What makes the ship very different from most cruises is that its three speciality restaurants come at no extra charge – on our cruise that meant queuing to book although the system is set to change. Above the main restaurant (and peeking over the balcony) is The Club by Jools, lots of dark wood and with the air of an American cabaret club.
There are steaks (signature dish is a beautifully cooked New York strip loin), a bar and a little stage (apparently Jools will make occasional surprise appearances but on our cruise it was a jazzy pianist and female singer). Coast To Coast is a contemporary fish restaurant with an Italian feel serving fish and chips, Dover sole, that lobster thermidor – and a fantastic platter for two including crayfish, crab legs and mussels. East to West is a pan-Asian affair where Southern Thailand tiger prawn massaman curry (lots of coconut, chilli and lime I can confirm) meets crispy Peking duck.
The Grill, summery and bright serves a big breakfast buffet, lunch and a wide dinner offering along with afternoon tea (which, with its scones and crab sandwiches, can also be taken with waiter service in the Grand Dining Room. The Grill, lovely and sunny inside also gives way to the al fresco Terrace at the rear of the ship with the feel of a 1930s seaside resort. I enjoyed the good quality free wine with dinner, a daily changing red and white, brought by attentive waiters. On each cruise there is also a formal night.
The Lido is the central pool area, with more 30s styling amid the wooden flourishes and sun loungers – complete with serve yourself ice-cream and sweets, and a bar. Deck games include traditional shuffleboard and quoits while there’s also a golf simulator. The Promenade goes all the way round the ship – four laps and you’ve done a mile.
The spa is sleek and sensuous, the Thermal Suite with hydrotherapy pool, infrared sauna, steam room and lounge with heated chairs is free while massages and treatments while not free are imaginative – such as my Hot Mineral Body Boost, a massage with amber balm while lying on a warm bed of body-shaping amber and quartz crystals.
Indoors, the library is a living room-like collection of alcoves connected by shelves filled with 3,500 books. There’s free coffee and cakes and several free to use computers (with the same free wifi that the rest of the ship enjoys).
Next door are the Craft Room (free sewing, jewellery-making and other lessons) and the Card Room (there’s even a bridge instructor on cruises over four nights).
The feel continues in The Living Room, a ship-wide bar and lounge by the main staircase and atrium, half a dozen cosy areas with sofas.
There are various other bars. Biggest is the Britannia Lounge which sweeps around the front of the ship, vast sloping glass walls all the way to the lofty ceiling.
There’s a 50s style with pastel and aquamarine shades on comfy chairs with stick-thin legs and a jazzy carpet. The South Cape Bar has the feel of a gentlemen’s club while the Terrace has its own bar for wonderful evenings.
No one goes away disappointed. Everyone is guaranteed a seat at a show on one of the two evenings Jools plays in the smartly understated theatre (it hold half the ship’s 999 capacity). But there is also more conventional entertainment on other evenings, such as the songs from the shows musical. There’s elegant food (lobster thermidor, Himalayan-spiced rack of lamb) yet sausage rolls and bread and butter pudding sit alongside tempura prawns and tiramisu on the buffet in The Grill.
On our four-night cruise to the Channel Islands and France top of the bill was Jools Holland. He performed twice. The 70-minute shows featured him alongside with long-time drummer Gilson Lavis (the pair were both in post-punk pop group Squeeze in the late 70s), singer Ruby Turner and two backing vocalists, a slimline combo rich in energy and humour. Jools is booked for four cruises in 2020.
In the Britannia the band was joined on a couple of nights by impressive classical pop violin duo Elektra, there were classical piano and cello recitals in The Living Room and magician Ben Williams baffled us all with close-up tricks.
Otherwise the entertainment, notably the West End to Broadway show, veered towards the middle of the road, not geared towards the new, younger clientele Saga wants to attract.
A very smart ship that goes for style over bling. The free speciality restaurant dining is a bonus, as is the free wine with dinner (both things most cruise companies charge for), and from 2020 all sailings will be all-inclusive and have free 24-hour room service.
Wifi is free (and works), another cash cow on many ships. Also we had free shuttle buses into town at a couple of locations. And Saga holidays come with chauffeur service up to 250 miles from home and back. Saga guests are getting younger – and the Jools Holland connection is inspired although there need to be similar artists to appeal to music-loving travellers when he’s not on board.
Spirit of Discovery sails year-round from the UK, mostly from Dover. Jools Holland is confirmed for four cruises in 2020 including the 14-night Sounds of Spain voyage, departing Southampton March 15. Cruise visits six Spanish ports including Valencia, Cadiz and Ibiza and includes Spanish music and dance performances, Spanish lessons and Spanish craft making. From £3,161pp, two sharing, all-inclusive with chauffeur service.