Getting into the spirit of things
It’s 12 noon and the concept of feeding the birds is reaching a new level as a vast sea of white greets the keepers pushing wheelbarrows laden with grain. When you’ve got hundreds of swans to feed a garden bird table simply isn’t going to cut it.
Excited youngsters are invited to help scatter the food and it’s a spectacular sight as the swans gather round, some helping themselves straight from the barrows. The visit to Dorset’s Abbotsbury Swannery, the only place in the world where you are able to walk through the heart of a colony of nesting, free-flying mute swans, is one of the excursions offered on my Channel Island hop cruise aboard Saga’s ground-breaking new ship.
It’s fascinating to learn how the swannery was established by Benedictine monks who built a monastery at Abbotsbury during the 11th century, farming the birds to form the gastronomic centrepiece of their lavish banquets. Thankfully tastes have changed, and today the swans get to eat rather than be eaten.
Luckily we didn’t get too lost in Abbotsbury’s maze – the largest willow labyrinth in the county – as soon it was time for us to head back to Portland for our own lunchtime feast on board Spirit of Discovery, the first ever new-build ship for Saga Cruises and the only cruise ship launched specifically for the British market in 2019.
The line’s recently retired Saga Pearl II and soon to be sold Saga Sapphire built up a loyal band of seagoing devotees and there were mutterings when Saga first announced it was no longer going to buy older vessels but build two brand new ships of its own. Aficionados have nothing to fear as the 999-passenger vessel is a beauty, with a pleasingly retro feel, particularly around the uncluttered Lido pool area and traditional promenade deck that circles the ship.
Undeniably designed with British cruisers in mind, she was even christened with a bottle of English bubbly when Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall launched Spirit of Discovery in July. There are kettles in every cabin so you can have a brew whenever you want and plenty of familiar favourites from Marmite at breakfast to traditional afternoon tea. A standout feature is that every cabin comes with a balcony, including the 109 single cabins available across four different categories and topped by solo suites complete with butler service.
When it comes to dining passengers are also spoilt for choice as the ship has more restaurant options than any of its predecessors. The casual Grill buffet and aptly named Grand Dining Room, with glittering tableware and crowned by chandeliers, are the two main venues. The trio of speciality restaurants are all free of charge; you just need to book in advance. There’s The Club by Jools, a steak restaurant with live jazz, seafood Coast to Coast and, my personal favourite, East to West which serves Asian food with flair. Traditionalists will enjoy the fact that there are formal nights and the chance to push the sartorial boat out and don you best bib and tucker.
Our cruise began in Dover, where we gathered on deck to the sound of the ship’s band and clinked celebratory glasses of fizz (English of course) as the white cliffs faded into the background and we headed towards the Channel Islands.
After dark Spirit of Discovery comes to life at a host of different venues, including Saga’s first dedicated theatre which is home to the resident show company and visiting acts. Saga has embarked on a five-year partnership with composer, pianist, bandleader and broadcaster Jools Holland (hence the namesake restaurant) and he is appearing in a series of live on board gigs. We were lucky enough to see him on ours and by the end of the evening passengers were dancing in the aisles – having first left their drinks in the nifty holders built into every theatre seat; another of the clever design details found throughout the ship.
The Britannia Lounge, overlooking the stern, is a lovely airy space where you can also watch entertainers, which on our cruise included the talented and glamorous violin duo Elektra. Another new area is The Living Room, centred round a towering bronze relief spanning two decks, a bar and grand piano at the foot of a sweeping staircase.
Each port of call brought multiple excursion options. In Guernsey my friend joined the trip to spend a day on the tiny traffic-free island of Sark and I embarked on the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society tour, taking in locations from the book by Mary Ann Shaffer. Although it is a fictional work based on the German occupation during the Second World War, many of the places are real. Our guide brought the sombre period of history to life by sharing first-hand tales from her family and original documents. The illuminating tour also took in stops along the picturesque coastline and the chance to try a slice of gache. Pronounced gosh and meaning cake in Guernesiais – the native language still spoken by some islanders – it’s more like a fruit bread, but very tasty.
Back on board I spent the afternoon in the spa where the crystal quartz table is a new innovation on Spirit of Discovery. Cocooned in sheets I lay down on a bed of small amber and quartz crystals which mould to the shape of my body. After the initial crunching as I settle down, it’s surprisingly comfortable and I almost drift off to sleep during the ensuing massage.
The ship is a floating art gallery with more than 1,000 pieces – all by British artists – dotted around public areas. That night we enjoyed a sundowner on the lovely open deck outside the Britannia Lounge where there are some striking art installations. It has certainly been a wonderful few days on a ship that’s as graceful and elegant as the Abbotsbury swans.
Spirit of Discovery and, Saga’s second new ship Spirit of Adventure, launching in summer 2020, sail from Dover and Southampton on a variety of itineraries in the British Isles, Mediterranean, Canary Islands, Baltic, Iceland, Far East, North and Central America, Caribbean, Middle East and beyond. From 2020 both ships will be fully inclusive with fares including all meals, drinks, gratuities, return door-to-door chauffeur service or free parking, porterage and optional travel insurance.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Saga Cruises.