Following in the wake of the Vikings and other seafaring pioneers
As the wind howled through the sails and the ship pitched into a heavy thunderstorm on the rolling seas it wasn’t quite the Scandinavian cruise I’d had in mind when I’d set off from Dover a couple of days before. Even more so when the vessel was suddenly becalmed in an ice floe and the air filled with the sharp cracking sound of the bow breaking through frozen water.
A group of other passengers sat on a bench rocking from side to side as I walked past them and the extraordinary seagoing windmill used to generate power for electric arc lamps. I headed below deck to look at the compact cabins, lounges and cargo hold filled with provisions for the crew members – and their dogs – who were often aboard for years at a time.
I was on Fram, the world’s strongest wooden ship which was used by some of the world’s greatest Norwegian explorers, including Roald Amundsen, on pioneering polar expeditions between 1893 and 1912. With a hull designed so that it could be lifted up and carried along on shifting ice rather than being forced under and crushed to pieces, today Fram still holds the record for sailing farthest north and south to the Arctic and Antarctic.
I’d signed up for the Maritime Highlights tour, one of several excursions offered in Oslo on Saga’s 10-night Scandinavian Cities cruise, and we certainly saw plenty of maritime marvels. The morning started at the Viking Ship Museum showcasing three of the world’s best-preserved longships including Tune, the first Viking ship to be excavated in 1867. Another is the Oseberg, adorned with meticulous carvings of animals and culminating in a spiralling serpent’s head.
Then it was time to board the coach for the short drive to the Fram Museum, where the epic video projection on the walls and ceilings along the entire length of the wide-beamed ship really brought the experience to life, along with the swaying bench that made it feel as if the mighty ship was moving once more. In the surrounding museum there were fascinating facts and interactive experiences, such as seeing if you could pull a fully laden 300kg sled that simulated the ones used by explorers. I managed to drag it a couple of steps!
Our final stop was the contrasting but equally compelling Kon-Tiki Museum charting another epic voyage. Again housing the ship of the same name, it is incredible to imagine how Thor Heyerdahl, his five-man team and a parrot spent 101 days crossing the Pacific on the balsawood raft in 1947; mainly surviving on a diet of dried food and flying fish that landed on the rudimentary vessel.
After seeing the testing conditions variously endured by the crew on the different craft we realised how spoiled we were when we returned to Saga Sapphire, our floating home for the Scandinavian voyage. Carrying 720 passengers in great comfort, it doesn’t take long to discover the charms that entice repeat guests back time after time. Each day Captain Julian Burgess came on the radio with daily briefings tinged with humour, and the kindness and consideration extended by the wonderful crew members was exemplary. Nothing was too much trouble.
Many of them have worked for Saga for years, including Executive Chef George Streeter. Akin to the Captain, who can often be found walking around the decks chatting to passengers, George is a very visible presence; hosting culinary demonstrations, cooking at the al fresco lunches held outside the Verandah Restaurant and happy to answer questions. It gives the ship a really inclusive and friendly feel.
In fact, Saga Sapphire provides all manner of familiar creature comforts, starting with the option to have a cuppa delivered to your cabin in the morning. Kippers, ‘full English’ and Marmite are all part of the expansive breakfast spread along with tempting daily specials reflecting the destinations being visited, such as Norlander bread with smoked salmon, chives, scrambled eggs and herb cream sauce. On sunny days I loved the Beach Club serving freshly cooked fish and chips in ‘newspaper’ for lunch along with old-fashioned jars of boiled sweets and serve-yourself ice cream cones from two jolly blue and white seaside huts. Even so, I still found it hard to resist the ‘proper’ afternoon tea served in the Britannia Lounge a few hours later!
In addition to the main Pole to Pole dining room you can eat in the wonderful speciality Asian restaurant East to West at no extra charge – which is unusual for a cruise ship – and wine is included too, as it is with lunch and dinner throughout the ship. Plus, for 2018 Saga Sapphire is all inclusive, with the majority of bar drinks included in the fare. That provided even more of an opportunity – as if we needed one – to check out the various themed bars. Cooper’s was always fun, particular with cushions embroidered with the famous comedian’s jokes such as: “Man went into a bar. He went “ouch”, it was an iron bar”.
With a packed programme of daily activities, including dance classes, quizzes, bridge, jewellery making and deck games, to say nothing of the vast library and reasonably priced spa, we were never short of anything to do. Plus there was always a choice of shore excursions and after Oslo we sailed on to Denmark, visiting Copenhagen and Aarhus, before continuing to Germany with a stop in Kiel before an exciting transit along the namesake canal joining the Baltic and North Seas.
We wandered around Copenhagen on our own, stopping to take pictures by the city’s landmark Little Mermaid just a short walk from the ship. Within 20 minutes we’d reached the charming Nyhavn canal, little changed since the days Hans Christian Andersen lived there and wrote fairy-tales including Thumbelina, The Snow Queen, and, of course, the tale of the lovelorn mermaid.
After all the Nordic seafaring tales soaked up at the trio of Oslo museums we embarked on a thrilling voyage of our own on a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) reaching speeds of up to 65mph outside Copenhagen harbour. The ride lasted a fraction of the time of the Viking, polar and Pacific expeditions but we returned home with enduring memories of our Scandinavian sailing on, I’m happy to say, much calmer waters than those experienced by the intrepid explorers of yesteryear.
Saga Sapphire, and Saga’s second ship Saga Pearl II, sail from Dover, Southampton and Portsmouth on a variety of UK, European and worldwide itineraries. Fares include all meals, wine with lunch and dinner, return door-to-door chauffeur service or free parking, porterage, optional travel insurance and gratuities. Bookings are also being taken for the brand new ship Spirit of Discovery launching in July 2019.