First, a confession – I have cruised on many ships, but I was a first timer with Saga. And I did bring certain preconceptions with me when I joined the newly launched Spirit of Discovery for her Natural Scandinavia cruise.
It didn’t take long for scales to fall from my eyes however: this is a beautiful, thoughtfully-designed, all-balcony ship with a winning on-board atmosphere that welcomes mature travellers of every stripe – newcomers, loyalists, solo travellers and those with limited mobility.
Interestingly, you see a lot of a new ‘BC’ logo (for Boutique Cruising) rather than ‘Saga Cruises’ on board. Spirit of Discovery feels like a ship that is gently leading Saga in a new direction, ready for the next generation of over 50s to step up the gangway, as well as the loyal ‘Saganauts’.
So what is it that makes Spirit of Discovery feel so special?
This is such a well-thought-out and well-constructed ship. The beautifully-sculpted stern, a cascade of curving decks, has none of that ‘block of flats’ feel.
On Main Deck, the Living Room is an airy space with clusters of sofas and chairs where bespoke teas and coffees, snacks and ice creams are served, rather than somewhere people just queue for Reception. The Library is a well-used, multi-zone space with task lighting, tea and coffee stations (what a great idea!) and books of every variety – a far cry from the dark and lifeless libraries of other lines. A million-pound collection of British artwork and glass pieces shimmers throughout the ship, cleverly displayed on divider units that create inviting nooks and crannies.
Outside, the Promenade deck is double-width so walkers can easily pass each other (4 laps to the mile) and high glass panels at the ship’s rail act as wind-breaks for the sun-bathers and al fresco diners on Lido Deck. There’s a proper theatre with a full lighting rig that really comes into its own for visiting acts like Jools Holland’s barn-storming Boogie-Woogie night – and he’ll be travelling on board Spirit of Discovery four more times next year.
As well as a gym with four treadmills, two rowing machines and a sea view, there’s a sumptuous spa with free access to the infra-red sauna, steam room and hydrotherapy pool and some very good, if pricey, treatments. The ‘poultice-powered muscle-release massage’ is delivered on a bed of warm quartz crystals that at one point undulates like waves. It was like being borne up in the swell of the sea – and the only time I felt any real movement aboard such a stable ship.
You soon find your way around – a pretty, bird-themed illustration adorns each stairwell, with blue (‘b’ for bow) flamingos in the forward stairs and pink flamingos in the aft one. And while Spirit of Discovery may accommodate 999 passengers, it feels like a boutique ship and was small enough to sail right into the heart of Oslo, almost within touching-distance of the fortress.
Food quality and variety
As well as the Grand Dining Room, there are three speciality options at no extra charge, all of them offering top restaurant quality, a far cry from the ‘cruise-food’ of yesteryear. Our favourite was Coast to Coast, where we enjoyed perfectly-cooked fish dishes (quite a rarity on cruise ships in our experience) and were blown away by the lobster thermidor (cooked from scratch – no instant sauces here!) and the spectacular Seafood Platter: shellfish a-gogo!
East to West serves fusion cuisine including soft-shell crab, Himalayan-spiced rack of lamb and Asian-style surf and turf: teriyaki-spiced pork belly and roasted cod. The Club by Jools (he inputted on the concept) offers succulent steaks with a late-serving of musical favourites from a piano duo each evening.
It’s not just dinner that is done exceptionally well on board – afternoon tea in the Grand Dining Room is a tasteful affair with three-tiered etagères of crustless sandwiches and bite-size cakes competing for your attention with warm scones and proper clotted cream. And a glass of fizz (at no extra cost) as well as tea if you fancy it.
For a more informal style of afternoon tea, head to The Grill up on Lido deck. A huge spread of self-service breakfast and lunch buffet choices are also presented here each day, with attentive waiting staff providing the drinks. Well-spaced tables, fresh colours and decorative dividers make this feel like a restaurant, not a canteen, and there’s are al fresco options on The Verandah at the back of the ship too – the lunchtime reindeer steaks cooked to order here were a real treat.
Should you ever feel peckish, you’ll also find jars of wrapped sweets and a help-yourself Mr Whippy ice-cream machine on the Lido deck. They really do seem to have thought of everything!
We stayed in the lowest cabin grade on the ship – and it was a total delight: somewhere we enjoyed spending time reading, catching up on TV and, from our balcony, watching Scandinavian archipelagos pass by.
Every room on board has a balcony – even the single cabins – and all have spacious wardrobes with over 40 wooden and non-slip hangers. For once my partner and I weren’t vying for too-few hangers. Fresh-thinking by the space planners has positioned the phone on the wall so there’s more room on the bedside table; there’s a light inside the safe so we can actually see what you’ve put inside; a slimline fridge has a niche for a half pint carton of milk (none of those horrid tubs of creamer); the kettle is compact and there’s a proper glass door to the spacious shower. No more dances with a wet shower curtain …
The Captain and the crew
Captain Nick Sunderland shows what a difference a good Captain makes to a ship. I’ve never seen a Captain spend more time listening to his passengers. He held regular ‘sofas sessions’ where everyone was welcome to drop by for a chat.
Many passengers had experience of Saga’s older vessels and none of us likes change, so there was some constructive criticism – most often about the lack of a retractable washing line in the new bathrooms (there are two free launderettes on board) – though even the loyalists called such comments ‘niggles’, not problems. What impressed me was how the Captain wanted to collect the criticism himself, rather than have it directed at his crew, and the way I am sure he and Saga will act on the suggestions made. How many other cruise lines would do this, I wonder?
Spirit of Discovery feels like a happy ship, and that starts with the Captain and flows through the ranks. The Filippino crewmembers were universally polite, upbeat and helpful. Every member of the crew from the bottle-washer up greeted us with a cheery good morning. And because passengers were greeting the crew in return, they seemed to greet each other too, with spontaneous conversations between passengers springing up from there. This was the friendliest ship I’ve ever been on – we all seemed to mix and chat with each other easily and without awkwardness. For anyone travelling on their own, this could be a real bonus.
It’s great for solo travellers
There are many more reasons why solo travellers would enjoy Spirit of Discovery, starting with the 109 single cabins – all with balcony. That’s over 20% of the total, a real commitment. Opportunities for singles to meet up over lunch or explore ashore together are discreetly handled on board – and like everything else, totally optional.
As well as providing dance partners, cheerful ‘gentleman hosts’ also circulate at breakfast, join people for coffee or invite them to stroll into town with them. But it’s the overall friendliness and receptiveness of both crew and passengers that makes the ship such a great way for solos to travel. Pop along to the informal and fun watercolour and craft classes, drop in on talks ranging from Street Art to Climate Change, join the passenger choir, try the pilates class; it’s all free and you don’t need to be an expert to participate.
The needs of people with limited mobility are understood
For people with limited mobility, Spirit of Discovery is a little larger than Saga’s other ships but it’s still small in relative terms. The low passenger density means there’s plenty of room for slower walkers to make their way around the ship at their own pace. 10 cabins are fully adapted, and the crew seemed to offer a smile and a helping hand just when it was needed. Several people we spoke to said that it was Saga’s free door-to-door transfers (up to 250 miles) that meant they were still able to travel – and for everyone with heavy baggage, it’s a real treat. Saga really does understand the needs of the mature traveller so well.
So many good things are included – and some unnecessary ones are not
A lot is included in the price of your cruise: those door-to-door taxis, your wine at lunch and dinner (very drinkable and generously poured), gratuities, wifi, shuttle buses and insurance. And from November 2019, all drinks on Spirit of Discovery will be included, making that awkward ‘whose round is it?’ moment a thing of the past.
As well as all the good things that are included, we enjoyed noting that some things are not. There isn’t a casino on board. There isn’t non-stop muzak in every bar and lift. There are few announcements. There isn’t a photographer trying to take your picture before you’ve even got on board.
Spirit of Discovery is a beautiful, luxurious and friendly ship that embodies thoughtfulness, good taste and the best of British design. 2020 will see the arrival of Spirit of Adventure: a sister ship, not a twin. But no doubt embodying the same freshness of thinking and clever ideas that are making Spirit of Discovery such a pleasure to travel on already.
Gill travelled as a guest of Saga Cruises who offer a wide range of boutique cruises aboard Spirit of Discovery and, from 2020, Spirit of Adventure. Fares from November 2019 are all-inclusive, covering door-to-door transport, all drinks on board, insurance, gratuities and internet access.
Visit travel.saga.co.uk or call 0800 051 3355.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Saga Cruises.