A thrilling adventure inside the Arctic Circle on Saga Sapphire
All eyes were on the captivating violin duo Elektra in Saga Sapphire’s theatre when the captain’s voice cut across their performance. In true cruise ship tradition, they tried to play on but were temporarily outshone by the unpredictable star of Mother Nature’s show – the Northern Light.
Captain Richard Lambert’s announcement that the Aurora Borealis had put in an appearance on the starboard side of the ship heralded a very genteel stampede – last seen at the previous day’s chocolate themed afternoon tea – towards the windows, while other passengers braved the outdoor decks in their evening clothes. In the meantime, the violin players hung up their bows, in good natured acknowledgement that their act had been gate crashed by the spectacle best seen on cold, clear nights inside the Arctic Circle.
Although sightings are never guaranteed, making the prospect of a glimpse even more tantalising, we couldn’t have been in a better place to maximise opportunities.
Saga’s Aurora Explorer cruise to northern Norway takes passengers deep into the Arctic Circle to provide a thrilling insight into this remote and magical region. For example, it is inhabited by the world’s largest population of indigenous Sami people who have traditionally relied on reindeer as the mainstay of their economy and culture; providing transport, food, skin for clothing and antlers and bones for tools and utensils. Reindeer is a staple on many local restaurant menus, and although this might cause an initial shock for visitors it is arguably the ultimate free-range meat.
Some Samis, such as Laila Inga who lives on Hinnoya, Norway’s largest island, owe their entire living to reindeer and gave us a real understanding about her life raising the fascinating creatures that have evolved and adapted to living in harsh conditions by developing wide feet to walk on snow and, unlike any other species of deer, special bones in their nasal cavities to warm cold air as they inhale.
We sat around a fire in her cosy lavvu, a traditional conical building similar to a tepee, and were enraptured by her tales and robust sense of humour. As Saga only caters to the over-50s, no childhood dreams were shattered when she told us that in real-life Santa’s lead reindeer Rudolph would be female – they are the only species of deer where both sexes have antlers and males shed theirs in winter. Afterwards she sang an evocative joik, the traditional song of the Sami people, and we went back outdoors to feed the friendly reindeer; an unforgettable moment.
The excursion was one of many immersive and exciting shore trips on offer. Another night we embarked on a husky sled ride, and again this was no artificial experience but provided us with a real appreciation of the contribution these hardy and enthusiastic dogs have made to the Norwegian culture. This was reinforced on an earlier visit to the Polar Museum in Tromso, the world’s northernmost university city lying 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle and in earlier times a base for hunters, trappers and 19th century explorers. The museum, housed inside an atmospheric former customs warehouse with creaking wooden floors, has displays devoted to hunting and polar expeditions where the dogs played a crucial role.
The choice of excursions was so extensive that on some days it was hard to choose. Some passengers embarked on skiing lessons while others explored the area’s Second World War history or stayed overnight in an ice hotel. Just a few of the things available.
Everyone is offered a complimentary trip to go in search of the Northern Lights, with coaches driving to the best potential sighting spots based on meteorological forecasts. Although we didn’t see anything on our trip we had a convivial evening listening to tales of local folklore around a camp fire or sitting indoors sipping warming cups of hot chocolate.
But patience is a virtue and during the rest of the cruise the lights came out to play on three separate occasions, variously appearing as a luminous archway and green brushstrokes across the canvas of the night sky.
Although we kept snug outdoors in the heavy-duty expedition parkas given out to every passenger – and which could keep after the cruise – we really appreciated the warm home comforts back on the 720-passenger Saga Sapphire, a small and intimate vessel which is, for now, the flagship in Saga’s two-strong fleet. She will sail on her farewell season in 2020 as two brand new ships – a first for Saga – are debuted to replace Sapphire and Saga Pearl II. In the meantime, Sapphire will sail on a diverse range of itineraries including Norway, the Mediterranean and closer to home.
Reflecting the line’s ‘Britishness’, the menus were a daily delight of traditional favourites – including a full roast on Sunday – regional and ethnic cuisine, that provided the best of all culinary worlds. The East to West restaurant, serving exquisite Asian cuisine with a touch of theatrical flair, is outstanding, and unlike many cruise lines this speciality dining room is open to all passengers at no extra cost.
It was also great fun to sit outside, wearing the expedition parkas and with legs wrapped in rugs, to eat freshly cooked fish and chips from the Beach Club. With snow on the deck, I couldn’t imagine this happening on any other line.
Back indoors a packed programme of daily activities, including dance classes, lectures, music recitals, quizzes and stages shows, kept everyone occupied as the ship sailed to the next destination. The well-stocked library and the adjoining Drawing Room with its panoramic windows were a magnet for those who preferred to relax. Days were also punctuated by the eagerly anticipated afternoon tea and the prospect of cocktails and a nightcap or two in one of the bars.
On a cruise where everything stops for tea – and the entertainers are happy to let the Northern Lights take centre stage – this really was a gem of a voyage.
Saga’s Norwegian cruise programme includes the 16-night Aurora Explorer round-trip Southampton cruise on Saga Sapphire from £2,069, based on a 21 February 2020, departure. Fares include all meals, wines with lunch and dinner, 24-hour room service, welcome cocktail party, captain’s dinner, gratuities, private home pick-up chauffeur service, Arctic expedition jacket and optional travel insurance.