Marvellous sights, memorable experiences and magical moments
It was the first time I’d ever been served a conjuring trick alongside my morning cereal, croissant and coffee. But there’s a first time for everything and what better place to sit back and go with the flow than on a cruise?
I was enjoying breakfast on the sunny aft deck on Saga Sapphire when waiter Dexter appeared and fanned out a pack of cards, inviting me to pick one. In a performance akin to a professional magician, the card vanished after I shuffled it back into the pack and Dexter left me searching in vain while he served another table. On return he searched around our table before pulling it out from the cushion cover on the adjoining chair.
His amazing tricks, which continued each day, encapsulated the joy of sailing on a small ship, which is how the 720-passenger Saga Sapphire is described in cruise terminology. It’s easy to get to know crew and fellow shipmates alike, whereas on the floating leviathans carrying thousands you might never see the same people again and be served by different waiters each day. (I was once on a large ship for a week and only realised a friend had been aboard when we met on the plane home).
Our five-night cruise took us to Belgium, Holland and Germany, with a day at sea to relax on board and enjoy the ship. For anyone nostalgic for the ‘golden era’ of cruising Saga Sapphire won’t disappoint. From the elegant line of the prow to the gorgeous traditional teak promenade deck – a rarity on most modern vessels – it’s a ‘proper’ ship offering a comfortable and personable cruise experience for the over-50s.
For landlubbers who swear they’ll never set foot on a cruise, if any ship is going to change their mind it could well be this one. It’s the things it doesn’t have – such as a casino, waterpark, piped music around the pool, a nightclub and non-stop entertainment – that are the very reason repeat passengers, affectionately known as ‘saganauts’, return time after time. And you can easily catch up with the children and grandchildren on return or with the free Wi-Fi.
What it does have is an easy, comfortable charm created by a combination of the ship and its facilities, Captain Stuart Horne with his gentle sense of humour and the outstanding crew members who always go the extra mile. And you know their omnipresent smiles and willingness to help are completely genuine as on Saga cruises you don’t have to tip.
In Zeebrugge, the first port of call, I decided to stay aboard as I’d visited the lovely city of Bruges several times and wanted to explore the ship. In the morning I never got further than the vast library, filled with 500 books covering virtually every topic you can think of along with magazines, games, jigsaws and chess tables.
That afternoon I treated myself to a treatment in the spa, where the expert therapist deftly dealt with my tense shoulders. At £65 for a one-hour deep tissue massage it was very reasonably priced compared with ship spas operated by big name brands. It had the added bliss of not being followed by a hard push to sell pricey products or the expectation of a tip on top of the fee.
Next day I joined one of six optional excursions, choosing the Taste of Holland. It started with a visit to the delightful ‘windmill village’ of Zaanse Schans, where we couldn’t resist trying on giant clogs for size after watching an insightful demonstration on how they’re carved out of blocks of wood. Then it was on to the pretty cobbled streets of Edam, which rather surprisingly isn’t where the namesake cheese is made at all. But we soon had our fill afterwards with a visit to the Henri Willig factory to learn how cheese is produced, with plenty of samples to try, including unusual truffle and coconut flavours. And as we weren’t flying back, and I knew I’d have a hand with my luggage and a chauffeur to take me home, so there was no excuse not to stock up. On the coach trip back a crew member handed out refreshing eucalyptus towels and Werther’s Originals, more examples of Saga’s thoughtful touches.
It was fascinating to sail into Bremerhaven and discover it was something a homecoming for Saga Sapphire as this is where the ship was built in 1981, originally sailing as the Europa. We passed giant cranes and cargo ships as she glided into the harbour, and it seemed fitting that our day should follow a maritime theme. After lunch we set out on an exhilarating cruise on a Dutch square-rigged tall ship, the Mercedes, with the magnificent sails carrying us back into port for the return to our own floating home-from-home.
Indeed, Saga Sapphire provides all kinds of familiar and welcome creature comforts, starting from Marmite, kippers and full English forming part of the expansive breakfast spread, to a daily mouth-watering afternoon tea and lunch and dinner menus featuring beautifully prepared international cuisine and simpler fare – including an extremely good vegetarian menu. I particularly loved the pool deck Beach Bar, where you can help yourself to sweets from old-fashioned jars, serve your own soft ice-cream cone and tuck into made-to-order fish and chips.
Each evening we’d retire to the Discovery Lounge, where the nightly entertainment included the terrific Jack Pack, a visiting quartet who performed slick numbers by Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé and more. Afterwards dapper ‘gentleman hosts’ whirled ladies around the dance floor, while night owls headed for the Drawing Room with its cool live jazz.
All too soon the White Cliffs of Dover heralded our return to home soil. Dexterous Dexter, who quickly got to know our liking for the daily fruit and vegetable smoothies, had already set them out on our preferred al fresco breakfast table. He then crafted a rose out of a paper napkin for my friend, and produced another he’d made earlier for me, before creating an intricate origami butterfly. Naturally, it made our day and was a delightful end to a real gem of a cruise.
Saga Sapphire, and Saga’s second ship Saga Pearl II, sail from Dover, Southampton and Portsmouth on a variety of itineraries in the British Isles, Mediterranean, Canary Islands, Baltic, Iceland, Far East, North and Central America, Caribbean, Middle East and Africa, Indian subcontinent and Asia. Fares include all meals, wine with lunch and dinner, return door-to-door chauffeur service or free parking, porterage, optional travel insurance and gratuities.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Saga Cruises