While big can sometimes mean beautiful, Saga Holidays know their clients better than most when it comes to cruising holidays. They've found their guests are happier on smaller ships providing a friendly professional service with a personal touch and that has now been extended to their latest vessel, the Spirit of Discovery.
Having established a wealth of knowledge and staying faithful to their over-50s customer policy, Saga pretty much knew exactly what their clients wanted – and expected – from the Spirit of Discovery. Gaining much credit over 20-plus years of operations with the Saga Ruby, Saga Rose, Saga Pearl, Saga Pearl II and latterly the Saga Sapphire, when it came to creating a brand new boutique-style luxury ship from scratch, they were determined to incorporate as many features from their predecessors as possible.
"So far, everyone who has experienced her has expressed their enthusiasm," said Spirit of Discovery's proud Captain Julian Burgess when he joined us for drinks on our first night aboard on what was to be a memorable Baltic cruise visiting five different countries.
"I was honoured to be the first man to sail her," he added, having successfully brought her into Berth Four – incidentally at 300 metres the longest in Dover – from Germany's Meyer Werft shipyard where this luxurious 58,250-ton, 236 metre long, 999-berth ship was built.
Taking advantage of Saga's excellent 'home to port' chauffeur taxi service – it is limited to 250 miles for free, anything more is charged as an extra – we arrived in Dover having enjoyed a stress-free journey from Bedford in the knowledge that our return trip 15 days later would be just as comfortable.
Once welcomed aboard, you wouldn't be wrong in thinking that Spirit of Discovery with its 14 towering decks is more akin to a floating five-star hotel thanks to a sense of space, light-filled lounges, contemporary decor and attentive staff. But it's also the fact that every one of its 540 luxury suites and cabins (109 of which are singles) are both spacious and beautifully decorated. Each one has its own balcony on which is a table, comfy rattan chairs while it is accessed through a lockable French window.
There was a more than generous sized double bed in our Mid Ship Suite on Deck B which could be split into two singles while we also had a walk-in closet with a safe, at least 50 coat hangers and a laundry basket. The closet led to a smartly decorated bathroom with twin 'his and hers' basins together with a double length cubical featuring both a normal and a rain shower. There was also a separate toilet cubicle with 'Jack and Jill' style doors which opened on either side.
However the full-sized bath certainly caused our neighbour a real problem…she simply couldn't get out! At around two feet deep with a single grab handle at the sloping end, as many elderly people tend to favour a bath over a shower, it really needs a reduced height side panel with a handle with which to help lever yourself out. And as there is no alarm pull cord, an elderly or infirm person could be really stuck.
Meanwhile our neighbour – who was barely five feet tall – only managed to get out by swivelling onto her knees and then hauling herself over the side and onto the bathroom floor in the most undignified manner. She wasn't impressed!
Several people also commented on it while they also mentioned that the Saga Sapphire used to have a useful pull-out drying clothes line which would have been handy on the Spirit. However there is a heated towel rail and large refillable bottles of luxury toiletries and I was glad to see that the usual one-use disposable ones have been replaced!
Our lounge comprised a two-seater settee, table and chairs plus a 42-inch LG television which actually matched the one in our bedroom. Then there was a free fully-stocked mini bar including five bottles of top quality spirits, light snacks, a kettle and a quality pod coffee maker. Oh, and I almost forgot, always on hand was our jovial butler Darwin and our equally friendly cabin steward Ronald.
Five Fine Dining Experiences
With a choice of five free to use restaurants, the Spirit of Discovery's largest is the Grand Dining Room situated on Deck 5 which is open to everyone whatever time suits you. Despite its huge size, it still has an intimate cosy feel while it is lavishly decorated with grand chandeliers and pillars. It also served a very varied five-course evening menu overseen by executive chef John McCerery.
The dining room also featured an impressive cheese trolley which boasts up to 120 different varieties with a selection of around a dozen different ones on offer every night. We also enjoyed some top quality red, white and rose wines with our lunches and dinners.
Then there's The Grill, a bright open restaurant on Deck 12 which serves a huge breakfast buffet, delicious buffet lunches and top quality dinners as well as a 4pm afternoon tea. You can also access the al fresco terrace from The Grill at the rear of the ship which has an art deco seaside feel about it.
One thing that makes Spirit of Discovery different from other cruise ships is that its three speciality restaurants come at no extra charge although they do need to be booked in advance.
On Deck 6 and directly above the main restaurant is The Club by Jools based on an American cabaret club theme. The restaurant offers various steaks – its signature dish is a beautifully cooked New York loin strip. There's a bar and a small stage on which Jools Holland makes occasional appearances although on our cruise, we were entertained by The Impromptu Duo, a pianist and female singer.
Set just behind the The Club are two more speciality rooms, the Coast To Coast and East to West restaurants. The former is a contemporary fish establishment with an Italian feel which serves everything from fish and chips to lobster thermidor and from Dover sole to a fantastic platter for two including crayfish, crab legs and mussels. Meanwhile the East to West is a classy pan-Asian establishment where Thai tiger prawn massaman curry meets crispy Peking duck and delicious Himalayan spiced lamb…and it's all rather delicious.
Entertainment and Relaxation
Getting around the Spirit of Discovery was a little strange to start with as some decks have names and letters while other are just numbered. Basically there are 14 decks in total, ten being available to passengers starting on the lowest (Deck 4) from which you exit the ship for excursions before rising up to the Main Deck (5), the Promenade Deck (6), passing through the cabin decks to the Lido Deck (12) Sun Deck (13) and Observation Deck (14)…still confused, it certainly took a while to get your head around it when using any of the six passenger lifts.
All around the ship you'll see artwork…in fact there are more than 1,000 pieces all painted by British artists which are said to be worth in the region of £1million.
Thankfully the Spirit of Discovery – which has an total staff of 514 personnel – is devoid of all gambling, so you'll not come across banks of slot machines or a casino but up on Deck 12 you find The Lido with its central swimming pool and twin hot tubs. The deck is in 1930s style with ample sun loungers, a serve yourself ice-cream machine and numerous old-fashioned jars of sweets with those childhood favourites like liquorice or boiled rum-and-butter.
One deck up and you find the traditional deck games including shuffleboard and quoits while one of the ship's musical entertainers is Stuart Anderson who organises golf matches on an impressive computer driven simulator.
Dropping down again to Deck 5, you find The Spa with its thermal suite and hydrotherapy pool, infra-red sauna, steam room and lounge with heated chairs. It's all free to use although massages and treatments are not. On offer are such therapies as a Hot Mineral Body Boost, Aroma Stone Therapy or Spa Seaweed Massage while there are also hair, nail and waxing services and treatments. There is also a separate state-of-the-art gym with all the usual equipment.
The Living Room is a ship-wide bar and lounge by the main staircase and atrium with cosy sofas and waiter service for drinks. Deck 5 is also the location of the Reception Desk and Explore Ashore for excursions while The Promenade (Deck 6) is extra wide and enables you to walk all around the ship with four laps equalling one mile. It is also home to the ship's superb 444 seater West End-style Playhouse Theatre with its marble surrounded stage…but more of that later.
On Deck 7 you find the ship's magnificent Library packed with over 3,500 hard-backed books. It's more like a living room with several alcoves connected by shelves while there’s tea, coffee and cakes plus several free to use computers all connected to the same free WiFi that the rest of the ship enjoys.
The Craft Room was always busy with lessons on sewing and jewellery-making while the Card Room was equally well used thanks to a resident bridge-playing instructor who arrives on all cruises over four nights in length.
There are various bars throughout the ship, the largest being the Britannia Lounge on Deck 12 which sweeps around the front of the ship below sloping glass walls while the South Cape Bar on Deck 6 is more like a gentlemen’s club while it hosts regular daily general knowledge quizzes and has light entertainment on tap.
But back to the Playhouse Theatre and what must have been an oversight in design. The auditorium is absolutely fine with comfortable tiered seating and a great stage and while it is fully carpeted, it's the edge of the unmarked steps that caused a problem for many guests.
It's obvious that Saga have been made aware of the problem as at every show there were at least four staff members reminding people to hold onto the banister rail when ascending and descending – but even then there were quite a few tripping or stumbling as they couldn't see well enough in low light conditions. Hopefully a defined edge to each step will be in place very soon.
As for the evening entertainment, that was first rate thanks to the Spirit of Discovery's resident Show Company comprising four superb singers and six talented dancer. They gave it their all at every show while in between we were treated to guest appearances by the likes of musical genius Dr Simon Fricker, Peter Donegan (Lonnie Donegan's son), Polish virtuoso violinist Michael Bacala and comedy magician Mandy Muden who made all four judges on Britain's Got Talent sit up and take notice.
For years Saga have welcomed well-known personalities aboard their ships to mix and dine with the guests and our Myths and Legends of the Baltic cruise was to be no different. Sailing with us out of Dover was Wayne Sleep OBE, arguably Britain's best-known ballet dancer. He is also a leading stage choreographer and film actor and has appeared regularly on television in shows like The Real Marigold Hotel on Tour, Celebrity Masterchef and The Real Full Monty.
Throughout the cruise, Wayne was happy to chat to everyone on board and he certainly entertained a packed theatre audience with his one man show. Then a few days later there was a special questions and answers session prior to him hosting a dance class after which he handed out signed certificates.
The theatre was also the place to be as we learned of our ship's eight different destinations, for retired headmaster Marcus Sherwood had not only done his homework, but his delivery was absolutely brilliant and it included plenty of comedic moments.
'Myths and Legends of the Baltic' excursions
With five countries to visit and with eight chances to go ashore, we made the most of the Spirit of Discovery's excursions. Following a full day spent crossing the North Sea and heading for Sweden's west coast, our first port of call was to Gothenburg, the second largest city which straddles the banks of the Göta älv River.
Gothenburg is a bustling modern city which features many Dutch-style canals and, having toured it by coach, we ended up in Haga, the city's older quarter with its cobbled streets and small independent shops. After lunch back at the ship, I went ashore again to visit the Volvo Museum which is located just a short 150 metre stroll from the cruise terminal.
Our next stop was to Sweden's capital Stockholm which we approached via the northern channel as strong winds made it difficult to manoeuvre the ship between the hundreds of small islands. The city itself spans 14 islands which are connected by a series of bridges and after visiting the historic old town of Gamla Stan with its medieval streets, we ended up at Stockholm Cathedral and 18th century Royal Palace, home to King Carl Gustaf. We also passed the Abba Museum and the Vasa warship which sank on its maiden voyage back in 1628 and was salvaged in 1961 in remarkably good condition.
It was then on to Finland and Helsinki, Europe's most northerly capital which is also known as the 'White City' due to its marble buildings. We visited the Lutheran Rock Church and the wonderful 600 pipe monument dedicated to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius which is located in Sibelius Park in the city's Töölö district. Having plenty of free time, we couldn't help but wonder who would want to eat tinned bear meat but there was plenty of it for sale at the city's ornate indoor market on the dockside!
The highlight of any Baltic cruise is undoubtedly Russia's second city, St Petersburg and while we had two days there, it could never possibly be enough. On day one we visited the Spilled Blood Cathedral (site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II) which followed a sight-seeing cruise along the Neva, Fontaka and Moika rivers.
After that we called in at a huge Russian souvenir shop selling the sort of tat that makes one cringe. There were simply thousands of traditional Matryoshka dolls with some very strange images featuring the likes of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, Queen's Freddie Mercury or The Beatles – but someone must be buying them!
Meanwhile our second day in Russia was spent marvelling at the magnificent lavish Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, the summer residence of Empress Catherine the Great. Severely damaged when it was set alight by the retreating Nazis towards the end of the Second World War, it has taken some 24 years but the summer palace has been lovingly restored to its former glory and the fabled Amber Room recreated although you are not allowed to photograph it even though there are no restrictions anywhere else in the building.
After Russia we headed for Tallinn, the stunning capital of Estonia which we enjoyed on a walking tour, visiting the imposing Russian Orthodox Church and enjoying the views from the upper town terraces across the gabled rooftops of its lower neighbour. But it's the lower town which is so impressive with its ornate squares and merchant's houses.
On our penultimate stop we docked at Kalundburg in Denmark and while the Danish capital Copenhagen is on the same island but more than 90 minutes away. I didn't fancy the long coach ride so opted for a stroll around the town and enjoyed what the Danes call 'Hygge' – translated as a feeling cosiness and contentment. We visited the town's museum and its unusual five-spired Church of Our Lady which organised an organ recital as few cruise ships actually dock there. The town had placed Danish flags everywhere around the town by way of a welcome and as we sailed away, they had arranged for a marching band to see us off.
Our final stop was to the pretty Danish town of Aalborg, Denmark's fourth largest city where we marvelled at some of the Baroque- and Gothic-style architecture while learning of its gory and gruesome past in the local monastery.
Baltic Cruise Fact File
Alan and Jo Wooding travelled on board Saga Holiday's new Spirit of Discovery on its 'Myths and Legends of the Baltic' cruise which included all meals, 24-hour room service, a choice of wines at lunch and dinner and all on-board gratuities. The holiday also included UK mainland travel service to and from Dover, all port taxes and visas, entertainment and activities, three formal dinners plus a welcome cocktail party and Captain’s dinner.
Prices for this particular cruise started at £2,999 while there is optional travel insurance underwritten by Great Lakes Insurance or a price reduction if not required. Full details from www.saga.co.uk or call 0808 250 0948