I’m not old enough for a Saga cruise. And I’m in no rush to age any quicker than nature intends. But naturally as a regular cruisers and someone interested in ships, I always intrigued by a different cruise product and a new generation of ships. And this past week I got to sail with Saga, in the company of family who did pass the stringent age limits. The family concerned are not regular cruisers and it was especially interesting to see the Saga product through the eyes of the target market.
Spirit of Discovery was built by Meyer Werft and entered service this month after being named by the Duchess of Cornwall. She is designed to carry 999 passengers, and has the profile common to many of the current ‘boutique’ ships like Viking Ocean, Oceania and Azamara, with layouts which are not dissimilar. Spirit of Discovery wears a royal blue hull topped by a gold stripe, together with Saga’s traditional yellow funnel. Onboard she offers a muted, Art Deco inspired, hotel style fit out with a layout similar to many ships in this market segment. But Saga in general seem to have taken the best ideas from many of the others and produced a rather lovely vessel.
Embarkation is usually at Deck 5 which brings passengers in to the based of the atrium and the living room space. The atrium stretches up through 4 decks and includes a vast mural ‘this sceptred isle’, which includes images of many things from around the UK. A staircase for the formal night Grande Descente, together with a baby grand piano all make for an upmarket hotel ambience. There is an adjacent lounge and bar called the living room, which carries the similar food items to those available elsewhere for breakfast and afternoon tea together with an ice cream bar and a bar. This deck contains the spa and shop forwards, with the reception desk and excursion desk off to the port side before the entrance to the Grand Dining room. The Grand Dining Room is a space which has a very traditional feel and the centre is double height with a two level mirror at the aft end. The Grand Dining Room is an anytime dining venue and tables range from 2 to 6 mostly, with the Captain’s table and a couple of others being larger. The menu changes daily and is regular, upmarket cruise food. It is especially well presented and served with Saga paying attention to many things that other lines do badly - very fresh, daily changing bread selections, hot plates for hot dishes etc. This and all venues aboard the ship also serve a stunning cheese course with a daily changing selection of about a dozen cheeses.
The balcony and seating above the Grand Dining Room is for the Steakhouse which on this ship is ‘The Club inspired by Jools’ with artistes performing each evening purportedly chosen by Jools Holland. The Club has a glass walled show kitchen and serves a standard menu of steakhouse items. Either side of the Club are promenades carrying passengers to the aft most restaurants on Deck 6 which are a pair of , included in the fare, speciality restaurants. Coast to Coast serves a fresh fish and seafood menu, and East to West is an Asian restaurant. It is interesting that Saga have effectively tried to bring back the shipboard layout with twin promenades. For my money this doesn’t quite work because it has dead ends with each restaurant and the end result is that they are slightly odd to find.
Further forward on Deck 6 is the South Cape bar. With a colour scheme of wood, and pale greyish brown, it is elegantly simple in design and indeed that is the theme throughout the ship. Further forward is a small gallery before entering the Playhouse theatre. With steeply tiered seats, this can accommodate half the passengers at once. Spirit of Discovery has an extraordinarily wide, 3/4 around promenade on this deck (technically is goes all the way around but the bit at the front is enclosed).
Further passenger spaces are on Deck 12 with the buffet aft, a Lido pool midships and the Britannia lounge forwards. The Britannia lounge is for me the standout favourite of the ship. A vast lounge with double height ceiling forwards, a forward viewing balcony and another delightful and elegant bar, this space excels as a lounge and cabaret entertainment venue. In places the walls are adorned by art by Kate Jackson depicting the ship and its construction. This is in a style with a design reminiscent of 1930s railway paintings. Out on the forward viewing balcony are a quartet of sculptures, and the music from inside the lounge is also played out here in the evening. The Britannia lounge is also the ballroom of the ship and each evening the Saga Gentlemen hosts earn their money by escorting a variety of ladies around the dance floor. Some of the ladies do get quite in to this, and I did wonder if during the ‘Twist’, at least one of the hosts might be entitled to danger money.
Ironically the biggest misstep of the ship’s design is on the same deck, in my view. And that is the buffet. The space is designed as a large H shape with the serveries in the cross bar of the H (hope that makes sense). The food area itself is fresh and clean lined, and there is a decent selection. But the whole seating area has been arranged with full height visual barriers between seating and serving areas. This makes it the most confused buffet layout I have yet seen, and if there is one thing you should not design into a ship catering to elderly passengers, it is confusion. Indeed I did witness slightly distressed lovelies having to be escorted around the buffet areas to find their table mates again after exiting in the wrong direction. I did wonder whether this had been due to a design intention to use the buffet as a further alternative dining venue in the evenings, in which case hiding the servers might have been expected. Whatever the reason, this space is unnecessarily confusing.
The other surprise on this deck was that the pool area did not have a retractable roof. Visually it is better for it, but quite how practical that is would remain to be seen. For a ship catering to elderly passengers it also does not have one of those chairs to lift people with restricted mobility into the water which again seems a surprising omission.
In a couple of other areas, the design is also a missed opportunity too. The South Cape bar is a lovely space but it faces entirely inwards, away from the stunning atrium and mural just adjacent. In fact it very firmly turns its back on that space with a fixed sofa facing away from it and a glass sound barrier too. With the atrium being the centre of the ship, it just feels like the Viking Ocean ships have managed to do something similar but ever so slightly better.
There are some lively and innovative design touches around the vessel. The South Cape bar has a marble entrance way which carries the name and Est 2019 - simple but nice touch. For orientation around the ship Saga have introduced a style of deckplan I have never seen before. It’s kind of like a tube map with dots for the stops and connections. It works quite well but would be better if it were written bigger and had an indicative bow/ stern for the ship. In general the signage aboard the ship isn’t as obvious as it might be, and the lifts are particularly sparse, having only deck numbers in them but nothing next to the numbers indicating which facilities are where. Overall its slightly as if Saga’s designer did a good job at ‘boutique hotel’ but ever so slightly less at remembering to make stuff easy to find.
So whilst the ship isn’t perfect, it really is very very nice indeed. And with a Britannia lounge, a wraparound promenade and some good food and service, one can forgive almost anything else. Service on Saga was really warm and friendly, noticeably more so than on many other ships. And there is clearly a long serving crew, familiar with many of the passengers. As you would expect, Saga attract an elderly crowd and quite a lot of things are explained in that tone one might adopt with an elderly relative you care about. But it’s not overbearing, its kind of warm.
I would never wish my life away in order to be old enough to be a Saga regular. But I am glad to know that when I do eventually get there, there is a decent product on a rather nice ship where one might well be looked after, really quite well indeed.