Swans, spud pies and sparkling spa treatments are all part of a voyage of discovery
There’s a first time for everything and, as I settled down on a crunching bed of warm amber and quartz crystals, this was certainly one of them. Wrapped in soft cotton sheets, once I’d wriggled around a bit it was much more comfortable than I imagined, and at one point I almost fell asleep as the calming scent of juniper and eucalyptus filled the spa treatment room.
The crystal quartz massage table is one of many innovations on Spirit of Discovery, Saga’s first-ever brand new cruise ship and the only one launched specifically for the UK market in 2019, when the Duchess of Cornwall cracked the traditional bottle of bubbly (English sparkling wine, of course) across the bow.
Over-50s line Saga broke the mould when it decided to pension off the last of its two older ships and launch Spirit of Discovery, which is firmly geared to British tastes. However, for anyone who might harbour a stereotypical view of what Saga cruises might be like, they should be prepared to eat their words as there’s nothing stuffy or old fashioned about this beautiful vessel.
Carrying just 999 passengers – which is small in cruise ship terms – Spirit of Discovery has more restaurant options than any of its predecessors. The casual Grill buffet and aptly named Grand Dining Room, with glittering tableware and chandeliers, are the two main venues. The trio of speciality restaurants are all free of charge; you just need to book in advance. There’s The Club by Jools, which is a steak restaurant with live jazz, the seafood and Mediterranean-themed eatery Coast to Coast and, my personal favourite, East to West which serves Asian food with flair. Traditionalists will enjoy the fact that there are formal nights and the chance to push the sartorial boat out and don you best bib and tucker.
Our cruise began in Dover, where we gathered on deck to the sound of the ship’s band and clinked celebratory glasses of Kent-produced Hush Heath Estate fizz as the white cliffs faded into the background and we headed towards the Channel Islands. There was more to follow as the splendid afternoon tea – a daily affair – comes with the option of a glass or two of bubbly. In fact, there’s never any danger of going thirsty as from this year all cruises on Spirit of Discovery are fully inclusive, with all drinks included in the fare.
There are also kettles in every cabin, so you can have a brew whenever you want and enjoy the passing views or seascape. The latter is down to the fact that all cabins have a balcony, including the 109 single cabins, and if you push the proverbial boat out, the suites come with butler service too.
Each port of call brought a choice of shore tours. In Guernsey my friend joined the trip to spend a day on the tiny traffic-free island of Sark and I embarked on the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society tour, taking in locations from the book by Mary Ann Shaffer. Although it is a fictional work based on the German occupation during the Second World War, many of the places are real. Our guide brought the dark period of history to life by sharing first-hand tales from her family and original documents. The illuminating tour also took in stops along the picturesque coastline and the chance to try a slice of gache. Pronounced gosh and meaning cake in Guernesiais – the native language still spoken by some islanders – it’s more like a fruit bread, but very tasty.
After breakfast spreads (complete with Marmite) another morning brought a very different type of mealtime. The concept of feeding the birds reached new heights with the trip to Dorset’s Abbotsbury Swannery, the only place in the world where you can walk through the heart of a colony of nesting, free-flying mute swans. As keepers pushing wheelbarrows laden with grain arrived for the avian lunchtime hundreds of swans gathered round, some helping themselves from the barrows before the staff, assisted by youngsters from the crowd, scattered the food. It was a spectacular sight.
The swannery was established by the Benedictine monks who built Abbotsbury monastery in the 11th century, farming the birds to form the gastronomic centrepiece of their lavish banquets. Thankfully tastes – and laws – have changed, and today the swans get to eat rather than be eaten.
Back on board it was time for our lunch, but I decided to go easy as I’d booked the spa treatment for the afternoon. Although it sounded a tad novel, it certainly didn’t disappoint as the therapist massaged me with a combination of a warm quartz filled poultice and her expert fingers that reached every knot in my shoulders. The 75-minute treatment finished with a facial and I left feeling ready to face the gala dinner that night.
After dark there are a host of different venues for night owls, including Saga’s first dedicated theatre, where you can see the resident show company and visiting acts. Saga has embarked on a five-year partnership with composer, pianist and broadcaster Jools Holland (hence the namesake restaurant) and he is appearing in a series of live on board gigs. We were lucky enough to see him on our cruise and by the end of the evening passengers were dancing in the aisles.
The Britannia Lounge, overlooking the stern, is a dual-purpose lounge bar and entertainment venue, and acts on our sailing included the talented and glamorous violin duo Elektra who performed steamy tango tunes and more. A quieter area is The Living Room, centred round a towering bronze relief spanning two decks, with a bar and grand piano at the foot of a sweeping staircase.
The next morning, I blew away the cobwebs of the late night with a stroll around the wraparound promenade deck. Along with the retro pool area, which has a lovely uncluttered Art Deco vibe, the deck is a nod to traditionalism. Spirit of Discovery is a beautiful ship that’s as elegant as the giant Abbotsbury birds, albeit at the time when they’re swanning around gracefully and not during the lunchtime feeding frenzy.
Tel: +44 (0)808 274 4679
Number of Facilities On Board: Five restaurants, four bars, theatre, swimming pool, sun deck, spa, gym and free Wi-Fi.
Number of Cabins: 540.
Price Band: Medium to high
Insider Tip: It’s worth skipping a shore excursion to spend time in the extensive library, which also has puzzles, games and the latest magazines. It’s particularly quiet when other passengers are off on shore tours, and you can help yourself to tea, coffee, home-made cakes and biscuits from the tempting lounge sandwiched between the books.
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10
Factfile: Spirit of Discovery and Saga’s second new ship Spirit of Adventure, launching in summer 2020, will sail from Dover and Southampton on a variety of worldwide cruises including the British Isles, Mediterranean, Baltic, Far East and Caribbean. Fly cruises are also available. From 2020 both ships are fully inclusive with fares covering all meals, drinks, gratuities, return door-to-door chauffeur service and optional travel insurance. Cruises start from £924.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs by Saga and Jeannine Williamson