“The Saga Sapphire Is A Cruising Gem”, says Travel Writer and Editor Alan Wooding
From the moment I stepped aboard the Saga Sapphire, I began to realise that I’d probably not given cruising holidays a proper chance.
The holiday actually started as soon as we were collected from home in a brand new chauffeur driven Mercedes Benz. Arriving refreshed some three hours later at the cruise terminal in Dover, it’s all part of Saga’s impressive, no-nonsense attention to detail.
We were checked into a spacious outside cabin on deck 9, the accommodation being all that you would expect from a comfortable luxury hotel. There was plenty of storage and we were even greeted with a full fruit bowl.
Once onboard we quickly learned the Sapphire’s layout and the whereabouts of various restaurants, shops, bars and lounges. Overall it’s an extremely comfortable and immaculately clean ship, the spacious Britannia Lounge doubling as a theatre.
FOOD AND DRINK
With 50 chefs and 20 auxiliary staff under the watchful eye of executive chef, Cornishman George Streeter, attention to detail in the ship’s menu preparation is truly amazing.
“I’ve been with Saga for 15 years,” said George. “We’re very proud of the quality of the food that we prepare and our guests appreciate it. Overall we produce around 3,000 meals a day and with all the cakes, snacks and late night bites, we’re always kept pretty busy.”
Naturally the Sapphire offers a traditional Sunday roast while sweets like bread and butter pudding also find their way onto what is always a very extensive menu.
And if you fancy a minute steak for breakfast – as one particular passenger did on most days! – it’s provided without extra charge while the wine certainly flows freely at both lunch and dinner times.
The main Pole To Pole restaurant on deck 7 can seat around 600 diners, two sides having ocean views, while there are four themed areas featuring four continents: Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.
It’s fine dining at its very best with some wonderful menus and choices to suit every pallet. Saga’s chefs cater for both vegetarians and vegans while you can also choose your seating arrangements, as there is both buffet or full service dining at pre-reserved tables.
In the 64-seater East to West Restaurant on deck 9, you’ll enjoy a fusion of true Asian cuisine; Indian, Thai and spicy Sri Lankan. All is freshly cooked while traditional wooden Balinese-style carvings adorn the restaurant giving it a truly authentic feel.
We also loved the Grill Bar and open-air Verandah on deck 9 which offered healthier grilled meat dishes cooked to order in what is a show kitchen, the former specialising in some wonderful tasty steaks and really fresh seafood.
Located adjacent to the Sapphire’s outdoor swimming pool is the Beach Club which offers traditional fish and chip lunches. You can also help yourself to ice creams from a cabin resembling a striped beach hut while in the adjacent one, you find dozens of old-fashioned boiled sweet jars… and with no children on board, you really don’t feel guilty about helping yourself!
As the health and wellbeing of everyone onboard is of paramount importance, at every doorway you find a hand sanitiser machine, with most of them being manned by a staff member to remind all passengers to use them before entering the restaurants, bars and lounges. Even the public toilet exit doors have built-in sanitiser handles which caused much merriment in some quarters!
ENTERTAINMENT AND FACILITIES
Without a proper theatre, all the major entertainment and floor shows take place in the swish Britannia Lounge although with all the seating on the same level, viewing for some could be a little difficult.
However the standard of the shows was good. The eight members of the resident Explosive Singers and Dancers – four singers, four dancers – were excellent as were their fabulous costumes. In fact the Mersey Beat Legends and the Piano Magic show were of the highest order and featured popular music from the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Also on board were Jack Pack, a four piece vocal group in the Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Michael Buble mould. They rose to fame following their television debut on Britain’s Got Talent and they performed two outstanding shows which was perfect for Saga’s clientele age group. The four lads also admitted to eating far more than they usual would while praising the Sapphire’s catering staff for producing menus of the highest order.
All the shows featured the five accomplished musicians who made up the Saga Orchestra while if you wanted something a little quieter, then the Cooper Bar (named after legendary British comic Tommy Cooper), usually had organist Milan Jasek performing classic songs and tunes. And for jazz fans, the spacious Drawing Room on deck 11 offered late night entertainment (and food) courtesy of both the Saga Orchestra and talented duo, Melange.
There is also plenty of live music and dancing in the other bars with two male hosts for the majority of single ladies… but I didn’t spot any female hosts for the odd single gents!
Meanwhile quieter lounge areas are numerous along with an academy computer and learning centre, three well-stocked bars and a library. The Sapphire also has a hairdressers and beauty salon adjacent to the indoor swimming pool, three shops and a photo gallery while there is even a paid for laundry service and free Wi-Fi. The electricity supply uses both UK and European plugs.
For activity minded passengers, there are two swimming pools, an aqua spa, steam room and a gymnasium plus a St Andrew’s crazy golf course and Club House games room.
Six laps around deck 11 equated to one mile which proved very popular with many guests while for others, just relaxing beside the outdoor pool or sitting on the Verandah deck at the rear of the ship covered by a rug, reading or simply watching the vessel’s wake was all that they wanted.
A variety of shops sell the usual duty free goods – drinks, perfume, jewelry and souvenirs – while there is a resident ship’s photographer whose gallery is located on deck 8 just behind the shops.
On Sunday morning there was an interdenominational church service led by Canon Barry Lomax, a retired minister from Dorset. For those who wished it, he also took holy communion. The hour long service itself was preceded by hymns sung by the ship’s Filipino choir made up of officers, waiters and cabin staff.
ON SHORE EXCURSIONS
Belgium – Ypres, In Flanders Fields
Saga’s guests had a choice of four different shore excursions; Bruges, Loppem Castle & Damme, Romantic Bruges and our choice, Ypres, in Flanders Fields.
After a 60 minute coach journey we arrive at the village of Zonnebeke where we visited Tyne Cot, the largest of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries. It was also named by the British troops who said the area reminded them of countryside around their Tyneside homes.
It’s a vast site where almost 12,000 white Portland headstone stand in regimented rows, blood red roses adding a splash of colour by way of contrast.
Close to Tyne Cot’s central memorial cross are the graves of two German soldiers while the youngest British soldiers to perish were just 16 years of age.
Walking alongside the sweeping stone-built graveyard wall, you see the names of some 34,957 missing soldiers who fell at the Battle of Passchendaele – also known as the Third Battle of Ypres – which commenced on the last day of July 1917 in torrential rain.
After 100 days of bitter fighting in truly atrocious conditions on what became known as the Ypres Salient, the British troops had advanced just eight kilometres. The Commonwealth had lost more than half a million men, those losses equally mirrored by the opposing German armed forces, many of whom are buried at the nearby Langemark Military Cemetery.
From Tyne Cot, we made the short journey to the pretty Belgian town of Ypres which was totally destroyed during the Great War. However the magnificent Cloth Hall and other central buildings around its cobbled market square have all been painstakingly reconstructed and today Ypres resembles a typical medieval city centre.
The restored Cloth Hall – used as a projection backdrop in last month’s televised Centenary Commemoration Concert attended by members of our own Royal family – houses the magnificent In Flanders Fields Museum while behind it stands St George’s Memorial Church.
However the town’s best known monument is the imposing Menin Gate on which are engraved 54,896 names of British and Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives on the Ypres Salient. Designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield then built and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it was only lack of space on this giant memorial that Tyne Cot’s wall had to be constructed to accommodate the names of almost 35,000 men whose names had been missed.
Unfortunately we had to leave Ypres and return to the Saga Sapphire well before four buglers from the town’s Voluntary Fire Brigade play the Last Post every night at 8pm as a tribute to the fallen. That tradition goes back exactly 90 years to when construction of the Menin Gate was finally completed and was unveiled on the 24th July 1927.
As with all on shore visits by coach, as a nice touch on the return journey saw a Saga representative come round and hand out the Werther’s Originals.
The Netherlands – Canals & Anne Frank House
We arrived at the North Holland province port of IJmuiden, gateway to the Dutch capital Amsterdam where once again we were given a choice of excursions; Panoramic Amsterdam, A Taste of Holland, Amsterdam On Your Own or our choice, The Anne Frank House & Canal Cruise.
Boasting more than 60 miles of hand dug canals – many flanked by picture-perfect narrow gabled houses – historic Amsterdam is also crossed by more than 1,000 bridges. On our visit, we circumnavigated this wonderful and exciting crowded destination, first by coach and then aboard one of the many glass-topped boats.
Viewing famous landmarks such as the Royal Palace on Dam Square, once occupied by Napolèon’s younger brother Louis Bonaparte, proclaimed the Kingdom of Holland’s monarch between 1806 and 1810. We also passed the 15th century Weeper’s Tower where many Dutch wives would await the return of their seafaring husbands plus the nearby Maritime Museum and entrance to the Nemo tunnel which resembles a sinking ship.
Passing under dozens of low bridges, we picked our way around the canal system and into the Amstel River. We then heading out into the vast Het IJ waterway which is frequently cross-crossed by dozens of local ferries. These are free to use and enable visitors to enjoy the beaches and restaurants of Amsterdam Noord.
Thankfully the emotional visit to the Anne Frank House had been pre-booked as queues stretched all the way around the nearby Westerkerk (Western Church), the final resting place of Holland’s most famous son, the artist Rembrandt van Rijn.
As the city’s third most popular attraction – after the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum – the 17th century building on the Prinsengracht(Prince Canal) houses the Anne Frank House Museum and somehow managed to accommodate more than 1.3 million visitors last year. It was so busy that a decision was made to only take pre-booked tours up until 3.30pm… and then it becomes a free for all!
It takes around an hour to visit the house, museum and shop and you are accompanied by an individual audio guide. There are several steep flights of stairs to negotiate before you pass through the famous bookcase where you discover the small secret annex which hid eight members of the Frank family for two years until they were betrayed, arrested by the Nazis and sent to their deaths at Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz concentrate camps.
Amazingly Anne’s father Otto somehow survived the death camps and on discovering his 14-year-old daughter’s now famous diaries, he agreed to their publication in 1947, first in Dutch and then into English before many other language versions were added, making it a worldwide best seller.
Germany – Bremen Freespirited
Our final destination was to Bremerhaven and chose the option of visiting the nearby historic city of Bremen while around 80 fellow guests chose to visit the alternative Tall Ships Experience in the home port.
It was a real homecoming for the Saga Sapphire, for she was actually built in Bremerhaven back in 1981 and, according to three pilots who came aboard shortly before we passed the mouth of Germany’s Jade Bight and the port of Willemshaven to guide her to moorings along the River Weser. They also though it was her first visit for 15 years.
The 45 minute coach trip from Bremerhaven to Bremen saw us dropped off close to the magnificent 11th century Gothic cathedral, the city’s Rathuis and Renaissance City Hall and the huge statue of Roland in the UNESCO-listed Market Square.
However what really draws the visitors is the bronze Musicians of Bremen statue featuring a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster. Inspired by one of the Brothers Grimm’s best-loved fairytales, most visitors are photographed holding the legs of the donkey which has become a German tradition and is reputed to bring them good luck!
We first visited Bremen around 30 years ago when the Christmas Market was in full swing. However this time with the temperature hovering around 26 degrees, we found shade provided by the little narrow streets of the Schnoor district in which many of the shops were open despite it being a Sunday… my wife unable to resist purchasing a small glass angel which will adorn our family Christmas tree come December!
ABOUT THE SAGA SAPPHIRE – SOME SHIP FACTS
The Saga Sapphire is a magnificent 37,301 tonne vessel. It has 12 decks – ten for passengers including a promenade deck – carries a maximum of 720 passengers who are looked after by an average of 415 officers and crew in a total of 327 cabins.
At almost 200 metres (655 feet) in length with a beam measuring 28.55 metres (94 feet), the Saga Sapphire has four passenger lifts and four restaurants.
As this was our first time on a Saga holiday, both my wife and myself were blown away by the professionalism, friendliness and attitude of all the staff who simply couldn’t do enough for us.
The Sapphire staff seem to treat everyone as friends and not strangers and together with Saga’s cashless cruise policy, it means that you don’t ever have to worry about having change for onboard tips and the like. All bills are settled before disembarkation thanks to a pre-registered credit or debit card system.
While some may think cruising is expensive, with no single cabin supplements, I believe that Saga offers tremendous value for money as everything – transfers, insurance, all-inclusive meals and a daily news bulletin – is included. And with free Wi-Fi available to all throughout the cruise, unlike other companies, it means that you can stay in touch with home and family should the need arise.
Alan Wooding and his wife were the guests of Saga Travel aboard Saga Sapphire for the five night trip.
Specialising in holidays for the over-50s, Saga Holidays – www.saga.co.uk and www.sagacruises.co.uk; telephone 0800 096 0079 – include all return travel from your home to the port (in our case Dover) along with full-board accommodation, travel insurance and gratuities.
* The Saga Sapphire is due to return to Bremen, Amsterdam and Bruges again towards the end of the year on a Continental Christmas Markets cruise. It will leave Southampton on 3 December for five nights with prices starting at £899.