Cathy was onboard the Saga ship Spirit of Discovery for the first post-Covid Cruise which left Tilbury at the end of June ’21. She has written us this report…
Not a good start…
Just a week before the cruise the UK Government delayed a lifting of restrictions on the number of guests allowed on board which had been expected. The next day the Scottish Government barred any cruise ships from docking in their ports. This caused Saga an enormous amount of work to reschedule passengers and reroute ships. Of course it was completely outside their control but I mention this because our pre-cruise experience was quite poor and I do appreciate that not all of it was ‘normal’. This is the reality of cruising at the moment – every Government’s Covid based decision has a knock-on effect on other arrangements. We all have to try and be patient, I think it will be a while yet before any of us can be certain that we will get the cruise that we have booked!
The ‘Ten Second’ Version of this Ships Report
We loved Spirit of Discovery. We loved a lot of things about the experience and we would almost certainly choose to cruise with Saga again – but we would make sure that we booked direct!
Why we originally chose a Saga Cruise.
We are the right age group for Saga (50+ which isn’t SOOO old!) and are very much their target market. Obviously cruise companies have to keep attracting new customers or they will fail but Saga has a diehard group of fans who aren’t particularly happy about. the change of direction. Spirit of Discovery was launched in June 2019 to a flurry of activity from our friends in Cruise Blogging world. We would never have previously considered Saga for a cruise but the coverage of the launch made us quite sad that we hadn’t been invited. It definitely sowed the seed that this might be a ship for us. I definitely had some preconceptions about what a ‘Saga’ ship would be like and watching the content created about the launch I was genuinely intrigued to see this new ship. We had never sailed on a ship so small so this seemed a perfect opportunity to investigate a smaller all inclusive, ‘boutique’ style ship .
What we felt before the cruise
I am usually SO organised with my cruise organisation and this was absolutely NOT the case this time! We had made a HUGE mistake by booking through our usual Travel Agent which meant that we were treated differently to those who had booked direct. The first problem was that we were not able to access our onboard personaliser or complete our pre-boarding paperwork ourselves – something that we have managed to do on every other cruise line that we have sailed with!
This was irritating but of course the last minute changes I mentioned above made the situation even worse and communication over all the changes was very poor. Saga wanted to speak in person to everyone who was being cancelled . Whilst this is admirable it is also slow. It was only when a post appeared on the very helpful We love Saga Cruises Facebook Group that I learnt that everyone who was being removed from the cruise had already been contacted directly, if you hadn’t heard then you were still onboard. Honestly, no one would think that email had ever been invented!!
Our original cruise to Scotland was replaced with a English Southcoast trip to the Isles of Scilly. We had never visited before so were very happy with the changes but could not access the new excursion list to book. A friendly soul posted a copy of the revised excursions on the Facebook group which meant I could phone and (after being on hold for over an hour) reserve the ones we wanted – which was lucky, as our own excursion brochure – which had apparently been posted to us, or to our agent? – never arrived!
An answerphone message on our landline two days before departure gave us a pickup time from our driver but no contact details so if he hadn’t arrived I’m not sure what we would have done! As Saga newbies with no idea how things worked, telephone lines at full stretch and no access to anything online I’ve got to be honest and admit that I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised to find that we weren’t expected when we arrived at Tilbury. I’m not saying this to moan but to give you an honest idea of how I felt on the morning of the cruise.
What we loved about Spirit of Discovery
The Onboard Customer Experience – there is definitely a bit of Saga ‘magic’ – EVERYONE, from arrival at check-in onwards, was absolutely lovely and nothing seemed to be difficult or too much trouble. The were friendly greetings and smiling eyes from pretty much everyone we came into contact with.
The Decor – the whole ship is very stylish – contemporary, modern, bright and colourful. I’m going to single out the Spa and the Library as my favourite areas but to be honest the decor everywhere was very ‘me’. As was the artwork – in fact there was some ceramics I loved so much that I came home and tracked down the artist! Everything was of extremely good quality and very comfortable – especially in our cabin. This was a Twin Deluxe Balcony ( there are no inside or outside cabins ), which was well equipped with loads of storage, excellent lighting, an interactive TV, USB charging points points and a very impressive shower with top quality toiletries in full sized bottles – luxurious and eco friendly!
The ORCA team of wildlife experts – always to be found on deck watching for whale, dolphin and porpoise from early in the morning until sunset. The team gave talks and any one of them was happy to chat at any time about what they had seen and what they expected to see. The whole group was so informative, positive and upbeat that they really enhanced our cruise. I would definitely seek out cruises with Cruise Conservationists onboard in the future and think that Saga deserve top marks for making it possible for them to be on Spirit of Discovery.
What we liked about Spirit of Discovery
The food and restaurants – as well as the Grand Dining room there were three others. On other ships would have been billed as ‘speciality restaurants’ – but here they were included. The standard was excellent and, although their menus remained the same throughout the week, we were happy to eat in East to West more than once as there was a wide choice. The buffet was temporarily repurposed as a ‘sit down’ Grill venue with service on the aft deck too when weather permitted. So there were lots of options for meals and the standard of food was excellent. We had a little confusion over how and when to book restaurants (which was due to us being newbies) but a quick conversation with some ‘Saganauts’ put us on the right track. This was a bit of a theme – not everything is obvious and you do just have to learn to ask!
The shore excursions – now that probably comes as a surprise given my loathing of organised trips but actually the (compulsory but included) excursions were pretty good! I thought this was pretty impressive especially as there had only been a week from the rescheduling of the cruise for Saga to organise them. We chose mainly boat trips and paid extra for a river trip in Falmouth rather than take the coach trip around Cornwall – I was really impressed with most things but especially with the really informative and amusing free boat trip in Portsmouth.
Sailaway – there was a real sense of atmosphere with a glass of fizz in hand, watching the brass bands seeing us off from various quaysides. Over the week we had ticker tape cannon and fireboat escorts both in and out of ports. Again, an impressive level of organisation in just a week! It all felt special to be a part of and again a bit more ‘us’ than a flag waving jingoistic party.
Saga main board and management interaction – goodness there were a lot of them on board! Everyone from the main board chairman downward was there – they were very visible and actively spent time talking with passengers, asking for feedback about their experience. As the first cruise after shutdown, some level of management interest was expected but they were ALL on board! I’m not sure it was a completely comfortable experience for them all as there were many niggles and opinions aired but the polite and interested way that they listened to every single comment was hugely impressive. Nigel Blanks, Chief Executive Officer of Saga Cruises was really quite amazing, he was at the gangway to see everyone off on their excursions and to welcome them back – he went from table to table in the library and patiently listened to every comment, he was endlessly enthusiastic about his new ship Spirit of Adventure and he even took part in a hilarious edition of ‘Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook’ with Kevin Woodford alongside Group Chief Executive Euan Sutherland. I don’t think Nigel was ‘off duty’ for a moment and I must admit I was hugely impressed!
What we didn’t like about Spirit of Discovery
To be fair there was little that we actively disliked but there were a few things that we were disappointed or confused by…
The bars – Saga is billed as being all inclusive and it was. However it felt a little limited or penny pinching compared to either other all inclusive lines such as Viking or even to having a drinks package on other cruise lines. There seemed to be few included cocktails or branded spirits and it was very difficult to find a real choice of wines. This was partly due to poor staff knowledge and partly to the lack of a printed drinks menu. In fact we only saw a wine list on our last evening! we found it irritating to have to keep asking what was available and to be honest it just felt a bit ‘mean’ – certainly not the boutique experience that other elements delivered. I really missed the QR coded menus or the onboard app that you find on other ships!
The lack of buffet – substituted with table service in the Grill – was understandable due to Covid restrictions but it led to a fairly limited choice during the day – actually resulting in far bigger portions than I would normally choose at lunchtime! The menu remained the same all week and it didn’t seem possible just to have a sandwich or a light lunch, although its possible that I may have missed something! I really didn’t understand why Saga had chosen to go for the full restaurant experience rather than a served buffet. The waiters seemed as confused as everyone else for a few days and the first couple of breakfasts were slow and a bit variable with various items incorrect or missing!
Onboard lectures – there was nothing wrong with them at such but I really didn’t understand what was going on! There were two interesting lecturers onboard and eventually I found their talks were being broadcast on the TV. I couldn’t work out how I’d missed their seeing the lectures live but was told that the lectures were being prerecorded! Maybe it was COVID related but it seemed very odd to have lecturers onboard but not let anyone see them in person!
Entertainment – to be honest, whilst we were impressed to see so much live music onboard, a lot of the shows were not really our cup of tea. We have probably been spoilt by the level of Production shows in the big theatres aboard lines like Princess and Celebrity. The smaller stage here meant an altogether smaller experience from a young and enthusiastic team of singers and dancers. The guest artists were fine but not outstanding in the main although we were really impressed with a show by Peter Howarth on our last evening.
Internet Access – was included which is good, but the service was limited so that no streaming was possible. I’ve never had a situation on a ship where you couldn’t upgrade to a better internet package and of course being on escorted excursions meant there was not even the option of finding Wifi ashore – it made posting to portExplore and Cruise Addicted very difficult. Apparently the service was even slower than normal because the Crew had. been given free access to keep in touch with their families at home – Covid means that they can’t to leave the ship at all during their tour of duty. All of this was fine but lack of access to sites such as Twitter was irritating, it would have made life very difficult on a longer cruise.
Would we cruise with Saga again?
Yes we definitely would consider it, ORCA and the crew really made it special for us and I’d like to see how everything functioned post COVID — however I was a bit miffed to find that you can’t even JOIN the Saga loyalty scheme until you have sailed for 35 nights and even more so when I realised that our first cruise wouldn’t count towards those 35 nights because we didn’t book direct! and again I felt like a second class citizen for supporting and booking with a Travel Agent and I really don’t understand why Saga insists on differentiating! So as I said at the beginning we loved Spirit of Discovery, we loved a lot of things about it and we would almost certainly choose to cruise with Saga again – but we would make sure that we booked direct!
It might interest you to know that Becky cruised with Saga pre-pandemic and took one of their included excursions. She absolutely loved it and it included some lovely views of Spirit of Discovery in Venice so we are posting it here and hope you enjoy it!
I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts on our first Saga Cruise and that it will be useful to you. Maybe pin this on Pinterest so that you can come back to it later!