It didn't start off well, we flew into Gatwick from a middle of the night start at Newcastle - only milkmen and bakers call 4AM morning. Flybe arrived at Gatwick early but our driver, SAGA was providing a car to Dover, was nowhere to be seen. He said he was there but he was not! We eventually traipsed off to the SAGA meeting point in the North Terminal but again no one there. Phoned the Duty Officer at SAGA and eventually our driver phoned and informed me that he had been waiting for us at the arrivals gate at the South Terminal and would we please return there!! Oh dear how did I miss someone holding up a big board with my name on it and how did he miss our obvious SAGA luggage labels !!!! One of us needs to go to Specsavers and I was there last month! Our driver came over to the North terminal to collect us but we had to traipse back to the South terminal with all our luggage as he had left the car parked over there. Eventually arrived in Dover just after midday - could have flown to Florida quicker. Not a good start and frankly I don't need that kind of hassle on holiday.
Boarding was quick and courteous and our cabin was roomy and comfortable with plain decor, nice roomy bathroom with a shower. Noticed a nasty smell of raw sewage in the corridor as we boarded and this seemed to pervade different parts of the ship at different times although it became less obtrusive as the cruise progressed. Lets get the bad bits over with first then we can concentrate on the good things.
The cabin air conditioning did not cool and the first couple of days were fairly warm. Reported the problem twice to reception but no action was apparent so eventually escalated to the Hotel Director on board who promised a solution. The room thermostat was changed but by then the weather had cooled down so the matter became less urgent and anyway my wife was in no mood for a cabin change. Never received any promised feedback from the Hotel Director on any other issues I had raised at our meeting including noise from slamming doors (until 2 AM) in the crew quarters on deck 4, we were above on deck 5 so not exactly very restful.
There seemed to be quite a few issues with heating and cooling in the cabins all over the ship and some cabins were provided with fan heaters because they were too cold. It was kind of obvious that things needed to be bedded down on this ship, in places it looked as if the makeover had been hasty with evidence of poor finishing and inadequate attention to detail and testing. Door closers needed to be adjusted as doors up on deck constantly slammed, the on board clocks did'nt work and WI-FI coverage was patchy and slow and very costly.
The good things were very good. What a great crew from the captain downwards, always smiling and helpful. The food was first class and probably some of the best we have had on a cruise ship so you won't starve. Free room service is a bonus and service was fast with a huge menu choice or anything you fancied. For a gourmet treat the East to West restaurant is a must at least once on the cruise. On board entertainment was really good and intimate with a decent resident band and an on-board troupe of energetic and talented young dancers and vocalists. Guest artistes were aboard at different times and generally we enjoyed the entertainment. The theme of this particular cruise was "Dancing with the Stars" but our "stars" (from Strictly Come dancing) failed to make it to the ship until about day ten and despite their credentials we though their display dancing was a bit lacklustre and unglamourous compared to their TV performances.
We failed to make a stop a Helsinki, port engine failure at Stockholm delayed our departure and therefore our whole schedule. So Helsinki was missed to get us to St. Petersburg on time. As someone commented on buying a second hand ship "would you buy a second hand French Car then take it to Italy to be serviced"?
What makes this ship is the people, crew and passengers. Everyone talks to one and other and the atmosphere on board, apart from the smells, is great. A few things need to be sorted out but in the end I think Sapphire will be a great ship for SAGA. But please SAGA don't try and cram 700 passengers on her, it was about right with the 400 odd when we were aboard so maybe about 550 is right but any more and it would feel distinctly crowded. I cannot imagine the Britannia Lounge with 600 odd people trying to get a seat to see a star entertainer!!
Disembarkation was good, well organised and I'm glad to say our car and driver were waiting to take us to Gatwick. We're back on Sapphire next February for a Northern Lights cruise so let's hope the problems have been resolved by then, or should I maybe check out other cruises just in case!