This was my first cruise with Saga, a 2 week voyage around the Baltic.
I had read earlier postings about this ship, both positive and negative, but approached the journey with an open mind about what to expect. The review is from a fit-and-able 69 year old travelling with his wife, and with a first career as a merchant navy deck officer.
We did not use the door to door chauffeur service, but drove to Dover arriving a few minutes after the 1.00 pm earliest check-in time. After dropping off the luggage with a porter, and parking the car 50 metres from the check-in area, we took the escalator to the first floor of the terminal building, were photographed and issued with our cruise card, and waited about 10 minutes to be called forward for boarding. This process was leisurely, smooth and hassle free……..quite unlike our experience 3 weeks earlier with P&O at Southampton on a seventeen-night Med cruise, when the process was like a cattle market!
On boarding we were met and welcomed by one of the housekeeping staff who showed us to our cabin and settled us in. We had an outside cabin on Deck 5 – well equipped and spacious. There were no tea-making facilities (which we wouldn’t normally use anyway) but with room-service available there was no need for this, and of course it removes a health and safety hazard.
I was conscious of earlier reviews about smells and, yes, the atmosphere has a taint to it…….but the Sapphire does not qualify for the title of “Auld Reekie”! The ship is over 30 years old, a little bit worn, but is well-looked after (a bit like me I guess) but the deck and housekeeping staff work hard to keep the premises in very good condition. Some days you won’t notice the smell.
The public rooms are fine.
Deck 11 has the Drawing Room which is very popular as you can easily make yourself a cuppa and have a piece of cake or a biscuit throughout the day. Because it is popular you may not always be able to find a seat if you are in a group. Quizzes and entertainment take place there too, both on sea and port days.
Deck 8 has the Britannia Lounge, used for lectures, port talks, shows, and afternoon tea at 4.15. Unlike the monster cruise ships there is no space for a purpose-built theatre with all the bells and whistles that you’ll find on Cunard ships and the larger P&O vessels. The Britannia is multi-purpose so compromises have to be expected.
The entertainment on this voyage was fine. I saw the Rossina Quartet, the resident Duo, and the Stars on Strings (marionettes) show. All were very good. There were other shows (dance and vocalist team, a violinist, magician) and I heard positive feedback about them.
The theme for this cruise was Art and Antiques – my daughter suggested that I might be the antique – and on board were three of the experts from the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, with their wives. Passengers had been invited to bring along a family treasure for evaluation, and a couple of clinics were set up in the Drawing Room. These clinics were well-subscribed, with the more interesting of the items being used for a presentation by the team on the homeward leg of the voyage. It was a successful formula and it worked well. My only criticism was that the 3 couples stuck together like limpets when on board, eating together at all mealtimes rather than circulating and talking with passengers informally. Others in the entertainment team did that, and it was much appreciated.
The dining experience and environment was excellent. George Streeter, the Executive Chef, put on great menus with excellently prepared food. He was noticeable by his visibility around the restaurants, ensuring that all was well.
Towards the end of the cruise there were mixed comments that I heard about the itinerary, which had one variation to the advertised programme, due to a problem with an electrical generator that resulted in a delay in being given permission to enter the Kiel Canal on the outward journey. From my perspective, this was serendipity at work. Instead of a night-time transit we actually went through the canal during daylight hours, far, far more interesting, especially as the weather was hot and sunny. OK, it meant that the time in Stockholm was curtailed and we had just an afternoon in Stockholm. But that was just fine, too, because we did the Archipelago pilotage into Stockholm on a clear hot morning. Absolutely beautiful.
Because of the unforeseen changes to the itinerary, Saga made arrangements for passengers to have some free ‘benefits in kind’ as compensation for any disappointment caused. I thought the whole situation was handled very well indeed.
Excursion options were plentiful. We generally do excursions under our steam, but for St Petersburg this was not practicable – a Russian visa is required to tour independently. We did two half day trips at £49 per head and thought that we had good value for money. The tour guides on both trips were knowledgeable, solicitous, and were clearly understandable…..although a cruise companion had the opposite experience on the Hermitage evening tour. The tour escorts (members of the entertainments team) also did a good job in rounding up stragglers and ensuring that nobody got lost or left behind!
Finally, our experience with the staff in the restaurants, bars and housekeeping was very positive. The barkeeper at the Aviators Bar put it like this: “My job is to give you joy; if you have no enjoyment then you won’t come with us again and then I may have no job”. I don’t know how other crew members saw their roles, but I have to say that the Filipino staff were the embodiment of customer service……attentive, caring, friendly, cheerful….there was nothing that was too much trouble. Maybe it helped that I knew (and used) a few words and phrases of Tagalog, but I don’t feel that we were singled out for any extra attention.
I am now an Ambassador for Saga Cruises.