By John Honeywell, Cruise Critic Contributor
Saga Cruises launched its new flagship, Saga Sapphire, in March 2012. It's the largest ship operated by corporate giant Saga Group, which provides financial services and runs a travel company for those older than 50.
There's a good reason why Saga's passengers -- many of them frequent repeaters -- are often referred to as Saganauts; they are more intrepid and adventurous than might be imagined, and they are more likely to want to venture off the beaten track than make a return visit to Barcelona or Tenerife.
They also expect a high level of service and comfort, and while they may be careful not to squander their pensions on gambling -- there are no casinos on Saga's ships -- they demand fine food, well-prepared and presented, from varied menus. Some mainstream cruise lines might be able to get away with weekly or fortnightly menu cycles, but that would not be welcomed by these customers, who might well be staying onboard for two or three cruises back-to-back.
The kid-free, 50-and-older line took possession of Croisieres de France's Bleu de France in November 2011 and immediately began a multimillion-pound overhaul of the 33,819-ton, 706-passenger ship. (The ship has changed hands quite a few times since it debuted as Hapag-Lloyd's Europa in 1981.) Working with RPW Design, Saga has successfully created an extremely stylish, contemporary and eclectic ship with some lovely British touches.
As part of the refurb, the ship gained a stunning 7 metre (23 feet) installation of 1,395 stainless steel fishes, which form the centrepiece of a triple-height atrium-lobby. It really sets the tone of the decor throughout: stylish and contemporary, which is a first for Saga.
Sapphire also gained 46 balconies, which were added to cabins on Deck 8. (This brings the number of balcony cabins to 65.) Each accommodation features an en suite bathroom with a bath-shower combo, a separate bath and shower or a shower only. Amenities include flat-screen TV, DVD player, direct-dial telephone, personal safe, mini-fridge, hair dryer and air-conditioning. Some twin beds can be converted into a king-size bed upon request. There are six wheelchair-accessible cabins.
Redesigned public spaces include The Drawing Room, with panoramic views through expansive observation windows. All the decor is bespoke, and it's quirky, stylish and playful, with all of the many standing lamps fashioned out of something unusual (fishing rods, mandolin, camera). There, passengers can use the Internet-connected computers and iPads. Both the use of iPads and onboard Wi-Fi connectivity are a first for Saga. (As yet, there are no plans to add Wi-Fi to Quest for Adventure -- the renamed Saga Pearl II -- or Saga Ruby.) Passengers can also help themselves to snacks from the larder or enjoy drinks from the bar in The Drawing Room. The Library, which includes an extensive DVD library, adjoins there.
Back outside, The Beach Club, a new casual spot meant to evoke a British seaside resort, offers up fish and chips, ice cream and classic British sweets, among other low-key eats, as well as a bar service. Adjoining it is a small indoor room, The Clubhouse, which has games like table tennis, table football and a huge Connect 4. Above the Beach Club is Sapphire's "View from the Top" outdoor cinema, the first of its kind for the line. Additionally, two new hot tubs have been installed by the pool. St Andrews, a mini-golf course, is at the front of the ship on Deck 12.
Among the various bars and meeting spots onboard is Cooper's, a bar that features classic, live British comedy acts. The Britannia Lounge is the ship's main entertainment venue, offering an array of musicians and cabaret acts in the evening, and hosting afternoon tea, lectures, dancing lessons and more throughout the day. Opposite is the Card Room, which is decorated in gold leaf, and is open to Saga's many card-game enthusiasts.
The ship's main restaurant, Pole to Pole, is designed to reflect the seven continents and offers both open and fixed seating for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The evening meal is served at a single sitting, allowing passengers to dine anytime between 7 and 9 p.m. Adjoining there is the Aviators Lounge, with faux retro fittings and decor, designed to invoke an Indiana Jones-style era of flying.
For informal dining, The Grill and Verandah offer a lighter option. Diners can watch meat and fish being cooked to order in the show kitchen. In fair weather, the Verandah provides alfresco dining and offers barbecues.
Those in search of a bolder culinary experience can dine at East to West, Saga Sapphire's 64-seat specialty restaurant, serving Sri Lankan and Thai cuisine. Decor of traditional carvings and hanging lanterns aim to set an appropriately exotic mood.
All dining venues on Saga Sapphire are included in the fare.
The ship also has a Spa on Deck 4, featuring an indoor pool, sauna, Jacuzzi, small fitness room and four treatment rooms.
Saga Sapphire Fellow Passengers
Saga specialises in providing holidays for those older than 50 and sells direct to the public, rather than through travel agents. Travelling companions of 40 and older are allowed onboard, which is beneficial to couples who want to bring their grownup family and in-laws with them, or those who may need assistance with personal care. The makeover of Saga Sapphire has been carried out with a conscious desire to attract passengers at the lower end of the age range. The clientele are elderly (but decidedly not geriatric) and almost exclusively British, with an occasional sprinkling of passengers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and an even rarer appearance by Japanese visitors.
A popular feature of the Saga service is the provision of a free door-to-door chauffeur service for passengers living within 75 miles of the departure port, or a shared chauffeur for distances of up to 250 miles. Alternatively, transport by rail, coach or domestic flight can be included in the fare; passengers who choose to drive are offered free parking.
Saga Sapphire Dress Code
The concept of "resort casual" is not one with which Saga passengers are familiar or comfortable. This is not a ship for the dedicated follower of 21st -century fashion. "Country club casual" would be interpreted as the sort of attire worn to the golf club or a country pub.
Many men wear jackets and ties, even on casual evenings, and suits on informal nights. Blazers and cravats are also frequently in evidence, particularly among members of the Britannia Club for frequent cruisers. Women wear blouse-and-skirt combinations and an assortment of dresses, from the light and airy to elegant cocktail outfits.
There are two formal nights on seven-night cruises and three on voyages of two weeks, at which dinner jackets and bow ties are de rigeur for the men, and elaborate ball gowns are common for the ladies. During the day, men go with casual trousers and shorts, topped by Tattersall check shirts. Women seem to prefer blouses and jumpers. Socks worn under sandals are an all-too-common sight, as well as sturdy walking shoes and comfortable, inconspicuously-coloured trainers.
Saga Sapphire Gratuity
Tips for waiters and cabin stewards are included in the fares. There are no automatically-added gratuities on bar bills or for treatments in the spa or beauty salon. The onboard currency is the pound sterling.
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