This review has sections for each of CruiseCritic’s “ tips for writing a great review” except “hotel information” and “children's clubs” which do not apply.
CruiseCritic’s scoring, like most review questionnaires, rates a series of general aspects, like dining. Helpful though these scores are, they do not allow for specific aspects of the service, some of which may be poor and some excellent. Our ratings are repeated below and followed by an attempt to explain why the overall rating is not the whole story.
We are experienced travellers but have previously only cruised three times, twice with P&O and once with Thomson. We are English (as were nearly all our fellow passengers) and now comfortably meet Saga’s over 50 requirement. Our reasons for selecting Saga and the “Celtic Charms” cruise were for the lack of children, the included door to door travel, the included tips and the itinerary. We wanted to see Guernsey and Ireland and this cruise included St Peter Port and five ports in Ireland. It really did offer to go where other cruise lines don’t.
Saga Sapphire is a proper cruise ship as distinct from a giant floating tower-block. It seemed similar in size to P&O’s Artemis and Thomson’s Spirit but smaller than P&O’s Canberra. It lacks a wrap-round promenade. The prom on deck 9 is in two bits but you can walk right round on deck 12 at the top. It has ten passenger decks but two of these, decks 2 and 4 are only partly public, housing an indoor pool, beauty treatment and a lecture room. The Beach Club on deck 11 is worth a mention. It offers self-service ice-cream and sweets, fish & chips, a pool, and deck-chairs, all free but you need to go into the adjoining Drawing Room to find a bar.
The ship has a friendly, club atmosphere and as with all Saga, is child free and for the over 50’s (see Onboard Experience). The whole ship was always clean and tidy. Even the public loos looked and smelt like they had not been used. Table cloths were always spotless. We did not normally see any cleaning but when we did, they were taking extra trouble for example, on their knees, vacuuming the cracks in the grating where the lifts join the floor. There were hand cleaning machines and sprays everywhere and they were greatly used.
There was quite a lot of banging on the second night. Reception, next morning, offered no explanation and said that we should have reported it at the time. Other passengers more helpfully suggested that it was waves hitting the ship. There was some swaying from side to side the following day but things settled down after that. It’s difficult to compare different ships in different conditions but we’ve had worse in the north sea and in the bay of Biscay. It was our impression that this ship rode rough waters better than some.
Our Rating - Average
A review of the cabin is in CruiseCritic’s separate section.
Our Rating - Excellent - but
Saga Sapphire has two main restaurants but there is little difference between them. The bigger “Pole to Pole” on deck 7 is slightly more formal with a slightly more comprehensive waiter service. The alternative “Grill” on deck 9 has an out-side option, the “Verandah”, weather permitting.
There is also a speciality Asian restaurant, “East to West”, also on deck 9 which is free but we had to queue at specific times to get a booking. We only ate there once at a table for two in a spacious, peaceful room with an interesting menu and excellent service, let down a little by the request at the end to say how good it was on our end-of-cruise survey.
Dining times could be better. Breakfast often ended at 9:30. With two restaurant options, it should be possible to offer breakfast till at least 10am and preferably 11am. Dining times for lunch and dinner were similarly limited and changed from day to day but we did not find this a problem. There was no late night buffet and the unappetising late bites (hors d'oeuvres) offered in some of the bars were no substitute.
Dining arrangements were better than expected and better than other ships we have tried. Although we did not apply for an optional fixed table, we were often able to get a table for two on arrival at “Pole to Pole”. Otherwise, there were usually options to join tables for four, six or eight. At some of the tables, the seating was quite close but we have experienced worse. Only once, did we find ourselves dining in poor company and on that occasion we were soon joined by another couple who lightened the atmosphere.
The overall atmosphere in both main restaurants was generally hectic rather than relaxed. There were some quiet areas but mostly waiters and fellow passengers were coming and going around the tables all the time. It was never quiet and the temperature got quite high in some places. On our cruise, heat was not a problem. It did not get warm enough to use the “veranda”. The speciality “East to West” was more spacious and much more peaceful.
Restaurant service was consistently polite and attentive. We usually did not have to wait long, either to be seated or at any stage during meals. Aspects of the service were, however, confusing. We could order from a menu, but it was never clear what else was available from the buffet (both restaurants) or even where the buffets were. Waiters would explain, but some of them, presumably because of limited English, gave misleading or unhelpful responses. Sometimes the wrong meal was delivered and when offered coffee and requesting tea, we were likely to get another waiter offering coffee again before tea turned up.
Menu choices were good. For breakfast, we have not seen more options anywhere else. Lunch and dinner menus changed daily but it was not clear how many courses there were supposed to be. Soups and salads were all listed under starters and it was not clear which of the main meals needed additional potatoes or vegetables. The waiters would, however, without question, bring anything ordered including items not on the menu. For breakfast, toast, like tea, coffee and fruit juice, was waiter served with a choice of white or brown. It turned up somewhat randomly, before of after what you wanted it with and it was never hot.
None of the above points prevented us from getting what we wanted at meal times and all the food was really good. Free wine (reasonable quality red or white with lunch and dinner) and water were topped up regularly and there was tea or coffee with sweeties to finish. The food was, if anything, better than we have had from P&O and much better than Thomson.
Finally, further comments about other food and drink options are under “Service” below.
Embarkation - including travel to embarkation port
Travel Service - our rating would be Good - but it could be better.
Travel or parking are included in the cost of a Saga cruise. The people carrier arrived at our home a little early. There were already a couple in it, so we got the rear seats - spacious but not as comfortable as the middle seats or a car. The driver loaded and unloaded our four cases. The journey should only have taken two and a half hours but our fellow travellers wanted to stop once and then the driver wanted to stop again, only half an hour from the port. On arrival, there was a ten minute queue of vehicles waiting to be unloaded. At the head of this queue, on leaving the people carrier, neither the driver nor anyone else were able to advise us, so we followed our luggage. This turned our to be wrong and we were re-directed to another queue. After another few minutes, as we got closer to the head of the queue, it became apparent that it was only for optional photo’s. We then walked straight to a reception desk.
Embarkation - Our Rating - Excellent
Having got past the unnecessary delays, check-in and boarding were instant. We exchanged our passports for plastic cards, signed a health disclaimer and walked on to the ship. A girl immediately escorted us to our cabin. Here the welcome news-sheet explained what was on, how to register our ship’s cards to our bank card (or credit card for a 1.5% charge) and most importantly where to find the welcome buffet. This was extensive with more than we needed for lunch. There was ample seating, waiters regularly re-filled tea and coffee cups and a string quartet entertained us. On returning to our cabin, two of our cases had arrived and the other two followed within half an hour.
Because of bad weather, muster, shortly after returning to our cabin, occurred in the public rooms where we took rather than wore our life-jackets. This was a good deal more civilised than mustering on deck.
Activities (enrichment or otherwise)
Our Rating - Poor
There were some but that is not what were were looking for or expecting from this cruise. We did attend one of the lectures for a bit but it was so uninteresting, we can not even remember the subject.
Our Rating - Average - just
None of the entertainment was annoying and some of it did entertain. The “cruise director”, Jo Boase, did a good job of compering and informing us of what was on. The shows were not as good as on other cruise lines, not helped by the lack of a proper theatre. Irish dancing where the audience can not see the dancers feet is pointless although the music and energy were good enough and there were TV screens dotted around. The “Saga Orchestra” seemed to comprise five musicians - not really enough for a band let alone an orchestra. The sound was quite good but the single saxophone stood out with no other wind instruments. Similarly, the second main act, the “Ocean Duo” relied on one good female voice backed by recorded tracks and an unimpressive male singer-guitarist. This duo might be more entertaining if their repertoire was not so limited. We heard many numbers more than three times. The “cocktail pianist”, Stuart Anderson was entertaining. If anything, too entertaining for a cocktail pianist, especially as he played mostly in “Coopers” bar which is really too small for entertainment. Saga would have done better to deploy Stuart in place of the Ocean Duo and add a pianist to play the untouched grand pianos which were all over the ship.
In addition to these acts, there was a classical string quartet, “the Pier” who were good and “Mr Yalba” a speciality music act. His first show was good but not good enough for us to want to see the second.
Fitness & Recreation
Our Rating - Average
This may not be a fair rating as we did not look for or use any fitness facilities. There was some equipment and an indoor pool in the bowels of the ship on deck 3. There were also some recreational classes, notably exercising, crafts, dancing and bridge but we did not join in.
The promenade on deck 9 is in two bits so you can not promenade around the ship but you can walk right round on deck 12 at the top, where there is crazy-golf and other games.
Our Rating - Good - but
In at least two places there were lingering bad smells of drains and or fuel. Fortunately this did not affect our cabin or the public rooms.
Each morning, “Today” a four page what's-on plus a four page newspaper summarising UK and world events were delivered to our cabin. “Today” was a great help in planning each day.
We were treated to three “cocktail parties” where bubbly or soft drinks flowed and staff officers circulated. They were pleasant enough get-to-gethers but there were no actual cocktails.
We are in our seventies but our fellow travellers seemed old. Walking sticks and walking frames were everywhere. This did make progress slow on the gangways and shuttle buses but having said that, there was normally no problem getting around the ship. When the weather was bad, staff helpfully escorted the numerous, partially disabled around and this did slow things down. There were, however, none of the crushes to get to the best seats that we have experienced on other ships. Our cruise seemed more like a floating care home than a floating holiday camp. The passengers were universally polite, good humoured and not down market. We developed quite close relationships with several passengers and had interesting conversations with many more.
Our Rating - Average
Saga Sapphire has two large public rooms, the Britannia Lounge on deck 8 and the Drawing Room on deck 11 plus two smaller rooms, the Aviator Lounge on deck 7 and Coopers Bar on deck 8. There is also an under cover outside bar at the Verandah on deck 9.
The Britannia Lounge has assorted comfortable seating mostly with tables. There is no tiered seating, the stage is not very high and much of the entertainment uses the dance floor. So, it’s good for listening to shows but not so good for seeing them. Afternoon tea and the “cocktail parties” are held here when waiters serve the drinks. There is no bar.
The Drawing Room is very multi-purpose. Basically it is an observation lounge but it has a library; board games and jig-saws set at small tables; self-service cakes and hot drinks; a bar and a dance floor plus doors out to the forward deck and to the Beach Club. It hosts daytime and evening entertainment. The seating is all upholstered but mixed. There are some comfy armchairs, some less comfortable fitted sofas with too few cushions and other fixed sofas facing the wrong way, away from the windows, dance-floor and performance area - there is no stage. There are some tables but also some space wasting large upholstered boxes which are neither tables nor stools. This room is very different at different times. Mostly, it’s a peaceful observation lounge. Sometimes, when the self-service is available, it’s a busy tea-room. Sometimes it’s an entertainment venue, including classical concerts, quizzes and evening dancing or shows. It was popular and at times difficult to find a seat.
The Aviator Lounge is split into two parts with the reception and tour desks in-between. One part has a bar and waiters try to service both sides. The seating is mostly near to windows and comfortable with tables.
Coopers Bar is next to the Britannia Lounge. It is small but despite this, on our cruise, was a popular entertainment venue. Waiters imported extra seating and the room became very crowded when Stuart was performing. At other times, it was peaceful and the seating (apart from the bar stools) was comfortable.
It was good to find draft real ale, Shepherd Neam’s Spitfire, in all the bars.
Our Rating - Excellent - but
The staff were mostly Filipino and they were universally polite, helpful and friendly. Once or twice, it was not clear whether our request had been understood. For example, meal orders were not always repeated back to us but this is really a minor quibble. We would be pleased to get such good service in England.
We did not try the launderette, partly because the laundry service charges were reasonable. £1.50 for a shirt from memory. The results were more than acceptable but the ultra-fussy may want to do a bit of re-ironing.
Other aspects of service were not quite as good. Meal times were restricted, particularly breakfast, as mentioned above but on top of that, the availability of other options was unclear. The hot drink machines had restricted hours and the free room service was limited. We did not try ordering food from room service, just late night hot drinks. We could have tea, coffee and biscuits but not a cappuccino. It took two ‘phone calls to establish that cappuccino was only available “when the bar was open” and even then we would have had to pay although a cappuccino would only cost £0.95.
Our Rating - Average - and expensive
Because of bad weather, we first went to Cherbourg instead of Guernsey. We then went round Ireland the opposite way, calling at all five ports but in reverse order. Finally, we called at Portland (Weymouth) instead of Ilfracombe before returning to Dover. Captain Julian Burgess was very informative, especially about the changes, saying that we were on a magical mystery cruise.
We considered three options for the ports we were to visit, Saga’s optional excursions, booking advance tickets or making our own way (d.i.y.). We settled for two of Saga’s excursions and d.i.y. on the day for the rest. Just as well we did not book advance tickets as we did not visit two ports and the other five were all on different dates. We had been tempted by an on-line 15% discount for advance booking of the Dublin hop-on-hop-off bus but glad we did not.
On excursions generally, there were always queues to get on or off the ship, not helped by the slowness and disability of some of the passengers. Saga should and could do things to improve this.
1 - Cherbourg
This was in place of St Peter Port, Guernsey, where we planned d.i.y. visits to Castle Cornet, the Union Street pillar box, German Naval Signals HQ and possibly Guernsey Museum. We did not get off at Cherbourg.
2 - Cobh (Cove in English)
As a result of the re-scheduling, we arrived here a day early at 7:30pm. We took advantage of this and went ashore after dinner. A couple of hundred yards from the ship we found an Irish pub in the town square with three musicians, bagpipes, flute and squeeze-box, sitting round a table, playing jigs. With a pint of Beamish it was an enjoyable Irish experience. There was no singing but we left fairly early.
Next day Saga suggested getting the train to Cork but we stayed in Cobh visiting St Colman’s Cathedral, well worth the climb as others have remarked, and the Titanic Experience. Although tiny compared with the Belfast version this guided tour of the original White Star ticket office cost just €8 each (about £6.80) and was almost as interesting.
3 - Dublin
Here, because of the re-scheduling, we did not stay as long as planned, arriving at 11:15pm, a bit late to go ashore that night. Next day, we had nothing booked so took the free shuttle-bus into central Dublin. A lot of Dublin seems to be being dug up for a new tram system. We walked past the Molly Malone statue and the parliament building to the GPO where we bought tickets for the Witness History experience at €8 each. There was a film re-enactment of the revolution in a small cinema; small screens showing learned people explaining the revolution plus displays of a few artefacts. It was not anti-British and interesting to learn how loss of empire started almost accidentally. Compared with other capital cities, we were not impressed by what we saw of Dublin.
4 - Belfast
We had pre-booked Saga’s “Birthplace of the Titanic” tour for £59 each. It’s an impressive building and exhibition complete with a ride through a simulation of the construction, a film show and a multi-screen reproduction of the Titanic’s luxurious interior. Arguably as interesting were the original slip-way and sole remaining White Star Line ship outside. We did not see any artefacts although there was not enough time to see everything properly. The tour bus then took us past some of Belfast’s sights including the Falls and Shanklin roads - interesting. Overall the tour lasted four hours.
As there seemed to be no queue for tickets on the day for the Titanic Experience and it was only about two and a half miles from the ship, it probably would have been better and cheaper to take a taxi and spend more time there. The tickets do, however, cost £14.50 each, more than twice the price of the Cobh exhibition.
Perhaps because of the limited bus tour, Belfast was more impressive than Dublin.
5 - Killybegs
Saga’s tour to the Belleek Pottery was already fully booked when we booked the cruise. We registered our interest on boarding at Sapphire’s tour desk and subsequently got tickets at £49 each.
This tour was better value. It included an extensive trip through County Donegal and a stop at Donegal town as well as the pottery. We also passed some small cells “Killybegs” in Galic, claimed to have been occupied by monks who gave the place it’s name. It would have been difficult for us to independently get to and from the pottery, some thirty-six miles away.
Donegal is quite a pretty little town with some touristy shops and what they call a castle but not a lot else to see or do.
The Belleek Pottery guided tour was interesting and comprehensive with plenty of time after to browse the displays and shop or use the cafe.
After returning to the ship and a late lunch, we went ashore again, taking the shuttle bus less than a mile into Killybegs village. Here we looked at the completely and impressively refurbished church, St Mary’s and walked back via St Catherine’s Well, on a small hill overlooking the harbour. It was all interesting enough so we did not mind not finding the Maritime & Heritage Visitor Centre. Irish sign-posting seems to be comprehensive but not necessarily accurate.
6 - Glengarriff
We had nothing booked here. We went ashore mid-morning by tender and walked about half a mile into the village. There was not much to see. A few shops and a few pubs half of which were closed on a Tuesday lunch-time. We went in one to try the local Guinness. The pub had, if anything, less atmosphere than your average English local and to non-Guinness drinkers, it tasted the same as it does at home.
7 - Portland
This was in place of Ilfracombe and again we did not go on an excursion. We took the shuttle-bus into Weymouth, walked through this picturesque sea-side town and took the bus back to the ship.
Disembarkation (and Return Travel)
Our rating would be Good.
Disembarkation was if anything smoother than embarkation but took much longer. Our cases had to be packed and put outside the cabin before we went to bed. Breakfast was early as we had to be out of the cabin by 8am. We then had a long wait in the Drawing Room for our number to be called. At least the hot drink machines were working and there were Danish pastries. Our call came on time just after 11am.
Travel Service - our rating would be Good - but it could be better.
The travel service home was better than coming. On leaving the ship, we pointed to our cases and a porter trolleyed them first to our driver and second to his people carrier. As before, there was a (different) couple already in the middle seats. This time the journey was direct, first to their home in Colchester and then on to ours. A private limousine would make this service much better.
Value for Money
Our Rating - Poor - but
Saga cruises are expensive. Set against that are the free travel service; included tips; free wine with meals and bubbly at parties; free shuttle buses; free room service; free fruit in the cabin (though not daily) and free to book the speciality restaurant. Bar prices are also a little below the on-shore average. £3.20 for a pint of real ale, £1.50 for Pepsi. A 175cl glass of wine cost from £3.70 to at least £4.70. In addition the food was excellent. From memory, better than we had on P&O’s Artemis some years ago and significantly better than we got on Thomson’s Spirit, four years ago.
If you take off all the extras, it is likely that a Saga cruise would still be a little more expensive than others but there is probably not much in it. A more subtle benefit is that with so much thrown in, there less to worry or think about. On that basis Saga cruises probably are value for money.
Our Rating - Very Good
Saga’s package is impressive. In many ways the cruise was excellent. Our little niggles were not enough to spoil a great experience. The service and food stand out for commendation.
We had particularly wanted to see Guernsey but did not. We also wanted to see Ireland and did, though from what we saw, we are in no rush to return. It was good to see but now we’ve seen it.
The itinerary changes were a disappointment but Saga went to some trouble to re-arrange things to cope with the weather conditions. This too deserves commendation.
Of the niggles mentioned above, the early breakfast times and lack of a late buffet were the most annoying. Also, the travel service could be better and the entertainment should be better but what got nearest to spoiling our holiday was the number of passengers with significant disabilities. Their age was not a problem.
For complex personal reasons we booked this Celtic Charms cruise after booking Saga Sapphire’s “Continental Christmas Markets” which sails on 4 December 2017. Our experience of the Celtic Charms cruise has convinced us not to cancel the second cruise, even though we will be cruising twice in the same year. We hope that this shorter shopping cruise will attract a higher proportion of mobile passengers. Read Less