Our previous cruise was aboard the Astoria (Cruise Maritime Vessels), a good comparison being about the same size. The Astoria is a bit smaller in dimensions and weight, but has a larger draught. The Pearl II has a knot or ... Read More
Our previous cruise was aboard the Astoria (Cruise Maritime Vessels), a good comparison being about the same size. The Astoria is a bit smaller in dimensions and weight, but has a larger draught. The Pearl II has a knot or two extra in top speed, and carries 45 odd fewer passengers (512 vs 556). Both ships give the benefit of small ships to those that prefer this; no great hikes to get from one place to another, plenty of sitting places, no long queues, interesting layout that feels like a ship rather than a shopping centre. The Pearl has gangway entrances on two decks and when the gangway was used from deck A it never seemed as steep as Astoria. Perhaps the decor on the Pearl was marginally better (say 9/10 rather than 8.5/10), but this depends on personal preference so lets say they are equal.
We had an inside cabin on A deck, which was small but adequate. The shower is a bit tricky until you realise the doors open both ways; inwards and outwards. If you open them outwards, it is a tight squeeze to get between them. If you open them inwards, it isn't easy to close them behind you. The trick is to open one inwards and one outwards, then it is a piece of cake. Having now experienced Saga, we have booked on Saga Sapphire for next year, "Stylish Scandinavia", visiting Denmark, Sweden and Norway. We were told our cabin 6576 on deck 6 will be nearly twice as big as our current one on Saga Pearl II. Our current cabin (311) is not in the best location as it is under the Discovery lounge with lots of bumping when they rearrange the seating for afternoon tea, and thumping from the bass when they have music during showtime.
We always bring a small torch (as insurance against emergencies), but we found one (with a luminous casing to find it in the dark) provided in the cabin. This is a useful safety feature which should be provided on all ships (Safety at Sea need to get up to date). Saga also provided a pair of binoculars and two bathrobes, chocolates on the pillows with the turn down service, petit fours after every evening meal (not just formal nights), free wine at lunch and dinner. The TV includes a DVD player with DVDs on loan (from the Internet help desk). Saga seem to include little extras with basic cabins that only come with higher grades on other lines. They also provide free Wifi from the public areas. It is not officially available in the cabins, but we found it did work at quiet times. This might depend on your cabin location.
Layout of the ship
The library was good, a decent size with plenty of books and seating, but like many ships it suffered from poor placement, being between the main dining room and the show lounge and thus was a main thoroughfare. Many people, particular those with loud penetrating voices liked to stop on the way through if they meet someone and have long conversations, often accompanied by raucous laughter, while others were trying to read or concentrate on emails. I have found this to be a problem on all ships unless the library is properly located. Another problem on the Pearl, which I have met before is the siting of a bar with live music in the middle of the library, with the doors propped open. When not used for music they have functions like exercise classes and quizes in there. The Saga ships up until now have been bought second hand and so ship design, although it can be tinkered with on a refit, is pretty much baked in. Placement of the library looks better on the deck plans for the new Sprits. I understand that people are on holiday and want to enjoy themselves and conversation with others and shared laughter is an important part of this, but there does need to be a quiet place on every ship where people can go to relax, read a book or sleep. If the library can't provide this function then another place needs to be found for it.
It is worth studying the ships deck plan that you get given on boarding as some places are not easy to find. The Sundowner Bar is such a case, and as many people never find it, it can be a nice quiet relaxing place. We went there for a pre dinner cocktail once to be told there would be a private function starting in quarter of an hour, for the first time travellers. Since we were first time travellers we qualified anyway.
Travel service, embarkation/disembarkation, muster drill.
Saga provide a choice of chauffeur travel or free parking. We chose chauffeur, but were given a limit of one case and one carry on per person. We have since found this is only a default limit, it can be exceeded if you arrange this when you book, and they will allocate a people carrier rather than a car. A benefit of this service, (like ship excursions) is that if anything goes wrong, Saga will sort it out. If you travel under your own steam and have a breakdown, it is up to you to catch the boat up if it leaves without you. It could be a benefit to use your own car and park if you bring your own wine (allowed on Saga - although free wine is provided with meals).
We found embarkation a doddle, we arrived at the scheduled time and went straight through the check in process and boarded straight away, no different to other lines, except there was no waiting. They retained passports at check in, a process we do not like. We got our passports back after Norway, but with the usual paper labels stuck on; at least these were done neatly and were easy peel.
Disembarkation was an improvement over CMV, much the same except that you were given numbers rather than colours and had to vacate cabins by 9:00 rather than 7:00. The disembarkation ran to schedule except for a ten minute delay between 1 and 2, which was never caught up, but no more was lost. We were scheduled for 10:00, called at 10:10 and drove out of the terminal at 10:25. As you come out, you queue up to get a porter, he loads your cases on to a trolley and a man at the gate reads out your name for your driver to step forward from the waiting queue. and he shows us all to the waiting car. It worked very well. The Mercedes people carrier was very comfortable.
Muster drill was well organised like Princess lines. A seated affair in the muster station with instruction by tannoy and demonstration by the staff. No traipsing out on deck for a roll call by name; you give your cabin number on arrival and get checked off. One thing that was unique in my experience, was that as soon as the captain started to speak, every one fell silent and paid attention. It makes a change from the normal case of people talking over important announcements. Once muster drill was over we were ready to leave, but Sapphire, at terminal one went first, and we followed after, using the same tug to spin us round.
The staff and service
I find that staff are generally friendly on all cruise lines, sometimes you get a brusque receptionist (bad choice by management), but no complaints on this occasion. Other passengers have reported being greeted by name, from cruises 3 to 20 years ago. The waiters are attentive and keep you topped up. Dining is open seating but you can request fixed seating if you prefer that. Most passengers seem to prefer open seating, and if you need a quick meal the waiters, on request, will not leave you waiting while others have every course going. We did find that the normal start time of 7:00 p.m. was rather late for us.
Our cabin stewardess, Juliette, was very efficient, with our cabin always ready for us after breakfast and evening meal. One suitcase, which opens flat went under the bed, but the other was too fat to go underneath the other bed, so we left it in our cabin while we went for our evening meal, meaning to ask when we came back if there was somewhere it could be stored. When we returned it had already been taken care of. It reappeared, as if by magic, on the evening before packing without us having to ask.
I have seen complaints on Cruise Critics that the passengers on Saga are geriatric. I found them no worse than other lines who have their mix of walkers, sticks and zimmer frames. In fact I have seen no wheelchairs on this cruise, but they have been common place on other ships. I do find that there are more open minded passengers on Saga, interesting to talk to and enjoy their cruising, though there are always some bigoted, insular people complaining about foreigners. I can never understand people going on a cruise and then expecting everything to be the same as at home. If you don't like foreign food and new experiences, then take a holiday in your own country.
Like most ships there are two restaurants, the main dining room which is waiter service, and the buffet higher up which is self service. There are no speciality restaurants. The food is of a high standard and served hot, with the exception of the salads and chilled soups of course. Saga are still serving chilled soups (unlike HAL who have recently abandoned them), with a different chilled soup on each day's menu. To be honest they are often more like smoothies than soups, but they come with the soup course and can serve as a refresher, like a sorbet, between courses. Formal nights include a sorbet between the soup and main course.
One of the ways I judge a ship's catering ability is by the Fish and Chips they produce. I have had them with slimy fish and soggy batter, or rock hard batter that is difficult to cut (would be good for resoling shoes). The Pearl Chefs passed my test, crispy, crunchy batter, but easy to eat, good quality haddock, mushy peas made with petits pois rather than the traditional marrowfat peas, so they actually tasted like fresh peas. Equal to the best that England can produce. The chips were not quite up to the Belgian thrice fried standard, but were good, and hot. Later on another test was passed, poached pear which was just right. I have had this in France which was so hard it was difficult to cut with a knife. Start with a juicy pear and it ends up as mush. The Tarte Tatin was not so good, and not tradionally made.
They have a huge range of cheeses, a different selection every night of around eight to ten cheeses, many of which I had never heard of, and we do have a good cheese shop in Colchester. Not just the Brie, Cheddar and Edam that you can get offered each night on other lines. A welcome change was the absence of Baked Alaska on the last night. We had the chef and waiter parade but that is an opportunity for us to show their work is appreciated.
The itinerary and cruise
Our first stop was Arendal in Norway followed by Sasnitz in Germany but the rest were in Sweeden. Marriehamn is actually Finland but the island of Åland is culturaly Swedish. Some of the excursions were better than others; we particularly enjoyed the Tall Ships Experiwence on Mercedes at Sasnitz, and the visit to the Elk farm at Umeå. We also found Marriehamn a charming place and enjoyed that execursion. If you want more detail of the excursions, with Google maps of the tracks and pictures you can refer to my cruise blog at http://sturnidae.com/cruises/201806%20Bothnia/index.htm.
The last part of the cruise was a daylight transitof the Kiel Canal. This is a wonderful experience in fine weather. Unfortunately not the best for us this time, they put on a German lunch with Sausages, Sauerkraut and Beer which made an enjoyable occasion using the outside decks at the aft of the boat and bridge decks; and the rain held off until lunch was over.
There were three formal nights, being a 2 week cruise. Saga seem to be still hanging on to the old outdated traditions and expect formal wear in the bars and buffet. They have relaxed a bit as they used to have three dress codes, but now only have two. My view is that if you want to get dressed up, do so, but don't expect everyone else to do so as well. If you want to be surrounded by pretentious people then travel on Cunard. Smart should be good enough for anyone nowadays, you don't get togged up in dress suits to go out to a local restaurant in the evening. Not everywhere has to be like Glynebourne.
Before travelling on Saga I asked for opinions on Cruise Critics and was told they may look up market but are not really any better than the basic lines. From my experience of one cruise with them I disagree. I have not travelled with Azamara or Oceania so may be they are better, but they are expensive. Saga look expensive at first sight, but you get a lot of extras included which you have to pay for in your onboard account on other lines. We will be travelling with them again and have two more cruises booked now. Read Less