The high-tech Playhouse theatre seats 444 and offers everything from lectures to full production shows. It’s a lovely space, pillar-free, with a marble art deco surround framing the stage. This is the first time a Saga ship has had a proper theatre and the entertainment has been ramped up considerably, with sophisticated sound and light systems and a stage rigged for aerial circus-style performances. A new partnership with production company Live Business has brought high-quality song-and-dance shows to Saga. The themes are still essentially songs from the shows, but they’re energetic, slick and professional. There’s just one show a night, usually at around 9.30 p.m., which means you have to time if carefully if you like to eat late and see the entertainment, too.
Other entertainment was superb, with lyricist Richard Stilgoe performing with his son, Joe, a virtuoso jazz musician performing two nights, and a talk from DJ Tony Blackburn, followed by a sixties set in the Britannia Lounge. Lecturers included Professor Lord Robert Winston and former BBC 4 presenter and comedy writer Alfie Moore. Jools Holland will join four cruises a year and will play in the theatre (rather than the supper club he has endorsed) with his band.
Saga treats the theatre like a proper venue ashore, so there’s no walking in halfway through a show, and no waiters squeezing along the rows serving drinks in the dark. Some may see this as a negative, but it means the audience is more polite, arriving on time and staying until the end.
On port days, the vast majority of passengers go ashore and onboard activities are limited, mainly to exercise classes, quizzes and spa promotional talks. Sea days are packed with entertainment, from gentle fitness classes to dance lessons in the Britannia Lounge, hosted bridge in the Card Room, craft classes, quizzes, shuffleboard and table tennis contests. There’s a resident chaplain on the ship who hosts informal chats and religious services. Solo travellers are well cared for, with coffee morning get-togethers, hosted tables at dinner and an informal buddy system for people who want a companion to join them on shore excursions.
On the ship's ORCA-themed sailings, passengers will find the marine conservation charity with four wildlife guides available to point out whales and dolphins and log them as part of an ongoing survey. Several of these take place every year, offering passengers the chance to become citizen scientists.
Evenings on Spirit of Discovery follow a fairly predictable pattern: early ballroom dancing and cocktails in the Britannia Lounge, early dinner, a bit more dancing afterwards, or a show in the theatre, then bed. There’s no nightclub or casino. Most venues are deserted by midnight. This is not really a ship for night owls but then, you wouldn’t expect it to be.
While the Lido Deck is mercifully quiet during the day, sail-away parties are held on occasion, with great razzmatazz where it’s fitting -- The Mersey Beatles did a set when the ship sailed from Liverpool, for example.
The Living Room (Deck 5): The gorgeous Living Room on is a stroke of design genius; it’s the first public space you see on boarding the ship, at the bottom of a three-deck atrium, and a grand, sweeping staircase with a vast bronze as a backdrop, which creates a sense of drama. A central bar serves tea and coffee with pastries in the morning, at no charge, and alcoholic drinks at any time. This is a popular gathering place in the evenings, with live music, either from a piano player or a classical duo.
A word about the drinks menu, which is the same in all the bars. Drinks are cheap (£1.90 for a shot of gin, £1 for the tonic, or £3.40 for a pint of Whitstable Bay Pale Ale). But the list is limited and the waiters struggle to price cocktails that are beyond the formulaic offerings programmed into the small tablet devices on which they take orders. For example, there’s no pre-programmed martini, so you pay for a shot of gin and a shot of Martini Bianco, and even then, you don’t get the Gordons or Beefeater gins displayed behind the bar, but some cheap house brand that’s whipped out from under the bar. In 2020, Saga becomes all-inclusive, which is probably a good thing.
The South Cape Bar (Deck 6): While it’s pleasantly decorated, with brown leather seating and art deco-style chandeliers, the space seems strangely quiet and unused, facing away from the music that drifts up from the Living Room below. A few people gathered here before dinner but, with no entertainer and depressingly slow service -- which will probably have improved by now -- it lacked atmosphere, which is a shame, as it’s a genuinely elegant space.
The Club by Jools (Deck 6): The space has two parts; the bar and stage area and the steakhouse. You don’t have to eat in the steakhouse to use the bar, which is an intimate little space made all the more atmospheric by the classy jazz duo that plays before and after dinner. This is a great place for drinks before and after dinner, mainly because of the music.
The Britannia Lounge (Deck 12): The star of the ship’s public areas is the bright, airy Britannia Lounge, on Lido Deck. This space serves as a reading and dozing area, a dance floor, a bar, and a venue for quizzes, live music and other entertainment acts and cocktail parties.
Double height glass at the front provides stunning panoramic views and a real sense of drama, although you don’t have to watch the dancing; there are cosy niches along the sides, with soft furnishing in soothing shades of cream, burnt orange and teal and shelves of ornaments separating clusters of seating. Outside, forwards, there’s a terrace with some large sculptures.
Inside, contemporary lighting and a nod to the seventies with a disco glitter ball over the dance floor complete the picture. Needless to say, the dance floor is big enough for proper ballroom dancing, with a live band playing every night.
Activities in the Britannia Lounge tend to revolve around dancing, with cha cha cha and mambo classes hosted by the guest dance duo (former champions Ryno and Elena on our cruise) and early evening and late night dancing to a live band, with gentleman hosts keeping single ladies on their toes. Ryno and Elena put on a couple of sultry, sizzling performances, too, coming to life after what must be a tedious business, teaching basic cha cha steps to retirees.
There are classical recitals, too, and on one night, a Scottish cèilidh group had everybody up dancing.
There’s one main pool on Lido Deck that’s generously sized and overlooked by two hot tubs. There’s a small stage at one end of the pool for sail-away parties and, in warmer climates, outside musical entertainment, but by day, the pool area is quiet and restful. No penny-pinching here; fluffy, yellow-and-white striped towels are freely available, as is infused water. A row of old-fashioned sweet jars to one side of the pool area serves as a nod to the traditional beach hut on Saga Sapphire.
Ping pong tables, shuffleboard and deck quoits are all available on Deck 13, aka The Sun Deck. There’s a golf simulator here, The Fairway, into which you can program different courses from around the world.
You'll find occasional power walkers doing circuits on Deck 13, although the Promenade Deck is better for this, as it encircles the entire ship (3.9 laps is one mile).
There’s a basketball and short tennis court on the Observation Deck, but it’s reserved for the crew; frankly, it’s hard to imagine Saga passengers shooting hoops in any case.
Smokers are limited to one area on the port side of Deck 13; otherwise, the ship is smoke-free.
Sunbathing space is generous on the Lido Deck, around the pool, with plenty of loungers, rattan-effect sofas and chairs, with occasional shaded areas created under white sail-like structures.
There's a wraparound deck on Deck 13, overlooking the pool, with loungers. Higher still, the Observation Deck, one deck up, has more loungers and sofas.
Further outside seating, which most people don’t seem to discover, is The Terrace, aft on the Promenade Deck outside East to West and Coast to Coast. This is a quiet little nook with comfortable seating and a touch of greenery from a "living wall" -- although sadly, the plants are plastic. There’s outside seating on A, B, C, D and E decks above this, too – just a couple of chairs on the raked decks aft of the cabin areas, blissfully peaceful.
The Reception area is tucked away behind The Living Room on Main Deck, opposite the Explore Ashore desks. Explore Ashore is a new concept for Saga, a kind of concierge service that helps passengers arrange individual tours or reservations (although you would pay direct for anything they book). The staff are cheerful, helpful and well-informed and occasionally, representatives of local tourist boards sit at the desks, dispensing information. On the same deck is The Shop, a modest emporium selling tax free goods, a few clothing and logo items and everyday essentials.
One deck up, on Promenade Deck, is Saga World, the ship’s future cruise sales office, and a small office where the ship’s photographers are based. Photos are displayed electronically and the whole setup is very discreet; we barely saw the photographers during our cruise. All the way forward on this deck, before the entrance to the Playhouse theatre, are two slightly mysterious areas.
One, The Gallery, is a pleasant little exhibition space displaying paintings by some of the many artists who were commissioned to produce work for the ship. We tried to buy one, but nobody could help us. Perhaps this area will be further developed in future.
Next door, is the Chart Room, used for meetings, some of the beauty seminars and religious services (there is a chaplain on board), but it’s not signposted and is virtually impossible to find.
More encouraging is the beautiful library on Deck 7, or E deck, wrapping around an atrium open to The Living Room below. This really is a lovely space, with an extensive collection of books as well as games and puzzles. It’s done out in soothing shades of cream, yellow, blue and teal, with plantation shutters at the windows where the view is obscured by lifeboats.
There’s an espresso and cappuccino machine alongside some cookie jars and lots of comfortable seating, some in a sociable arrangement, some in quiet corners for curling up with a book. On the port side, there’s a well-used card room for informal play or hosted bridge sessions, and a craft room that seats around 40, where free classes include making necklaces, bunting and feathered hairpieces. The Library also has four computer terminals for anybody who hasn’t brought their own device -- and WiFi is free, if slow.
There’s also a Medical Centre on Deck 4.
The spa, located forward on Deck 5 (Main Deck), is impressive, done out in natural stone colours and textures and exuding an air of serenity, as a spa should. It’s operated by Time To Spa, a division of Steiner Leisure, but there’s none of the pushy after-care patter associated with Steiner on other ships. Prices are fairly standard for cruise ships, a 50-minute Aroma Stone massage starts at £79 and a BIOTEC facial is from £80. There’s a resident acupuncturist who offers 50 minute treatments for £99.
The adjacent Salon does hair and nail treatments at reasonable rates -- a polish change, for example, is only £9. Best of all is the thermal suite, which costs nothing to use. In addition to five treatment rooms and well-equipped locker rooms, there’s a big hydrotherapy pool, traditional and infrared saunas and a spacious steam room.
The gym, up on Deck 13, the Sun Deck, has a range of treadmills, exercise bikes and rowing machines, as well as free weights. Personal training can be booked at £47 per hour. Next door is a light-filled studio where free yoga, stretch and Pilates classes take place. There’s also an array of the usual seminars on offer peddling cures for bloating and hip pain.
Saga is strictly adults-only and there are no facilities for kids; children are not allowed on board.