I’m peering over the flat, calm sea looking for signs of life with volunteers from Orca, the whale and dolphin charity, on day one of a celebratory voyage around the UK on Spirit of Discovery, the ship just launched by over 50’s favourite, Saga Cruises.
“We’ve seen porpoises and Minke wales,” one of the spotters tells me. As I scan the water with the binoculars Saga has thoughtfully provided in each of the cabins and suites, a cry goes up. “Seal to the port side.” Turns out not only is the sea around the UK teeming with cetaceans but Spirit of Discovery’s small size (she holds just 999 passengers) is perfect for spotting them.
She’s the first new ship Saga has ever built and a real beauty, with stylish décor and furnishings that would not look out of place in one of London’s top hotels. And just like Saga, she is British through and through. All the art on board is the work of artists living in the UK and she was welcomed into service with a right royal garden party in the port of Dover (the company even brought grass down from Yorkshire for the occasion!).
“I name this ship Spirit of Discovery,” intoned her Godmother, the HRH Duchess of Cornwall, as a jeroboam of English sparkling wine smashed against the hull and we were showered with confetti. You could almost cut the excitement with a knife.
A few days later, fireworks lit up the night sky as we set sail from Dover on a maiden cruise that would take Spirit of Discovery to England, Scotland, Ireland and Guernsey before returning to White Cliffs country.
That gave me plenty of time to get to know the ship, which is blessed with a huge library, a large spa with therapists trained in everything from massages and facials to acupuncture and a gym and exercise studio, where you can work off all the calories you will put on trying out her five restaurants.
I say that with confidence, having sampled them all. As well as the main restaurant and self-service grill, there are Asian specialities in East to West, seafood in Coast to Coast and hearty steaks in The Club by Jools Holland. Of course I had to try the Hootenanny star’s signature New York striploin steak - and then I had to go back and have it another night as well!
Jools will be playing in the theatre on selected Discovery cruises this year and next; when he’s not around, there are sparkling song and dance shows and guest entertainers to get the evenings rocking.
The restaurants are all complimentary, as is wine or beer with lunch and dinner, tips and Wi-Fi, and Saga even provides free VIP home transfers in the UK (there is a mileage limit) so getting to and from the departure port is easy.
The spacious cabins all have a balcony and are equipped with kettles so you can have an early-morning cuppa. There are plenty of single rooms, also all with a balcony, and all priced so solo travellers don’t find themselves paying for two people. Treat yourself to a suite and you get a butler, a walk-in wardrobe and afternoon tea and pre-dinner canapés served in your room.
The round-Britain cruise was a great way to explore the UK. From Newcastle, I joined a tour to Durham, a delightful city with a huge cathedral built in the 10th century and the third-largest university in England. From Kirkwall in the Orkneys, I went bird-spotting with guide Brian (“the island is a transatlantic transport café for birders,” he told me, pointing out flocks of greylag geese, fulmars, guillemots and oyster catchers).
I walked the Royal Mile between the castle and Holyrood in Edinburgh, enjoyed a day of sunshine and scenery as we cruised through the Hebrides and relived the excitement and tragedy of the Titanic’s maiden cruise at the Titanic Belfast exhibition. There were trips to Llangollen Steam Railway from Liverpool and to Blarney Castle from Cobh, while garden tours and a boat ride to Sark awaited in St. Peter Port in Guernsey.
Saga has another round-Britain cruise scheduled for September 2020, but this time on Spirit of Adventure, a sister ship to Discovery launching next August. I’ve seen some of the early drawings and while she’ll be the same on the outside, the interior design is quite different. In place of the seafood and Asian restaurants, she’ll have Italian and Nepalese eateries.
Spirit of Adventure is heading to the Baltic for her maiden cruise in August and going in search of port and wine on a September cruise to France and Spain that visits the Portuguese port of Leixões and spends two days in Bordeaux.
A seven night Scenes of Dunkirk voyage on Spirit of Discovery marks the 80th Anniversary of Operation Dynamo in May 1940, when hundreds of thousands of British troops were evacuated from the Dunkirk beaches to escape advancing German troops. Come October 2020, she’ll be glamming it up with a just-for-fun pop-up casino on board as she heads to chic Monaco and St. Tropez.
Talk about spoilt for choice!