Review: The Spirit of Discovery, Saga’s new luxury boutique cruise ship
Words by Irene Caswell
Having never been on a cruise, when I received an invitation to the naming day of Saga Cruises’ new boutique luxury ship The Spirit of Discovery, I was intrigued. According to the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) UK and Irish passenger figures reached over 2m in 2018 and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Dockside garden party
HRH The Duchess of Cornwall named the ship at an elegant garden party staged dockside at Dover. A vintage sparkling wine by English vineyard Hush Heath was dashed against the ship’s side (carried out automatically at a press of a button) while a rainbow of paper confetti showered down. Captain Julian Burgess made a short speech and The Right Reverend Trevor Willmott christened the ship.
The Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Collingwood and The Morriston Orpheus Choir performed for guests. In the audience I spotted Jules Holland and Wayne Sleep and, earlier on board, Esther Rantzen, journalist, television presenter and founder of The Silver Line, a charity supported by Saga. For all its British-ness the festive atmosphere was straight out of a Hollywood movie, with all the drama and emotion.
Sailing the high seas
The new ship – taking five years from conception to launch – has been built by family-owned Meyer Werft shipyard in Germany. The emphasis is on a ‘uniquely British style’ with a mid-20th century interior design. The ship is reassuringly composed of 54 enormous, prefabricated steel blocks, some up to four decks high and the largest weighing 485 tonnes.
The Spirit of Discovery claims ‘the intimacy of a small boutique hotel’ and there are many high-end features. There are some differences to take into consideration, namely that ship’s fittings need to accommodate the wear and tear inherent in this type of travel, with materials compliant with weight restrictions.
Nevertheless, marble as well as leather, stone and glass are all featured, with copper and timber effects. The carpets in the corridors offer a ‘nod to British weaving’ with tartans and tweeds, although it is not clear whether these are produced in Britain.
The interior design of the ‘Spirit’ is by SMC Design London, a maritime interior design consultancy and they have got it spot on. The team have created an interior both stylish and comfortable, crucial I would imagine considering the time spent on board.
The otherwise fairly neutral colour palette is warm and pleasing to the eye. The replica finishes make for a coherent ethos, such as the beautiful and intricate illustrations by artist Julia McKenzie throughout.
The layout is easy to navigate and even on a short stay the environment began to feel pleasantly familiar. Of course, that feeling might transmute into something more akin to claustrophobia after a couple of weeks on board. For now, though, it was beginning to feel like home.
The Main Deck
The central feature is the atrium which spans three decks and features an impressive copper 26-foot centrepiece made by Shropshire artist, Emma Pearson. The 35 art panels took two years to create and assemble. The Reception is located here, together with a comfortable Living Room area with a coffee shop and bar.
The Grand Dining Room is where a Black Tie dinner provided the opportunity to experience the sort of glamorous cruise lifestyle that attracts many passengers. From the menu I chose Ménage of Scottish Lobster and Seruga Pearls, Steamed Dover Sole, Rye Bay Scallops, Crisp Whitstable Oysters and, for dessert, Chocolate and Hazlenut Parfait. The room is two decks high and affords sweeping views out to sea and the effect is rather sumptuous.
A large section of the Main Deck is taken up by The Spa featuring treatment rooms, sauna, steam room and hairdressing. The comprehensive treatment list features Elemis products, and includes Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine.
I spent a relaxing half hour in the deliciously frothy hydrotherapy pool. There were plenty of guest towels to hand and staff kindly provided a plastic bag, in the absence of a spin-dryer for a wet swimming costume.
Accommodation on board is for ‘just’ 999 guests and I imagine The Spa gets very busy when the ship is at full capacity. Bookings are only available on check-in so my tip would be to make that a first port of call (pun intended).
The main feature here is the purpose-built Promenade Theatre, Saga’s first with room for 444 people and uninterrupted views of the stage. Inspired by the theatres of London the decoration is Art Deco influenced. On the night I stayed entertainment was provided by Jules Holland and friends. I am happy to report that Holland was on top form and the acoustics were excellent.
The two speciality restaurants on this deck are East to East and Coast to Coast. The former offers Asian gourmet dishes and has an Oriental theme. The latter’s menu includes seafood dishes and the decoration was inspired by traditional champagne and seafood bars. Finally, this deck is home to The South Cape Bar where the environment felt like a Victorian gentleman’s club with brown leather chairs and wood panelling.
The Terrace, overlooking the ship’s wake, is part of the ship’s wrap-around promenade deck. Decorated with greenery it provides a more secluded space to relax with a drink, and enjoy some fresh air. By the way, if you want to jog or talk a brisk stroll it takes 3.9 laps of The Promenade to equal one mile.
The outdoor pool offers the opportunity to laze in a lounger while enjoying the sea views. The hot tub will be popular when the ship is full. There were plenty of brightly coloured ‘beach type’ towels for guests’ use. Other activities in this area include table tennis.
The restaurant on this deck is The Grill, a steakhouse offering additional al fresco dining on The Verandah. The Club by Jools Holland, composer, pianist, bandleader and broadcaster, aims for a 1950s style cabaret lounge and features more wood panelling, velvet and a grand piano next to the stage. The programme for live music will see Holland perform some live gigs on board so check the website for dates.
Forward is double-height The Britannia Lounge and bar where we enjoyed pre-dinner cocktails, sipped outdoors on the adjoining balcony on a warm summer’s evening. The lounge becomes a show area after dark with music and dancing on the dedicated dance floor.
The programme at The Fitness Centre and the gym, with panoramic views, offers yoga and Pilates. The Fairway provides a high-tech golf simulator for guests to practise their swing.
There simply wasn’t time during the programme on my brief visit to explore the whole ship but this is the spot for fabulous views especially when a ship approaches an exotic location. There is also a Sports Court on this top deck.
As an avid reader, I enjoyed browsing the well-stocked library. There are cosy seating areas with good lighting where I could imagine curling up with a good Lynda La Plante and a coffee or a glass of wine.
The Spirit of Discovery boasts a balcony for every guest including solo cabins, sadly a selling point rather than the norm. I stayed solo in a standard twin cabin although the beds were joined and made a lovely king size bed with plenty of space to spread out my iPad, books and so on.
I had difficulty contacting my steward when it turned out the hairdryer was so low in voltage that I went to dinner with wet hair. In addition, the absence of a luggage rack made unpacking inconvenient. To be fair this was a preview visit and Saga welcomes comment.
So in the spirit of constructive feedback I mention the appearance of tinned fruit salad on the breakfast buffet. Authentically British (circa 1950s) certainly but that is where the attraction ends. There was some additional fresh fruit although, surprisingly, no seasonal summer berries.
All cabins are en-suite and while my bathroom was the perfect size for one it might be a little tight for two. The guest toiletries were catering sized and required a dispenser top. In the meantime, it was tedious to heft a mega-size bottle every time I washed my hands.
The rooms are attractively furnished with lots of textural features, two chairs and a table. The plasma screen TV had not been programmed in my cabin and there was no time to sort it out.
The Saga art commissions deserve a special mention. These are all by artists working in Britain, including the aforementioned McKenzie’s stunning works, seascapes by Colin Moore, beautiful glassware by Sally and Richard Fawkes and more. I met the Fawkes at the naming day and they were very excited at the exposure for their work and quite rightly. The experience is rather like access to a private exhibition and a treasure hunt rolled into one, and it is fun seeking out pieces
There is free Wi-Fi on board and a smoking area. Everywhere else is designated no smoking, including e-cigarettes.
Would I book a cruise?
So what were my impressions and would I consider a cruise as a holiday option? There is definitely some attraction to having a luxurious ‘home base’ from which to explore different locations. A single check-in, for instance, together with having all the transport and luggage taken care of between destinations.
On the other hand, a lot of the fun and interest of travelling comes from the serendipitous experiences involved in travelling independently. However, I can see that it might appeal for travelling to, say, Norway where experiencing the atmosphere of the majestic fjords as the ship cuts through the waters, and from the vantage point of a high deck, certainly has an attraction.