From the moment I stepped aboard the Saga Sapphire, I began to realise that I've probably not given cruising holidays a proper chance.
Having previously experienced a week-long cruise aboard a 16 deck ocean giant – accompanied by more than 3,200 mainly greedy, wasteful and often rowdy passengers – when Saga Travel's delightful PR Manager Naomi Thornton promised me that their ships were nothing like that, my wife and I agreed to give cruising another go.
Saga themselves have been sending me advertising literature for holidays, car and household insurances since I reached the age of 50 and, I must admit, that like most unsolicited mail, it's ended up in the recycling bin.
But now, a full two decades later, I've begun to realise just what I've been missing. Catering exclusively for over-50s on a much smaller ship, my five night 'Bank Holiday Escape' cruise across the English Channel to Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany was a truly memorable one.
The holiday actually started as soon as we were collected from home in a brand new chauffeur driven Mercedes Benz. Then arriving refreshed some three hours later at the cruise terminal in Dover, it's just part of Saga's impressive, no-nonsense attention to detail.
There were plenty of porters on hand once we arrived while check-in was made very easy, Saga's on-shore staff being super efficient with most appearing to be of pensionable age!
Entering the ship's reception area on deck 7, there is a striking metallic fish sculpture – supposedly they're herrings – one of which has a secret red eye, although you need to go down a deck to find it.
We were checked into spacious outside cabin (number 9026) on deck 9, the accommodation being all that you would expect from a comfortable luxury hotel. There's storage aplenty while Hazel, our pretty Filipino maid, ensured that we had everything we needed… including a full fruit bowl.
Once onboard we quickly learned the Sapphire's layout and the whereabouts of various restaurants, shops, bars and lounges. Overall it's an extremely comfortable and immaculately clean ship, the spacious Britannia Lounge doubling as a theatre… but more of that later.
FOOD AND DRINK
With 50 chefs and 20 auxiliary staff under the watchful eye of executive chef, Cornishman George Streeter, attention to detail in the ship's menu preparation is truly amazing.
"I've been with Saga for 15 years," said George. "We're very proud of the quality of the food that we prepare and our guests appreciate it. Overall we produce around 3,000 meals a day and with all the cakes, snacks and late night bites, we're always kept pretty busy."
Naturally the Sapphire offers a traditional Sunday roast while sweets like bread and butter pudding also find their way onto what is always a very extensive menu.
And if you fancy a minute steak for breakfast – as one particular passenger did on most days! – it's provided without extra charge. The wine certainly flows freely at both lunch and dinner with a choice of quality reds and whites or a delicious rosé.
The main Pole To Pole restaurant on deck 7 can seat around 600 diners, two sides having ocean views, while there are four themed areas featuring four continents: Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.
It's fine dining at its very best with some wonderful menus and choices to suit every pallet. Saga's chefs also cater for both vegetarians and vegans while you can also chose your seating arrangements as there is both buffet or full service dining at pre-reserved tables.
In the 64-seater East to West Restaurant on deck 9, you'll enjoy a fusion of true Asian cuisine; Indian, Thai and spicy Sri Lankan. All is freshly cooked while traditional wooden Balinese-style carvings adorn the restaurant giving it a truly authentic feel.
We also loved the Grill Bar and open-air Verandah on deck 9 which offered healthier grilled meat dishes cooked to order in what is a show kitchen, the former specialising in some wonderful tasty steaks and really fresh seafood.
Located adjacent to the Sapphire's outdoor swimming pool is the Beach Club which offers traditional fish and chip lunches. You can also help yourself to ice creams from a cabin resembling a striped beach hut while in an adjacent one, you find dozens of old-fashioned boiled sweet jars… and with no children on board, you really don't feel guilty about helping yourself!
As the health and wellbeing of everyone onboard is of paramount importance, at every doorway you find a hand sanitizer machine. Most are manned by a staff member to remind all passengers to use them before entering the restaurants, bars and lounges. Even the public toilet exit doors have built-in sanitizer handles which caused much merriment in some quarters!
ENTERTAINMENT AND FACILITIES
Without a proper theatre, all the major entertainment and floor shows take place in the swish Britannia Lounge although with all the seating on the same level, viewing for some could be a little difficult.
However the standard of the shows was very good. The eight members of the resident Explosive Singers and Dancers – four singers, four dancers – were excellent as were their fabulous costumes. In fact the Mersey Beat Legends and the Piano Magic show were of the highest order and featured popular music from the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Also on board were Jack Pack, a four piece vocal group in the Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Michael Buble mould. They rose to fame following their television debut on Britain's Got Talent and they performed two outstanding shows which was perfect for Saga's clientele age group. The four lads also admitted to eating far more than they usual would while praising the Sapphire's catering staff for producing menus of the highest order. They were also more than happy to mix with the passengers over a drink or three!
All the shows featured the five accomplished musicians who make up the Saga Orchestra. If you wanted something a little quieter, then Cooper's Bar (named after legendary British comic Tommy Cooper), usually had organist Milan Jasek performing classic songs and tunes. And for jazz fans, the spacious Drawing Room on deck 11 offered late night entertainment (and food) courtesy of both the Saga Orchestra and talented duo, Melange.
There's plenty of live music and dancing with two resident male hosts for the majority of single ladies… but I didn't spot any female hosts for the odd single gents!
Meanwhile quieter lounge areas are numerous along with an academy computer and learning centre, three well-stocked bars and a huge library. The Sapphire also has a hairdressers and beauty salon adjacent to the indoor swimming pool on deck 2, three shops and a photo gallery while there is even a paid for laundry service and free Wi-Fi. The electricity supply uses both UK and European plugs.
For activity minded passengers, there are two swimming pools, an aqua spa, steam room and a gymnasium plus a St Andrew's crazy golf course and Club House games room.
Six laps around deck 11 equated to one mile which proved very popular with many guests while for others, just relaxing beside the outdoor pool or sitting on the Verandah deck at the rear of the ship covered by a rug, reading or simply watching the vessel's wake was all that they wanted.
A variety of shops sell the usual duty free goods – drinks, perfume, jewelry and souvenirs – while there is a resident ship's photographer whose gallery is located on deck 8 just behind the shops.
On Sunday morning there was an interdenominational church service led by Canon Barry Lomax, a retired minister from Dorset. For those who wished it, he also took holy communion. The hour long service itself was preceded by hymns sung by the ship's Filipino choir made up of officers, waiters and cabin staff.
ON SHORE EXCURSIONS
Belgium – Ypres, In Flanders Fields
Having docked at Berth 103 in Zeebrugge's vast harbour, Saga's guests had a choice of four different shore excursions; Bruges, Loppem Castle & Damme, Romantic Bruges and our choice, Ypres, in Flanders Fields.
After a 60 minute coach journey we arrive at the village of Zonnebeke where we visited Tyne Cot, the largest of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries. It was named by the British troops who said the area reminded them of countryside around their Tyneside homes.
It's a vast site where almost 12,000 white Portland headstone stand in regimented rows, blood red roses and poppy wreaths adding a splash of colour by way of contrast.
Close to Tyne Cot's central memorial cross are the graves of two German soldiers while the youngest British soldiers to perish were just 15 years of age.
Walking alongside the sweeping stone-built graveyard wall, you see the names of some 34,957 missing soldiers who fell at the Battle of Passchendaele – also known as the Third Battle of Ypres – which commenced on the last day of July 1917 in torrential rain.
After 100 days of bitter fighting in truly atrocious conditions on what became known as the Ypres Salient, the British troops had advanced just eight kilometres. The Commonwealth lost more than half a million men, those losses equally mirrored by the opposing German armed forces, many of whom are buried at the nearby Langemark Military Cemetery.
From Tyne Cot, we made the short journey to the pretty Belgian town of Ypres which was totally destroyed during the Great War. However the magnificent Cloth Hall and other central buildings around its cobbled market square have all been painstakingly reconstructed and today Ypres resembles a typical medieval city centre.
The restored Cloth Hall – used as a projection backdrop in last month's televised Centenary Commemoration Concert attended by members of our own Royal family – houses the magnificent In Flanders Fields Museum while behind it stands St George's Memorial Church.
However the town's best known monument is the imposing Menin Gate on which are engraved 54,896 names of British and Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives on the Ypres Salient. Designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield then built and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it was only lack of space on this giant memorial that Tyne Cot's wall had to be constructed to accommodate the names of almost 35,000 men whose names had been missed.
Unfortunately we had to leave Ypres and return to the Saga Sapphire well before four buglers from the town's Voluntary Fire Brigade play the Last Post every night at 8pm as a tribute to the fallen. That tradition goes back exactly 90 years to when construction of the Menin Gate was finally completed and was unveiled on the 24th July 1927.
As with all on shore visits by coach, as a nice touch on the return journey saw a Saga representative come round and hand out the Werther's Originals.
The Netherlands – Canals & Anne Frank House
Docking at the Monnickendamkade Terminal the following day, we arrived at the North Holland province port of IJmuiden, gateway to the Dutch capital Amsterdam where once again we were given a choice of excursions; Panoramic Amsterdam, A Taste of Holland, Amsterdam On Your Own or our choice, The Anne Frank House & Canal Cruise.
Boasting more than 60 miles of hand dug canals – many flanked by picture-perfect narrow gabled houses – historic Amsterdam is also crossed by more than 1,000 bridges. On our visit, we circumnavigated this wonderful and exciting crowded destination, first by coach and then aboard one of the many glass-topped boats.
Viewing famous landmarks such as the Royal Palace on Dam Square which was once occupied by Napolèon's younger brother Louis Bonaparte who was proclaimed the Kingdom of Holland's monarch between 1806 and 1810. We also passed the 15th century Weeper's Tower where many Dutch wives would await the return of their seafaring husbands plus the nearby Maritime Museum and entrance to the Nemo tunnel which resembles a sinking ship.
Passing under dozens of low bridges, we picked our way around the canal system and into the Amstel River. We then heading out into the vast Het IJ waterway which is frequently cross-crossed by dozens of local ferries. These are free to use and enable visitors to enjoy the beaches and restaurants of Amsterdam Noord.
Thankfully the emotional visit to the Anne Frank House had been pre-booked as queues stretched all the way around the nearby Westerkerk (Western Church), the final resting place of Holland's most famous son, the artist Rembrandt van Rijn.
As the city's third most popular attraction – after the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum – the 17th century building on the Prinsengracht (Prince Canal) houses the Anne Frank House Museum which somehow managed to accommodate more than 1.3 million visitors last year. It was so busy that a decision was made to only take pre-booked tours up until 3.30pm… and then it becomes a free for all!
It takes around an hour to visit the house, museum and shop and you are accompanied by an individual audio guide. There are several steep flights of stairs to negotiate before you pass through the famous bookcase where you discover the small secret annex which hid eight members of the Frank family for two years until they were betrayed, arrested by the Nazis and sent to their deaths at Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz concentrate camps.
Amazingly Anne's father Otto somehow survived the death camps and, on discovering his 14-year-old daughter's now famous diaries, he agreed to their publication in 1947, first in Dutch and then into English before many other language versions were added, making it a worldwide best seller.
Germany – Bremen Freespirited
Our final destination was to Bremerhaven and with the Saga Sapphire docked at the Columbus Quay, we chose the option of visiting the historic nearby city of Bremen while around 80 fellow guests chose to visit the alternative Tall Ships Experience in the home port.
It was a real homecoming for the Saga Sapphire, for she was actually built in Bremerhaven back in 1981 and, according to three pilots who came aboard shortly before we passed the mouth of Germany's Jade Bight and the port of Willemshaven to guide her to moorings along the River Weser, they said it was her first visit for 15 years.
The 45 minute coach trip from Bremerhaven to Bremen saw us dropped off close to the magnificent 11th century Gothic cathedral, the city's lovely Rathuis, its Renaissance City Hall and the huge statue of Roland in the UNESCO-listed Market Square.
However what really draws the visitors is the bronze Musicians of Bremen statue featuring a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster. Inspired by one of the Brothers Grimm's best-loved fairytales, most visitors are photographed holding the legs of the donkey which has become a German tradition and is reputed to bring them good luck!
We first visited Bremen around 30 years ago when its Christmas Market was in full swing. However this time with the temperature hovering around 26 degrees, we found shade provided by the little narrow streets of the Schnoor district in which many of the shops were open despite it being a Sunday… my wife unable to resist purchasing a small glass angel which will adorn our family Christmas tree come December!
OFFICERS, STAFF AND CREW
On our particular cruise, the ship's master was jovial Captain Stuart Horne who had only joined the Sapphire six weeks earlier. "I began my career straight from high school back in 1976," he told us.
Having had experience with many cruise and ferry companies, he is also a qualified ship's pilot and has a passion for classic cars and motorcycles when not on duty. He has also served on the Canberra during the Falkland Islands conflict in 1992.
We were invited to dine with him in the Pole to Pole Restaurant on our second night, along with fellow journalists Jeannine Williamson, Anthony Nicholas and Diane Page, so questions naturally came thick and fast.
"We currently have 438 officers, crew and staff along with 665 passengers on this particular trip. That's a ratio of around one to 1.4 which is far more impressive than on any other cruise line," he said.
"And as soon as we dock back at Dover our next trip will around the Baltic. I know there are quite a few passengers already aboard who have enjoyed back-to-back cruises while some are staying on for a third," he said.
With Filipinos making up the majority of the catering, cleaning and waiting staff, the one thing that is instantly noticeable is that everyone is friendly and courteous to all the passengers while they all seemed to get on very well together. "It's a really happy ship. There's plenty of respect and everyone gets along fine," he added.
And that happiness is clearly reflected in Captain Horne's daily announcements over the ship's tannoy, for his sense of humour wouldn't be out of place in the Tommy Cooper Bar!
ABOUT THE SAGA SAPPHIRE
The Saga Sapphire has certainly had a chequered past for it was originally built in Bremerhaven back in 1981 for Germany's Hapag-Lloyd Line and launched as MS Europa. However in 1999 it was purchased by the Star Cruises company and renamed MS SuperStar Europe only to undergo another change just 12 months later when it became MS Superstar Aries.
It was sold again in 2004 to Pullmantur Cruises and renamed MS Holiday Dream while four years on it was transferred to the CDF Croisières de France when it underwent another change to become Bleu de France, it's passenger capacity having been increased from a little over 650 to a maximum of 1158.
It was in November 2010 when Saga Cruises purchased the ship although CDF Croisières continued to charter it for the next 12 months until it underwent a four month total refit in Italy, this magnificent 37,301 tonne vessel emerging as the MV Saga Sapphire.
Today the luxury 12 deck ship – ten for passengers including a promenade deck – carries a maximum of 720 passengers who are looked after by an average of 415 officers and crew in a total of 327 cabins.
At almost 200 metres (655 feet) in length with a beam measuring 28.55 metres (94 feet), the Saga Sapphire has four passenger lifts and four restaurants.
As this was our first time on a Saga holiday, both my wife and myself were blown away by the professionalism, friendliness and attitude of all the staff who simply couldn't do enough for us. I also learned that the average age of a Saga cruise passenger is 76 years old and that once they've had the experience, most go on to book cruises again year after year… and I can see why!
The Sapphire staff seem to treat everyone as friends and not strangers and together with Saga's cashless cruise policy, it means that you don't ever have to worry about having change for onboard tips and the like. All bills are settled before disembarkation thanks to a pre-registered credit or debit card system.
While some may think cruising is expensive, with no single cabin supplements, I believe that Saga offers tremendous value for money as everything – transfers, insurance, all-inclusive meals and a daily news bulletin – is included. And with free Wi-Fi available to all throughout the cruise, unlike other companies, it means that you can stay in touch with home and family for free should you wish.
However if there was one tiny complaint then it would have to be about the positioning of the safe in the cabins. While I could easily get down on my knees to punch in a chosen four digit code, as the safe in our cabin was located on one of the lower shelves inside the wardrobe, I can only imagine quite a few pensioners would struggle to get back up again. It's just a thought!
Seventy-year-old Alan Wooding and his wife Jo, 69, were the guests of Saga Travel aboard Saga Sapphire for the five night 'Bank Holiday Escape' cruise. Special thanks to Saga Cruise's PR Manager Naomi Thornton for organising the trip.
Amazingly the whole trip was taken on a flat calm sea while the ship covered a total distance of 830.2 nautical miles. It carried 665 passengers, occupying 327 cabins while prices were between £734 for an inside double or twin to £1,719 for a suite.
Specialising in holidays for the over-50s, Saga Holidays – www.saga.co.uk; www.sagacruises.co.uk; telephone 0800 096 0079 – include all return travel from your home to the port (in our case Dover) along with full-board accommodation, travel insurance and gratuities.
* The Saga Sapphire is due to return to Bremen, Amsterdam and Bruges again towards the end of the year on a Continental Christmas Markets cruise. It will leave Southampton on 3 December for five nights with prices starting at £899.