How Saga's Spirit of Discovery made for a decadent voyage around Britain

Emma Featherstone
Sunshine and warmth while cruising among the Hebrides made for beautiful views from deck - iStock

Dressed in sequined cocktail dresses, bow ties and tails, the crowd on the upper deck gazed towards the elaborate fireworks display that heralded our departure before Dover’s white cliffs began to fade behind into the distance. 

On the level below, under a neon “Lido” sign, a band played Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra songs while waiting staff circulated with champagne and canapes.

Saga Cruises’ newest ship, Spirit of Discovery, was setting sail for its one-off inaugural cruise, a tour of the British Isles. The 14-deck, 999-passenger, £346m vessel was christened five days before by the Duchess of Cornwall. Our captain, Julian Burgess, had even been pictured in Hello! cutting the christening cake. It was the first ship to be named in Dover for more than a decade. So far, so British. 

My mother and I had started our day onboard with an afternoon tea. It was her first cruise. With a chauffeur-driven transfer to the ship, the decadent tea followed by a three-course dinner, we’d settled in easily. It was a decade since we’d holidayed together, but with all the organisation taken off our hands (we’d signed up for a Saga excursion each full-day ashore), I hoped we’d sail through the week without bickering.

"A particular off-ship highlight was seeing the Italian Chapel in the Orkeys" Credit: GETTY

We were defying the Saga rulebook, however. Its cruises are strictly for over-50s; I’m 31. I was variously mistaken for the ship’s librarian, IT support (“How do I download the Telegraph?!” one passenger asked, waving his iPad) and onboard entertainment. By and large though, the other passengers were happy to turn a blind eye to the rule-bending and we enjoyed plenty of fascinating dinnertime conversations with our onboard peers.

At afternoon tea, a lady called Dorris sat next to us. While I coveted her pink, Chanel-esque trouser suit she reminisced about her travels, including a stint living in New Zealand. We quizzed our table mate: where had she cruised? The Norwegian Fjords, the Med, New England? She’d conquered them all. I asked for her take on Spirit of Discovery and she said she was impressed by the sheer scale of this new vessel, plus its space-to-passenger ratio.

Spirit of Discovery is certainly striking. As we drove up to Dover port, I admired her white, blue and yellow exterior, including a stylish funnel; within her interior is luxurious, but unfusty.

Away from the ship, Saga offers a comprehensive list of shore excursions – from our first stop in Newcastle (where we headed to a replica 1900s pit village and the open-air museum of Beamish) to Belfast where I spent an hour carefully clambering over the staggering (if crowded) stone pillars of the Giant’s Causeway.

A particular off-ship highlight was seeing the Italian Chapel (and Scapa Flow) in the Orkneys. Our Orcadian guide Dawn Johnston had got married in the tiny church. For the uninitiated, it was built by amazingly resourceful Italian prisoners of war who were stationed on the islands to build the Churchill Barriers, four causeways that were used to protect the naval base during the Second World War and that connect some of the islands.

Spirit of Discovery's cosy library claims to offer one of the largest selections of books at sea Credit: SAGA GROUP LIMITED

Our next day was at sea. It was clear, sunny and warm, perfect for admiring the Outer and Inner Hebrides from the upper deck. I also made a pre-dinner trip to The Spa. The inviting spot offers a range of treatments from a hot mineral body boost on a Quartz table to a biotec facial. I favoured the thermal suite, which is included in the cruise price and features a hydrotherapy pool (like a giant hot tub). This, alongside our spacious cabin (all have outdoor balconies) and the all-inclusive speciality restaurants, made it feel like every passenger was experiencing a luxury cruise treatment, before forking out for any extras.

The Club by Jools was a hit, thanks to its steaks, cocktails and live music – the Olly Muxworthy duo, a young jazz act frequently found at its piano, were a favourite. Other entertainment included talks and nightly performances in The Playhouse, Saga’s first theatre at sea, and singers at the piano at the bottom of the grand staircase (plus dance and craft classes).

Cuisine-wise, we particularly enjoyed Saga’s first seafood restaurant, Coast to Coast, and East to West, which offers a mish-mash of Asian-style food. Post-cruise, I’m still craving the latter’s paneer tikka – a surprising combination of moreish Indian cheese, a chapati (artfully arranged in a cone shape) and a sweet potato aloo gobi.

On our final morning in Liverpool, my mother – a Beatles fan since she saw them perform live aged 15 – enjoyed walking around the ‘Double Fantasy, John and Yoko’ exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool. She was also glad I’d dragged her to The Cavern Club for a picture in front of its historic stage. 

Our biggest takeaway from the voyage? Getting older doesn’t mean losing a sense of adventure – just ask our 80-year-old Edinburgh tour guide, Joy Balgarnie, who’d gone back to the day job after a brief, bored stint at retirement, or the sprightly table mate who shocked us when she whispered that she was the same age as the Queen. And my mother and I proved we could still be trusted to travel together.

A seven-night Scenes of Dunkirk cruise, sailing from Southampton, departs May 19, 2020, from £1,432pp (0808 278 6782; travel.saga.co.uk).