When Sidney De Haan was casting around for ideas to keep his Folkestone hotel in business in the 1950s, he wasn’t thinking about global brands, disruption marketing, direct sales or any other fancy terminology used in the travel business today.
The WWII war hero was simply trying to find ways to keep the Rhodesia Hotel open outside the peak summer period when he hit on the concept of appealing to the 60-plus market – especially retirees – who were more likely to travel in the shoulder seasons.
Before you could say Short-Term Breaks For The Over-60s, his modest hotel had been transformed into Saga Holidays and was a rip-roaring success, blossoming beyond Kent’s Channel port town to reach the Algarve (in the 1960s – then unheard of), Spain, Romania and Yugoslavia (in the 1970s), long-haul destinations like Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok by the 1980s, and, of course, cruising.
Back in 1997, the company had seen a future for the aging but venerable 1965-built Sagafjord and, after a major refit, the former Norwegian American Line and Cunard vessel was reintroduced as Saga Rose. A bona fide cruise line was born, blossoming further with the addition over the years of Saga Pearl, Spirit of Adventure, Saga Ruby, Saga Pearl II and Saga Sapphire.
All were re-treads, but all were lovingly brought up to date, without ever looking like a garish floating resort. Saga kept things traditional but comfortable; classic but laid back, with a residual touch of formality that appealed to the slightly older generation but didn’t put off those still looking to discover cruising for the first time. In short, they struck a delicate but perfectly-judged balance between yesteryear and today.
And now comes Spirit of Adventure. At 58,250 tons, she is more than twice the size of the revered Saga Rose, or any other vessel to sail for the company. She was named by the Duchess of Cornwall at a lavish christening ceremony in Dover last week, and she represents a bold new frontier both for Saga and for British cruising.
Despite the resurgence of ultra-luxe cruising, not many companies are building ships of this size and marque – neither boutique little bateaux nor the leviathans of the sea – so they deserve to be lauded for going out on something of a maritime limb and flying the flag for a more traditional idiom that insists cruising doesn’t have to be all-singing and all-dancing.
Just to start with, Spirit of Discovery is a fully flagged British concern, something that neither P&O nor Cunard can claim these days. She will proudly fly the Red Ensign and her current maiden voyage, fittingly, is a 13-day round-Britain voyage taking in Newcastle, Edinburgh, Belfast and Liverpool on a journey of introduction.
Dover will be her home base (the same port that is currently spending some £250million on a redevelopment programme of updates and improvements) and the all-British connection was enhanced at the naming ceremony by a Spitfire flyover that evoked the true spirit of the White Cliffs.
More importantly, though, she embodies a new and exciting spirit within Saga, one of style without pretension and quality minus any overt formality, an all-out commitment to cruising but within the parameters the company has championed for more than 60 years. Saga Travel CEO Robin Shaw hailed her as “Britain’s first boutique hotel at sea,” and it is hard to disagree.
Externally, the newcomer is not dissimilar to the identikit vessels of Viking Ocean Cruises, or a plus-sized version of the Regatta-class ships of Oceania Cruises. They are all elegant, well-proportioned and still ship-like, even if the serried ranks of balcony staterooms are totally contemporary and unlike any profile the Saga Rose ever displayed.
Traditional cruisers will love the fact she sports a proper, wraparound promenade deck, but it is the internal set-up that should be the big hit with her future customers. Saga has deliberately gone for a classic look, eschewing glitz for a sea-going style that remains in touch with cruising’s roots will still being totally modern in things like the signature cabaret lounge of The Club by Jools (Holland), created in collaboration with the musician himself.
A full-scale theatre – The Playhouse – is a first for Saga, a superb 400-seat auditorium with raked seating that will be graced by its very own theatre company, as well as guest entertainers, cinema shows, lectures and other events.
Dining will be offered in four contrasting options, most notably the truly epic Grand Dining Room, with its two-storey configuration and Ritz-style elegance, and the more modish look of the Asian-flavoured East to West, with dishes such as sizzling beef fillet in a Balinese sauce.
All dining will be open seating or by reservation, ensuring that more traditional bugbear of assigned seating is cast firmly into the history books. Equally, there will be NO supplement for any mealtime experience, while Saga will maintain its highly popular policy of providing a choice of house wines with all meals, while also including all gratuities and service charges.
Fully 20 per cent of staterooms are configured for solo travellers, while the 999 passengers will also be cosseted by interior design inspired by some of London’s finest hotels, a superb Spa, and one of the largest libraries at sea – a genuine nod to the past of sea travel when a good book was often the best kind of diversion.
Saga plc CEO Lance Batchelor insisted Spirit of Discovery “represents our country at a momentous time. Saga has a proud heritage, and this ship represents the rebirth of our company.”
It is a wonderful package of sea-going stylishness, and you have to think Sidney De Haan would approve of this “re-birth” of the company he created with a revolutionary spirit back in the 1950s – a Spirit of Discovery.
Have you sailed with Saga, and are you ready to consider a voyage on the new ship? Give us your experiences in the Comments section below.