Chic and contemporary, with a line-up of stylish facilities, there’s no doubt the new £346 million addition to the Saga fleet promises to be the game-changer the company is hoping for.
There’s much to like about this new vessel, which enjoyed a royal launch on a sunny July afternoon in Dover when it was named by the Duchess of Cornwall during a genteel celebration that celebrated its British heritage.
Spirit of Discovery may not have been built in the UK (that privilege went to a German shipyard), but it is one of the few ships to have been registered in Britain, enabling it to fly the Red Ensign and display London as its port of registry on the stern.
At 999 passengers, it is Saga’s biggest ship to date, but the company has cannily kept the passenger tally below 1,000 to justify its claim of offering boutique cruising.
Just a few years ago, such a claim wouldn’t have been possible as it would have been considered midsize, but with so many larger vessels now launching, Spirit of Discovery is now more of a comparative minnow.
While promising to give a modern twist to the romance of travel, Saga hasn’t let go of popular sea-going traditions, so cruisers can still enjoy dressing for dinner on formal evenings and the daily rituals of afternoon tea.
Upon joining the ship for its inaugural round-Britain cruise, I loved the modern feel of its public spaces with light, airy interiors in a palate of cool shades; petrol blues, smoky greys, fawn and ivory, inspired by modern London hotels and complemented by 1,200 artworks, worth a cool £1 million-plus, with many specially created by British artists.
Cabins felt similarly modish and more spacious than the norm, with each one having a balcony. There are 554 in all and, unusually, 20 per cent have been designed for solo passengers.
With its smart navy hull and distinctive custard yellow funnel, Spirit of Discovery looks the part and comes with a wraparound promenade deck often missing from modern cruise ships, though the centrepiece is the striking Art Deco style Lido pool.
One of my favourite spots was the Britannia Lounge, a real head-turner whose location on the ship’s prow and vast bank of windows made it a light and airy spot for sundowners with views.
Another stand-out feature was Saga’s first purpose-built theatre, where on the day of the naming, musician Jools Holland had us all dancing in front of the stage as he brought the house down with an energetic medley of boogie-woogie favourites.
Saga has signed him up in a five-year deal to perform on a number of sailings. Sadly, he wasn’t on my voyage, but is due to bring his brand of musical magic to four cruises in 2020.
I contented myself, instead, with the beautifully-cooked prime cuts in The Club by Jools, the Fifties-style steakhouse and cabaret lounge he has helped to create and where dishes are served to the backdrop of live musical performances.
When Jools is onboard, he’ll play here, but his appearances have sparked such interest he’s now likely to perform with his band in the theatre too.
There’s no charge to eat in The Club or the other two speciality venues, the Asian-influenced East to West and seafood-based Coast to Coast. Both are well worth sampling, so it’s worth getting reservations in early as they get booked up.
The main Grand Dining Room is a stately venue and reflects Saga’s focus on serving British-sourced ingredients, with British lamb, trout from the River Test and salmon from the Severn & Wye smokery.
There’s a decent selection of cheeses, with 60 per cent sourced from British farms, and these can be washed down with wines from the Hush Heath estate and beers from the Shepherd Neame brewery, both in Kent.
Another highlight is the swanky spa, complete with bubbling hydrotherapy pool, where I couldn’t resist a hot stone massage before popping along to an absorbing craft class in the library, which also holds an impressive 3,500 books and is acclaimed as one of the largest at sea.
Being aboard for just the initial few days of the cruise, I wanted to make the most of the first stop at Port of Tyne, where I joined a day-long trip to Alnwick Castle, better known to Harry Potter film fans as Hogwarts School.
Our visit also took on magical proportions thanks to a private champagne reception with the Duchess of Northumberland Jane Percy – a rare privilege according to our guide – who gave a compelling account of how she developed the castle’s gardens.
It was a fascinating interlude that typified the special flourishes of this voyage and underlined Spirit of Discovery’s distinctive appeal.
The challenge is whether this boutique ship (and its sister, Spirit of Adventure, which arrives next August), can cultivate a new younger audience of 50-somethings while keeping existing customers happy.
The seeds have been sown; now Saga hopes to reap the rewards.