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Article from TNU JANUARY 2023

JANUARY CRUISING: South to the Canaries on Saga

Saga Cruises invited Malcolm Ginsberg to the royal naming of Spirit of Discovery by the then Duchess of Cornwall back in July 2019

It was a glorious occasion and included night-stopping on what was clearly a really top-class brand-new ship.  The evening entertainment was provided by Saga regular Jools Holland's Rhythm and Blues Orchestra.  What a wonderful send-off.  The future looked assured with Spirit of Adventure to follow. Here he reports and updates.  “In February 2020 my wife Linda and I embarked on ‘Discovery’ in Venice for a 10-day cruise back to Dover taking in some popular Italian ports, and Gibraltar.  Little were we to know that she would not return to the ‘Med’ until 2022. 

This was to be the last long Saga cruise before the pandemic hit us.  I reported on the actual trip in the 17 February 2020 issue of
BTN but decided not to review the ship until later in the year when hopefully things would settle down.  This finally appeared for the 3 August 2020 publication

Sister ship Spirit of Adventure was delayed and did not finally debut until July 2021.

With the sale of Business Travel News and an 80th birthday, a proper two-week return to ‘Discovery’ seemed a good idea and so we booked on the over-50s-only ship on a two-week cruise to Madeira, the Canaries and Lisbon from 1 December just gone.

The Saga package is very comprehensive from the moment a car collects you until the final return at the end of the holiday. No tipping, all drinks dealt with unless something special, unlimited wi-fi and a number of tours included.  A visit to the spa will cost.  No gambling and very few announcements.  Photographers were available, but discreet. Saga and its on-board team know it customers, on this trip over 50% returnees, and nearly all from the British Isles.  They are out to help, typified at Lisbon which meant a crew member rushing down the gangway to supply an umbrella to Mrs Ginsberg as the heavens suddenly opened.

In the evening there are five dining experiences with waiter service and from keep fit at dawn until the late-night cabaret show plenty to do.  You can learn bridge, take in a craft or painting class, participate in carpet bowls, or attend various lectures. Quizzes galore, always a favourite on cruises. Clearly an experienced entertainment team has really got it right. A daily printed newsheet is available.

The ship’s all-balcony standard cabins are larger than most and if you must stay in for various reasons the film selection is comprehensive, or watch whatever is going on in The Playhouse theatre.  Room service is of course free, 24 hours with a fine selection and offering the dining room menu during restaurant opening hours.

It is a very easy ship to get around, no long walks, and two sets of lifts.  The theatre is nicely raked with each seat offering a drinks holder.  Saga organises boarding so that the cars arrive neatly spaced out, this time using the fully covered Cunard terminal. 

And then it is off, across a reasonably calm Bay of Biscay, with Covid largely forgotten and a traditional Captain’s cocktail party on the first full evening at sea.  In charge for our cruise was Darin Bowland, in an earlier life with the Royal Canadian Navy and ex-Carnival, larger ships, and less personable, as he explained. 

Captain Bowland proved to be a popular leader of the Saga team, often seen around, and the host for an informal theatre briefing at the end of the cruise.

Our first stop after three nights at sea was Funchal, Portuguese Madeira, a popular holiday resort for the British, and with Reids Palace Hotel, a favourite for Winston Churchill.

As with virtually all the ports, the courtesy bus was at the end of the gangway and our plan was to get off early and be deposited in the centre of the town just as the local tourist centre opened.  It worked perfectly, picking up some useful information, and with the help of Google Maps finding our way to the promenade and a short half mile walk to the lower Funchal Cable car.  Opened in 2000 it rises 560m, takes about 15 minutes and has 39 eight-seat cabins.  The views all the way are fantastic and at the top is a nice café and the entrance to the Botanical Gardens.  The return fare is €18. At the top, known as Monte, is a further slightly shorter cable car, approached by a steep downhill walk, which takes you up to the Tropical Gardens, €16.50 return including entrance.  You need a good few hours to take in both, so we returned, watched some local festivities and took the Saga transport back to the ship for lunch. 

The two-hour afternoon included excursion was typical of the whole trip, with an experienced guide and a Saga crew member on board, just in case.  We learnt just a little about the island and stopped for the inevitable photo opportunity.  We were a little late on returning but it did not matter.  The ships wait for guests on organised tours.

La Palma was our first port of call in the Canaries. It has no regular direct air services to the UK. 

A volcanic island, on our included three-hour tour we were able to see the results of an eruption just 12 months earlier causing the destruction of 3,000 buildings and the evacuation of 7,000 people. 

The total population of the island is just 20,000, the economy based on banana growing and increasing tourism.  Our three-hour bus ride took in the Caldera crater information centre, a striking modern structure with geology exhibits, viewpoints over a volcano and a tropical garden.  The extinct crater is five miles in diameter and in places 5,000ft deep. 

We experienced zero visibility, and then wonderful views of the capital and port of Santa Cruz.

After a slow overnight meander next up was the harbour at
Santa Cruz, Tenerife

Here we elected for a £39 trip entitled ‘Mercedes Forest & Pretty La Laguna’.  This was to prove the complete opposite of a typical ex-UK flight holiday visit to Los Cristianos in the south of the island. Less than 50 miles away from the holiday hotel resorts it is a different world except for the charming fishing village of San Andres and its beach, literally imported from the Sahara with four million bags of sand in 1973. 

It is something of an oasis approached via the Anaga Rural Park declared a Biosphere Reserve in 2015 because it is home to the largest number of endemic species in Europe.  It offers breath-taking views and a wild forest landscape. We stopped at a village called Taganana for some local wine and cheese.  All very relaxing. 

Las Palmas, Grand Canaria (the Spanish are not very original with their name places) was another arrival first thing in the morning, and for those who did not mind a half mile walk a large shopping complex was near the end of the wharf. 

With a tour planned for the afternoon it was a good stretch of the legs and a chance to buy ‘duty free’.

Our included three-hour afternoon tour included the little pretty historical town of Teror about 15 twisty miles from the port in the Doramus Natural Park.  The Sunday arrival was well timed for the weekly street market in the main square that sells a wide range of local farming produce, jewellery and wooden and textile handicrafts, as well as typical products including the popular spreadable chorizo sausage and local cheese. Grouped around the historic main square are a series of streets, the houses with authentic and very beautiful wooden balconies. 

Our second stop on the tour was the Duchess Gardens originating from around 1880 when the then Marquis started to collect plant species, some endemic and others brought from all over the world. At the end of 1985, the gardens opened its doors to the general public and is now a visitors’ attraction also available for corporate events.  At present, the Jardín de la Marquesa has about 500 classified species that live together with a colony of free-roaming peacocks. A pleasant stroll around the five-acre site was ideal for the Saga group.

Lanzarote was the only port that caused difficulties in terms of courtesy transfer.  Whilst the bus pulled up by the gangway it discouraged its customers inside the perimeter gate necessitating a 20-minute walk to the waterside hub of Arrecife.  The authorities should do better and lost business.  Some of us saw the town in the distance (with our Saga loaned binoculars) turned around and caught the next ride back.

We took the 5hr 30min ‘Fire Mountain with Volcano’ tour which included a barbecue lunch at £89.  From the ship transport was the local coach hire but at the National Park a special bus provided the carriage.  The volcano is often described as lunar landscape.  The Apollo astronauts all those years ago even visited to gain better understanding of what the moon surface might look like.  It was a fascinating journey.  Dining was at the El Diablo restaurant, a unique place to eat with volcanoes, craters, undulating lava fields and black basalt rock all around, all very bleak without a hint of green.

Lisbon I have been many times to the cruise terminal, now far better and half way between the famous Commerce Square and the Santa Apolónia railway station.  The city provides a free bus service but a series of no right turns and one-way streets mean that as much as 15 minutes are added for the journey to Rossio Square and a thriving Christmas market.  Quicker and more interesting to walk.

Our choice of tour was named ‘Arrabida Mountains and Lisbon Bridges’.  Having never crossed the Tagus River in all the years of visiting the city it seemed the obvious one to take (£39), starting with an up-river drive to the relatively new Vasco de Gama Bridge (opened in1998 and just in time for Expo ‘98 – World’s Fair) and returning via the renamed 25 April Bridge.  

At 10 miles long the Vasco de Gama Bridge is Europe’s second longest, only beaten by the much-discredited Crimean Bridge, currently in the hands of Russia.  

The 25 April span dates back to 1966 and was originally named after the Portuguese dictator Salazar.  The new name symbolizes the date he was overthrown.  The rail deck was added in 1999, always part of the design.

Whilst the Algarve is seen as the main holiday resort for Portugal, our destination Setúbal was only 30 miles from the airport, a sandy beach facing the Atlantic Ocean. We arrived in the middle of a storm and therefore passed through, and continued to the Arrabida Natural Park, red-coloured waters (from the local limestone) flooding onto the road. Spectacular! It will be an intriguing place to visit when next in Lisbon with time to spare.  

Departing from Lisbon was not the end of the cruise as three sea days followed, bumpy along the Portuguese coast and smooth across the Bay of Biscay and into the English Channel.

On the second day the ship declared a medical emergency when passing Brest and the French military proceeded with an explementary helicopter pick-up.  Passenger viewing was barred, as is standard with these happenings, but it did not stop many from watching from the Britannia Lounge up forward.  We were all looking towards the bow. 

Another Captain’s cocktail party completed the holiday but not before an uproarious crew show in the theatre and all the professional entertainers adding to the party atmosphere with a performance of their own on the final night.

Disembarkation was as easy as arrival, an undercover car park full of limousines.  How are we going to find our driver? Easy.  Our name was called out by the Saga member of staff and the chauffeur stepped forward, took possession of our luggage and escorted us to the car.

We’ve booked again for a short five-night trip from1 May including ‘Discovery’s’ maiden voyage into Plymouth and tender transfer to see where Francis Drake may have played bowls and the Plymouth Pilgrims left for North America.  Something to look forward to.

See also Nigel Blanks December TNU uk/article/46

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