Our early morning arrival was greeted with cloudy skies, however as the sun rose the clouds cleared and by the time our first tours were making their way ashore it was clear we were going to have a very pleasant day ahead.
In my mind no call to Barcelona is complete without a visit to the Sagrada Familia. Our first excursion this morning did just that, entitled, funnily enough, ‘Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia’. The Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, is one of Barcelona’s most popular tourist attractions. Construction on this church will continue for at least another decade, but it has already become Barcelona’s most important landmark. On this excursion our passengers had the opportunity to discover this remarkable church with an English-speaking guide.
The expiatory church of La Sagrada Familia is a work on a grand scale which was begun on the 19th March 1882 from a project by the diocesan architect Francisco de Paula del Villar (1828-1901). At the end of 1883 Gaudi was commissioned to continue the work, a task which he did not abandon until his death in 1926. Gaudi himself said: “The expiatory church of La Sagrada Familia is made by the people and is mirrored by them. It is a work that is in the hands of God and the will of the people.” Already designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a Minor Basilica by Pope Benedict XVI, it is hoped that the church will be completed by 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death.
With everyone aboard by 6pm we cast off and we now make our way slowly west to our next port of call Valencia.
I received a call from our Chief Officer George on the Bridge in the early hours of Monday morning. The wind had been forecast to increase during the night - this it had done, however much more than had initially been predicted, so much so in fact that Valencia harbour was to remain closed until further notice.
We set the wheels in motion, working closely with our Spanish ground agents and Head Office in Folkestone, to find a suitable alternative. My first priority was to head south and then west to get away from the worst of the weather, which we duly did, and so by lunchtime, with the weather improving all the time, we had made the decision to remain at sea and call into Malaga on Tuesday. A fantastic team effort, particularly given that Monday was a national holiday in Spain.
And so it was on Tuesday morning that we made our approaches towards Malaga harbour. As you sail in you can’t help but notice what an idyllic setting the city has on the famous Costa del Sol and what a marvellous contrast the city presents. To the east of the capital, the coast along the region of La Axarqua is scattered with villages and sleepy fishing hamlets, the epitome of traditional rural Spain. To the west is a bustling metropolis that has helped the area become famous and easily recognisable as the Costa del Sol.
Jacquie, our Shore Excurions Manager, had worked her magic and put together two tours to offer to our passengers in Malaga today, the first to go ashore was the ‘El Torcal’ tour. El Torcal is a natural park and a fantastic world of limestone formations, flower filled valleys, rugged canyons and fragrant pine forests. Millions of years ago, this part of the country was under sea and the fossils of many marine animals have been found here and are still being found here with each passing year. It is a magnificent spot for nature, with over seven hundred recorded plant species, as well as large populations of mountain goats, wild cats and Iberian foxes, in addition to snakes and lizards. The area has been designated as a special zone for bird protection on account of the numerous species that nest here and the unusual stones and vegetation are a sight to behold.
The second tour departed shortly after. This one was the ‘Malaga Highlights and Flamenco Show’. Flamenco goes back to the 16th century and is thought to have developed from local gypsies who performed the dance around their campfires as a form of entertainment. Our passengers had the opportunity to enjoy refreshments while watching one of the most traditional and exotic pastimes that combines dance, song and music with exciting movements and colourful costumes.
We now continue our journey yet further west, as we make the short hop along the coast to Gibraltar.
The intriguing British outpost of Gibraltar is dominated by its stunning 1,400-feet-high limestone Rock. Although small, Gibraltar has always been regarded as being of great strategic importance due to its advantageous position where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean, a mere 12 miles from the African coast.
Having negotiated our way into the narrow inner harbour we slid gracefully alongside and were all fast on our berth right on time, at 8am. The first of our excursions to depart today was ‘Alameda Gardens and Cable Car Ride’. This tour, as the name suggests, offered our passengers the chance to stroll around the beautiful Alameda Gardens before capturing some fantastic views of the rock on an exciting cable car ride. They were able to delight in the wonderful collection of plants at Alameda Gardens, which are an important conservation project and house a collection of plants from around the world, as well as displays of local flora. The experienced guides were available to point out the various plants, sights and wildlife while also describing the fascinating history of the Gardens. Moving on, our guests visited Gibraltar’s cable car which is the island’s only purpose-built tourist attraction and they had the chance to ride up to the very top of the Rock to marvel at the breath-taking views. There was time to wander around the many terraces and enjoy the splendid views of the city of Gibraltar to the west, the coastline of Africa to the south, the Spanish mainland to the north and the blue waters of the Mediterranean to the east.
Our departure time was set for 10pm but we still had one more surprise up our sleeve. We had organised a very special ‘Magic Moment’ which involved taking our guests in the early evening to the subterranean domain of St Michael’s cave under the Rock of Gibraltar, a vast awe-inspiring chamber known also as the Cathedral Cave. Here, in this thrilling setting, our guests were treated to a surprise concert from the Gibraltar National Choir. A stunning end to a perfect cruise. We now make our way north and back to our home port of Southampton, and to top it off the weather forecast is excellent, what more could you want!
Another day in Southampton and another turnaround day that brought with it the usual mix of hard work and excitement. Having said good-bye to over 600 passengers from our ‘Spanish Adventure’ cruise, we were able to spend a bit of time looking back on what a good cruise it had been. As my first cruise in charge of Saga Sapphire I was understandably nervous, but I’m happy to report it was a resounding success. We held our farewell cocktail party last night and I felt so proud to hear the compliments being passed on by our passengers about the ship’s company. The officers, staff and crew onboard Saga Sapphire excelled themselves as always, and truly gave our passengers a voyage to remember. The food, of course, was also excellent, and the service impeccable. Our passengers, needless to say, were friendly and fun and I do hope they enjoyed getting to know us just as much as we enjoyed getting to know them.
Having taken time reflecting on what a good cruise we had just had, our attention naturally turned to how we would make the ‘Canary Island Contrasts’ cruise just as special. As we embarked our passengers, we once again felt that sense of anticipation and excitement that grows and grows the closer the time comes to casting off the lines and setting sail, and with a 14 day cruise featuring visits to Morocco, four different Canary Islands and beautiful Madeira, it’s not hard to understand why everybody is looking forward to the voyage so much.
The approach to Casablanca harbour is an interesting one in that a large swell often develops close to the harbour entrance. In order to counteract this, and ensure no orange juice was spilled at breakfast, I kept the speed up as we passed through the breakwaters into the inner harbour and ensured the stabilisers were left out until the very last moment. This proved to work well and very shortly after the Saga Sapphire was made fast safely on her berth.
Today there were 3 tours to choose from the first one being the ‘Casablanca and Hassan ll Mosque’ which departed at 8:15am. The first destination on this tour was the Habbous quarter and the Royal Palace where our Guests could view the Mhakama du Pasha Law courts and the Cathedral Notre Dame. They then took the coastal road to the Hassan ll Mosque, after admiring its interior they continued along the Corniche to see the sweeping views of the Atlantic. The tour was completed with a welcome stop at a hotel for refreshments and having some free time in the city centre for some shopping and independent exploration.
The second tour that departed at 8:30am was the ‘Rabat Revealed’ excursion. Before heading out of Casablanca our Passengers paused for a photo stop at the Hassan ll Mosque, and then proceeded to Morocco’s administrative capital, Rabat. The first stop was at the Royal Palace esplanade to admire the beautiful gardens and exquisite mosaics. They then learnt a little more about the city’s history as they visited the Hassan Tower and Mausoleum, finishing the tour with a traditional Moroccan lunch and a leisurely drive back to Casablanca.
With all our guests safely aboard we departed the harbour in the early evening and now plot a SW’ly course towards the Canary Islands and our first stop there, Arrecife on Lanzarote.
Our first of four Canary Island ports in a row commenced today with Arrecife, Lanzarote, a volcanic island designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve with landscapes and scenery that have been shaped by an explosive past. A great selection of restaurants serving a wide range of local specialities along with the virtual absence of rain and the benefit of duty free shopping make the island an extremely desirable holiday destination. Arrecife itself is the main port and capital and is a pleasant town with a modern seafront and colourful gardens.
Once again there was a selection of tours for our passengers to enjoy first of which was ‘Lanzarote Panoramic’. This allowed our passengers a relaxing and scenic drive through some of the prettiest and most unspoilt areas on the island. With regular stops for photographs and chances to experience the local food and culture, it proved to be a very popular choice amongst our guests and a fine way to see this attractive part of the world.
Another popular tour was ‘Fire Mountain’ with a visit to this incredible site and a chance to learn about some of the history that has helped to shape the island over the years. It is hard to imagine the eruptions of the 1730s, when the volcanoes in the Timanfaya area erupted for six years and covered nearly a third of the island with lava. A chance to stop at Janubio with its salt pit crater, where vegetables are grown in fields of lava pellets and grapes are cultivated in cinder pits is also an amazing sight and something that is not easily forgotten.
Once everyone was back onboard our passengers joined the Cruise Staff on the open decks for a drink at sailaway before heading to their cabins to prepare for another sumptuous dinner served up by our fantastic Executive Chef Thierry and his team.
Our final stop in the Canary Islands saw us visit the charming Island of La Palma, also known as ‘La Isla Bonita’ (the beautiful island).
We docked in Santa Cruz, La Palma at 8.00am and the first excursion to leave this morning was ‘La Palma Panoramic’. The passengers took in the highlights of La Palma on a scenic drive around the Island, beginning in the capital, Santa Cruz de la Palma. Continuing to Mirador de la Concepcion before arriving at Taburiente Crater, the largest erosion volcano in the world, where they were pleased to have the opportunity to stop and take photographs. From here, our guests took a journey through the western area to experience wonderful views of Los Llandos de Aridane, a large town surrounded by cacti and banana plantations.
Another tour was ‘The Forest Walk’, a walk through Los Tilos Forest, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve home to a profusion of ferns, trees and other indigenous species. The tour began with a short panoramic drive up into the hills to Mirador de la Conception, a spectacular vantage point with views over the city. It was then time for the scenic drive to Los Tilos, which literally translated means ‘laurel forest’, where our guests set out on a walk through the wonderful forest of ancient laurels, lime trees and giant ferns.
With all aboard we cast off our lines and bid Adios to the stunning Canary Islands, and now proceed at full speed north to our final destination of this cruise, the beautiful island of Madeira.
Our final port of call this cruise saw us visit the beautiful island of Madeira, and its capital Funchal. Discovered by Portuguese explorer Joao Goncalves Zarco in 1419, it was originally formed by a volcanic eruption and became part of Portugal’s vast empire. Sugar plantations first brought wealth here and many British emigrants were drawn to the capital after our own King Charles II granted it an exclusive franchise to sell wine to England and its colonies.
Our pilot was on hand to board Saga Sapphire shortly before 8am, and as the clock struck 9 we were safely alongside and all fast on our berth.
The first tour to depart this morning presented our passengers with the chance to experience something a little bit different. The ‘Levada Walk’ excursion presented the opportunity to follow a ‘levada’ trail, the irrigation channels that were created by Portuguese settlers in the 19th century. All painstakingly carved out of the rock by hand, it was these channels that carried fresh water from the north to the drier southern regions of the island. This helped to create its lush landscapes and the guided walk allowed our passengers the opportunity to enjoy mountain views of the green farmland that covers Madeira.
Slightly less strenuous was the second tour, as the ‘Leisurely Madeira’ coach trip was exactly that, a leisurely way for our passengers to enjoy some of the island’s finest sights. Travelling from Funchal, through the popular suburb of Sao Martinho, to Pico dos Barcelos and then on to the winding scenic roads to Eira do Serrado, our passengers were able to relax and enjoy the views of Madeira’s highest peaks. Carrying on they took in some wonderful landmarks, including Madeira’s largest statue, a beautiful baroque church, a tropical garden and the island’s famous toboggan run, all situated in the picturesque village of Monte.
The final tour also took our passengers to Monte but this time, along with enjoying all of its famous landmarks, they were able to enjoy the botanical gardens, home to a variety of plants and flowers from all over the world which thrive in the temperate climate. As if this wasn’t enough, fabulous views looking over the coast and across the ocean made sure that it was a trip to remember, although as the tour finished with a visit to a wine lodge for a tasting of some of the island’s famous wines, perhaps one or two memories might be a little hazy!
As I gave the order to cast off our lines many passengers were out on deck to enjoy the view as we departed from Madeira. We now make our way north towards Southampton, following what has been another truly fantastic voyage aboard Saga Sapphire.