The lead up to Christmas Day was both festive and fun filled. After the guests decorated our tree outside the Britannia Lounge to perfection we moved into the evening with our ShowTime, ‘Twas The Night before Christmas’ presented by our Cruise Director, Jo Boase and starring Rob Payne, Mandy Muden, Donny Ray Evins and me, The Pier String Quartet and our very own Passenger Choir. There was then just enough time for a mince pie and mulled wine before the Nativity Play and Midnight Mass led by Canon Ian Ainsworth Smith.
Christmas Day was just as festive, starting with a rousing performance by the Filipino Choir to open our Morning Worship, where Mary and Joseph, after travelling around the ship staying at a different ‘Inn’ every night, arrived safely to receive baby Jesus.
This continued with ‘A Festive Christmas Concert’ by our Pier String Quartet, quiz and an energetic game of charades! Then we were off to a special afternoon tea to top up from lunch.
After a glittering Cocktail Party, our Executive Chef, George Streeter created a sumptuous feast for us all to enjoy. The day ended with a performance from the smooth voice of Donny Ray Evins and a good old knees up in the Drawing Room.
Visits to Grand Turk and Nassau, Bahamas followed. We left the Bahamas on a high after an amazing performance on deck from some local musicians, including the sounds of the steel drums and the taste of the rum punch…a real Caribbean ‘Magic Moment’.
On the open deck, we celebrated the arrival of New Year’s Eve with a Champagne breakfast sail into the Port of Bermuda. With the accompaniment of the Pier String Quartet, we sipped Champagne and ate fresh pancakes, smoked salmon and eggs.
The balloons were blown up and the Ice sculpture was carved, we were ready to welcome in the New Year. After the dramatic Address of the Haggis by fellow guest, Alexander Wedderburn during our Captain’s Cocktail Party, we then sat down to devour the Haggis and the rest of the menu. The Evening’s entertainment began with a Presentation dance from our officers and then we opened the floor and danced to the wee small hours.
As the clock struck midnight all the guests and the crew from all departments joined together in our Britannia Lounge to sing, dance and toast to a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.
You would think that would be the end of the celebrations…..oh no it wasn’t…oh yes it was…. Yes you guessed it, it was Pantomime time!!!
Since the Port of Madeira, our crew had been frantically rehearsing, under the expert eye of Jo for our Pantomime ‘Cinderella’. They had given up their lunch and rest times to reach perfection….Housekeeping, Pursers, Spa girls, photographers, Shop girls and even the Nurses… singing and dancing! It was an exciting cast line-up that included the Explosive Singers and Dancers, a sprinkle of fairy dust from Jacquie and me, motherly acting from our Security Rob Payne and even a cameo by Captain Philip. It was great evening, thoroughly enjoyed by all on board.
The five day run across to the Azores was rather pleasant as I was able to weather route the ship and stay south of the large swells that were coming down from the north. It remained comfortably warm right up until the last day, but as we docked in Ponta Delgada low cloud was racing in from the south west, a cold front finally bearing down on us.
In fact, although mainly overcast, the day remained dry, and so those folks that took the shuttle bus into town were able to mooch around in comfort. On the other side of the dock, at the main cruise terminal, a large P&O job was looking a tad rusty around the edges after having come all the way down from Hamburg in seas even the seagulls would probably have stayed ‘in doors’ for.
On board we conducted an emergency drill for the crew, who all put on a brave face when they came out to stand by their life raft stations for twenty minutes or so. Big smiles when they were stood down. And that has been the most remarkable aspect of all the crew members during this cruise, they have worked diligently throughout, not showing any indication that they were missing their families over the Christmas period.
We sailed in the afternoon expecting a ‘lumpy’ passage back up to Southampton as gale force winds were forecast off the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, as I write, with a good force 8 ‘south wester’ coming up from astern, the horizon outside my window is either way above the Taff rail or just below, but I don’t have to grip my desk to stop my chair rolling to the other side of my office and, down below, the line dancing goes on uninterrupted.
We shall arrive back tomorrow in a rather chilly Southampton, seemingly a million miles away from that sultry heat of the Caribbean.
The voyage south was initially just a little uncomfortable, as yet another deep low sped up to the north east. Fortunately, as it went north we went south and by the second morning life was becoming more stable. By midday we had passed Finisterre and were out of the Bay, the wind died away and the sea swell became a very manageable two meters or so.
We had lost a few hours due to the weather so when we arrived off Funchal, Cunard’s ‘Queen Elizabeth’ was alongside and we had to go astern past her to get to our berth. It was an opportunity to wave the Saga flag, as it were, a certain smattering of patriotic British WW 2 film music over the deck speakers and all the passengers given a small Union Jack to wave as we went past. The ‘Cunarders’ waved back enthusiastically – now that’s what I call advertising.
Having completed my “chores” there was just enough time for me to take the shuttle bus into town and set off for the ‘Mercado de Lavradores’, that magnificent building where local folk sell local produce. I was after some ‘Belladonna’, they grow well in Cornwall if you pick the right spot and I believe we have just the place. When I’m at the market I cannot stop myself from taking a few photos, particularly of the Espada, the Black Fish that actually looks quite scary. Great big bulging eyes and ghastly looking teeth, brought up from the deep and looking quite angry about it.
Funchal always seems to be a bustling sort of place, and when I walked quickly back with my bulbs, and an Australian Tree Fern (quite small you understand, but with potential), I went passed the Ritz Café, a magnificent building on the main street opposite the botanical gardens. There were plenty of people sat outside in the sunshine, but as I passed I suddenly realised how many vintage glazed tiles showing old scenes from Madeira there were on the outside walls. Being a bit of a railway buff I also wasn’t aware that there had been, until around 1943, a steam rack railway running from town up to Monte. But there it was depicted in hand painted tiles, a rare find hidden in plain view.
We stayed a while longer to make up for out late arrival, departing just as the sun had set. Behind us the island was disappearing into shadow and, as all the street lights were coming on, Funchal was beginning to sparkle.
We arrived off Santa Cruz just after 10 am, by which time it was becoming pleasantly warm under a blue sky. Many of the passengers were on one of the various tours set up for the afternoon, even so there seemed to be a dignified rush for the shuttle bus into town. As the ship was scheduled for a late departure I ventured off on a ‘Forest Walk’, which wasn’t going to return until around sunset.
The tour guide was a Belgian chap who had decided to stay on the island seven years ago after arriving with his girlfriend on a budget holiday. He had been up surfing before we had arrived, looked very fit indeed and had an enviable suntan. The coach took us first up to Mirador de la Concepcion, a spectacular vantage point with views over the city. Then it was a 50 minute drive across the east side of the island to the ‘Laurel Forest’, Los Tilos. To get to the start of the walk the driver had to negotiate some very tight turns that led across very narrow bridges, it was impressive to see that there was not a scratch on his shiny coach.
The path was a fairly easy climb up a non-metalled service track used by the engineers to repair and maintain the levadas, the waterways that had been built to bring water to the east coast plantations. Our guide stopped often to pick out various plants, and was very informative, talking about the ancient laurels, giant ferns and very large dandelion plants which would have been the scourge of my lawn. After an hour or so, we returned the same way, boarded the bus and headed off for San Andreas y Sauces. The drive took us through great swathes of banana plantation, apparently grown as a subsistence crop. We stopped for a small beverage in this delightful village before continuing our walk along a coastal path. Down to the right the sea was foaming between black volcanic rocks, while to the left various levels of bananas were partially hidden behind walled terraces, even the smallest area of land being cultivated.
It was a delightful afternoon, followed by a pleasant evening alongside until, eventually, the lines were slipped and we set off on the 63 mile journey to La Gomera.
San Sebastian is a delightful town and the capital of La Gomera. The port has just one pier for cruise ships and can be ‘interesting’ when docking with an off shore wind. Fortunately weather conditions had been unusually warm with light breezes and today was no exception.
Not having seen anything of the interior I joined the walking tour that went into the Garajonay National Park. Our coach, with guides Mika and Lorenzo, soon left San Sebastian where preparations were being made for a parade later in the afternoon to celebrate Saints Day. The road wound its way up the south side of a very deep ravine, gaining thousands of feet before we stopped at the first view point. Here a café sat precipitously on the edge, but gave magnificent views to the south. Continuing on, evidence of the islands beginning, around 12 million years ago, could be clearly seen in the landscape, with one or two grey barren volcanic plugs emerging from the weathered mountain ridges.
In the centre of the island lies the Park, much greener because the plants and shrubs gain their water from the mist and cloud that is often covering the higher levels. Not today, however, and after leaving the bus a paved path took us up towards the highest point, El Alto de Garajonay, 4,878 feet above sea level, from where we could see the other islands of La Palma, El Hierro and Tenerife. The conditions were perfect and I managed to get most of our party into posing mode, so the photograph shows them with Mount Teide on Tenerife in the background with gardening expert Carol Klein as tour escort in the front. The route back to the bus was down a different un-paved path, through what is left of the dense forest of Laurisilva, which was devastated by fire about three years ago. Now the tree heathers and smaller plants are coming back and there is much evidence of replanting, but it will be many years before the forest recovers.
The ride back down stopped again at the café where there was opportunity to sample a local liquor, made from heart of palm. An interesting taste probably not dissimilar from mixing Madeira wine and cough mixture, I shall not be buying a bottle to take home.
The day became very hot indeed, which must have made it very uncomfortable for the locals kitted out in the many layers of national dress for the parade. According to passengers to whom I spoke however, the festivities went on with a considerable element of laughter and merriment, helped in no small manner I should imagine, by the amount of ‘refreshment’ being given out on the way.
It was still dark when we picked up the Santa Cruz harbour pilot and aimed, as instructed, for the green light. Not that it was particularly visible as there was a very large brightly lit oil rig just behind. He might just have well said keep the oil rig on your right hand side. In fact it was one of five rigs or drill ships in the vicinity, all laid up because of the present very low oil price
Sunrise, when it came after we had docked, was suitably impressive and the day had warmed up considerably by the time passengers started to come out for their tours. ‘Gardens of the Valley, ‘Northern Delights’ and ‘Mount Teide’ were all on offer as well as a bus transfer to Puerto de la Cruz. A shuttle bus took other folk who wanted to go ashore independently through the port and dropped them off within walking distance of the city. I did take a stroll to stretch my legs later in the afternoon, there were plenty of locals sitting outside cafes watching the world go by, and a distinct smell of garlic prawns from time to time, but being a Sunday not all the shops were open (to some husbands delight no doubt).
Back on board come the evening, Executive Chef George Streeter and his team prepared the most superb Spanish dinner. Served on the Aft Veranda deck, with food being prepared on barbecues, it had great atmosphere and passengers were most impressed.
Another harbour pilot strolled up to the bridge around about 10:30 pm, watched Staff Captain Alex effortlessly take the ship off the berth, and then departed before we had even gone past that green light.
A nice day was had by all in Gran Canaria. It was not quite as hot as the day before, but with pleasant temperatures although a little overcast at times, but it didn’t spoil the day.
A group of Saganaughts went out with one of our Explosive Production Dancers, Molly Aldridge on a Sand Dune Camel Safari. The 45 minute journey to Maspalomas in the South of the island was filled with interesting facts from the local guide and lots of Werther’s Originals! Their first stop was the Camel Ranch were they got up close and personal with the camels, feeding them and finding them highly amusing when one of them tried to pinch one of our passenger’s sunglasses! There were 10 camels lined up waiting for the 20 eager Saga Guests to board. Eventually, with a little bit of prodding and poking (of guests not camels) they were up! The Sand Dunes were a little bumpy in certain parts but with stunning views and beautiful sunshine it made the experience very enjoyable.
After coming down with a bump when disembarking the camels, they were greeted by a cup of fresh mint tea and opportunity to purchase some local Souvenirs which finished the tour off beautifully.
Guests going ashore independently either took a stroll to the beach, where a long promenade awaited lined with typically Spanish cafes and restaurants, made their way to the nearby shopping mall or centre of town to enjoy the January Sales, or jumped on the Hop-On/Hop-Off bus to become more familiar with the area.
Sailing at 5pm meant that we were able to enjoy a formal night on board and welcome back our Britannia Club guests at their dedicated Cocktail Party.
Two members of our Explosive Productions group escorted a couple of the shore excursions today.
70 of our guests went on the Fire Mountain excursion, and on one of the coaches was Explosive Dancer Lucy Mays:
The Coach left the ship at 9am and set off to the Fire Mountains, en route passing the Camel Safari! Entering the Timfaynaya National Park it suddenly became very secluded. We drove high up in the mountains to a restaurant and a tour of the lava flows where we were given stones to hold which were piping hot, the guides threw dry branches into a hole in the ground and they went up in flames – quite impressive! Then it was back to the coach for a tour around the volcanos. The bus driver played really eerie music to add to the experience. The last stop was at a lovely vineyard where the views were breath-taking and everyone sampled the local wine. This tour was very interesting and I recommend it for everyone….it was a great day out!
Georgie Taylor, our Dance Captain, went on the Northern Highlights tour:
The first stop was to a local shop were we tried the local wine - even if it was 9.30am! Well, it is an all-inclusive cruise this time, so our guests are becoming used to "manning-up" and starting early! After stopping to take photos at a viewpoint, there was an unexpected visit to an Aloe Vera farm, where we were shown how they cut, grow and use the plant locally, with an opportunity to taste Aloe Vera – something new for many of us. The final stop was at a cave formed by Lava. Inside the cave, at the bottom, was a lagoon with a rare species of Albino Crabs, quite amazing. These caves were stunning to visit, and also have a restaurant and theatre. Well worth a visit!
For those who went ashore independently the complimentary shuttle bus stopped just outside the centre of Arrecife. Many took a stroll up the promenade which is very pleasant, past a beautiful sandy beach where there were plenty of watering holes to stop and people watch from. A 10 minute stroll took our passengers past a very picturesque lake and on to the main shopping street. The January sales were still on, of course, and Cruise Director Jo Boase was yet again seen returning with shopping bags!
The call into Agadir was a very busy day for the onboard team as Classification Society surveyors were on board for their annual inspection to renew Saga Sapphire's Passenger Ship Safety Certificate. A select few, however, had been chosen to escort some of the shore excursions, and two members of the Explosive Productions team have written of their experiences.
In Agadir a number of our guests went to watch a Moroccan Culture Show and singer, Jamie O’Sullivan, was one of the Escorts:
Our passengers received a very warm welcome from the tour guide and driver when they boarded the coach, which got everyone in the mood, and excitement was in the air as we set off. The tour guide, Namid, first spoke about Moroccan culture explaining to us what we would experience throughout the tour. Before going to the show venue there was a stop at a viewpoint on top of the hill for photographs and the chance to have be photographed with a camel. The views from the hill were amazing and it really helped that the weather was fantastic. When we arrived at the Culture Show venue the performers were already playing music and dancing. Everyone was offered mint tea whilst waiting for the main event to begin. The show was great with acrobats, Moroccan music and traditional local dancing, complete with horse racing which ended with a very loud bang making us all jump in our seats. The musicians and dancers invited everyone to get involved with the performance, which we did, with gusto. On a high our passengers set off back to the ship, passing by the main beach on the way. I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing Moroccan culture.
Some guests went out on a jeep safari tour with another of our Explosive singers, Lia Sundin:
During the tour we stopped off at a number of stunning mountain viewpoints and also visited the botanical gardens where we learned about the uses of Moroccan Argon Trees and other vegetation. There was also the opportunity to indulge in a traditional, and very tasty, Moroccan honey breakfast. Later in the day we took a leisurely stroll through Paradise Valley, marvelling at the natural beauty of the lakes and gorges, as well as coming across camels, donkeys, goats and sheep. This was, without doubt, one of my favourite tours and I hope I get the chance to experience it again.
Greetings Ladies and Gentlemen! It’s wonderful to be back onboard again after a fabulous festive season at home with my family - although I must admit doesn’t it all seem like such a long time ago now?! Nevertheless a very Happy New Year to all our avid blog readers!
My handover with Captain Rentell was completed in double quick time and I’d like to wish Philip a most enjoyable vacation with his family in Cornwall. I set about re-familiarising myself with the charming Saga Sapphire before preparations were put in place for our departure on what is sure to be a spectacular 32 night voyage to the Caribbean on our ‘Caribbean Calypso’ cruise.
We departed our berth in Southampton just after 5pm, ensuring all our vast quantity of stores were loaded, and by 7pm we had dropped our pilot off and were proceeding at absolute full speed towards our first port of call, Vitoria in the Azores. Sadly Mother Nature had other plans, as we made our way towards the Azores we encountered the southern end of Storm ‘Gertrude’ which was rapidly making it’s (or her) way towards the UK. So strong winds and some fairly lumpy seas had an effect on the speed we were able to make on our passage. Nevertheless in true Saga Style we were able to re-jig our plans and an early evening arrival was set into Vitoria for the 29th January and we would remain overnight thereby allowing our passengers time on Terra Firma before the next leg of our journey across the pond.
On our journey south our passengers were kept well entertained with lectures from our destinations speaker Alistair Guthrie, Military Historian Brigadier Michael Shaw, Ornithologist David Parkin and news broadcaster Peter Sissons, to name but a few.
Evening entertainment was provided by our own ever popular Explosive Productions Cast together with shows from the UK’s rising opera star, soprano Kate Dowman, and West End musical duo ‘Bells and Baxter’.
We made our approaches towards the Azores and the island of Terceira early on Friday evening. By 5pm our pilot had joined me up on the Bridge, a jovial fellow who informed me that he was in fact the only pilot now on the island. As I navigated the vessel through the breakwaters, turned through 90 degrees and moved astern onto our berth the pilot chatted away and shared with me his family history, the state of the Portuguese shipping industry, his thoughts on how to improve the local economy and, much more controversial, who he would put in charge of Manchester United football club! It made the time pass quickly and by 6pm we were safely tucked up alongside in the shelter of the harbour.
Following a relaxing night’s rest many of our passengers were up early the following morning and ready to explore what is one of our lesser visited destinations. There were 3 tours this morning, the first to depart being the ‘Panoramic Drive’ This tour introduced our guests to the beautiful area around the town of Praia da Vitoria. It commenced with a drive along the coast, passing well-preserved traditional villages, such as Porto Martins, with views of the coast and the three bays known as the Enchanted Bays. The next destination was the village of Sao Sebastiao, situated on the east coast. This historic village is proud of its heritage, and has a number of interesting buildings such as the Igreja Matriz or main parish church, famous for its Manueline-style doorways, late Gothic frescoes and for its Chapel of the Holy Ghost.
With everyone safely aboard, and no doubt appreciating the chance to have touched land, we welcomed the pilot back on board and I decided to allow our Staff Captain Alex to complete the departure manoeuvre. It’s a case of full speed ahead now as the second leg of our journey across the pond commences, next stop the Caribbean, rum punch and (fingers crossed) sunshine….