Becky Wiggins and her mum Rita sail around the Canaries on board Saga Pearl II with Saga Cruises and are impressed with the whole experience

Funchal on the island of Madeira, Portugal © Shutterstock
Funchal on the island of Madeira, Portugal © Shutterstock

The beginning

I’m relaxing on a comfy lounger reading a magazine. The sea is shimmering below me; white horses occasionally glinting in the sun, which is blazing in a cloudless blue sky. Everything seems perfect, except for being dogged by the strange feeling that I am being watched. I’m attracting some inquisitive glances from my fellow passengers and there’s a bit of whispering, too. Eventually one lady can stand it no more and taps me gently on the shoulder: “I’m terribly sorry to intrude, but I have to ask – why are you here?”

My mum and I joined Saga Pearl II in Fuerteventura and, flatteringly, it was noted that I was a bit on the young side. Saga Cruises passengers are usually 50 and over (although an over 50 lead passenger can bring a 40-plus guest), and I boarded with quite a lot of preconceptions – would it be all bingo and beetle drives? Would we be served beige food and retire with a cup of hot cocoa at 9pm?

I was fascinated by my fellow travellers. Luckily, everyone was happy to talk to us. Stylish Margaret, in huge glasses, white Capri pants, polka dots and new to solo cruising, told me that independent travellers are well looked after on board, with invitations to lunches and social events making it easy to make friends if you want to. Most people were returning cruisers and all seemed hugely loyal to Saga Cruises, citing everything from the impeccable service to the value for money (from the moment you leave home in your chauffeur driven car, everything is included).

Fittingly, we came to think of Saga Pearl II as a rather sophisticated older lady, a classic beauty – all glowing teak, azure parasols, polished brass and white linen. Our Bridge Deck stateroom was spotless, finished with jaunty nautical stripes, white marble and more polished wood. There wasn’t a whiff of floating retirement home about it.

My mum loved every minute. A first-time cruiser, she revelled in the laid-back, peaceful atmosphere (no squawking babies or rowdy teenagers here), learned how to play bridge, and delighted in the opportunity to visit an array of destinations all on one trip. She also adored the friendly crew (staff on board are ridiculously attentive: every time you go to open a door, someone magically appears). Not allowing a finger to be lifted is clearly the Saga way as we were served at the buffet and I even had my cocktail carried back to my lounger for me, the lovely waiter laughing off my protestations that I really could have carried it myself.

Becky's mum Rita enjoys an ice cream in the sun while on a Saga Pearl II cruise
Becky’s mum Rita enjoys an ice cream in the sun while on a Saga Pearl II cruise

And relax…

The well-stocked, elegant library is popular, and there’s also an excellent spa on board. After burning my nose on day one, I booked in and was treated to a blissful Decléor facial. My friendly therapist, Nedia, passed no judgment on my sloppy application of SPF and I ended up nodding off under her expert touch, waking up completely relaxed and with glowing, dewy skin. There are two pools, one out on deck and another popular indoor pool next to the spa, as well as a small – mostly unused – gym.

During the day, there’s loads to do. As well as daily quizzes, crosswords and sudoku, there are interesting talks from guest speakers, a range of (gentle) exercise classes and the chance to join volunteers from whale and dolphin conservation organisation ORCA up on deck for some interesting chat about their work protecting wildlife, and a bit of whale spotting.

Dining on board was a highlight, with creative menus and beautiful presentation. The dining room is light and airy and elegantly furnished with white linen and sparkling silver tableware. It’s ‘open dining’ so you just stroll in whenever you fancy, and wherever you like. And forget beige; memorable dishes included sweet chilli crayfish tails, served on the thinnest sliver of caramelised pineapple, and delicate lemon sole with nutty lemon butter sauce. The Saga Cruises’ cheese trolley has achieved legendary status among regular passengers (I tried to refuse it for fear of being rolled off the ship in shame, but the call of the Shropshire Blue was too strong) and there’s a large selection of decent complimentary wines at lunch and dinner. There’s also a comprehensive wine list.

Puerto de Mogan © Alamy
Puerto de Mogan © Alamy

Party on

Oh, and you can forget that cocoa at 9pm thing. In the spacious Discovery Lounge, we enjoyed singing and dancing (not us, although you can do both if that’s your thing), show tunes, a string quartet, an über-talented piano virtuoso and a Carpenters tribute so gorgeous that it made me cry. Dancing under the stars defeated me at midnight, and I headed off to bed leaving the party still in full flow.

After Puerto del Rosario, Fuerteventura, we sailed on to Gran Canaria. In Las Palmas our excursion choices ranged from hiking the Bandama Caldera (labelled ‘strenuous’, we avoided that one) to a rather adventurous sounding sand dune camel safari.

We opted for a sunny afternoon exploring the pretty bougainvillea-draped harbour town of Puerto Mogán, stopping to sip sangria in a harbourside café and watch yachts bobbing on the water. Accompanied by a friendly Saga Cruises representative, we were spoiled on the journey there with sweets (I got two, being a ‘youngster’) and welcomed back with cool, scented towels. High winds in La Gomera prompted a change of plan, which was handled efficiently, with an unscheduled visit to Tenerife swiftly arranged in its place.

A balmy evening dining al fresco in the twinkly old town of Santa Cruz followed, feasting on warm bread, garlic prawns, thin slices of fresh octopus and salty Canarian potatoes with mojo sauce, finishing with a lovely moonlit walk back to Saga Pearl II nibbling on ice creams. Heaven.

Sailing from Tenerife to Madeira, we encountered some rough weather and this is when Saga Cruises’ fabulous service really kicked in – some of the older guests decided to stay in their cabins (there’s 24-hour room service on board), and the staff worked so hard, rushing around making sure everyone was happy. The captain is very noticeable around the Saga Pearl II and kept everyone informed as to when the ‘wobbly weather’ was due to die down.

We docked early in Funchal to calm seas and clear skies, where many of our more organised colleagues had got up early and enjoyed a wander around this beautiful city, coming back full of tales of fruit sellers in local costume and pretty streets with painted doors. As we disembarked, we kicked ourselves that we hadn’t got up earlier; still we were full of cheese and very happy after creating some wonderful memories and making a whole ship full of new friends. With celebs like Julia Roberts, Harry Connick Jr and Nicole Kidman reaching a half century this year, it’s clear that 50 is the new 40. Someone should really tell them about cruising with Saga Cruises.

GETTING THERE: Saga Cruises’ Saga Pearl II departs Southampton 1 November 2017 for a 19-night Contrasts of the Canaries and Cape Verde cruise from £3,268pp, two sharing (0800 505 030; saga.co.uk/cruises).

Whether you’re looking for a cultural holiday or relaxing break, find your perfect cruise with our Cruise Finder.