From artworks by Salvador Dalí to classical performances, idyllic Provençal towns and copious quantities of Cava, a cruise on board Saga Pearl II yields a wide range of cultural delights, discovers Linda Aitchison

A larger than life tribute to sex bomb actress Mae West is revealed before my eyes. I definitely wasn’t expecting that. Her platinum blonde hair is made of curtains, her lips are a plush red sofa, sepia prints on a wall represent her eyes and her nose is a flesh-coloured sculpture. Only by looking down through a curved mirror is the whole face visible.

I’m staring at this unexpected pout in the Salvador Dalí Museum in Figueres, the artist’s home town and capital of Girona in Catalonia, Spain.

“Come up and see me sometime,” laughs one of my fellow passengers from Saga Pearl II as we queue on an iron staircase before peering through the looking glass at the top. Visiting the Dalí museum is like entering a parallel universe, thanks to its quirky exhibits. Even the outside is a sight to behold – models of what look like bread rolls are dotted evenly over round, russet walls and giant eggs rise from the roof.

As our party roams from room to room, the only sound is our guide Carlos, captivating his audience with anecdotes as we gaze entranced at the unique art on show.

Figueres is just a 15-minute drive from Roses, a new port for Saga Pearl II. Also new is Tarragona, where we venture among the old town, learn about its quarrying heritage and viewed the Les Ferreres Aqueduct.

Once out of the museum, excited chatter about how much we loved it fills the air as we board our coach to Peralada. We stroll through its medieval castle and sample some locally produced Cava. I’m fascinated by my fellow travellers as they reminisce about sea journeys from days gone by. Boy, these people have lived – sailing to far-flung destinations in the 1950s, leaving lives behind in India or loyally sticking with the renowned Saga service, returning over the years to explore the world.

Beautiful vistas

Heading back to the ship, we can see how stunning Roses is. We’re in the shadow of the Pyrenees, but this is a classic Costa Brava coastline. The gorgeous beach is deserted. I would love to come back. Roses is a special destination as the only local resort facing west, bringing spectacular sunsets across the gulf.

For those wishing to spend more time here, as with all the ports carefully selected on our Cities of the Ancient Mediterranean cruise, there’s an option to leave the ship at leisure and meander through the town.

Tender boats line the quay after ferrying us to land. On the way back, I laugh too loudly as we navigate the choppy waters. Others are giggling, too; it may be nerves. This is an unforgettable experience and quite an adventure. The sea may look calm as it shines in the sun, but strong currents buffer our tender, making it feel like a roller coaster.

Inevitably not all passengers find the rough waters so funny. Here, as with so many instances on this Saga getaway, I witness faultless service as a tour guide or crew member places a reassuring hand on a worried traveller’s arm and shares a comforting word. By the time we are back at Saga Pearl II, our vessel is full of smiling faces.

Food glorious food

Safely on board, conversation continues in the Verandah restaurant. This is the most sumptuous food I have ever tasted. Every night executive chef John McCerery presents a delightful menu. With all meals included in the cost of this journey, I did not expect such outstanding cuisine, and it really is a revelation.

Tonight I choose Escargots à la Bourguignon (snails in a delicious garlic butter) followed by French onion soup, then the most amazing Chateaubriand with Béarnaise sauce.

For me, there’s no room for dessert. My companions tuck into cheesecake, followed by an array of cheeses, then a selection of delicate petits fours.

You can eat like this every night, with an immaculately served six-course dinner, with expertly chosen fine wines, should you choose. Or, if you prefer a lighter option, there’s always a ‘simple fare’ choice. Lunch is a less formal affair in either the main dining room or the Verandah, with a great buffet for meat and fish lovers as well as plenty of choice for vegetarians. At breakfast time, all of the bread and pastries are handmade in the ship’s kitchen and taste as though they are freshly delivered from a Parisian boulangerie.

Afternoon tea is another treat to savour, with dainty sandwiches and cakes beautifully presented in the Verandah or the plush Discovery Lounge, where this cruising tradition may also be accompanied by live classical music.

Refined elegance

There’s a relaxing and refined atmosphere on board, with a capacity for 449 guests throughout seven passenger decks and three bars, and the crew are attentive and well mannered. It’s an escape for me. “This is it, this is the ‘me time’ I thought was a myth,” I think to myself as I enjoy one of several Baileys over ice.

Around me, people have different levels of mobility, but they are all looked after brilliantly. There are three passenger lifts and reduced roll motion at sea, which may be useful for guests who don’t walk so well. But the biggest benefit is the warm-hearted staff helping all passengers on and off at each port – I have never witnessed such care in action on a ship and it makes me smile.

There are two pools – an outdoor one and a second, larger, indoor pool available at the ship’s spa. There’s also a cinema, a card room, shop and laundrette.

The sophisticated, grown-up feel of Saga Pearl II is perhaps most evident in its library, which is known as the heart of the ship. Its last refurbishment was in 2010, yet it still feels wonderfully smart and understated. The library boasts more than 3,000 books. You can also borrow a DVD to watch in your cabin or research other destinations in a great collection of travel magazines.

Painters’ paradise

Back on our excursion, we discover Dalí is not the only artist in the spotlight. With its pastel-painted homes, small beach and collection of fishing boats, Cassis in Provence inspired Cézanne and Matisse. It also enthralled novice painter Winston Churchill.

As we sip local wine and look out on to its bustling market, this, says one of my group, is what Saint-Tropez looked like half a century ago. Beloved by discerning British visitors, including Virginia Woolf, it retains an unspoiled air. As I chat in broken French to market stallholders, they welcome us enthusiastically.

In Menorca, we sail into Mahón to the sophisticated sounds of a classical quartet, accompanied by a sumptuous Champagne breakfast. The white walls of surrounding buildings glisten enticingly.

Hours later as we disembark Saga Pearl II, I feel like I have glimpsed another life. The service is out of this world and the sights encountered so very charming. You could say it has been a work of art. I will remember it as a true masterpiece.

GETTING THERE A 19-night Spanish Sojourn cruise on board Saga Pearl II departing Dover on 20 August is priced at £2,907pp, based on two sharing, and includes all meals on board, a choice of wine at lunch and dinner, on board gratuities, entertainment and activities, as well as UK mainland travel service to and from Dover. Ports of call include Gibraltar; Palma, Majorca; Cagliari, Sardinia; Mahón, Menorca; Barcelona; Valencia; Malaga and Seville. To find out more information or to book, call 0800 50 50 30 or visit saga.co.uk/cruises.

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