A Saga mini-cruise from Southampton to Belgium and Holland is the ideal way to get a taste for cruising, discovers Clare White.
It’s 4pm on a rainy Friday evening but nothing is going to dampen the spirits of the passengers on Saga Sapphire. The band is in full sway as we sail away from Southampton on our Saga Belgium and Holland cruise – everyone is dancing, and glasses of Buck’s Fizz are in hand.
Our excellent steward Ronaldo has already shown us to our cabin; with its super-comfy king-size bed and luxury pillows it is more like a hotel room. And we’ve also tucked into a delicious afternoon tea.
The passengers are welcomed on board as old friends; whether they are first-timers, like us, or seasoned travellers (Saga Cruises’ gold members have had more than 150 nights at sea, and there are a lot of them).
Taking a stroll around the ship we quickly find the Drawing Room, up on level 11, right at the front of the ship. It’s a delightful, intimate space with a country-house hotel feel – chess sets, books, puzzles and card tables. There are jigsaws to do with other guests and plenty of chatting. Everyone is enthused and talking about the super- attentive crew; we’re so well looked after.
Our first evening meal is in the Pole to Pole restaurant, the ship’s formal dining room, where we are presented with a splendid menu offering a great variety of haute cuisine. Everything is prepared on board and the attention to detail and quality is outstanding: my chicken with pancetta and roasted tomatoes followed by coffee gateaux is superb.
Next morning after a night at sea, which is unusually rocky, guests exchange tales of ‘how quickly you get your sea legs’ as we arrive at Zeebrugge for our first shore excursion. Every need is anticipated – just when we thought we might need a map, one was already provided,
on our coach seat. The transfer to Bruges takes only about 20 minutes and a very well-informed guide is on board to tell us about the history of the medieval Flemish capital and to help us plan our walking route.
Bruges – known as the Venice of the North – is charming. The UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site has numerous low bridges built in the 1700s. The houses are the walls of the canal, and the churches have towers like skyscrapers. In fact, the Church of our Lady’s brick spire,
as seen in the film In Bruges, is the highest point in the city at a lofty 379ft, and said to be the second tallest brickwork tower in the world. We were keen to see the marble Madonna and Child sculpture by Michelangelo but, unfortunately, the church was closed due to renovation, although the bells of the belfry were in fine voice.
After strolling along the banks of the canal into the centre of the town, we hopped onto one of the little open-top boats. Seeing Bruges from the water is beautiful and a must when on a Belgium and Holland cruise.
Of course, a big attraction of any trip to Belgium is the chocolate. Unfortunately, I’m allergic to it, but there are more than 80 chocolate shops from which to choose; and in some you can even watch the whole chocolate-making process – from pod to the finished dark-liquid creation.
After selecting our gifts to take home, we turned from the main square into the Burg and stopped off at one of the many quaint little cafés for some freshly made Belgian waffles and glasses of beer.
That evening it’s a formal night on board, and my husband is pleased that he packed his dinner jacket and bow tie, as the other guests have dressed for the occasion. The very entertaining and jovial captain, Stuart Horne, has invited us all to his cocktail party (all drinks are free on the ship), introduced us to his senior members of staff, and has everyone laughing. With the help of the ship’s priest, the captain has promised us a much smoother night’s sailing.
We decide to try the Britannia Lounge for the evening’s show. The Explosive Singers and Dancers company performed songs-and-dance routines in tribute to musicals including Miss Saigon and My Fair Lady, plus ABBA and Burt Bacharach numbers, or there was classical music provided by The Lyrica Piano Quartet. Later, there was more wonderful singing in the Drawing Room, where again we danced into the night. For any unaccompanied ladies who needed a partner, Gentleman Hosts were on hand.
The next morning, the excitement mounts as we begin to sail into Amsterdam. With the ship berthed at the cruise centre, it’s only a 20-minute walk into the very heart of Old Amsterdam. We consider its mixture of beautiful 17th-century architecture; and then, of course, there’s the infamous red-light district, with occasionally surprising window displays. For some culture, we head to the museum quarter to explore the majestic Rijksmuseum, full of the work of Dutch Golden Age artists – Rembrandt and Vermeer.
We stop at the stylish Café Luxembourg in Spui square for lunch, which, with its Art Deco interior and glassed terrace, makes the perfect people-watching spot. Tucked down an alley towards the river is a fabulous tiny biscuit shop – Van Stapele Koekmakerij. Its beautiful interior is decked out with mahogany and illuminated by the crystal chandeliers. Although the baker makes only one kind of cookie, they’re certainly worth queueing for, and would make a great gift if they were to make it home… but their freshly baked aroma proves to be irresistible.
For any first-time visitor to Amsterdam a must-do is a canal tour, which can be arranged by Saga. It’s a great opportunity to study the different Dutch gable tops, and try to spot which of these stunning 17th-century houses are at the most precarious angle. The Dutch also never
seem to close any curtains, so the tantalising glimpses of interiors will keep you thoroughly entertained. It is the perfect way to see the city.
On the Belgium and Holland cruise, Saga offers an evening walk around the canals (this beautiful city really does come to life at night). The tiny canal-side pubs, cosy with dark wood bars, glass and mirrors, light up the dim cobbled streets.
With a 6.30am start the next day, the captain warns all revellers to be back by 6am – but how many will be back that late? This city is the perfect destination for Saga Cruises’ young-at-heart guests (it seems to be full of them).
There’s a Jazz Night on the ship, perhaps to tempt people back, and after a long day wandering, a lot of people have turned up in Cooper’s Bar for late-night drinks and a singalong with the lovely resident crooner, Brad Moodie. Plus, there’s a late-night buffet for those who have stayed up the longest and are in need of sustenance.
Our final day is spent at sea and I decide to treat myself to a Swedish massage in the spa. My lovely masseuse was new to the ship, and we ended up talking about the wonderful staff – a real tribute to the family feeling on board.
The spa offers a full range of Elemis Biotec facials and body treatment, and I’m tempted to have my hair done, as we have been invited to dine at the Captain’s table that night, but the heated pool, jacuzzi, hammam and sauna are just too inviting.
Meanwhile, up in the Drawing Room, coffee and cakes are served and everyone is either reading, playing chess or chequers, or gently snoozing.
Around lunchtime with the sky getting lighter and some sunshine, we decided to go outside onto the sundeck. There is an open-air swimming pool for hotter days and sunnier climes. The stylish wooden deckchairs complete with blankets were set out – it felt just like being in a Bette Davis film from the 1940s. Add in an ice-cream machine, an old-fashioned sweet counter and fish and chips. Happy days.
The very top of the ship has a promenade deck. Six anti-clockwise laps make one mile and we’re amazed to see plenty of people willing to brave the wind and stride around. This is the spirit of Saga Cruises; everyone on board is determined to enjoy life to the full. Most people
we talked to had already booked their voyages for this year and for the next.
That evening we dined in the speciality Asian-style restaurant, East to West. This needs to be booked as it has a more intimate, exclusive feel than the other restaurants on board. We really had saved the best until last. I opted for a wonderful Vietnamese soup to start (with an extra side of mouthwatering Thai crab cakes), then halibut – with a light chilli sambal, an amuse-bouche with sake, and to finish, one of the best rice puddings I’ve ever eaten. And this was all with our thoughtful and entertaining captain. He’s great fun and very warm, though you quickly realise that he is very much the man in charge of this ship.
Our first cruise has been a delight from start to finish; all too quickly we’re back in Southampton, and the chauffeurs are waiting to whisk us to our doors. We drive home with the words of our captain in our ears: “Tomorrow you’ll have to make your own beds.” Unfortunately, the party has gone on to the Canaries without us… time to book another cruise.
A four night mini-cruise to Zebrugge (for Bruges) and Amsterdam on Saga Cruises’ new ship Spirit of Discovery, departing in September, starts from £1,123pp. The price includes chauffeur service up to 250 miles, all meals on board, a choice of wines with lunch and dinner, all onboard gratuities. For more information or to book call 0800 068 5053 or visit saga.co.uk/cruiseint
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