|The Saga Ruby 2012
Norway Fjordland Vistas Cruise part 1
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We knew something of the history of the Saga Ruby, having known of her when she was Cunard's Vistafjord and then re-named Caronia. The following details are drawn from 'The Story of Saga Rose and Saga Ruby' by Anders Johannessen, which was published to coincide with the retirement after 44 years service of Saga Rose in December 2009.
The Vistafjord was built at the Neptune Yard at Wallsend on Tyne for the Norwegian America Line. The keel was laid on 19 April 1971, she was launched on 15 May 1972, and left for her sea trials on 6 April 1973. Her service speed was 20 knots and her maximum speed exceeded 22.5 knots. This performance is due to the traditional classic profile of a liner, and she is advertised as the last 'classic' passenger liner ever built. The ship was handed over to NAL on 15 May 1973 and she sailed to Oslo. She had cost $35 million to build and had 635 berths in 343 cabins. In May 1983 she was sold to Cunard Line, then a subsidiary of Trafalgar House Investments, for $73 million. New cabins were added and changes were made in public areas; she now had a capacity of 695 passengers in 389 cabins. A further re-fit in November 1994 created the new alternative dining restaurant 'Tivoli' and added more suites and changed some small double cabins to single ones with an overall reduction to 356 cabins and 677 passengers. In April 1996 Trafalgar House and its subsidiaries were acquired by the Kvaerner conglomerate, so Vistafjord and her older sister Sagafjord returned to Norwegian ownership. In October 1996 Sagafjord was sold to the Saga Group and renamed Saga Rose. Within two years Cunard Line was sold by Kvaerner to Carnival Corporation and the two classic liners QE2 and Vistafjord were again refitted; it was on 10 December 1999 that Cunard renamed her Caronia. The final Cunard cruise was completed on 1 November 2004 and we have the Cunard Holidays 2004 brochure which shows the layout and public rooms and cabins at that time. Ownership was transferred to Saga on 7 November 2004 and further re-fit work took place at Malta; she was formally re-named Saga Ruby in Southampton on 25 February 2005. Her first cruise began on 1 March 2005, and she carries a maltese flag.
Approaching Dover by taxi we could see the distinctive yellow funnel above the cruise terminal and well away from the busy cross-Channel ferry port. The cruise terminal was the terminus of the old South East and Central Railway, completed in April 1916 and used for luxury rail services including the Golden Arrow. The railway service ended in September 1994 and the building was restored and converted to the Dover Cruise Terminal. It was opened in June 1996 by the Chairman and Chief Executive of Cunard Line during a visit by the Royal Viking Sun. Saga Ruby was the only cruise ship in Dover today and there was plenty of space to relax until we were called for boarding. Free newspapers and magazines were provided. There was filtered cold water, and sandwiches and drinks could be purchased from the cafe. We were collected by taxi at exactly 11.00 and reached Dover at 13.15 well in time for boarding at 14.00. It was much more civilised that the congestion at Southampton, and everyone had a comfortable armchair whereas on our last cruise from Southampton we saw Grill passengers who had to stand while waiting for embarkation because there was not enough seating.
We looked around at the other passengers and were pleased that they were our sort of age and looked young and active. Saga specialises in holidays for the over-50s and only permits younger people if they are accompanying someone older. There are definitely no young adults or children on Saga Ruby unless they belong to the officers. Prices for Saga cruises are moderate and this must influence the sort of people who travel too. The passengers are almost exclusively British and we heard that only 5 people on board had foreign passports, and of the 677 passengers some 400 were on their first cruise with Saga.
We were greeted, our hand luggage was carried and we were led down the stairs to our cabin (that doesn't happen with Cunard now and you are expected to find your own way to your cabin taking the lifts). It was all exactly as we remembered from our trips on the QE2 yet with the advantages of a much smaller ship.
Saga Ruby has a mixture of single and double cabins, as well as a small number of suites. These are very popular with single people who find the price of a double cabin for sole use is too expensive. Our outside cabin had one small porthole and two single beds (which did not join to make a double) although some cabins did have either a Kingsize bed or the ability to join two beds together. Next time we might choose a different cabin now we know the options. Our bathroom, with a proper bath and shower, was large and had lots of cupboard space and large bottles of nice bath, shower, shampoo and body lotion. As well as the hot/cold water tap there was a separate supply of filtered water and a thermos jug of chilled water ready for us, with a bowl of fresh fruit. Storage space was sufficient but hanging space would have been cramped for a World Cruise where we carry a lot of formal clothes. However it was the same size as an inside cabin on the Queens, with the advantage of a seaview porthole. Seating was just one armchair, no settee.
It had been a long time since breakfast and we went to find something to eat. Meals are served in the restaurants at published mealtimes and our options on embarkation were limited to a buffet of hot snacks, sandwiches, cakes and scones served in the Ballroom. The table was nicely decorated with an enormous ice carving and carved melons and vegetables. The Ballroom is a large single storey room with a dance floor in the middle of the ship, which can hold all the passengers for one single cabaret performance in the evenings. It is exactly like a smaller version of the Queen's Room on the QE2. Coffee and tea are served at your table but the sandwiches and cakes are self-service. The Lido next door has machines which provide hot and cold drinks, and self service whippy ice-cream. Outside mealtimes there is an excellent Cabin Service menu, much better than anything we have seen elsewhere including the Cunard Grills.
We staved our hunger and it was soon time to unpack, hide our empty suitcases under our beds, and then proceed for lifeboat drill. On Saga Ruby everyone has to go to their lifeboat station on the open decks, and so we got to know Lifeboat Station 7. The lifeboats are old, like the ship. There are four covered lifeboats and the rest are uncovered, just as on the QE2. We hope we do not need to use them, but saw lifeboat number 7 was one of the covered boats. It was a contrast with Cunard ships where everyone is deliberately mustered indoors, and with what we have heard about the Costa cuise ships. Shortly afterwards Saga Ruby slipped her moorings and headed out of Dover harbour. Music played and free glasses of 'Bucks Fizz' were handed out to everyone on deck to celebrate the start of the cruise. First impressions are that we will like this type of cruising very much.
Once we were sailing the shop opened and we went to find some books for the voyage. To our surprise the library allows free access to books 24/7 and only the DVDs have to be signed out. There is always somewhere is sit and read because the Britannia Lounge at the front of the ship has plenty of seats, and then the South Cape Bar has more and finally there is always the Ballroom. When the weather is good it is nice to lie out on the loungers on deck or sit under the sunshades outside the Lido.
We changed for dinner and set off to explore. There were two targets – Pete wanted to find the gym which was right at the top of the ship near the funnel, whereas Pauline wanted to look at the menu at the alternative dining venue 'The View'. Both are at the aft of Saga Ruby and the staircase up to the gym is on the outside decks from the Preview bar below The View. Having an alternative dining venue at the back of the ship is similar to the Todd English restaurant on the QM2 and the Verandah on the old Queen Mary. It was too late to book for The View that evening but we looked at the menu and committed to coming back the next day to make a booking for later in the cruise. There were two venues for live music as well as the Ballroom; the cocktail pianist was playing in the South Cape Bar and the Kodex Trio were playing for dancing in the Britannia Lounge. Both were pleasant to listen to, and for those unaccompanied ladies who wanted to dance we quickly spotted the two gentlemen hosts.
The main restaurant is open for dinner from 18.45 to 21.00 and we had been allocated a table for two which would be ours for the voyage. This was perfect, because large tables usually eat together and this means everyone has to arrive at the same time. We like to be independent and prefer to eat later. There are no fixed early and late sittings for dinner here. Breakfast and lunch are an open sitting where it is possible to sit anywhere you like with anyone you like. The first evening was described as casual but being British this meant that most men wore a jacket and tie and most ladies had a longish skirt. The Lido restaurant is self-service and open longer hours than the main dining room. It serves similar food but with a less formal dress code.
We had checked on the rules for bringing wine on board for special occasions and found that there was no problem so we had brought two bottles of homemade wine with us. However the bar prices were very good and cheaper than in many pubs and restaurants back home, so most people don't bring anything on board. Prices are all in sterling, and for example there is a choice of wine at about £3 by the large glass served at table. We chose a nice bottle of Californian red wine at under £20. And the price is the price; there is no automatic 15% service charge added on top. Gratuities for cabin staff and waiters are all included in the cruise price too.
We went into dinner at 19.45 to find everyone else was already there and eating. Indeed we did not see anyone else come in later. The lack of lunch and the long journey to Dover obviously meant everyone wanted to eat dinner early tonight. The dinner menu gave choices of Appetiser, Soup, Salad, Sorbet, Main Course, Cheese and Desserts with vegetarian options and the announcement that it was always possible to order plain grilled chicken breast, salmon or sirloin steak, jacket potato, extra vegetables or smaller and larger portions. The food was all plated, not silver service. Saga has a good reputation for the quality of its food and it is well deserved. We looked out of the window and saw the Queen Elizabeth pass by on her return to Southampton. She would be heading to Norway one day behind us and was supposed to join us at anchor in Skjolden. We were looking forward to seeing her and being able to take photos as it is a small place and we would be close together. As the evening progressed the sun set and the ocean glowed with the reflected light. We wished we had brought our camera into the restaurant because it was really spectacular as the sun finally set. It was still early and we reached the Ballroom while the Gail Davies Production Company were presenting their Showtime Spectacular 'Sail Away', featuring the Riverdance and the Can-can. Comprising only two singers and six dancers they gave a very energetic performance with good singing and a lot of costume changes. Unfortunately the only seats we found were at the back and much of the performance was hidden by other people and columns but we could still hear the music. Norway is GMT+2 so the clocks went forward by one hour tonight.
The first day at sea gave the opportunity to get to know the ship better. It began with an hour in the gym and to our surprise no-one else was there. There were two cross-trainers, two treadmills, and four bicycles as well as a range of weights, benches and other equipment. It was older equipment so its calibration matched the gym in the QE2 and was similar to the equipment we have at home.
Breakfast was good with freshly squeezed orange juice, lots of black coffee and fresh fruit. There were all the favourite hot options for Pauline: should she have Eggs Benedict or Blueberry Pancake and maple syrup ? Most other people were doing variations on a Full English, which was cooked to order and then served at table. Norwegian smoked salmon, kippers, smoked haddock and black pudding were Pete's favourites.
We went up to the View and booked a table for dinner there on the Saturday evening, when we would have spent the day at Bergen. Advanced bookings are mandatory and only one visit is allowed per cruise. We then listened to an excellent lecture in the Ballroom by Dame Mary Peters who won so many medals in past Olympic games.
Our first lunch was another nice surprise. The Chef Recommendation had an appetiser, soup, sorbet, main course roast lunch and then a hot pudding with custard – a serious meal. There were lots of other nice choices too including interesting and good quality icecreams. Obviously it is expected that older folks like to have a substantial five course lunch, presumably followed by an afternoon snooze, before getting up for afternoon tea and then a gin and tonic before a five course dinner. All the food on board was excellent, much better than we have had elsewhere, but we will need to get a lot of exercise to burn off all the calories.
Afternoon tea was in the Ballroom from 16.15 to 17.00, with exactly the same format as the light buffet on embarkation. The only difference was that it was a Chocolate Afternoon Tea, which included lots of chocolate cakes and an enormous chocolate fountain. Being early days the crew had to help everyone and we were not allowed to put our own strawberries into the flowing melted chocolate. The chef really does know how to make cakes, and Pete pronounced the scones to be excellent. There was also a range of diabetic and gluten free cakes, and having diabetic jam with the scones did seem to help the calorie intake. The music of the cocktail pianist blended well with the tinkling of tea cups and the contented sounds of happy eating.
Saga Ruby has two shops. One is duty free and sells jewellery and clothes, the other is smaller and open in port and sells books, Saga Ruby logo items, and useful drugstore supplies (shampoos, suntan lotion, batteries etc). The old Saga Rose had retired in 2009 and a book had been produced about Saga Rose and Saga Ruby to mark that event. Just three copies were left and although not in perfect condition they were at a reduced price and were an obvious purchase.
Being the first day at sea it was a formal evening, with pre-dinner cocktails offered by the Captain and his officers in the Ballroom in the traditional format. We decided to choose the line which met the Captain, there was no queue so we were able to have a long discussion with Captain Krzysztof 'Krys' Majdzinski and have the standard photograph. This is his very first cruise as Captain of Saga Ruby. Pre-dinner cocktails were Veuve du Vernay Brut, Gin and Tonic, Whisky and Ginger or Tropical fruit juice. After two or three drinks we had no interest in ordering wine with dinner, which was the usual excellent Captain's Gala Dinner format.