Germany – Bremen Freespirited
Our final destination was to Bremerhaven and with the Saga Sapphire docked at the Columbus Quay, we chose the option of visiting the historic nearby city of Bremen while around 80 fellow guests chose to visit the alternative Tall Ships Experience in the home port.
It was a real homecoming for the Saga Sapphire, for she was actually built in Bremerhaven back in 1981 and, according to three pilots who came aboard shortly before we passed the mouth of Germany's Jade Bight and the port of Willemshaven to guide her to moorings along the River Weser, they said it was her first visit for 15 years.
The 45 minute coach trip from Bremerhaven to Bremen saw us dropped off close to the magnificent 11th century Gothic cathedral, the city's lovely Rathuis, its Renaissance City Hall and the huge statue of Roland in the UNESCO-listed Market Square.
However what really draws the visitors is the bronze Musicians of Bremen statue featuring a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster. Inspired by one of the Brothers Grimm's best-loved fairytales, most visitors are photographed holding the legs of the donkey which has become a German tradition and is reputed to bring them good luck!
We first visited Bremen around 30 years ago when its Christmas Market was in full swing. However this time with the temperature hovering around 26 degrees, we found shade provided by the little narrow streets of the Schnoor district in which many of the shops were open despite it being a Sunday… my wife unable to resist purchasing a small glass angel which will adorn our family Christmas tree come December!
OFFICERS, STAFF AND CREW
On our particular cruise, the ship's master was jovial Captain Stuart Horne who had only joined the Sapphire six weeks earlier. "I began my career straight from high school back in 1976," he told us. Having had experience with many cruise and ferry companies, he is also a qualified ship's pilot and has a passion for classic cars and motorcycles when not on duty. He has also served on the Canberra during the Falkland Islands conflict in 1992.
We were invited to dine with him in the Pole to Pole Restaurant on our second night, along with fellow journalists Jeannine Williamson, Anthony Nicholas and Diane Page, so questions naturally came thick and fast.
"We currently have 438 officers, crew and staff along with 665 passengers on this particular trip. That's a ratio of around one to 1.4 which is far more impressive than on any other cruise line," he said. "And as soon as we dock back at Dover our next trip will around the Baltic. I know there are quite a few passengers already aboard who have enjoyed back-to-back cruises while some are staying on for a third," he said.
With Filipinos making up the majority of the catering, cleaning and waiting staff, the one thing that is instantly noticeable is that everyone is friendly and courteous to all the passengers while they all seemed to get on very well together. "It's a really happy ship.
There's plenty of respect and everyone gets along fine," he added. And that happiness is clearly reflected in Captain Horne's daily announcements over the ship's tannoy, for his sense of humour wouldn't be out of place in the Tommy Cooper Bar!
ABOUT THE SAGA SAPPHIRE
The Saga Sapphire has certainly had a chequered past for it was originally built in Bremerhaven back in 1981 for Germany's Hapag-Lloyd Line and launched as MS Europa. However in 1999 it was purchased by the Star Cruises company and renamed MS SuperStar Europe only to undergo another change just 12 months later when it became MS Superstar Aries.
It was sold again in 2004 to Pullmantur Cruises and renamed MS Holiday Dream while four years on it was transferred to the CDF Croisières de France when it underwent another change to become Bleu de France, it's passenger capacity having been increased from a little over 650 to a maximum of 1158.
It was in November 2010 when Saga Cruises purchased the ship although CDF Croisières continued to charter it for the next 12 months until it underwent a four month total refit in Italy, this magnificent 37,301 tonne vessel emerging as the MV Saga Sapphire.
Today the luxury 12 deck ship – ten for passengers including a promenade deck – carries a maximum of 720 passengers who are looked after by an average of 415 officers and crew in a total of 327 cabins. At almost 200 metres (655 feet) in length with a beam measuring 28.55 metres (94 feet), the Saga Sapphire has four passenger lifts and four restaurants.
As this was our first time on a Saga holiday, both my wife and myself were blown away by the professionalism, friendliness and attitude of all the staff who simply couldn't do enough for us. I also learned that the average age of a Saga cruise passenger is 76 years old and that once they've had the experience, most go on to book cruises again year after year… and I can see why!
The Sapphire staff seem to treat everyone as friends and not strangers and together with Saga's cashless cruise policy, it means that you don't ever have to worry about having change for onboard tips and the like. All bills are settled before disembarkation thanks to a pre-registered credit or debit card system.
While some may think cruising is expensive, with no single cabin supplements, I believe that Saga offers tremendous value for money as everything – transfers, insurance, all-inclusive meals and a daily news bulletin – is included. And with free Wi-Fi available to all throughout the cruise, unlike other companies, it means that you can stay in touch with home and family for free should you wish.
However if there was one tiny complaint then it would have to be about the positioning of the safe in the cabins. While I could easily get down on my knees to punch in a chosen four digit code, as the safe in our cabin was located on one of the lower shelves inside the wardrobe, I can only imagine quite a few pensioners would struggle to get back up again. It's just a thought!
Seventy-year-old Alan Wooding and his wife Jo, 69, were the guests of Saga Travel aboard Saga Sapphire for the five night 'Bank Holiday Escape' cruise. Special thanks to Saga Cruise's PR Manager Naomi Thornton for organising the trip. Amazingly the whole trip was taken on a flat calm sea while the ship covered a total distance of 830.2 nautical miles. It carried 665 passengers, occupying 327 cabins while prices were between £734 for an inside double or twin to £1,719 for a suite.
Specialising in holidays for the over-50s, Saga Holidays – www.saga.co.uk; www.sagacruises.co.uk; telephone 0800 096 0079 – include all return travel from your home to the port (in our case Dover) along with full-board accommodation, travel insurance and gratuities.