It’s been a long hike and I’m getting pretty hot. But, approaching the summit along a rocky, zig-zagging path after nearly 1,000ft of climbing, it all becomes worthwhile. As I pick my way through one of many ruins in the citadel, the view opens out at the edge of the plateau, and there in the crystal clear water below me is my ship, Spirit of Adventure.
Monemvasia is without doubt somewhere to have on your list of places to see before you die. It’s like a mini Ayers Rock, or maybe rather more like a mini Sigiriya (Sri Lanka). On a small peninsula on the south-east coast of the Peloponnese in Greece, the town nestles on the side of a towering rock with the ruins of a medieval fortress on top. As we cruised past it earlier in the rosy glow of sunrise, the buildings of the town seemed to blend in with the peach and pink shades of the rock.
Saga’s Spirit of Adventure sets its stall somewhat apart from the other Saga ships. With a roving itinerary, interesting activities on offer, not to mention a small fleet of mountain bikes, it aims to cater for the discerning passenger out for a certain level of cultural stimulation.
And they’re trying to attract a younger, more active cruiser than the traditional Saga over-50s market, although to be honest that wasn’t particularly evident on the cruise I did last October in the Aegean.
Spirit For Adventure
The new Saga brand consists of three distinct elements, all with an adventurous side to their nature.
SPIRIT OF ADVENTURE cruising features an array of more wide-ranging voyages than the usual cruise line experience, including Central America, the North Cape, the Falklands and Antarctica, as well as some of the lesser-known ports of the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Northern Europe.
CLASSIC JOURNEYS TOURING is a series of adventurous expeditions and classic tours with unusual itineraries which give in-depth insights into places like Tibet, Egypt and Alaska’s Inside Passage.
And EXPLORE is a world-wide adventure series featuring walks and treks; family adventures; cycling short breaks; and a Beyond section to the likes of Africa and South America.
With a small ship able to get into ports which the big ships pass, it certainly feels more adventurous. And it was certainly adventurous the day we tried to get in to the adjacent islands of Delos and Mykonos, with a fearsome Force Seven blowing.
Delos was to be a tender stop, but the sea was just too choppy for that, and so we made our way to Mykonos. But even getting in here was only made possible by the skill of the port’s tugboat crew, who took the strain to ensure we didn’t get blown straight onto the berth.
Having done the Suez, Panama, Kiel, Cape Cod and Chesapeake & Delaware Canals, I was looking forward to adding the Corinth Canal to my collection. This short cut through the Isthmus of Corinth isn’t one the big ships can do and, with around 10ft clearance on each side (and below the keel), it was truly spectacular.
It’s a straight cut of just under four miles and, with the rocky walls of the canal rising high above us as we crept along slowly under tow from a tug, we hoped the Greek pilots were concentrating on the job in hand – the previous month the Fred. Olsen ship Black Prince sustained propeller damage entailing a spell in dry dock as a result of transiting the Corinth Canal.
While the majority of cruise lines lay on shore excursions as (often over-priced) optional extras, here most stops had at least one excursion included in the price. And, for stops where the port may be some distance from the town, free shuttle buses were provided.
Onboard lecturers give an insight into upcoming ports, and on Spirit, not only did they cover them in minute detail, but much else besides – art, wildlife, archaeology, history. On my cruise, Lord Patrick Wright, former head of the diplomatic service, provided history and an entertaining insight into names, while those more interested in a hands-on approach signed up for watercolour lessons with artist Colin Beckett.
And, if spotting wildlife is your thing, every cabin is equipped with a pair of binoculars which you can borrow. In fact, speaking to a number of passengers on my cruise, it was pretty clear that in this respect, Spirit of Adventure had very much filled the gap left when Swan Hellenic’s Minerva II stopped operating in March last year.
Needless to say, it will be interesting to see how it pans out when the reborn Swan Hellenic resumes operations with the original Minerva in 2008.
As with any cruise, you never know quite who you’re going to meet. It’s also true that once you’ve met passengers on this ship, you’re more likely to see them again throughout your cruise. Large ships can never have the intimacy of the smaller ones, and, at just 350 passengers maximum, Spirit of Adventure has a pleasantly human scale to it.
I was joined for breakfast one morning by a lady and, as we chatted about the relatively exotic nature of my mission on board, I mentioned that in a former life I’d worked for an insurance company. “Oh, my husband was in insurance before he retired,” she told me.
Just as I was mentally taking my hat off to him for sticking until retirement at what for me was a wrist-slashingly dull job, she added he was the Chief Executive of a company which I won’t mention here, but is pretty much a household name!
Of course, dining is the element where you’re most likely to come to close quarters with your fellow passengers. If you like being served at your table, the Dining Room will suit your needs, and the open seating arrangement and flexible times mean you don’t have the disadvantage of being stuck with the same dining partners for the duration of your cruise.
If you prefer buffet dining, the Verandah Restaurant offers seating both inside and out. The window for dinner in either restaurant isn’t exactly huge at two hours, but the staff seemed pretty relaxed even if you turned up five or 10 minutes before the end of the evening service at 9pm.
The evening dress code tends to vary between informal and casual wear but, for a couple of evenings in the week, men eating in the Dining Room will be required to wear a lounge suit and tie, with women needing something similarly smart. There’s no need to take full-blown formal gear, but that didn’t seem to stop the majority of passengers on the night I dined with the Captain.
While larger ships have their theatres for shows or performances by guest artists, the Spirit’s main public area is the Sirocco Lounge, which has plenty of seating and a small dance floor. Apart from the hugely versatile resident band, entertainment is provided by other acts specially flown in.
On my cruise, the Maestro Trio, a piano/violin combo from Belarus, performed classical, folk and jazz, while Robyn McCorquodale, a delightful Canadian singer/songwriter and pianist, performed a mix of standards and self-written material.
It’s pretty likely you’ll want to enjoy a drink or two while you’re taking in the entertainment or just relaxing in one of the bars. The good news is the prices are about as low as you’ll find anywhere afloat.
And, while most ships have a pretty uninspiring selection for the dedicated beer-drinker – lager, more often than not – here I was delighted to find Bishop’s Finger on offer, a premium British bottled beer and under £2 for the 500ml bottle – remarkable value, without a doubt.
If you fancy settling down to a good book, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Most ships have a Library of sorts, but Spirit’s is positively huge by comparison – a large room with shelves and shelves of more than 3,000 books, including a selection of large-print titles.
And there’s a wide selection of DVDs which you can borrow to take back to your cabin and play on your DVD player. The library also has a number of large and fiendishly difficult jigsaw puzzles, if you like that kind of thing, and there’s a group of four PC terminals offering internet access. It’s reasonably priced, and it gives you the handy facility to compose emails “offline” before you start clocking up your account.
When it comes to accommodation, there’s a wide choice of inside and outside (none with any balconies), ranging from junior suites down to single cabins, all nautically themed. The more expensive cabins also come with butler service.
The ship has a couple of pools, one on the aft Promenade Deck adjacent to the Verandah, although there were quite a few times when sea conditions made it unusable. There’s also a small “there and back in two strokes” pool down in the bowels of the ship.
Here you’ll also find the spa, which must have been named Spa Aquarius in my honour. Treatments on offer include Hydradermie and Liftosome facials, and an assortment of massages and body treatments ranging from the therapeutic to luxurious.
In common with other cruises aimed specifically at the British market, tips are not expected, which removes one potential area of embarrassment. As for the active side of what was on offer, the only time I saw the mountain bikes in use was when the Captain and a couple of his officers whizzed past me on them in Monemvasia.
Even so, what sets Spirit of Adventure apart from the others is the fact every cruise has a different itinerary, and some of the places visited may be rather more off the large ship routes.