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Cruise Vacation: Starting from Dover, this Saga Voyage to Russia is a voyage of cultural discovery

An old man is about to step onto the gangplank of the ship after returning from an excursion to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. He loses his balance and crashes to the ground, lightly hitting his head and ripping his corduroy pants.

It turns out that I am the first to enter the scene. The man looks shocked, his wife horrified. As I try to pick him up, he barks, ‘I just fell for the love of God.’

Ah, that’s the spirit, and totally in keeping with Saga’s ‘Keep Doing’ tagline, which has served the company well in recent years across the vacation, insurance and publishing world.

The first of Saga's new ships, the Spirit of Discovery, pictured, was launched two years ago by the Duchess of Cornwall.

The first of Saga’s new ships, the Spirit of Discovery, pictured, was launched two years ago by the Duchess of Cornwall.

Golden-edged beauty: Palace Square in Saint Petersburg.  The city is one of the stops on the Saga Cruises 'Myths and Legends of the Baltic' tour

Golden-edged beauty: Palace Square in Saint Petersburg.  The city is one of the stops on the Saga Cruises 'Myths and Legends of the Baltic' tour

Golden-edged beauty: Palace Square in Saint Petersburg. The city is one of the stops on the Saga Cruises ‘Myths and Legends of the Baltic’ tour

On board: Mark Palmer with his father-in-law Noel, who is accompanying him on the cruise

On board: Mark Palmer with his father-in-law Noel, who is accompanying him on the cruise

On board: Mark Palmer with his father-in-law Noel, who is accompanying him on the cruise

But when it comes to her two new ships, the first, Spirit of Discovery, was launched two years ago by the Duchess of Cornwall, the second, Spirit of Adventure, launched earlier this year, ‘Keep Doing’ has been dropped by the side in favor. from ‘Experience is Everything’ and an emphasis on ‘Boutique Cruising’.

What might seem like a contradiction in terms here at Discovery when you have ten decks, 999 passengers, five restaurants, a library that houses 3,500 books, a song and dance theater, and a full spa.

“I’ve sailed with several cruise companies, but this is the best yet,” says a retired Suffolk auctioneer as we raid the cheese station at lunchtime. “You feel like you are staying more in a luxurious hotel than in a big ship.”

His experience is exactly what Saga’s marketing department seeks to convey. There may be 554 cabins (the phrase ‘living room’ has sunk without a trace, thank goodness), but their leather headboards, inspired artwork, sumptuous bedding, and balconies as standard wave the boutique flag.

There are some clever design touches too, like kinks in the hallways, so you don’t just see a host of cabins stretching out into the distance.

And in addition to the open-seating Grand Dining Room and The Grill near the modern art-deco lido, there are three ‘specialty restaurants’ that cost no more to reserve.

What defines Saga in an increasingly crowded market is that all of its cruises depart from the UK (although some involve a ferry transfer) and if you live 250 miles from the port of departure, a chauffeur will take care of the transfers. This is ideal if, like me, you are traveling with a 90-year-old man, in this case, Noel, my merry father-in-law.

Our cruise is called ‘Myths and Legends of the Baltic’, which starts in that distinctively non-Baltic city of Dover and then heads to Gothenburg, Stockholm, Helsinki, Saint Petersburg, Tallinn (Estonia), Kalundborg and Aalborg (both Denmark) before return to the South Coast.

It is all inclusive but you pay for liquors and excursions. And you don’t tip.

Mark admired 'the modern art-deco lido' aboard the Spirit of Discovery, which has an emphasis on the 'boutique cruise'

Mark admired 'the modern art-deco lido' aboard the Spirit of Discovery, which has an emphasis on the 'boutique cruise'

Mark admired ‘the modern art-deco lido’ aboard the Spirit of Discovery, which has an emphasis on the ’boutique cruise’

Pictured is the grand piano at the Spirit of Discovery, which also has five restaurants, a library, and a full spa.

Pictured is the grand piano at the Spirit of Discovery, which also has five restaurants, a library, and a full spa.

Pictured is the grand piano at the Spirit of Discovery, which also has five restaurants, a library, and a full spa.

There is also a boutique touch to the entertainment. One night we came to a concert of about twenty twin sisters living in northern Sweden, one of whom plays the cello and the other the violin. They are deliciously quirky.

“ This is a song that we write for all the forest animals that cannot sleep because the moon is too bright, ” says one of them as an introduction to a melody that could well help insomniac animals but that we think somewhat jarring. , albeit in a lovely way.

My birthday coincides with our arrival in Stockholm. To my horror, that night at dinner in the main restaurant, at least eight staff members, one of them with a guitar, show up at our table and sing Happy Birthday multiple times.

Birthdays tend to make you feel old, but frankly I feel young on this cruise. Average age? North of 75 I guess, hence the abundance of space to sit and meditate if you don’t feel like an excursion. Every now and then Jools Holland does a star change on both boats, but we have to settle for Wayne Sleep. Then there’s our newfound hero Marcus Sherwood, a retired director who is the ‘Speaker of Destiny’ and one who captures the essence of each city with a light touch and a wry sense of humor.

`` Nothing matches the performance of Swan Lake at the Hermitage Theater in St. Petersburg, '' says Mark (file photo)

`` Nothing matches the performance of Swan Lake at the Hermitage Theater in St. Petersburg, '' says Mark (file photo)

“ Nothing matches the performance of Swan Lake at the Hermitage Theater in St. Petersburg, ” says Mark (file photo)

Stockholm, surely one of the most underrated cities in the world, is the highlight, along with a half-day devotion to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in Helsinki and a tour of Tallinn, which we organize independently with the local tourist office.

But nothing matches the performance of Swan Lake at St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Theater, where despite some rude Chinese tourists taking pictures during the performance, we sit so close to the stage that we can see the sweat on their faces. of the dancers and hear Tchaikovsky’s wonderful sheet music like never before.

When we leave two and a half hours later, Saint Petersburg, known as the “Venice of the North”, the “second Amsterdam” or the “north of Rome”, sparkles under the full moon. And while the notion of boutique hotels may seem incongruous in St. Petersburg, it’s good to know that our floating version, with its friendly staff, awaits us nearby.

TRAVEL FACTS

Saga Cruises offers ‘Baltic Ensemble’, a 15-night cruise departing April 27, 2022, on Spirit of Discovery, visiting Tallinn, Visby, Stockholm, Kotka, Skagen and St. Petersburg from £ 3,914 per person (saga.co.uk/cruise, 0800 092 3660).

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