What immediately springs to mind when you think of a cruise holiday?
The truth is, a lot of people associate this popular holiday choice with the older generation of holiday-makers. This is despite the regular launch of new, modern, city-at-sea type cruise liners, and the growing number of young people choosing to get on board with this type of travel.
In May this year I was invited by the National Trust for Scotland to indulge in a ‘cultural cruising’ adventure around Scotland’s Viking Isles (you can read about the purpose of my trip here). While I am fully aware of the common misconception around cruising demographics, I did have a wee hunch that I would be one of the younger passengers aboard the ship. I came to this conclusion based on the unique itinerary – I mean, the Scottish Isles aren’t exactly a mass market hot spot like the Caribbean – and because both the National Trust for Scotland and the concept of ‘cultural cruising’ have connotations of more mature, and indeed CULTURED people.
I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in the experience which would be totally unlike my usual style of travel: low cost flights, local buses, hostels and cheap hotels, and inevitably getting lost/delayed between destinations. Plus, since I’m used to meeting sun kissed travellers with giant backpacks, hippy pants and haviannas (I’m not stereotyping, this applies to me also!), travelling with a different generation was always going to be interesting. Not even the Saga branded luggage labels, and ‘Saga Pearl II’ ship name could put me off!
Did she just say SAGA?!
Okay, so let’s get a few things straight. Yes, it was a Saga ship, however it wasn’t actually a Saga holiday (for those who are unfamiliar, Saga is a tour operator who catering strictly for those over 50). The National Trust for Scotland charter the ship annually for their cultural cruises, which mainly feature itineraries around the Scottish Isles and the Baltics. It was open to all ages, but as suspected I was the youngest passenger onboard.
So, how did I get on?
I absolutely loved every minute of it, and here are the reasons why…
1. Minimum passengers, maximum space
Having previously travelled on an almighty vessel which could carry over 4000 people, the Pearl II, holding just 10% of that capacity, was delightfully small and intimate. I had no trouble navigating around the ship (even after a few whiskies!) and the public areas never felt crowded. The ships small size did not however reflect the size of the cabins; mine was surprisingly spacious with lots of storage space and a large walk-in shower. The onboard space very noticeably exceeded the maximum capacity, making for a very relaxed and comfortable holiday environment.
2. The off-the-beaten-track itinerary
While it’s no secret that I jet off regularly to foreign destinations, the love I have for my homeland is immeasurable. Every year I resolve to explore more of Scotland, but am often held back by my inability to drive. The itinerary for this trip allowed me to venture to the less visited parts of the country, and to the stunning Faroe Islands. I visited 5000 year old settlements, Scotland’s most northernly whisky distillery, a cliff-top lighthouse, a white sandy beach and Faroese fjords filled with sleepy villages. We even made it to St Kilda – the most remote island in the Britain isles, which has been the subject of constant curiosity and research based on the its unique fauna, and of course the intriguing people who lived there until the 1930s. I felt like the luckiest lassie throughout every moment of the trip; from the evening sails with sunset horizons, through the circumnavigation of the Fair Isle with live on-deck commentary, and as we graced the shores of each new place.
3. Tip Top Service Standards and Customer Care
The small capacity definitely lent itself to far more personalised service, and of course catering to the older generation requires extra levels of customer care. As a result, the staff on board – from the waiters, to the entertainers, to the cabin stewards – were incredibly friendly and attentive. The attention to detail on the Pearl II was unrivalled; I appreciated the fresh fruit in my cabin, the hot ecalyptus towels on my return to the ship, the complimentary use of the ship’s umbrellas and bicycles, the fleece blankets to keep me cosy on-deck, and the tray of mini treats brought to me to chose from as an accompaniment to my coffee after dinner. All the wee added extras and simple treats enhanced my experience massively.
4. Every meal was Restaurant Standard
Every morsel of food I ate on the ship was absolutely delicious and of the highest standard. When catering to such large volumes of people at one time, there’s always the likelihood of compromised quality, but this was absolutely not the case. Eggs benny is my favourite way to start the day, and I indulged almost every morning. At night you could opt between the more formal, made-to-order menu in the seated restaurant, or the more relaxed buffet style setting. The latter also featured Kumar’s legendary curry station, serving curries which would rival that of any Indian restaurant I’ve been to. They also came with all the necessary trimmings poppadoms, naan bread, pakora and a selection of DIY garnishes including fresh chilli, red onion, coriander and mint yoghurt; I have a curry every day for either lunch or dinner!
5. AFTERNOON TEA.
I don’t really need to say too much about this – I’ll let the pictures do the talking. What I will say is that this place should come with a warning! I luckily (for my waistline) didn’t discover it until day 3, when I ventured in “for a look” and came out 2 scones, 2 sandwiches and 2 cakes heavier! Dangerous stuff.
6. Everyone had an interesting story to tell
Sparing the destinations themselves, the greatest thing about travel has got to be the interesting people you meet along the way. There was no shortage of interesting souls on board my cruise, and I was as curious about their lives as they were about mine. In their younger years, many of the passengers had been doctors and teachers, one lady had been on a geological expedition on a glacier in Iceland 20 years ago, and another gentleman had lived all over the world thanks to his job in maritime law. Couples recalled the tales of how they first met, and were obviously still madly in love 40 years later. One man called Anthony is my new life inspiration – he backpacked around Europe in the 70s and is currently on a middle-aged gap year, aged 57. LEGEND.
Overall Verdict from the Ship’s Youngest Passenger?
I usually have something to nitpick about my travel experiences, but this trip was absolutely faultless. It was like being on a luxury hotel/restaurant at sea, without any hint of pretentiousness. Every morning felt like a surprise, as I arrived at yet another destination which I hadn’t visited before.
Now, while I fully relished the experience, I know that it wouldn’t tickle the pickle of all young travellers; it is by no means a booze cruise and the entertainment involved educational talks about the destinations and their history/wildlife, the live music was mainly traditional or classical, and the Scottish weather was temperamental (as always!) on some of the islands.
I appreciated the escapism from backpacking, the relaxation, the over-indulgence in amazing food, the education, the interesting people and the “scenery therapy”, as I affectionately titled it. Anyone who thinks they would be similarly inclined would also LOVE this ‘cultural cruising’ experience.
*** Wee Reminder ***
This trip was not operated by Saga, instead by the National Trust for Scotland on a Saga ship. While many of the staff on board were employed by Saga (including the Captain), The National Trust design the itinerary and the service to their own passengers, and provide their own entertainers and volunteers.
Do you think this is the sort of experience you would enjoy?
For more details about the National Trust for Scotland’s cultural cruising, including the itineraries and prices for next year (they’re sailing to ICELAND!!!) click here
I will be writing about the more about experience in the autumn/winter edition of the Scotland in Trust magazine. Stay tuned!
All of my opinions and random ramblings, as always, are completely my own.