The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of events, including a short preview cruise, a rather splendid naming ceremony and then to top it all off, a maiden voyage around the British Isles. All on SAGA’s newest ship, Spirit of Discovery.
The wait for her arrival in the UK was one filled with excitement and anticipation, it was going to be the cruise event of the year and on July 5th, it was finally time for the big celebration. Her naming ceremony was fantastic and it began with a dockside garden party, where VIP guests could enjoy Balfour wines, finger sandwiches and cakes. The day was blanketed in the kind of atmosphere that only comes with the build-up to a ships naming ceremony.
We took our seats, ready for the big event, and had pre-bottle smashing performances from the Morriston Orpheus Choir and the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Collingwood – both of which were absolutely wonderful. There’s something quite special about a brass band and I believe this one is probably the finest in the world. Next came short speeches (interrupted several times by a persistent spitfire flying overhead) from Lance Batchelor and Robin Shaw, both of whom were introduced by the master of ceremonies, John Parton. Spirit of Discovery was then blessed by The Right Reverend Trevor Willmott before HRH The Duchess of Cornwall gave her own blessing and ultimately christened the ship. Huge cheers from the crowd ashore rang out, as did those from the hundreds of her crew that had lined her bow. It was a day I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
Before joining Spirit of Discovery on her maiden voyage, I spent several days in Dover and decided I’d give myself at least one day of tourist time, so off I went to explore Dover Castle. I picked a great day for it! The air temperature was lower than it had been (so I wasn’t hyperventilating from the heat by the time I’d made it to the top of the hill) and although it was a Sunday, it wasn’t packed full of people.
I love learning and when it comes to history I’m always fascinated. I mean, look at Dover Castle, to think that hundreds of years ago there were battles there, it survived two wars and who knows what else over the years – if only the walls could talk!
I started my journey with a trip down to the Underground Hospital. The lighting is very low, so you have to watch your footing, but it’s set up exactly as it would have been during the war – complete with original operating tools, tables and chairs, bicycles and more. It was one of the best features of the grounds for me. You follow the journey of an injured WWI pilot as he is rushed through to the operating theatre. Sadly, you can’t take photos in the tunnels, so I can’t show you that, but I can show you images of the grounds.
Leaving the tunnels and giving my eyes a minute to readjust, I started the walk towards the Great Tower. I was excited to get inside and see what it was like. Built by Henry II, it’s one of England’s most important castles and those visiting can explore everything from the lower level kitchens to the king’s bedchamber. One thing you’ll notice throughout are the lack of information panels, this is deliberate to keep each space as authentic as possible. If you do have questions, you can always ask one of the on-site members of staff who are often dressed up and re-enacting daily life within the tower.
I explored the medieval tunnels and more of the grounds before ending my day with Operation Dynamo, a series of tunnels kitted out with state-of-the-art lighting and projection that lets you walk through and experience the drama of the Dunkirk evacuation of May 1940. It was very powerful, especially since that operation took place inside some of the very tunnels I was standing in. Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay masterminded the evacuation and rescue of 338,000 troops, using next to no resources, from his Naval HQ base within the tunnels below Dover Castle.
Spirit of Discovery finally sailed on her maiden voyage at 10pm on Wednesday July 10th and what a special time it was. Fireworks lit up the night sky and I think everyone onboard was out on the top decks enjoying the spectacle. It was nice to be onboard with passengers, I enjoyed observing their reactions and hearing what they thought of the new ship. It was also nice to meet several people who were new to cruising. What a ship to pick for your first ever cruise.
Our itinerary was one around the British Isles and we were blessed with good weather for the majority of it. Our first stop was Port of Tyne, home sweet home for me, but I wasn’t going home for the day, I was booked on an excursion to Alnwick Castle and Gardens.
I visited Alnwick Castle many years ago as a child but couldn’t remember much about it, so I was looking forward to bringing old memories back to life. Before we did anything, though, we had an exclusive meeting with the Duchess of Northumberland and what a remarkable person she is. To get such detailed insight into the creation of the gardens was a huge privilege. She told us many stories about their design and creation, and the obstacles she faced during the process. I listened attentively to everything she said, but what I walked away with was an even greater realisation that if you have a vision for something in life, you need to go for it, and you need to do everything you can to ensure that vision becomes the perfect reality. If people bring you down or don’t show the same level of passion, then you don’t need them the be involved.
The Poison Garden was awesome, basically. To think, there are so many plants we see on an almost daily basis that could in fact kill us. Don’t worry, you would need to be exposed to some of them for long periods of time, but others really aren’t so forgiving. I’d highly recommend a walk-through here if you visit. I’m not a fan of gardens, if I’m being honest, but this was something completely different and very interesting.
The castle itself took me right into a Harry Potter movie and I loved it. There were groups of children (and a few adults) having broomstick flying lessons on one large section of grass within the walls. It was quite funny to watch. I wasn’t tempted to join them, I think my broomstick flying days are way behind me, but what a great idea for the kids! A chance to have some fun and learn about the history of this splendid castle.
The exterior demands your attention, it’s staggering, but the real treat lies within the interior walls. The castle is the current residence of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, so don’t expect every room to take you back in time – it’s also a family home. I particularly liked the living room, it was filled with incredible furniture and priceless artwork, but there was also a large flat screen TV and several beanbags. I couldn’t help but smile to myself – that was another thing I loved about the castle, I was seeing it as it would have been, blended with how a modern-day family uses the space. My absolute hands-down favourite room was the library. It was just breath-taking, and apparently used in an episode of Downton Abbey. I could have spent hours in there looking at all the books and just generally enjoying the space. Sadly, you can’t take pictures inside the castle, but if you Google the library, you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Our next port was Newhaven for various tours to Edinburgh and I was booked to visit the Real Mary King’s Close. If you’re ever in Edinburgh, you MUST go along and experience this, it was fascinating. The streets are very well preserved – including Edinburgh’s only preserved 17th century street – and although not exactly how they once were in ancient times, you can really get a feel for what life must have been like and how people lived. We learned about the plague, how the poor lived in comparison to those with a little extra money and heard the story about a small girl who supposedly haunts a room in one of the houses. Our guide, Sam, was excellent! I must take a second to acknowledge him as he’d only been in the job one week but you’d have thought he’d been there for years – he was full of information and very entertaining.
Part 2 of my Great British Adventure aboard Spirit of Discovery will be here very soon, but until then, let me leave you with a few photos from The Club by Jools Holland, where the food is phenomenal! This is the shrimp cocktail followed by a 8oz filet mignon, served with thrice-cooked chips and the most delicious creamed spinach I’ve ever tasted! Sorry, I didn’t mean to give you food envy, but I was always told to share! 😉