Christmas wishes

Happy Christmas to all of our friends and family, and the many readers of our blogs, from George and Deb.

May you have a smile on your face all the day.

My final Brexit thoughts for 2018

This morning, the BBC radio newscasts commented on the Queen’s speech due to be broadcast tomorrow. The BBC have decided that a short passage of the speech, that asks us to all treat each other with respect, is aimed at Brexit.

WHAT??

Unless there are unpublished notes associated with our sovereign’s speech, that explain her thoughts behind each paragraph, this is one more example of the BBC determination to bring their opposition to Brexit into every possible topic they discuss.

I am one of a generation that began my television history with the BBC being the only provider, and I am a supporter of ‘free to air’ public service television. I detest adverts, especially when so many are tempting us to gamble, or to switch to cleaning products that now contain some unheard-of chemical that makes it superior. I also fail to understand how furniture warehouses can get away with continuous sales.

Who was the poor idiot who actually bought that sofa when it was at the original price!!

Anyway, the outcome of my television viewing is that I prefer to watch the BBC channels, and record anything on the commercial stations to watch later and skip the adverts.

Sadly, it has been very difficult for the last two years to put up with the BBC bias against Brexit.

I cannot remember a single journalistic offering, that contained any positive comments about Britain leaving the European Union. Surely the BBC is actually tasked to be neutral about such things.

Even topical panel shows have guests who revel in bringing some comment into the discussion about how everything is the fault of Brexit.

I know that both sides of the table are exaggerating their point of view, but this is leading to confusion, frustration, and even anger from the people of this country.

We are three months away from the day we are supposed to leave the EU, but I have a suspicion that the date will be postponed, and perhaps the decision will even be overturned.

Our government is democratically elected by the people of Britain.

The minority who disagree with the results have no right to demand a second election.

The Brexit referendum was called by the government, and it was decreed that the result would be a binding decision.

The result by a clear majority was to leave the EU.

Once again the minority who disagreed with the result cannot demand a second chance, and that includes all members of parliament.

Instead the democratically elected government (and opposition) are using every excuse to overturn the referendum decision.

Surely, parliament should be working together to comply with the people of Britain, and implement our instructions. It should not involve inter political party arguments. If a vote is really necessary, it should be an open one, without the instructions from Whips.

So, back to my thoughts about the BBC.

I would really appreciate it if they could actually try to be positive about what they broadcast. Instead of blaming Brexit for every financial calamity, every closure of a shop, every poor profit figure from a manufacturer, and even the poor performance of our hospitals .

Wake up and turn to the future.

Concentrate the brain washing to some positive things, the number of people now in work, and how companies have already put in place plans for post Brexit. Give us more good news, and tone down some of the bad bits, insist that the comedians stop preaching the word of luddites, then perhaps we can all start to become a little more positive, and enjoy life a little more.

Then perhaps we can turn our attention to respecting each other more. Forget where people come from, ignore their skin colours, accept sexual preferences,  forget religious differences, and yes, even forget eating preferences.

That is what I believe the Queen is suggesting in her speech to people all over the world.

Less than a fortnight to go

In under two weeks Deb and I will be away on our latest adventure.

As the New Year celebrations end, we will be packing our car with virtually all of our wardrobe, and setting off to Southampton to board our favourite ship.

P&O’s Aurora will be taking us to explore the Amazon followed by a few days around various Caribbean islands. To make our trip even more spectacular we have tagged on a further cruise north to Norway to hopefully see the Northern Lights.

The adventure will be a mixture of some winter warmth followed by snow and ice, and I have called it ‘Furnace to the Freezer’. There might just be a book coming along next year with that title.

We think we have prepared most things. There is a huge box of medicines, first aid bits, mosquito repellent, shampoo, conditioner, deodorants, and spare batteries. Sun screen protection has been bought for the hot days, and new clothes purchased for the cold weather of Norway.

…oh, and a couple of bottles of Prosecco for the cabin fridge.

The house has been decorated with a limited amount of Christmas decorations as we have our son coming for Christmas Day and our daughter with our grandson for Boxing Day. As they leave us, we will soon bring the decorations down and put them away in the loft. Clothes will then be hung on a rail before packing begins. You might be able to quickly cram enough into suitcase for a long weekend away, but packing for over two months away becomes a major project.

Life still goes on, and the Brexit saga continues. I have a sneaky feeling, that when we come home, the news will feature the same old obstinance from a democratic government, that cannot agree to implement the democratically agreed request from the people of Britain, who elected, and pay for, these politicians.

I suspect another referendum will eventually be called, and the result may well swing back towards staying in the EU. But then the situation will get even worse. This will obviously result in the ‘best of three’ demands.

That is not democracy….

That is childish!

Happy Christmas everyone.

Saga Cruises – Yes or No?

Our six nights on the Saga Pearl II were always meant to be an experiment with a different cruise line. We wanted to know if the higher prices were justified.

I think that the complete package has to be considered, rather than talking about the ship, food, entertainment, cabins and service. So here are my personal thoughts, as a comparison with P&O.

The first thing I want to say is that our experience of the booking process was appalling.

We have been cruising for nearly 20 years, and the majority of the 30 plus cruises we have been on, were booked via a travel agent. Hence several weeks ago we sat with our agent one Saturday morning and asked her to sort out our booking.

Even just sitting and listening to one side of the conversation suggested that the process was not as smooth as with our typical P&O booking. Our travel agent was visibly getting frustrated by the questions being asked, and the time it was taking. Anyway, after a few minutes the booking was completed and the money paid for our short break to the German Christmas Markets.

Everything seemed to have been sorted, but that was just the beginning of a less than simple process.

All the paperwork had to be sent via the travel agent. It seems Saga consider the agent was the customer rather than ourselves. Hence each stage, or amendment, was time consuming.

When we tried to book a tour online (as suggested in the leaflet of tours) Deb discovered that it was not possible – the travel agent had to do it.

When there was a change of return port, the letter went to the agent who then had to pass it on to us.

There was even a phone call one morning. We have a call blocker that asks for the caller name before putting it through to us. All Deb heard was …”Saga Tra….” and the line went dead. She called the number back and after several moments of confusion the Saga person on the other end said she couldn’t do anything because we were not the customer!!! When Deb said that they HAD called us, there was no easing of the rules.

We never did find out what they were going to tell us.

The outcome of all this frustration was that we promised our travel agent that we would never book a Saga cruise through her again. She actually laughed and said that she has never had a repeat booking for a Saga cruise.

Anyway, before you think that this ridiculous, I have to say that other people have had the same experience, and have booked direct with Saga from then on. The booking and aftercare service is then perfectly easy and smooth.

Chauffer Driven Transfers

One selling point of Saga cruises is the free transfer to and from the ports. They use a fleet of their own vehicles plus other contractors, and the service is efficient. OK, so our driver was late, but everyone struggles to find us. Our postcode covers a wide area of rural countryside and we often wait for a telephone call from confused drivers.

If you live within 75 miles of the port, the transport is solely for you. If, like us, you are further away, but less than 250 miles, the transport is shared, but only with another couple. Beyond 250 miles, you can still use the transport, but pay for the miles above 250.

For us, this particular aspect of Saga cruising, saved us around £250. As well as a tank of fuel, we would have stayed in a hotel overnight, and also paid for parking.

Of course, the cruises are more expensive than P&O.

Embarking and Disembarking

As you would expect with a ship with less than 500 passengers, getting on and off is a smooth and rapid process. Having got out of the car at Portsmouth, we were greeted with smiles and assistance through the check-in, security checks, and quickly on the way out of the terminal to the ship side.

Sadly, Portsmouth cruise terminal required a shuttle bus from the building to the dockside. We actually spent longer waiting on the bus than the rest of the process.

Saga use several ports around Britain and this is a selling point for those living a long way from Southampton.

The welcome on the ship was delightful. After showing cruise cards, a member of the crew (smiling again) was tasked to take us to our cabin and show us around it. OK, Saga Pearl II is a small ship, but I assume this is the same on the other current Saga ship, and hopefully with the new ones arriving in their fleet over the next two years.

Our cabin

This part of my review is purely based on the inside cabin that we had. I did peek into a couple of outside ones but only out of curiosity.

Our cabin was adequate in size. Perhaps slightly smaller than equivalent P&O cabins, but certainly OK for us, with room to move around without traffic jams. The beds were in a single layout and there was nearly a metre between beds with a unit containing the fridge.

At the foot of one bed was a small desk and chair, while on the other side was a TV unit with several drawers. Beyond that TV unit was a four-door wardrobe with plenty of hanging and drawer space, plus the safe and life jackets.

The bathroom had plenty of storage again but the sink was quite small. The shower was in a true cubicle with a folding door. The toilet used the standard vacuum system, but it was extremely effective with a water spray to clean the bowl alongside the usual ‘gulping’ action.

My only noticeable physical negative about the cabin was the low ceiling, that meant the air condition unit was close to head-height, and hence quite noisy. Curiously, its control was behind my pillow, and took a while to find.

Another noise-based negative was the speaker system giving messages from the Bridge or the entertainment team. It was LOUD. There was no way of turning it down, and we were ignored by the reception team when we asked about it.

Even in this lowest grade of cabin, we had a bowl of fruit, that the steward asked what we wanted in it. It was restocked after a couple of days.

Food

Deb and I stuck to our usual routine and had breakfast in the buffet. There was a reasonable choice to suit most people’s tastes with hot and cold options.

A waiter is on hand to serve porridge and make toast, but you can get your own cereals or fresh fruit choices.

Hot food is from a counter, and is served by a waiter asking what we you want. I was politely encouraged not to choose my own plate, which I attempted to do on the first morning. An interesting thing here was that after your choices are made, the waiter pops the plate of food into a cabinet to have a blast of heat before it is handed to you.

Tea and coffee is continually being served by the team who share duties of waiting and clearing. This was where we struck a problem.

We like semi-skimmed milk.

The only visible choice was either full fat or fully skimmed. Of course there was a solution, and when we explained our issue, a waiter disappeared for a couple of minutes and came back with a carton of semi-skimmed milk. It was then labelled with our cabin number and each morning the waiter filled a jug for us as soon as we asked.

The main dining room offers breakfast as well as lunch and evening meals. We used it regularly for lunch where the food is chosen from a menu and served to the table. There is a salad bar where you can go and make a choice if that is what you fancy.

The food choices were good at lunchtime, and to our surprise, we were also offered a selection of wines. And they were not the basic house wines. Although we didn’t have wine every lunchtime, we did enjoy it on some days, and it certainly helped the chatter with table mates.

One day we attempted to use the buffet for lunch, but it was packed with like-minded informal eaters. The menu is the same as in the main dining room, but simply chosen at the buffet servery and taken to a table by yourself.

The evening meal is also duplicated in the buffet and main dining room, so we used the more formal dining room each night. It is very much like the P&O Freedom dining experience. There is just one sitting for dinner that is open from 6:45 until 9:00. Most people do come as it starts, but many were arriving at different times.

Saga offer the option of choosing a specific table which can be organised on the first day, and it is then yours for the entire cruise.

There are a small number of tables for two, but most people used larger tables to meet different people. We were happy to share, and met some wonderful people to chat to.

The menu suited us much more than on P&O. There were options to meet most tastes, and didn’t feature the multiple fish dishes that P&O seem to think will satisfy everyone.

Some of us don’t actually like fish that much.

There was a decent menu of starter, soup, main course and pudding each night, plus cheese and biscuits with coffee or tea and some sort of nibble to finish. As well as fish and vegetarian dishes, the main course offered a range of beef, pork and lamb choices. There was also a nightly speciality option which included Italian dishes, and even a really good beef and ale pie one night.

Oh, and the wine was generous as well, and having it with our meal meant we didn’t drink as much in the bars during the rest of the evening. Although we don’t normally have wine with every meal, I think by using this perk, we were saving ourselves almost £20 a night compared to our typical P&O habits.

For the desperate ones, a 24-hour coffee and tea station in the buffet satisfied those wanting a late-night drink. And there were usually cookies to consume as well.

Entertainment

I have to be realistic here. Saga Pearl II is a smaller ship than we have experienced before, and Saga are going to continue with small ships, so the entertainment is limited to the lounge area space available.

This ship had one show lounge that was adequately big enough to allow all the interested passengers to see the shows. There is a line of sight issue with supports all over the room, and there is no floor slope to see over heads, but in general, if you wanted a seat with a view, it was possible. They have even installed video screens on either side of the room to see the action from any position in the room.

There was a show each evening with the bulk of the entertainment coming from the show team. They were called ‘Explosive Productions’ and consisted of three singers (one male) and three female dancers. The singers were all very good and I was impressed with the dancers who also showed off their tap-dancing skills regularly.

Shows were performed on the floor of the lounge with the ship’s orchestra (four piece) using the small stage. Sometimes these shows were theme based, but the singers also showcased their talents on occasions without the dancers.

The six nights also featured a visiting classical show on one evening, but the major cabaret act was from four male singers called the ‘Four Ds’.

They were really very good, and sang various genre of songs that certainly fitted in with the age profile of the ship… and us.

The had two shows, and then stood in for a further night with other people who were not suffering too badly from the sea conditions.

Elsewhere on the ship was a large lounge bar with a small stage area that was the prime spot for the on-board pianist/vocalist. He was very talented, and played a mixture of music, with background tinkling of the ivories at cocktail time, and then more outgoing shows later in the evening.

As well as the main showtime entertainers, there the small entertainment team that fronted quizzes, deck games, and probably a lot more things that we didn’t see. They were again friendly, and ready to have a laugh as they entertained us. One or two of them also took part with the showtime singers to demonstrate further talents.

One further bar up at the top of the ship was a venue to have a quiet drink and a chat. We only discovered it late in the cruise, but found it perfect for us.

Service in the bars was as good as on any ship we have experienced, and made better by not being over intrusive, and always smiling. The hotel crew are generally from the Philippines, and the majority are male, but it is difficult with such a small ship to get a true picture of male/female ratios. We see more female staff on the P&O ships, but because of the low number of stewards and waiters on this ship means that it is probably no more male dominated than the larger ships.

Bar prices were similar to P&O, but some drinks were maybe a little cheaper. Each evening they featured Prosecco based cocktails that were on special offers that were really very good value.

As the master of the ship, the captain was also visible during the daytime, and at the three cocktail parties that were a part of the six-night cruise. He had a selection of jokes to accompany the company speeches, and certainly appeared to be enjoying his work. He also made personal daily public address updates of the ship’s progress, and the weather, and one of his officers also had a daily spot to update us, and give a quick maritime fact for us to think about.

Saga People

Before we went on this cruise, we had heard many stories, and read many articles about Saga passengers. We were interested in knowing what to expect, but didn’t necessarily believe everything they suggested.

Contrary to many reports, the ship was not full of old people sleeping all day.

Yes, there were people sleeping, but certainly no more than I have witnessed on P&O ships… when I wasn’t asleep myself.

The library is a popular spot to take a doze as the words get a little blurred, but there are a lot of books to choose from, and most passengers were actually reading them from early morning to late at night.

I was pleasantly surprised to notice that the majority of the passengers looked healthy, and moved around quite actively. They laughed at jokes, they looked alert and interested in things going on around them, and they were more than happy to speak to us new-comers to Saga. Of course, there were a few less than agile people, some overweight people, and a small number of people who may not have really understood what was going on around them. But, this is normal on a cruise ship, and if it was a typical cross-section of Saga cruisers, I think the passengers were generally more healthy than I have seen on P&O.

Being Newcomers

Deb and I were openly willing to admit we were newcomers to Saga Cruises. The typical question from seasoned Saga customers was:

Are you enjoying it?”

We always replied that we were not sure yet, especially after the horrendous booking confusion and ‘job’s worth’ stubbornness of the system.

This usually produced a surprised gasp, and we had to explain ourselves.

Many of the people said they never have a problem booking direct, and after attempting to suggest that many people actually like to use travel agents, we realised that Saga Cruisers are very protective of the company. They can see no issue with the booking system, and suggest there is no need to use a travel agent.

Apart from these initial discussions, we tended to say that the rest of the Saga experience is quite positive. Most passengers we engaged with were really very friendly, and wanted to know about our other cruise ship experiences, but some were quite adamant that they would never go on one of those big ships.

Even more surprising was that one or two people said they would have to stop cruising with Saga soon. They really like the small ships, and would not consider going on the new vessel which will accommodate almost 1000 passengers. The suggestion of trying out our more favoured P&O ships with 2000 passengers almost brought on heart attacks.

Final Thoughts

I personally enjoyed the cruise, and the ship was clean and comfortable, and the staff/crew were friendly and attentive.

  • The free transport to and from the ports is quite special.
  • The free wifi is better than P&O’s pay to use system, and it covers up to three items per cabin. In cost terms, this saves us over £12 a day when we want to use the internet, and that is typically every other day of a cruise.
  • The tips are included in the price. I know that P&O are going the same way in May 2019, but at this moment, we would have been paying £84 a day on an equivalent cruise.
  • Drink prices were comparable (or cheaper) than P&O, and the special offers were very good. Of course, the free wine at meals was also very nice, and a money saver.
  • The food suited me far better than on P&O, and also better than our experience on Fred Olsen ships.

BUT

  • Sadly, I felt the ship was too small for me.
  • It needed an extra lounge.
  • It needed a select dining alternative to eating in the dining room or buffet.
  • It needs to understand that a lot of people like semi-skimmed milk.
  • It moved far too much and erratically during the lively North Sea, and I was feeling awful for most of Sunday.

On the positive side, the new ship beginning service in 2019 will probably satisfy my needs.

The captain made a statement at one of the talks when he was asked about Saga’s future pricing policy.

His words were along the lines of:

“Some of the other cruise lines sell passengers a cabin, and they then have to pay for extras to complete the experience…

… Saga sell a holiday, with as much as possible included in the price”

I would like to try Saga Cruises again on their new ship, but the price will be higher than we usually pay.

My opening question still remains. Is that extra cost worth it for the extras we would get?