Boutique cruising is born

Sam Ballard gets on board Spirit of Discovery, the brand new quintessentially British ship that has lots of space but retains the charm of a small, luxury hotel

Any ship launching in the UK is good news, but a British-flagged ship, built by a British company, that will be sailing ex-UK cruises? Well, we can
all get behind that. 

Spirit of Discovery, the first ship to be built from scratch by Saga, was always going to turn heads. With room for just 999 passengers, the vessel is an homage to the UK. Art on board highlights the talent of more than 40 British artists, furnishings show off British designers such as Tom Dixon and the food is designed for a British palate. 

“We sat down with three different sets of individuals to help create this ship,” explains Robin Shaw, CEO of Saga Travel. “We took existing customers, customers who haven’t cruised with us before but have travelled with Saga and other luxury travel buyers. Then we asked them what they thought a British cruise line should look like.”

The result is Spirit of Discovery – a cruise ship that aims to be like staying in a small, luxury hotel. And with that, boutique cruising was born. 

Shaw is talking to me from The Club on board Spirit of Discovery, a small, intimate space that will act as both a restaurant and music venue fronted by Jools Holland. The luxurious restaurant wouldn’t look out of place in a five-star London hotel. It’s just one example of how Saga has used clever design to create lots of small venues rather than large ones, appeasing those past guests who are worried about the line getting rid of its smaller ships (Saga Pearl II and Saga Sapphire) for larger ones – a transition that represents a 74 per cent rise in capacity in just over a 12-month period.

“The good thing about Saga customers is that they will give us a chance,” Shaw explains. “It also feels like a small ship – there are lots of nooks and crannies, smaller areas to enjoy. The amount of public space per passenger is actually more on this ship than on Sapphire. So it feels less crowded than our older ships.”

Shaw is right. Saga Pearl II is about 18,000 gross tons and accommodates 602 guests. Spirit of Discovery is three times the size – 58,000 gross tons – but accommodates only 50 per cent more. Saga is banking on the design making Spirit of Discovery feel like a small ship, while still giving guests space, in genuinely luxurious surroundings.

Saga is a company that has been transitioning on many different fronts. While its tonnage is in the process of getting an update, the decision to start taking trade bookings is still, relatively speaking, in its infancy. From a standing start, Saga now boasts a trade team of ten, led by Iain Powell, head of trade sales. As part of the celebrations for Spirit of Discovery’s launch, the team invited about 700 travel agents on board for a VIP trade event. 

“It’s important that we get agents on board to see the ship,” explains Powell. “It’s difficult to sell a cruise ship, or any product, that you haven’t seen before. The idea is to show agents what we’ve created so that they can see that it’s totally different to what they expected from Saga. Even those who have seen a Saga ship before, can see that it is very different from Sapphire or Pearl II

“The feedback so far has been incredible and now they can now go home and sell it more confidently.”

The agents on board were treated to a deck party with the singer
Fleur East DJing, speciality restaurants were available to book and the spa was even offering complimentary treatments.

“We’ve put on a programme of events to give agents the opportunity to see everything we have. The idea is to let them explore the ship on their own, rather than marching them around, which feels more natural.” 

To boost the activity around the launch – and because spaces were limited – the team have developed a ship visit programme, which has four dates remaining with spaces, in Southampton and Dover. Apart from that, there is the small matter of new-build number two, Spirit of Adventure, being launched next year. 

“We’re going to be doing it all again next year,” Powell says. “There will be another VIP agent event and plenty of opportunities for the trade to win a place on board. So keep your eyes peeled.” 

Sam Ballard

Sam Ballard is the publisher of CRUISE ADVISER and has been writing about the cruise industry for a number of years. His CV includes the likes of shipping magazine International Cruise & Ferry Review and the digital publication Cruise News. He can be contacted

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