Hunting The Northern Lights - A Saga You'll Never Forget
Phil Hopkins, Arts & Travel Editor
“I asked if he was a Dirty Old Man when he said he was a DOM,” said my new coffee break friend aboard the Saga Sapphire cruise ship as we berthed at Tromso in Norway.
And, with a slight pause as if she were a seasoned music hall comedian waiting for her audience to catch up, she added the punchline: “he quickly pointed out that he was Director of Music at St Paul’s Cathedral,“ she guffawed.
Recovering from the universal success of her one liner, the elderly lady, part of Saga’s unofficial army of Senior Citizen adventurers always keen to point out that they ‘don’t feel their age’, confirmed that she too was a veteran of the over 50’s cruise line.
“I’m now on my fourth trip with Saga because I just love the variety of people you meet on board,” she continued.
Nearby, an elderly chap had been earwigging our conversation.
“I couldn’t help but………,” he began, seconds later sharing that he had once enjoyed breakfast with the personal batman to ‘Bomber Harris’, the former WWII Marshal of the RAF who had headed up Bomber Command under Churchill.
And that is just one aspect to this seasoned brand that seemingly has more fans than the Sinatra Appreciation Society……they’re invariably retired, educated, interesting and well-heeled.
“I can see the world but feel totally safe,” chimes one, “no, it’s the door to ship chauffeur service that floats my boat,” says another, careful to choose the right metaphor, whilst a third insists that it is Saga’s all-inclusive policy that removes the threat of any latent invoice shocks, as well as the luxury of non-fixed seating at evening restaurant tables.
“You can move on if anyone bores you,” she grinned with a twinkle in her eye, excusing herself seconds later so that she could go and listen to former Home Secretary, Michael Howard’s talk starting in the main Britannia Lounge.
I had only joined the boat that morning although some guests were already on their fourth night.
Inside my eighth floor cabin I am greeted by John, my beaming Filipino steward.
How could he possibly know my name, I hadn’t even been in my cabin yet?
“Can I get you anything Sir Philip?” he asks, clearly following his country’s tradition of addressing guests with the gentle familiarity of a first name, but with the respect accorded by the pre-fix ‘Sir’.
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“I have put apples, bananas and grapes in your fruit bowl but please let me know if you would like something else,” he said, before disappearing from the room with all the dexterity of Aladdin’s genie returning to his lamp.
There was a small cabin balcony but the still cellophane wrapped red Arctic jacket on my bed sporting the letter ‘L’ for large, was proof that I was unlikely to be taking tea outside that day or at any other time during the five day cruise.
With a chest size of just 38” John, at my suggestion, returned minutes later proudly sporting a medium sized coat.
I peered outside. Snow covered Tromso, just 2,000km from the North Pole, was an indicator of things to come.
The temperature was already minus five although we had been warned to expect minus 15 as we sailed further north towards Alta, still, a walk in the park for locals used to temperatures of 50 below.
Between November and January much of this country of 300,000 lakes is in virtual darkness, but has taken the mysteries of its skies as a Heaven-sent opportunity to build a roaring tourist trade around the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, a strange quirk of the sun that leaves the skies dancing with amazing colours, rarely seen with such splendour south of Norway.
Every year millions of people, many ferried by a myriad of luxury cruise liners, head north in the hope of seeing this extraordinary freak of nature.
As the snowflakes started to fall and the skies turned a heavy grey, I knew it wouldn’t be long before my neatly folded thermals would be seeing the light of day or, more likely, the darkness of night in these parts.
However, on board the Sapphire, the warmth of rich, carefully placed lighting ensured that the Pole to Pole silver service restaurant on deck seven, and two floors above, the East to West Asian fusion dining experience, felt warm and inviting.
The prospect of an outdoor ice-cream at the Deck 11 Beach Club, some sweets from the adjacent candy stand or even fish and chips whilst wrapped in a blanket were, at that moment, less inviting; others disagreed, wolfing down their ‘durk and chips with all the vigour of a prize winner returning to Harry Ramsden’s in Leeds, but reeling with shock upon realising that it was now the Wetherby Whaler.
The collective hunt for the Northern Lights began at 8pm as a stream of coaches trundled their way to Suolovuopmi Fjellstue, one of the key ‘dark sky’ areas, with the promise of hot chocolate, cake and large tepee tents with real log fires.
Our local guide explained some of the myths that still cling to the Aurora Borealis. “In Bergen locals believe that the lights are the spirits of virgins who can’t find peace.”
A man grins and looks at his wife. “You wish,” she taunts and returns her attention to the speaker. Muted sniggers ensue from both of the 70 year old teenagers.
That night the lights did not dance but the camaraderie of the evening was full of night-time sparkle.
Daily trips are a key feature of the Sapphire, all well supervised and each designed to access areas that, under different circumstances, might prove overly challenging for people of a certain again.
There were walking tours of Tromso, its Arctic Cathedral and narrow streets, where the corners of buildings are architecturally ‘sliced’ to give emergency vehicles more room to manoeuvre. It is also a place where travellers can sit round a table and commiserate on the price of coffee - £4.50 a cup and nearer a tenner if you throw in a piece of cheesecake.
The hour coach journey from Tromso town centre to Sommaroy Island promises some of the most spectacular scenery Norway has to offer while, for the more spirited, there is the prospect of an Alaskan husky adventure further north in snow-clad Alta, with a night under the stars in traditional tepees.
You can even hike to a local Sami reindeer farm or take in the amazing stone age paintings at Hjemmeluft, the largest of the world Heritage sites in Alta and the only one with pathways for easy access.
There is plenty to do in what, at first sight, seems like little more than a white wilderness straight out of Narnia.
“I think the Norwegian’s have the same sense of humour as the British,” says our female coach driver in heavily accented English as we travel back to the ship from the Holmen Husky kennels. “For years we have been educated by sitcoms like Keeping Up Appearances. We even have a Mrs Bouquet in our town,” she laughs.
To her rear the daily ritual of handing out Werther Originals continues It has become as integral a part of Saga coach tours as a tot of rum was to early English sailors. Miss the Werthers and mutiny is sure to follow.
Back on board Executive Chef Francis Almon, 10 years aboard the Sapphire, seven of them under the Saga flag, directs his 68 strong galley team, keen to encourage more of his 700 passengers to sample the cuisine of his native Goa in India, but ever mindful that beans on toast and a ‘Full English’ are still firm favourites aboard this floating hotel.
“I’m told chicken tikka masala is now the number one dish in Britain,” he proclaims proudly, stealing away shortly afterwards to ensure that his gently sizzling Cornish pasties are not being compromised by his absence.
By any other name the Sapphire is a slice of little Britain, stuck in a time warp and appealing to people of a certain age, so much so that Saga will soon launch two new ships, the Spirit of Adventure and the Spirit of Discovery as they seek to appeal to a broader, younger audience.
For now, however, jackets at dinner, the gentleness of the Sapphire’s Cooper’s Bar – which pays homage to the great fez-bedecked comedian of yesteryear, Tommy Cooper – will continue to hold sway with a largely retired British clientele, many of whom are 70+.
“A sandwich walks into a bar. The barman says, ‘sorry, we don’t serve food in here’” reads the Cooper gag carefully embroidered into one of the cushions adorning the bar’s chairs and sofas.
Digital screens in the main Britannia Lounge sport a Union Jack flag when not announcing anything more important - like the 4.15pm afternoon tea and its violin strains of Norwegian Wood – whilst the Aviator Bar re-tells the story of First World War air ace, Biggles, immortalised by Captain W.E. Johns.
“Sorry to interrupt,” booms the on-board intercom system. It is the captain advising his brood that the Northern Lights have been spotted doing their stuff to the ship’s ‘aft’.
Everyone looks confused until someone shouts ‘at the back of the ship’.
There is a mass exodus and the Cruise Director comments, with a straight face, that she has never seen a group of pensioners move so fast!
But, soon after, everyone is left feeling gratified as the Aurora Borealis dances for her adorning public, takes her bow and disappears. We are all sated. The cruise has been a complete success. Nothing else matters. The expense was all worth it. The Northern Lights have been seen.
Peering down from deck 11 I spot an elderly lady pushing her wheelchair bound partner through the snow and back towards the ship having disembarked from the town shuttle bus.
Near me another guest wearing gloves, a heavy coat, scarf and beany hat queues up to pull himself a Mr Whippy style ice cream at the outdoor Beach Club. There is snow on the deck and even more in the air. The evening is drawing in.
“I bet you wish your nuts were crushed,” quips a passenger to a fellow traveller as he seeks to garnish his creation with some boiled sweets from the nearby confectionary stand. “I like ‘em just the way they are,” comes the sardonic Yorkshire reply.
Smirks were exchanged. British postcard humour was still alive and well aboard Saga’s little jewel of the sea, where the politically incorrect were still in full voice with most prepared to share their views on the benefits, or not, of Brexit!
Aurora Explorer Cruise – Saga Sapphire includes:
Chauffeur service up to 250 miles, all meals on board, including 24-hour room service, a choice of wines at lunch and dinner, all on-board gratuities, your own Arctic jacket, Optional travel insurance, entertainment and activities, welcome cocktail party and Captain’s dinner, all port taxes and visas.
Price: from £2791pp departing 21st February 2020 from Southampton
Contact: Saga Cruises 0800 051 3355 or visit https://travel.saga.co.uk/cruises/ocean/where-we-go/norway/aurora-explorer.aspx
Hunting The Northern Lights - A Saga You'll Never Forget, 10th March 2019, 13:56 PM