Stuart Brodkin trips the light fantastic on a luxury Saga cruise, taking in the natural wonder of the Northern Lights.
Take the magic of the iconic Northern Lights. Add the sheer adrenalin rush of dog-sledding, a visit to an amazing ice hotel, superb cuisine and finally add ice, lots and lots of ice.
Shake well and serve aboard the superb Saga Sapphire and you’ve got a heady cocktail – a cruise that will appeal to first-timers and seasoned travellers alike. It’s the definition of cool – with temperatures dropping to -26C at times!
My wife and I spent six nights aboard the Saga Sapphire, joining the 16-night cruise at Bergen and sailing north into the Arctic Circle, leaving at Tromso. It started out from Southampton and returned there.
So Saga Cruises make sure there is no waiting around in airport lounges; passengers are chauffeur-driven if they live within 75 miles of Southampton and, from further afield, they share a car with up to three other cruisers. If you’re driving to your port of departure, parking is free.
Throughout the ship – from the well-appointed cabins, which were cleaned twice a day to the restaurants and bars – the service provided was attentive and courteous. In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner, there were also elevenses, afternoon tea and gourmet bites in the late evening. Remarkably, room service is delivered at no extra charge. Believe me, you won’t starve.
There are some excellent, cosy bars, including our favourite, Coopers, named after the late Tommy Cooper. It’s an excellent venue for pre-dinner cocktails.
Weather conditions in the Atlantic were changeable and on one night the ship was swaying like a drunken sailor. It was so rough that the entertainment was cancelled, but normal service was resumed for the remainder of the trip.
Docking in Alta, we caught our first glimpse of the Northern Lights from the top deck. We were just off to bed when the ever-informative Captain Alistair McLundie announced the Lights had been spotted off the ship’s portside. We scrambled on deck within minutes.
There was a fair bit of cloud cover around, but the Aurora Borealis still managed to weave their magic across the sky in a way that’s hard to describe. Seeing is believing.
The next night we ventured an hour’s drive up into the hills above Alta, where the temperature dropped to -20C. Wearing layer after layer, we spent several hours in a vain search for the Lights, but the clouds kept them hidden from view. We kept ourselves warm with unlimited hot coffee and chocolate cake.
On the subject of food, the two main restaurants provided a good choice of vegetarian and fish dishes, including bream, sea bass, red snapper and pollock.
For a special adieu to the Saga Sapphire, on our last night we booked the intimate East to West restaurant, which seats about 25 diners. I can recommend it, but book ahead for a reservation.
There were whales spotted having a whale of a time alongside our vessel, but these maritime monsters never made it on to the menu – at least not while we were on board! Every day there was a delicious chilled fruit soup with fresh mandarin, coconut cream, pear and saffron, cherries and double cream, mango and passion fruits and peach and roasted almonds among those on offer.
There is a fully-equipped spa with treatment rooms, a sauna, gym and a heated indoor pool, where the temperature was kept at a constant – and extremely inviting – 30C every day. Venturing ashore, all guests are given Arctic jackets, which are fully insulated and which they can take home after the cruise. But you still need extra socks, gloves and scarves.
Andalsnes was our first port of call – and our first sight of snow. This town, with a population of 3,000, was where British troops landed in 1940 in the early stages of the Second World War as part of a pincer movement to recapture the mid-Norwegian city of Trondheim.
When we reached Finnmark it was time for dog-sledding. As your sled is towed across the snowy desert by eight eager huskies, you can feel the wind in your face and a fluttering in your heart. But you soon learn to trust the experienced musher (driver) as he guides you along the route. Our musher told us the dogs were only travelling at about half-speed. You could have fooled me and my two fellow-passengers!
The reindeer, owned by the hardy Samis, who have traded in this beautiful but desolate region for centuries, were a different proposition. Very few of our 30-strong party were willing to give reindeer-sledding a try. But, emboldened by my dog-sledding ‘expertise’, I was one of the first to give it a go. Sitting alongside the female driver was a truly exhilarating experience as we covered one lap of the snowy track.
We got to the ice hotel just a few weeks before it begins to melt. It is re-built annually and you can stay the night if you can manage the temperatures. Our return journey was via Oslo, where there is a Holocaust memorial designed by Turner prize winner Anthony Gormley, who was also responsible for the Angel of the North.
There is a synagogue – one of only two in Norway – and a Jewish museum. The Centre for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities, in Bygdoy, just outside Oslo, also has an excellent exhibition relating to the Holocaust.
The final port of call was Tromso, where there is a statue of Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen, the man who beat Captain Robert Scott to the South Pole by 34 days. Amundsen is believed to have died when his flying boat crashed into the sea off Tromso in 1928. His body was never found.
Like Amundsen’s race to the Pole, ours was an epic journey. Saga tailor their cruises to the needs of the discerning over-50s. They really do take care of everything – except the weather!
• Saga Pearl II is offering a 15-night cruise from £2,334 per person. The cruise departs on 17 February, 2015. To book call 0800 051 3355 or visit saga.co.uk/cruises