Hunting the Northern Lights with Saga
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A thrilling adventure inside the Arctic Circle on Saga Sapphire
All eyes were on the captivating violin duo Elektra in
Saga Sapphire’s theatre when the captain’s voice cut across their performance.
In true cruise ship tradition, they tried to play on but were temporarily
outshone by the unpredictable star of Mother Nature’s show - the Northern Light.
Captain Richard Lambert’s announcement that the Aurora
Borealis had put in an appearance on the starboard side of the ship heralded a
very genteel stampede - last seen at the previous day’s chocolate themed
afternoon tea - towards the windows, while other passengers braved the outdoor
decks in their evening clothes. In the meantime, the violin players hung up
their bows, in good natured acknowledgement that their act had been gate
crashed by the spectacle best seen on cold, clear nights inside the Arctic
Although sightings are never guaranteed, making the
prospect of a glimpse even more tantalising, we couldn’t have been in a better
place to maximise opportunities.
Saga’s Aurora Explorer cruise to northern Norway takes
passengers deep into the Arctic Circle to provide a thrilling insight into this
remote and magical region. For example, it is inhabited by the world’s largest
population of indigenous Sami people who have traditionally relied on reindeer
as the mainstay of their economy and culture; providing transport, food, skin
for clothing and antlers and bones for tools and utensils. Reindeer is a staple
on many local restaurant menus, and although this might cause an initial shock
for visitors it is arguably the ultimate free-range meat.
Some Samis, such as Laila Inga who lives on Hinnoya,
Norway’s largest island, owe their entire living to reindeer and gave us a real
understanding about her life raising the fascinating creatures that have
evolved and adapted to living in harsh conditions by developing wide feet to
walk on snow and, unlike any other species of deer, special bones in their
nasal cavities to warm cold air as they inhale.
We sat around a fire in her cosy lavvu, a traditional
conical building similar to a tepee, and were enraptured by her tales and
robust sense of humour. As Saga only caters to the over-50s, no childhood dreams
were shattered when she told us that in real-life Santa’s lead reindeer Rudolph
would be female - they are the only species of deer where both sexes have
antlers and males shed theirs in winter. Afterwards she sang an evocative joik,
the traditional song of the Sami people, and we went back outdoors to feed the
friendly reindeer; an unforgettable moment.
The excursion was one of many immersive and exciting
shore trips on offer. Another night we embarked on a husky sled ride, and again
this was no artificial experience but provided us with a real appreciation of
the contribution these hardy and enthusiastic dogs have made to the Norwegian culture.
This was reinforced on an earlier visit to the Polar Museum in Tromso, the
world’s northernmost university city lying 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle
and in earlier times a base for hunters, trappers and 19th century explorers.
The museum, housed inside an atmospheric former customs warehouse with creaking
wooden floors, has displays devoted to hunting and polar expeditions where the
dogs played a crucial role.
The choice of excursions was so extensive that on some
days it was hard to choose. Some passengers embarked on skiing lessons while
others explored the area’s Second World War history or stayed overnight in an
ice hotel. Just a few of the things available.
Everyone is offered a complimentary trip to go in search
of the Northern Lights, with coaches driving to the best potential sighting
spots based on meteorological forecasts. Although we didn’t see anything on our
trip we had a convivial evening listening to tales of local folklore around a
camp fire or sitting indoors sipping warming cups of hot chocolate.
But patience is a virtue and during the rest of the
cruise the lights came out to play on three separate occasions, variously
appearing as a luminous archway and green brushstrokes across the canvas of the
Although we kept snug outdoors in the heavy-duty
expedition parkas given out to every passenger - and which could keep after the
cruise - we really appreciated the warm home comforts back on the 720-passenger
Saga Sapphire, a small and intimate vessel which is, for now, the flagship in
Saga’s two-strong fleet. She will sail on her farewell season in 2020 as two
brand new ships - a first for Saga - are debuted to replace Sapphire and Saga
Pearl II. In the meantime, Sapphire will sail on a diverse range of itineraries
including Norway, the Mediterranean and closer to home.
Reflecting the line’s ‘Britishness’, the menus were a
daily delight of traditional favourites - including a full roast on Sunday -
regional and ethnic cuisine, that provided the best of all culinary worlds. The
East to West restaurant, serving exquisite Asian cuisine with a touch of
theatrical flair, is outstanding, and unlike many cruise lines this speciality
dining room is open to all passengers at no extra cost.
It was also great fun to sit outside, wearing the
expedition parkas and with legs wrapped in rugs, to eat freshly cooked fish and
chips from the Beach Club. With snow on the deck, I couldn’t imagine this
happening on any other line.
Back indoors a packed programme of daily activities,
including dance classes, lectures, music recitals, quizzes and stages shows,
kept everyone occupied as the ship sailed to the next destination. The
well-stocked library and the adjoining Drawing Room with its panoramic windows
were a magnet for those who preferred to relax. Days were also punctuated by
the eagerly anticipated afternoon tea and the prospect of cocktails and a
nightcap or two in one of the bars.
On a cruise where everything stops for tea - and the
entertainers are happy to let the Northern Lights take centre stage - this
really was a gem of a voyage.
Saga’s Norwegian cruise programme includes the 16-night
Aurora Explorer round-trip Southampton cruise on Saga Sapphire from £2,069,
based on a 21 February 2020, departure. Fares include all meals, wines with
lunch and dinner, 24-hour room service, welcome cocktail party, captain’s
dinner, gratuities, private home pick-up chauffeur service, Arctic expedition
jacket and optional travel insurance.
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