A stunning saga you will wish has no end

I have a confession to make, writes Maria Cusine. I was officially too young to be on this holiday. You have to be over 50 to go on a Saga cruise (or be over 40 and travelling with a partner who is over 50).

So as a 30-something (albeit at the top end of my 30s) I was getting a glimpse of what future holidays have in store.

Well I’m not one to wish my life away, but after spending time on Saga Ruby I’d happily fast forward another decade and a bit to be eligible to take to the ocean waves on a cruise like this.

I joined a 21-night cruise part way into its Mediterranean journey at Barcelona. As our taxi from the airport approached the Catalan city’s port, cruise liner after liner came into sight. Huge ships resembled not just towering floating hotels, but floating resorts with thousands of holidaymakers on board.

There was nothing intimate about them, or even cosy. Their presence was, to put it simply, imposing and impersonal. And then, somewhat dwarfed in the line-up was the modest sized Saga Ruby. And what she lacked in size, she made up for in style.

This was the only vessel that actually looked like a traditional ship – inside and out. After boarding I felt like I’d stepped back in time to an elegant and gracious era of cruising.

The decor is simple and subtle. No flashing neon lights, no over the top modern artwork adorning the walls. The ship is rich in real wood panelling, providing that classic feel. From my spacious and comfortable cabin to the ship’s dining areas and bars, the ship is elegant and traditional.

And traditional in more ways than one. It was Sunday lunchtime when we boarded – perfect timing to try the ship’s fine dining. And what did the British ship have on the menu? Why Sunday roast of course. We dined in the appropriately named Dining Room and the meal was mouthwatering. It kicked off my love affair with the food on this ship.

After a hearty lunch we headed out to see the sights of Barcelona. Art and architecture is all around you in this cosmopolitan city – not least Gaudi’s amazing masterpiece – the Sagrada Familia, which is a must-see.

After seeing the sights of the Catalan capital it was time to head back on board.

Home-from-home  the cruiseship Saga Ruby

Home-from-home – the cruiseship Saga Ruby

Ideally you want to stay for a while but the thing that makes cruising irresistible is the moving on.

You go bed in one country and then wake up in another. And you’ve not had to unpack a thing. No passport control, no queues and no fasten your seatbelts. Admittedly I did fly out to join this cruise as I was there to sample part of it for six days, but for a passenger it’s a 21 night journey, which sets sail from Dover, taking in numerous delights of the Mediterranean.

Barcelona was the first port of call for the cruise, before moving on to Civitavecchia for Rome, Salerno in south-west Italy, then to Split in Croatia. I bid farewell in the beautiful city of Venice – after taking a ride on a gondola – while Ruby cruised on to Greece, Sicily, Gibraltar and Portugal before heading back to Dover.

There are optional shore excursions for those passengers keen to sample the delights of the destinations. I joined a tour through ancient Rome – in sweltering heat – and I was impressed by my seniors who seemed to have more stamina than myself as we made our way through the hustle and bustle of the city’s amazing attractions, such as the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum.

The fascinating destinations on just one holiday holds huge appeal – but of course you can’t forgot the other side of your holiday, your cruise ship.

In between visiting the magical Mediterranean cities, there are also days at sea – which provided me with a chance to explore life on board.

There were no water slides, rock-climbing walls or ice-rinks on board – save them for those families with young children. But that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to do on Saga Ruby.

During the days at sea there are lectures galore – on our cruise celebrity chef Anthony Worral-Thompson was cooking up a treat, while news presenter Peter Sissons entertained passengers with his seminars about his life in TV.

And there’s a cinema on board, as well as a library – a very traditional library, filled with shelf after shelf of books – not a high-tech gadget in site.

If you fancy a bit of pampering there’s a spa and hair salon, or perhaps you may want to relax in the pool or on a sun lounger. Feeling a bit more energetic? There’s a gym on board or you can simply stretch your legs by walking around the promenade deck.

Entertainment wise there’s plenty to keep passengers amused in the Ballroom, from dancing shows and cabaret to classical concerts.

Drinks prices are very reasonable – there’s daily cocktail specials at £2 . . . and even better there are no bar tips to worry about, as these are included in the price of the cruise.

For meal times passengers have the choice of the relaxing Lido, which offers alfresco dining or the elegant Dining Room. The Lido is the perfect dining choice for a day at sea, it’s very relaxing and offers you the chance to lunch while out on the deck.

The Dining Room was our choice for our evening meals. It’s an elegant setting and the food was truly delicious. It could not be faulted.

And just when I thought I’d sample the best in dining at sea, I spent an evening at the View restaurant. A lot more intimate that the Dining Room, and contemporary in style, this restaurant, which provides an amazing view of the sea and horizon, sits just 28 people. Here I was in food heaven. I can still taste every mouthful of my seafood tian starter, followed by fillet of angus beef – and finished off with a trio of white, milk and dark chocolate. Delicious.

As well as breakfast, lunch and dinner, the ship also offers afternoon tea, which proves very popular with the passengers, including yours truly. Very British and very civilised.

Yes, this is one holiday I’m looking forward to returning to in years to come.

Could I fault it any way? I’d struggle to.

I spoke to many passengers (Saganauts as the captain referred to them) and they were so high of praise for Saga I was beginning to think they were all employees.

No one had a bad word to say. They all loved Saga, and in particular were great fans of Ruby. They said they liked cruising with Saga because it felt comfortable in every way possible. They particularly liked the size of the ship as it was nowhere near as big as the cruise liners we passed. Small and manageable without being too intimate, was how they summed it up.

Of course they like the fact you are among people of a similar age and similar taste. And no noisy children and families disturbing you. A good percentage of passengers are solo travellers – so they can mix and mingle with each other.

Another appealing fact is that the cost of the cruise includes travel to and from the British port as well as travel insurance

And they also loved the crew and the friendly atmosphere. And they were right. The staff could not have been more helpful – and there was certainly enough of them, 380 crew for 660 passengers.

Excuse the pun, but a cruise with Saga does indeed seem plain sailing.

Fact file:

  • Saga Ruby’s Mediterranean Secrets cruise, departing May 16, is a 25-night extravaganza, priced from £2,787.
  • Ports of call are: El Ferrol – Spain, Cartagena – Spain, Palma – Majorca, Valletta – Malta, Piraeus – Greece, Patmos – Greece, Kusadasi – Turkey, Marmaris – Turkey, Heraklion – Crete, Civitavecchia – Italy, Olbia – Sardinia, Mahon – Minorca, Gibraltar, Lisbon – Portugal.
  • The price includes travel to and from Southampton in a return private chauffeured car service, travel insurance and cancellation cover. All meals, entertainment and all gratuities onboard are included.
  • Saga’s Price Promise – if Saga reduce the price of your holiday once it has been confirmed, the company will automatically pass the value of the saving on to you which ensures that early bookers never miss out.
  • For cruises, it may be decided to do this in the form of a higher grade cabin or other value-added benefit. The reduction applies as long as the discounted holiday is the same package offered under the same terms of sale.
  • The company also guarantees that the price of your holiday will not be subject to any surcharges, regardless of what may happen to fuel prices or exchange rates.
  • For more details see the website at www.sagacruises.com or call 0800 50 50 30.

Greece ‘a step’ away from twin rescue deals

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece has all but concluded a crucial deal to write off half its privately held debt and is now working on new austerity measures needed to secure continued bailout loans, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said Tuesday.

“We are one step — I would say it is a formality— away from finalizing (the debt relief agreement),” Venizelos told a news conference. “The next few days will determine what happens over the coming decade.”

Under the deal, private creditors would swap their Greek bonds for new ones with 50 per cent cut in their face value, a longer repayment period, which could be up to 30 years, and low interest rate, that is still being negotiated.

That is likely to leave investors participating in the deal facing an overall loss on their bond holdings of about 70 percent, according to people close to the talks.

Greece needs the deal to lower its debt — which is simply too big for it to tackle alone — by some euro100 billion and therefore avoid a default that would spell disaster for the country and destabilize European and global markets.

The deal is vital for Greece to avoid bankruptcy, as the country faces a euro14.5 billion bond repayment on March 20 with insufficient funds to cover the massive payout.

Venizelos said that one of the conditions for this bond swap deal to go ahead is a commitment by Greece’s bailout partners to keep giving it rescue loans.

To do that, Greece is now focusing on completing negotiations by the end of the week with its European partners and the International Monetary Fund on a new program of cutbacks — without which Greece’s bailout lifeline will be cut.

He said he hoped finance ministers from countries using the euro can sign off on the cuts — and a new bailout worth euro130 billion ($170 billion) — during their meeting next Monday in Brussels. Part of that new bailout — some euro30 billion — will be used as a cash payment to Greece’s private creditors to help secure the bond deal.

“Without a program, there can be no funding,” Venizelos said, explaining that the bond-swap deal and new bailout package are contingent on each another.

After a European Union summit on Tuesday, Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos told reporters in Brussels that he hoped both sets of negotiations would be finished this week.

Greece has been in deep recession for the past three years, and the economy is set to slow further in 2012, hindering the country’s debt-reduction efforts.

The bond swap is intended to make the country’s debt sustainable in the medium term, by bringing the debt-to-GDP ratio down from 160 percent last year to 120 percent in 2020.

The country has been surviving since May 2010 on a first bailout worth euro110 billion, but it has long been clear that further funds would be needed.

A team of international debt inspectors from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF — known as the troika — has been pressing for more spending cuts to address budget shortfalls last year and to accelerate deficit-cutting efforts through 2015.

“Spending on health, medicine and defense, are the main areas in our fiscal effort,” said Venizelos. Health Minister Andreas Loverdos added the government will cap spending on medicine at euro2.88 billion this year, down from an earlier estimate of euro3.2 billion.

Meanwhile, troika officials in Athens on Tuesday put off for later in the week a meeting with the Labor Minister to discuss ways of reducing employment costs — a key sticking point in negotiations between the struggling eurozone country and its rescue creditors.

Greece’s unions, employers and political parties have all opposed suggestions that employment costs could be cut by slashing the minimum wage and private sector pay.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg prime minister who chairs the group of eurozone finance officials, said Greece would be facing more pressure from other eurozone members to meet budget-cutting targets but rejected German suggestions to appoint a budget commissioner with veto powers over Greek decisions.

“I do not see the need to appoint a budget commissioner only and specifically for Greece. But our Greek friends also must know that they are under increased surveillance,” Juncker told German’s public Deutschlandfunk radio.

“Everyone knows that Greece’s consolidation program is off track,” he said. “Greece must live up to its commitments.”

Nicholas Paphitis in Athens and Juergen Baetz in Berlin contributed.

Copyright © 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

European Tourism in 2011 – Trends and Prospects, Q4/2011

The European Travel Commission (ETC) has just published its fourth quarterly report on European Tourism in 2011 – Trends Prospects.

The following gives a brief overview of the report for the fourth quarter of 2011.

– Travel to European destinations in 2011 has exceeded the prior peak set in 2008
– Impressively, 22 of 23 reporting countries show international visitor growth in 2011, ranging from 3% in the UK to more than 20% in Latvia and Lithuania. And 24 of 26 countries show gains in hotel occupancy in 2011
– Total international visits are estimated to have surged 6% last year, while hotel occupancy rates rose 3.2%, indicating that domestic demand lagged behind international demand.
– While the travel recovery has been quite robust, signs of eroding gains began to appear, as expected, in the second half of 2011.
– Data on visitation and nights from TourMIS as well as hotel and airline industry data provide a consistent picture of the pullback on growth in recent months.
– Three forces converged to bring about this late-year trend: reversion to the mean from the ash cloud rebound in the first half of the year; the second half of 2010 was relatively stronger than the first half so comparisons in 2011 were to a higher base; and the Eurozone debt crisis began to affect both consumer and business behaviour.
– The financial crisis in the Eurozone has continued to worsen in recent months. Problems in sovereign debt markets have spread from Greece, Ireland and Portugal to Spain and Italy – posing a much more severe threat of global financial contagion.
– If the Eurozone authorities fail to arrest the alarming slide in financial and business confidence, the consequences would be severe. In the event of a Eurozone break-up, GDP could initially fall by around 10% in the exiting countries and the attendant financial disruption would plunge much of the world, including the United States, back into recession. ETC European Tourism Q4 2011 1