Five years ago, Saga was working on its vision for a new ship. The dream was clear: to create a luxurious, boutique vessel designed specifically for the British market. And it’s a concept that Saga has delivered on. Earlier this year, Spirit of Discovery launched in Dover – the first of two bespoke boutique cruise ships designed by the line as part of a £600 million investment (the second, Spirit of Adventure, is due to arrive in summer 2020). It’s a far cry from the image many associate with Saga – exclusively for the over-50s – and a marker of a new era for the operator. Style, comfort and individuality have been brought to the fore. The ship feels elegant and spacious, yet manages to maintain a feeling of intimacy. Warm neutrals, greens, blues and tans flow throughout, complementing textural fabrics and flashes of pattern.

This is Saga, but taken up a gear: unique works of art were commissioned from artists working in Britain especially for Spirit of Discovery; a collaboration with Jools Holland has resulted in The Club by Jools, a first for Saga and Jools’ first partnership with a cruise line; and beautifully crafted cabins take their cue from London’s leading hotels and the very best in contemporary hotel design.

It’s also big news for the British cruise industry: Spirit of Discovery is the first small ship built specifically for the British market this millennium.

Andrew Porter, design manager at Saga, tells us more…

What was the design process for Spirit of Discovery? What did the brief look like, and what were the must-haves for the ship?

The first thing was the facilities, what size we wanted the ship to be and what we wanted to provide on board. The ship is for fewer than 1,000 passengers, all balcony cabins. The big things for us were the theatre and the Britannia Lounge, and we were determined to have the potential for one-seat dining, which means you need more than 1,000 dining seats on the ship – that’s quite unusual. Beyond that, there’s our customer demographic – British – and the desire to create a proper cruise liner rather than a bit of a theme park, as some ships tend to be these days. Key things were luxury and choice and things like our single passengers. We have 20 per cent single cabins, so we also wanted to create spaces that would help people to interact. There’s the Secret Garden at the back of the ship where people can just naturally meet each other. In the main restaurant, we were keen to break it up so it doesn’t feel like a 500-seat restaurant, which it is. It’s broken up into lots of different areas and we were very careful with the acoustics. There’s lots of carpet in there, for instance, where many similar restaurants would have tiles all over the place. We wanted people to be able to hear each other, which then led us to having small tables. There’s only a couple of big tables, and that’s so everybody can hear one another.

How did you go about choosing colour palettes, tones and textures for the ship?

It’s all based on British. For instance, the Britannia Lounge is somewhat influenced by the South Bank and elements of Royal Festival Hall, that kind of organ-pipe look behind the stage. Sort of a 1950s South Bank. Not that you’d necessarily notice that straight off, but that’s the sort of thing we were looking at. The South Cape Bar is more London hotel club cum cocktail bar; the Lido pool area is more a 30s to 50s British outdoor pool, with the horizontal railings and the curved stairs. The Living Room is almost like a London oyster bar type of arrangement, although that’s not what it is, but it’s the sort of bar you could find in quite a few of the big London hotels. We also looked a lot at classic liners, particularly the likes of The Queen Mary and the QE2, which was very funky in its day. Outside, the big white promenades could be straight off an old cruise liner.

The different areas all have different qualities. The glass and the views in the Britannia Lounge are incredible. But all of the interiors are equally detailed. We were very conscious in making them all equally detailed so none feels better than another. For instance, the stone around the two-storey mirror in the main dining room is the exact same stone that we use around the theatre. Touches like this add flow and continuity to the interiors.

One thing to highlight is the level of design we went to. All of the carpets are specially designed with a nod to British weaving [tartans and tweeds feature] and we designed the carpets individually for each area. There are so many bespoke elements, from the flooring to the afternoon tea service, all made specially for Spirit of Discovery.

How would you say the interior design aligns with Saga’s brand image and the philosophy of the line?

I only joined Saga to do this ship, so I can’t say too much about the brand image before Spirit of Discovery, but there’s certainly a feeling that this ship is trying to reinforce the brand identity. ‘Authentic’ is a word we’ve used – an authentic product that shows the company for what it wants to be, which maybe the older ships didn’t help with. One of our measures was that we wanted people to come on board and say ‘wow, that wasn’t what I expected from Saga, but I do like it’, and remarkably, that’s what we did.

The atrium is the heart of the ship and a dramatic entry point for guests. Can you tell me more about the artwork collections displayed here?

The idea was to have the artwork as a collection, rather than just plastered around the walls. I’ve not really seen that done well on a ship before, so we set ourselves some criteria for this ship: it’s all from British-based artists and all of the art tends towards landscapes and seascapes, plants and animals, all around the UK. For instance, in The Grill, all of those botanical paintings were done over the course of the year, simply because the artist has to do them over the course of this year as they’re seasonal. There are the landscapes in the atrium, and even some of the more abstract stuff is based on landscapes, seascapes and British geography. Another thing was that we wanted guests to be able to see the ‘hand’ of the artist in their work, so therefore it has to be skillful, created by someone who clearly has talent. We didn’t want people to say it was something their four-year-old grandkid could have done! I think by having that criteria, even if it wouldn’t be your personal choice of art, you still have to respect it for what it is. SMC Design, the company responsible for the overall design, curated the entire art collection. We consciously used their art department and graphics department to pull the whole thing together.

Speaking about SMC Design, they said they wanted to create the look of a London hotel within the cabins. Can you expand on why you went down this route, rather than going with more traditional cruise cabin interiors?

Personally, I think the typical cruise ship style is done, it’s been done to death – your crazy carpets and neon lights, all that sort of stuff. We wanted to create something better and we consciously worked to achieve this – something more interesting and personal. The other thing was that we didn’t want to be corporate. There’s a more domestic feel in the cabins, down to things like the vanity unit, which has legs rather than being a solid unit. In actual fact, the unit is fixed to the wall, as it comes out of the factory as a full cabin. The legs are just there to make it look good. There are lots of things like that on board. For the fabrics and cushions, for example, we didn’t get things copied, those are all the real deal, expensive materials. It was to create a feeling of being homely and charming, as well as high end.

Interiors can date remarkably quickly. Say a cruise line builds six ships over ten years, it means that the first one is already ten years out of date by the time the last one is complete. This is why our second ship [Spirit of Adventure, launching next summer] will be completely different to the first one.

The ship interiors draw inspiration from top London hotels. Do you see a clear distinction between sea-based and land-based design, or do you think there are requirements for similar aesthetics in both?

I think they’re becoming closer. There are technical reasons why they’ll never be the same because of the structure of a ship and how it’s built – all those cabins are built in a factory and brought on one by one. And although you can’t see it, there’s lots of steel works hidden around the ship, so many times, where there’s a bookcase or something, for example, there’s actually a big lump of steel behind there, which you’re not aware of. So the design of the ship is largely dictated by the structure and the services, whereas for land-based design you have more freedom. But in terms of interior design, what we’re seeing is more and more land-based designers becoming involved in cruise ships, so I think it’s inevitable that there’s going to be more synergy between them. It seems to be a trend. It’s partly to use big names and it’s partly due to the sheer volume of work.

Dining is an essential part of any cruise, and Spirit of Discovery has more dining options than on any other Saga ship. Can you talk us through the dining venues and menus?

We have five dining venues. There’s two speciality restaurants, East to West, which is something we already have on Sapphire, and Coast to Coast, which serves seafood and is a high-end restaurant. The main dining room holds just under 500 people and that was intended to appeal to our more traditional passengers. So if you like traditional, formal dining, that’s for you. If you don’t, there’s our steakhouse, The Club, which has been so successful that it’s probably actually not quite big enough, to be honest. Increasingly, some feedback we’ve had recently is that people are less and less enchanted with formal nights. So they can go up to The Grill, which isn’t a typical cruise ship-style buffet. In the evenings, it’ll be full service and has a fairly similar menu to the main restaurant, so you’re not losing out by eating here. We very consciously have no charge for the speciality restaurants. This is a big thing for our philosophy.

Was ‘future-proofing’ a consideration when you were designing Spirit of Discovery?

To be honest, no. The ship was designed as an entity, so no matter what room you’re in, it should feel like you’re on that ship. We went in looking ahead to what refits we’re going to do in five years and what new equipment we might have. But we were trying to design something that would stand the test of time. Identity was more important to us than future-proofing, but we invested in high-end interiors with the intention of it lasting. If it’s well enough designed we’ll be able to maintain it and keep it, we won’t need to change it. Technology will inevitably change, but those things can be swapped out. We don’t really know what technology will look like in the future, but what we have done with all the entertainment systems is pitched ourselves at the high end without being ridiculous. The theatre is very well specified, we’ve got the big LED wall, the projector and the cinema screen, and all of it is very good quality. But you could specify millions of pounds away and achieve very little.

Saga’s next ship, Spirit of Adventure, is due to launch in summer 2020. How will this ship differ in design to Spirit of Discovery?

Spirit of Adventure is a sister ship to Discovery, but definitely not a twin. It has its own character which again we have strived to reflect throughout the interiors.

Big changes include in the main dining room, which will lose the double-height ceiling in the centre. We’ve closed that to create space for a bigger Club upstairs with more bar space and a timber dancefloor. We’ve also changed the two speciality restaurants, so this time we have an Italian and a Nepalese – Saga has a long connection with the Gurkhas based in Folkestone, so this is a bit of a tribute to them.

We have also increased the variation of design in the cabins with three different styles for each cabin type. It’s a very boutique look.

Elsewhere, we have tried to keep the same facilities so that the two ships offer equal experience, but we’ve gone for different interiors. To achieve this, we have changed the interior designers to AD Associates for the whole of the ship, although we’ve kept on SMC Design for graphics – signage, mostly – and art procurement.

This article was written by Emily Eastman.

All images credited to Franklin and Franklin