Byline: Joan Bakewell
SAGA has given its name to a generation, and I belong to that generation.
The year I was 50 they put me on their magazine cover, as they do with everyone in public life when they reach that age. It certainly makes you confront reality. So what better holiday than to join my own kind, to take the sort of break often associated with older people: a cruise. And what better company to choose than the one that has made it its business to cater to the over-50s.
I first knew of Saga holidays back in the Seventies when I was a reporter for the BBC's holiday programme and went on a coach tour to Great Yarmouth. I was impressed then by how much care Saga takes to meet the needs of the old: if anything, such care has got even better.
I chose to join up with one of their world cruises for the Latin American segment, boarding the Saga Ruby at Antigua, hopping round the Caribbean a little, then sailing through the Panama Canal, down the coast of Ecuador and Peru, and flying home from Lima.
I wasn't being given special treatment: other holidaymakers also chose these two weeks. It was a rich and varied journey encompassing flying dolphins, ancient cities, riverside fish markets and the purchasing of Panama hats all round.
There is a boom in cruising, and new types of cruise ships. I have heard the gigantic kind referred to unkindly as shopping trolleys and I can see why. They're really self-contained floating resorts, with a super-abundance of facilities and shopping.
Saga Ruby isn't like that; it looks like the kind of ship a child might draw. It has 383 cabins and a crew of 480, an excellent ratio that means there's attentive and helpful cabin and restaurant service at all times. I was impressed to see crew members leap forward spontaneously to help someone struggling with a wheelchair, and lend a helping hand to anyone using a stick. Yes, people in wheelchairs do go on world cruises. These are people making the most of their retirement - and their pensions - before their options run out.
Being with your own age group has its blessings. How refreshing not to have to share space with a cohort of noisy children or put up with the hectic pleasures of family life (I enjoy those hectic pleasures on other occasions!).
On Saga Ruby, peace reigns; there is a fine library, with appropriate atlases, where people settle in silence to enjoy their books. There are bars - even one that has a smoking area - where the quiet murmur of conversation and the tinkle of Gershwin played on a grand piano is the loudest noise you'll hear.
And because there's no unhappy comparison with gorgeous young women and hunky young men, the holidaymakers on a Saga cruise aren't shy of their flesh, taking to shorts and even bikinis in defiance of wrinkles and sagging tums. I feel immediately home in such company .
The joy of this cruise is the pattern of visits: days at sea and days ashore alternated at just the right frequency. For this part of the trip, there's usually a day at sea, then a day in port with coaches ready and waiting with an English-speaking guide to conduct visits to markets, ruins, boat trips and such.
As a result, you never have the sense of being cooped up on board, nor are you harassed by the choice of too many outings. Or you can head off on your own, once Saga Ruby has docked, just as long as you're back in time for the sailing. A scanner checks you as you disembark so it's unlikely they'd leave you marooned.
I tended to make for the white beaches on every coastline, where I could at least paddle in the ocean and feel warm wind in my hair.
THERE were many highlights for me. Curacao was one, an island in the Dutch Antilles, full of colour and gaiety, where they all speak Dutch. There we saw the beautiful Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest in the New World, dedicated in 1732, where the floor is carpeted with sand as a reminder of the days when Jews had to live in muffled secrecy in Spain and Portugal. …