Dining is a real highlight on Spirit of Discovery, with a choice of beautifully designed restaurants where there’s no extra charge to eat. The chefs really seem to care; they’ll come out after dinner and do the rounds, chatting to guests. There’s ample provision for special diets, including a big selection at the buffet of gluten-free and sugar-free items. Wine is poured generously with lunch and dinner -- three whites, including a chardonnay, a pinot grigio and a sauvignon blanc; two rosés, a sickly Zinfandel and a better Chilean; and three reds, a shiraz, a merlot and a tempranillo. There’s a wine list if you want something different, with decent quality wine starting at around £19. The cheeseboard, featuring around 60 cheeses from Britain and France, is arguably the best at sea.
The three speciality restaurants are more intimate spaces, with individual decor, and all located on Deck 6; East to West and Coast to Coast side-by-side aft, and The Club by Jools directly over the Grand Dining Room. All offer open seating. The reservations system, though, needs work. You have to turn up in person, which savvy cruisers do as soon as they embark, and stand in line. You can only book each restaurant once to start with. You can’t make reservations on the phone, except during a half-hour window at 6 p.m. every night, or again, by turning up in person at this time.
All three, though, are worth the effort, particularly as there is no charge to eat in them, and as the week went on, it wasn’t too difficult to get in at the last minute.
Grand Dining Room (Deck 5): The double height Grand Dining Room is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, serving modern British fare.
Breakfast (typically 8 a.m. to 9.30 a.m.. but varies according to the port of call) is less busy than The Grill, the ship’s buffet, which gets very crowded. There's a buffet station offering hot and cold dishes and items such as pastries and cold cuts. The menu then consists of hot dishes made to order.
Lunch, again, varies according to when the morning’s shore excursions are returning, but is generally from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. Expect a wide range of salads and cold cuts from the buffet and, usually, a choice of two soups. Mains range from traditional roasts to vegetarian dishes, while there’s a choice of four or more desserts and ice cream or sorbet.
Dinner (6.45 p.m. to 9 p.m.) is a grand affair, with five courses on offer: starters, soups, salads, mains and desserts. There’s always one vegetarian dish (the curries are especially good) and one "simple fare" offering of comfort food, like kedgeree. A pork medallion, chicken breast or salmon fillet with sauce is always available from the grill, and simpler or smaller versions of all dishes can be requested. We would have liked to have seen a greater choice of vegetarian dishes, though; if you don’t like the one dish on offer, there’s no "always available" alternative, like pasta.
Desserts on Spirit of Discovery were consistently outstanding. There’s a choice of three, usually with twists on classics, as well as ice creams, sorbets and a sugar-free option. A daily highlight is the superb cheese trolley, with dozens of cheeses from Britain and France. Some, like the Isle of Wight Blue, have been sourced from small producers and all carefully chosen and served at the right temperature.
You can have afternoon tea in the Grand Dining Room, too, from 4 p.m. to 4.45 p.m., which is a real treat.
The Grill and The Verandah (Deck 12): The Grill is the ship’s main buffet restaurant, serving the same British cuisine as in the Grand Dining Room, just more casual. The Verandah is its outside section.
Breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner are served here at tables for two, four or six. The layout is such that the serving area is almost completely separate from the seating area and, while this takes away the canteen feel you get at some cruise ship buffets, it’s all too easy to get lost once you’ve got your food. A lot of waiters seemed to spend their time escorting people back to their seats.
Breakfast, usually 7.30 a.m. to 10 a.m., is a huge spread of typical hot and cold items -- pastries, cereals, cold cuts and the kind of fry-up loved by Brits. Omelettes are made to order. Waiters circulate with pots of tea and coffee, and speciality coffees like cappuccino, are quick to arrive. There’s a strange system for getting toast, though; instead of a toaster, waiters wander round with baskets of brown and white toast, shouting "toast", which is all very well, but sometimes involves a long wait as your eggs get cold.
Lunch (12 p.m. to 2.30 p.m.) includes a large salad bar and assorted cold cuts. There’s always a choice of two soups and a sandwich of the day. Three or four mains are served buffet style and one is usually a roast. Five different desserts are on offer, as well as a choice of ice creams and sorbets. Waiters circulate with red, white and rose wine, which are poured generously. There is always a choice, but you sometimes have to request, say, the sauvignon blanc if the day’s wine is the chardonnay.
Afternoon tea is served from 4 p.m. to 4.45 p.m. and dinner from 6.45 p.m. to 9 p.m. A couple of chef’s specials are served at the table, like freshly cooked pasta with scallops, king prawns and mussels, or pork medallions. Alternatively, five or so mains are buffet service. Again, though, there’s only one vegetarian dish. Three or four desserts are on offer, as well as ice creams and the usual spectacular cheese board.
The Verandah (Deck 12): Outside The Grill, there’s a separate lunch menu of salads, various burgers, sausages, sea bass and pork chops, all made to order and served al fresco in a sunny spot overlooking the ship’s wake.
The Club by Jools (Deck 6): This is a new venture for Saga, a 1950s-style grill and supper club in association with musician Jools Holland. While Jools Holland isn’t a chef, he has allowed his name to be used to brand the club -- and one of the steaks on the menu -- as part of a five-year partnership with Saga. The restaurant wraps around a balcony area on Deck 6, looking down into the main dining room. At one end, there’s a dark, cosy bar with a small stage, where visiting jazz acts perform (Holland himself will put on shows in the main theatre four times a year, although there’s always hope of an intimate, late night session in here).
There’s music before and after dinner, although not during. The menu is as you might expect from an upmarket steakhouse, including a full selection of steaks, other cuts of meat and some shellfish and seafood.
Starters include a retro prawn cocktail, or some excellent Cornish crab cakes or a three-onion soup. Mains feature four different steaks, including a massive Tomahawk for two to share, and Jool’s "signature", a New York striploin. There’s also lamb, chicken, a fish of the day and a baked aubergine vegetarian dish. Of the three desserts, the warm apple tart has to be tried; with calvados and a honeycomb crunch, it’s exquisite. You can finish with the usual sumptuous cheeseboard.
Coast to Coast (Deck 6): This restaurant is another departure for Saga, serving high-class seafood dishes in a light, elegant setting.
East to West (Deck 6): The ship’s Asian restaurant offers more high-class cuisine: Asia fusion similar to that in the eponymous restaurant on Saga Sapphire. The menu is fairly short, but imaginative (think dishes like soft shell crab and grilled scallops or Himalayan-spiced rack of lamb). There are two vegetarian options, but when we went back a second time, we asked (on the chef’s recommendation) for something different and was presented with a wonderful dal and vegetable curry. Among the four desserts, the chocolate and chilli tart won our vote.
Room Service: There’s a decent room service menu, available at no extra charge. You can order anything from the Grand Dining Room menu during the restaurant’s opening hours, and at other times, salads, soups, wraps, toasted sandwiches, burgers, steaks, chicken curry or omelette with chips are available. What’s good about this ship is that the cabins are somewhere you really could enjoy a quiet dinner, given how spacious they are and the fact that each one has a balcony. There’s an array of desserts -- and a selection from the cheeseboard. There’s also a breakfast menu, served between 7 a.m. and 9.45 a.m. that features fruit, cereals, meats and cheeses and baked goods. Passengers in suites can order room service from any of the speciality restaurants, too.