The last cruise ship built in Britain, the Saga Ruby, is set to retire.

The last cruise ship built in Britain, the Saga Ruby, is set to retire.

Saga Ruby, the last cruise ship built in Britain, is to be retired after 40 years of service, its owners have announced.

The 661-berth vessel, constructed in 1973 in Newcastle upon Tyne, will embark on its final voyage next year after more than four million nautical miles at sea.

Robin Shaw, CEO of Saga Cruises, said the ship was being retired due to its advancing age.

“Saga Ruby has delighted cruise-goers for some 40 years, but operating a ship of this age to meet the exacting standards we and others set is becoming an increasing challenge,” he said. “We have therefore decided that she should be gracefully retired in 18 months.”

He added that Quest for Adventure, one of the company's two remaining cruise ships, will assume its previous name, Saga Pearl II, from 2014, and will no longer offer adventure itineraries. The company has hinted recently at plans to expand its fleet.

Saga Ruby was christened MS Vistafjord and operated by the now defunct Norwegian America Line for its first 10 years. In 1983 it was sold to Cunard, and was renamed MS Caronia in 1999. Saga bought the vessel in 2004 and spent £17 million on its refurbishment.

The ship is a firm favourite among cruising traditionalists – and is seen as the antithesis of the 4000-passenger behemoths that are now a common sight in ports around the world. After taking a cruise to West Africa on board the vessel, Telegraph Travel writer Peter Hughes said it “belongs to an age when ships looked like ships, not inner-city housing projects. Not for nothing has she been described as a mini QE2.”

He added: “Her looks are classic: sharp, clipper bow and dark-blue hull, topped with a swooping sheer line. Curving white superstructure is banked beneath a tall yellow funnel. The Mayans built temples on much the same lines.”

Sage Ruby has also been deployed on a number of adventurous routes – perhaps surprising given that the majority of its passengers must be over 50 years of age.

Peter Hughes's cruise featured stops in Benin and Togo, and excursions included a trip to a Togolese village, where he was treated to a voodoo dance, and a stop at a fetish market, where he found a scrapyard of shrunken monkey heads and stuffed owls on sticks.

In its guise as Saga Ruby, the ship has also visited Peru, Panama, Costa Rica, the South Pacific – including Pitcairn and Easter Island – Sierra Leone, Oman, the Maldives and Hawaii.

Its retirement will be seen by many as confirmation of British shipbuilding's long decline.

On the eve of the First World War, Britain built more ships than every other country in the world combined and in the Sixties there were still more than 50 shipbuilders across the country. Perhaps the two most famous cruise ships of all time, the Titanic and the QE2, were built in Belfast and Clydebank, respectively.

But the industry's decline in the Seventies and Eighties means there are now just a handful of shipbuilders ion Britain. Most specialise in defence contracts and repairs. Today, the construction of cruise ships is dominated by four companies: STX Europe, based in France and South Korea, Fincanteri of Italy, Meyer Werft of Germany, and the Japan-based Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Every vessel owned by the two biggest cruise companies in the world, Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean, was built by one of these firms.

Saga Ruby's final voyage will be a 31-night Caribbean cruise, sailing from Southampton on December 7, 2013.

More notable retirements

QE2

Sold to a state-run Dubai investment firm in November 2008, following an eventful farewell voyage from Southampton to New York (upon arrival in Southampton, the ship ran aground on a sandbank, and needed five tugs to pull it free). The retirement was particularly tough for Beatrice Muller, 89 at the time, who had lived on board for 14 years, at a cost of £3500 ($A5330) per month. The ship is currently moored in Port Rashid, Dubai, where it is set to become a 300-room hotel.

Saga Rose

Retired in October 2009, after it was unable to meet new safety regulations, and scrapped a year later. The ship made 44 world cruises during its 44 years of service – a record – and was beloved by Saga regulars for its classic design.

SS Canberra

Unveiled in 1961 and initially used by P&O on its service Britain and Australia, the Canberra was adapted for cruising in 1974, following the closure of the Suez Canal. The ship was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence 1982, and played a vital role in the Falklands War. It returned to cruising, before being scrapped in 1997.

Delta Queen

Built in Scotland in 1926 and shipped in pieces to California, the Delta Queen was one of the most lavishly-appointed riverboats of its time. It plied the waters of California, Louisiana, Ohio, Mississippi and Tennessee for more than 90 years, and was boarded by three US presidents (Hoover, Truman and Carter), but was retired in 2008. It is now moored in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and serves as a hotel.

Minerva

Minerva was Swan Hellenic's solitary ship from 1996 until the company ceased operations in 2003. It sailed briefly for Saga Cruises, Abercrombie & Kent and the German-owned tour operator Phoenix Reisen, but was saved from retirement by Lord Sterling in 2007. The former chairman of P&O bought the Swan Hellenic brand and returned Minerva to its original home.

The Telegraph, London