I can’t say that going on a cruise was ever on my Bucket List. It somehow didn’t seem to feature, probably a combination of the fact that my husband isn’t a big fan of the sea and I was of the generation who watched Leo sink to the bottom of the ocean when Kate definitely could have squeezed him on her raft!!! But all that changed when I got an invitation from MSC to join them on the MSC Sinfonia for a 4 day cruise from Durban to the Portuguese Islands and back.
I’m ALL about travel and there was no way I wasn’t going to grab this opportunity… and I was really intrigued to find out more about what is involved in a cruising holiday plus it would mean I could add an additional country to my list for 2016 (bringing the total of NEW country visits to 4 – not bad going for a part-time blogging mama!)
After threatening that I would take someone else with me if he didn’t want to come along, my husband and I found ourselves jetting off to Durban on a Monday morning while everyone else was doing the school run. It felt a bit like we were bunking real life. It was awesome!
On arriving at the airport we discovered that MSC was really geared up for the influx of cruise passengers arriving that morning and we made our way to the desks arranging the shuttles to the harbour.
A quick drive through Durban to the port and we joined the throngs of people boarding the boat. This is a massive task. Over 2500 passengers have to board in just a few hours!
Top Tip: Opt for priority boarding to get fast tracked through the boarding system. It’s only about R100 more and it’s well worth it!
Once we were on board we were quite overwhelmed with the sheer size of the vessel. It was enormous and felt like a complete maze with about 5 or 6 decks each stretching the length of the ship.
First port of call was to sort out our cruise card. This is a credit card-type card that each passenger is given in order to make all their on-board purchases (in US$) without the need for carrying cash with them everywhere. You link it up to your credit card via a few of the activation machines on board and once you’ve loaded your specified amount (or the minimum amount) you’re good to go and can use it in any of the shops on board, in the casino or to book for various shows or entertainment. The only thing you can’t use the card for is drinks for which you have to buy a beverage package and use various vouchers for your drinks.
Once that was sorted we grabbed a map and tried to find our way to the excursion desk. I had tried to book our excursions online before departure but they hadn’t been available for this trip and I didn’t want to miss out so this was my first priority. A few forms and a swipe of our cruise card to pay the excursion fees and we were set up.
I really loved snorkeling in Indonesia, so that was the first excursion I booked. There are two options – Coral Garden or Santa Maria and we opted for the first option, unfortunately our experience was very disappointing. There was so much sediment in the water that there was zero visibility which resulted in a few near misses on the coral and made me feel very anxious in the water as I couldn’t see where I was swimming. I would recommend that before you book this excursion you double check what time of the year is best for visibility in the area yourselves. The excursion desk wasn’t really able to help us with answering what the visibility would be like – they claimed it changes every day but from most people I spoke to it would seem that this probably isn’t the best place to go snorkeling if you actually want to see anything as it’s a very tidal area.
We also booked for a tour to the Inhaca lighthouse as I really wanted to get more of a sense of Mozambique and this tour was on the neighbouring island to Portuguese Island. Unfortunately it didn’t happen due to insufficient interest but that meant we made our own way across to Inhaca by booking the Inhaca transfer excursion right on the beach and actually really enjoyed our experience (more to come in a separate blog post!)
After sorting out our excursion bookings, it was time to head to our cabin and find out where we were to spend the next 4 nights. We had purposefully packed really lightly and only had carry-on luggage with us so as soon as we found our room we could unpack, shower and change (It’s Durban!!) without having to wait for our luggage to be delivered to our room.
To our surprise our cabin was great! It was compact and neat and definitely not as small as I had been lead to believe cruise cabins are. There was room to walk around the queen sized bed and enough space to keep our bags on the floor or a cupboard and draws to unpack our clothes into. There was a TV and mini-bar and a few surfaces to put NB items as well as two bedside tables and there was a tiny bathroom with a toilet, basin and shower that was quite an interesting experience! All in all it was super comfortable and really private. I had expected that I would hardly spend any time in my cabin but during our cruise I loved escaping to our little room and having a nap or watching something on TV or just reading.
The very best aspect of our room was the balcony with the endless sea view. Each morning we opted to order breakfast in our room (something not many cruisers realise is actually included in your package and not an additional cost) Each evening before going to bed we would fill our our breakfast form and leave it hanging on our door knob. The next morning, at the specified time, our continental breakfast would arrive – croissants, pain au chocolat, orange juice, yogurt and fruit, coffee or tea. It was the ideal way to start a slow morning about a ship – watching the waves and feeling the warm breeze on your face while sipping on a hot drink in your pajamas! THIS is the way to do breakfast on board. No bun fights at the buffet for me!
Top Tip: Order breakfast in to your room each morning by completing the form located in your room and avoid the queues and crowds at the buffet!
It was also a lovely spot to enjoy a glass of chilled champagne and a few chocolates to celebrate us or to spend a quiet evening watching an electric storm over the wild ocean while everyone else was elsewhere – both of which are beautiful memories of this trip!
After settling in, unpacking and changing into our cruise gear of swimming costumes and sarongs, it was time to orientate ourselves on this huge floating hotel. But first, a Safety briefing that saw every single passenger grab their lifejackets and head up to the deck with the lifeboats! A little bit nerve-wracking when you realise what might go wrong but a necessary precaution!
Then we headed up to the deck to discover the pool area… 3 different pools/ water play areas are available and these were already being well utilised by the kids on board!
Cruising is kid paradise! Besides the great water play area on the top deck there are also 5 amazing kid areas all targeted to various age groups. A baby group for the under 3’s, a 3 – 6 group, a 7 – 12 group, a 12 – 14 group and a 15 plus group. Each is hosted in a separate area on board with qualified childminders overseeing the entertainment programme and fun activities. We didn’t take our kids with us on this trip (as the invite was during the school term) but I know my kids would have loved it!
Not to mention the endless FREE pizza on offer almost 24 hours a day! Another major bonus about cruising with kids is that they actually cruise for free if they are under 18 and traveling with 2 adults – that means all their accommodation, food and entertainment on board is absolutely free which is incredible value as a family holiday.
Strolling around the top deck was great when we wanted to absorb some of the fun atmosphere, but we didn’t actually find ourselves spending too much time here or next to the pool. This was mostly because this was where everyone else seemed to hang out and we weren’t mad about the crowds and preferred to find the quieter spots on the ship
Top Tip: The decks located at the back of the boat are usually really quiet and no one else seems to be about, plus it’s a great spot to see just how fast you’re cruising….
Our initial “cruise” around the cruise liner found us exploring all the various decks and discovering where the restaurants, theatre, cinema, casino and nightclub was located.
Top Tip: If you’re looking to escape the crowds and want to enjoy some quiet time while looking out to sea then head up to the nightclub during the day. It became one of our favourite spots to enjoy a slice of pizza or a drink while watching the waves and we almost always had the place to ourselves!
We quickly discovered that life on board a cruise liner is one of the most relaxing ways to travel and over the course of our cruise I came to understand the appeal of a cruise holiday and realised why so many people rave about them…
There is the benefit of only unpacking once and basing yourself in one room for the duration of your trip.
The fact that you can pick and choose from a variety of entertainment options available on board and excursions on shore that mean you never get bored
The relaxing pace at which you do everything… wake up when you want to, stroll the decks, enjoy a slow breakfast on your balcony, read a book, take a nap, not to mention the gentle lulling of the rolling deep that ensures a good nights rest!
I have to mention the fears too though… Stepping on board I was definitely anxious about how I would react to being at sea. I have never spent so much time on a boat. (And previous experience of small boats have had me gluing my eyes to the horizon to abate the nausea!) I packed tablets and wrist bands (and even slept with them the first night as a precaution!) Did I get seasick? NOPE not at all. The first day I spent a few hours finding my sea legs but that was more about learning to rock with the boat walking down the loooong corridors and was really only bad on the days we were sailing up and down the coast. I did noticed the rocking when I first got into bed and was a bit worried that I would be waking up in the middle of the night, running for the toilet, but that didn’t happen! In fact the only time I struggled with the whole experience was when I got back onto dry land. For about 2 or 3 days I had a weird rocking sensation in my ears that made me feel like I was still at sea but it wasn’t terrible and not once did I even use my motion sickness tablets!
Over the 4 days we found our rhythm and routine… We were booked in for the first sitting of supper each night at Il Covo Restaurant which took place at 6pm. Initially I found this a bit early, but ultimately I discovered it was a great way to do things.
We would enjoy dinner at a leisurely pace from 6 – 8 and then we would have an hour or so to walk the deck in the warm evening air or pop past one of the live music acts before heading down to the theatre for the nightly show. Each night the show was different and really great fun! Then it was back out onto the deck for a nightcap, a spin on the slots or to dance the night away at the tropical themed party!!
Most nights we headed for bed around 11 just when the disco was getting started so we never did make it to the nightclub, but we did enjoy the Tropical deck party until 2am, so we’re not THAT old! 😉
On our last day heading back to Durban the weather turned and we couldn’t spend the day on deck chairs in the sun like I had planned, but the grey skies meant we could enjoy a really chilled day before heading back to reality!
I opted to enjoy some time in the thermal suite at the spa while Brad went to gym! We also enjoyed reading in our room, heading up to grab some pizza for lunch and watching Tarzan in the onboard cinema! Ultimately it was a really relaxing day and so good for me. I don’t really ever do nothing… and it was a great way to press the reset button on my crazy busy year!
Over the next two weeks I’ll share posts about our time on Portuguese and Inhaca islands in Mozambique – both really beautiful and unique places that I was thrilled to visit, but one of my favourite aspects of the cruise was actually not a place or experience.
It was the people!
Yes, there were lots of them (as can be expected on a cruise liner) and, initially, I was skeptical. A holiday with 3000 other people doesn’t seem like a holiday? Right?
As an English-speaking white South African I am ashamed to admit that my initial prejudices kicked in when I first stepped aboard and discovered the racial mix. I live in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town where my daily interactions with people of different racial groups to me is very limited. Truthfully I didn’t actually realise I had those prejudices until I was confronted with them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not racist and I am trying hard to right the wrongs of SA’s past within my own life and those of my kids, but when I realised I was going to be in the minority racial group on the ship I was a bit nervous… Would the trip be as enjoyable if I was having to avoid large, loud groups of people who are culturally so different to me??
And then I spent 4 days on the cruise ship WITH a true reflective mix of South Africans!
And it was awesome!
What I discovered over the course of the trip was that, despite the vast differences in demographics on board, everyone was there to have a good time – and that wasn’t so different to me after all!
Ask any of my family and friends what my first feedback to them was about this trip and they will tell you that all I could talk about was not the beautiful scenery or the unique places I visited. It was about the people. And not even the locals. It was about the South Africans on board!
I LOVED the amazing atmosphere that was created when a bunch of South Africans were there to have a good time. Let it be said that us South Africans know how to have fun! The good mood was going to get you wherever you went!
My cruise on the MSC Sinfonia opened my eyes and heart to South Africans. It gave me an opportunity to engage with my fellow countrymen in a space that made us all equals. Here there was no career title or car type or bank balance to define you. You had bought your ticket for you space on the ship and you were all equals – and in a great mood! (It might have something to do with no traffic??)
We sat down to lunch on the picnic bench and 3 black girls from Pretoria joined us and struck up a conversation, we shared our boat cruise across to Inhaca with 3 black girls from Rustenburg and a “regte boer” and his “poppie” from Mpumalanga, we walked the decks and struck up a conversation with a retired Afrikaans couple, each night we had dinner with an Indian couple from Durban and 2 Muslim brothers from Joburg. Every time we hopped in the lift we started chatting to another family – black, coloured, Indian, Afrikaans. And then we danced the night away with every colour and creed under the starry sky! It was awesome!
On thinking back on the experience I wondered whether we would be a bit further along in our healing process as a country if our government opted to pay for each South African to go on a cruise… How many cruise tickets could have been bought for the cost of Nkandla I wonder??
I arrived home with a different mindset from when I left just 5 days earlier.
And ultimately that is what travel is all about! Stretching yourself, growing and learning from the experience. Broading your horizons and expanding your mind. Coming home changed! And for these very reasons I love travel.
Thank you MSC Sinfonia!
Here’s hoping 2017 brings more of these amazing experience! and lots more travel…
Read more about my trip to Mozambique here:
Images: Kathryn Rossiter