LATE last month, after years of staring wishfully out to sea over the Port Elizabeth Harbour from the rooftop of Newspaper House, our ship finally came in.
And it was not a moment too soon. I had long threatened to stow away on one of the increasing number of majestic passenger liners to dock in Nelson Mandela Bay – one which included our long-awaited ship, the very grand MSC Sinfonia.
Having paid a pirate’s bounty in rands and clutching a fist half-full of dollars, my cruise partner and I had booked our first cruise – a seven-day, exhilarating experience that would take us to Portuguese Island off Mozambique and Anakoa and Fort Dauphin on Madagascar’s spectacular coastline.
With the ship departing from Durban, and not wanting to proverbially miss the boat, the journey began with a treacherous, all-night dash by car through the Transkei.
But once aboard the 12-storey high vessel, the journey instantly transformed into pure bliss.
The MSC Sinfonia, which is but one of 12 vessels in the industry-leading MSC cruise ship fleet, is far more than simply a luxury liner or floating hotel.
More comparable to a mobile island that continuously sprouts smorgasbords of food and entertainment for its up to 2100 passengers, this ship is also run like a well-oiled machine.
Tables at the plethora of eateries on board are cleared by the minute, decks are swabbed around the clock and waitrons working 12-hour shifts, are constantly at your beck and call.
The decks include facilities for just about every leisure activity one could think of: two sparkling saltwater pools and various sun-decks, a putt-putt course, a “water theme park” with fountains and a wave-simulator, jacuzzis and of course, row upon row of loungers perfectly positioned to soak up the sun and a great, international holiday atmosphere.
On day two of our cruise, we arrived at Portuguese Island where MSC had set up an exclusive beach lounge and bar to chill in. For the more adventurous, there were snorkelling, fun torpedo or family rides and sea kayaking excursions to take part in, before returning to the ship via rubberduck.
This was followed by a glorious day on board gazing out over the endless horizon and dolphins frolicking in the waves. Some people even claimed to have seen flying fish. If the cocktails were not so expensive (about R50 each) one could have easily believed they had a sip too many.
However, the price of drinks – both soft and alcoholic – is high being paid for in US dollars.
Apart from sipping on a pricey cocktail, there is plenty to do during both the days and nights, with choices ranging from being pampered in the spa, exercising in the gym, catching up with friends and family in the internet cafe, trying your luck in the casino or simply selecting a book from the library. There is also a 24/7 duty-free shop and evening entertainment ranging from live bands, a disco, cabaret, comedians, dancers and magicians.
Both teens and children are also catered for with the Mini Club and Planet Teen’s Club.
We got our first glimpse of Madagascar when we anchored off the fishing village of Anakoa, which we accessed via the ship’s zippy rubberducks.
There we soaked up the buzzing village vibe of the market and sapphire blue ocean lapping at the fishing vessels scattered on the golden shore. More soaking up was done at a rustic beach bar with its offering of quart-sized Skol beer and rum.
The locals in the bar with its lick of faded turquoise paint and a breaching shark on one of its crumbling walls, studied us with curiosity as they “plotted” to relieve us of our precious few dollars.
The people of Madagascar are dirt poor and their haggling for the highest price for their wares, can be annoying at times. Especially when this is accompanied by a troupe of children pestering tourists for “one dollar”.
The lemur (or maki as the locals call them), along with the baobab tree, is synonymous with the island of Madagascar. However, to be greeted by these curious animals tied to some of the villagers by a string, is heartbreaking. They are abused for money as their owners charge for photographs taken with the lemurs.
The market stretched across the beach and is in itself a highly visual experience with vibrant splashes of colour. Beautiful sarongs, woven baskets, rings carved out of cattle horn, bangles and shells were just some of the exotics for sale.
Evidence of the influence the French had on the island, was – apart from French being the official language – seen in the wooden inlay boxes of Herge’s famous comic book character Tintin. Beautifully made, these depicted Tintin and his faithful fluffy, Snowy exploring Madagascar. Intricately carved chess sets and rain sticks also caught the eye.
In a makeshift “bar shack” one could also hire surfboards. According to one of the keen local surfers, the killer surf at Anakoa, which has water warm enough to draw a tea bag, has even attracted the likes of renowned world surfing champion Kelly Slater.
The next day saw the Sinfonia dock at Fort Dauphin on the island’s south-east coast. This port is home to one of Madagascar’s most beautiful stretches of coastline which is dominated by the breathtaking view of the splendid mountain chain of Anosy.
The ship’s excursions organised for Fort Dauphin, however, was way beyond the reach of our shoestring budget, but it took those more well-off to the Nahampoana Nature Reserve, which boasts several species of lemurs, tortoises and exotic flowers.
We, however, managed to escape the confines of the port and visited another vibrant, shore-side market.
Since Fort Dauphin was one of the original French territories in Madagascar, the colonial architecture steeped in an “atmosphere of steady decay” (according to our MSC brochure) are supposed to be one of the city’s highlights. Thankfully, the city is also blessed with good surfing spots along a curved bay.
What is immediately clear from a visit to these two destinations, is that Madagascar has vastly undeveloped tourism offerings, which, if developed and properly managed, will not only uplift the people and economy of the island, but open up a “new Mauritius or Seychelles” to the rest of the world.
After departing from the island, the ship meandered its long way back to Durban, giving passengers the opportunity to soak up the last few day’s of sun, the solid friendships they had formed and the last of their dollars.
Highly recommended as an opportunity to travel and forget the stress of everyday life, cruising offers a truly unforgettable experience. So much so, that we are heading back up to the roof to wait for our ship to come back in … – Cornelia le Roux and Shaun Gilham