Set sail on those crimson nights

Though it’s not possible to cruise right now, when passengers are able to board ships again it could well be the simple voyages that focus on natural beauty and culture — like this cruise to remote ports in the Indian Ocean — that are just the tonic to lockdown

A sunset view from the beach of Stone Town in Zanzibar
PLACE OF QUIET BEAUTY: A sunset view from the beach of Stone Town in Zanzibar

It’s not an aroma you forget in a hurry. Here I was nibbling a piece of jackfruit — the vegan ingredient du jour — on the island of Kwale in the Zanzibar archipelago. The ripe, unopened fruit has a distinctive, rather unpleasant odour, although our guide assured us it “tastes like pineapple and mango.”

We had sailed into the Menai Bay conservation area on a traditional dhow boat crafted from African mahogany. Sipping from fresh coconuts, we stopped to snorkel in the translucent Indian Ocean with a school of sergeant major fish, marvel at the coral formations and dodge a foreboding rain shower.

Feet sinking into velvet-soft sand, our beach barbecue lunch consisted of just-caught grilled shrimp, calamari, slipper lobster and a selection of island fruits and delicacies, sliced and served at the table, including seeds from the islands’ ancient baobab tree, and the jackfruit — which admittedly tasted better than it smelled.

But pungent snack aside, it was the sweet mandarin, mango and passion fruit that provided more familiarity to my taste buds.

The fresh seafood was another highlight, unsurprisingly, given most of Zanzibar’s 1.8-million people work on the ocean. Heavenly views and a carefree vibe, or hakuna matata, as they say in Swahili, added to the cruise’s charms.

Zanzibar, also known as The Spice Island due to its heritage and position as a trade port for spices, was just one of the stops on this Indian Ocean cruise.

Not many ships visit this side of the continent so you won’t be fighting for space with others at your ports of call, and overtourism isn’t an issue. In fact, you’re far more likely to spot dolphins or whales than floating hotels.

The mid-sized Azamara Quest accommodates 690 passengers and has a relaxed informality that many guests clearly appreciate, including solo travellers like me as I never felt awkward and made new friends quickly. You can eat what you like, when you like, and with the exception of Azamaras’ renowned white- themed night, there are no formal evenings to dress up for.

The food is good and varied, and there are always gluten- and sugar-free options available. As someone who doesn't drink tea or coffee, I appreciated the fresh juice and smoothie station at breakfast, finding plenty of healthy concoctions, ginger shots and detox water.

While cabins aren’t the most spacious, they are cleverly planned and have everything one could need, including USB ports by the beds, robes and slippers, unlimited bottled water and a bathroom night light.

As for the staff, they’re possibly some of the friendliest you’ll meet at sea — always helpful and smiley, they keep your glass topped up at mealtimes and hand out cold flannels and iced water poolside.  

But this cruise was all about the destinations and there were some real gems on the itinerary. Along with the excursions programme, guests also have the opportunity to leave the ship for overnight land tours, staying in anything from luxury lodges to boutique inns.

Cote d’Or beach in Praslin, Seychelles, is heaven for those addicted to exceptional beaches and endless sunshine
SLICE OF PARADISE: Cote d’Or beach in Praslin, Seychelles, is heaven for those addicted to exceptional beaches and endless sunshine

If exceptional beaches and endless sunshine are high up your priority list, this might be your ideal sailing. A few days before, I’d experienced a real life “no filter required” desert island in the Seychelles-Cote d’Or beach in Praslin features the sugar white sand and temperate, azure blue sea that you will have seen on countless ads and Instagram feeds. Top tip: go early and you’ll have the pick of sunbathing spots, as well as the best photo opportunities.

But of course there is so much more than sun, sea and sand to appreciate on this cruise. My time in Zanzibar included discovering the Unesco-listed Swahili trading town of Stone Town, with its carved doorways, crumbling coral stone homes, ancient squares, bazaar-style shops and even Mercury House and museum, which honours Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, who was born here in 1946.

The world-famous carved doors and architecture of Stone Town, Zanzibar
THIS OLD TOWN: The world-famous carved doors and architecture of Stone Town, Zanzibar

Compared to SA, not many cruise ships now visit Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, so when there’s a ship in port, it’s a pretty big deal. This former Portuguese colony has been an independent nation since 1975 and isn’t tainted by overdevelopment.

While we didn’t have time to explore the city in depth, at Maputo Central railway station, built in 1910 and among the most beautiful in the world, we escaped the heat to sample just cooked pasteis de nata (Portuguese tarts) washed down with local beer in the original tiled platform café.

Along with culture and coastline, the cruise was also rich in its nature offering — in the ocean as well as ashore. There were some exciting moments on our sea days, with sights including a pod of dolphins breaking the water’s surface, four whales and a beautiful yet rather eerie sun halo, created by ice crystals forming in atmospheric cirrus clouds.  

At the National Botanical Gardens in Victoria, the capital of Mahé in the Seychelles archipelago I’d sheltered under a gargantuan coco de mer tree, while warm, intermittent raindrops bounced off my skin.

With the humidity peaking at 87% on the changeable January day, acclimatising was proving a challenge, and having stepped off a direct flight from London a few hours earlier wasn’t helping.  

But what better for banishing jet lag than a little forest bathing? I pushed on. Once the rain stopped and the sun made an appearance, I headed to the giant Aldabra tortoise enclosure to watch them chowing down and ambling around like prehistoric sloths.

The Aldabra giant tortoise, among the largest in the world, can be seen in the Seychelles
DOZY GIANTS: The Aldabra giant tortoise, among the largest in the world, can be seen in the Seychelles

Among the exotic flora and fauna, hundreds of flying insects and dragonflies — bigger and bolder than I’d ever seen before — danced manically over lily pads in the steamy atmosphere.

Further down the coast in Richards Bay, part of the KwaZulu-Natal to the north of Durban, the wildlife packs an even bigger punch, with opportunities to see the Big Five at a number of game reserves.

At the 4,500-acre Zulu Nyala game reserve and safari lodge, we jumped into open 4x4 vehicles and bumped across the uneven terrain with our guide Moosa at the wheel.

Burchell’s Zebra in Hluhluwe Game Reserve, Kwazulu-Natal
GAME ON: Burchell’s Zebra in Hluhluwe Game Reserve, Kwazulu-Natal

On the way to the privately owned reserve, we learnt that Richards Bay had suffered a drought in 2019, which meant many animals had next to no water or vegetation and populations dropped. Happily the rains eventually came, the rivers filled up and the animals began to thrive again.

Over the following two hours we enjoyed plenty of sightings — a dazzle of zebras (yes, really), a journey of saucer-eyed giraffes traversing the vegetation, African elephants, water buffalo wallowing in their very own waterhole mud “spa”, territorial impala and a white rhino who seemed far more interested in his bottomless evening meal than letting us pass.

“He wins” declared Moosa, slamming the jeep into reverse as the ravenous rhino clearly had no intention of moving his heavy frame off the path. A definite hakuna matata moment if there ever was one.

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