Sea wanderlust: Four-day vacation on a cruise ship

Cruise ship
The swimming pool area inside MSC Splendida.
Photo credit: Clara Orina | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • I sampled South Africa’s top attractions and spent three nights on a cruise ship.
  • I dined in nine restaurants, rode a quad-bike and watched Cape Town from atop Table Mountain.

At 6:22 am on a Monday, I stand outside my cabin in awe of the sunrise, watching it from the sea. The sun, fiery reddish and orange, sits on the water on the horizon.

The clouds, it is like watching a fiery red cotton candy move in the sky. The sea is changing too. Becoming calmer. The sea is turning blue, from the dark grey at night. Scary, if sailing through a storm.

I am inside a cruise ship, MSC Splendida, docking at Cape Town Cruise Terminal in South Africa.

It is day 5 of a South Africa vacation, perhaps the ultimate on my bucket list experience.

Since South Africa removed visa restrictions for Kenyan travellers, many holidaymakers are trooping there. Last year, Kenyan travellers to South Africa rose by 99 percent, compared to 2022, reaching 42,403 arrivals from January to December 2023, the Minister of Tourism, Patricia de Lille says.

Just like the thousands of Kenyans seeking off-the-beaten-path destinations, I sampled South Africa’s top attractions; I spent three nights on a cruise ship from Durban to Cape Town, dined in nine restaurants, rode a quad-bike on the Atlantis dunes stretching about 10 kilometres and watched Cape Town from atop Table Mountain, which makes you feel like you are the Biblical Moses on Mount Sinai.

Atlantis Desert Ride
Quad biking at the Atlantis Desert Ride in Cape Town.
Photo credit: Clara Orina | Nation Media Group

Day 1:

I arrive at OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg at about 11 am ahead of a connecting flight to King Shaka Zulu International in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal where I will start my cruise ship journey. It is a smaller plane to Durban.

I am anxious about sleeping on water, on a cruise ship, but I reason that there are many other ways I could perish, and rough, choppy air or water may not be it. That is before turbulence starts shaking the plane. Nothing reminds us of our mortality quite like suddenly dropping a few metres mid-air, locked in the belly of an aeroplane.

I did not know I could grip an armrest so tight. But we land safely and head to Sun International’s Sibaya Lodge in KwaZulu Natal. Calmness sets in as soon as we arrived. The hotel resembles large thatched domes, built in an unspoilt location with lots of greenery, overlooking the ocean. It has a big casino, which has older women holidaymakers, at the slot machines. This looks like a good retirement pastime; travelling to different countries to sample their casinos.

Lunch is at a Portuguese restaurant within Sibaya Lodge, which has four restaurants to choose from.

Day 2

The drive from Sibaya Lodge to the Nelson Mandela Cruise Terminal takes about one hour. At 11:34 am, we arrive at the terminal.

MSC Splendida is standing at the dock. She is humongous. Beautiful. She is white. At full capacity, we are told, she holds about 4,000 passengers and 1,300 crew members.

The check-in is like at the airport, including a luggage limit of two suitcases not exceeding 23 kilos each. And if you are the kind that packs an iron box while travelling, the port security will confiscate it. There is a photo booth where an embarkation souvenir photo is taken, just before you board.

My room is on deck 10, Cabin 10021. It has a balcony and an ocean view. It is small and cosy. Has a big bed. Okay, a sizable bed. It does not feel crampy. The decor is minimalist.

After settling in, we grab a late lunch at 3pm at Pago Pago restaurant. It is laid back and so are the meals; pizzas, burgers, fried pork and French fries. At Pago Pago, there is no dress code. You are allowed to walk in casually dressed; in sandals, or shorts.

There are seven restaurants on this ship, including The Butcher’s Cut which serves high-end Angus beef and Bora Bora with a buffet stretching a few kilometres; meaning you will sit at a table and remember you may just need a croissant. You walk back through the tens of food stations and get lost.

After lunch, we start combing through every deck of the ship. Some decks are restricted unless you are a crew member or very moneyed and a member of the yacht club. The 333 metres-long ship has 17 decks. It is packed with amenities to craft a family vacation; from swimming pools, a theatre hall and a Formula 1 racing simulator, a Lego room, a casino, an amusement park, shops selling clothes and luxury jewellery, among others.

There are 19 bars and lounges in it, complete with Kenyan bartenders, who can shake up a very good Manhattan or a Skyfall [which has Hendrick’s gin, lime juice, blueberry liqueur and mint leaves]. To escape crowds, you sit on a cushy sofa listening to a pianist, oblivious to the choppy waters beneath the ship. There is also wine tasting with a sommelier on board.

At 5:34 pm, the ship intercom calls for a mandatory safety drill. The lifts are locked, and we must walk down the stairs. You must swipe your room card at a designated location to show that you attended the safety drill. A few minutes past 6pm, the ship starts sailing.

Dinner is at Villa Verde restaurant on Deck 6. Here, you dress up and sit at the table 30 minutes before serving. No wearing flip flops, tank tops, t-shirts or shorts. By 8 pm, we are at the door, some dressed up in high heels and dinner wear. We are ushered to our tables. Just like non-casual dining restaurants, the small-plated meals are timed and served with precision.

At 10:15 pm, there is a welcome party on Deck 14 and an after-party, with DJ Zee. Some of my colleagues go partying. I get seasickness and walk back to my room.

Sleeping in a room floating on water and staring into nothingness is ineffable. I open the door to the balcony and gaze patiently at the inert horizon. There is no moving object, no living thing that might rouse me from the nothingness, just grey water with huge rumbling tides. It is a bit scary. I start feeling queasy and sicker. I walk back to my small room, about 20 square metres big, take motion sickness pills and sleep. The night is calm.

Day 3

Walking through MSC Splendida, one of the largest ships to sail on African waters, is like roaming through a big shopping mall, with a seemingly endless number of amenities — water parks, multiple restaurants, theatre halls, one that sits 1,700 people, a nightclub, gym, spa, and library.

Because there are many activities on the ship [you get a daily programme of what to do], you may wake up surprised by the relative absence of crowds. After breakfast, worried that I may have overslept, and people disappeared from the ship [my mind overworks sometimes], I start walking deck to deck checking out if people are still on board and what they are doing least I miss out. I find small crowds of people doing body stretches and indoor cycling at the gym. Others are in a “sexy legs competition.” Hilarious. Some are playing mini golf. Others are watching live music while some are learning Latino dance.

Cruise ship
A traveller at the Royal Palm Casino inside the cruise ship.
Photo credit: Clara Orina | Nation Media Group

Deck 15 seems to be a favourite for many guests. The many swimming pools are designed for different vibes and demographics. There is a DJ, a pool bar and lounge chairs, plentiful for sunbathers. Movida Bar, where you drink while staring at the sea, is also located on Deck 15. It is 11 am and Deck 15 is throbbing. This is where the party is. The music is loud, and so is the laughter. Alcohol is flowing. Families are in small pools, jacuzzi-like. Others are in the big pool.

I skip lunch because here good food is in plenty and almost round the clock, so you will overeat.

In the afternoon, the karaoke and sports bar is crowded and noisy as football lovers watch an Arsenal and Manchester United match.

Seeking a quiet space, I find the La Prua piano bar, a tranquil area with cushy sofas and a pianist. Guests are napping on the sofas as others chat in low tones, sipping wine. The library is also quiet. It is not your traditional library. There are no visible books. One passenger, deep in thought, is staring outside the round window. Hopefully, the rhythm of the water set his soul free.

Dinner is in another bourgeois restaurant, La Reggia. This too has a dress code. Not to worry, it is not a black-tie dress code. The food is very good. It is hard to imagine how they keep it so fresh.

Contrary to the belief that most passengers on cruise ships are old retirees, aboard this ship, there are young families and children, men and women in their 20s to 40s. 

There was a solo guest, deaf and dumb. Disability has not stopped him from exploring.

The nightclub, Club33 Disco on the 16th deck, is proof that interest among younger generations and Africans who have never cruised is higher than ever.

At 10:30pm, the dance floor, with Amapiano songs playing, is full of young people. The DJ, another Kenyan working on the cruise ship plays Kenyan songs, but we soon realise Kenyan songs do not resonate with many on international dancefloors.

Table Mountain
Table Mountain in South Africa.
Photo credit: Clara Orina | Nation Media Group

Day 4

What does a cruise ship engine room look like? I asked a friend who paid $60 (Sh7,800) for the tour.

“It is like standing in a science-fiction movie,” she says.

On this “behind the scenes” tour, you get to meet the captain, the five pilots and 10 engineers, and experience what goes on into steering a ship at sea.

Another exhilarating travel experience is finding a Kenyan on board and hearing their stories. At breakfast, we hear someone singing a Kikuyu song. We laugh out loud and call her. She studied pharmacy before ditching the profession because of low pay. She worked in Dubai at banquet hotels before moving to cruise ships. She has worked in Europe and now South Africa.

The crew live in another entire ecosystem within the ship, often below passenger decks. While they spend most of their time serving passengers, there are several areas on the lower decks designated for them to unwind. The facilities vary from ship to ship and include a restaurant, rooms, gym, and bar.

There is also a hospital. I got a flu and thought of seeing a doctor. Consultation is $180 (Sh23,400 at that time). I walked back, entered a lift, and pressed the button to Deck 6 where there is a bar with a casino. I pull a chair and wonder if they sell "dawa". George, the bartender laughs as I try to explain 'dawa' in English. Kenyans smell each other especially when in foreign waters. He hands me a cocktail to kick the flu. I don't ask for the ingredients. There is some camaraderie and trust that brews when Kenyans are away from home.

Getting back to your room on such a cruise ship needs mastery in map reading. For the umpteenth time, I get lost. Cabin 10021 seems so far, yet so near. The corridors are zigzaggy. The sea is choppy. The ship is rocking. I stagger. Not from the cocktail but the mild sways of the ship.

But it is not too wobbly unless you have drunk too much. It might be harder to steady yourself.

One of the biggest surprises on the cruise ship is the array of dining options. At midnight, I feel hungry. I walk back to Bora Bora restaurant for the freshly made pizza, and cookies. I am not the only one coming in for the midnight snack. Other guests are just from Club 33 Disco on the top deck.

Day 5

At 6:21 am, the sunrays burrow into the ocean horizon. The sunrise is breathtaking. The sea is so blue it is purple. Welcome to Cape Town Cruise Terminal is seen from afar. The crew stands waiting. Two ambulances and berthing service cars are there too. Other ships, but cargo, have docked at Cape Town port. MSC Splendida sails slowly.

Skyscrapers, most painted in platone colours; whites and light greys, are seen in front of Table Mountain. Cape Town has awakened. Cars are on the road just near the ocean.

At 9am, we disembark.

I feel an immaculate sense of balance. “Life is good,” the voice in my head says, this time without any cynicism.

Table Mountain
A cable car going up Table Mountain in South Africa.
Photo credit: Clara Orina | Nation Media Group

Many Africans are yet to look to cruising as a high-value alternative to land travel. To woo African travellers, the MSC cruise line started 34, two to five-night sailings from Durban and Cape Town to Portuguese Island and Pomene Island in Mozambique, Walvis Bay in Namibia and Port Louis in Mauritius.

The cost? For instance, a six-day Christmas cruise on December 23 from Durban in South Africa to Pomene in Mozambique, back through Portuguese Island in the same country, aboard MSC Musica, for two people, costs about 50,000 rands (Sh347,609).

As South Africa seeks to grow its tourism number, it also courting thrill seekers.

We head out to Atlantis Dunes Quad biking, 45 kilometres from Cape Town city. Here, the view is unforgettable, and so is the experience of riding a quad bike on dunes.

Dinner is back in Cape Town, at the Bungalow Restaurant, which is a must-visit. I eat kingklip fillet paired with one of the best Sauvignon Blancs I have tasted.

Day 6

Going up Table Mountain in a cable car is a must-do in Cape Town. I walk on the stone mountain wondering if I will hear Biblical Moses’ voice echo from yonder. The unobstructed views of the sea and city below — justify the visit. We then head to StellenBosch for winetasting and lunch. Stellenbosch smells of acclaimed vintners and we found two; one at Morgenhof Estate and and another at Seven Sisters Vineyards, both women.

Day 7

Back to Kenya, with bottles of wines from boutique vineyards, of course, lots of memories and post-vacation depression.