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Food and Travel: Life on the ocean waves

I’VE never before been on a cruise like my most recent short voyage from Durban to Portuguese Island, off Maputo, the Mozambican capital, on the MV Sinfonia, run by Mediterranean Shipping Company.

And my cruising days go back almost to those of travel dinosaurs: obligatory “dressing” (evening wear) for supper and captains’ cocktail parties; deck quoits, ending with steaming mugs of Bovril or beef tea and salt crackers; daily — sometimes twice daily — quizzes and spelling bees; fancy dress gala balls; rigid division of “classes”; Sunday services; erudite lectures on the sights and sites of the next port-of-call.

There was whist, chess, bridge and endless dances; jogging, swimming, tug o’war, volleyball and sometimes, even, clay-pigeon shooting outdoors.
No tuxedos, clay pigeons or Sabbath service on the Sinfonia, though. At least not on the real value-for-money three-night sailings, which start at just US$220, like ours.

This really was southern Africa on holiday… letting down its collective hair…enjoying itself with a capital “E”!

I overheard the Sinfonia’s captain, Ciro Pinto (coincidentally, he was skipper of sister ship MV Melody, which I was on when she was abortively attacked by Somali pirates north of the Seychelles on a 21- night voyage from Durban to Italy last year) exclaim: “These South Africans really know how to party!”  He was dead right!

Not only South Africans, as the shipping line offers even more attractive terms to residents of landlocked Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana to enjoy a life on the ocean waves.

Currently on offer are sea trips of mainly two to six nights’ duration from Durban or Cape Town to Mozambican harbour; four nights Cape Town to Namibia; five or six nights Durban to magical Madagascar and nine or 11 nights to Reunion, Mauritius and Madagascar.

Twice a year the Melody and Sinfonia make their way to and from Genoa, Italy along the West Coast of Africa to RSA, putting in at some fabulous ports of call during repositioning voyages lasting either 17 or 18 nights. What a fabulous beginning or end to a holiday in Europe.

Cabins are luxurious, making the most of fairly limited space. Mine had double bed, desk/dressing table, walk-in shower, satellite TV and large porthole giving breathtaking views of stunning seascapes, nearby shores and harbours or passing shipping. Cabin size is 21 square metres, plus another four square metres for the bathroom.

There was ample light for reading or writing and thanks to a sensible aide-memoire from Starlight Cruises and their agents Fulela Dreams (who’ve recently taken over Mitchell Cotts Travel Agents in Avondale), coupled with past experience, I had the correct adaptor to use my laptop on the ship’s mainland Europe wiring system.

But cabins are mainly for sleeping in and zizzing was the last thing on the minds of many of the 1 554 passengers most — I hazard a guess based on body language — of whom had never previously cruised.

These were people of all races, from babes-in-arms to octogenarians, united when cheering on (unsuccessfully) South Africa against Scotland on a big cinema screen, dancing the Conga or hokey-cokey or devouring a magnificent cake decorated like the RSA “rainbow nation” flag: ceremonially cut during a midnight feast under a starlit black velvet African night anchored in the still Mozambique Channel.

Consider that some of the ship’s bars had been open — and under steady patronage — since 8am and several would remain serving until 1.30am when forming a mental picture of this midnight extravaganza, with blazing ship’s lights of almost funfair intensity and a talented pop-duo playing for apparently endless dancing.

This was also the end of the one-day for excursions during a three-night voyage.

Despite being tired and often uncomfortably sunburnt, after one or more of the 10 activities available on or from Portuguese Island, which I’ve been unable to find on colonial- era maps, but which the ship’s daily programme assures us were called Portuguese Elephant Island, prominent in poaching big game and slave dealing.

Warning: if you don’t have a Sadc passport, a visa issued on board at US$25 is needed to land on this Mozambican island.

Activities (at a fee, almost everything else on the cruise — except booze — is free) include island hopping, big game fishing for some real fighters, whale watching (I’m still waiting, but sightings weren’t guaranteed!), sea-kayaking, play station water trampoline, nuclear globe (possibly the unacceptable face of mass tourism on a palm-fringed picture postcard island?), accompanied beachcomber walks (nature rambles really, with wonderful bird- and marine-life to inspect) and coral gardens snorkelling.

My first reaction in the beautifully appointed Il Covo dining room, into which someone had (arguably foolishly) booked us in for first sitting (6.30pm-8.30pm) was that the magnificent Italian cuisine enjoyed on the Melody less than 18 months earlier had been slightly “dumbed down”.

I think there was perhaps a little less choice overall, but certainly the soups, fish, pasta and desserts I sampled were exquisite as were continental of English “full Monty” fry up breakfasts after a couple of hours’ fresh air. Lunch was as little or large as you liked and there were afternoon teas
As always, I had no appetite for the groaning midnight feast, rich in sushi and seafood which had many guests oohing and aahing over and patiently queuing for perhaps 200m in two directions.

As some of these had been to the second (8.45pm) supper sitting, I must only admire their constitutions and capacities!
l(Written in Edinburgh, Scotland, on the coldest night of 2010 so far! More cruise stories, pictures in tomorrow’s NewsDay). or (especially while I’m travelling)

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