The Big Read
Cruising from Durban to Mozambique on the MSC Musica is simply magic
There’s never a dull moment on this fun, floating hotel where all South Africans get along, writes Gabriella Bekes
I had never been on a cruise before. On arrival at Durban harbour's passenger terminal, I couldn't help but gaze up in wonder at the gleaming MSC Musica, the 16-deck cruise ship that was waiting to take some 2,500 passengers - me among them - on a four-night trip to Pomene in Mozambique and back.
A bit worrying was the sight of the long, snaking queue of passengers waiting to embark, but we used Easy Onboard and were pleasantly surprised by how quickly we were soon going up the gangway. Don't forget your passport! Our cabin on deck 14 was roomy with twin beds, a TV and a sliding door to the balcony, where we could step out to admire the sea. We also had a pristine bathroom with a tiny shower. Marvellous.
First things first: all passengers had to report for a safety drill, which was quite a sight with thousands of people clunking about in life jackets, looking like orange Teletubbies.
Once that was over, we had a quick bite and went to explore.
IN THE HOLIDAY MOOD
Now, the Musica is like a luxury floating hotel, 293.8m long with four sets of lifts and stairs linking 1,275 cabins on 15 decks.
Ablaze with glitz and glam, it has five restaurants, loads of bars and lounges replete with entertainers, a pool deck, shops, a spa, cigar lounge ... you name it, you'll probably find it on the ship.
The problem, though, is how to find your way around and get to grips with the layout. We wandered about aimlessly without a map, often lurching along endless corridors.
Straight out of the harbour we found the pool deck already abuzz with people crowding the bars and lounging in the whirlpools. Others were in the main pool, which I thought was tiny for so many passengers. I later learnt that a bigger pool could destabilise the ship.
Once at the bar we ordered margaritas to get us in the holiday mood. At the centre of the pool deck was a stage and dance floor, where passengers would later dance the night away.
Then it was on to the Gli Archi buffet cafeteria. What an eye-opener! It was late afternoon and the place was jam-packed. Even though it was just a few hours after lunch, hundreds of passengers carried plates piled high with nosh. Clearly the buffet was a major drawcard of the cruise and we were drawn to its delights like everyone else - at all hours of the day and night.
What drew my attention on the ship was the rainbow of people that had come out to play - all cruising in perfect harmony. I thought most were South Africans, judging by their accents, and I loved that people had left their prejudices on land and could get on with simply enjoying themselves.
The super polite bar and restaurant staff and crew, nearly 1,000 of them, were a melting pot of 68 nationalities, with many from Asian countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines.
A curious sight was the number of captains on board, whole groups of them, wearing crisp white uniforms and caps. On closer inspection we realised they were fake, only dressing the part for the cruise. Talk about getting into the spirit of things.
The real captain, Ciro Pinto, and his sailors, are Italian, and most of them have spent decades on cargo and passenger ships.
At an exclusive captain's four-course lunch at Belle Epoque restaurant, we were served what was undoubtedly the best meal of the trip, all deliciously Italian.
There was an officer at each table to answer any questions, and we got the ship's number two, chief engineer Pasquale Ascione. His father and grandfather were mariners too and he has been at sea for more than 30 years, working his way up the ranks.
Another memorable culinary experience was a sushi lunch at the Kaito Sushi Bar, a platter of nigiri, sashimi, maki and tempura, and even a vegan platter for my fish-averse friend. Thrown in was some spontaneous entertainment from an Indonesian waiter-cum-karaoke star with a voice that could take him to Hollywood.
The restaurant food in general was good. A fine choice for me was the Indian menu, which sported a delicious Goan fish curry and some interesting desserts.
The wine was South African but not the finest we have to offer. I don't know a single person who drinks a sweet rosé or a Drostdy Hof Extra Light White. C'est la vie.
THE PERFECT PITSTOP
The absolute highlight was arriving at Pomene, 600km north of Maputo, and being transported to the lagoon on a tender boat in the most efficient fashion.
What a stunning spot with its sun-kissed white beach fringed by casuarina and palm trees and a brilliant blue sea.
MSC arranges excursions such as quad-biking, snorkelling and paddling for the more active, but we decided to get an umbrella and hit the beach. It was super hot but it was a delight to plunge into the warm, effervescent ocean.
We bobbed in the swells for a few hours and then went off to the lapa for a braai lunch. We also did a spot of shopping from the local traders, who had set up bright stalls selling kangas and knick-knacks.
The Musica's daily menu of activities included quizzes, basketball, kids' games, bingo and even a belly-flop competition. One also got tidbits of information such as how fast one was travelling, how deep the Mozambique Channel was at certain points and how far from land we were. So never a dull moment.
I must mention the entertainment in the Teatro La Scala, a state-of-the-art theatre that could easily rival Montecasino's.
On the night we attended, the "first brown magician" in SA, Mo Magic, put on a clever show using sleight of hand and mentalism. Unfortunately we could not get Mo to part with his secrets.
And after four nights on board, cabin fever had crept in and I wondered if Mo Magic could transport me back to land.
Cruising wasn't on my bucket list but it's a great, laid-back budget holiday for families, groups of friends, and even a vegan.
Bekes was a guest of MSC.
Q&A with food and beverage manager Paolo Testa
How many kitchens do you have on board?
We have four kitchens and the crew kitchen. We work 24 hours, especially in the bakery and on pastry. We are always on production, always working. For sure I don't work 24 hours. But we never stop.
How many meals do you prepare a day?
If we count just the basic meals of breakfast, lunch and supper that is about 9,000 dishes. Plus production for the buffet, which is open 20 hours from 6am to 2am. We serve approximately 18,000 to 20,000 dishes a day.
How many pizzas do you serve a day?
It depends. When we are on the island we serve about 260 pizzas. When we are on board and the ship is full it's close to about 300 pizzas. Big ones.
WHY CRUISE WITH MSC?
Ross Volk, the MD of MSC Cruises SA, explains the appeal of cruising thus: "People who cruise are driven by the destination - and that's the ship."
MSC's ships have a lot to offer in terms of variety, with several bars and entertainment options, he says.
Why you should cruise: You arrive on the ship and everything is provided. It's like checking into a five-star hotel. And the packages are affordable. The only extras you pay for are drinks.
Then there's the food: You can eat as much as you like, day or night, which offers great value. Various preferences are catered for, such as halaal and vegetarian. You can even order breakfast in your cabin.
Organised activities: These fill your days, and even if you come alone you will leave having made friends.
It's a great family holiday. For local cruises, kids under 18 sail free with their parents, if they stay in the same cabin. They only pay the mandatory service charges and port duties. Kids are also catered for with various activities and games.