Relaxed at last: a post-lockdown cruise from SA to sunny Mozambique
After two years of delays due to strict lockdown rules, Sanet Oberholzer finally got to board the MSC Orchestra in Durban for a family trip to Pomene
Driving down Cato Street as we make our way to the MSC cruise terminal in Durban’s harbour, it’s not immediately clear that the large, white building looming in the distance is drifting on water.
Once the tiny rectangles swim into view as glass balcony doors lined up in perfect unison above orange lifeboats, it becomes a fun game of who will be next to realise this ‘building’ is in fact the docked MSC Orchestra, ready to welcome her next round of passengers.
Waiting at the foot of this 18-deck-high, 293m-long vessel are winding rows of people, some shading themselves from the African sun using wide-brim hats as they perch on their luggage; some already making a dent in the holiday paperback they have been looking forward to ripping into; and others animatedly engrossed in conversation, excitement coursing through their expectant veins.
For many holidaymakers — me and my family included — a cruise during the recent MSC cruise season was a long time in the making.
We had booked in February 2020 to go in November from Durban to Pomene in Mozambique, a peninsula roughly 600km north of Maputo and 170km south of Vilanculos, which has been developed by MSC with a resort-style feel. Then suddenly, Covid-19 hit and the news was full of pictures of cruisers aboard the Diamond Princess — looking strung out on their balconies as they couldn't disembark. “Floating Petri dishes” is one particularly scathing description for cruise ships that was making the rounds at the time.
It would be two years and two months later, with two cancelled bookings and months of wondering “will we, won’t we?” behind us before we would finally set sail on our four-night adventure.
With all SA cruises banned by lockdown regulations since late March 2020, MSC got the go-ahead to resume sailing this past December, after 20 months in the dock. Its 2021/2022 cruise season offered round-trip voyages from Cape Town to Namibia and from Durban to Mozambique aboard the MSC Orchestra, which underwent a refurbishment in 2021.
To ensure a safe voyage, a few things had changed to prevent the calamities that befell cruise lines at the start of the pandemic. For starters, only fully vaccinated guests were allowed on board.
We also had to take out a new, mandatory Covid-19 insurance (which was included in our booking fee), present a negative PCR test within 48 hours of embarkation day, fill out a health questionnaire and undergo an antigen lateral flow test when checking in.
For the most part, these additional steps didn’t add much time to the check-in process. The antigen test results were ready within minutes and, as we had all our documents ready, it was a quick process before we found ourselves in the Savannah Bar on deck five, where drinks packages wait to be collected and the first cocktails can be ordered.
WINE AND DINE ON BOARD
Once on board, you’ll find the buffet restaurant on deck 13 already teeming with eager cruisers ready to load up their plates with a fair selection of food and enjoy it at the window seats, with views over the water gliding past below.
The casual restaurant serves up breakfast, lunch and dinner and is open 20 hours a day. Freshly baked pizzas — one of the tastiest on-board snacks — are served between meal times and until the early morning hours.
All of MSC’s cruise ships include a self-service buffet and more formal restaurant dining as part of the package price. The Orchestra’s two main à la carte restaurants are Villa Borghese and L’Ibiscus. Passengers are assigned a table in one of the restaurants for the duration of the cruise and both offer three-course dinners with Mediterranean-themed menus.
Guests can eat in these restaurants for the entire cruise, or splash out on something different by booking a visit to a speciality restaurant, where the meals are charged extra. Dinner in the Shanghai speciality restaurant — with Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Thai and Japanese fare — will set you back roughly R390 per person for a set menu with limited choices.
You’d be better off opting for a fish dish or curry in the buffet restaurant and putting this money towards a post-dinner or pre-show drink in La Cantinella on deck seven where a glass of vino went down well with the live music over easy conversation.
When the sun is out, it’s the 13th deck with its Jacuzzis, swimming pool and alluring bars where merriment is to be found. Go early to grab a lounger for the day and sink into the sultry air and easy atmosphere with your drink of choice in hand.
We had the most fun, however, not on board but ashore. Pomene Bay is part of the Pomene Nature Reserve and is flanked on one side by the warm Indian Ocean and on the other by a lagoon where mangroves appear to float on the surface of the quiet blue water.
It is also home to an MSC beach club, to which passengers are transferred from the early hours when the weather allows. There in mid-April, we enjoyed clear skies lit by a fervent sun, with soaring temperatures and serene waters.
If you’re interested in exploring a small slice of this sandbar, book a shore excursion. Snorkelling in the estuary and marine safaris in the bay are wildly popular and sell out quickly, but other options include a trip to the Pomene hotel ruins, stand-up paddle boarding and deep-sea fishing.
We chose the 1.5-hour tour of the mangroves in Pomene Nature Reserve, with the vibrant Rodrigues Luis Mangualua. The tide was unfortunately too low for us to navigate between the root systems of the mangrove forest but we explored a part of the sandbank across the lagoon and encountered local fishermen navigating the waters with their catch of their day.
The rest of the day was spent sipping delicious R&Rs (rum and raspberry cocktails) from coconut shells and ice-cold 2M beers bought from the local market, where woven baskets, hats and trinkets are quick to seduce the passers-by.
If you haven’t booked any excursions you’ll need to be quick to snatch up a table or recliner next to the pool. We chose to escape the searing heat under the shelter of our pre-booked “beach lounger” — a sort of A-frame gazebo — with the ocean stretched out before us, a sea of heads bopping up and down until late afternoon when the time came for us to head back to the floating hotel ready to loop back around to Durban.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
MSC’s 2022/2023 local cruise season starts in November and runs until April 2023, with cruises departing from Durban and Cape Town. A four-night cruise from Durban to Pomene starts from R5,426 pp sharing an interior cabin. Visit msccruises.co.za for more information.
TIPS FOR SMOOTH SAILING
- Inside cabins are cheapest, but rather save longer and pay extra for a cabin with a balcony. The views and additional space have a big impact on your overall cruise and can make or break your experience.
- Take cash if you plan on going ashore. Drinks vouchers can be used at the MSC beach club bars but drinks from the local vendors cost a fraction of the price and buying from the market goes a long way in supporting the local economy.
- Consider booking an exclusive beach lounger or umbrella if you’d like to spend the day on the beach instead of vying for a spot at the crowded swimming pool. The more expensive private beach cabanas offer luxury and privacy but overlook the lagoon, not the ocean.
- If flying in to King Shaka International airport, take the MSC transfer from the airport which will drop you off inside the cruise terminal and give you priority check-in.
- Join the Facebook group MSC Orchestra for useful tips and advice from fellow cruisers.
- As with most cruises, keep in mind that cruise prices include food and port and service charges but anything else comes at an additional cost.
- Book drinks vouchers and any additional items ahead of time as this works out cheaper than buying on board.