Ship of firsts: a holiday cruising around the Mzansi and Namibia coast
This summer, Norwegian Jade became the first Norwegian Cruise Line ship to homeport in Cape Town, with a 12-day trip around SA and Namibia. Here's what happened on board
I smirked when I was handed an orange key card at check-in. First-time cruisers get orange; return guests get turquoise. Yes, it was technically my first cruise — as a guest — but I had spent five years cruising with NCL as a crew member. They don’t have a key card colour for that!
With a guest capacity of just under 2,400, Norwegian Jade is one of the line’s smaller ships. Without the two-level go-kart tracks, 10-storey slides, sculpture gardens and ice bars you find on some of its bigger, newer ships, it is simple but elegant, equipped with enough facilities and entertainment options for this itinerary on which port days would outnumber days at sea.
Despite the name, Norwegian Cruise Line is actually a US company that only occasionally sends ships to Norway. Known as the innovator of the freestyle concept, it was the first to abolish pre-assigned dining times still practised on most other lines. It also did away with strict dress codes — dress up only if you want to.
Most of my time at sea as a crew member was spent in the Caribbean, serving US guests sailing out of US ports, alongside crew members from 61 different nations. Now, not only was I the one being served but I was also sailing out of my own backyard, from a port just 18 minutes from my flat in Cape Town, during NCL’s first local cruise season. It felt both incredibly surreal and strangely familiar.
In some ways I knew exactly what was coming. In other ways, I had no idea. But here are some of the things I enjoyed in my new role as a guest:
When I was crew, many dining options were off limits. As a guest, I sampled 15 of the 16 choices with the exception of room service (which I now regret). The complimentary dining options include two dining rooms, an Asian restaurant and an Irish pub.
On the 12th floor at the aft of the ship (the back) was the reason I forced myself to avoid the lifts and take only the stairs for the entire cruise: the buffet known as the Garden Café.
Over and above these options are the speciality restaurants where you can dine for an additional fee. There’s Cagney’s Steakhouse (with a greater variety of steak than what’s available in the complimentary dining room); Moderno Churrascaria (a Brazilian restaurant, with vast amounts of meat on skewers — I can foresee this being popular among South Africans); and Teppanyaki (where the chefs entertain as they whip up impressive Asian meals while onlookers shout a variety of food allergies at them to really keep them on their toes). Further complementing the dining options are a French restaurant, Le Bistro; an Italian restaurant, La Cucina (not that you can’t get pizza and pasta in the buffet); and a sushi bar.
It’s very hard to get hungry on this ship. If you want pretzel balls and cheese sauce at 1am, you’re in luck. (Guilty.)
I felt almost disloyal to my kind. As an ex-member of the entertainment team, I couldn’t help but notice the variety of entertainment options but when I wasn’t lounging on a deck chair by one of the two swimming pools or relaxing in a hot tub, I was often too busy eating to attend. There were probably at least 24 games of trivia during that 12-day cruise (not to mention game shows, crafts and other activities) and I didn’t participate in a single one!
I did, however, attend the shows. We were treated to Blazing Boots, a country music revue with singing and dancing. Elements, a Cirque du Soleil-inspired show with singing, dancing, aerialists and magicians, was unfortunately cancelled due to technical difficulties but I’ve experienced it before and it is quite the spectacle.
While different itineraries tend to attract different demographics, the guests on this cruise were predominantly from North America and the UK and were more mature than a lot of the guests on the “party ships” in the Caribbean. The parties tended to be tailored to their tastes with themes like the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Abba, The Beatles, and so on.
The exception was the Glow party, NCL’S signature dance party across the fleet, where guests are encouraged to wear white or neon and dance the night away to contemporary hits with the odd line dance thrown in. I’m ashamed to admit that it took this experience for me to finally learn the Jerusalema dance.
MY BALCONY CABIN
There is nothing quite like the sensation of squinting into the pitch darkness of a moonless night to try to see where the sky meets the sea, while the sound of rushing water below, aided by an ocean breeze, reminds you that you are not staring at a black screen.
Of course, those in windowless cabins can simply go to a public open deck to have this experience, but what I learnt is that, with your own balcony, the partitions on either side give you complete privacy and your own personal slice of infinity. It is as if you have a private meeting with the ocean, the night sky, the stars and the universe extending in front of you. Just you and no-one else.
The itinerary took us to Mossel Bay, Gqeberha and Richards Bay before going around the Cape to Namibia. I was as awestruck as the foreigners by the abundance of elephants at Addo Elephant National Park. (Of course, I felt compelled to ask all our international guests to try to pronounce “Gqeberha”, which was also very entertaining — after being coached by a local myself.)
Seeing the colossal sand dunes of an unforgiving desert meet the harsh and icy ocean at Sandwich Harbour, not far from Walvis Bay in Namibia, was spectacular. The erratic whipping of the wind and sometimes desert sand failed to detract from the experience.
My biggest highlight, though, was Kolmanskop, Namibia. The very idea of once opulent homes, built on a literal diamond mine, slowly being engulfed by desert sand fills me with wonder. Wooden floorboards give way to a carpet of soft white sand, while claw foot bathtubs and peeling floral wallpaper provide hints of the dreams of former residents both realised and lost. I never imagined that I would experience this on a cruise.
As the ship was docked in Cape Town for two days before setting sail, many of the international guests expressed how much they appreciated the opportunity to explore the Mother City from our floating hotel. It’s sometimes easy to forget that the departure point of a cruise is part of the whole experience and Cape Town certainly sets the tone for a great holiday for local and international visitors alike.
Next year, NCL will be expanding its Southern African offering. The almost identical sister ship of the Norwegian Jade, the Norwegian Dawn, will be calling in at our shores. Apart from repeating this itinerary, the ship will offer cruises between Cape Town and Port Louis, Mauritius, calling at ports in Réunion, Madagascar and Mozambique along the way. It will complete the season by repositioning to Barcelona, Spain, on a 21-day cruise.
I was concerned that, after going on this cruise, I’d return home only to apply for my old job. But after fully experiencing the freestyle guest experience of eating and doing what I want, when I want — even standing on my balcony in front of my own slice of infinity wearing nothing at all (did I not mention that part?) — I don’t think I can go back. I’m a guest now. I will return, but next time I want a turquoise key card (or maybe a pink one, for crew members-turned-guests).
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Twelve-day cruises visiting Mossel Bay, Gqeberha, Richards Bay and Durban locally, as well as Luderitz and Walvis Bay in Namibia, depart Cape Town on February 1 and March 8 in 2024, starting from $1,564 (about R28,288).
One-way cruises between Cape Town and Port Louis, Mauritius, visiting Mossel Bay, Gqeberha and Richards Bay locally, as well as Maputo (Mozambique), Pomene (Mozambique), Fort Dauphin (Madagascar) and Pointe Des Galets (Réunion), depart on January 20, February 13 and February 25 in 2024, starting from $1,684 (R30,459).
Alternatively, you can cruise all the way to Barcelona, Spain, on a 21-day cruise departing from Cape Town on March 20 2024.
(*Prices correct at the time of going to print and subject to change.)
Find out more at NCL.com
* Sharon Waugh was a guest of NCL
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