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By Nidha Narrandes
Johannesburg - There is something poetic about a bunch of South African Indians boarding a ship in Durban to cruise the Indian Ocean.
The irony was not lost on this traveller, but I imagine the Truro or Belvedere were a lot more cramped than the majestic MSC Opera.
The Italian ship has so much to offer in the way of luxury staterooms with balconies, bars, pools, a spa and gym with a guaranteed view of splendour, but top of my list was the excellent service.
MSC Opera offers an authentic Italian experience for the jaded tourist who has seen it all. It’s not exactly Rome on the ocean, and to be truthful there wasn’t much of Italy represented on board apart from the beautiful crew members.
The Opera mixes the elegance of old Europe with the vibrance of a new cosmopolitan world of cheesy dance sessions and overpriced drinks.
We departed a dreary Durban harbour for a weekend filled with reasons to celebrate and even more reason to eat and drink excessively. Food was available at a moment’s notice, and though drinks didn’t come cheap, they certainly came fast.
The Opera is a floating resort comparable to some of the finest hotels in the world. If you constantly remind yourself that you are hundreds of kilometres out at sea, you may fully appreciate the effort it takes to put this cruise together.
Hundreds of crew and staff dedicated to creating a magical experience for thousands of passengers is no mean feat, and it is achieved effortlessly.
We endured the obligatory customs and boarding procedure before the reality of the rand vs dollar exchange really hit. Only dollars are accepted on board and your rands are of little value here.
Yes, you will get by if you’re fully prepared to splurge, but pace yourself. There are Gucci bags, Swarovski jewellery and single malts to be bought on board at less than retail price. What’s a girl to do when you’re in the middle of the ocean with so much time to shop? The friendly staff, with accents that could melt your heart, make it all the more appealing.
Our room was a pleasant surprise. It was big with a large window overhead. The bathroom was clean and the shower was effective. There was plenty of cupboard space and enough free space to move around – not what I expected from a cabin.
Modern medicine allowed this seasick traveller to brave the bobbing water, but there are few guarantees when the ocean is ill-tempered. After a while you become one with the motion in the ocean but try not to stand still for too long if you’re queasy.
Meals are free as part of the package and it is one area that could be improved. At times the preparation bordered on fast food standard. When you’re feeding thousands of hungry passengers all at once you’re unlikely to achieve gourmet quality. That said, though, not many of us were paying attention to the food because there was so much else to appreciate.
If you feel like taking in a live show it is only a short walk away, movies are available at the press of a button on your TV remote, and a throbbing nightclub is just a hop, a skip and a strawberry daiquiri away.
The MSC Opera caters for every walk of life, which is the only explanation I could find for bingo night. I naturally assumed this was only available on the Love Boat.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not some rock the boat party-till-you-puke-overboard cruise. It’s a civilised way to enjoy life without the bothers of deadlines and cellphone coverage. Out on the ocean, time is inconsequential. The world you leave behind is out of reach and though it is complete hell at first for someone like me with fomo (fear of missing out), you will be grateful later.
It takes about 16 hours to reach Portuguese Island off the Mozambique coast, and once you’re anchored a meticulous disembarking process begins… and the 30-minute ride on the rubber dinghy to get to shore was exhilarating.
Once on land, and with no natural shelter on the beach, the heat is insufferable. You can actually feel yourself turning a darker shade. You cannot look away from the turquoise water lapping the shore… I was surprised at how warm the water was.
The heat, though, did not deter the enthusiastic vendors of all things exotic such as key rings, Oakley sunglasses and rum. The thing is, you can’t take alcohol onto the ship, so you either get wasted on island rum like our companions did, or forget the idea altogether.
MSC was thoughtful enough to build shelter and toilets where once there were none. Lunch was prepared over an open fire – in other words, a braai – and there they were again, the friendly staff to ply us with more courtesy.
Before you pig out, you may want to try some of the activities arranged especially for passengers, like snorkelling, dolphin watching or hang-on-to-a-rubber-tube-for-dear-life-while-being-pulled-by-a-speedboat.
There is a serenity about Portuguese Island that is difficult to put into words. If you could remove all your fellow passengers, you could imagine what it must have been like for the first inhabitants of the island. Untouched beaches and unkempt vegetation certainly have their appeal… but that’s as rugged as it gets on this cruise.
At sunset it was time to return to our floating buffet, followed by a live show of dance and music which was the perfect pick-me-up. We carried that momentum through to the Byblos Discotheque (yes, they still use the word discotheque).
It’s an exquisite venue for a party with the ideal décor for the young and those still pretending to be young. Be wary of the shooters, though. They come in all shapes and colours but the after-effects of a night of indulgence may hurt your pocket more than your head the next morning.
This Indian has come a long way since my ancestors made that treacherous voyage to the south of Africa.
The wonderful thing about a cruise is that everyone is there with a common purpose – to celebrate one occasion or another and to just let loose. The priority here is to be completely detached from life back home.
It is a delightful getaway, though some may argue it’s a tourist trap. Yes, it is elitist to a degree, but there are few better ways to spend time with a loved one, family or friends.
There are also few better ways to stand in awe of the wild Indian Ocean and experience the warmth of European hospitality. - Saturday Star