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Cape Town - For close on two decades as a news photographer, I have captured a variety of maritime beauties docked in Cape Town’s harbour through my lens, from formidable war ships and impressive navy vessels to sleek yachts and splendid cruise liners.
But it wasn’t until recently that I got the opportunity to board the magnificent MSC Sinfonia for my first cruise, from Cape Town to Walvis Bay along the famed Skeleton Coast of Namibia.
We boarded on a Monday and, with the tedious but necessary passport checks and luggage searches (there’s a strict BYOB policy) behind me, I stepped on to the nine-storey, 58 600 ton vessel which can carry 2 100 passengers. She is one of 10 modern liners in the Italian-owned MSC Cruises fleet.
The Sinfonia has been described as one of the finest floating hotels to visit our shores. It has a distinctive Italian design, flair and service.
After the emergency drill, with Captain Ciro Pinto at the helm, the ship gently moved from the pier. The seagulls squawked ahead and I breathed in the fresh salty air as I watched the city skyline against the backdrop of Table Mountain shrink into the distance.
I watched the city and mountain until they disappeared below the horizon. Up ahead there was nothing to see but the deep blue of the Atlantic.
A solo sailor, I settled into my neat cabin on the 10th deck. It had its own balcony overlooking over the ocean, a double bed, a spacious wardrobe, bathroom with tub, TV, internet, mini bar and safe.
I even had my own attendant, a friendly Indonesian chap called Stone.
Several hours into our journey everyone was issued with a cruise card as there is a no-cash policy on board. It costs $150 (R1 358.05) to activate, and comes in handy when shopping at the ship’s boutiques or buying cocktails at the poolside. But a word from the wise: go easy on the drinks, prices are in dollars.
I took a tour of the ship and discovered there was a lot more to do than take a brisk stroll around the decks or enjoy a game of deck quoits.
There is a mini-golf course and driving nets, plus table-tennis equipment and a gym.
After a sweaty workout there’s an inviting pool to dip into and chill with a cocktail. Or relax in the jacuzzi.
I was especially impressed with a state-of-the-art virtual golf simulator that allows beginners like me to practise their swing at sea.
Evenings on the ship are not dull either. I polished up, put on my best shirt and tried to be as debonair as the casino’s dress code dictates. I tried my hand at a bit of poker and blackjack but Lady Luck was not on my side.
There are eight bars and lounges, and an Irish pub or the piano bar. A schedule of the shows staged at the Teatro is delivered to your cabin every day.
On a perfect evening the outdoor bar is ideal for sundowners or sipping champagne under the stars. And once you’ve plucked up enough Dutch courage you can move on to the karaoke bar and belt out Jack Jones’ The Love Boat. Or pull out your best Travolta moves and boogie the night away at Pasha Club Disco.
The meals on board are included in your cruise fare. There are four restaurants, including La Terrazza Buffet, which offers a more casual meal and cafeteria-style seating. There is always plenty of food available at all times of the day, so there is no chance of going hungry. I was often spoilt for choice. And there’s always the option of working off calories at the gym.
Water, ice, tea and coffee are available free of charge in the buffet area 24 hours a day. There is a good selection of wines, South African beers, ciders and spirits. Priced in dollars, of course.
After two days at sea I welcomed the early morning view of the sun rising over the orange dunes of the ancient Namib desert as we sailed towards Walvis Bay. The coastal town is home to imposing Dune 7 or Big Daddy, claimed to be the world’s highest dune and a major drawcard for adrenaline junkies, paragliders, quad bikers and sand-boarders who seek the thrills of its slopes.
But I opted for a leisurely stroll around the sleepy town, stopping for a coffee. I watched the pelicans fish in the bay. The lagoon is beautiful and dotted with kite-surfers. It is an international Ramsar sanctuary for birds and is a feeding ground for 200 000 birds of 50 species, including flamingos, the Chestnut-banded Plover, Damara Terns, pelicans, cormorants and seagulls. It’s bird-nerd heaven.
After a day taking in the sights I returned to the ship with my fellow travellers and we sailed for home.
I was sad to see the mountain and the city’s skyscrapers gradually rise over the horizon on the Friday as we sailed into port. I will always have the memories. Even though a picture tells a story of a thousand words, I was glad for the experience on the other side of the lens.
l Leon Lestrade was a guest of MSC Sinfonia. - Weekend Argus