An expedition cruise with Silversea is the opportunity to explore some of the most intriguing destinations in an extraordinary region of the world, discovers Liz Jarvis
“Angola? Really?” was the reaction of most people when I told them I’d be visiting the formerly war-torn south African country on my Silversea expedition cruise.
Like me, their perception was largely formed by news reports when we were growing up, and the images of Princess Diana stepping into an active minefield; but the war has been over since 2002 and it’s no longer deemed dangerous – though cruising there still feels rather intrepid.
My African adventure begins in Cape Town, where I take advantage of a short pre-cruise stay to hike up Table Mountain accompanied by Frank, an expert in fynbos (a type of vegetation) from the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel. I also take a cab to glorious Boulders Beach at Simon’s Town, home to a colony of carefully protected African penguins, who are an absolute joy to watch. It’s nesting season and the fluffy chicks (as big as their parents) are everywhere.
This is my first trip to the South African capital, and I fall in love with the contrast of natural beauty and cosmopolitan lifestyle; definitely somewhere to return to.
You know you’re going somewhere decidedly off the beaten track when you’re asked to produce a yellow fever certificate at the cruise terminal. It all adds to the air of anticipation as I board Silversea’s Silver Cloud, which has been revamped to create a seriously luxurious expedition vessel.
We’re given a warm welcome by the guides who will accompany us on the excursions throughout the cruise. They are all South African, and incredibly friendly and knowledgeable about the places we’ll be visiting. Most of the guests have sailed with Silversea before, and all have one thing in common: to see and experience as much of the world as possible.
On board, my veranda stateroom with its marble bathroom, Bulgari amenities and bed clad in Italian Pratesi linen is so comfortable it quickly becomes a haven; my butler, Daphne, offers to stock the fridge with my favourite drinks including Champagne, and ensures my dresses which I put in for pressing are returned promptly and in immaculate condition. As this is an expedition cruise, however, there is really no need to dress up for dinner – unless, of course, you want to.
The restaurants on board Silver Cloud include the Italian La Terrazza, the Pool Bar and Grill, and La Dame by Relais & Châteaux, which is à la carte (with a $60pp cover charge), but well worth it for the sublime service and exquisite cuisine). What I love most about Silversea ships, though, is the outside space, so I have the Hot Rocks experience as often as I can, dining by the pool and relishing in the opportunity to gaze at the stars of the southern hemisphere as I grill my fillet steak and shrimp. (One of the things that stays with you about Africa is the sky; it is just so big, and cruising showcases its magnificent sunsets in all their technicolour glory.)
Every port of call has included excursions, and in Lüderitz, Namibia, we drive through the Namib desert to the former diamond mining settlement of Kolmanskop, which is now a slightly eerie ghost town.
The next morning we sail into Walvis Bay, and here our excursion begins with a catamaran cruise around the lagoon, with its moored Russian trawlers. Suddenly, we seem to be surrounded by fur seals, and a couple even cheekily board the catamaran, much to everyone’s delight.
As we sail on towards Pelican Point, we’re greeted by a large colony of these bronze-furred seals, all barking to each other, sunbathing, performing ‘aquabatics’ and swimming alongside the catamaran. (At one point, two dolphins also join in the fun, but they quickly disappear under the water.) We’re plied with Nambian ‘coffee’ (sherry), and given Champagne and oysters. That night we’re taken for dinner in the desert.
Of course, this being a Silversea expedition cruise, the best is yet to come. The following morning begins with a return to Sossusvlei in the Namib desert, this time to see the astonishing sand dunes, which you can climb and walk along (though it does take a bit of effort). The contrast of the gold with the intense azure of the sky is breathtaking (we also have the opportunity to see the dunes at sunset, when they turn fiery orange).
We’re shown specimens of the Welwitschia mirabilis plant, which can be more than 1000 years old. Then we’re taken to the moon landscape at Swakopmund – a valley of granite rocks, millions of years old, stretching as far as the eye can see. A visit to a school in the township of Mondesa provides an opportunity to meet the local people. Our guide tells us that although Namibia became independent and free from apartheid in 1994, many people remained living where they felt most comfortable. I sit down next to the children on the tiny chairs, and ask them their names and make them laugh.
Afterwards, we’re driven to a pristine beach for a picnic; I wasn’t sure what to expect in Namibia, but it wasn’t this incredible contrast of landscapes. Our second excursion in Walvis Bay ends with the chance to see wild flamingos wading on the water, and we’re all mesmerised by the sight of these elegant blush-coloured birds with their improbably spindly legs.
Silver Cloud arrives at Namibe in southwestern Angola the following day, and once again we’re driven through the desert. This time, though, our destination is an oasis, where we’re given a lively reception by the local tribe before walking to the rock formation known as The Arch Lagoon.
Our second day in Angola, in Lobito and Benguela, is slightly less relaxed; we’re taken to see a 100-year-old church and a steel bridge designed by the Eiffel company in 1905. But our guides here are reluctant to let us stray too far.
My adventure ends in Luanda, a slightly chaotic city, but like Lobito, it has some rather splendid Portuguese colonial architecture. I leave Southern Africa with enduring memories of the people, landscape and wildlife. These incredible countries, with their devastating histories, should be visited by everyone.
Where to stay: Cape Town
With an outstanding location right at the foot of Table Mountain, sweeping views of the city skyline, and magnicent 1920s architecture painted in a fabulous shade of pink, the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel is a Cape Town icon, offering elegant, luxurious accommodation in a relaxed setting with immaculately landscaped gardens. Food is excellent and it’s definitely worth booking both a walking tour of Table Mountain with guide Frank Dwyer and the afternoon tea ceremony. Rooms cost from £285 per person per night, including breakfast (belmond/hotels.com).
An 18-day voyage from Cape Town to Tema (Accra) sailing on Silver Cloud Expedition starts from £10,400 per person (return economy flights, all on-board lifestyle and shore excursions are included). Ports of call include Lüderitz, Namibia; Walvis Bay, Namibia; Namibe, Angola; Lobito, Angola; Luanda, Angola; Bom Bom Island, Limbe; Cotonou, Benin; Lomé, Togo. For moreinformation or to book call 0207 340 0700 or visit silversea.com