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I'm writing this on the last night of our MSC Sinfonia cruise from Durban to the Portuguese Islands and Maputo, and feeling a bit down that it's coming to an end - my cure for the end-of-cruise-blues is to start researching my next one! I'm looking at the Sinfonia Genoa to Cape Town cruise later this year. I yearn for more time at sea, to sit on the deck and feel time and the ocean stretch out in front of me, to be lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the ship and to hand myself completely over to the power of this giant hulk of metal to guide me safely through the waters.
Aside from the Dream Team's (the ship's entertainment crew) hilarious rendition of the song "Big Bamboo" (see further down), the highlight of this trip was the visit to Portuguese Island. So rather than move through events in chronological order, I'm going to start with the main course, and show you why I love Portuguese Island.
The best thing about Portuguese Island is to swim in its warm azure waters, to suck salt air into one's lungs and lie in the buoyant sea water, a happy distance from the noise of citylife. In this photo, we can see Inhaca in the background.
We were transported between the ship and Portuguese Island on little motorboats. Those piloting the boats have a kewl deal, in that they can cruise for free. The crew are really good, offering a lot of assistance for those with babies, the frail and the criple. We were a bit wary of taking our 3-month-old along, but he fell asleep on the motorboat!
Putting lifejackets on before the boat trip from the Portuguese Island back to the MSC Sinfonia.
My personal highlight of this cruise was the snorkelling excursion at Inhaca. After the Sinfonia dropped anchor of Portuguese Island, I caught a lift to the island, and then another boat took us to a point just off a reef at Inhaca, which we floated along seeing the fish, eels and fishermen's ropes.
Snorkellers returning to the mother-boat.
View of Inhaca from where we were snorkelling.
Here we are piling off the boat at Portuguese Island.
The MSC Sinfonia's cooks set up some braai stands on Portuguese Island, and for lunch there was braaied sausage, lamb and burger patties.
For most meals on the Sinfonia you've got the choice between being served food at a restaurant (Il Galeone or Il Cove) or eating from a buffet (pool deck). The advantage of the buffet is that you can zone in on what you enjoy, and eat as much as you like of that dish, but sometimes it's also nice to sit down and be served. Here's a photo of us queueing up for the braai buffet on the beach.
On Portuguese Island you don't go to the shop, the shop comes to you. Locals try to sell beer, rum (alcoholic drinks are stowed away by the ship), cooldrinks, cloth, sunglasses, shoes and wooden carvings. The wooden carvings of the MSC Sinfonia impressed me the most (although the ship warns you of the risk of woodworm, and may want to stow wood items away).
The visit to Portuguese Island and Inhaca was the highlight of the trip. Perhaps, like me, you don't know much about Portuguese Island - here's some history. Two Islands lie in the Bay of Maputo (32km east of Maputo)) - Inhaca (84 square km) and Portuguese Island (2.5 square km). Portuguese Island looks like a large extension to the sandbanks in Inhaca's lagoon. Portuguese Island has been known about at least since the 14th Century Arab trading days (and probably before then, by local Mozambicans). In 1545 Portuguese traders and hunters used Portuguese Island as their trading headquarters for ivory...thus becoming known as the "Island of the Portuguese". The island played a major role in the decimation of elephants in Africa, thus becoming known as the Portuguese Elephant Island, which was later shortened to Portuguese Island.
On future cruises I'd love to spend some time exploring the interior of the island. Here's a photo I took from the top of the dunes at the beach where we landed. By the way, the sand on the dunes gets piping hot, and I advise you to take slip slops with, to prevent the soles of your feet from frying.
The only permanent building on Portuguese Island is a wooden hut, which has a patch of its roof missing. At the top-right of the photo you can see Inhaca Island in the background, and the white trails in the water are the motorboats ferrying passengers between Inhaca and Portuguese Island.
Whilst anchored off Portuguese Island I was surprised to see a number of black and white butterflies flying around the ship. I was impressed that they could get out that far.
We paid R450 to get priority boarding on the Sinfonia, effectively jumping almost all the queues (yes, there are more than 2) at the Port of Durban. We probably saved 2 or 3 hours of our time by purchasing that, which if you do the maths works out to costing us each some R40 per hour (there were 4 of us) - well worth it, as my time is worth much more than that to me.
And here's how the queue outside looked:
A highlight of the first day was watching the ship set sail. Climb out onto the top deck and join the crowd. As the Sinfonia exits the harbour a helicopter flew alongside the ship, tossed a line over and hauled the assistant off the deck onto the helicopter. The ship gave 3 long blasts on its siren as we left Durban harbour.
Also interesting on the first day was watching the various groups of people - you could tell the groups by the fact that they were wearing the same clothing. I saw 3 gents wearing ACDC shirts, and there was a large group of men and women wearing pink shirts with "Altyd Jonk" inscribed on them. There was also another group with blue shirts and an anchor on it, and a group of kids on a school excursion.
Just after we'd left the Port of Durban, there was a pool party hosted by the legendary Stephen Cloete. This is not to be missed, it sets the tone for a week of festivities on board the Sinfonia. Stephen kicked things off by singing his take on Summer Holiday, and then we had the All Star Dancers:
And then the Dream Team entertained us with their rendition of "Witch Doctor":
Cruises are festive occassions, and it was great to hear some joyous folk singing away in the passages in the early hours of the morning, whilst I snoozed away in my cabin (the Pasha disco bar keeps going till the wee hours).
We had a cabin on the 8th deck (Bach). I love the design of the Sinfonia's cabins, and prefer them to those on the MSC Melody, even though they are smaller. The main difference is the massive port window (you are after all out at sea) , and the fact that the bunk beds fold up.
My congratulations to the Sinfonia's fast acting security, who managed to break up a situation which developed at the swimming pool. A man had run and jumped into the pool right next to a 6-year-old (my guess of her age), and she had swallowed some water and was coughing as she made it to the side. The girl's father (my guess) and the pooljumper decided to sort out their differences the old fashioned way, and after a few blows were exchange and a bit of blood flowing, the security stepped in and seperated them (a good thing too, as friends were now hovering around). As the liquor flows the rationality goes, and these kind of situations are bound to occur - well done again to the crew for dealing so efficiently with it.
As we sat down for supper, we passed Richards Bay and with it joined a fleet of coal ships, and I attained a first hand appreciation of the immense volumes of coal which are being exported from South Africa into the global economy.
The ship offers an internet connection, costing $20 for 60 minutes (if you get stuck with logging on, just ask the friendly folk at accounts for assistance). If you've got a 3G card, you can easily get a connection in Durban harbour, and also in Maputo (but be warned, if you're using international roaming it'll be fairly pricy in Maputo - Vodacom charged us R52 a meg). When anchored off the Portuguese Island, there was a faint GPRS signal which could best be accessed on the top deck closest to Inhaca.
The Sinfonia employs some brilliant photographers - here's one of them in action at the Portuguese Island:
It was wonderful swimming in the Sinfonia's pools. The water, drawn from the Indian Ocean, is warm; and its saltiness creates sufficient buoyancy to make it easy to float on one's back, and watch the world go by. When the water's a bit rougher there are waves, which are fun to play in. The Sinfonia has 2 pools, both on the same deck, each of which is divided by ropes into a children's shallow section and a deep section for adults.
I felt a strong sense of history seeing the crumbling remnants of Portuguese gun batteries on Xefina Island, as we cruised into Maputo. Here's a video I took, so you know what to look out for.
As we cruised into Maputo, passengers flocked to the lookout points, armed with their choice of electronic gadget with which to record the moment.
Coming in from sea gives one a unique view of Maputo.
And here's the MSC Sinfonia docked at Maputo harbour:
We did the city tour last time we cruised into Maputo, so gave it a skip this time, and met up with a friend for lunch at Cafe Acacia, which was pleasant. Our friend reported that things are slowly but steadily improving in Mozambique, and evidence I saw of that was that the 3G internet connection is far stronger than last year.
There were 2 marriages on this cruise - great to see - and a gent surprised everybody and proposed to his lady in front of a packed crowd at the theatre (yes, there's a theatre on the Sinfonia).
As mentioned the Dream Team are the Sinfonia's entertainment team. They're the life and soul of the ship. Whilst the officers on the Sinfonia are mostly Italians, the kitchen and cleaning staff are mostly Malaysians, Indonesians, Mauritians and Madagascans; the dream team are mostly Saffa's.
On the 4th day out at sea, none other than Mob Barley joined us in singing the hilarious "Big Bamboo" - this was an absolute hoot to watch, a real gem.
The Dream Team treated us to this "Gran" Variety show. Here's their version of "Hey Big Spender":
Rebecca from the Dream Team impressed us with her tap dancing skills:
Stephen Cloete is the cruise director, and is at the top of the entertaining game. We have been on several cruises with him, and he never fails to create a happy mood. He's also a brilliant stand-up comedian, and we watched several of his shows. Here's some clips:
On why the pool water on cruise ships is rough:
On man overboard sexism :
The real reason you have to wear oxygen masks on planes, if there is a loss of cabin pressure:
On the South African Airline industry:
On Mango Airlines:
We booked through Starlight Cruises (now MSC Cruises) on SI123, leaving Durban on the 31st January and returning on the 4th February 2011. If you want to make a reservation on the Sinfonia, email firstname.lastname@example.org