If you enjoy cruises, but are looking for something a bit different read on. John and Sandra Nowlan recommend an exciting Indian Ocean journey.
The extremes of Mumbai, pirate possibilities near Somalia, endangered Indian Ocean islands and exciting safaris in Africa. As several friends exclaimed when we returned to Canada, “That was a serious cruise!”
Like many Canadians, we enjoy cruising but are always on the lookout for something beyond the ordinary. We found it on the Indian Ocean with Regent Seven Seas Cruises, known for its five star luxury ships and interesting itineraries to exotic places. When we discovered a two week cruise from Mumbai, India to Cape Town, South Africa, we took a deep breath and jumped. We’re glad we did.
We were warned about the paradox of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) with its grinding poverty adjacent to ostentatious wealth. Arriving by plane late at night – most international flights seem to land then – reinforced the city’s dual identity as our hotel limo – ground transportation should always be booked in advance –worked its way through auto-rickshaw clogged streets and cardboard shacks, passing some areas of opulence, until we reached the sanctuary of the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel Mumbai.
Population estimates for Mumbai range between 15 million and 20 million so a manic pace of life was expected. What wasn’t expected was the gentle nature of the people. In the slums surrounding our hotel, the residents – especially the children – were cheerful and seemed to make the best of their surroundings, even playing on a hand-cranked Ferris Wheel on the street. Positive energy radiated throughout the city. Tourism is becoming a big business with more top hotels –like the Four Seasons – being built and world-class restaurants emerging in many sections of the city.
We were reluctant to leave Mumbai and vowed to return, but we had a ship to catch and Regent’s Seven Seas Voyager awaited at the downtown pier next to the Gateway of India and the posh Taj Mahal Hotel.
The 700 guest Seven Seas Voyager is the world’s second all suite, all balcony cruise ship. Its sister ship, Seven Seas Mariner, was the first. As we sailed south from Mumbai, it became clear why it’s consistently rated as one of the best cruise ships in the world. Unlike most lines, Regent has a no-tipping policy with complimentary wine at lunch and dinner. Service is at a very high standard with an outstanding guest to crew ratio. The ship has four comfortable, open-seating dining areas including a steak house and a French restaurant featuring Le Cordon Bleu cuisine. The ship is small enough to allow the chef to purchase local specialties along the route but big enough to offer a vast array of choices including 24 hour room service.
The staterooms on Voyager are large and well equipped and the public areas are stunning in design and function. The two level Constellation Theatre features a nine-piece orchestra and nightly entertainment ranging from high quality cabaret acts to full production shows with a talented cast of singers and dancers. We always look for a quiet corner on cruise ships to read or relax and there are many such spots available.
Comfort is vital but cruising is also about a stimulating itinerary. Ron and Gay Shannon of Calgary were enjoying their 13th cruise but described this as one of the best. “This is a new and exciting part of the world for us,” they said. “It’s a perfect fit and the international guests make it more interesting.”
Our first stop was also in India, in the southern port of Kochi – formerly Cochin. Regent treated all its guests to a bus ride through the rural region – a stark contrast to crowded Mumbai – to an area of backwaters and canals where the famous snake boat races take place. More than 75 colourfully clad oarsmen in each of the dozen narrow, ram-snouted snake boats paddled frantically to the beat of drums. The long, long boats raced in heats in front of the grandstand and the cheers of the crowd. Dancers and musicians entertained at the end when the winners hoisted the Regent Cup above their heads.
As we left India and headed into the Indian Ocean, guest lecturer Jean-Michel Cousteau, the famed oceanographer and filmmaker, gave the first of a series of illustrated lectures about the sea and its influence. “The Indian Ocean is poorly known compared with the other great oceans but it’s critical in many ways,” Cousteau told us as we approached the Maldives. “With huge populations surrounding it, this ocean is more in peril than the Atlantic or Pacific. I give the fishing industry 20 years at most unless drastic action is taken.”
Cousteau has a particular interest in climate change and its effect on small island nations threatened with inundation by rising waters. The Maldives, he noted, with its chain of 26 atolls are just two metres above sea level at their highest point. The island nation of just 400,000 is ahead of many other countries in planning for the future. The president is now putting aside money from a special tourist tax to enable the total population to move to another country when necessary. Cousteau thinks that could happen within 50 years.
Even the Seychelles, also in the mid-Indian Ocean but with surprisingly high hills, is not immune from water disasters. “Five years ago, the Seychelles were hit by a tsunami,” Cousteau said. “It destroyed a lot of the reefs and the coastline. It was a wake-up call.”
Leaving the Seychelles we headed for the east coast of Africa and the potential danger of Somali pirates. The Seven Seas Voyager seemed to be prepared. Officers wouldn’t talk specifics other than to say, “Don’t worry; we’ve taken precautions.” But it was common knowledge among passengers and crew that six or seven Israeli commandos were on board to counter any problems. Their vigilance was appreciated and there was no sign of trouble as we sailed the bright, tranquil waters towards Mombassa, Kenya.
We, like most passengers, have always wanted to go on a safari in Africa but were reluctant to brave a long stay on the Dark Continent. Doing it by cruise ship proved to be an ideal compromise. From Mombassa – East Africa’s largest port and Kenya’s major tourist centre with several long, sandy beaches – we eagerly joined the group heading for the two hour drive to the Tsavo Game Reserve. Among the close-up sightings from our open top vans were elephants, giraffes, zebras, baboons, hyenas, springbok, warthogs and a variety of birds including giant ostrich. One sad sight was a mother impala and her baby who had become separated from their herd and were standing, forlorn, by the side of the road. “Impala are close to the bottom of the food chain,” our guide told us. “Unfortunately, these two are probably doomed.”
The Island of Zanzibar, just off the coast of Tanzania, is famous for its spices and we joined a group visiting a spice ranch. An excellent guide showed us how spices like clove, nutmeg, mace, green, red and black pepper – all from the same vine – vanilla beans, cinnamon bark and lemon grass are grown and harvested. A ranch hand even shimmied up a tall coconut palm tree to break off a few succulent coconuts for us to enjoy and made us hats from the palm fronds.
Our final adventure was near Richard’s Bay, South Africa, where we toured by small boat through the St. Lucia Wetland Nature Reserve. Home to more than 500 bird species, Lake St. Lucia boats the highest concentration of dangerous crocodiles and hippos in South Africa. Travelling slowly, we were able to get within a few metres of these giant beasts. We were under strict orders to keep hands and feet inside the boat!
Although tired and hot, we felt very special returning to the Seven Seas Voyager after our African land and water safaris. The ship’s band greeted us on the dock while staff members lined up as we approached the gangway and applauded as we walked by, giving us cold towels and refreshments. A nice welcome back to a ship that prides itself on the best food and service in the industry.
As the ship’s Hotel Manager told us while we headed south towards our final stop in Cape Town, “North Americans like to explore new places and we want to deliver those. They’ve been to the Caribbean and Mediterranean. They’re keen to see even more exotic places but want to feel safe in doing so.”
Pat Dixon of Edmonton agreed. “The diversity of countries and cultures on this trip has been incredible,” she said. “You realize how small the world really is.”
If you go:
An excellent general cruise site (specific locations, ships etc.)
All photos courtesy of John and Sandra Nowlan
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