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Cruises: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

We paid for our cruise and all expenses, but a big thank you to Pentravel for sponsoring my time to write this article, allowing me to share the experience with you.

When I was a kid, we would take a family holiday in Umhlanga, Kwazulu Natal, every year at the same time. It was always at the same time of the year because we owned timeshare at the Umhlanga Sands hotel. These were the early days of timeshare, in fact I think that Umhlanga Sands was one of the first to offer it.

Those were fun holidays and I have many fond memories of them. What made them unusual was that we spent most of our time at the hotel. There was a ton of entertainment organised throughout the day and into the evening, both for children and adults. My parents would laze around the pool and I would be off enjoying whatever activity was happening for the kids. We’d eat at the hotel restaurants and enjoy sundowners out on the patio overlooking the sea. We’d be there for 7 days and only occasionally leave the hotel to go try a different restaurant or go on a little expedition into Durban.

I hadn’t really thought about those holidays for a long time. That is until I recently walked onto the MSC Sinfonia for a 7-day cruise. I went on the cruise with my father, some dad and son bonding time. The cruise departed from Durban and went up to the top of Mozambique before returning. We had 2 full day excursions off the boat, the other 5 days and all the nights we were on the boat.

The MSC Sinfonia is here during our summer then it heads up to Europe for their summer. The ship is based here from November through April and bookings for the cruises are open a long time in advance. In fact you can already book for the cruises happening at the end of this year, and you only have to put down a deposit. The balance is payable a couple of months before your cruise.

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Cruise People

Quite a few people told me that cruises are for old people, but I didn’t find that at all. In fact, the 2,000 or so people on the Sinfonia with me were incredibly diverse. Old, young, big, small, all races (except maybe Asian, I saw very few of them) wealthy and not so wealthy. And there were lots of kids. I think it’s actually a great holiday for people with kids because there is entertainment organised for them all the time and you don’t have to worry about them being kidnapped as you’re on a ship!

I realised very quickly that different people go on cruises for different reasons. Some people want to party, they are around the pool getting involved with whatever is happening and usually drinking cocktails and generally having fun in the sun. Others want to chill, you’ll usually find them on the upper deck where it is quieter. They will read a book and tan a lot of the time. Some people go for family time and you’ll see them enjoying time with their kids, swimming or playing games together. Some people avoid the sun a lot and you’ll see them inside, either having a drink at the bar or playing bingo or enjoying one of the live music acts.

But even though there are all sorts of people there for different reasons, everyone is friendly and happy. It’s hard not to be when you’re on holiday. We weren’t even trying to meet people and we still ended up meeting and hanging out with some nice people we encountered on the boat. The staff are obviously super friendly and fun as well.

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On the morning of departure we arrived at the harbour fairly early and we still had to wait a few hours to embark. But it was much better than I had heard it would be. I believe MSC has upgraded the facilities and streamlined the processes. We were on the ship by late morning. We spent some time exploring the ship and orienting ourselves. The ship is enormous, it has 13 floors and is about 300 metres long. There is so much on offer. This list is not even comprehensive:

  • 8 bars / lounges
  • 4 restaurants
  • a gym
  • a basketball court
  • a theatre
  • a library
  • a cinema
  • a casino
  • a spa
  • a night club
  • shops
  • and of course the deck with swimming pools.

It puts the Umhlanga Sands hotel to shame! The crazy thing is, apparently the Sinfonia is one of the smaller ships!

After exploring we dived into the buffet lunch and then it was time for the emergency drill. Everyone has to participate so one minute you’re sitting around the pool enjoying the sunshine and the next minute you’re at your muster point wearing a lifejacket.

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We only had access to our cabins from about 5pm, once they had been cleaned and our luggage delivered. We had booked one of the smaller cabins, but one with a sea view. It’s really nice to be able to see ocean outside your porthole and it’s not much more expensive. But make sure you book well in advance because these cabins are popular. The cabin was not too small. It has plenty of cupboard space and various surfaces on which to put things. It has a mini-bar and unexpectedly it has a TV with a ton of channels. I was going to say that would be useful for people who are suffering from motion sickness and feeling sorry for themselves in their cabin, but actually they could just go to the medical centre and get some tablets. The only thing I found to be a bit small was the shower. It was difficult to move and turn without getting wrapped up in the shower curtain. But the shower itself was strong and hot, which was great.

After unpacking and freshening up it was time for our first theatre show. Each night there is a new show in the theatre. It’s an impressive theatre, seating over 1,000 people. And the shows are great. They won’t win any awards but they are each quite different and showcase the dancing, singing and acrobatic skills of the cast. The show is about 45 minutes to an hour and then it’s time for dinner.

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There is so much food on the ship. I was told they make about 10,000 meals a day! With each meal you have the choice of grazing at the buffet upstairs or eating in one of the restaurants. The buffet is the casual option, with extended meal times so you can eat pretty much when it suits you. It’s super convenient for the party people who don’t want to leave the pool for too long! It’s also great for people who like to eat a lot because you can scoff until you drop!

We preferred to eat in the restaurant for all meals. On most days I would have a little fruit and yoghurt for breakfast followed by a ham, cheese and mushroom omelette. A coffee and croissant would be my little indiscretion. For lunch in the restaurant there was a choice between a small buffet selection or a few a la carte options. Dinner was a la carte, generally 3 courses. The service was quite good but the waiters are mostly foreign so you need to be clear when ordering.

If you were ever hungry between meals, there was a never ending pizza service as well as burgers or hotdogs served with chips. The pizza was actually pretty good and we sometimes ended up just having a few slices of that for lunch. Basically, there is more food than you can eat, available all the time.

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The food is free but drinks are for your own account. There is tea, coffee and water available at stations around the ship and they serve juice with breakfast but it’s not real juice, more like a horrible version of Oros so I would avoid it. The drinks are quite expensive because everything is in US Dollars and a Rand doesn’t get you much of a Dollar these days. A beer is about R45 and a bottle of Leopards Leap cabernet sauvignon is about R250. If you’re not very fussy, you can find wine to drink at about R150 a bottle which is not too bad.

The solution is to buy drinks packages beforehand. There is a whole spectrum of prepaid packages you can buy in advance to save money on discretionary expenses from bottled water to spa treatments. As an example, you can purchase the Wine Package Classic in advance (up until 4 days before departure) for R700. It includes 4 bottles of wine and 7 bottles of mineral water. If you bought 4 bottles of wine on the ship it would cost you about R1000 and the water would cost another R300 or so. That’s a saving of nearly 50%. I would definitely recommend you think about what you might want to drink or do while on board and purchase vouchers in advance. If you book through Pentravel, the agent will be able to advise you regarding the available packages.

Unfortunately the vouchers are paper based vouchers that you have to carry around with you and hand over when you make a purchase. I found it a bit irritating because sometimes I would not have the vouchers on me and would either have to go all the way to my cabin to get them or I would have to pay full price. You have to carry your ‘ship card’ everywhere as all purchases are made with that and it’s linked to your credit card. So I don’t understand why they can’t just load your pre-purchased packages onto your account, it would be much simpler.

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Our 7 day cruise only had 2 excursion days, which is unusual. I see from the MSC website that their cruises in Europe have at least 1 stop every 2 days. I would have enjoyed another day off the boat, even if it was just a 2nd day to chill on Portuguese Island. Portuguese Island is fun and there is something for everyone. They have created an awesome beach bar where you can sip cocktails and take selfies, otherwise you can just relax on the beach. We opted for one of the paid excursions to the lighthouse on the next island. We travelled by boat and 4×4 to get to the lighthouse and it was interesting and fun, definitely a worthwhile excursion. Some people did the snorkelling excursion and said they really enjoyed it too.

Our other stop was at Mozambique Island. It’s a really interesting place which used to be the capital of Mozambique until it changed to Maputo. Now the island sees very little commerce so the once grand buildings are toppling down. It reminds me of the pictures you see of Cuba. We did the full excursion which included a tour guide and a meal at a local restaurant. I’m sure the restaurants are lovely on a normal day but our groups were so big that the restaurants could not cope and the experience was really not great at all.

It’s definitely worth visiting the island, but no need to do the official excursion. Entry into the fort and museum is cheap and you can walk around a bit. Then maybe relax on the beach before heading back to ship.

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On Board

The rest of the days we spent on board the Sinfonia and we were never really bored. We went for a walk every morning. It’s quite magical walking around the top of the ship, completely surrounded by ocean as far as the eye can see. We returned to the walking track in the evening to enjoy the beautiful sunsets. We fooled around on the basketball court, we used the gym, we tanned, we read books, we watched the live musicians while sipping cocktails. There were dance classes, quizzes, bingo and all sorts of other activities, both indoor and outdoor, that anyone could get involved in.

And my dad and I chatted, and we laughed and we reminisced. It was good father and son bonding time. Here’s a photo of my father walking along the upper deck.

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Search for the hashtag #DaxCruising across Instagram, Twitter & Facebook to see my social media updates while I was on board the ship.

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