The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for cruises: Mary Jean Tully of Cruise Professionals by Tully Luxury Travel.
Mary Jean sends an enormous amount of business to high-end cruise lines—Crystal, Cunard, Holland America, Oceania, Princess, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea, and Windstar among them—and thus is able to secure the best cabins (often as an upgrade) and procure generous onboard credits for her clients. She has plenty of pull with, and access to deals at, five-star hotels too, which comes in handy when she’s making pre-and post-cruise land arrangements. She has a stable of top tour guides in every port of call and will offer candid advice on where to save and where to splurge on shore excursions; hers often come in cheaper than the cruise lines’ offerings. When she’s offline in Africa—she is seriously committed to wildlife preservation—or sailing on the coolest new ships in remotest Asia, ask to speak with her trusted deputy Cheri Port. Mary Jean was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
Ships and Cabins
Best ship for a splurge
The Crystal Serenity is all-inclusive, with the best enrichment programs and entertainment at sea: Take a cooking class or a class to learn more about your Apple devices; book lessons at the golf simulator; watch one of the onboard lectures on the TV in your room if you missed it live. The ship has a chic, contemporary style, and the attention to detail is remarkable (a violinist playing outside the dining room, a rolled towel placed under your ankles at the pool). The food onboard is second to none, especially in the specialty restaurants Nobu and Prego.
Best large ship
The all-inclusive Regent Mariner, on which every cabin has a balcony. (Though it carries only 700 guests, this is one of the larger ships to cruise Africa.) The Mariner recently underwent a multi-million-dollar refurbishment, giving it a fresh new look. It has a wonderful Canyon Ranch Spa onboard, a state-of-the-art, two-deck-high theater, and great dining options (I love the elegant steakhouse, Prime 7).
Best small ship
The intimately elegant Silversea Cloud has a 296-guest capacity. All suite categories now feature butler service, which is a wonderful added touch that a ship of this size can execute impeccably. It truly feels like you are on your own private yacht.
Best affordable ship for families
The Holland America ms Rotterdam appeals to families, and multigenerational groups in particular, as it has a wide range of activities for children, teens, and adults alike: Club HAL entertains the kids, while parents and grandparents take in a chef demonstration at the Culinary Arts Centre or watch a live Broadway-style show.
Best ship for a solo traveler
Many of the cruise lines are realizing the value of the solo traveler. Gone for the most part is the 200 percent charge—except for suites. From dance hosts to bridge partners to special spots in the dining room, more and more ships are catering to the solo traveler, male or female. The Crystal Serenity has particularly excelled at this.
Best ship for foodies
The Silversea Cloud or Whisper. Le Champagne, exclusive to Silversea, is the only Relais & Chateaux restaurant at sea. Fine wines are complemented by a set tasting menu in this intimate dining venue. Any foodie will agree that it is well worth the additional reservation fee for this specialty restaurant.
Where to Cruise
Cape Town is a charming, sophisticated port with stunning scenery and endless activities, from shark-cage diving to strolling among the exotic flora at the Kistenbosch National Botanical Garden. I love itineraries that spend a few days here: You can access most of the city’s sites by simply walking along the waterfront, but make sure you book a car and guide for one of your days so that you can explore Table Mountain and the wine region.
Port most worth the trek
In Namibia, Walvis Bay has incredible variety: Sand dunes as far as the eye can see (which you can explore by bike, 4×4, or ATV), a natural lagoon rich in unusual birdlife, and the quaint colonial German town of Swakopmund.
Though it’s not a port, Botswana’s Okavango Delta is the hidden gem to add to an Africa cruise. It’s just under three hours to fly there from Cape Town, and the wildlife experiences here are more raw, without the zoo-like feel you get at some reserves in South Africa.
If you have time to spare, select a cruise itinerary that either starts or ends in Cape Town, so that you can add a three- to four-night safari, followed by a couple of nights in Cape Town. If your travel time is limited, then plan a cruise that has two or three nights at sea between African ports (this is often the case between Durban and Cape Town). Then you can exit the ship for a mini safari, rejoining it at the next port of call. For instance, we can arrange for a chartered plane to whisk you to a private game reserve for three nights, while you help a team that is tagging rhinos for conservation purposes. To feel their soft skin and their warm breath, and to know that you’re doing something to help save them, is nothing short of amazing.
November through March has the most pleasant weather—and also happens to be when most cruise lines call on ports in Africa. The end of February and March are autumn in South Africa, so it is warm but not too hot, and very little rain falls over the country.
The weather is usually cooler from June through September. There is also more rain from May through August.
Flying all the way to Cape Town for a cruise but not doing a safari. We often arrange for our clients to go on safari pre- or post-cruise. Sometimes it’s even convenient to do during their cruise, depending on the itinerary: In one instance, a ship was calling at Durban, where there’s not much to see, and then doing two days at sea, so I flew my clients to a game park for three nights. They packed an overnight bag, left everything else on the ship, and rejoined their itinerary in Cape Town. This typically costs $3,000 to $5,000 per person, including accommodations, game drives, meals, and flights.
A day-long “safari” from Durban. By the time you get to the national park, in the middle of the day, all of the animals will be sleeping. For that matter, stay away from the cruise lines’ pre- and post-cruise safaris. They have to book all their guests in the same camp, so they must book the larger camps—and not necessarily the one that is right for your interests.
The earlier the better! For the cruise portion, this will enable you to get the best pricing—I can always get my clients a refund or credit if the fare goes down—and the widest selection of cabins. Booking as far out as possible also helps ensure you get the flights that you want with the best routing.