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, Regent, Seabourn, Silversea, Oceania, Viking, Azamara, Cunard, Holland America, Celebrity, Ritz Carlton Yacht Collection, Ponant, Scenic, and Aqua Expeditions 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 for private shore excursions that are more imaginative 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 Ozimac.
Ships and Cabins
Best ships for a splurge
Crystal Cruises has it all: The cuisine is Michelin-grade, wines and liquors are top-shelf, the crew-to-guest ratio is higher than any other cruise line, and their enrichment programs include everything from university classes and piano lessons to Berlitz language classes and tutoring in smartphone photography. And you won’t feel nickel-and-dimed, as their fares are all-inclusive.
Best large ships
Cunard, Holland America, and Celebrity Cruises all have ships that sail to Africa carrying 1,300 to 3,000 passengers. Cunard’s set dining times and formal themed balls underscore the line’s traditional British sensibility. Holland America is a good value with decent cuisine and service, and has both set and open dining options. Celebrity’s ships are more contemporary in design and attract a younger demographic than the stereotypical cruise set. Holland America and Celebrity Cruises are not all-inclusive, but you can keep costs down by purchasing one of their dining and beverage packages.
Best affordable ships for families
Celebrity’s and Holland America’s ships have a wide variety of accommodations for families on a budget, including triple and quad occupancy and superior kids’ programs. Regent Seven Seas Cruises is great for families who want good-quality dining and service included without surprise costs.
Best ships for a solo traveler
Crystal and Silversea have lower single supplements, and Crystal provides a bevy of entertainment options to keep solo travelers engaged; the crew also seats singles together for dinner if they’d rather not eat alone.
Best ships for foodies
Silversea’s Silver Cloud and Silver Whisper. Any foodie will agree that it is well worth the additional reservation fee to dine at these ships’ intimate specialty restaurant, La Dame, where fine wines are complemented by a set tasting menu.
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. You can access most of the city’s sites by simply walking along the waterfront, but if you’re spending a few days make sure you book a car and guide to 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, ATV, or plane), a natural lagoon rich in unusual birdlife, and the quaint colonial German town of Swakopmund. You’ll also want to see Luderitz, which juxtaposes colonial architecture with expansive natural rock formations that extend out into the ocean. No visit is complete without a stop at the once-grand Kolmanskop ghost town, which has now succumbed to the desert. For those in search of wildlife, nearby Halifax Island is home to a vast penguin colony, and the Luderitz Lagoon has large flocks of pink flamingos.
Alexandria is ideal for its proximity to Giza; from here, a day trip to see the pyramids and Sphinx is easy-peasy.
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, 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, Mary Jean can arrange for a chartered plane to whisk you to a private game reserve, where you can spend a few days helping 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.
For a more exotic African experience, look to Ponant’s Madagascar departures. Their French-styled journeys sail smaller ships, enabling them to navigate lesser-known ports where larger boats can’t go.
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. Sometimes it’s even convenient to include during a 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 Mary Jean flew her travelers 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—Mary Jean can always get her travelers 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.