The prospect of a safari from a cruise ship is intriguing and bewildering. However, luxe cruise line Silversea Cruises has offered South African–centric sailings that it unofficially dubs "safari cruises" for more than 20 years. On these itineraries, guests get the chance to explore the African wilds, setting out in search of the continent's exotic landscapes and legendary wildlife.
This roving sea-based safari offers a transforming, kaleidoscopic take on the African safari experience that would be difficult to replicate on land. Granted, while some of Africa's most famed safari camps (à la South Africa's Kruger National Park or Tanzania's Serengeti National Park) are set too far inland to be feasibly accessed via any cruise itinerary, the safari cruises instead reward guests with access to lesser-visited but still impressive safari parks and reserves that are within day-trip proximity to coastal ports.
Guests hop aboard a hassle-free cruise in South Africa with logistics arranged in advance (including room and board, transport from port to port, and a roster of well-vetted shore excursions). As the ship skirts Africa's lengthy coastline, port days see safari-primed excursions arranged at local game reserves, which are typically situated within a two-hour motor coach transfer from the port. After a half or full day out on guided safari excursions, guests return to the ship to be pampered with Silversea signatures like butler service and gourmet cuisine paired with wine and cocktails.
THE CRUISE ITINERARY
After arriving in sophisticated Cape Town, guests spend the first night at the swanky 329-room Table Bay Hotel, set on the vibrant V&A (Victoria & Alfred) Waterfront. The extra day in town helps to recover from jet lag and alleviate any anxieties about arriving to the ship too late (due to any unforeseen flight delays).
While Cape Town isn't well situated to safari country itself, it’s still a great destination. To make the most of you time here, you'll need to ascend the iconic Table Mountain (via cable car or hike) for sweeping views over mountains, city, and sea; wander around the buzzing V&A Waterfront, lined with restaurants, bars, shops, and boat tours aplenty; and take a bite out of Cape Town's buzzing culinary scene at a hot spot like The Pot Luck Club, where star chef Luke Dale-Roberts delivers a perfect trifecta of delectable small plates, polished service, and trendy atmosphere.
The first stop, following a day at sea, is at Port Elizabeth, or PE, in South Africa's Eastern Cape province. While the city is pleasant enough in its own right, with busy beaches, historic Victorian architecture, and public artworks, the port's raison d'être on the cruise circuit is its proximity to the outstanding 445,000-acre Addo Elephant National Park, about a 45-minute drive from the port. An elephant sanctuary like no other, it's also a proper "Big 5" reserve offering the possibility of seeing lions, leopards, rhinoceroses, and buffalo, in addition to the 600 elephants who reside here.
Next up, following another day at sea, is a half-day port call in Maputo, which lacks safari excursions, but offers an interesting glimpse of an African capital on the rise. A city tour here reveals a uniquely African tapestry of fading Portuguese colonial architecture, fast-rising high-rises, lush vegetation, welcoming sidewalk cafés, colorful marketplaces, small museums, an old fort, a century-old train station, and even an "Iron House" designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame).
The following overnight stay is in Richards Bay, an industrial port town in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province (the heart of the Zulu nation). The port is within striking distance of two superlative game reserves: the tongue-twisting Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park—one of South Africa's best game reserves—offers another chance to come face-to-face with the Big 5. The park is famed for its conservation efforts that have made it one of the best places to see rhinos in the world. You might see zebras, giraffes, antelope, elephants, and wonderfully exotic birds during a 4x4 drive through the scenic park filled with rivers and watering holes.
Back on the coast, the UNESCO-protected iSimangaliso Wetland Park reveals an entirely different side of the African wild, via a two-hour boat trip on Lake St. Lucia. Here, you might see groups of bathing hippos and lurking crocodiles, along with flamingoes and more than 500 types of birds that inhabit these wetlands.
The next stop is Durban, South Africa's second-largest city and busiest port. Cruise guests can opt for some urban exploration, Indian Ocean beach bumming, or a half-day excursion to a game drive at the nearby Tala Private Game Reserve. At Tala, 7,500 acres of grasslands and wetlands provide a home for rhinos, hippos, buffalos, giraffes, antelopes, and more than 300 species of birds.
East London is South Africa's only river port, where guest embark on a half-day 4x4 game drive to Inkwenkwezi Game Reserve, in search of rhino, giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, and birds (including ostriches).
After 10 days at sea, the ship returns to Cape Town. Depending on the time of your outbound flight, you'll get some additional time there to explore. If you’re feeling adventurous, hire a driver to explore the city's incredibly scenic 30-mile-long Cape Peninsula, much of which is protected within Table Mountain National Park.
THE CRUISE SHIP
Silversea Cruises is known for its refined service and well-appointed ships, and while the 296-passenger Silver Cloud can certainly be counted as upscale, it's showing some signs of fray. This is in large part because the ship will be refitted as an expedition vessel in the summer of 2017, so no major refurbishments are being done ahead of that. Still, with spacious all-suite accommodations, butler service for every guest, and inclusive rates that factored in free-flowing wine and cocktails, it'd be tough to complain.
The Silver Cloud's size is small enough to ensure that there are no lines to get on or off the ship or to dine, but isn't so small that it's lacking in onboard amenities. Public spaces include four dining venues, two dedicated bars (plus the pool bar), a small casino, show lounge, cigar bar, library, spa, fitness center, and saltwater pool flanked by two Jacuzzis.
The onboard entertainment lineup shuffles events like movie matinees, trivia, and hosted bridge, as well as live music from a quartet, pianist/singer, and "The Voices of Silversea," a troupe of six entertainers who put on song-and-dance productions. They also have a standout guest lecturer program.
Guest cabins include the services of butler to perform tasks like making dinner reservations, shining your shoes, or stocking your mini-fridge. All suites have a sitting area with a sofa, table, and two chairs (for in-room dining), a vanity and desk, and walk-in closets; the majority of units come with private balconies, too. Tech trimmings include iPod alarm clocks, TVs with DVD players, and in-room Wi-Fi.
There are two formal nights at sea when guests dress to the nines in cocktail dresses and dark suits. Note that gentlemen are expected to wear jackets to dinner each evening.
Expect to share the experience with a group of well-traveled (and well-to-do) couples, mostly ages 55 and up, with a large mix of Americans and English onboard, and almost no kids (the ship doesn't offer much in the way of special accommodations for children).
Silversea Cruises offers a selection of safari cruises each year, between December and February (summertime in South Africa); the 10- to 15-night itineraries sail round-trip from Cape Town, or between Cape Town and Mombasa (longer voyages might include additional stops in spots like Walvis Bay, Namibia, and Mossel Bay, South Africa). Early-booking rates for 2017 voyages start at $4,005/person, including free Wi-Fi, alcoholic beverages, complimentary shuttles into town in port, and onboard gratuities. Special ultra-inclusive 2016 rates start from a substantially pricier $11,520/person, including all of the above, but lots of big-ticket extras like international flights; pre- or post-cruise, three-night, land-based safaris in South Africa's Kruger National Park; ground transfers; and select shore excursions. silversea.com
It should be noted that the seasick-prone might want to think twice before booking a sailing in South Africa waters. While the rewards are great, the stormy seas surrounding the notorious Cape of Good Hope can mean rough swells that will have your stomach turning circles.