Spirit of Adventure - Magic of Madagascar Cruise
3 - 17 January 2011
Departure: Port Louis, Mauritius
Itinerary: Reunion, Madagascar (4 ports), Mayotte, Zanzibar, Tanzania (mainland - 2 ports), Mombasa
This was our tenth cruise. Having cruised most of the Mediterranean and the Baltic Seas this was something quite different. We had chosen this cruise because of the destinations - the fact that it was a far smaller ship than our previous cruises was not an issue but we were curious to see how different it would all be on a ship with just 300 odd passengers on board instead of the more usual 2,000 plus.
It was very different from the start. We were warmly welcomed on board and found ourselves immediately in what is termed the Entrance Hall on A Deck with dining room, reception desk and shore excursions office facing us. Our cabin turned out to be on this deck which was a pleasant surprise as we had booked a guaranteed cabin allocation without knowing until we boarded where we were going to be.
Our cabin (along with others) was not ready for ocupation when we boarded as we had arrived early following our overnight flight from Heathrow. (I believe we were on board before 9.00 am.) Instead of being able to occupy our cabins we were all taken into the dining room where a buffet breakfast had been laid out for us. This was a good introduction to the service and food that we were to experience for the next 14 days. As cabins became available for occupation we were called forward by cabin number to be escorted to our home for the next two weeks.
The cabin was very similar in layout and facilities to the ones we had experienced previously. Let's be honest, with the amount of space available there's very little that can be done to make things very different. I felt that the cabin and bathroom area might have been marginally larger than previous ships but the only concern was the limited drawer space - just four rather slim drawers instead of the six, or more, fairly deep drawers that we were used to. However, on unpacking we found homes for everything so this was not a problem.
The cabin was on the warm side and altering the heating/cooling controls didn't seem to make much difference so I rang Reception and within 20 minutes we had one of the ship's engineers complete with tool box knocking on our cabin door. He dismantled the ceiling panel, made some adjustments and from then on everything was fine. Being in the tropics we didn't really need duvets so from the second night we simply had sheets and a blanket and that was quite sufficient.
One difference from previous cabins was the door threshold. My wife was getting over a fractured ankle so perhaps we were more concious that there was a threshold that we had to step over to get into the cabin - I don't believe we've had that before but perhaps we noticed it more given the circumstances.
Being a small ship it didn't take us long to get to know our way around. There were just three main decks that housed the inside facilities we used:
. A deck as already mentioned;
. the Main deck with the Sirocco lounge; and
. the Promenade Deck with The Verandah self service restaurant with an
outside dining area, the Yacht Club, Library and a small shop.
The library has to have special mention. On previous cruises the library has sometimes consisted of a locked cabinet with a range of novels and opened for an hour in the morning and again for an hour in the late afternoon. The Spirit library would put many branch libraries in most of our towns and cities to shame. It had a vast collection of books with a huge selection of travel guides to all parts of the world, plus a massive collection of reference books. Best of all it was open 24 hours per day!
The shop was tiny compared to the shopping malls that one tends to find on the larger vessels but it stocked basic needs plus a range of ship's souvenirs. Quite clearly the shop is set up as a service to passengers and is not seen as a means of raising vast amounts of money for the cruise company from the sales of goods. Indeed, we were in port for 11 and a half days out of the 14 and under Customs Regulations the shop had to be closed while we were in port, only opening after we had set sail.
The two upper decks were for enjoying the sun with plenty of sun loungers while the Top of the Yacht housed the open air cinema - and that's quite a new experience.
B deck was mainly cabins but it had the ship's Medical Centre and passenger laundrette. That was a nice touch - two washers and two tumble dryers plus an iron and ironing board - and even washing powder was provided at no cost.
This, in fact, is typical of the Spirit of Adventure - it is an all-inclusive ship. This means that wine at lunchtime and at dinner is complementary, most of the excursions are included in the cruise price as are gratuities to the staff.
I trust that sets the scene - now for the important question of food.
Meals and Food
Meals can only be described as truly exceptional - and that covers quality, variety, presentation and service. They cannot be faulted. On some cruises previously it's been a question of “I don't fancy that” and so your choice has been decided for you. On the Spirit it was more a case of “I want that and that, and I wouldn't mind some of that as well”! Yes, it was difficult when dining in the dining room but at lunch one could take a small helping of one's first choice and go back and try a second or even a third main course.
We ate at The Verandah for breakfast and those lunches when we were on board but in the evenings we always had dinner in the dining room. Dinner is served between 7.00 pm and 9.00 pm and we turned up at various times from 7.15 pm to 8.00 pm. At the entrance to the dining room all passengers are greeted by the Maître d' and asked whether they wanted to be on a table for 2, 4, 6 or 8. We opted for 6 or 8 and then a waiter was summoned, my wife took his arm and we were escorted to our chosen table. Sometimes we would join a part occupied table as the last diners while on other occasions we would start a new table and then others would join us.
Meeting new people at dinner meant that one got to know a good cross section of the passengers and one wasn't lumbered with people that one didn't really get on with for the duration of the cruise which can occur when you sit at the same table with the same people every night! We also learned that single ladies liked this arrangement - some had been on previous cruises where single ladies were seated on tables with an equal number of single gentlemen and they just didn't want to have that sort of attention.
Because we had dined with so many other passengers we got to know so many people and it was nice to bump into them on excursions or on board and simply chat to our new friends. This all contributed to the general feeling of well-being and friendliness on the ship.
Throughout the day a variety of fruit juices, water, coffee and a range of speciality teas could be obtained from the self-service area on The Verandah and this was very welcome.
There were three formal nights on our cruise. On these occasions - and I speak for the dining room rather than The Verandah - I guess that about 75% of the men wore tuxedos or dinner suits while the women were smartly dressed but were not over dressed as we have sometimes experienced on previous cruises. As one of the entertainers commented to the females in his audience “I see that you are all dressed for comfort rather than fashion”!
Friendliness and flexibility are the hallmarks of the Spirit of Adventure. The crew are very accessible - the captain would breakfast with passengers on The Verandah and he was invariably at the gang plank when passengers returned from their excursions and eager to know how we had enjoyed ourselves. Since the Spirit of Adventure does not repeat the destinations in the way that some ships undertake the same itinerary every one or two weeks from the same port, there was a genuine interest by the captain and staff to know what we thought of the places we visited.
The flexibility comes from the fact that crew members double up on their duties - for example, the resident piano player was also the snorkelling instructor and he also led the cycle excursions on shore. (Yes, the ship carries cycles for free use by passengers.) At one destination we arrived by tender to find that the maître d' had landed on the first one and was on hand to tie up the following tenders as they arrived.
Another example of flexibility are the arrangements for afternoon tea. If an excursion was late returning to the ship in the afternoon, tea would be extended so that the returning passengers could have a bite to eat. This is something that is unlikely to happen on a far larger ship where everything needs to be kept to a strict timetable.
Getting Ashore and Excursions
With just 310 passengers on board - not quite a full complement - there was never any problem in getting ashore whether it be by tender or zodiac or for those going off on the excursions. This aspect of cruising has always been problematic when you have upwards of 2,000 passengers all wishing to get ashore as soon as the ship docks!
Most of the excursions are included as part of the cruise package and there are some paid for excursions at some of the ports of call. I have to say that the included excursions are superb. It is not a case of because they're free they're going to be rubbish - far from it. Some of the best excursions were those that the cruise provided as part of the package.
There were some very welcome touches with the excursions. First of all the coaches were never full so one never felt that one was being squashed into a coach - most being about half to two-thirds full which meant one had space to spread out which is very helpful in hot climates. Once we had boarded the coach for the journey back to the ship we were always presented with an ice cold flannel, which had been carried in a coolbox from the ship for a freshen up, and then offered a Werther's Original. I gather that this has become something of a tradition with Spirit of Adventure excursions and there would be mutiny if a tour leader ever forgot to pick up the stock of Werther's. On arrival on board there was always another cold towel waiting passengers.
I also liked the fact that at most ports free shuttle buses were laid on to take passengers into town or even on a short tour of the town itself before dropping us at a central location.
Entertainment on board the Spirit of Adventure is very different from the floating palaces with their tiered theatres. In the first instance there are lectures - and I emphasise the word lecture rather than talk. Experts in their respective fields join the cruise for its duration and give three lectures each. We had five guest lecturers on board and each lecture lasts 45 minutes. The lectures tend to relate to the area covered by the cruise so being off the African coast with four stops on the continent our lectures ranged from The Ecology of Madagascar to Filming Life on Earth by David Attenborough's film cameraman, via a lecture entitled The Mosque in East Africa! All were very well attended and they were relayed live to the TV sets in the cabins and were then shown again later on the cruise.
The ship also carried a watercolour artist who gave a series of practical lessons throughout the cruise ending up with an exhibition of passengers' paintings.
When we were late sailing - and we left some ports at midnight - local groups would come on board and entertain us with their singing and dancing wearing their traditional costumes. This wasn't the sort of show with dancing girls that the larger vessels with their West End type productions lavish on passengers. But it did mean that some well needed income got back into the local communities.
The Cruise Director took several events and they turned out to be the highlights of the cruise - the Scattergories Quiz, for example, lasted for an hour and a half and it was hilarious! It was all down to a very competent performance by the Cruise Director who didn't just have a superb sense of humour and a good rapport with his audience but he could play any tune you cared to name on the piano, and he could also play the guitar, drums and tin whistle!
Oh, and there was a trivia quiz every evening after dinner - don't ask how we got on - we were a team of six and scored dismally. So upsetting not to win a Spirit of Adventure baseball cap!
Yes, of course there was dancing (to a four piece ensemble), there were other entertainers on board but we didn't get the Big Shows - and they weren't missed!
On some previous cruises the ship's personnel seemed keen to get departing passengers off the ship (and presumably out of the way) as quickly as possible. Spirit of Adventure look after you for the entire last day. Depending on the flight arrangements, some people were taken to a hotel in Mombasa to await their journey to the airport while we were on an earlier flight from Mombasa to Nairobi so we were destined for a long wait between flights. However, our group was met on arrival at Nairobi Domestic Terminal, taken by a fleet of minibuses to an off-airport lounge where we had refreshments provided and there were shower facilities for us to use. This is typical of the Spirit of Adventure - passengers are looked after throughout the holiday and they take care of the small things. It was far better to rest in comfort than to hang about in an airport departure lounge which has been our experience on previous cruises.
The Spirit of Adventure is a different cruise experience. If you want the shows, the shops, the swimming pools and slides and slot machines this ship is not for you - I forgot to mention that there is no casino; nor are there any children on board as there is a minimum age limit of 21 years of age.
Those who have discovered the Spirit of Adventure seem to be hooked with many of the passengers having taken numerous cruises to some quite exotic places. It looks as if we will be following this trend as 10 months after our first Spirit cruise we are off on another - this time from Sri Lanka, via India, the Andaman Islands, Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore.
It is the spirit of adventure that a Spirit of Adventure cruise gives you - it really does live up to its name.
And if it's adventure you're after then being approached by pirates was another matter. I won't expand on this here as our incident made world-wide news and you can read about it under the Captain's Blog entry for 12 January 2011 on the Spirit of Adventure web page.