This review, which is rather long, will appeal to South Africans -- particularly those who have not cruised before and are looking for detailed information on what to expect -- as it covers a five night cruise on the MSC Sinfonia from Durban to Portuguese Island, Maputo, Inhambane and back to Durban. These cruises are extremely popular among South Africans and it appears as if about 80 to 90 percent of passengers are South Africans. They often travel in groups made up of friends or family, and it becomes quite affordable. We were a group of 6 "girls" all around the age of 60. We had two girls in one (inside) cabin and four in another sea-facing cabin. The use of the bathroom, and storage space was a challenge for us, but with patience, it was possible for us all to shower and dress in the confined area. The cabins are small, but comfortable. They were kept clean with regular changes of towels.
As this was my first cruise, apart from a cruise from Cape Town to Durban about 45 years ago (which hardly counts), my views may be considered by many as biased as I do not have the advantage of comparison with other vessels and cruise lines. However, there has been a lot of criticism of the MSC Sinfonia and other MSC vessels, that I am not entirely convinced is justified. I read many reviews before departing, and decided to keep an open mind.
I did not find the language issue much of a problem as most crew speak some English. The waiters in the restaurants are extremely friendly and accommodating, whereas the waiters in the buffet restaurant were less friendly. Cabin stewards were also quite friendly and helpful.
In terms of the food, we found it very tasty, with more than ample variety. Occasionally, there was the odd dish that we did not like at all, but there is so much to choose from, it was not a problem. We fell into the pattern of having dinner in the assigned restaurant (there are two on the Sinfonia), as it is nice to be served and to dine with decent crockery etc. There are seven or more courses, which of course you don't have to work your way through, however the portions are fortunately fairly small. We preferred to have breakfast and lunch in the buffet restaurant on the pool deck as you can have more fruit, and less of whatever else, and at lunch you can enjoy plenty of salads. We missed the fact that there is no ice-cream at the buffet restaurant -- seems to be only at the "sit down" restaurants. Of course there is ice-cream to buy from the ice-cream parlour. There are also coffees of all types that you can order. The coffee at the buffet venue is only instant Nescafe (quite adequate if you make it strong). There is plenty of entertainment, with a variety of live music in all the bars, and a dance floor in the Manhattan Bar. There were shows every night (two seatings) which lasted about 45 minutes. We found them entertaining and worth watching. The cruise director is very professional and hugely entertaining. On the last day, crew members took part in a "talentless" show which was extremely funny.
I am not able to comment much on the excursions as I only took one -- a dolphin watching cruise. We saw plenty of dolphins and although somewhat pricey, it was worth the cost. It was possible to go ashore without taking an excursion, as MSC makes provision for all passengers to be transported from the liner to the shore at the two places where the ship cannot come close to the shore (i.e. at Portuguese Island and at Inhambane). Zodiac-type boats (probably taking about 30 to 40 people) are used to transport passengers to shore and there is a bit of wading in the sea that needs to be done from the rubber boat to reach the beach, but it's fun. The water is extremely warm and gorgeous for swimming. MSC appears to have some sort of concession to use Portuguese Island as they have erected some thatched structures for shade etc. The crew prepare a very delicious braai on the beach for lunch.
In Maputo of course there is a proper harbour so disembarkation is in the normal way. It's really not necessary to take one of the excursions -- especially if you are a group -- as you can hire a taxi to take you around on a "private" tour. Always bargain before accepting the price agreed-upon.The final issue I wish to mention is the question of the cost of the drinks. These are always said to be very pricey on cruises, however, not on the MSC Sinfonia. I found the prices of the drinks very similar to what you would pay in a restaurant in South Africa, or in a hotel. There was always a "cocktail of the day" at a reduced price (about $3.70 or R30). There was a rose wine by the glass for $2.00 (R16) and Drostdyhof light by the glass for the same price. The Two Oceans Sauvignon Blanc was $2.50 per glass. I cannot recall the cost of the beers but I do not believe that they would be excessively expensive.
There is plenty of shopping to do if so inclined, and if you take into account that the items are duty free, you can get perfume, for example, at much less than you would pay in South Africa.
The one criticism in general is the matter of queuing -- yes, you have to queue at times, especially to go ashore, and to get the Zodiac to go back from shore to the cruise ship. It is difficult to imagine how else transporting such a large group of people is going to be done, except for queuing -- everyone wants to go back to the ship at the same time. The queuing at Portuguese Island was not pleasant as it was in the boiling sun. This is the only serious criticism that I have -- and no suggested solution.
All in all, I would not hesitate to recommend this cruise to anyone. We had a fantastic time and really enjoyed ourselves. If anything, the lack of sleep was the only downside to the whole experience.