Set at the southernmost tip of the African continent, South Africa teems with travelers' temptations: safaris, wine country, beaches, tribal culture and multicultural cities. The biggest dilemma for any visitor here is not in wanting for choice, but in making the tough decisions on just what to see! For cruisers, a leisurely coastal sailing puts forth a smorgasbord for sampling South African delights.
Most South Africa-based sailings operate out of Cape Town (and to a lesser degree, Durban), navigating through the notorious Cape of Good Hope. (Be forewarned: The seasick-prone need not apply!) Itineraries typically hop between ports along the country's southern and eastern coastline, before perhaps continuing up Africa's southeast coast to Mozambique, and even further still to destinations in Tanzania, Kenya, or Indian Ocean isles such as Madagascar or Mauritius.
While mainstream MSC Cruises maintains a presence in both Cape Town and Durban, offering shorter voyages (from three nights in duration), South Africa-anchored sailings are largely the terrain of upscale cruise lines, many of which embark on lengthy (as in two weeks-plus) itineraries. Silversea Cruises is the biggest regional player in that category (albeit with several shorter, 10-night sailings on the roster); they're joined by Cunard Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Ponant and Crystal Cruises.
Our 10-day "safari cruise" with Silversea sailed round-trip from Cape Town, stopping at a handful of South African ports, as well as the port call of Maputo, Mozambique. Click through this slideshow for highlights and pictures of some of the most stunning nature, wildlife and urban scenes that we encountered along the way on our South Africa cruise.
--By Elissa Garay, Cruise Critic contributor
Cape Town, South Africa
The loveliest and most sophisticated city in South Africa is mountains-meet-the-sea Cape Town, aka the "Mother City." Here, atop picture-postcard Table Mountain, visitors take in sweeping views over one of the world's most stunning nature-meets-city settings (perhaps akin only to Rio). It's easy to fill up days swimming and sun worshipping on golden shores, hiking in urban parks, wandering the pleasantly revitalized V&A Waterfront (which is walking distance from the port), visiting bountiful area vineyards, uncovering the country's complicated past at historical sites and museums, and exploring impoverished, but lively, proud and fascinating townships. Evenings, meanwhile, give way to terrific options for dining, drinking and live entertainment in trendy establishments.
Tip: Hiking or taking the cable car up to Table Mountain is the city's defining attraction (an excursion on offer by pretty much every cruise line that stops here), but it's also weather-dependent and subject to closures when cloud cover or strong winds deem it too dangerous for visitation. Plan your outing early in your trip so there's room to accommodate a Table Mountain visit later on, should it be necessary.
Cape Town, South Africa
With many cruise itineraries starting and/or ending in Cape Town, use any extra time you have on either end of the sailing to get beyond the city center, out onto the southerly Cape Peninsula. This sliver of mountainous terrain dramatically gives way to wave-battered beaches, jutting out just near to the rendezvous point of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Wonderfully suited for a full-day diversion, the peninsula's attractions are plentiful, with much of the land preserved in national parkland. Highlights include sipping wine at historic Constantia vineyards, stopping for fresh-seafood lunches in charming coastal towns, hiking amid cliffs and coast at Cape Point, hanging out with the colony of penguin beach bums at Boulders Beach, driving the snaking roads of legendary Chapman's Peak Drive, and winding down with an oceanfront "sundowner" (perhaps at the famous Leopard Bar at Twelve Apostles Hotel).
Tip: Driving -- done on the left-hand side here -- can be a challenge for American visitors to South Africa, but the Peninsula's many charms are best explored by vehicle. While some cruise lines offer shore excursions on the Cape by coach, we recommend hiring a private guide/driver for the day to explore the delights of the Cape Peninsula at whim, free of herded groups and imposed time constraints. We had success with the excellent guides and private tours organized via PG Tops.
Port Elizabeth, South Africa
Hugging Algoa Bay, pleasant Port Elizabeth is a popular port, thanks to its proximity to the excellent Addo Elephant National Park. Often overlooked, however, the city itself is well worth a poke around, time permitting; cruise lines typically offer some sort of city highlights tour here, by foot or by coach. Beaches and watersports are omnipresent here, but don't miss the more interesting city center, where revitalization projects have revived lovely historic Victorian buildings and coated public spaces with intriguing public art projects.
Tip: On the southern tip of Algoa Bay, visitors can check out the pretty Cape Recife lighthouse, dating to 1851. For a closer look, as part of a private city tour independent of the ship, hook up with the fine guides at Alan Tours; it's the only tour company that can get you access to the charming lighthouse's interior.
Port Elizabeth, South Africa
The malaria-free "Big Five" (elephants, buffalo, rhinos, lions and leopards) reserve at Addo Elephant National Park is just a 45-minute drive outside of Port Elizabeth. It's a can't-miss excursion (all cruise lines and local tour companies are sure to offer safaris here) because it offers one of the largest concentrations of elephants within all of Africa; they've got more than 600 pachyderms here. You're pretty much guaranteed elephant encounters, and could stumble upon scores of them if you're lucky enough to find them congregating at a watering hole. Apart from the Big Five, also look out for hyena, zebra, antelope and warthogs.
Tip: Massive Addo is nearly 445,000 acres in size; it's South Africa's third-largest national park. Because it extends from the Karoo all the way to the coastline, it can uniquely market itself as a "Big Seven" park, factoring in the great white sharks and southern right whales that teem in the marine section of the park, off the Algoa Bay coast. Consider tacking on a "marine safari" boat trip to round out your experience.
Fronting the Indian Ocean, Mozambique's lush capital proposes an interesting architectural tapestry of rising modern towers, Soviet-style apartment blocks and fading Portuguese colonial-era buildings. Bustling and lively, Maputo is seeing an economic revival fueled by new natural resource-driven investments, a welcome reprieve following many hard years during the nation's brutal civil war (which ended in 1992). Sign up for a cruise line-run "city highlights" excursion to peruse a sprinkling of museums (don't miss the taxidermy and strange display of elephant fetuses at the Natural History Museum), visit historic sites (including a century-old train station and Portuguese fort), haggle in colorful marketplaces, and take in curiosities like the Gustave Eiffel-designed Iron House.
Tip: Note that all American visitors need a tourist visa to visit Mozambique; your cruise line will likely take care of the visa application for you right onboard the ship, for a supplementary fee. Additionally, Maputo falls within an area that is at risk for malaria; view the CDC website for up-to-date info, and discuss preventative measures with your doctor ahead of arrival.
Shoppers will delight in browsing the many lively markets of Maputo, where fishmongers present the day's catch; produce vendors push spices, fruits and veggies; and artisans display their handcrafted wares. One don't-miss marketplace is the recently renovated Municipal Market, dating to 1901, with its colorful piles of spices and produce, sold by local women dressed in vibrant sarongs and head-wraps. The FEIMA- Feira de Artesanato, Flores e Gastronomica arts-and-crafts fair is another solid bet, with its selection of handmade local batiks, woodcarvings, masks and more.
Tip: Haggling, especially at the crafts markets, is the norm; prepare for a bit of good-natured back-and-forth before settling on a price.
Richards Bay, South Africa
Set within the KwaZulu-Natal province, the industrial port town of Richards Bay itself offers little in the way of interest to visitors, but it is the gateway to some superlative wildlife reserves (including Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and iSimangaliso Wetland Park), as well as to the land of the Zulu people. For a cheesy-but-worthwhile brush with the Zulu, consider a visit to the romanticized Zulu cultural village Shakaland -- a former set for the 1980s TV series Shaka Zulu, which depicted the fierce warrior of the same name. About an hour's drive outside of Richards Bay, guests on this popular ship-run shore excursion will experience a traditional Zulu dance performance, learn a bit more about Zulu cultural traditions and social structures, and have a chance to sample Zulu cuisine via a lunch buffet.
Tip: You'll have a chance to shop here for some traditional and inexpensive Zulu beadwork jewelry, with local vendors setting up makeshift shops on blankets. Be sure to ask your guide for tips on verifying the products' authenticity.
Richards Bay, South Africa
Tongue-twister it may be, the biologically diverse Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park (pronounced "shloo-shloo-ee im-fuh-low-zee") presents one of South Africa's top game reserves. The park offers a pleasing setting of steep cliffs and valleys, rivers and watering holes, and wonderfully diverse flora and fauna -- all about a 90-minute drive from Richards Bay. Visitors might encounter any or all of the Big Five here, along with a population of wildlife including giraffe, antelope and wild dogs.
Tip: The park is especially notable for its rhinos (black and white) -- in fact, due to the park's ongoing conservation efforts, it's one of the best places in the world to see them in the wild. For your best chance at seeing one, head out on a ranger-guided safari tour arranged by your cruise line (or a reputable local tour company) and express your interest in trying to spot one. Chances are that the ranger has the most up-to-date info on the animals' most recent movements within the park -- though keep in mind that when it comes to wildlife, there are never guarantees.
Richards Bay, South Africa
No one should leave Richards Bay without a visit to the neighboring iSimangaliso Wetland Park, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the rich and varied ecosystems it encompasses. A two-hour nature cruise on Lake St. Lucia is a highlight here, bringing visitors face to face with groups of hippos, enormous Nile crocodiles and any of the hundreds of types of birds (including flamingoes) that congregate here.
Tip: Did you know the most dangerous animal in Africa isn't the lion or even the great white shark? Nope, it's the notoriously aggressive hippo! Steer well clear if should you stumble upon one in your path on land, though you'll be quite secure spotting them from the safety of the boat.
Durban, South Africa
Multicultural Durban -- the busiest port and second-largest city in South Africa -- is known for its sun-and-surf setting fringing the Indian Ocean. Visitors that get beyond the beach will be well rewarded with glimpses of the rich cultural diversity of this city-by-the-sea. The Zulu people are the best represented, but there are plenty of descendants of European settlers and a sizeable Indian population, too. (Interesting fact: Ghandi once lived and practiced law here.) Visitors looking for unique cultural encounters can seek out experiences such as a stroll through the Indian District or a visit to a transporting traditional Zulu healing market.
Tip: For an authentic, slice-of-life look into Durban's animated street life, you'll need to get beyond the traditional and more mundane "city highlights" stops (botanical gardens, beaches) common to the cruise lines' shore excursions. Consider an engaging outing with local outfit Street Scene, which offers half- and full-day tours focused on off-the-path city highlights, township visits and/or visits to historical sites such as Mahatma Gandhi's onetime Durban home.