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Jessica Poitevien visiting Fogo in Cape Verde with HX Expeditions (Photo: Jessica Poitevien)
Jessica Poitevien visiting Fogo in Cape Verde with HX Expeditions (Photo: Jessica Poitevien)

Cruising West Africa with HX Expeditions: A New Itinerary with Plenty of Surprises

Jessica Poitevien visiting Fogo in Cape Verde with HX Expeditions (Photo: Jessica Poitevien)
Jessica Poitevien visiting Fogo in Cape Verde with HX Expeditions (Photo: Jessica Poitevien)
Contributor
Jessica Poitevien

Last updated
Mar 20, 2024

Read time
7 min read

Once known primarily for its Norwegian and polar adventures, Hurtigruten has been making some changes. The line recently split into two, with its expedition ships coming under the new HX (Hurtigrutne Expeditions) brand. And the line continues to expand its itineraries too, into warm weather destinations that are far from snow and ice.

One of the most exciting debuts came in late 2023 and into 2024 with a new Western Africa itinerary that explores Senegal, Cape Verde, the Bissagos Islands and The Gambia on MS Spitsbergen. While this unique itinerary has been put on hold – despite a successful inaugural season – because of instability in the region, it’s worth highlighting as part of HX’s commitment to offering sailings to lesser-traveled destinations.

I boarded the ship in January 2024 for the last sailing of its debut season with an international group of 108 sailors (full capacity is 220) representing 12 nationalities and 84 crew hailing from 18 different nations. Like most expedition ships, MS Spitsbergen isn’t about onboard frills (there’s no spa and only one restaurant, for example), but it makes up for that with attentive, personalized service and an immersive experience that attracts curious and adventurous travelers.

Here’s what cruisers should know about sailing to West Africa with HX.

The HX West Africa Trip Took In Moving History in Remote, Rarely Visited Destinations

Visiting Goree island in Senegal with HX Expeditions (Photo: Jessica Poitevien)

Our sailing started strong with an included excursion to Senegal’s Gorée Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that once served as a hub for the Transatlantic slave trade. Just a short ferry ride away from the capital city of Dakar, this visit was a deeply moving experience that provided necessary historical context about the region.

It also set the stage for what to expect in other stops along the trip. In each port, HX offered a variety of excursions — several of which were included in the cruise fare — that explored the history, culture and natural beauty of the country. In our first three stops in Cape Verde, that meant learning about how this previously uninhabited archipelago became a Portuguese trading post and later an independent nation with enviable hiking routes in both stunningly green mountains and desolate-yet-active volcanoes.

While Senegal is a highly sought-after destination on the continent and Cape Verde receives its fair share of tourists as well, this sailing ends in two of West Africa’s least-visited countries. A visit to The Gambia allowed for explorations of the capital city Banjul or following in the footsteps of Kunta Kinteh, the fictional main character of the pivotal novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.”

Visiting Bissagos islands in Guinea-Bissau with HX Expeditions (Photo: Jessica Poitevien)
Visiting Bissagos islands in Guinea-Bissau with HX Expeditions (Photo: Jessica Poitevien)

For me, the standout destination was the Bissagos Islands. This difficult-to-reach island chain belongs to Guinea-Bissau yet feels worlds away despite its location just off the shores of the country’s capital city. The islands we visited in particular are only accessible via private boat or small cruise ship, making it even rarer for them to receive visitors.

It was there that we went hiking in search of hippos and saw a dance performance by the Bijagós people who proudly maintain their traditional way of life. What struck me most about the Bissagos Islands, however, was experiencing such pristine beaches that weren’t swarming with other tourists.

Visiting Bissagos islands in Guinea-Bissau with HX Expeditions (Photo: Jessica Poitevien)
Visiting Bissagos islands in Guinea-Bissau with HX Expeditions (Photo: Jessica Poitevien)

These islands are remote, and we were the only ones there to enjoy this practically untouched paradise of soft, toasted-sugar-colored sand and warm, cerulean water.

Admire a Different Side of African Wildlife

Most people imagine safaris with lions, elephants and giraffes when they think of African wildlife. Although you might spot hippos in the Bissagos Islands, this itinerary also proves there’s so much more to discover on the continent, especially for birdwatchers.

Birds spotted on HX Expeditions' West Africa cruise (Photo: Jessica Poitevien)
Birds spotted on HX Expeditions' West Africa cruise (Photo: Jessica Poitevien)

As a newly minted birder myself, I was thrilled to learn that Cape Verde has close to 300 bird species, while the Bissagos Islands are home to over 500 species. Even as a novice, I was able to spot pied kingfishers, palm nut vultures, African green pigeons, African fish eagles, and the shockingly colorful blue-cheeked bee-eater, among others.

Beyond the avian action, traveling along the water allowed us to check out the region’s marine life. Flying fish were a common occurrence, but we also saw dolphins. While sperm whales were spotted on a previous sailing, we had a particularly special treat: catching a rare glimpse of orcas. The onboard marine biologist documented the moment, marking the sixth time in history that an orca sighting had been scientifically recorded in Cape Verde.

Education Is At the Heart of HX’s Onboard Programming

Pico de Fogo volcano in Cape Verde with HX Expeditions (Photo: Jessica Poitevien)
Pico de Fogo volcano in Cape Verde with HX Expeditions (Photo: Jessica Poitevien)

A team of top-notch scientists were at the helm of the onboard activities, with daily lectures that gave key information about the places we were exploring. (Not a surprise, as Hurtigruten won a Cruise Critic Editors' Picks award in 2023 for "Best Science Offerings" in the expedition cruising category).

For example, before heading to Fogo, home to Cape Verde’s only active volcano, we heard from our resident volcanologist about the different types of eruptions and what causes them. In Bissagos, we had multiple lectures about the distinct, somewhat matriarchal customs of the Bijagós people before visiting one of their traditional villages. Talks about the local history and wildlife were frequent, too.

In one way or another, each lecture added an extra layer of understanding and appreciation for the destinations, but they weren’t the only onboard activities. There were opportunities to relax while drawing or painting, stretch out with a morning Pilates class, learn how to tie a nautical knot, and tour the captain’s bridge.

We could also participate in various citizen science programs — from documenting clouds to keeping track of bird sightings — collecting data to contribute to real-life research projects.

The Onboard Cuisine Reflects the Region

Chef Koffi Gassen on HX Expeditions' MS Spitsbergen West Africa itinerary (Photo: Tommy Simonsen)
Chef Koffi Gassen on HX Expeditions' MS Spitsbergen West Africa itinerary (Photo: Tommy Simonsen)

Other than a few off-ship lunches included with the excursions, all meals on this itinerary are had at MS Spitsbergen’s only restaurant Aune. The buffet-style eatery always offered a variety of options, including international favorites like pasta and a meat-carving station, but the true highlight of every meal were the creations by local chef Koffi Gassen.

Born and raised in Togo, Gassen took us on a culinary journey with dishes not only from his home country, but also from the other 15 nations along the West African coast. He even handpicked the ingredients from local markets near the ports, ensuring our meals were fresh, flavorful and, of course, authentic.

Some of my personal favorites were the jollof, a very popular rice dish made in a spiced tomato stew, and fish yassa, a Senegalese preparation of white fish in a lemony garlic and mustard sauce.

Chef Koffi Gassen conducting a cooking demo on HX Expeditions' West Africa cruise (Photo: MS Spitsbergen crew)
Chef Koffi Gassen conducting a cooking demo on HX Expeditions' West Africa cruise (Photo: MS Spitsbergen crew)

Gassen also took his chef duties a step further with a mini lecture about the common herbs and spices used throughout the region, as well as a live cooking demonstration during which he made a spicy pepper soup with fish.

Sadly, The Future of This Itinerary Is Unclear

Jessica Poitevien hiking Cape Verde with HX Expeditions (Photo: Jessica Poitevien)
Jessica Poitevien hiking Cape Verde with HX Expeditions (Photo: Jessica Poitevien)

HX was originally scheduled to return to West Africa in September 2024 for a longer season that would run through March 30, 2025. “Due to increasing levels of instability in the region,” the line has postponed the itinerary – disappointing but understandable as several countries in West Africa approach potentially contentious elections this year.

That said, with such an exciting itinerary traversing destinations where so few cruise lines sail, I have high hopes that HX will resume operations as soon as possible. And when they do, I certainly recommend booking that trip.

In the meantime, explore HX’s other warm-weather sailings throughout South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean and the Galapagos Islands. HX also travels to other off-the-beaten-path destinations like its Aleutian Islands as part of its Alaska itineraries.

Publish date March 20, 2024
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