As our minibus took us down to the dock at Tema, Ghana, it was clear that these were no ordinary passengers. Greenland, Cambodia, Antarctica, Iran: the competitive travel chat was ferocious.
Cruising is often viewed as the most anodyne form of travel but a new breed of “expedition” cruises is changing all that. Using small ships, they reach destinations little-visited by even the most adventurous backpackers, without sacrificing luxurious cabins, fine food and a well-stocked wine cellar. The Silver Explorer, awaiting us dockside, would on this trip be home to just 80 passengers (to be looked after by 120 crew). From Ghana we were headed on a two-week voyage along the coast of west Africa to Senegal, via Togo, Benin, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau. This was only the third time the luxury cruise line Silversea had sailed this route.
But if the ports of call were a world away from the traditional cruising grounds of the Caribbean and Côte d’Azur, life on board seemed reassuringly familiar. Up the wobbling steps of the gangway, we were welcomed with cold face towels and sparkling apple juice. My suite was on the third deck, with two portholes 3ft above the sea. A double bed, a sitting room, a dressing room and bathroom. Champagne in the fridge, a butler on call.
At 5pm, a lifeboat drill allowed me to check out the other guests (as Silversea likes to refer to its passengers). Most were of retirement age, many American, with a sprinkling of younger folk. We moved on to the theatre, to be briefed by German expedition leader Stefan Kredel. A frisson ran through the grey-haired crowd as he outlined precautions against piracy. The threat was no big deal to my well-travelled dinner companions. On my left, Fritz, a retired doctor from Bavaria, who on one of his many excursions had stood under the very tree where Stanley met Livingstone; on my right, Harry, a former US Army major, who told me about the Century Club for those who’d visited more than 100 countries. Some people on this cruise, he said disapprovingly, were here just to notch up their final few.
“Guten Mo-o-orgen!” came Kredel’s bubbling tones over the PA system at 6.30am. We had arrived at Lomé, capital of Togo. A noisy ensemble of drummers and dancers greeted us out on the quay. Several were masked, with brilliantly coloured costumes that made them look like giant birds. Two towered above us, their legs bound alarmingly to 12ft stilts, incongruous against the piles of shipping containers.
Kredel had warned us to be prepared for anything but little was left to chance – our three buses left the dock with a police escort. We swept at speed through the teeming city, while Janvier, our guide, taught us a few words in Ewe, the local language, and pointed out the new buildings and roads constructed by the Chinese. On dusty orange verges, women were carrying their livelihoods on their heads: huge enamel dishes of bananas or mangoes; boxes full of pastries; one precarious, 12-deep stack of egg trays.
More dancing greeted us at our first stop, at the rural village of Mekiovader. The guests’ digital cameras clicked madly as a host of bright-eyed children sang “Frère Jacques”, and male weavers demonstrated their craft. At a final farewell dance, some of our party joined in, much to the locals’ amusement. “The next chief!” shouted Bruce from Chicago, as he boogied at the centre of the throng.
On a short walk in the hilltop village of Kpalimé, we saw coffee, cocoa, cotton and custard apple trees. “Such resources, all around,” murmured one guest. Our trail ended in a souvenir market with yet more dancing and a huge spread of lunch. Fritz approached with a bottle of local firewater. “Have some,” he ordered. “In Africa, with local food, it is best. Before and after.”
Heading back to the ship, we called in on a voodoo ceremony. Two serious-eyed children, decorated head to toe in painted white spots, flanked the white-robed priest, who cast water on the red-brown earth from a calabash – to appease the ancestors, we were told. Beyond, sitting under a roof of dried palm leaves, we watched as wild dancing turned to trance. Individuals spun off into private worlds, truly as if possessed.
Back on the dock, a committee of staff in evening dress held a “Welcome Home” banner and the Explorer seemed very European indeed.
“Guten Mo-o-orgen!” We woke after a gently rocking night at sea to discover that we were in Benin. Today’s police escort was even more impressive: beefy black-shirted men with machine guns on display. As we sped through busy Cotonou, our guide Paul pointed out the new roads, stadium and presidential palace, all Chinese-built. “They are taking over,” he laughed. “But we say, ‘So far, so good.’”
At Ouidah, we saw the remains of earlier, less subtle outside intervention. When the Portuguese finally left their old fort in 1961, the year after independence, they burnt the place to the ground. Now restored, the dusty white walls house a Musée d’Histoire, concentrating on slavery. “You could buy a slave with a bottle of schnapps,” Paul told us. Gruesome contemporary engravings detailed the worst excesses of the trade.
A sandy track brought us to the Gate of No Return, a 25ft-high terracotta arch standing starkly above the long beach where slaves were transported to their ships. Erected in 1995, this was memorial rather than history but powerful nonetheless. At lunch, guilt was high on the subject menu; foolishly I eschewed Fritz’s firewater.
I had never even heard of Ganvié, “the Venice of Africa”, a picturesque settlement of lake houses on stilts, which we visited that afternoon. But though the local Tofinu people go everywhere by boat, they have yet to get as used to tourism as gondoliers. Twenty years ago, Paul told us, a bunch of French visitors made some postcards of this place, which found their way back to Ganvié. The locals were outraged that they were not paid for the images. To this day the women refuse to be photographed. At best female heads were turned away or hurriedly covered with scarves or hats; at worst came angry gestures and abuse.
That evening I satisfied a lifetime’s ambition: to dine at the Captain’s table. It was a tougher gig than I’d expected. Our Russian captain was charming but not a man to waste words. “So who is steering the ship?” I asked. “The hairdresser,” he replied, with a thin smile.
“Guten Mo-o-orgen!” Waking with a stomach upset, I reported as instructed to the ship’s doctor and was promptly confined to cabin. Today was a day at sea, so I was only missing the freedom of the deck. I watched lectures on my TV – given by the expedition staff, who double as speakers on Afrocentric subjects – with meals brought in by my butler. Nevertheless, release from my cabin, on the fourth day of the trip, felt sweet. I lay on the sundeck enjoying the sea breeze, and joined the other guests rushing to the bow as we passed a frothing school of tuna.
“Welcome to our beloved Sierra Leone,” said Abdulai, our guide, as we settled back in a bus from another age. He was happy to talk about the civil war, which ended in 2002, and still scars Freetown, a chaotic building site of a city. Past a stunning curve of surf and yellow sand, we came to a clinic set up by an American to treat amputees from the conflict.
That evening, we watched a regular Saturday evening football match: war amputees v polio victims. A bizarre and moving sight, with the big pink sun, sinking towards the ocean, silhouetting the players.
Two hours down the coast was a gentler world. An early start the next morning took some of us on a hike through the jungle of Banana Islands and back through a sleepy village with a ruined church and a guest house from an Evelyn Waugh novel. By the afternoon we were at sea, chewing over our experience of Sierra Leone in our daily recap and briefing. One of the guests felt “some hopefulness, about what mankind can do in the wake of a tragic war”. But Steve, a pony-tailed Bostonian, was depressed by the cities of tin huts. “I don’t know how they get up every day.”
Another day at sea brought us to tiny, remote Guinea-Bissau, where our afternoon trip to one of the islands in the Bijagós Archipelago proved to be the highlight of the cruise. The dancing in the village was as noisy and enthusiastic as ever, with colourful mayhem as men dressed as bulls and sharks leapt about enacting traditional stories in a circle of hip-shaking teenage girls. But there was an innocence here too, with the adults all smiles, and the children queueing to shriek at their images on digital screens. The guests had not seen this side of Africa, and were entranced. There were two days ahead, with a beach morning on another island and a birding expedition in Gambia, before the cruise ended in Dakar, Senegal. But this was the emotional climax. For an hour or two, guests and hosts seemed united, without the need for guilt, apology, or the other complex reactions of privilege meeting poverty. The tourists had become travellers, and in their hearts this was now more than just another tale to tell.
Mark McCrum was a guest of Silversea (www.silversea.com). Upcoming cruises on the Silver Explorer include Antarctica, Central and South America, the Northwest Passage, and the Russian far east. Prices start from £2,050 per person per week, including all meals, drinks and excursions
Different ports of call: New wave of cruise hotspots for 2013
Japan With its 6,000 or so islands, more than 400 of which are inhabited, it’s curious that Japan hasn’t hitherto been more popular as a cruise destination, writes Claire Wrathall. This year, for the first time, Princess Cruises has launched nine itineraries on the Sun Princess (with a largely Japanese crew), taking in Nagoya, the Inland Sea, Matsuyama, Kagoshima and Beppu as well, on some itineraries, as Korsakov on Russia’s eastern coast. Seven days from £930pp.
North Korea The “Hermit Kingdom” is also beginning to market itself as a cruise destination for the Chinese. Young Pioneer Tours (based in China but founded by a team from the UK, US and New Zealand) offers seven nights aboard the Polish-built 177-cabin Royale Star. From the Rason Special Economic Zone, near the border with China and Russia, you’ll sail to Mount Kumgang, a golf resort established amid sensational mountain scenery in 1998 with South Korean money and jointly operated by the two nations in a rare gesture of rapprochement. In 2008, however, a South Korean tourist was shot by a North Korean guard, and Seoul suspended visits, hence the need to attract tourists from elsewhere. The cruise also takes in Pipha Island and its seal reserve, and includes transfers to and from Yanji on the Chinese-North Korean border. €995pp, all inclusive.
Papua New Guinea From November two P&O cruise ships, Pacific Dawn (designed by Renzo Piano) and its newest, Pacific Pearl, will visit the islands of Papua New Guinea as part of its nine- and 10-day itineraries out of Brisbane. From $1,099pp.
The Poles This summer Seabourn, Carnival’s fleet of small upmarket cruise ships, ventures into the Arctic Circle for the first time, when Seabourn Pride departs Copenhagen on July 4 for a 21-day cruise up the coast of Norway across the Barents Sea to Svalbard, docking at Longyearbyen and Ny-Alesund. Next autumn, its sister ship, the 225-suite Seabourn Quest, launched in 2011, heads from Rio de Janeiro, via the Falklands, to Antarctica, on a 28-day trip. From £6,910pp.
Brazil Also new to the cruise market is MSC Preziosa, an 18-deck, 333m behemoth commissioned by the late Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi’s son Hannibal, complete with gigantic shark tank. After his father was overthrown, it was bought by MSC Cruises and refurbished as its 3,502-passenger flagship. Unusually for a mid-priced cruiseliner, it crosses the Atlantic for the first time in November, bound from Genoa to Salvador de Bahia, Buzios and Santos. From £1,039pp for 16 nights.
The open seas Sherakhan, a 70m superyacht with 10 double state rooms, is soon to embark on a world tour, taking in Patagonia, Madagascar, Myanmar, Irian Jaya and the Solomons. A week’s charter ordinarily starts at $439,250 (excluding tips) but, during the major ocean crossings, prices tumble – cabins are let individually, at $700 a night, all-inclusive. In November she leaves Rotterdam for a two-week Atlantic crossing to St Maarten. Later segments should include Madagascar to Seychelles; the Philippines to Papua New Guinea; and French Polynesia to the Galápagos.