Norwegian Cruise Line sailed a hugely successful debut cruise season out of Cape Town for the 2022/23 cruise season, offering a second mainstream cruise option for the local and international market, aboard a recently refurbished Norwegian Jade.
Cruise ships have been sailing roundtrip itineraries from Cape Town and Durban for decades, way back before Star Laura Cruises became MSC Cruises, its ship Achille Laura spent the summer cruise season in Durban cruising the Indian Ocean. After a few years Starlight Cruises was established in South Africa, chartering a cruise ship to sail in South Africa annually during the 90s and 2000s. Starlight Cruises later became MSC Cruises South Africa, and the ships homeporting in Durban annually got larger and newer.
But the problem was always that it was only MSC Cruises taking a chance on the local cruise market, and while MSC Cruises is enduringly popular with the South African cruise market, when it comes to homeporting cruise lines, less is never more. When Norwegian Cruise Line announced that they would be spending part of the 2022/23 season in Cape Town, it sparked a lot of interest locally, but also internationally, as South Africa is seeing growth in its global appeal as a cruise destination.
The country’s myriad attractions, from iconic scenery and landscapes to incredible wildlife and a compelling history, spanning the birth of humanity to the more harrowing recent history of Apartheid, make South Africa a bucket list cruise destination. It’s size, and the fact that many of its best attractions and experiences are on the coast, also make it well-suited for discovery and exploration by cruise ship.
What it’s like cruising with Norwegian Cruise Line in South Africa
Norwegian Jade is the first NCL cruise ship ever to homeport in Cape Town, or South Africa as a whole. She spent December and January sailing roundtrip 12-night cruises to ports on the South African and Namibian coasts, and during the voyage it was obvious why these are the most popular months for cruising in the country. The nights are pleasantly cool thanks to the brisk sea air coming up from Antarctica, at least while on South Africa’s southwest coast near Cape Town, but the days are more than warm enough for sunbathing up on the pool deck to the sounds of the live band or resident DJ, a whiskey sour in hand as the Wild Coast drifts by a few nautical miles away.
Norwegian Jade departed in the evening, with the iconic Table Mountain bathed by the fading light of the sun as the ship headed out into the Atlantic, bound for Mossel Bay, the first port of call on the cruise. Mossel Bay is an attractive harbour town on South Africa’s Garden Route. Like Cape Town, it’s in the Western Cape Province, but is some distance west. It’s known for the wide Santos Beach and the 19th-century Cape St. Blaize Lighthouse, from which you can get great views of the bay.
The Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex, named after a Portuguese mariner and explorer who in 1488 became the first European navigator to round the southern tip of Africa, includes the Maritime Museum, the Shell Museum and the botanical gardens. There’s also a milkwood tree in the complex, which has been used as a mail collection point since the 1500s and is therefore known as The Post Office Tree. Although several shore excursion were on offer, including guided tours of the town, hiking options, and a visit to a private game reserve, passengers were fairly equally divided among those that chose to explore independantly, those that went on shore excursions, and those that headed straight for the beach, literally a few minutes walk from the port.
Departing Mossel Bay at 4pm in the afternoon, Norwegian Jade nosed her way into a lively swell, heading east toward Port Elizabeth (renamed Gqeberha in February 2021, but its former name is still in widespread use). South Africa’s waters can be choppy to rough to horrendous. In July 1909, on only her second voyage, the ocean liner SS Waratah disappeared with 211 passengers and crew aboard while sailing between Durban and Cape Town. Its long been theorised that she was hit by a freak wave, which are more common along this southern coast of South Africa due to the vast expanse of ocean between the country and the Antarctic continent. Even for a ship the size of Norwegian Jade, it can be uncomfortable at times, and as the ship sailed through the night for Port Elizabeth, there were definitely fewer people in attendance for dinner and the evening entertainment.
There are 10 restaurants and 15 bars and cafes aboard Norwegian Jade, the busiest of which were always the Garden Buffet in terms of dining, and O’Sheehans for the bars. The Garden Buffet is up on the pool deck at the stern, with great views of the ship’s wake and is popular for all three sittings, while the main dining rooms Alizar and Grand Pacific were usually only full during dinner.
Grand Pacific is the larger of the two, with immense stern-view windows that really put the grand in the dining room’s name. Alizar is a smaller, more cozy option that’s great for couples. It felt less busy and the service seemed more attentive, although the standards of service across the ship were generally excellent.
Just forward of the main dining rooms on Deck 6 are a collection of the ship’s bars. There’s Tankards Beer & Whiskey, Mixers Martini, and Magnum’s Champagne & Wine Bar, along with a convenient little Humidor Cigar Lounge for those who want an easily-accessible smoking area during post-dinner drinks.
Adjacent these bars is the ship’s French specialty restaurant, Le Bistro, which is unexpectedly beautiful and elegant, more akin to something you’d find aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s luxury subsidiary Oceania or Regent. Forward of this area is the casino, where there were daily and nightly events. The main nighttime entertainment aboard Norwegian Jade are the Stardust Theatre productions, and the live music and dancing in Spinnaker Lounge.
The following morning found the ship in Port Elizabeth, a commercial port city on South Africa’s Algoa Bay. Contrary to popular perception, Port Elizabeth wasn’t named after either Elizabeth I or II or England, as it was only founded in 1820, but was instead named in memory of Elizabeth Frances née Markham, the late wife of Rufane Shaw Donkin, who was acting Governor of the Cape Colony.
In 2021, it was renamed Gqeberha, the Xhosa name for the Baakens River, which flows through the city. Ashore, we found that most people are still calling it Port Elizabeth. Popular shore excursions here included the Donkin Heritage Trail through the Old Hill neighbourhood’s Victorian landmarks, as well as boat tours to find whales and rare seabirds, and game drives to wildlife reserves a few hours outside the city.
Norwegian Jade departed Port Elizabeth in the late afternoon, just after 5pm, which means that you have to choose between the game drives or exploring the city itself, it would be nice if the ship had spent a little longer here to give passengers the option of doing both. But, if you don’t go on safari from Port Elizabeth, Richard’s Bay the following day will give you a second opportunity.
The city itself isn’t much in terms of tourist appeal, its a deep-sea commercial port, but it sits in the heart of South Africa’s Zululand, the ancient Zulu nation that held dominion here before the arrival of European colonists. Inland from Richard’s Bay, deep within the region known as Zululand, you can find Nongoma, the seat of the current Zulu King Misuzulu Sinqobile kaZwelithini.
From Richard’s Bay there are facinating shore excursions that offer the chance to learn more about the heritage and legacy of the Zulu people, as well as excellent game safari options at Hluhluwe Game Reserve, which is larger than Singapore in terms of land area, and is the oldest proclaimed nature reserve in Africa.
Norwegian Jade stays overnight here so that passengers had the opportunity to do more than one shore excursion, with most choose to spend one day discovering the heritage of the Zulus, and the other day exploring Hluhluwe to find the iconic Big Five (lion, leopard, black rhinoceros, African bush elephant, and African buffalo). Overnight safaris were also on offer and are a tempting proposition, as lions and leopards are nocturnal and do most of their hunting at night.
After Richard’s Bay, Norwegian Jade turned south, cruising back down the coast and around the Southern tip of Africa for Namibia. These three days at sea were some of the roughest of the cruise, this part of the country isn’t called the Wild Coast for nothing, but after a day or two your ears generally adjust to the motion, and for most passengers this was already the case after the rough night leaving Mossel Bay.
On the second day at sea after Richard’s Bay, Norwegian Jade crossed back into the Atlantic from the Indian Ocean, rounding Cape Agulhas and the fabled Cape of Good Hope, a headland sailors for centuries would look out for to let them know that their journey was almost at its end. Norwegian Jade’s voyage was far from over though, and we continued on north toward Namibia and her Skeleton Coast, one of the wildest and most hostile coastlines in all the world. Fortunately we wouldn’t actually be navigating the Skeleton Coast, as our two port calls in Namibia and Luderitz, were located well to the south of it.
Luderitz is a pretty coastal town and former German colony, its therefore known for its German colonial buildings, such as the art nouveau Goerke Haus, a magnificent mansion built into the rock face on Diamond Hill. The nearby Felsenkirche is a hilltop church with panoramic views of the bay around Robert Harbor, where the ship docks. The Lüderitz Museum has displays about the town’s diamond-mining past as well as local and natural history. All of these landmarks and points of interest are available on a half day tour of the town.
Sailing overnight, Walvis Bay was the final port of call on the cruise. This is Namibia’s primary commercial port and the harbour is busy with fishing boats and various types of cargo ships as a result. Shore excursions included exploration of the tidal lagoon, which is sheltered by the Pelican Point sand spit and home to abundant birdlife including flamingos, pelicans and Damara terns. There were also boat trips offshore to find the dolphins, whales and Cape fur seals that inhabit the Atlantic waters around the Pelican Point Lighthouse, and down the coast passengers could go on a desert safari to coastal sand dunes like Dune 7, which marks the start of the fearsome Namib Desert.
Departing Walvis Bay in the late afternoon, Norwegian Jade turned south again, bound for Cape Town, which is also known locally in South Africa as the Mother City, because the Cape Colony was the first major European settlement established in the country. The final two nights were spent at sea cruising back toward this city that for centuries has been an important reprovisioning stop for seafarers bound from Europe for India and Asia. Table Mountain has long been a welcoming sight for weary mariners, rising from the horizon and signaling that the journey was almost at an end. Aboard Norwegian Jade, however, no one was eager for the voyage to end.
The experience aboard Norwegian Jade in South Africa
The 12-nights spent aboard the ship were an ideal mix of entertaining, relaxing, educational and fun. The ship is just the right size to offer something for all her passengers, while still retaining a classic cruise ship feel where groups form and staff get to know you by name. She’s small compared to Norwegian’s larger Breakaway-class ships with their waterslides, racing tracks and entire shopping malls, but Norwegian Jade carries 2,402-passengers and boasts a good selection of dining spots, complimentary and paid-for, and varied entertainment.
She was built in 2006, but underwent a major multi-million pound upgrade in 2017 and feels up-to-date and modern. Last year, she spent another three weeks in dry dock having new carpets and soft furnishing fitted throughout, while the Stardust Theater got updated staging and lighting, and the casino had a new island bar installed in the centre, with extra gaming machines as well.
A partition in the atrium was also removed to make way for a new jewellery boutique called Tides, and it has a large open feel as a result, with the lively O’Sheehans on the second level, and the relaxing Java coffee bar on the first, with a pianist in residence during the day.
A special shout out must go to the Pit Stop Bar & Grill above the main pool area. Decorated with vintage car licence plates, garage signage and monochrome décor reminiscent of chequered flags, its a great place to grab a burger, or other bar bites, during the day between the main meal services. For evening entertainment, after the main show in the theatre, Bliss Ultra Lounge is also a great place for live music and karaoke and is a more laidback atmosphere than Spinnaker, the ship’s nightclub.
The ship’s age is apparent in the staterooms and ensuites which still carry the wood paneling from the original design. This either makes them a little dated, or adds character, depending on your perspective, but new soft furnishings, fresh artwork and the welcome addition of USB sockets has definitely offset any drawbacks. Cruise Arabia & Africa previously had the opportunity to spend a day aboard Norwegian Jade in Dubai, and a full ship review can be found here.
South Africa as a cruise destination
South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, are exceptional cruise destinations, but the country does have a reputation for crime. This makes exploring the country by cruise ship a really good option as you have peace of mind onboard and in the protection of an organised excursions, while also being somewhat protected from the disruption caused by the rolling blackouts, known as loadshedding, due to the country’s under-powered electricity grid.
While many cruise passengers prefer independent exploration ashore, and although there are certainly many worthy reasons to do it in South Africa, the country’s main tourist draw are its big game. At almost every port there is the chance to see a line-up of game animals such as elephant, buffalo, zebra, and rhino roaming wild in their natural habitat. And its not just big game, the Cape peninsula in Cape Town has ostriches and penguins, and in Luderitz, there are wild horses.
South Africa has also invested in its cruise infrastructure, or at least Cape Town has, where most of the country’s roundtrip cruises start and end. Here there is a modern new cruise terminal directly next to the buzzing V&A Waterfront, which is full of waterside cafes and restaurants, tourist shops selling local crafts and the smart Victoria Wharf shopping mall. From here you can also take boat trips out to Robben Island, the infamous island prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years during the anti-Apartheid movement known as The Struggle.
The V&A Waterfront area is very safe during the day and into the evening and for those who really want to explore on their own there’s a hop-on hop-off city sightseeing bus which follows three routes, including one to Table Mountain where you can hop off and take the cable car to the summit, at more than 3,500 feet, for the astounding views.
Just beyond the city there are also the Western Cape’s wine regions, home to beautiful Cape Dutch-style estates amid lush rolling slopes of vineyards surrounded by the Twelve Apostles Mountain Range. The university town of Stellenbosch is one of the most famous, and most beautiful, while Franschhoek, settled by French Huguenots in the 17th century, is home to some of South Africa’s most famous wine estates.