Life aboard a cruise ship

Partial view of the cruise ship, MSC Splendida, docked at the Nelson Mandela Cruise Terminal.

Of all the dreams I’ve ever had, being on a cruise ship was never one of them. It never even occurred to me that that was something I could dream about.

The few times I gave it a fleeting thought, I vaguely pictured being in a big hotel on the ocean that you can check in to but can never leave (for some days at least), a la Hotel California.

When I finally did it, being a nautical tourist turned out to be the best experience of my life.

I love looking at the ocean, wading in it, and being in boats on it, but nothing will ever beat being out in the deep sea in a massive ship, waking up to find the ocean outside when you open the curtains. I still get disappointed now when I open my curtains to the disappointing view of...well...not the ocean.

We’d spent the previous night in Durban, before we embarked, a good idea because if you miss your ship for any reason, maybe because of flight delays, missing a flight or whatever else may happen, there’s no catching another ship, you have missed the entire cruise.

The journey from Sun International Sibaya Lodge in Durban was breathtaking. Beautiful views the whole way but I was not prepared for the rush that filled me when the massive ship, the MSC Splendida, came into view as we arrived at the Nelson Mandela Cruise Terminal.

She was gorgeous. Stunning. And I was going to be in that? The excitement started to build right then and there and yet I still had no idea what I was in for.

We were there early and after the luggage and security checks, absolute awe struck me the moment I stepped on the fifth deck (floor) where the reception was.

The ship has the most stunning interiors I have ever seen. And that’s interiors in plural because all the different sections have completely different designs. The grand staircase in the middle of it all was the staircase to heaven – crystals on the bottom, gold on the railing. I wanted to stop and take it all in but there would be time to do that – so I kept walking.

And walking, and walking – Later on, I bravely attempted to find a friend in her room and I walked for so long without ever reaching, I gave up mid-trek and decided we would meet in one of the common areas. 

I fell in love with my cabin on sight. It was on Deck 10 (10th floor). The balcony curtain was open, so the minute I walked into the door, directly in front of me was the ocean. I dropped everything to go outside and have a look. We were still docked at the port – we wouldn’t be leaving until evening – but it was already looking like the best time of my life.

The writer's cabin on the cruise ship, MSC Splendida

I could have spent all three days in my cabin and it would still have been memorable – it was so quiet and peaceful. Reading a book on the balcony with the sound of the ocean in my ears was magical. But if looking at the ocean for three days straight is not your kind of thing, the cruise is designed for maximum fun.

So I went exploring. We were still docked, and my first port of call was the Aqua Park on Deck 14. High-octane entertainers dressed in beautiful pink and black getups were already rocking the excited crowd gathered, and I nearly lost it when they did a live rendition of Great Balls of Fire, which I first learnt from the movie Top Gun. There were many more performances and the MC said it was just a taste of what they had in store and boy, did I discover, she was not joking!

An announcement then came through the ship’s public address system that everyone had to go back to their cabins for the mandatory safety drill. Without everyone’s participation, the ship could not set sail. This safety drill enables you to know what to do in case of emergencies. Lessons learnt from past ship tragedies mean that today, there are many safety measures, making cruise ships one of the safest modes of transport.

If the Titanic, for instance, crosses your mind, then you can rest assured that there are enough lifeboats, much more modern ones that are regularly checked and that you can survive on in all types of conditions for many days out at sea.

Speaking of the Titanic, it came up a lot on the ship. I guess being the most famous ship of all time and immortalized by James Cameron’s iconic movie, it seems nearly everyone thinks about it at some point. 

When the drill was over, we finally set sail. It took some time to get used to feeling like I was swaying all the time before getting my sea legs, which happened by day two. On the bright side, when in bed you feel like the ship is rocking you to sleep! I didn’t get seasick myself but a few people did. Most people were fine by the second day, and you can get seasickness medicine on the ship.

We were truly spoilt for choice when it came to dining. Not to beat the superlatives to death but the buffet that was open 24/7 was also the biggest one I have ever seen. Very extensive, with so much variety at every meal I just cannot imagine even the most picky eater with whichever kind of diet restrictions or proclivities, not being satisfied with the options.

There are also several restaurants you can choose from, so on the first night we had a formal dinner at one of them, the stunning Villa Verde. The meals were exquisite wherever we dined, and we would later on also dine at the buffet and the La Reggia restaurants.

The amount of entertainment available just blew my mind. Every day, a program of activities that you cannot exhaust running from 7am to midnight is delivered to your cabin – catered to everyone’s palate, from the chill to the very high energy options.

For instance, there’s 24-hour Sudoku at the Library, different kinds of trivia, beer pong, live music of all kinds, parties, fun dance lessons, yoga, game shows, arts and crafts - and other exercise activities, broadway-style theatre shows, basketball shootouts it goes on and on. There are numerous activities for children as well.

We checked out the epic welcome night party on the Aqua Park on Deck 14, open-walled and overlooking the vast ocean on all sides. It’s a wide space with pools, hot tubs, whirlpools, loungers all around, a main screen and so much more.

Music plays here throughout the day, with all kinds of parties, be-it-themed parties, live music, dance sessions, snow parties complete with a snow canon and so on.

Several parties going on at the same time meant that we had to check out others also, so that night we checked out two others with different themes. There was even a rock show going on at the Strand Theatre has a sitting capacity of 1,600 guests, spanning two desks and features worldclass broadway-style shows among others.

Everything I did was my favourite activity, but my most favourite was doing the behind-the-scenes tour, where you go to see what it takes to deliver a perfect cruise.

I did one where you visit the bridge and engine control room and meet the officers on the bridge. I felt like I was in Star Trek, with all the navigational equipment and the views – I felt like Captain Kirk looking out into deep space, only this time it was deep sea. It was fascinating seeing things like the very tiny button that steers the ship, not the big wheel we see in old movies.

I’ve never hated the fact that humans need sleep as much as I did on the cruise! I wanted to be awake to experience everything non-stop. Luckily the cabins are beautiful havens with the ocean all to yourself, and once inside I didn’t want to get out either.

We also had a wonderful cabin steward on our corridor called Ivan who made our stay so comfortable we couldn’t think of how to thank him and, ever the wonderful human, at the end he said he was genuinely just happy that we had enjoyed our stay and that he could help. The world would be a much better place with more Ivans in it, that’s for sure.

Partial view of the Aqua Deck on MSC Splendida

A surprising thing happened when I went to a country dance lesson - in the midst of it, I realized that the trainer was Kenyan! Her name was Whitney I met her afterwards and she introduced me to other Kenyans working on the ship...I ended up having the time of my life as Maggie and Joel showed me even more places I could have missed, such as the incredible 4D theatre and the spa.

It was with Maggie that I also got to experience the farewell show at the Strand Theatre, which featured different acts from magic to acrobatics. Singing the final song, “We Are the World,” at the end with the crowd was such a bittersweet moment as it heralded the curtains closing on the cruise. 

We stayed on the ocean the whole time, which I loved, but on longer cruises, the ship docks at different ports along the way, so you can get off the ship and explore different ports that way.

South Africa is the gift that keeps on giving because when we arrived in Cape Town on the morning of the fourth day, we were greeted by the breathtaking view of Table Mountain.

That, the Atlantic Ocean and ships at the port against the orange glow of the rising sun looked like something out of a painting. I could hardly decide between staying to watch it and going for breakfast before disembarkation began. 

I honestly can’t wait to go on another cruise. Maybe next time I will be part of the exclusive MSC Yacht Club on the vessel, which has been described as a ship within a ship, an exclusive onboard sanctuary designed with the highest standard of elegance. We’ll see.


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