AFTER OUR 3-day stretch in Cape Town, it was time to board our Cruise Ship. Because we stayed at the waterfront our uber trip to the cruise terminal was short. Our ship, the Oceania Nautica, was wholly new to us. We are seasoned cruisers, having cruised over a dozen times during the past 15 years on Princess, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean. Some may know that Royal Caribbean actually owns Celebrity (our cruise line of choice), among several other lines. Most of our cruises have been on Celebrity, with Princess, which is very similar, coming second. We were used to a well-honed routine. Our usual ship capacity is from 2,500 – 3,000 passengers (we have been on full ships and less than full ships). I have always marveled at how efficiently these cruise lines handle the process of boarding and landing that many people – both at the beginning and the end of the cruises, and at every stop. We have only had one time where we felt we had to wait a long time in a line. And there were some issues with the ship before we embarked, causing a late boarding, so not surprising.
OCEANIA, HOWEVER, was a completely different experience, much to our surprise. Our expectations, for a couple reasons, were high. They were not completely met. Advertising themselves as “Small Ship Luxury” cruising, the Nautica had a maximum passenger capacity of just over 600 passengers – a quarter of what our previous ships handled. Second (while I wouldn’t characterize our experience as completely fitting their description) it was supposed to be a luxury cruise line and our cost (nearly twice what we normally pay) would have suggested a first rate, efficient experience. Our boarding experience set a tone of unmet expectations. We arrived at our appointment time at the cruise terminal. It appears that everyone else on the ship may also have arrived at that time. Handing off the baggage was the easy part. From there on, it was borderline chaos. We had been issued a digital boarding pass well in advance and had our phones out and ready. They didn’t ask us for that boarding pass at any point during the boarding process! They did have us fill in a handwritten form they had neglected to put on their online app. Everyone needed to fill it out. I think they had 2 pens. We then stood in line (one of several before the boarding process was complete) for at least 30 minutes, as it wound back and forth between the “Disney ropes.” It turns out that line was just for the carryon baggage screening. The line moved in fits and starts. There were two available screening lines and machines and apparently enough employees. But inexplicably, they were using only one of them. Once through that line, we walked into another line for a passport check. Another 10 – 15 minutes. We then were sent outside, along the wharf, for a rather long walk to the gangway (we know people who would have had difficulty doing that walk without assistance). Nobody was out there guiding us, and nobody watching or supervising, although we could see the ship and it was the only one there. At the gangway, we waited in line again (line #3). After another 10 minutes, we finally made it on board. The chaos continued. They checked our passports again, against a handheld, typed list (even though they had computer screens everywhere), and then told us: “welcome aboard.” Still no request to see our pre-issued electronic boarding pass, leaving us to wonder what its purpose was? Once aboard, we thought it odd that we had no ship card (sea pass), or any other identification, but we were directed to Deck 5 where we joined another line. But it wasn’t the right line. We only discovered that after an employee somewhat officiously asked to see our ship cards. To which we responded that we had not been issued cards, and thought we were in line to get them. She informed us that we were in line for the main dining room and lunch, but she couldn’t serve us without a ship pass. It wasn’t just us. There were at least 20 of us who had been sent here by an employee downstairs. So, this staff person took the group of us to where we should have been directed in the first place, where we joined yet another line to wait for our ship cards. Did I mention chaos? Oh, and that we still weren’t asked to show our boarding pass? Once we finally got to the front of that line, the employee handed me an e-tablet and asked me to sign it. “What am I signing,” I asked. She said it was a series of questions that she would ask, and I would answer. After I signed the blank tablet. Nope. I will sign it after you ask the questions (all of them) and I have answered. Wow. We did finally get our cards. We then had to go back down to the purser’s desk to upgrade our drink package (fortunately, only one other couple in line in front of us – we would meet them later and hear their sad story of Nautica-arranged transportation and their baggage not making it to the port – fortunately for them, we didn’t leave until many hours after the scheduled departure and their bags arrived during that time).
WHEW. WE were finally boarded and only had to wait for our luggage to be delivered. Just for comparison, our Celebrity cruises have worked like this. We get a digital boarding pass on their app several weeks before boarding. We are given a boarding appointment time. We arrive at the terminal at our appointed time, drop the luggage off, get in a fast-moving line and when we reach the front (usually about 5 minutes), we show the boarding pass, our passport, and answer a few quick health check questions. We are then invited to board the ship. Our sea pass cards are already in an envelope in the slot outside our stateroom, where we can drop off any carryon stuff, freshen up, and begin the cruise. Our Princess experiences have been similar, except that they issue the seapass or medallion during the boarding process. On my recent boarding of the Celebrity Equinox a couple weeks ago in Ft. Lauderdale, thinking back to the Nautica experience, I actually timed it. I arrived at the terminal and turned my bag over to the ship porter. I then walked up an escalator, showed my passport, had a photo taken, immediately boarded the ship, headed for my stateroom, where my seapass was waiting in an envelope. Upgraded beverage package had already been taken care of and my seapass reflected that. From the time I stepped off the shuttle from the parking lot, the entire process took 10 minutes.
IT WAS not all bad. I mean, all of the above were what I like to call these days: “First World Problems.” If we had not experienced more efficient processes, we might not have known any better. We were still on a cruise, and still having fun. We know there are many who never get to experience this. My primary point for the critique was by way of comparison. And the fact that the significantly more expensive, “luxury” dubbed cruise line was so comparatively hapless. On board, the ship was very nicely appointed in traditional dark wood tones. The food was uniformly excellent, including the buffet. The wait staff was superb; welcoming, efficient and friendly. It didn’t take them long to know us individually at the various bars and the main dining room. The bars were great, and the bartenders made a good drink (though they did not have many of their advertised items, including wine selection and my favorite gins – another strike against management in my view – which is really where all my “darts” are pointed 🙂 ). Compared to our Celebrity/Princess experiences: They didn’t have as good or high-quality selection or variety of alcohol, and this seems incongruous with their self-characterization as a “luxury cruise line.” And we have experienced the same “positives” every other prior cruise we have been on. The “everyman” staff on these cruise ships (room stewards, bartenders, wait staff) are always great, and given the working conditions and often their own life conditions, it is amazing to us that they continue to perform so well, always with a smile! On the Nautica, I will say that everything was clean. And the entertainment was really good. It was a small ship, and the production crew was perhaps a tenth of what we normally see. But they are equally talented dancers and musicians. All week they had a string quartet on one of the quiet areas inside the ship. And they had a jazz/contemporary combo that played on the pool deck most days for a couple hours and up in the main lounge most nights for a couple hours. The leader, pictured with me below, played two saxophones and the clarinet, and sang. He was uber talented and a really friendly guy! Definitely my favorite on board entertainment.
THE SHIP was kind of a “mini-me” version of what we were used to. Everything – and I mean everything was small. The rooms, though clean, were small. The balcony was really too narrow to sit and enjoy. The bathroom was cramped – so much so that I couldn’t comfortably turn around in the wardrobe-sized shower, nor fit on the commode without knees bumping something. Having just come off the Celebrity Equinox (not by a long shot their nicest ship), I can say the room quality is equivalent to the Nautica, and much roomier. The pool was smaller than my own pool here in Florida. The pool area was adequate, but still probably about 1/3 the size we see on the Princess and Celebrity ships. And only a single pool deck. There were two smoking areas. One was a “fishbowl” glassed in room off the largest bar/entertainment area on the ship. It was cigarettes only. The other was a corner off the pool deck. It was fine, and I spent a fair amount of time there. But though it was semi-open, it was not really outdoors. I get that smoking is not “politically correct” these days (especially in a non-European context), but really, it felt a little bit like we were being punished. I address that issue in some detail in my other blog, “I Am A Celebrity,” which is more specifically focused on cruising – where this one is supposed to be about photography. 🙂 And besides, all my complaints are really small in the scope of things. What I mentioned above as “First World Problems.” We had fun on the cruise. We met some wonderful new friends, caught up with some old friends, and generally had a great time. So, yeah, “first world problems.”
SO I will get down off my soapbox. This cruise was supposed to have 5 stops, with a couple at-sea days in between the longer distances. We were scheduled to leave Cape Town around 4:00 p.m. and cruise north to Namibia, our only scheduled stop outside of South Africa. The high winds that had characterized our stay in Cape Town continued. They had forced our ship, which terminated there, to sail around the bay in a pattern for several hours before they felt that they could safely dock. The wind was blowing directly onto the pier, and the area is tight. There was concern that we would not be able to safely push away, so our departure was delayed. We finally departed at around 3:00 a.m. the following morning, with tugboats pulling us sideways off the pier.
IN SPITE of timing, we did make it to Walvis Bay, Namibia on the morning we were scheduled to arrive. Those who had excursions were able to keep them, for the most part. We didn’t have anything planned, so we walked off the ship and hired one of the companies that are always offering their services to tourists. We knew we had a couple animal park drives later in the week, so we weren’t really concerned. We had a nice, relaxing afternoon, with our driver taking us to see flamingos, the pink salt reclamation operations (they actually “mine” both pink and white salt), and sand dunes. We ended with a Namibian beer – Windhoek. It was pretty good.
FOR YEARS, I have associated pink salt with Himalaya (that’s what I see in the grocery stores: “Himalayan Pink Salt”). For all I know it is taken from the mines beneath Detroit, Michigan and died with Red Dye # 2. 🙂 Bordered by Angola to the north, South Africa to the South and Botswana to the East (with Zimbabwe a close neighbor), I was surprised to see on a map the size of the Namibian land mass, and the length of its Atlantic Coastline. Namibia is mostly desert (the most arid of the countries in the African Peninsula). That means there is a lot of sand. Less than 1% of Namibia’s entire land mass is considered “arable” (farmable). Yet ironically, more than 50% of the Namibian population is engaged in agriculture (albeit the bulk of that is “subsistence farming” in rural areas). But along the coastal marshes of the Atlantic, impounds have been made by draining ocean water onto large land masses, and then letting it evaporate, leaving salt deposits. Those deposits form one of Namibia’s important agricultural industries – particularly in Walvis Bay.
OTHER MINERALS play an even bigger part in Namibia’s economy. Especially Uranium and Diamonds. Namibia is said to have rich alluvial deposits of diamonds. Of course, the African Continent is famously know for its diamond mining and production. And not in a good way. The term “blood diamonds” has a well-deserved pejorative meaning. Namibia may be different. Originally inhabited – like the rest of the South African Peninsula, with indigenous tribal cultures, in the late 1800’s, Germany established a colony – and eventual ruled over much of what is now Namibia; ostensibly as a bulwark against continuing British control over South Africa and the eastern parts of the peninsula. The German immigration was exploitative, to the point of genocide against the native people. They ruled (and exploited) the area until World War I, when the Germans were driven out, and the territory came under the rule of South Africa. During the 1940s and beyond, South Africa’s white ruling minority imposed apartheid on Namibia. Namibia gained its independence following an extended period of conflict between the United Nations and South Africa, and prolonged guerilla warfare on the ground, in the late 1980’s. The first Namibian Constitution was adopted in 1990. Since then, (at least according to their propaganda), Namibia appears to be a progressive country, with a humanist, and ecological philosophy. Government includes a democratically elected head of state as well as a bicameral legislature. Intended to be “multi-party,” a single party has effectively always one the election and occupied the positions of power. Wikipedia notes that: “Although much of the world’s diamond supply comes from what have been called African blood diamonds, Namibia has managed to develop a diamond mining industry largely free of the kinds of conflict, extortion, and murder that have plagued many other African nations with diamond mines.” We did not visit, or hear much about, any diamond mining during our time in South Africa.
WE FINISHED our day at an outdoor bar at the entrance to the sand dunes. I had told our driver I wanted to try some local beer (i.e., actually brewed in country). There were two, but the one I chose was Windhoek, named for (and presumably brewed in) Namibia’s capitol city. It was good and refreshing. We headed back to the ship for the long, next leg, back down and around the Cape of Good Hope, from the Atlantic into the Indian Ocean, and up the eastern coast of South Africa. Our next stop: Port Elizabeth.