From Mumbai, India, to South Africa – this sounded like a terrific itinerary. My wife and I loved India, and South Africa was one the places topping our “to do” list. We decided to book this trip on Crystal Cruise line, one of the best, in our opinion. The 19-day voyage was part of an around-the-world cruise, with many people on for the full 120 days; others getting on for smaller segments, such as we were.
We arrived in Mumbai in March, the beginning of the hot season. As was expected, it was warm and muggy. This is a teeming town, chaotic with snarled traffic. During our three days, we had a knowledgeable tour guide and driver, however, who were able to circumvent the worst of it. With 12.5 million, it is one of the most populous cities in the world. Located on the west coast, the city has a deep natural harbor. Formerly called Bombay, the name was changed in 1995 to Mumbai after Mumbadevi, the patron goddess of the local fishermen.
We got up early the first morning and took a city tour. Driving along, we could see the differing levels of lifestyles from block to block. We passed by slums, then through a section of garage-like store fronts with doors that slide up and down. Merchants sold everything from toilets to hardware to tires. Most proprietors live in apartments above. According to the guide, the average person purchases needs from these small convenience stores rather than going to super markets. In an adjacent block, where people of above average means live, most have domestic help. For Instance, our guide is able to hire a housekeeper and cook because labor is cheap. Her family is Hindu, consequently she is vegetarian as is much of the city’s population.
Another block had luxury hotels. For example, there was the plush Taj Palace Hotel, where the 2008 terrorist attack took place. It was completely repaired. But now, barriers have been erected around the property, and crowds gathered to look at the site. Ironically, just a short distance away, we saw people sleeping on the streets – that’s the way India is. On our city tour some of the interesting sites were the colorful Jain Temple, with flowers strewn about among statues of gods and personifications of the planets painted on the ceiling. We then went on to the Gandhi Museum with photos and rare artifacts which gave much insight into the life of this spiritual leader. Also we passed by Dhobi Ghat outdoor laundry with its colorful rainbow array of washing hanging to dry. Clothes are washed by hundreds of laundry workers as has been the case for generations.
People we had met at our hotel had gone on the Slum Dog tour. We didn’t take it but were told about how groups are led through the Dharavi slum area where scenes from the Academy Award-winning “Slum Dog Millionaire” were filmed. Although the area is squalid, it is now also home to around 15,000 small businesses (ranging from recycling, pottery, and embroidery to bakeries, soap factories, and leather tanning). These enterprises generate some $700-million annually. It is crowded and chaotic, but its inhabitants are certainly industrious.
We stayed at the 5-star Taj Lands End Hotel, located on the sea, in an upscale area where many Bollywood film people have homes. The hotel is truly at land’s end – facing the large bay and modern bridge that now connects the main city and the “outskirts.” This Taj was built in 1999 and boasts 493 rooms and several outstanding restaurants.
The last day in Mumbai we took a boat out to Elephanta Island, a small island an hour’s boat ride from the city center. One of the world’s most striking collections of caves and rock carvings exists here, dating from the 6th to 8th Century A.D. From the arrival dock, a narrow-gauge rail is available to take visitors to the base of the steps. (It was hot that day so we paid the small charge to ride.) From here, an uphill path leads to the site. Of course, there were stalls with trinkets all the way up. Also, monkeys were perched here and there along the sides which entertained us as we “huffed and puffed” to the top.
Although the government does little in restoration here, the art is in decent shape because of being sculpted in caves, largely protected from the elements. Once there, however, we were hardly prepared for the beauty and immensity of the sculptures of Indian deities. A critic has said that here is one of its most perfect expressions of Hindu art, particularly in the huge high reliefs in the main cave. These world famous images from mythology have been reproduced in many books.
That afternoon, we boarded the Crystal Serenity and began to relax after our hectic stay in Mumbai. The Serenity is luxurious and spacious – 85 percent of the staterooms feature private verandahs. Delicious international food can be found in six restaurants throughout the ship. With a capacity of 1,080, the ship was about seventy percent full.
After a day of cruising, our first stop was in India’s state of Goa. At the port near the capital city, Panaji, we hired a cab for touring the area. Our driver was enthusiastic about giving us history and background.
This area was settled by the Portuguese who remained until 1961.We stopped at one of the city’s main attractions, the Basilica of Bom Jesus. Founded in 1605, it is considered one of India’s best examples of baroque architecture. Besides the vividly decorated interior, it is famed for containing the remains of St Francis Xavier, who died in 1552 in China and was eventually interred. One can see portions of his bones in a silver casket. The day we visited a lineup of pilgrims waited to pass by the coffin.
Another highlight was seeing the Mahlxmi Hindu temple, dedicated to the goddess of wealth. Inside is an impressive statue in black stone, replete with her four hands.
That night the ship was off, sailing southwest, further into the Indian Ocean. On the way to South Africa, we would stop off at the islands of Maldives, Mauritius and Reunion – all famous for water sports and scenic beauty.
Maldives is the world’s most endangered country, threatened by global warming. The rising ocean is steadily cutting away the shoreline, naturally of great concern for its citizens. To emphasize this fact, in 2009, the government held a cabinet meeting underwater. From the ship’s deck, we could, indeed, see that buildings in the capital city Male already seemed almost part of the sea.
The diving and snorkeling here is among the world’s best, and we signed up for a delightful trip to a small islet off the coast. A shallow reef provided great fish viewing. In a “Kodak moment,” we saw a harmless black tip reef shark glide by amidst swarms of colorful fish. After this stop, we had four sea days before reaching Mauritius. This gave us plenty of time to catch up on our reading while relaxing and enjoying the ship’s amenities. During our daily laps around the deck, we always said hello to security guards on “pirate watch.” This part of the Indian Ocean is a vulnerable area.
If we wanted mental stimulation, there was a host of speakers giving talks mornings and afternoons. Among them were a couple of ex-ambassadors, a CIA member and two former FBI agents. Events in the Middle East were in the news and were a big topic, as was South Africa since apartheid. We particularly enjoyed hearing a Canadian book reviewer who vividly discussed several current best sellers.
At cocktail time and before retiring, we stopped by the Crystal Cove lounge where we heard John Mentis on piano. Mentis has been playing on ships for decades and has performed with musicians such as George Shearing. He seemingly knew every song from the past, both popular and jazz.
The food was very good, particularly the Dover sole which we had a few times while dining in the main restaurant. In addition, we dined several times in both the Prego, the Italian restaurant, and Silk Road, featuring Asian fare. Prego’s beef carpaccio was the best; in silk Road, we were like kids in a candy store, savoring the fresh sushi and lobster dishes. There are shows nightly in the theater featuring staff productions, as well as performers brought onboard. We especially enjoyed a classical guitar player and comedian/ventriloquist.
It was soon back to port days. Mauritius and Reunion, although near each other, could not be more different. Both are part of the Mascarene Islands, formed during volcanic eruptions. Both are lush, containing mountainous peaks and waterfalls. Both have mixed race populations. However, Mauritius is a democracy, with over 50 percent of people from India. Reunion is part of France, with a large European population, afforded the benefits of a district in France.
We toured both islands by taxi and bus, always on the lookout for good snorkeling beaches. In Maruitius, it was low tide and the best spots were largely inaccessible. In Reunion, though, we ended up at St. Gilles, a wonderful beach. A reef with lots of marine life was only a short swim from the sand.
After another day at sea, we were in Durban, South Africa. This is Zulu country, and so we signed up for a tour out to a nature park to see Zulus performing ceremonial dances. Along the way, the countryside was lovely. It was named The Thousand Hills. There were green growth and flowering trees everywhere. This city and surroundings are known for a semi-tropical climate and good beaches. Many guests took coastal excursions.
Two days later we reached Port Elizabeth. The city is one of the major seaports in South Africa, often referred to as Africa’s Water Sport Capital. Some passengers went on trips to game parks – several for the day, others for three-days after which they would see us again in Cape Town. We had lined up a tent safari in Botswana after disembarking ship, so we opted for a local tour. Instead of going to a beach here, we signed up for the Township Experience tour. We were taken through the historically “coloured” areas, a shameful legacy of Apartheid years.
During Apartheid in the sixties, the government moved blacks from cities out to townships, which were squalid villages, the most notorious being Soweto. Since Nelson Mandela became president in the nineties, one of his missions was to move blacks to better government housing. We visited some of these areas – from the poorest to the new middle-class section.
Taking excursions such as this can be very enlightening. It was particularly interesting talking to the township people met on foot. One stop was at a school for children 6 to 16. All were in uniforms, neat and clean. Especially gratifying was to talk to teachers working with youngsters from impoverished areas. While there, it was lunch time for the youngest. We were told that this is often the only hot meal children get during the day. Before we left, a glee club of high school students gave us a concert.
Next day, late afternoon, we arrived outside Cape Town, but 60-plus mph winds kept our ship cruising offshore for 18 hours. From the ship, the city virtually sparkled in the sun. With its hills and landmark Table Mountain in the background, it reminded us of San Francisco.
Mid-morning next day we were able to get off. With our time in Cape Town cut back, we decided to take an open-bus tour. We saw the city sites with our climactic stop being Table Mountain. It was still too windy for us to go to the top in a cable car.
Along the coast, we passed by picture-postcard beaches and picturesque beach communities. At the end of the day, we vowed to return to Cape Town some day and have enough time travel to places outside the city, including the lovely wine country. It was near time, though, to disembark next morning and fly out to Botswana and our safari.