SHE is the glamour gal of the high seas. Almost petite, mind you, if placed next to one of those monstrous super-cruisers, but an unquestionably elegant and eye-catching sight when placidly parking off in the Port Elizabeth harbour.
The friendly city showed its (uncharacteristically, we swore) windy side when the 251-metre MSC Opera briefly visited this week. She arrived in Southern African waters for the very first time in November last year, and from Durban harbour set off on several cruises up to Portuguese Island, Maputo and Barra Lodge.
From PE on Tuesday she sailed first for Mossel Bay and then Cape Town, from where the last few cruises of the season will be undertaken as the ship heads to Walvis Bay and Luderitz along the unspoilt Namibian coast, while also doing a three-night local cruise to Mossel Bay afterwards. The Opera then wraps up the season with an 18-night cruise via Walvis Bay, the Cape Verde Islands, Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, Lisbon, Valencia and, finally, her end destination in Genoa.
Sister ship the MSC Sinfonia, cruising in SA until April next year, took over the Mozambique cruises out of Durban this week. Of course, having had the pleasure of lunching on the Sinfonia when she stopped over in PE last year, Salvelio and I interested to compare the two ocean beauties.
They’re not dissimilar in size (the Opera’s slightly bigger with 856 cabins to the Sinfonia’s 777). Both boast a distinctive Italian styling characterised by touches of grand, gleaming opulence (no wonder: they’re part of a fleet of 12 – soon to be 13 – liners owned by a super-wealth Italian family).
But the Opera, the newer of the two, is more modern and also has more balcony cabins, which means you can have a top-notch cruising experience without having to fork out for the more expensive balcony suites.
Our excited PE media contingent was met by MSC press officer Ingrid Roding-Tudor, Opera guest relations manager Francesca Calini and representatives from Mango. As MSC Cruises SA’s flight partner, the airline offers preferential rates to, for instance, PE folk who want to start their cruise in another port like Durban or Cape Town.
Bubbly guest relations officer Lydia Harper (above) took us on a ship’s tour, starting at its ”heart” on Deck 5 and pointing out chic restaurants, cafes and bars (all 11 of them) along the way.
We marvelled at the 713-seater Teatro dell’ Opera theatre, and the Aurea Spa with steam room, sauna, beauty parlour and hair salon. There’s a casino, internet cafe, library and card room, disco (sensibly at the very back of the ship), and even a virtual reality games facility, while those who like to shop can choose (duty-free but probably not guilt-free) high-end brands like Gucci or Baume et Mercier.
Lydia describes the ship as a “mini town” as it’s virtually entirely self-sufficient: “we even have our own carpenters on board”. The vessel feels so darn solid and steady when in port that it is easy at times to forget you’re on a liner, unless you happen to be peering out a porthole window.
But once you’re up on deck 11 with its two sparkling salt-water pools (these are drained and refilled daily, for sanitation purposes), there’s no forgetting where you are.
For a moment there I felt like I had stepped into another, far more fantastical, dimension as tanned holiday-makers lazed on their pool loungers all around, sipping colourful cocktails and eating gelato.
The sun seemed to shine just a little brighter than normal and the harbour’s usually mucky water seemed an almost impossible shade of blue. This is the life, more than one media guest muttered.
Kids are extremely well catered for on the Opera through its Buffalo Bill playroom, with capable and patient-looking minders on hand and heaps of activities for all ages.
Ingrid says cruising has become extremely popular in South Africa in recent years, especially when you consider that in the “early days” there were only two small liners operating in our waters.
Cruising does seem one of the best-value holiday options currently available to South Africans: accommodation, meals and entertainment are all included in MSC’s cruise fare, with children under 18 cruising for free.
Little wonder then that Allan Foggit, MSC Cruises SA’s marketing head, reports record passenger numbers for the current season.
Speaking of food… after our media tour (“Just one more flight of stairs,” Lydia kept telling us) we sat down to a satisfying lunch at the ship’s La Caravella Restaurant, where Salvelio and I shared a table with Ingrid and Francesca. Both are interesting, charming women and it was an opportunity to learn from Francesca, who was born in Italy but raised in Kenya, what a life and career on the ocean is like.
She says it suits her lifestyle perfectly, as she can do contracts when it suits her and then at the end take some time out to spend with her elderly parents, who live in Milan. She herself has a base in Sicily and spent most of her professional life working in the hotel industry in exotic island destinations like Madagascar, where she was part of a core team that established and ran a top resort there. Salvelio was even more so impressed when, upon learning of his Latin roots, she began conversing with him in fluent Spanish. She also speaks German as her mother is originally from there.
Our lunch, like the one on Sinfonia, was a sumptuous affair, and I was pleasantly struck by how light the meal was. Ingrid says the dishes are purposely kept light and fresh, as one can get very saturated after three or four days of eating on a cruise ship!
I enjoyed a light and lovely pasta first plate – Penne a la Sorrentina – tossed in a fresh tomato sauce with shrimps while Salvelio’s starter was the equally delicious salt cod puree with country bread. For mains he chose the Grigliata Mista di Mare, a seafood mixed grill with butterfish, prawn and calamari served on mixed greens with a grilled tomato, while I had Pollo a la Parmigiana – parmesan crusted chicken breast topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella.
All this was washed down with a glass (or two!) of 2011 Roero Arneis Italian white. Pud was an excellent Torta Caprese, or Capri chocolate and almond cake for me, and classic creme caramel delicately scented with orange for Salvelio.
Recipe: Salt cod puree with country bread
Inspired by our visit to the ship I’m sharing a recipe for salt cod puree. Salt cod, or bacalao, is popular in all the Mediterranean countries, including Spain. The bacalao, or stockfish, makes a delicious tapa or starter if you mix it with potato, garlic, onions, white wine and spices, puree and serve with rustic bread. It’s quick and easy to do (you will have to soak the salted fish in water for at least 24 hours before the time though, to remove the salt). This recipe is enough for four people.
650g salt cod (deboned); 2 medium potatoes, boiled, skinned and mashed; 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil; 1 biggish onion, finely chopped; 3 medium-sized cloves of garlic, crushed; 2 Tbsp chopped Italian parsley; 1/4 cup of dry white wine; 1 bay leaf; 1/2 tsp nutmeg
Rinse the salt cod under cold water to remove all visible salt. Cut into blocks, cover in cold water and soak in the fridge for at least 24 hours (longer is even better), changing the water 2-3 times. Drain well, pat dry with a kitchen paper and set aside.
Fry the onion in olive oil in a large frying pan until translucent. Add the fish and cook for about 15 min, stirring often. Finely flake fish using a fork. Add the potato, wine, garlic, bay leaf, parsley and nutmeg. Stir through and cook on a medium to low heat until wine is reduced and the mixture has thickened. Remove from the heat, take out the bay leaf and allow to cool slightly.
Place the mixture into a food processor and process until smooth. Serve with slices of rustic bread.
For more info on the MSC Opera and MSC Sinfonia, and their various itineraries, visit www.msccruises.co.za