Having it all, safari to cruising to fine dining

May 22, 1994|By Llewellyn M. Toulmin | Llewellyn M. Toulmin,Special to The Sun

As we rounded the Cape of Good Hope, a baby seal applauded. We were a mile off the southwestern tip of Africa, and the sea had just a slight swell coming up from Antarctica and the roaring forties. Beside the ship, a baby seal rolled playfully onto her back and clapped her paws. She seemed to be applauding the climax of our voyage aboard the newly christened M.V. Marco Polo, down the coast from Kenya to Cape Town.

The voyage combined a wildlife safari and romantic ports of call with a beautiful vessel, and leaping lemurs with dinners designed by Wolfgang Puck.

Our safari-cruise began with a flight to Nairobi and a drive south across the veld to the amazing Amboseli game preserve of southern Kenya. At first Amboseli looked like a vast, flat, inhospitable desert at the foot of towering Mount Kilimanjaro. The desert included mirages and dozens of "dust devils" -- dramatic but harmless mini-tornadoes of dust that reached up to 500 feet high. But as we drew closer to the Amboseli Lodge, we began to see lakes, green grass, zebras, wildebeests, giraffes, gazelles, hippos and rhinoceroses.

In the cool of the late afternoon. we took the first of several game drives. On one drive, we saw numerous birds -- flamingos, marabou storks, crested cranes, egrets, pelicans, fish eagles, large ostriches waving and dipping their wings like matadors, and oxpeckers picking the insects off Cape buffalo.

On another drive, we were fortunate to see a baby lion cub and his mother lying in the tall grass. We also came across an old bull elephant beside the road. He was bent down on one knee, his tusks brushing the ground, to be nearer his mile-wide dining table of grass. He looked at us calmly from six feet away -- we were so close that we noticed his eyelashes were four inches long!

The road trip from Amboseli led us to the port of Mombasa, where we boarded our cruise ship.

The M.V. Marco Polo, a lovely vessel with balanced, traditional lines, was built in East German yards as the Alexandr Pushkin for the Soviets in 1965. The vessel, more than 578 feet long, was one of four sister cruise ships designed to earn hard currency and serve as troop and spy ships. It was put up for sale in 1991 after the Soviets couldn't pay the bills for a minor refit.

Bought by Orient Lines for $25 million, the ship was transformed at a cost of $61 million into a luxury liner that could carry up to 800 passengers in 425 cabins. Registered in the Bahamas, the Marco Polo is filling a niche market of "destination cruising" or "soft adventure," as a vessel small enough to enter little-visited exotic ports, but big enough to offer excellent cuisine and evening showroom entertainment.

Aboard the ship, we found our cabin to be beautifully appointed, light and cheery, with white overheads, blond wood furniture and pastel carpeting. It was a far cry from the Pushkin's original troopship cabins, which were only 7 feet wide and 20 feet long, with bare steel walls, no bathrooms and 18 bunks per cabin.

After spending one night aboard in harbor, we visited Fort Jesus in Mombasa. Fort Jesus was built by the Portuguese in 1593 to protect their commercial and slave-trading interests. It was captured in a two-year siege in 1698 by the sultan of Oman, who held it until the British conquest in 1875.

Outside the fort, the Arab Old Town was marked by a coffeepot monument that celebrates the importance of coffee in Arab life ++ and in Mombasa's trade. The Old Town itself had twisting, narrow lanes, the oldest mosque in Kenya, and shops selling sisal bags, wooden animals and antique Omani silver daggers.

That evening, the Marco Polo glided out of the harbor, and the next morning, we saw the low, flat island of Zanzibar looming on the horizon. We passed small dhows with lateen sails tied up in a busy harbor dotted with flame and acacia trees. Ashore, we toured the old slave market. Slavery secretly persisted here until 1905. More than 50,000 slaves per year passed through this market, now built over with a tall Anglican cathedral.

At sea, we focused on the ship's cuisine. The chef was Mark Connor, formerly of the QE2 and Le Gavroche restaurant in London. He was assisted by his wife, Donatella Zimpoli, who had owned a restaurant in the Italian Dolomites. Mark and Donatella designed the Marco Polo's cuisine in cooperation with Wolfgang Puck, owner of Spago, the "restaurant of the stars" in Los Angeles. The synthesis was called "California cruise cuisine" and was one of the major attractions of the voyage.

Our next major stop, Nosy Komba, was a mountainous small island off the north end of Madagascar, which contained a nature reserve for rare brown lemurs. We had imagined lemurs were somewhat like sloths, slow and ungainly, and were surprised to find a cross between a squirrel, a monkey and E.T.

After cruising the coral atolls of the south Seychelles and stopping at the lush high islands of Mayotte, Reunion and Mauritius, we cruised southwest past the tip of Madagascar to the Cape of Good Hope.

Sailing into Cape Town, we were stunned by the beauty of the city, the mountainous Twelve Apostles, and the 3,566-foot-high Table Mountain. The South Africans welcomed us with a multiracial show that included ballroom dancers of world-class quality, exciting minstrels and an all-female, Muslim, kilted, Indian-South African bagpipe band!

In 1298, Marco Polo opened his famous "Travels" with the words: "Ye kings, princes, nobles, townsfolk and all who wish to know the marvels of the world, have this book read unto you." If he were writing today, Marco Polo might well say, "All ye who wish to know the marvels of the world, set forth on a cruise ship and create your own personal 'Travels.' "

IF YOU GO . . .

Orient Lines operates the M.V. Marco Polo. For information, call (800) 333-7300 or write 1510 Southeast 17th St., Fort Lauderdale, Fla. 33316.

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