5 Experiences I Didn’t Expect to Have on a Cruise

As a South African with six years of experience as a cruise ship crew member, I thought I knew what to expect when I was invited to be a guest of Norwegian Cruise Line during its first season cruising in Southern Africa.

The 12-day voyage aboard the Norwegian Jade began in Cape Town and included stops in Mossel Bay, Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), and Richards Bay in South Africa before continuing on to Luderitz and Walvis Bay in Namibia. Along the way, I encountered a series of unconventional experiences that I never imagined I would have on a cruise:


Sandwich Harbour | Photo: Sharon Waugh

After spending years in tropical island destinations, predominantly in the Caribbean, the harsh desert climate of Namibia was quite the departure from what I have become accustomed to. The Namib Desert is one of the oldest and driest deserts in the world and is home to some of the tallest sand dunes. Riding up and down the dunes of the Namib-Naukluft National Park on a 4×4 off-road vehicle tour to Sandwich Harbour was not only an adrenaline rush, but the views of the chilly Atlantic Ocean from the top of these towering sand masses, made for a truly unforgettable experience. Enjoying refreshments on the beach in the shadow of a 300-foot dune after descending it on foot, I realized that you really don’t need palm trees, beach chairs, or a bathing suit to have a truly remarkable beach day on your cruise. 


Addo Elephant Park | Photo: Sharon Waugh

Addo Elephant National Park is a vast game reserve that is home to a number of large elephant herds along with the other members of what is known in South Africa as “The Big Five”: lion, leopard, rhinoceros, and African buffalo. In my experience of safaris, you drive around all day looking for animals and if you’re lucky, you spot a few. However, Addo was an entirely different story. The park was initially established as a reserve for 11 remaining elephants in the area. It is now home to over 600 and it felt like I saw each of them.

Although the experience had already exceeded my expectations, things became even more surprising when our guide encouraged the tour group to sample the elephants’ favorite treat. “Spekboom” is a popular household succulent plant that is very common in South African homes (including my own). As a city dweller, I’ve never considered whether or not my decorative plants were edible and I was surprised to discover that they were and they were quite tasty too. (To think here I was eating houseplants while on a cruise where there was an abundance of delicious food 24/7.) While the snacks were unexpected, it was definitely the elephants that were the highlight of this experience. 


Kolmanskop | Photo: Sharon Waugh

A few minutes drive from the city of Luderitz in Namibia is the ghost town of Kolmanskop. A diamond boom at the beginning of the 20th century led to the establishment of this town in what was then German South West Africa. Between 1908 and 1914, over 5 million carats of diamonds were mined from this town. The German colonizers prospered immensely and built opulent homes as well as some unexpected luxuries in the middle of the desert, such as a casino, a bowling alley, a ballroom, and a swimming pool. After a few years, however, when diamond supplies began to decrease and bigger diamonds in greater numbers were found elsewhere, the town was abandoned as quickly as it had been established. 

The ghost town now stands slowly being reclaimed by the desert. Large homes lie abandoned with peeling wallpaper and fading paint, while small sand dunes collect in former living spaces. A few clawfoot bathtubs lie scattered throughout. The result is that this town feels more like a film set than a real place and it is no wonder that National Geographic named it one of the world’s most eerie destinations.

Visiting Kolmanskop was a shore excursion unlike any other I had experienced during my time at sea. It had been on my bucket list for years but I never expected to experience it on a cruise. As it turns out, commercial flights to the nearby Lüderitz Airport are quite scarce, making cruising arguably the most convenient way to visit, short of chartering your own airplane.


Sustainable Cocktail Hour | Photo: Sharon Waugh

Normally if a cruise line employee served you the previous day’s coffee grounds, a stale croissant, and some banana peels, that would warrant a complaint. But in a unique “Sustainable Cocktail Hour” experience offered by Norwegian Cruise Line, guests are treated to a selection of eight cocktail tastings each created with sustainably sourced spirits and the byproducts of other food and beverage items served on board.

Some of the drinks served included Watermelon Twist made with watermelon rind, Cucumber Cool made with cucumber pulp, Croissant Mai Tai made with stale croissants, Café Replay made with coffee grounds, and the Bananaruma made with banana peels. It may not sound that appealing but the experience was pleasantly surprising. 

Vacations are always a great time to try new things but I never anticipated eating succulent house plants and washing them down with coffee grounds and banana peels!


Norwegian Jade | Photo: Norwegian Cruuse Line

As a former crew member who once had to share a small windowless cabin with another person, there was something extremely satisfying about having my own guest balcony suite. On the first night, after sailing out of port, I stepped out onto my balcony and realized just how much privacy those balcony partitions gave me. 

Now, as someone who is the antithesis of an exhibitionist and who is only about 65% comfortable in their own skin, I definitely have never had the desire or inclination to be naked in an open space. However, when it occurred to me that I could stand on a cruise ship balcony in front of the vastness of the ocean and the night skies (and hopefully no unseen submarine periscopes) entirely in the buff and absolutely no one would see me, I had to do it—almost immediately, in fact.

After years of wearing an official uniform and following all the rules that came with it, I thought I would experience the liberation that came with being a guest by doing some of the many things I was never allowed to do. However, despite making the most of the incredible ports, the wealth of entertainment, the 16 dining options, the parties, the swimming pools, and the spa, it was in my stateroom all alone wearing nothing at all that I truly discovered the luxurious freedom that cruising offers. 

(I recommend trying it yourself, just don’t get too close to the railing: The bridge wings jut out off the side of the ship and you don’t want to distract the officers from their watch.)


After the success of Norwegian Cruise Line’s first season in Southern Africa, it is expanding its offering. 

  • The Norwegian Jade’s near-identical sister ship, Norwegian Dawn will replace it for the 2024 season. 
  • Norwegian Dawn will repeat the same 12-day itinerary as the Jade, cruising from Cape Town to Mossel Bay, Gqeberha, Richards Bay, and this time Durban in South Africa, as well as Luderitz and Walvis Bay in Namibia, departing from Cape Town on February 1 and March 8, 2024.
  • This season, NCL will also offer one-way cruises between Cape Town and Port Louis, Mauritius, visiting Mossel Bay, Gqeberha, and Richards Bay in South Africa, as well as Maputo (Mozambique), Pomene (Mozambique), Fort Dauphin (Madagascar), and Pointe Des Galets (Réunion), departing on January 20, February 13, and February 25, 2024.

Sharon Waugh is a former cruise ship entertainment host turned blogger and travel writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. Apart from traveling, she enjoys pottery, salsa dancing, and snorkeling. You can find out more about her on social media through her handle @thesharonicles.