Occasionally, Cruises Head to West Africa. Here’s What to Expect When They Do.

HX Expeditions (formerly Hurtigruten Expeditions) recently unveiled a new cruise itinerary to and through the remote islands off the coasts of Senegal and Guinea-Bissau—and we were onboard.

A quiet beach at dusk, with three boats on the sand, on the Bissagos archipelago

A quiet beach on the less-visited Bissagos archipelago, off the coast of West Africa’s Guinea-Bissau

Photo by Shutterstock

In the elusive Bissagos (also known as Bijagos) archipelago, off the small, less-visited Guinea-Bissau, the wildlife superstars are saltwater hippos. While hiking some six miles on sand and dirt trails, including through grasses as high as my eye, to see them, I nearly ran into a crocodile hiding in the bush.

As startling as it was at the time, I had come on a new four-country HX Expeditions (formerly Hurtigruten Expeditions) cruise in West Africa for intrepid travel. My goal was not so much wildlife but the opportunity to visit remote villages in the Bissagos, where people live a deeply spiritual life connected to nature.

Some noncruisers may scoff at the word cruise, envisioning tourists dillydallying in hot tubs, sipping rum drinks. But HX took an expedition-cruise–style approach in creating this 13-night itinerary—and it would be extremely challenging to combine visits to Senegal, the Republic of Cabo Verde (also known as Cape Verde), the Bissagos Islands, and Gambia by any other form of travel. While on the 150-passenger MS Spitsbergen earlier this year, I did indulge in drinks such as a Coco Loco cocktail, a combination of rum and coconut milk served in a coconut, and there were hot tubs, but there was a real sense of adventure as well.

The eyes and ears of a saltwater hippo peer out about the surface of a body of water

Saltwater hippos are the wildlife superstars in Bissagos.

Photo by Marco Pozzi/Getty Images

The 108 passengers on board ranged in age from those in their twenties to octogenarians and hailed from countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, and Germany (with translations available for the German contingent). I was traveling with my 23-year-old niece, Sasha. Eight expedition team members—scientists and other experts more versed in the Arctic and Antarctica (places where expedition ships such as this more typically sail) than in West Africa—organized outings like water landings off Zodiac boats in the Bissagos, during which we had to disembark into and trudge through shallow water to get ashore, protecting our ankles with scuba water shoes in case any baby stingrays happened by (they didn’t).

Aerial view of green mountain range in Cabo Verde

Cabo Verde reminded the writer of the Caribbean circa the ‘70s.

Photo by Shutterstock

The itinerary started with a hotel night in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and a preboarding visit via ferry to the island of Gorée, once the largest slave-trading center on the African coast. (With added-on excursions, we could visit a total of three sites related to the slave trade on this trip—the others on Santiago Island in Cape Verde and in Gambia—but, sadly, the gravity of these sites needed much more time and in-depth explanations than we were provided.)

After departing Senegal, we cruised some 400 miles west to Cape Verde, which gained independence from Portugal in 1975. While Cape Verde is definitely not undiscovered, it has certainly been less discovered by visitors—you can fly there, but places like the Canary Islands with their fancy resorts are more popular. With its laid-back vibe and stunning mountains, green valleys, and gorgeous ocean scenery, Cape Verde reminded me of the old Caribbean (circa the 1970s).

On three Cape Verde islands in three days, we had a choice of complimentary city tours and scenic drives or for-a-fee tours with extras such as hiking with local guides. A standout was on Fogo, exploring the six-by-four-mile crater where people live in a harsh black-rock landscape that looks like another planet, near a volcano that last erupted in 2014.

From there, it was off to Bissagos for four days, before a day in Gambia and disembarking back in Dakar.

An outdoor dance performance in Anipoco on Caravela Island, in Bissagos, with audience standing in background

A dance performance in Anipoco on Caravela Island, in Bissagos, Guinea-Bissau

Photo by Fran Golden

The beauty and complexity of the remote Bissagos

The islands of Bissagos were formed from the ancient delta of two rivers and are subject to drastic changes in wind and tides. In the dry season, at times we had less than 33 feet below the ship and the captain relied on sonar to navigate safely. The 88 islands (only a quarter are occupied) encompass some 5,000 square miles, starting about 35 miles from mainland Guinea-Bissau. You can get to the Bissagos in small wooden boats, but few do—visitor numbers are in the hundreds not thousands.

The archipelago is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, recognized for its mangroves, savannas, palm groves, and tropical forests. In addition to the hippos and crocodiles, green turtles come to nest here, and stopping by are such migratory birds as flamingos.

As we approached for a four-day visit, joining the ship was our cultural interpreter, Sonia Marques-Durris, originally from Portugal, with her husband, Laurent, their toddler, and nanny. A well-known French fisherman, Laurent has lived in the Bissagos for 27 years, and Sonia for 13. They own Kere Island, which they purchased from locals and is home to their six-room eco-friendly fishing hotel. In the process of establishing themselves within the community, they were initiated into a village through ritual and ceremonies.

Sonia is among a very small number of trained guides in the region. During shipboard lectures, she did her best to explain a complicated culture, where women play an important role in civic life and ceremonies. The Bissajans believe their islands are inhabited by spirits and that souls can’t reach the afterlife without the help of the living, with women having the power to be possessed.

Some accounts claim the society is matriarchal. Sonia disputed this and on Kere Island, I sat down with Juliette Gomes, 33, a single mother of two who was laundering hotel linens by hand. When I asked through an interpreter if the society is run by women, she scoffed. “Men are in charge,” she declared.

A dancer with large plate balanced on head in the village of Ampincha on Carache Island

A woman takes a break from making palm oil to join an impromptu dance in the village of Ampincha on Carache Island.

Photo by Fran Golden

The highlight of the cruise for me was the third day when we visited two villages and interacted with locals. The population of the Bissagos is not indigenous but descended from people who fled Male centuries ago. Today, people continue to live a traditional lifestyle in villages made up of adobe huts, most with grass roofs, connected by dirt paths and surrounded by old-growth trees, with a central square for ceremonies—and more isolated areas for initiations involving scarification. There’s no electricity, except for generators or solar panels at schools and, in some villages, a disco. Cooking takes place outside. The elders decide on the use of natural resources once they consult with spirits.

Sonia says villagers interact with the outside world—they can take small wooden boats to the mainland in less than two hours, and some do leave for work or for education—but most choose not to.

With villagers speaking Portuguese Creole, passengers communicated with them mostly nonverbally. Cameras and smartphones were a point of connection. We took photos and they asked to see them. Kids greeted us on the beach on Carache Island, where Sasha also communicated through cartwheels and dancing, which the kids mimicked, everyone giggling.

Cashews are Guinea-Bissau’s main export and we passed cashew trees on the way to Sonia’s initiation village, arriving to the sounds and sight of men rhythmically pounding palm in a metal barrel to make palm oil, which is used for cooking, winemaking, and in ceremonies. Women working over boiling pots, another stage of production, got up and did an impromptu dance, their grass skirts, or bark skirts for elders, covering colorful cotton dresses. Kids followed us around town.

In Anipoco on Caravela Island, young boys fought to hold my hand and girls followed Sasha’s every move, as we toured the village before gathering for a vigorous drumming and dance display, grass-skirted man dancing to mimic cows, which are held sacred. The performance ended abruptly when one dancer passed out. An evil spirit was to blame, we were told. Sonia later reported the man was OK.

Our fourth and final day in Bissagos was spent at Sonia and Laurent’s property, complete with a white-sand beach, open bar, crepes as snacks, and the only opportunity to buy some souvenirs.

In some ways it felt like a cruise line private island experience, but on a markedly more adventurous itinerary in a place much harder to reach.

During our day in Gambia, we opted for a “Roots” shore excursion, inspired by the Alex Haley book, that to my mind raised more questions about the slave trade than answers. But the trip was worth it for the opportunity to cross the Gambia River in a crowded local passenger ferry complete with vendors selling everything from food to electrical cords, men and women in colorful attire, a live goat or two, and some locals who were happy to strike up conversations.

We disembarked back in Dakar, with a least some insight into West Africa and more to study.

A side view of HX Expeditions' MS "Spitsbergen" expedition vessel

A ship that typically sails the world’s polar regions, the MS Spitsbergen recently explored West Africa instead.

Courtesy of Karsten Bidstrup/HX Expeditions

The ship

Our nearly two-week itinerary included several sea days, and HX Epeditions’ MS Spitsbergen, a former ferry completely reconfigured into an expedition ship in 2016, proved a very comfortable and delightfully unfussy venue for sailing. You could dress casual for dinner and there was the easy comradery that comes naturally on a small ship with open-seating buffet meals and late nights spent in the den-like Explorer Lounge, conversing over drinks. A highlight one evening was a crew rock band performing on deck, with many guests, and even the captain, inspired to dance.

Joining the 84-person crew for the West Africa route was affable chef Koffi Gassan from Togo, who gave lectures and cooking classes and prepared such West African dishes as Senegalese Chicken Yassa, consisting of chicken and caramelized onions; jollof rice (a one-pot dish with rice, tomatoes, chiles, and meat); and hot pepper soup. “This is my big dream my whole life to show my talents to the whole world,” he told me.

Like the rest of the ship, cabins are done up in appealing Scandinavian furnishings and cleverly designed to make optimum use of space. There are six categories, from tight 96-square-foot inside cabins (without windows) to a two-room, 355-square-foot Owner’s Suite (it sleeps four with a sofa bed) that comes with a balcony. Windowed Arctic Superior cabins are a nice middle ground, but if you suffer from motion sickness you may want to avoid the ones on the upper decks toward the front of the ship, where you may feel more movement.

In addition to a small gym, the MS Spitsbergen has an ocean-view sauna and two outdoor hot tubs. Loungers on the top deck are available for those who want to relax in the sun.

How to cruise in West Africa

After five West Africa sailings, culminating in January, HX will not be back this fall as planned due to concerns over political unrest in areas of West Africa. For now, the cruise line is calling it a “pause,” not quite ready to completely abandon the route. Travelers who are interested in the itinerary should check in with the line in the coming weeks and months to see if the West Africa sailings will start back up. This season’s 13-day West Africa cruises began at about $7,000 per person. French cruise line Ponant and ultra-luxe line Silversea are among the other cruise companies with springtime visits to the Bissagos and Cape Verde slated for this year and next.

Fran Golden is an award-winning travel writer who has sailed on some 170 ships to destinations around the world.
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