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Cruising Along the Heart of West Africa

For many travelers, a prominent bucket list item is an African safari adventure. While there are several countries in Africa with excellent game parks to experience the Big Five – elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos, and African buffalo – they are best discovered in East Africa’s Kenya and Tanzania, as well as in South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. For those seeking gorilla experiences, heading to Uganda, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Central African Republic will scratch that itch.

For history buffs, policy wonks, and those interested in colonialism’s legacy and the remnants of its impact on local culture, as well as those interested in experiencing Africa’s Francophone and Portuguese-speaking countries, and of course understanding the complex history and impact of the African slave trade – cruising in West Africa offers an excellent opportunity to comfortably and safely travel to the region. As overland travel between West African nations is difficult and time consuming, with infrastructure even in some capitals remaining very underdeveloped, this makes cruising in this region even more appealing.  

Recently I sailed on Swan-Hellenic’s SH Vega for its 14-day “Crucibles of West Africa” journey commencing in Ghana, stopping in the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, and ending nearly 2,000 miles later, in Senegal. Swan-Hellenic offers this particular itinerary just once annually, mid-April, as it repositions the Vega from Antarctica to the Arctic.

The Finland-built Vega is a premium Polar Class PC5 ship designed with Scandinavian minimalist appeal, intelligent use of space, and is very comfortable. It has nine decks and carries a maximum of 158 passengers and 122 crew. There’s a small beauty salon and spa, both with excellent technicians, gym, library, outdoor lounge, pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, and a lovely Observation Lounge for lectures, daily recaps and pre-caps.

The Suite Life

Spacious staterooms start at 215 square feet and up to 441 square feet for a premium suite. My balconied stateroom contained 269 square feet, was decorated in a gold and gray, calming, neutral color palette, had abundant storage space, and an eye-level safe. An electric fireplace provided ambience, while the critically important Illy espresso machine permitted joyful continuance of my non-stop caffeine-a-palooza. A lighted make-up mirror, large working desk, and 55-inch swiveling flatscreen television and seating area completed the suite. The mini bar was stocked, and I desperately tried – but failed miserably – to ignore the dry snacks my kindly butler kept replenishing. Several USB ports and excellent Starlink connectivity even on sea days kept me in touch.

The bathroom likewise had generous storage, tiled floors, quartzite countertop, and walk-in shower with fabulous water pressure. It contained both a 12-inch rain and European shower heads, while Bocelli amenities were in environmentally friendly dispensers.

Food Matters

Executive Chef Paulo Herrera and his team kept guests happily sated. Breakfasts and lunches either in the Swan Restaurant or Club Lounge were buffet style, while dinners were table service by a thoughtful staff, all accompanied by fine wines from Australia, Chile, Argentina, France, and California, many of which were small batch vintages making me happy and providing me with much to wine about.

Swan breakfasts had a fresh juice station, fresh fruits, house made breads, cheeses, charcuterie, cereals, pancakes, and made-to-order eggs, including omelets, and the critically important eggs Benedict and Florentine.

At lunches an excellent salad bar slightly eased guilt, while made-to-order hamburgers and sandwiches were always available. Additional themed dishes were prepared daily, such as Spanish, Indian, and Mediterranean fare. Dinners’ specialty menu changed nightly while several favored appetizer and entree items were always available, and Herrera took advantage of local markets for additional treats.

Afternoon tea in the Club Lounge was delightful and you’ll definitely want to try the Matcha cookies – you can thank me later. There were vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free guests onboard, all of whom reported being extremely pleased with available options. Passover occurred during the voyage and Herrera made a traditional Seder plate and chicken soup for those guests celebrating.

Engaging Enrichment Program

Even for the most well-traveled and well-educated, there’s a strong learning curve while traveling in West Africa, so it’s key to have guest lecturers with regional expertise specific to the sailing’s itinerary. On this, Swan-Hellenic got an A+ as there were two experts onboard. Dr. Dean Allen lectured on the Age of Exploration, the Scramble for Africa, the Atlantic Slave Trade, and other relevant and interesting topics, while Cliff Pereira, FRGS, spoke on several aspects of Returnee Africans, the cultural significance of masks and tribal dances, and pertinent issues involving Chinese investment on the continent, among others.

Additionally, Swan-Hellenic’s expedition team delivered several interesting conservation lectures, especially important given the region’s political instability that resulted in collateral damage to wildlife habitat, as well as cultural and economic issues surrounding poaching rendering certain species nearly extinct. Throughout the voyage, lectures provided intellectual stimulation made germane with a strong sense of time and place.

Excursions for Inquiring Minds

At every port stop, there are included excursions such as city walking tour with a local guide to discover the sites, churches, and museums, or visits to national parks and UNESCO World Heritage sites. For example, in Elmina, Ghana, we visited Cape Coast Slave Castle, once housing 1,600 people – more than any other West African nation in utterly horrendous conditions while awaiting transport. Here our local guide informed us that over 90-percent of slaves sold to Europeans were already enslaved by fellow Africans.” Cape Coast’s Anglican Church, was built atop one of the dungeons, where the guide noted, “The sounds of worship competed with the wailing of those taken.” Seeing these structures first hand takes to task one's history lessons and alters one's perspective immeasurably.

In Francophone Ivory Coast, Abidjan’s ultra-modern Bedie Bridge over Ébrié Lagoon and St. Paul’s Cathedral –Africa’s largest – resembling a white elephant, both appear like Phoenixes rising, all amid unpaved busy street life and serious traffic.

Visiting Liberia, Africa’s first and oldest modern Republic, was truly eye-opening. Between 1820 and 1861, more than 15,000 freed U.S. born slaves and 3,000 Afro-Caribbeans arrived. Since the 2005 democratic elections where American-educated Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first female president, Liberia has remained stable. A renewed sense of hope now prevails among Liberians that the civil wars, vicious coups, and rebellions that plagued it between 1980 and 2003 remain in the rear-view mirror so that progress may continue.

In Freeport, Sierra Leone, more details about the ship La Amistad and enslaved mutiny leader Sengbe Pieh than Stephen Spielberg’s 1997 Hollywood’s rendition could deliver, permitted a deep perspective of the era and the U.S. legal system at the time which freed Pieh and the other transports, all while proffering Pieh's outsized courage.

Just outside Freeport, the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary cares for 119 rescued chimpanzees while attempting to educate Leonians about extinction’s danger. Before 2009, 20,000 chimps existed in the wild, while today just 5,500 remain, including Tacugama’s charges. Conservation remains a key focus for the future.

In Guinea-Bissau’s Bijagós Archipelago – a protected biosphere of 88 islands – only 20 of which are inhabited year-round, the former capital Bolama has several significant remnants of Portuguese architecture built during Portugal's administration. Here fruit bats hung and several vegan vultures spirited from treetops, reminding us that nature continues to bear witness to history long after people depart. A heartwarming excursion to Inorei island was a favorite. It seemed all 500 Inoreian villagers came to dance for us on a sandy beach as Swan-Hellenic's expedition staff deftly delivered five tons of rice by zodiac.


Additional adventures in The Gambia and Senegal made this epic journey thought provoking and unforgettable. At several ports, there were also complimentary shuttles for guests who preferred to explore on their own. Travelers to the region must pack patience and keep in mind that time operates differently here and that remaining flexible is key to enjoying the adventure. Also best to remember that locals are working and maneuvering in a system that, despite our best intentions, we will never truly grasp, much less understand. As Paolo Coelho once asked and answered, “Why is patience so important? Because it makes us pay attention.” Here that patience pays off in spades. Happy travels!

Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney, and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” Her work has appeared in several major publications around the world, including The L.A. Times, The S.F. Examiner, The Asia Times, The Jerusalem Post, and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, among many others. She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com

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Julie L. Kessler

Written by Julie L. Kessler

Julie L. Kessler is Money Inc's Senior Travel & Luxury Editor and writes for several major media outlets in the U.S. and overseas. She is also an attorney and legal columnist and the author of the award-winning book "Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight." She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com

Read more posts by Julie L. Kessler

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