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.
Having had the pleasure of lunching on the Sinfonia when she stopped over in PE last year, I was 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 liners owned by a super-wealth Italian family). But the Opera, being 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 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.
For more info visit www.msccruises.co.za