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Cruise Into Africa

Take an exotic tour of the Gambia River, and soak up the rich sights of West Africa.

Next Stop, Gambia

Photo: Hapag-Lloyd

Cruises are the de rigueur vacation for masses of retirees, well-heeled families and groups of young singles on the prowl.

You know the drill: fly to Florida and board one of the myriad, anonymous ships that then proceed to bump into one another like a herd of seafaring cattle in the Caribbean.

For the cruise set, an exotic adventure might mean leaving from Vancouver, British Columbia, for a few stops in Alaska. That's not bad, but why limit yourself to standard fare?

One European company has shaken up the cruise status quo by offering truly unusual destinations, knowledgeable guides and lecturers, luxe accommodations and up-close interaction with the scenery.

But this is no upstart line; in fact, this company was at the forefront of the nascent cruise industry, beginning operations more than a century ago.

Cruise Control

In 1891, the director of

Hapag-Lloyd, Albert Ballin, hit upon the idea of offering ship travel to exotic ports of call simply for the pleasure of the voyage in what he imagined as a floating hotel.

This was a revolutionary idea at the time -- boarding a ship in the 19th century was the only means of getting between continents and typically meant a week or more of cramped accommodations and anything but pleasure.

But Ballin's simple idea would spawn the modern-day cruise industry. Setting sail in January 1891 for the Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East, the opulent

Augusta Victoria

was among the first ships of its kind to sail simply for pleasure and not to transport passengers from one point to another.

Continuing this tradition today, Hapag-Lloyd's latest cruise, departing in October, will voyage up the Gambia River in west Africa for a once-in-a-lifetime journey (starting at $5,425 per person, based on double occupancy).

In cooperation with New York's Museum of Natural History, this cruise on the

Bremen

is ideal for amateur naturalists and birders, with onboard lectures by a museum lecturer and guided excursions to many of the area's rich historical sites and nature preserves.

Starting from Tenerife -- in the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco -- the

Bremen

will head south, tracing the routes of early Portuguese explorers on its way to the Cape Verde Islands. From there the Bremen will dock at Banjul, the capital of Gambia, situated at the mouth of the Gambia River. After a day in the capital, the

Bremen

will slowly sail up the Gambia for three days then return for its ultimate destination of Dakar, Senegal.

Ship Shape

At the

Bremen's

helm will be Daniel Felgner, a 45-year-old ship captain hailing from Zittau, Germany, with extensive maritime and engineering experience.

With expected German precision, Felgner detailed the schedule and expected weather conditions of the trip (70-80 degrees during the day, with relatively low humidity), but noted this is the first time both he and the

Bremen

will be sailing up the Gambia River. (Don't worry -- Hapag-Lloyd's other expedition ship, the

Hanseatic

, has traveled the route for the past two years.)

The

Bremen

was built in 1990, and the craft is notable among passenger vessels for its shallow draft, which has allowed it to explore areas of the Arctic and Antarctica other passenger ships could not attempt. In fact, on a previous trip to Antarctica captained by Felgner, passengers of the

Bremen

and their expedition guide discovered a previously unknown channel and island while exploring one of the many fjords on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Though the

Bremen

was constructed with treacherous arctic conditions in mind, it turns out those characteristics are ideal for navigating a river like the Gambia.

Many large ships dock in Banjul, but the

Bremen

is unique in its ability to travel up the shallow river due to its special construction. This allows its 164 passengers to experience the bush and exceptional wildlife of the area from the comfort of a luxury ship.

But if the adventurer in you wants to get closer, never fear. The

Bremen

even has twelve inflatable Zodiac motorboats on hand to get you off the ship and up close and personal with nature.

Feast for the Senses

Potential passengers should also note that Gambia stands out in west Africa for its agreeable climate, and a river trip during October will provide ideal conditions for bird watching, history lessons and jeep safaris into the bush.

In addition to European birds that have migrated to the area for the upcoming winter, passengers can expect to see a multitude of indigenous fauna. Floating among the mangrove and baobab trees, you might be fortunate to see odd-looking hammerkops, pink-backed pelicans, red-billed hornbills and goliath herons feeding in the shallows. River dolphins, mudskippers and red river hogs also make their home in and around the Gambia River, and lucky adventurers might even spot patas monkeys, guinea baboons and yellow-green vervet monkeys while cruising through the bush.

You won't be disappointed on board, either. The Bremen is a deluxe cruise ship, small enough so you won't feel like an anonymous guest but big enough to offer a panorama lounge, library, sun deck with swimming pool, a fitness center and sauna. Passengers can expect fresh local ingredients -- especially indigenous fish -- in the ship's delectable cuisine.

In addition to harboring natural wonders, the Gambia River is a nexus of history, spanning the often tragic collision of colonial-era Europeans and Africans.

On the trip, passengers will have the opportunity to experience the area's rich traditions as well as its darker past. West Africa's slave trade is an unavoidable topic, and the cruise takes many opportunities to address this: Two Zodiac excursions land at locations where both the French and English set up forts in the 17th century -- the former in village of Albreda and the later on the small James Island -- as depots for captured Africans. Here, guests are unforgettably led through the history of slavery in the area, through lectures and tours.

To see how the residents of this region have moved on from this past, passengers will be able to encounter and interact with local inhabitants not only while in Gambia but in the Canary and Cape Verde Islands as well as in Dakar. Food and artisan markets abound in the area, and passengers will be given plenty of time for leisurely stops in small villages.

If you want more than just a run-of-the-mill cruise -- and a vacation that no one else can top -- take a trip up the Gambia River. Call Hapag-Lloyd at (877) 445-7447 to reserve your spot.

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