(xx) -- Pioneering French-owned company CroisiEurope -- the largest river cruise line based in Europe -- has always pushed the boundaries when it comes to sailing in unusual and little-known areas.
It is the only line to sail on Spain's Guadalquivir and the Loire in France, and offers an unusual itinerary on the Sava and Tisza waterways, in Serbia and Hungary respectively. Away from mainland Europe, the line sails across vast Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe -- the world's largest man-made lake, which was created by the construction of a dam in the 1950s to provide electricity to Zimbabwe and neighbouring Zambia.
We've recently returned from the intimate 16-passenger African Dream, launched in 2018 and considered one of CroisiEurope's "premium" ships; soon to be joined by sister vessel Zimbabwean Dream, debuting in spring 2020.
So what can English-speaking passengers expect from this exotic cruise-safari? Here are some of our impressions.
It's a river cruise (kind of)…but not as you know it
We've sailed on numerous river cruises, but this is the first time we've steered clear of any big towns and cities and spent half the vacation sleeping on dry land (Indian cruisetours on the Ganges, as well as Yangtze River cruisetours in China are somewhat similar). The CroisiEurope itinerary combines three nights in its own luxury safari lodge in Namibia -- interspersed with expedition trips in small boats along the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers and a trip to Chobe National Park -- with three nights aboard the African Dream (plus a one-night hotel stay at each end of the trip in Johannesburg and Victoria Falls).
On Lake Kariba the ship moves between some of the 100 islands dotting the vast expanse of water, measuring in at 136 miles long and 25 miles wide, and passengers board a small safari boat to explore the lake and its tributaries, such as the Gache-Gache River. There are no ports of call and stops are dictated by the natural sights along the way, often unscheduled depending on the wildlife, and including time navigating the incredible forest of petrified trees that were "drowned" when the lake was created. So think of it as an exciting safari, not a port-intense itinerary, and you won't be disappointed.
Amazing wildlife spotting
We quickly realized why our guide smiled politely when a passenger asked if we would see much wildlife in and around the lake. We saw countless hippos and crocodiles, and a large elephant walked close to African Dream. The excursion to Matusadona National Park, where the vessel was met by safari vehicles, brought zebra, impalas, buffalos and colorful birdlife such as the majestic African Fish Eagle. If you're super lucky, you might get to spot leopards and lions. Tip: Take plenty of memory cards as you'll take more photos than you ever thought possible!
If you spend much of your time glued to your smartphone, then get ready for a total digital detox. African Dream has no Wi-Fi, the TVs in the cabins and lounge are only used to screen movies and the daily program, and the phone signal on the lake is virtually non-existent. Most folks seemed very happy to disengage from the daily barrage of news and social media, and we found it a real pleasure to interact with fellow passengers over drinks in the lounge and meals without the distraction of people breaking off to check their phones.
If you want to travel with fellow countrymen, that's unlikely to happen on African Dream as the majority will be from France. We were the only English-speakers on our cruise, but we didn't feel left out and the language barrier was never an issue. Several of our shipmates spoke excellent English, as of course did the onboard Zimbabwean guide, purser and regional guides at the national park. Onboard presentations and printed materials were all available in English.
Food, glorious food (but no choice)
After a buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner are served meals with set menus -- a characteristic on every CroisiEurope ship which can come as a surprise to anyone expecting an a la carte menu with plenty of choice, coupled with the fact that the size of African Dream would make it impossible to offer multiple dishes at each meal. However, if you're not an overly picky eater (vegetarian and other dietary requirements can be catered for), you're not going to go hungry. Mealtimes reflect French tastes, often with a larger lunch of four courses, including a cheese plate, and three-course evening meal. And you certainly won't go thirsty either, as free-flowing wine and drinks are included in the fare.
Authentic African feel
We loved the fact the vessel had a real African vibe, with use of local woods, handicrafts and eye-popping bright pillows, decorated with animals, in the lounge. Several passengers asked if they could buy them (unfortunately, the answer is no). However, one evening the crew laid out a craft market on the open deck with locally made jewelry, ornaments, table throws and souvenirs, which can all be paid for in USD. The decor extends to the cabins where there are contemporary black and white photos on the walls and beds face the window, so if you're having a rest you won't miss anything outside.
If you normally pack everything but the kitchen sink, you're going to have to downsize. Small propeller planes transport passengers to and from the ship and you're only allowed hold luggage that fits into a soft bag no bigger than 23.6 x 15.7 x 11.8 inches. Buck the system at your peril as you will be asked to leave larger luggage behind at the lodge and you will be reunited with it at Victoria Falls, on payment of a $135 fee. That said, you really don't need much as the cruise is very casual; think lightweight pants, T-shirts, shorts, cotton dresses, comfy shoes and a sun hat.
The itinerary takes in three countries -- Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe -- and each time you go in and out, you have to cross the border and have your passport checked and stamped. CroisiEurope cuts down on the hassle by helpfully providing forms already filled in with your details. All you have to do is sign, wait patiently in line and hand them over. When you enter Zimbabwe, you need a visa which is organized on arrival for a fee of $30.
If you enjoy nature and wildlife and are happy to go with the flow on a flexible itinerary that might be changed due to weather conditions, CroisiEurope offers an incredible “Out of Africa" experience. Bear in mind that you do need to be relatively mobile and independent to get the most out of the vacation.