Anyone who has done some travel throughout the African continent knows well how difficult visiting multiple countries can be. Unlike the Americas or Europe, intercontinental travel in Africa is typically not only much more costly but also ill-fated by inconvenient and lengthy flight options. Imagine my surprise (and delight) when I discovered a unique, new way to add a few African countries to the ‘done’ list with the HX Hurtigruten Expeditions West Africa Archipelago Cruise.

While other cruise lines are more well-known among American travelers, HX Hurtigruten Expeditions aren’t your typical boozy cruise experience. Formerly known as Hurtigruten Expeditions, HX offers an adventurous cruise experience marked by scenic tours, challenging hikes, and encounters with nature. The most appealing aspect of the Norwegian cruise line is the unique destinations you can visit; cities and countries not yet spoiled by droves of tourists. 

From the shores of Senegal to Kunta Kinteh Island, here’s what it’s like to see the West Coast of Africa on an HX Hurtigruten Expeditions cruise.

A Culturally Rich Vacation

Bijagós people during cultural performance in West Africa
Photo credit: Jan Hvizdal

Cruise lovers who are accustomed to hopping from island to island are in for a country-hopping treat on this cruise. The West Africa Archipelago itinerary includes four countries–Senegal, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and The Gambia. With Dakar as your port of origin, HX offers tours before and after the cruise to see Senegal’s capital city. Once on board, prepare for two weeks at sea exploring some of West Africa’s lesser-traveled regions.

The Journey

This adventure-packed cruise is indeed a sprint through several West African countries, but a worthwhile experience to have. From Dakar, Africa’s smallest capital city, the ship sails northwest to explore four of Cape Verde’s ten islands. Santiago, Fogo, Santo Antão, and Boa Vista have a bit of everything from lush greenery to Sahara-like desert formations. You’ll no doubt likely leave with a favorite that is imprinted on your soul.

From Cape Verde, this expedition adventure heads for the Bissagos Islands in Guinea-Bissau. The Bissagos Islands is where nature immersion gets real. Under the capable guidance of the Expedition Team, guests will navigate through mangroves, tropical forests, savannah woodlands, and coastal lagoons. This multi-day jewel on the itinerary also allows guests to meet and learn about the local Bijagós people, a tribal society organized in clans.

While every stop is special, the final city, Banjul, holds many stories that bring this itinerary to a satisfying end. Explore daily life in the city or opt to visit Jufureh and Kunta Kinte Island across The Gambia River. Here, you’ll learn about Alex Haley’s inspiration in tracing his roots which led to a journey to The Gambia. This journey would go on to inspire his 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, and the 1977 American television miniseries, Roots. After a poignant day of history and present-day culture, this enriching cruise concludes back in its home port of Dakar.

Pro tip: Extend your stay a few days and find some of West Africa’s best fashion in local markets. You can also support local designers while seeing Dakar’s top landmarks and nightlife scene.

A More Personalized Way to Cruise

HX Hurtigruten Expeditions - MS Spitsbergen jacuzzis overlooking the sea at sunset
Photo credit: Jan Hvizdal

Sailing aboard MS Spitsbergen, the vessel of the West Africa expedition, can, at times, feel like you’re on your own ship. Within a few days, HX staff greet you by name as you arrive for each meal or daily activities. Lounge spaces throughout the ship make it easy to find a quiet corner to read or simply watch the waves. Plus, with a max capacity of 280 guests, everything about this cruise feels more personal than that of the record-breaking mega-ships. It won’t take long before the staff have your daily preferences ready before you can request them.

The ship also has its fair share of perks worth enjoying to make the most of this unique cruise. Enjoy days at sea or evenings in one of two intimate jacuzzis. Relax muscles you didn’t know existed after long hikes in the steam sauna. The Explorer Lounge is where you can try craft cocktails or enjoy onboard workshops about local West African wildlife. West African culture is even infused into the dining–with traditional dishes served throughout most meals. Days and nights on MS Spitsbergen are both relaxing and reflective, soaking up the richness of each day.

Unique Adventure Experiences

Chã das Caldeiras volcano on Fogo island in Cape Verde, West Africa
Photo credit: Jan Hvizdal

The number of optional adventures available might leave your head spinning a good way. Every stop offers a unique, otherworldly landscape overflowing with culture, natural wonders, and a unique place in world history. 

Hikers and nature lovers will find the views and trails on the islands of Fogo and Santo Antão a marvelous escape. Explore the lava fields of Chã das Caldeiras, an active volcano on Fogo where residents still live and tourists visit for lunch or short stays. Those enamored with animal encounters will find themselves in good company on any HX Hurtigruten Expedition, especially this one. Aside from spotting local marine life while at sea, guests can also watch rare saltwater hippos, manatees, and more in the Bissagos UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Historians and connoisseurs of culture will enjoy connecting the dots between the stories of each stop on the cruise. From the multi-purpose use of baobab trees to traditional customs, city tours can enhance your understanding of local culture. Enjoy local cuisine and stroll through craft markets where African artwork, wooden figures and more await souvenir shoppers.

An Ancestral Reconciliation

man playing guitar while people play along - cultural city tours
Photo credit: Jan Hvizdal

One of the most intriguing aspects of this cruise is each destination’s ties to my own history and those who look like me. There’s no way I, as a Black American traveler, could visit this part of the world and not think about my ancestry. Although Ghana gets most of the attention due to its increasing global awareness, the rest of Africa’s West Coast was far from spared in the transatlantic slave trade. Exploring these countries is as much an emotional journey as it is an adventurous one.

As a millennial, I share the growing sentiment that exploring Black trauma isn’t at the top of the list when making travel decisions. However, the curated tours HX Hurtigruten Expeditions has put together with local tour guides and storykeepers go far above your traditional city tours. These cultural glances back in time provide depth to parts of history that are often overlooked or glossed over. In Senegal, Gorée Island holds stories of the enslaved at the Maison des Esclaves (Slave House) Museum. Banjul is the gateway to Jufureh, the home village of Alex Haley’s ancestor, Kunta Kinte. Members of the Kinte family still live there today, and you’ll have the opportunity to meet them on the optional Roots by Land cultural tour. 

Learning about each destination’s storied past brings one level of connection. However, it’s the people, who occasionally resemble stateside family members, that make this unique cruise so special as a Black traveler. Meeting tour guides that remind you of your favorite uncle or the village chief who exudes major maternal energy. Absorbing the energy and history of each country is like discovering a piece of your puzzle you never knew was missing.