In ancient times, the world was believed to end at the Strait of Gibraltar. The Atlantic was a wild, threatening expanse of waves, monsters, and mysteries; few seafarers dared sail its waters. But by the late Middle Ages, European ships began crossing regularly, eventually encountering the largely uninhabited islands of Macaronesia.
Macaronesia (derived from the Greek words for “Islands of the fortunate”) consists of four archipelagos—the Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde, and the Canary Islands. These volcanic islands were all shaped by wind and fire, creating dramatic black lava landscapes surrounded by wild, luxuriant vegetation. And, while the islands belong to different countries (two to Portugal, one to Spain, with Cape Verde the only autonomous nation), each of them boasts an impressive array of flora and fauna.
Our Sea to Sahara expedition cruise explores numerous islands in Macaronesia, as well as parts of Western Sahara and Morocco. Here’s an overview of the 10 ports of call the 100-passenger Island Sky visits during the 16-day cruise, which begins in the Cape Verde Islands and ends in the bustling Moroccan city of Marrakech.
When Genoese and Portuguese seafarers first landed in Cape Verde in the mid-15th century, these southernmost islands of Macaronesia were uninhabited. They eventually became a Portuguese colony and one of the centers of the slave trade before finally gaining independence in 1975.
Cape Verde is now one of the most underrated ecotourism destinations on the planet. The islands attract a relatively small number of visitors because of their remote location off the coast of Western Sahara. Thanks to the nation’s strong commitment to sustainable energy, human rights, social welfare, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation, Cape Verde has appeared in Ethical Traveler’s Top 10 Ethical Destinations every year since 2013.
This Macaronesian archipelago includes 10 islands, offering a diverse variety of ecosystems. Islands in the east are more flat and barren, while those in the west include cloud-capped mountains and volcanic cones. High cliffs and black-sand beaches complete Cape Verde’s dramatic wind-sculpted landscapes, with forest-covered hills found in the islands’ interiors.
The Sea to Sahara expedition visits four Cape Verde islands—Brava, Fogo, Santiago, and Santo Antão—providing insight into the richness of cultures and experiences that characterize the country.
Located south of Morocco, Western Sahara was occupied by Spain from 1884 to 1975. For the last 40+ years it has been a disputed territory between the Moroccan government and the indigenous Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which currently controls the southeastern part of the region.
The coast of Western Sahara remains completely safe to visit, and has emerged in recent years as a popular birdwatching and surfing destination. Kitesurfers are especially attracted by the steady winds and perfect conditions found in the Dakhla lagoon.
Dakhla is also a popular birdwatching destination: Flamingos in deep blue lagoons backed by tall Sahara dunes are one of Western Sahara’s most iconic images. Other birds seen in the region include the Sudan golden sparrow, golden nightjar, cricket longtail, black-crowned sparrow-lark, African royal tern, kelp gull, and Namaqua dove. The area is also inhabited by mammals such as honey badgers, fennecs, and sand cats. While sailing its coast, you may encounter pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins.
Visiting the Western Sahara, you’ll have a chance to see the desert as few people have before. There are rolling expanses of sand dunes that stretch all the way across the continent, crisscrossed by camel caravans led by nomadic locals. It’s the perfect destination for desert lovers, and a great opportunity to explore the cultural traditions of the Sahara.
The Canary Islands were the only archipelago beyond the Strait of Gibraltar that was inhabited before the arrival of European settlers. Some elements of traditional Guanche culture (the first Canary Island settlers) survive to this day, blended with Spanish traditions. One of them is silbo gomero, a whistled language uncannily resembling birdsong. It’s spoken on La Gomera Island, and listed by UNESCO as immaterial cultural heritage.
La Gomera is known as “La Isla Magica” because of its legends and ever-changing landscapes. One highlight to explore is Garajonay National Park, a mystical forest shrouded in mist and named after two lovers who couldn’t be together in life. The forest is mainly laurisilva, one of the endemic species of the Macaronesia region. Trails climb along the sides of El Alto, the sacred mountain of the indigenous La Gomera people, who sought refuge on the summit when the Spaniards arrived.
The second Canary Island the Sea to Sahara cruise visits is La Palma, the northernmost and greenest island in the archipelago. It’s a hiker’s paradise, especially La Caldera de Taburiente. This national park is dominated by the crater of a dormant volcano and boasts the clearest sky in Europe; which is why it was chosen as the location of Grand TeCan, the largest optical telescope in the world.
Lanzarote is where the volcanic origin of the Canary Islands shows its stark, dramatic best. Explore Timanfaya National Park, where you can still feel the ancient heat of the volcano beneath the red and black rock, and unique endemic species abound.
After this full-on nature immersion in Macaronesia, you’ll return to urban life as you reach the hustle and bustle of Moroccan cities. The Island Sky will drop travelers off in Casablanca, where there will be ample time to explore the scenic seaside Corniche district and the Hassan II Mosque, the second largest in the world after Mecca.
The Sea to Sahara expedition ends with exploring the captivating city of Marrakech. Here, you’ll roam from the smoke-filled street food hotspot of Djemaa El Fna to the colorful souk district and the peaceful atmosphere of the Majorelle Gardens.
For those who want to explore the beauty of Morocco’s natural side, there’s also an opportunity to visit the Atlas Mountains. Their peaks reach up to 13,000 feet and are inhabited by various birds, including the elusive lammergeyer (a.k.a. bearded vulture), one of the largest mammals in the world!
Margherita is a freelance writer from Milan, Italy. She is passionate about wildlife, ecotourism, and outdoor adventure activities. She runs the popular nature and adventure travel blog The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian travel and wildlife photographer.