Cape Verde

Cruising to Macaronesia: From Western Sahara to Unspoiled Islands

Guest Contributor|April 17, 2017|Blog Post

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.

 

Cape Verde 

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.

 

Western Sahara 

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.

 

Canary Islands 

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.

 

Morocco

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.

Related Blog Posts

  • Sunrise in Botswana
    Blog Post

    The Camps of Signature Botswana

    January 30, 2018 | Blog Post

    Botswana is one of our favorite safari destinations; in fact, we’ve been offering expeditions in this premier safari destination since 1992!

    Read More

    Maasai Warrior
    Blog Post

    Maasai Culture & History: Understanding the Soul of East Africa

    January 29, 2018 | Blog Post

    Standing proud in the savannah with their red blankets and painted shields, the Maasai people have become one of the more widely known symbols of East Africa; the Maasai shield is even featured on Kenya’s national flag.

    Read More

    Ultimate Galapagos
    Blog Post

    Top 10 Off-the-Beaten-Path Travel Destinations for 2018

    January 22, 2018 | Blog Post

    Last year the big news in travel was the negative impacts mass tourism had on beloved destinations such as Barcelona, Venice, and Scotland’s Isle of Skye.

    Read More

  • Gorillas of the Congo
    Blog Post

    Gorillas in the Congo: Discovering One of the World's Most Threatened Species

    January 16, 2018 | Blog Post

    For any wildlife fanatic, witnessing gorillas in their natural habitat is usually high up on the list of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The Republic of the Congo has long been known as one of the best places in the world for spotting these beautiful creatures, despite the fact that they can be elusive without an expert guide by your side.

    Read More

    White Rhino, Botswana
    Video

    You're Invited: Botswana

    January 8, 2018 | Video

    Watch as Zegrahm Expedition Leader, Chris Stamper, walks you through our adventures in Botswana. All images and video were captured on our most recent trip to the country, in May 2017.

    Read More

    Kenya & Tanzania Under Canvas
    Blog Post

    Top 5 Trends in Travel in 2018

    January 3, 2018 | Blog Post

    The effects of over tourism on popular destinations such as Barcelona, Venice, and Scotland’s Isle of Skye has arguably been the biggest story in travel this year. But many industry insiders predict that the backlash against the crowds mass tourism tends to bring will shape the future of travel for many years to come.

    Read More

  • Top 10 Travel Bucket List for 2018
    Blog Post

    2018 Travel Bucket List

    December 19, 2017 | Blog Post

    Where will your travel dreams take you in 2018? Here are just a few once-in-a-lifetime experiences Zegrahm can help you check off your bucket list next year.

     

    Read More

    Signature Botswana
    Blog Post

    Botswana Wildlife Conservation

    December 18, 2017 | Blog Post

    How One Country is Fighting the Decline of Wildlife in Africa  

    Read More

    Zegrahm Expeditions Sea to Sahara
    Blog Post

    5 UNESCO Must-Sees On Our Sea to Sahara Journey

    December 14, 2017 | Blog Post

    On our special Sea to Sahara journey, Zegrahm president Van Perry and co-founder Mike Messick lead guests to amazing discoveries across the west coast of Africa.

    Read More

  • Valletta, Malta
    Field Report

    2017 Circumnavigation of Sicily Field Report

    December 6, 2017 | Field Report

    Wednesday & Thursday, September 27 & 28, 2017 - Valletta, Malta / Embark Variety Voyager

    Read More

    Taveuni, Fiji
    Blog Post

    5 Reasons Travel is Among the Best Family Gifts You Can Give

    December 5, 2017 | Blog Post

    Gift-giving is almost always challenging and rewarding in equal measure, but especially around the holidays. There’s an inherent pressure to find the perfect gift for your loved ones—one that will both show them how much we love them and how well we know them.

    Read More

    Milford Sound, New Zealand
    Blog Post

    20 Intriguing Christmas Traditions Around the World

    November 20, 2017 | Blog Post

    Christmas has become an almost ubiquitous celebration found all around the world. Nearly every country—even those not traditionally steeped in Christianity—acknowledges the holiday in some fashion.

    Read More