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.



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

  • Bordeaux, France
    Blog Post

    5 Must-Sips in Western Europe

    September 19, 2017 | Blog Post

    Sailing aboard the newly refurbished Ocean Adventurer, guests on our upcoming Discoveries of Coastal Europe journey can drink in Western Europe’s dramatic coasts from Lisbon to London.

    Read More

    La Gomera, Canary Islands

    Sea to Sahara [Infographic]

    September 18, 2017 | Infographics

    Take a glimpse into our brand-new itinerary, Sea to Sahara, showcasing far-flung islands and exotic ports of call, including Cape Verde, Canary Islands, and Morocco.

    Read More

    Sylt, Germany
    Field Report

    Best of the Baltic, 2017 Field Report

    August 29, 2017 | Field Report

    Saturday & Sunday, July 15 & 16, 2017 - London, England / Embark Island Sky

    Read More

  • La Gomera, Canary Islands

    Sea to Sahara: A Brand-New Small-Ship Cruise Expedition

    August 29, 2017 | Video

    Watch as Director of Operations Jon Nicholson and Cruise Director Kelsey Simmons, talk about our brand-new expedition, Sea to Sahara, that explores Cape Verde, the Sahara Desert, the Canary Islands, and Morocco.


    Read More

    Jersey, Channel Islands
    Blog Post

    European Birds: 10 Endemic Species

    August 28, 2017 | Blog Post

    The birds of Europe include around 700 different species, many of which are similar to those found in northern Asia and North America. In fact, there are only 10 endemic species of European birds that you won’t see anywhere else in the world.

    Read More

    Lanzarote Island, Canary Islands, Spain
    Blog Post

    10 Things to Do on Canary Islands Holidays

    August 7, 2017 | Blog Post

    From lush forests to daunting volcanoes, Canary Islands holidays offer unexpected variety and dramatic, dynamic landscapes.

    Read More

  • Antarctic Sunset
    Blog Post

    The Best Places for Stargazing Around the World

    July 25, 2017 | Blog Post

    On August 21, the moon will pass in front of the sun and the sky will turn completely dark in the middle of the day. Total solar eclipses like this occur approximately once every 18 months, but they’re usually only visible from less than half a percent of the Earth’s surface. This will be the first total solar eclipse visible in the United States since 1979.

    Read More

    Kenya & Tanzania Under Canvas
    Blog Post

    Kenya's Bushland, Birthplace of the Safari

    July 24, 2017 | Blog Post

    The traveler who goes on safari in Kenya is a bit like a golfer hitting the links at St. Andrews. Beyond the sheer enjoyment of their experience, there is an ever-present awareness of the history and heritage surrounding them.

    Read More

    Tenerife Blue Chaffinch
    Blog Post

    Birds of the Canary Islands Checklist

    July 5, 2017 | Blog Post

    Located 62 miles west of Morocco, the Canary Islands are a Spanish archipelago revered around the world for its beautiful beaches and unspoiled natural attractions.

    Read More

  • Berber Drummer, Morocco
    Blog Post

    Experience Berber Culture in Morocco

    June 19, 2017 | Blog Post

    Morocco is often lumped into the Middle East (rather than North Africa) and classified as an Arabic country. But the indigenous people of Morocco—the Berbers—are the area’s original inhabitants. The majority of the country’s population of around 34 million is Berber, not Arab.

    Read More

    Mont Saint-Michel, France
    Blog Post

    Mont Saint-Michel: A Bridge to the Divine

    June 12, 2017 | Blog Post

    In 2014 a new footbridge opened between the French mainland and Mont Saint-Michel.

    Read More

    Great Barrier Reef

    2018: 26 Countries, 52 UNESCO World Heritage Sites [Infographic]

    May 4, 2017 | Infographics

    In 2018, Zegrahm will be visiting 52 amazing UNESCO World Heritage Sites in over 25 countries! The United Nations Educational Scientific & Cultural Organization is a specialized agency of the UN that maintains a list of important natural or historical sites, whose preservation and safe-keeping are deemed important for the world community.

    Read More