The very essence of the old 'Cape Run'

The very essence of the old ‘Cape Run’

The Cape Run. In the old days, it was the thing of legends. In the years before the air was filled with the sound of screaming jets soaring overhead, the famous, lavender hulled Union Castle liners used to sail from Southampton, heading south on the two week long voyage to the crown jewel of South Africa.

As voyages go, it is perhaps second only to the Atlantic crossing in terms of the nostalgic joy that it still conjures. But, rather than the frantic, often cold weather dashes of the great liners to and from the New World, the ‘Cape Run’ was a much more languid, civilised affair, usually stretched out over a couple of weeks.

It was also a vastly different kind of adventure; the Union Castle liners were generally decorated to resemble floating English country houses, decked out in acres of dark wood, and what many would now find to be toe curling chintz. It was a world of languid afternoon teas. shuffle board on long, open promenades, and the odd dinner dance out on deck. Passenger numbers were much lower than on the Atlantic, and the ships were much more intimate.

Leaving the cold of Great Britain, weather would usually improve rapidly after the often stormy passage over the sometimes petulant Bay of Biscay. By the time the ship reached Tenerife, temperatures had usually climbed enough for passengers to use the outdoor pool and sun bathing areas for most of the voyage. Unlike on the Atlantic, the weather seldom made the Cape Run an almost exclusively indoor experience.

Fred. Olsen offers occasional voyages to or from the Cape

Fred. Olsen offers occasional voyages to or from the Cape

Obviously, the voyage had lots of sea days, enhanced by occasional stops in such places as remote Saint Helena, scene of the second, final exile for Napoleon Bonaparte, and the  rugged splendour of Walvis Bay. And, if journey’s end perhaps lacked the instant drama of the approach to Manhattan, then the sight of the cloud draped Table Mountain at the end of the voyage must have had it’s own, immediate drama.

Of course, the voyage ran in both directions, year in and out, for many decades. Finally done in by the droning jet air armada, the sailings finally ceased in 1977, leaving a kind of retrospective, nostalgic yearning for yet another elegant experience, seemingly consigned to the memory bank of history.

Happily, opportunities do still exist to travel the ‘old run’, usually in the shape of repositioning voyages. These usually occur in late autumn, or as part of a World Cruise itinerary, usually sailing in January. So, if the idea of sailing to the Cape appeals to you, here’s a few options worth considering.

Please note that this blog does not cover such passenger/cargo options as the RMS St. Helena, or the freighters of Safmarine which also sometimes carry passengers. These are beyond my bounds of experience. In that respect, you might want to look at a specialist website such as The Cruise People at

Leave winter behind on a voyage to South Africa

Leave winter behind on a voyage to South Africa

The biggest option- quite literally- is usually offered by MSC Cruises. Each autumn, one or two of their enormous, resort style ships usually sails from the Italian port of Genoa, bound for a winter season of cruises out of Durban, with a Cape Town call en route. Interestingly, many of these sail down the east coast of Africa. With hundreds of balcony cabins, and all the razzle and sizzle of a resort type ship, they offer a raft of activities sufficient to keep their passengers occupied for days on end. They usually return to Italy in the spring, sailing on a similar route.

Cruise And Maritime also offer a rather more intimate style of adventure, sailing the 21,000 ton Astor on a line voyage to and from Cape Town each spring, as part of a longer, winter long deployment to Australia. In terms of ambiance, numbers, and with an emphasis on board on intimacy and relaxation, this spiffy little ship is probably the closest in spirit to the ‘old days’ as you are likely to find these days.

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines often feature at least one adventure to or from the Cape every year, as part of one of their annual World Cruise programme. Having catered to legions of largely British passengers on their sweetly sized, intimate vessels for decades, Fred. Olsen is probably better placed than anyone to deliver some of the old world, colonial ambiance of the ‘Cape Run’; also, their ships offer a large number of single cabins that make them an excellent value for often heavily penalised solo travellers.

Intrigued? I certainly am. This is a voyage I would love to make and, when it happens, you’ll certainly get the story on here first. Happy voyaging!



  1. Thank you for this share. I did the Cape Town/St Helena/Gambia/Teneriffe/Cardiff run with my family in the late ’90’s, with a week on the island of St Helena, Longwood House (Napoleon) and his Tomb in the Valley. The ship was the last Royal Mail liner, RMS ST Helena, recently built but full of old world charm, excellent cuisine and lots of activities for the passengers, very much on the Union castle model, Captains cocktail party, cricket on deck etc etc. But your article is very interesting and I very much identify with it


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