Taking a cruise conjures up a sensory palette of warm sun, the scent of the sea and the relaxing sound of splashing waves. What is it like today, in the world of masking, testing and distancing?
– by Dena Temple
It was particularly painful, then, when our semi-annual cruise in October, 2020, was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We worriedly checked our emails daily; then finally, about three weeks before our sailing, there was the message we dreaded – no cruising. The entire industry was shut down.
When the first ships began to sail this summer, we were ecstatic – and we immediately booked our next group adventure. The cruise was planned for October 23 aboard the new Odyssey of the Seas, and we were curious to see what the “new normal” would be for a cruise vacation.
It turns out the new normal started at home. At that time, any ship with ports of call in the Bahamas were required to have all passengers vaccinated (with the exception of children). We were delighted about that, as we hoped that would allow us some freedom from masks onboard. We completed pre-cruise vaccine surveys and submitted copies of our vax cards, and we were all set.
All set, that is, until 48 hours before our first piña colada. The night before our flight to Fort Lauderdale, we sat at our dining room table and performed our Abbott Covid-19 Home Test. The test kits were ordered online in advance ($70 for a pack of two) and had to be completed within 48 hours of our sailing. A telehealth associate proctored the test to confirm we were performing it correctly. We waited anxiously like teenagers watching a pregnancy test for the results… negative, and negative! Whew!
The airport in New Orleans seemed to be operating at pre-Covid volume, with long lines at the TSA screening, even in the wee hours of a Friday morning. The flight, too, showed little difference from pre-Covid days, with nearly every seat occupied. Masks were mandatory both in the terminal and on the plane for the entire flight. Attendants wore masks and disposable gloves as they passed out beverages and snacks.
After a Friday night at a Fort Lauderdale hotel, including a tearful reunion and an evening of story-telling, reminiscing, eating and a bit too much wine, we headed for the port on Saturday morning as one of the first groups to board. That morning, we were required to complete a final health screening to certify that we were symptom-free and ready for a healthy vacation. Even with these reminders that we were in the midst of a health crisis, our excitement was palpable!
In pre-Covid days, to check in for your sailing you would snake your way through a queue and meet with an agent to confirm your arrangements. You would present a credit card for onboard expenses, then have a photo taken for internal security. This time, most of the check-in process was completed in advance online, so we wondered what the experience at the terminal would involve.
We were instructed to have our documentation ready, including our boarding passes and vaccine cards. We had to present this information at 5-6 checkpoints in the “new” boarding process. We did not meet with an agent, and soon after running the vax card gauntlet we finally boarded the beautiful Odyssey of the Seas.
The Onboard Experience
The first activity on every cruise is the muster drill, where passengers don their life vests and report to assigned stations for a safety briefing. A new innovation eliminated the need for these large onboard gatherings – Royal Caribbean developed an app that passengers were required to download.
The app provided an alternative to a lot of Covid-related contact issues. Tickets for shore excursions were printed, but they were also available through the app for no-contact access. The ship’s entertainment schedule each day was also available on the app, allowing you to tag the activities you wanted to enjoy – then you received a reminder when that activity was taking place.
Reservations for shows, special events and restaurants were also made through the app, which was convenient and eliminated face-to-face encounters. While the situation wasn’t ideal, because meeting people is part of the joy of cruising, it was an excellent workaround.
There were obvious differences between this cruise and every previous sailing, but the most striking was the number of guests aboard. On our first night, the captain announced that there were around 1,500 guests on our sailing. The ship will hold over 4,200 guests and over 1,600 crew members, making the guest-to-crew ratio on our sailing more than 1:1! He joked that each of us could choose our own crew member, which got a big laugh.
That difference was obvious everywhere. You seldom shared an elevator with another guest. The “Esplanade,” a splendid, mall-like promenade lined with shops and eateries, was usually sparsely populated. I rarely saw another passenger on my early-morning fitness walks. There were always seats available in the theater and other entertainment venues, although they utilized a reservation system to limit the number of guests at every show. They also excused passengers in large venues by section, so there were never large clots of people attempting to leave at once.
In the bi-level theater, the lower level was reserved for fully vaccinated guests, and the unvaxxed used the balcony. Since only children were unvaccinated (and there were less than 50 passengers this sailing under 18), there were usually few people in the balcony. The system allowed the lower theater to be a mask-optional zone, which was a welcome relief from months under wraps.
Masks were required in indoor public spaces, such as the Esplanade, and in restaurants when passengers were not seated. Outdoor areas such as the pool were mask-free, and several events during the sailing were reserved for vaccinated passengers only and deemed mask-optional.
The dining room is where the lack of passengers was most keenly felt. Usually bustling with activity and the sounds of hundreds of boisterous guests, clanking plates, and tinkling glasses, the room was less than half full and felt more like a restaurant at closing time than the middle of the dinner rush. Our rowdy group of eight, however, did everything in our power to liven up the place, and the head waiter and our servers were happy to play along with us, having far fewer guests to deal with and a little time for fun. They sang, made napkin animals, and performed sleight-of-hand tricks that kept us cheering. We looked forward to dinner most of all and skipped the specialty restaurants, since the food was great and the wait staff so delightful. Covid or no, I hugged the head waiter at the end of our cruise when we said our goodbyes. Clearly, they were relieved to be back to work.
Since passenger numbers were so reduced, the number of shore excursions offered at each port was also sharply reduced. Where passengers might normally have a choice of twenty or more tours, there were probably a half-dozen options at each port of call. It turns out that having fewer choices just made it easier for us to decide whether to enjoy a tour or strike out on our own, and we did a little of both. We enjoyed snorkeling with sea turtles on a tour in Curacao, and enjoyed hopping a cab in Aruba for a day of swimming in the clear, azure blue water and relaxing on a perfect white sand beach.
We also visited Royal Caribbean’s private Bahamian island, Cococay. Even though we were one of two ships visiting Cococay at the time, no areas were overcrowded. We agreed: We could get used to this.
Our Pennsylvania friend Ernie and his wife, Sharon, waited all day for a hot-air balloon ride. They were told repeatedly that conditions were too windy to take up the balloon. You can read the disappointment on his face as we prepare to leave Cococay. We didn't have the heart to tell him what was behind him.
The truth is, the lower occupancy numbers won’t last, and once we pass the tipping point where enough of us are vaccinated to halt any further variant development, cruising will return to its roots: crowds of people fighting over lounge chairs at the pool and jamming into buses to tour their favorite ports of call.
While it was a bit costly and nerve-wracking to follow the Covid protocols at the start of our vacation, cruising during Covid on the splendid Odyssey of the Seas was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enjoy an intimate experience on a colossal palace at sea, mano a ship-o. The crew was grateful to be back, and we were grateful to be doing what we love with friends that we love.
We’ll be sailing again in late February. As more people return to cruising and passenger limits are raised, we probably won’t have the same intimate experience. But we’ll enjoy that, too, and we’ll be grateful to once again be at sea.
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