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“I’ve sailed on five cruises during the pandemic: This is what I found”

Whoever coined the phrase, “getting there is half the fun,” probably never cruised during a pandemic. With all the hoops to jump through before, during and sometimes even after sailing, a little less pleasure comes with taking a pleasure cruise these days.

No matter how wonderful may be the ship, crew, food, ports, shore excursions, fellow passengers and myriad other agreeable aspects that woo repeat and first-time cruisers, there’s still the matter of stressing over every nasal penetration and all the non-invasive rules and regulations associated with COVID-19.

Despite the added concerns and hassles, it’s been anchors aweigh for this fully vaxxed avid cruiser since most cruise lines have resumed operations. Making up for lost sea days caused by the industry halting operations in March 2020, I’ve been on five cruises and four cruise lines during the pandemic. It would have been six and five, respectively, had I not aborted a cruise due to COVID fears right before sailaway. Throwing out more numbers, it’s 20 for the times I’ve been tested for these cruises, 10 of those swabbings done while a ship was swaying.

With around six more voyages planned for the rest of the year, including one out of Sydney if the Australian cruise ban is mercifully lifted by November, this could be a game of Russian roulette I’m playing. While the odds of my contracting the coronavirus are probably better than someone who doesn’t cruise as much or at all, chances are just as good that sea-legged readers of Cruise Passenger are now whispering “worth it!” under their collective breath – and hopefully not the persistently short kind of breath that’s a hallmark symptom of COVID-19.

As we know all too well after suffering through two years of this nightmare that has proved fatal for too many, travel restrictions set by governments and health agencies change as often as the weather in Melbourne. Inconstant regulations around masking, testing, quarantining and border closing are as much variants as Delta and Omicron. Cruises, too, seem to have a règlement du jour way about them, as evident by the inconsistent and fluctuating policies cruise line to cruise line, ship to ship and even day to day on the same vessel.

David Dickstein in the Lemaire Channel

To wit ….

Windstar Star Breeze, June 2021

Upon boarding, passengers were immediately ushered into the main dining room not to eat, but to be tested. It was a speedy detour as the 312-passenger Star Breeze would sail at only 25 percent of capacity, and all guests were required to be vaccinated. Unfortunately, the majority of the crew wasn’t, a not-so-little matter that was divulged to guests a couple of days prior to embarking from St. Maarten. With the likelihood that St. Barts, the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla would taint Windstar’s first Caribbean cruise in 15 months by not allowing Star Breeze to make calls there due to a manifest of so many unvaxxed, paying passengers were given the choice of cancelling for a later date or sailing for free. Placing blame on the countries of those unimmunised, Windstar remedied the situation by canceling the next two cruises so that Star Breeze could sail to Puerto Rico where jabs were awaiting the 80 percent or so of noncompliant crew. As for our cruise to (virtually) nowhere, militant was the mask policy and the few shore excursions offered to us in St. Maarten were of the “bubble” kind, meaning we couldn’t co-mingle with anyone from off the ship. That made for comical efforts to comply; the customers of a French bakery in Marigot probably still think my tour group was radioactive the way they were told to steer clear of us. All passengers were required to be tested again on the eve of debarkation.

Mardi Gras, August 2021

The inaugural cruise of Carnival’s newest flagship was also the first revenue cruise out of Port Canaveral in central Florida since the COVID-caused pause. The Eastern Caribbean cruise aboard the 6,465-passenger Mardi Gras was purposely kept to 70 percent capacity and sailed with at least 95 percent of those 12 years and older being vaccinated. This allowed for less stringent CDC health protocols, although due to delta being top of mind, many still chose to wear facial PPE. For the rest of us who trusted the vaccines, being liberated from forced masking while indoors and being able to serve ourselves at the buffet made us feel, well, normal. Our happiness was short-lived, however. I was with Carnival President Christine Duffy when she was informed near the end of our week-long itinerary that starting with the next cruise all Fun Ships would require even inoculated passengers to mask up in most common indoor areas. Mandatory pre-cruise COVID-19 testing within three days of boarding also would now be required for everyone, not just the unvaxxed.

Aggressor Nile Queen, September 2021

Put an asterisk on this cruise because COVID-19 concerns were what had me disembarking the eight-cabin, sail-powered dahabiya about an hour after I had fully unpacked my things for a bucket list adventure up the Nile. A mix-up and grandiose assumption by Aggressor Adventures would have had me bunking with a stranger in my promised single deluxe stateroom. When the purser told me that a late-arriving “Mike” would be sharing my quaint quarters, something they were sure would be OK with me, my initial reaction was this was some sort of sick joke. When I was told it wasn’t, the reality of sharing a small cabin with a complete unknown for what would have been five sleepless nights during a pandemic in ancient Egypt was out of the question. This nightmare did turn into a dream of a trip thanks to a Plan B land tour curated by an apologetic Aggressor Adventures, but the ordeal did expose my fear of coronavirus for the first time.

Carnival Valor, November 2021

They’re not called Fun Ships for nothing, but having to laugh through a mask takes away from the frivolity. So does the “sip and cover” policy that was announced ad nauseum by the Punchliner Comedy Club hostess over a five-day Western Caribbean sail out of New Orleans. Though not strictly enforced at the late-night adult shows, these rules were fodder for jokes by the stand-ups, one of whom donned a designer mask as he took the stage before shedding it moments later with droll defiance. As with many places that impose COVID-19 rules, inconsistency and hypocrisy abounded. Carnival offered bubble tours for families not entirely vaxxed (mostly exempted young children), yet we saw several going ashore to shop among the masses. Buffets weren’t self-serve, but it was make-your-own frozen desserts at the 24-hour ice cream stations. While eavesdropping didn’t indicate that the delta variant was a popular topic of conversation, there was chatter about this new thing in the news called omicron.

Chef’s Table on Navigator of the Seas

Navigator of the Seas, November 2021

“You can remove your masks!” read the signs at the top of the gangway to the delight of travel agents and travel writers on a two-night preview sail of Royal Caribbean’s only ship currently homeported in Los Angeles. The cruise line got governmental blessing to be so cavalier with facial coverings because we were close enough to being 100 percent vaccinated on a voyage with reduced capacity. For the hundreds of us aboard the 3,970-passenger ship, it felt like pre-pandemic times. Despite the looser restrictions for guests, checkpoints were placed at various parts of the recently renovated – excuse me, “Royal Amplified” – ship. Before entering the casino, for example, we had to brandish a string bracelet that was to be worn the entire voyage to prove we were vaxxed. The accessory was of no use once off the ship as it was back to wearing masks to get through customs. At least no additional testing was required to rejoin reality.

Crystal Endeavor, January 2022

On the eve of the fourth COVID test associated with this cruise – the one that gets us back to our respective countries if negative – the captain made a special PA announcement that a “non-crew member” who felt unwell was given a PCR test that came back as positive. He shared that this person was now quarantining in the bank of “red zone” staterooms on Deck 5, joining a half-dozen others who also caught the coronavirus since embarking on our 11-day expedition cruise to Antarctica. That total doesn’t count the three who never even got on Crystal’s newest in the fleet and first-ever expedition ship after testing positive at the pre-cruise hotel in Ushuaia, Argentina. It wasn’t long before the 134 passengers and 208 crew members learned that the latest member of the COVID club was the singer-pianist who the night prior performed a salute to Billy Joel in the Crystal Cove lounge. The GPS tracking device we were all required to wear identified those who were in direct or close contact with the infected entertainer, and since the guilty-by-association included the three other performers, our final two days and nights were sans song stylings. The fact that multiple cases of COVID resulted from the tests taken under Crystal’s watch didn’t taint the wonders Mother Nature provided to the vast majority who maintained a clean bill of health. If anything, we appreciated these gifts even more because you never know when something or someone can take them away.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, besides better hygiene and tricks to be more productive from home, it’s that travel shouldn’t be taken for granted. The hassles and headaches I write about above are far outweighed by the joy of fulfilling wanderlust. And, besides, they’re quite possibly part of the new normal, so we might as well get used to these inconveniences and trepidations if we want to see more of this crazy, COVID-cursed world.