Back to Cruising!
Sixteen months ago, halfway through a Grand Round the World Voyage, my ship of dreams came to a sudden halt one port on from Sydney.
Aboard a Greek owned, British cruise liner whose entire fleet would subsequently be declared bankrupt, we intrepid seafarers waited anxiously for news of whether we would be evacuated from the ship and flown home; sailed home the long way around or be left to drift aimlessly on a Magical Mystery Tour. A couple of thousand anxious passengers and crew, we treaded water while daily waiting to hear our fate as a global pandemic raged and ports refused entry to once most eagerly welcomed visitors, cruise ships which in many countries help keep their economies afloat.
With Britain in lockdown, most of us were not eager to rush home. Eventually the company confirmed that our global cruise would continue but there would be no shore excursions– essential supplies and fuel were to be allowed onboard in designated ports – but no passengers to disembark. Except for one enterprising gentleman who asked the Captain to drop him off in
Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory on Spain’s south- east coast also known as The Rock. The elderly resident was transferred by tender to his home port as we all stood on deck and waved him off. Apart from the fact that our supply of Easter eggs was not deemed essential enough to be on-loaded during an emergency stop in Singapore, everything went surprisingly smoothly. Hardly anyone complained about the lack of bananas during the latter days of our conveyancing back to the UK.
On board, the ship remained a hive of activity, a highly organised sanctuary of fine dining, first class entertainment and companionable camaraderie.
It felt as if we had been shipwrecked – even while we were onboard.
“This will be your best cruise ever, “ the company assured us. They were not to know that it would also be the last cruise of any sort for a very long time.
My enduring memory is of arriving back at our home-port on the River Thames and being issued with personal protective equipment, hand sanitisers and letters of authority to complete homeward journeys.
With continuous instructions to “maintain social distancing.” Whatever that was! We had been in a bubble – not one passenger crew member went down with covid19 on our ship.
Like dancers on the deck of the Titanic we had worn our party clothes right up to the last Gala Night as the live bands played on.
In the harsh light of day, we were shepherded down the gangway, wrapped head to toe against the encroaching virus and looking, as the brilliant travel writer Paul Theroux once described it, “resembling individuals expelled from the Garden of Eden.”
Many of our family and friends, thought we would never cruise again – not even if we had the chance. They could not have been more wrong; most cruise aficionados were desperate to get back on board.
That brings me full circle to the cruise I finally sailed on out of Port of Miami sixteen months later.
The cruise lines have gone to enormous trouble to implement health and safety protocols to keep passengers safe, and many ships (everyone vaccinated with a few exceptions) are sailing with only
50% capacity. Of course, there is a huge revenue impact on the cruise lines but for travellers, the socially distanced ships are less crowded with no queues for food or entertainment.
Carnival have adopted the marketing slogan BACK TO FUN and on my ship Carnival Sunrise, most passengers did not need much encouragement. A party atmosphere prevailed throughout the vessel with crew showing their joy to be back in jobs by going the extra mile, smiling and welcoming clients while going about their duties with extra wide grins, constant eye contact and offers of “Is there anything else I can do for you?” All crew members actively engage with passengers and in the dining rooms, waiters, servers and hosts join in specially choreographed celebratory singing and dancing routines giving them a chance to display their versatility.
Cruise companies took advantage of the long pause in operations to refurbish their ships, the décor is streamlined and updated, with clean lines and contemporary furnishing. New carpets, drapes, bedding, towels, everything is super ship shape.
Ocean view windows and spacious balconies invite the constantly changing patterns of sea and sky on the passing horizon directly into the stateroom. Fares are affordable and discounts and family rates are being used to attract new passengers and re-engage seasoned cruisers.
Buffets are still popular and from morning to night
there is a mouth-watering selection of every imaginable dish from eggs benedict for breakfast to pizza served all day long to free ice cream cornets.
It is said, if you really try, you can put on 5lb on a week-long cruise. If there were only one culprit to blame, it would have to be the sky-high 6-layer cream sponge cakes in strawberry, peanut butter, chocolate and lemonade.
Lovers of fine dining are treated to waiter service with five-star meals in vast, airy restaurants with glittering chandeliers and vibrant sea- blue glass balconies overlooking the waves.
Speciality restaurants embrace international dishes and hearty American smokehouses serve up plate sized steaks.
Live music around the pool offers on deck dancing and Sail-away parties, while the more active climb never ending staircases up to the top of twisting and turning water slides and flumes.
The Casino offers the chance to claim high stake prizes or simply enjoy repeatedly pressing an outsize button and winning clattering stacks of coins.
Shows in the double decked-theatre cater for all ages and tastes, contemporary musicals make use of fast-moving state-of-the-art graphics and video accompaniments to the team of diverse and multi-talented dancers and singers. Comedy club specials are on offer for a more late-night audience.
Shore excursions on the short Caribbean trips are subject to local restrictions. Travelling in a bubble with other passengers aims to keep passengers and locals protected but there is still a wide range of activities available if you travel in a group.
An abundance of caution is observed while not allowing anything to spoil the sense of spontaneity and adventure. Crew members are always masked and face coverings are mandated for passengers when appropriate.
Returning to the spotless staterooms in the evening, often feels even better than coming home, especially when a cuddly towel creature is perched on the bed.
Many people were sad to leave behind a new family of towel animals who all are a display of the love, care and sense of fun that is a tradition of cruising.
Snuggled down in a super-soft bed, sailing through the night under a blanket of stars, swayed to sleep by the gently rocking of the waves, it’s so good to be back. This is my idea of paradise. Please don’t expel me again.
Ellen Frazer-Jameson is a journalist, author, actress. theater producer and drama coach. She co hosted the largest live late night radio show in Europe for the BBC and has appeared on national TV shows and taken leading roles on stage. She lives in Miami and London and loves to dance Argentine tango.