I cannot even put into words how excited we were stepping aboard Royal Caribbean’s ‘Anthem of the Seas’ last week (20th July 2021). Having been on the last ever cruise of Holland America Lines MS Maasdam last year and stranded in the South Pacific for almost a month, then 16 months later to be on one of the first cruises with Royal Caribbean out of Southampton I have seen first hand how the pandemic has affected the cruise lines, and most certainly it’s passengers.
Having worked conducting ceremony and rituals for the last 18+ years, there is one word that marks many changes and milestones in our lives ‘TRANSITION’ and I think it’s really important to note that this is the phase that the cruise industry is in at the moment as it makes these first tentative steps to return to ‘a new normal’ whatever that might be.
When we were stranded at sea as the pandemic hit in March 2020 crew were thrown unexpectedly into a situation which no one could have ever predicted or trained for and yet coped phenomenally going above and beyond the call of duty, not even knowing whether they would even have a job after disembarking and the world of cruising ground to a painful halt (I am very disappointed to learn though that to this date senior members of the Maasdam crew and guest entertainers have never received so much as a ‘Thank you’ from Holland America Line!!) but that’s another story!
After 16 long months, I was desperate to get back to sea, I can’t imagine what it’s felt like for the crew, but their joy at being back absolutely shone through in abundance.
For this cruise Royal Caribbean had ruled that all passengers over 18 had to be double vaccinated. Thankfully both myself and my 23 year old daughter are key workers and had received our vaccines fairly early on. On top of this a condition of sailing was that all adult passengers also had PCR tests done 72 hrs before sailing. We were given a link to an associated company where we would have received the PCR tests free of charge, unfortunately there was no appointments free at any of their test centres within 100 miles. However we were also told that if we booked our own tests from a list of recommended suppliers that whilst we would need to pay up from for the tests we would each receive US$140 on board credit each to compensate, which is exactly what we did. Georgia and I booked our PCR tests for 48 hrs prior to departure with Dam Health in Reading, it was basically a pop-up shop but very quick and efficient at taking the tests and our results came back later that evening (thankfully both negative).
Cameron being just 9 had to have his covid test at the Port. On arrival we were directed to the testing area and went straight in with no waiting line. It was the first time Cameron had had a covid test and he was really nervous so I was expecting it to be a challenging few minutes but the staff were brilliant with him, explaining exactly what they were going to do, how long it would take and that it would “tickle a little bit”. The test strips were only done inside his nostrils, thankfully not down the back of his throat, but it was over in seconds. He was as good as good, boldly stating “oh it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be” PHEW.
From there we were shown to a holding area where we took a seat and waited for his results which took about 20 minutes to come back. After that Georgia and I just had to complete our check in by showing our vaccination cards and PCR results and we were all set for embarkation. We were on board within around 40 minutes of arriving at the port.
ON BOARD SHIP
Crew welcomed us aboard with smiles, cheers and enthusiasm. I say smiles because although they all had masks on you could see their eyes smiling and the joy in their voices. I loved the fact that every crew member was wearing a photographic badge with their un-masked faces, each with the wording ‘the smile behind the mask’.
Anthem of the Seas is a Quantum Class ship and we have previously cruised around New Zealand on her sister ship Ovation of the seas and even at that time when the ship was almost at full capacity at just under 5000 passengers she felt very spacious, so you can imagine how much space we had on this cruise with only around 800 passengers on board, sailing at under 1/5 capacity.
I’m not going to do a full review of the ship itself on this blog as there is plenty of information out there, suffice to say she is truly magnificent with an array of activities for everyone of every age, fabulous entertainment, a huge selection of bars and restaurants and facilities including a flow-rider (surfing), the i-fly (indoor sky diving), climbing wall and bumper cars to name but a few – oh and not forgetting the North Star, which gives you a panoramic 360 degree view more than 300 ft above the waves.
Whilst the Anthem only started sailing again on 7th July, most crew had already been onboard for around 3 months, originally boarding in Cyprus, having to quarantine in cabins for 2 weeks and then undergoing rigorous updated training and getting furloughed ships ready to sail ago. Full credit had to go to both RCI and crew for the way they have coped with this. Of course many people choose to work on cruise ships to see the world, but at this time crew are not permitted to leave the ship whilst in port, meaning that most will face 6-9 months without getting off the ship, not to mention their ability to find bars/cafes etc in ports which offer them free wifi giving them all that critical contact with loved ones back home. Without exception every crew member was upbeat, energised and grateful to be back in their jobs, I just hope that under these long term restrictive conditions that the cruise lines ensure their mental health is monitored and looked after.
For passengers, we had to wear masks when walking around the public areas but not in the bars, restaurants, theatre or poolside etc.
In the main dining rooms and windjammer (buffet) restaurant every other table was closed off to allow for physical distancing, likewise in the theatre every other row was blocked off, but with 1/5 passenger capacity only a fraction of the theatre was filled. Yet even playing to such small audiences the entertainment teams gave their absolute all and the production of Queens ‘We will rock you’ was truly sensational.
Travelling with a young son the majority of the time I don’t always eat in the main dining rooms, especially in the evenings, Cameron is usually full after his first bread roll and wanting to move on to the next thing so as a general rule we prefer to eat in the lido/windjammer buffet restaurants which are much more relaxed and informal. On this cruise however the Windjammer restaurants were only open for breakfast and lunches but not for evening meals. I am told this was due to having fewer crew members on board and meant all dining attendants were required as main dining waiting staff. It really wasn’t a major problem for us and the food and service as always were of the highest standards.
Where on previous cruises every guest has been given a menu in the restaurant, the menus this time were viewable either via the Royal Caribbean app or QR code provided each evening. This meant less physical handling of menus, although these were still available for those who wanted them.
We found also that many services and activities this time needed to be booked where on previous cruises you could just rock up, the main shows, bumper cars and the north star being some of them. Sea pass cards were also scanned going in and out of the Windjammer restaurant with dining attendants showing every guest to a table – I actually much preferred this as on previous cruises it has been almost impossible to find a table at times, especially at breakfast.
Other restrictions applied to numbers in pools and hot tubs, 11 in the main pool and 6 at a time in the hot tub. Sensible in the main, but perhaps should have given a time limit in each so people weren’t queuing to get in the pool. On another occasion there was ourselves as a family of 3 in one side of the hot tub and another family of 4 (Mum, Dad and two young girls) on the other side, making an obvious total of 7 in two ‘bubbles’ but we were told by crew that one family member would have to get out. A little bit frustrating but I guess with everything at the moment there has to be a cut off.
PORTS & EXCURSIONS
On our 5 night cruise we only had one port of call and that was Greenock in Scotland which is not far from Glasgow. This was the first time a cruise ship had visited the port since 2019 so things were obviously new and different for the port staff and tour operators too.
First thing to note was that passengers were only allowed off the ship if they were on an RCI booked excursion. I understand this completely in the current climate but it is also quite difficult for families with young children as they don’t always want to be in a tour group listening to a guide all the time.
However although the ship was in port for around 12 hours we booked onto a tour which was a scenic tour of the lochs lasting 4 hrs and departing at 2pm, meaning we had to spend the morning on board ship still. The tour itself was very enjoyable (masks had to be worn at all times whist on the coach), the tour guide was good fun and very informative and the trip took us out around some breathtaking scenery in the Loch Lomond and Loch Fyne regions bringing us back to the ship via a 20 minute ride.
On the itinerary it did show a 45 minute ‘free time’ stop in the pretty village of Luss on the west side of Loch Lomond, this would have been lovely, but alas our stop time there was reduced to just 20 minutes, we had to keep together as a group with our guide, meaning by the time we had walked down from the coach park and back up again we only had around 5 minutes to look at the Loch, we were not allowed to go into any of the little local shops there, but did just manage to grab Cameron an ice cream from the van back in the car park!
This day felt far more restrictive than the sea days BUT as I said at the start of this blog, this is the transition stage for the cruise industry and it was day 1 for the local tour operators. It was still a very enjoyable afternoon out and the scenery leaving Greenock that evening was just sensational as we watched the sun setting behind us.
So, would we cruise again in the current climate??……without any shadow of a doubt YES.
Admittedly it’s not quite the same as pre-covid times, but we still had an amazing time, re-charged our batteries and felt that we were a million miles away from civilisation.
Having seen some of the chaotic scenes at Heathrow Airport last week, I was so pleased we had opted for a cruise rather than trying to fly anywhere. For us it really was smooth sailing from start to finish.
I hope that people will continue to cruise and continue to support this amazing industry as they need it now more than ever. The more they can prove they can operate safely then the quicker we will all pass through the transitional stages and hopefully get to enjoy cruising and ports as we have known and loved them in the past.
CRUISING IS BACK!