2021 cruising report

So we’re out here in what is still known by some as the West Indies. More specifically, we’re in the leeward islands of the West Indies, one of the few places in the Caribbean we haven’t hit before on a cruise ship. This is our fourth consecutive trip with Holland America, but our first cruise since cruising restarted and pandemic protocols were implemented. Is it worth the hassle to get aboard this cruise? Are we likely to get covid-19? How have things changed since those pre-pandemic cruises?

In a way, we’ve been on a pandemic cruise before, having taken a JoCo theme cruise on Holland America in March 2020. We had our temperature checked before we were let onto that ship, as covid-19 was just becoming a thing then. We took that cruise despite many good meaning people warning us not to.

It turned out okay with no cases on our ship. We had invested about $6,000 in that cruise and it was hard to flush that money down the drain. In the pandemic era though we bought cruise insurance which we didn’t need. Or maybe we will need it. One rumor going around the MS Rotterdam (our cruise ship) is that if we get Omicron covid-19 cases, we could be detained for up to fourteen days before being off boarded in Fort Lauderdale.

Needless to say, that’s not on our plans. I hope cruise insurance will cover that, but more importantly we have two cats at home and no guarantee our cat/house sitter could stay an extra two weeks in this event. Also, my wife will run out of medications long before the two weeks would be up.

But I can sense it’s a needless worry. Everyone on board presented vaccination certifications to get on the gangway. We also presented recent PCR or antigen tests. Moreover, since this is Holland America, this is basically a cruise ship full of old farts like us. Seniors are a disproportionately vaccinated group. Then there are all these covid-19 protocols on board. With a few exceptions like meal times, you are masked unless outdoors, in your stateroom, or eating. And you are constantly washing hands. The ship has hand washing stations going into the buffet on the Lido deck. You mostly travel only on Holland America excursions and are masked on those too.

Is this too much hassle though to cruise? That’s an individual judgment, but it isn’t for me. Most of the time I am inured to the masking requirements. I don’t need the masks I brought. Holland America provided a number of super comfortable masks for free, masks that will follow me home and probably become my everyday masks. It’s certainly possible that a case or two of covid-19 could develop. But if there is any place on the planet where herd immunity has been achieved, it’s probably on our cruise ship. We’ve pretty much all had booster shots too. That and all the sanitation suggests to me we’d be more likely to get covid-19 from wandering masked inside the local Big Y grocery store than here on this ship.

Other cruise lines though may not be as anal about covid-19 as Holland America, but probably are. Some like Carnival cater to a younger and arguably wilder crowd. Some of these cruise lines have reputations for being wild party ships, where you can find overly intoxicated drunks passed out in the hallways. These sorts probably aren’t beyond ginning up some fake credentials to get on board a cruise ship. So if you have to take a cruise, you may be better with one that caters to oldsters, like Holland America.

Holland America’s Rotterdam, which we are on, is its newest ship. It’s still being broken in, as it had its first paying passengers in October. Walking the promenade, you can still smell the newly varnished wooden rails. Having sailed the Nieuw Amsterdam, the Oosterdam and Westerdam, it’s interesting to observe what has changed. In general, you get pretty much the same experience. For Holland America, the Rotterdam is a large ship, but not nearly the behemoths in the Royal Caribbean fleet. We’ve come to appreciate smaller ships and actually prefer them. We also appreciate an older set of passengers.

You do miss a few things on Holland America, compared to other cruise lines. Norwegian, while having a reputation as a party ship, has fabulous shows. Holland America though has a fabulous variety of musical venues: a blues club, a rock and roll club and a number of piano bars. The quality of the performers is top notch. We are a bit highbrow and prefer Lincoln Center Stage, where a classical quartet performs three 45-minute shows a day, with one being a repeat of an afternoon performance. It doesn’t matter which venue you choose. You can easily move from one venue to the other; they are all quite excellent.

The Rotterdam also has a new stage with all the latest high technology including wall to wall LED displays, making you feel like you are looking at billboards in Times Square. We saw an amazing dance performance on the Main Stage that used all these lights quite effectively. Their main stage is probably state of the art for the cruise industry at the moment. Just don’t expect Broadway musicals or synchronized bungees jumpers falling from the ceilings like we saw twelve years ago on Norwegian.

All cruise lines specialize in picking your pockets, and Holland America has gotten more creative at it since the pandemic. It used to be at dinner you would get a basket of rolls to share with your fellow table mates. Now they give you one. All the menus offer premium choices for extra money, even in main dining. For $75 you can order an enormous steak and $3.95 gets you fresh squeezed orange juice at breakfast. There is still silly towel art on your bed at night, but chocolates on your bed at night are problematic. There is also a new club, Club Orange, which is exclusive which means if you want a private dining area, you got to pay up, part of the “ship within a ship” concept a lot of cruise lines are doing.

Holland America has always served normal portions, unlike the other cruise lines where you can easily pack 4000 calories into a meal. It didn’t matter though because the quality of the food was always outstanding. Gala night though disappointed. The filet mignon was excellent, but there was no baked potato and the meat could not have been more than four ounces. So you had this enormous plate with a tiny steak and a few tiny vegetables. The Lido deck is always available of course, but even there the buffet seemed smaller than on previous cruises. Moreover, there were hours like 9:30 PM when it was completely shut down.

It’s hard to complain too much though. It’s a pleasure to go cruising again, even with a mask on much of the time. It’s a pleasure to travel and a pleasure not to be stuck at home. It’s a pleasure to converse with strangers over shared meals and actually socialize, something this introvert generally avoids.

Shore excursions are a bit chancy. We’re not stopping in Guadeloupe, which had recent riots caused by crowds of anti-vaxxers. Even here in today’s port of call, St. Martin, the French side was off limits. There was civil unrest there too, this one due to lack of work for younger people. I have a feeling there will be more of this in other destinations before we berth back in Fort Lauderdale in eight days.

Life may be surreally nice on our cruise ship, but it’s hardly representative of most of the world right now.

Traveling in the age of covid (part two)

Time to get this vacation thing on! But boy, it’s sure a hassle. We’re on a cruise out of Fort Lauderdale today and getting on the ship is like running a marathon. It’s also become more expensive. It’s hard to quantify the additional expense as certain things, like WiFi, are now part of the fare. In addition, in the age of covid-19, it’s stupid to not add travel insurance so there’s that, for both the cruise and our flights.

Shore excursion prices look higher too, but there seems little point in booking shore excursions when the itinerary can change. It changed about a week ago, so we’re just going to wait until we get onboard the ship and listen to the lectures before booking shore excursions … and hope they aren’t sold out.

But perhaps the most annoying thing of all is meeting the covid-19 testing requirements. You have to present a negative PCR or Antigen test and it can’t be more than 48 hours old, plus the test must be observed. This meant we had to get a test on Monday and we had to hope we’d get test results back before our cruise departed. CVS Pharmacy says it takes 24-48 hours for test results, but there is no guarantee. My wife got her results back in under a day. We were tested at the same time, so why didn’t I get mine? Was there a snafu?

Before scarfing down a dinner at a Bradley International brew pub last night, I called CVS. I eventually learned that my results simply weren’t available yet. I thought maybe they got lost. They arrived sometime in the middle of the night while we slept peacefully at a Hyatt hotel here. Of course, we both tested negative.

So we’ll be on board our ship. Our hotel was strategically chosen because they offer free shuttles to and from the airport and the cruise port, plus a complementary breakfast. Cruising is still struggling to come back here. It was made harder by Governor Ron DeSantis trying to impose on cruise lines a requirement that they take unvaccinated passengers. It was a pointless exercise designed to prove his street creds among Republicans, because it’s the federal government sets these requirements. Plus cruise lines don’t have to dock in Florida, and having cruises overwhelmed with covid-19 cases taints their brands. Using Florida is just more convenient for them. Until recently, if you wanted a Caribbean cruise you flew to some place like the Bahamas, assuming they would let you in.

The flight to Fort Lauderdale last night was interesting. It was my first time on a plane since the pandemic. It’s always a bit chancy to take an evening flight the day before a cruise, and as we approach winter, snow delays were a possibility. But weirdly all flights out of Bradley International were on time and the flight was extra smooth. Everyone wore masks, but on both the plane and in the terminal I noticed dissenters who think that wearing a mask but not putting it over your nose counts. It doesn’t. I wish police would arrest these scofflaws. Thankfully, there weren’t too many of them.

While wearing masks on a flight is a new thing, I was glad for it. In addition to reducing the likelihood of acquiring or passing on covid-19, they reduce the likelihood of acquiring all sorts of sicknesses. The lady next to me was suffering from some sort of cold. Wearing her mask might keep me from getting whatever she got. So I’m hoping that one result of this is that when the pandemic is over that the masking requirements in airplanes and terminals remains. It’s a sensible precaution and really no bother at all.

More masking is happening in Florida than I expected. People wore masks in the terminal, and outside of it. Here in our hotel people are mostly masked. This could be because Fort Lauderdale is a relatively blue part of Florida. Or it could be that the Delta variant, which knocked Florida for a loop, knocked some sense into a lot of the people here. Curiously Florida now has one of the lowest covid-19 infection rates in the country. This is likely because Delta tore through the state. One effect of all those deaths and hospitalizations is to make the virus harder to transmit.

But we’re ready. With a fresh booster shot coursing through our veins and masks up the wazoo, we’re ready to cruise. Some masking will be needed on the ship, but it will be minimally invasive. The West Indies awaits.

Pandemic cruising … again

Is it crazy to cruise during a pandemic? Maybe, but for me our planned December cruise now officially booked is not our first pandemic cruise. There was also our theme cruise in March 2020. We were on a ship that was literally one of the last ones let back into the United States before cruising just stopped.

Thankfully, there were no cases of covid-19 on our ship during that cruise, although we later learned there was one unrelated death of a passenger. The ship berthed next to us was not so lucky.

These were early days during the pandemic. The virus was not particularly widespread at the time, even in Florida, although Florida was worse than most states, as it is now. Also, it was harder to catch as there was no delta variant. This was before masking became a thing. No one had masks or thought to wear one. We did have an epidemiologist on board, who gave us a little lecture. We took his advice and hung out away from the gates and between concourses while we waited six hours or so for our flight from Fort Lauderdale. We did bring lots of Clorox wipes. A month or two later we’d realize it was kind of pointless. It made our surfaces more sanitary, but it wasn’t understood then that covid-19 was principally an airborne disease.

So naturally we’re planning another cruise, again on Holland America, and again out of Fort Lauderdale. Just as the last cruise was risky, this one will be too. But to my way of thinking, it’s going to be less risky. Because Florida governor Ron DeSantis be damned, you have to be vaccinated to go on this cruise. You have to present a vaccination certificates and a negative covid-19 test no more than three days old.

On the ship, in the more closely confined spaces like elevators, you will have to mask up, and we’ll likely be masked up anyhow when not in our room or outside on the Lido deck or in a deck chair on the promenade. It’s likely we’ll be masked during our excursions too, assuming the countries will let us in.

The tide has turned with this new cruise, however. We weren’t let in to Grand Turk just on the fear one of us might have covid-19. This time our biggest risk probably comes from being around residents of the islands we’ll be visiting. Much of the rest of the world doesn’t have the opportunity to get vaccinated like we have in the United States. Some of the islands we will be visiting, like Barbados, likely will have most of its population unvaccinated. It’s unlikely they will acquire the disease from any of us. It’s hardly risk free to cruise in this pandemic age. But the risk does seem more manageable than on our last cruise.

Still, Fort Lauderdale is in Florida, and the state is arguably at the epicenter of the latest wave here in the United States. It didn’t have to be, but they have a sociopath for a governor. It would be nice if we could grab a similar cruise from a non-Florida port, but it’s not an option. The only real option is to keep holing down like we’ve been doing for eighteen months or so.

But even staying at home is not completely safe. It’s still risky (probably riskier than ever) to go shopping, even with a mask on. My wife volunteers, and one of her work places is the local emergency room. She is gloved, double-masked and even wears goggles but as there are usually at least a couple of covid patients in the waiting room, she’s already at elevated risk. She’s willing to accept the risk, and by inference so am I as I sleep next to her. Due to covid-19, she keeps expecting the hospital to end her volunteering. It happened before, but at least now they know what they are dealing with and how to keep reasonably safe.

The anti-vaxxers seem to either be unconcerned about their risk or place their faith in quack cures. A lot of them are now dead as a result. There’s a difference though between foolish risks and manageable risks. If I come down with covid-19, while I could die, it’s exceedingly unlikely because I’m vaccinated. I’m likely to avoid the hospital too. It’s likely I’ll be able to get a booster shot before our December cruise too.

We’ll be required to wear masks on the plane, but since we’re flying to Florida, extra precautions are warranted. I hope to find some N95 masks before then, or it I can’t, double mask and wear them on the plane and while in Florida. The cruise company is likely to know who we were near while on the ship should someone contract covid-19. And we took out cruise insurance to cut our losses if we can’t go.

I accept the risk of cruising in the covid-19 age because cruise companies aren’t reckless like Governor DeSantis and we can take reasonable precautions, but also because I don’t want to wholly give up travel because of the pandemic. Travel helps makes life feel worth living.

I’m tired of being housebound. We’ll use our brains and trust to science to keep these risks low and manageable, while realizing we can’t make them go away entirely. With covid-19 no longer a mystery, avoiding it is possible if you are careful. Most of us can live life and be reasonably safe, just so long as you do it mindfully and keep a clear head and follow the recommended protocols.

Or so I’m hoping. We’ll see how it goes.