the ship finally sailed

One by one, passengers took off their masks and cheered as they cleared safety and health checks to board the first cruise ship sailing out of North America since the pandemic was declared in March last year.

A woman threw her bag on the floor and danced to a Caribbean calypso beat as she played in the reception room. Another clashed fists with a crew member before embracing her triumphantly, while an older man stood still and looked at the excited guests, his eyes filled with tears as he processed the reality of being back on a cruise. did, one in 400 he took in his lifetime.

“We’re back, we’re home,” shouted a passenger as they entered the ship. “Welcome back ma’am,” replied a crew member with a gleaming smile. “we’ve missed you.”

For many of the 600 or so passengers aboard the Celebrity Millennium operated by Royal Caribbean’s Celebrity Cruises from the Caribbean island of Saint Maarten on Saturday, it was the moment they’ve dreamed of over the past 15 months, as cruise ships Even after vaccination began in the United States and people began to travel again, they stopped in ports.

For the ship’s 650 crew members, the event was equally joyous, providing respite after a grueling year without work or steady income.

“It was very difficult to survive at home for 14 months,” said Donald Sihombing, a 33-year-old stateroom attendant from Indonesia. “I feel so happy and lucky to be back. There are still many people who have to wait for cruises to start in the US to be able to work again.”

Major cruise lines are preparing to resume operations from United States ports this summer, with the Celebrity Edge being the first to depart Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on June 26, with all crew and at least 95 percent of passengers on board. Fully ready for vaccination. According to guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But those plans could be disrupted If not, Florida exempts cruise lines from a recently enacted state law that prohibits businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from people wishing to use their services.

Celebrity is currently in talks with the CDC and state officials in Florida and is optimistic that a timely solution will be found for sailing. Susan Lomax, the company’s associate vice president for global public relations, said it will continue to offer vaccination tours to ensure the health and safety of guests, crew and local communities in the destinations it visits.

Here are some takeaways from the first major international cruise with US passengers since 2020. The itinerary of the seven-day cruise from St. Maarten includes stops in Barbados, Aruba, and Curaçao.

To board the Celebrity Millennium all adult passengers were required to fill out a health questionnaire and show proof of vaccination and a negative PCR test. In addition, visitors to St. Maarten are required to present a printed copy of their own health screening document, which must be authorized ahead of time.

The check-in process begins at home, via the Celebrity app or website, which allows you to scan your passport, fill out paperwork, and book a time slot for boarding. Once all steps are completed, the system generates an express pass designed to reduce contact and speed up boarding processes. In the departure hall, passes were scanned and vaccination and test certificates were reviewed by staff, then guests were allowed to enter the ship.

But be prepared for surprises. Initially, Barbados, the first port of call, required visitors to submit a negative COVID test 120 hours before departure. But it changed the requirement to a test done within 72 hours, meaning some passengers’ results may have been finished by the time they arrived.

A testing station was set up at the departure terminal near Celebrity and provided free rapid antigen testing, which produced results within 20 minutes, allowing guests to board the ship.

Those who cruise regularly will be familiar with muster drills, a safety exercise that typically requires passengers to gather in a cramped muster station and watch a safety demonstration that takes 30 minutes or more. One passenger described the process as “pathetic”.

This week, Celebrity debuted its new e-muster system, which allows passengers to take a tutorial on their electronic devices, showing them how to make a living and introducing them to the sound of emergency signals. . Once aboard, passengers simply go to their designated muster area and a small sticker is placed on their room card to show them that they have completed the process.

At the start, guests were allowed to go straight to their rooms. (Before the pandemic, they had to wait till 1 pm) All rooms had hand sanitizers and face masks, and were disinfected every day.

All of the ship’s facilities, including a gym, spa, casino and theater, were open and fully functioning, although the ship was operating with only about a third of its normal passengers. To cut down on contact, rooms can be unlocked using the Celebrity app on your phone and all restaurants, activities and shore excursions can be booked through the app.

Face masks were not required for cruise guests due to the vaccination requirement, but the crew were expected to wear them while on duty, a rule that would be reviewed after the inaugural sailing.

Both PCR and Antigen COVID tests were complimentary and available onboard.

Some cruise fans feared that cruise buffets would be phased out in the post-pandemic era, but at the Oceanview Cafe on the tenth deck of Celebrity Millennium, buffet stations were in full force. The main difference was that the food was served by members of the crew.

When guests enter restaurants, they must first wash their hands in the basin at the entrance – a necessity even before the pandemic. Then they can walk from station to station to see what they want for the employees.

The new system worked well with the ship at 30 percent capacity. Servers kept up with demand and there was no overcrowding at stations, but the experience would have been more hectic to sail the ship with its full complement of 2,210 guests.

Some guests foresaw a decline in food quality due to the financial hit cruise companies have taken since the start of the pandemic last year, but most said the celebrity has maintained the high standard of food and service.

“We have invested even more in our food and beverage services and scaled our facilities at all levels,” said Lorenzo Davidou, associate vice president of service excellence at Celebrity.

After a disappointing year of booking multiple cruises only to be canceled or postponed, many guests were excited to be back on the ship, even if they weren’t quite sure what to expect.

Squirrel Simpson said, “We’ve cruised about 28 times on all the different varieties of ship, but with this crazy virus we didn’t know what it would look and feel like, so we wanted to try it and see if We feel safe.” , 68, an avid cruiser from Myrtle Beach, SC, sipping mimosa with her husband at the pool bar.

Her verdict: “It’s just unbelievable, it’s like we’re back past the time of the pandemic and we’re alive again. Talking to people without masks, eating in restaurants, watching shows. it’s a dream.”

Still, Ms Simpson found the boat’s emptiness real and said she missed the discussion of many of the passengers on board.

Pointing to the empty rows, she said, “Normally, you have to come out at 7 a.m. and you’re lucky if you find an empty chair to hold your towel, but now you have a lot of options. ” of deck chairs around the pool area.

Michelle Lewis, 56, and Chad Curtis, 34, a couple from Orange County, California, sat smiling at each other as they celebrated the first night of their honeymoon at the ship’s upscale Tuscan Grill restaurant.

He won over the suggestion that they were guinea pigs testing a series of health and safety protocols.

“I don’t feel like a guinea pig, I feel like a pioneer,” said Ms. Lewis, laughing.

“There can be some issues that get in the way and I think you have to be prepared for things that are not going perfectly. But look at us,” she said, pointing to the sea in the background. “We are on a luxury cruise in the middle of the Caribbean Sea with amazing people and crew not wearing masks. It feels awesome.”

The couple is considering taking one-on-one cruise with the same itinerary, departing St. Maarten on June 19.

“The idea of ​​not just getting straight back on a plane and spending time in a COVID-free bubble is very tempting,” Mr. Curtis said.

And the bubble didn’t prove to be quite Covid-free: On Thursday, after passengers in St Maarten received coronavirus tests, two guests sharing the same cabin tested positive for the virus but were asymptomatic, Ms. Lomax said. , celebrity spokesperson. He was immediately shifted to an isolation cabin, which has its own ventilation system and was attended by doctors and nurses.

Typically when a cruise ship makes a stop at port, guests can participate in excursions organized by the cruise company or are free to explore the destination independently for an allotted amount of time.

Coronavirus restrictions in Barbados, the first port of call, meant that travelers were only allowed to take part in “bubble excursions” designed to limit interactions with the local population.

There were many options, including tours of the island and its white sand beaches, but the most popular excursion was a catamaran excursion that involved swimming with sea turtles.

Masks were required when passengers disembarked from the ship to take the bus to the catamaran. The catamaran did not go too far from shore to allow passengers to swim, but they were repeatedly told not to swim on the beach.

“I don’t usually choose to take shore excursions, and it feels weird to be banned,” said Harvey Freed, a guest from Miami. “I like to get off and go to local restaurants, try food, meet locals, and check out casinos. But what can you do? It’s not so bad,” he said.

In Aruba, another port of call, guests were free to travel on their own and many jumped at the opportunity.

“It’s great to get to a new place by cruise ship and get off and get around,” said Marnie Turner, 52, a longtime cruiser from Florida. “But wearing a mask again and worrying about Covid is strange. It feels much safer and more comfortable on board.”

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