(1:20 p.m. EDT) -- Good news for all those cruisers who are loyal to Royal -- the line is back in North America, sailing its first Caribbean itineraries on Adventure of the Seas from The Bahamas.
I have to admit, all kinds of emotions washed over me on embarkation Saturday. Because the line has a bunch of new procedures -- and no real terminal in Nassau -- we began the process with some trepidation, a bit unsure of what would come next.
But once we received our clearance and took that long walk up the pier toward the ship, all the cruising feels came rushing back. It helped that we were greeted enthusiastically by everyone at the pier -- the port had a Kalik beer stand as a pre-boarding refresher -- and the Royal Caribbean staff onboard.
The crew are wearing masks, the passengers are not -- all of us onboard over 16 are vaccinated, a fact that you're asked to prove before you get on the ship. Each crew member has a button that shows their full face, with big grins -- "the smile underneath the mask," it reads.
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It's a lovely touch, but unnecessary -- we know they are as happy to be back as we are.
There are some other differences, both onboard the ship and on shore in The Bahamas, that might surprise some longtime cruise fans. Here's what we noticed.
Arrival in the Bahamas
It's a bit strange to think of Nassau as a homeport, as opposed to a port day. But for those of us who live in the Northeast, the flights cost about the same, if not cheaper, than those to Florida. I flew nonstop from Newark and flights were about $300 roundtrip.
The Bahamas waives the PCR COVID-19 test entry requirement if you've been vaccinated, and you fill out an online form for a health visa two weeks before you leave. The form itself takes about 15 minutes to complete, and it asks you to upload a photo of your vaccine card and include details on where and when you got your shot, including the location's address and phone number.
I was a bit concerned with the two-week window, but I needn't have worried. My Health Visa was approved by The Bahamas within hours. The visa comes with a bar code and you can keep it on your phone. I recommend printing it out, though, as this saved me time at the airport. The Visa clearly states if you're vaccinated, so you don't have to show other proof before you leave the country.
Arrival into The Bahamas itself was stress-free. At immigration, we showed our passport and Health Visa again. Customs didn't look at anything. It didn't take long for us to be in a taxi to our hotel, the British Colonial Hilton.
I chose that hotel specifically because Royal Caribbean is using it as de facto check-in, as the terminal in Nassau is under construction. While the ship's later departure time of 9 p.m. meant more cruisers than ever were flying in the same day, I chose to come in the night before. This proved to be a good decision, as we heard reports of delayed flights and missed connections by other cruisers. Our advice: Cut down your stress and arrive the night before.
The Bahamas has only an eight percent COVID-19 vaccination rate -- far lower than the U.S. or the U.K. So it makes sense that the country has fairly strict protocols against the virus, which is still a real threat to many people. The hotel asked for our vaccine card with our passport, but even with COVID-19 protection, we were asked to wear masks around the building in public places.
Some of the shops and restaurants near the pier that are most familiar to cruisers, such as Senor Frog's, are still closed. The Fish Fry restaurants on Arawak Cay are open, though, and on a Friday night, business was booming. We felt safe on the walk past Junkanoo Beach to the Fry, as police officers were on patrol.
I had read that The Bahamas was still enforcing mask requirements and indeed, we saw the police officers remind several tourists without them to put one on. It's a bit annoying to have to go back to wearing them outdoors, particularly in the Caribbean humidity, but you have to respect the island and where it is in its fight against COVID-19.
The biggest surprise came when we arrived at Twin Brothers, a popular Fry location. With the patio seating full, we went indoors -- and were promptly asked to show our vaccine card. You can't eat inside in The Bahamas unless you're vaccinated. We were happy to comply and enjoyed fish sandwiches, conch fritters and some rum drinks.
The bottom line here is if you cruise in the Caribbean this summer, be prepared to encounter different norms and customs surrounding COVID-19. Each island is at a different stage in the pandemic, in terms of vaccinations. These countries have the right to dictate the laws that make them feel safe to welcome visitors -- and cruisers should comply.
We knew that embarkation would be a little strange for Adventure of the Seas, and not just because of the pandemic. Nassau is renovating its cruise terminal to increase capacity, and the full project won't be done until fall 2022.
With the terminal shut down, all embarkation procedures were being handled in the conference rooms at the British Colonial Hilton. It ended up being much more managed than you might expect. When we checked in online a few weeks before the cruise, we were assigned a slot to show up -- and we found this greatly reduced the crowds of people standing around. (The hotel also allowed us to keep our room until our check in time of 1 p.m.)
For the passengers flying in the same day, Royal Caribbean picked up tagged luggage directly at the airport and took it to the terminal. For those of us who stayed overnight, we simply wheeled our bags down to the front door of the hotel, and porters took it from there. It was much less chaotic than you'd see in many other ports.
Originally, Royal Caribbean had said passengers who were vaccinated could skip taking a COVID-19 test before boarding; this policy was changed two days before the cruise.
Although it was a last-minute addition, the COVID-19 antigen test went relatively smoothly. We had signed up for a test with Doctors Hospital Laboratory and received an email with a bar code. We showed that to white-clad assistants, who ushered us into the hotel's ballroom, which had been repurposed as a testing facility.
At this point, who hasn't had a COVID-19 test? It went as well as a swab up the nose can go, short and to the point. The assistants told us that we would receive our results in 30 minutes, and we left the ballroom.
The next step was the actual check in, held in another hotel conference room. Here we were asked about our health symptoms -- we had filled out a form within the Royal Caribbean app the day before -- to make sure everything was still the same. We pulled out our vaccine cards and passports, and both documents were scanned. Our credit cards were confirmed and those who hadn't already uploaded a photo to the app got their picture taken.
We then sat down to wait for our COVID-19 test results. It's always a bit nerve-wracking during the process -- you can't help reviewing who you've seen in the last few days and wondering -- and there's definitely a sense of relief when you get the email reading negative. We left the conference room and received a blue sticker on our clothes, then headed back downstairs to leave the hotel and take a shuttle to the pier.
The entire testing and check-in process took about 35 minutes, from start to finish. Not bad at all.
By the time we boarded the bus, people were starting to relax. As the ship pulled into view, the whoops and cheers started. "I'm going to cry," one woman said. You and me both, sister.
That first walk up the pier to the ship was a joyous one. Dancers in colorful costume welcomed us, along with that Kalik beer stand and a ton of welcomes. Having the cruise ships back means work in Nassau -- and there was a palpable sense of celebration coming from the dock workers.
The happiness continued onboard as we went through security and received our last set of instructions. "We're so happy we're back!" crew members kept telling us. And so were we.
One final embarkation difference -- our keycards were waiting in an envelope outside our room.
One highly touted post-pandemic change is the new e-muster process, where you watch a video on your phone or in your room, then head down to your muster station at your own pace.
We were told to get it done by 5 p.m., and as we finished a late lunch in Cafe Promenade, our server politely reminded us to go do it. We watched the video on our phones as we sat there, then headed down to our station. There, an earnest crew member from the Ukraine went through a short safety briefing, while his colleague showed us how to put on a life jacket. No one else was down there with us. It felt very low key and an improvement over the previous crowds.
Not everyone felt the same urgency to get the muster done as we did, though, and we heard several announcements imploring guests to come down and get it done. Finally, around 5 p.m., the captain, sounding a bit impatient at this point, came over the loudspeaker and told the lollygaggers that the ship wouldn't be able to leave until they finished muster.
Apparently, this final warning worked. By 6 p.m., the captain came on again to tell us that most people had checked in and he sounded the emergency alarm as a test. All clear.
Buffet and Fitness Center Reservations
Cruise lines have been warning that with reduced capacity, reservations would be needed for some of the more popular venues. And indeed, there are some differences here that aren't necessarily going to be popular.
The first major change is in the Windjammer, Royal Caribbean's buffet. On our sailing, the buffet is only open for breakfast and lunch, not dinner -- a big disappointment to those who like to eat light. (Cafe Promenade is open for those who don't want to eat in a specialty restaurant or the main dining room.)
In the Windjammer, they scan your card when you enter, probably for contact tracing purposes.
One buffet change that we applaud is the move toward served plates, as opposed to grabbing the food yourself. We noticed plenty of choices; trust me, no one will go hungry in this new scenario. Drinks too are waiter-served.
The buffet is also asking guests to reserve ahead, if possible, although they will take walk-ins if things aren't busy. When we walked through, we noticed that there were two lines out front, one for people who reserved and one for others. Tables, too, have been blocked off so the ship is serious about reducing crowds. I'm someone who definitely likes the convenience of a buffet nosh, and I'm not always the best at planning early morning eats. We'll see how this process unfolds.
Another reservation that we predict could be problematic is the fitness center. Here, too, some machines are blocked off and the number of people inside is being controlled. We quickly nabbed two of the last four 7 a.m. reservations, and were asked if we wanted them for the entire cruise.
If reserving slots in the fitness center becomes the rule rather than the exception, I predict these early morning slots could be a hot ticket, as many people who like to exercise prefer to get it out of the way. We'll see how many unhappy people show up tomorrow in their workout gear and get turned away.
In no particular order, here are a few other changes we noticed right away:
- Lounge chairs near the pool are marked off so you aren't close to other people. Chairs in the bars seem farther away from each other. Elevators are restricted to four people, or people within the same family group.
- There are no books in the library to borrow.
- In general, the ship seems so empty! Adventure of the Seas can carry 3,807 passengers but there are only 1,066 on this sailing. It does mean that the energy can seem more low-key, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
- With fewer people, the service is prompt -- and happy. I'm traveling with a friend, and we arrived to a cabin where the bed had not been separated. Normally on embarkation day, this is a task that can take a few hours. On this cruise, it happened within the hour.
- QR codes are used for menus in the main dining room and specialty restaurants. You can ask for a paper menu if you need to, but the system worked well on the first night, at least in Chops Grill steakhouse.
- To encourage social distancing, guests are no longer permitted to stand at the bar. Instead, you are directed -- nicely -- to sit at a table. It's not a huge change but it does make a ship that already has fewer people onboard seem less social.
What Stays the Same
Ultimately, the things I love about cruising are still here.
Musicians are playing on the pool deck. People are dancing and drinking. Crew members are singing out hellos. Doors are decorated with magnets and mementos. There are a ton of funny T-shirts, many with COVID-era slogans. (One couple actually printed their vaccine cards on their shirts!)
So far, it's everything I missed. Welcome back, Royal Caribbean!