The pandemic effectively shut down cruising in March 2020, giving us all plenty of time to speculate what it might be like when it finally returned.
Rumors swirled on social media, health and safety protocols came out in dribs and drabs as policies changed, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention went from being mostly silent to providing updates to its Conditional Sail Order daily.
Along the way, myths and half-truths have popped up. So what is it actually like to be back onboard a cruise ship, where stepped-up health and safety measures are in place?
We sailed on Celebrity Millennium, the first big cruise ship to return to the Western Hemisphere since 2020, on its inaugural itinerary from St. Maarten. All adult passengers and crew were required to be vaccinated. We had a chance to bust some of the biggest myths about cruising in this new era.
The topic of mask wearing has been a hot one ever since we all started donning facial coverings on land. We asked our readers: If you had to wear a mask, would you still cruise? In early days, most said "no way!" But as we spent more and more time at home, missing all the things we love about cruising, sentiment shifted. A lot. And most of you told us you'd wear masks if it meant you could sail.
The good news is, the whole mask issue is probably moot if you're sailing on a ship where passengers and crew are vaccinated. On our sailing, masks were optional onboard, and of the roughly 600 passengers, perhaps a dozen elected to wear masks in public indoor spaces. All crew were wearing masks, and a handful chose to wear two.
It was liberating.
The protocols on Celebrity Millennium, including socially distanced space in all venues, had us feeling confident to walk around with naked faces, interacting with crew and fellow passengers without major concerns about our health and safety.
This is, perhaps, the advantage of vaccinated sailings vs. others, which will likely have some stricter protocols in place, including mask requirements.
We've heard from cruise lines that crewmembers will ultimately be more empowered to enforce new health policies onboard ships. They are serving as the gatekeepers responsible for ensuring health and safety. And so, it wouldn't be surprising if we saw crewmembers suddenly having to correct bad behavior and remind people of policies. Plus, with masks on, how can we see the smiles we've so come to love from our favorites.
Surprisingly, we found the opposite was true: Crewmembers were even more friendly than we remembered. Everyone we encountered was genuinely warm and exceptionally grateful to be back onboard cruise ships, interacting with guests and making a living doing the job they have grown to love.
We had numerous conversations with crewmembers who had been counting the days before the restart. They clapped for us as we boarded the ship for the first time, told us they missed us and smiled with their eyes. We heard, over and over, from passengers about how they felt so touched by the reception they received at every turn.
For the most part, we all seem to have gotten better at naturally keeping distances from one another and putting hygiene at the forefront. And when crewmembers did have to gently remind people to sanitize and wash their hands, they did so with smiles.
Cruise lines that had been sailing in Europe during the pandemic had mandated early on that, in order to keep the safe "bubble" of protection for their passengers, they would only allow guests to leave the ships if they were on ship-sponsored shore excursions. This has been a generally effective -- and set-in-stone -- method for keeping passengers safe. (Passengers who tried to skirt these rules were disembarked from ships and sent home.)
When talk of resumption for American passengers begun, cruise lines considered the same approach. Ultimately, on Celebrity Millennium, this wasn't really the case. We visited three ports -- Aruba, Curacao and Barbados -- and in two, we were allowed to explore on our own. In Barbados, we had to participate in a ship-offered shore excursion if we wanted to leave the vessel.
The requirement came from the port, rather than Celebrity, which will be the case for all cruises at least in the short term, as the destinations dictate the rules for keeping citizens safe.
A caveat here: While we elected to explore on our own in Curacao and Aruba, neither destination was in full tourism swing. A number of the small businesses -- retail destinations, bar and restaurants -- weren't open, as the revenue from one day of operation a week wasn't enough to offset the costs. We'll see these businesses come back slowly as more cruise ships start to visit -- and when they are able to carry fuller ships.
This has been a huge concern for cruisers who saw passengers "stuck" at sea and turned away by port after port during early stages of the pandemic. We get it. It's not how anyone wants to spend a vacation.
But we've come a long way since those days, and cruise lines spent more than a year nailing down protocols and planning for even the worst-case scenario. They've also trained all their staff and crew on what to do in virtually any situation.
We saw this play out on our sailing, when two passengers (sharing the same cabin) tested positive for COVID after taking onboard tests required by the U.S. in order to return home. The pair were asymptomatic. The plan of action quickly kicked in. The two were retested (positive again), interviewed to determine whom they might have been in close contact with and then isolated.
Contact tracing began, and the roughly 50 people who had contact within less than 6 feet for more than 15 minutes were also isolated and retested. Those people included those who shared buses with them on shore excursions, traveling companions and cabin stewards and waiters. The captain made an announcement to all the passengers onboard to alert them of what was going on, and followed up multiple times during the cruise.
Those of us who didn't have close interaction with the ill passengers didn't feel any disruption during our cruise. We went to dinner, enjoyed the shows and visited the bars. Those who were isolated, were kept in their rooms for about 12 to 15 hours -- from 5 p.m. to about 7 a.m. the next day, awaiting results for COVID tests. Celebrity Millennium provided in-room service and sent bottles of bubbly and chocolates, too. Eventually, all tests came back negative, and those guests (except for the original pair who tested positive) were able to finish their cruises without further disruption. We talked to several passengers who were isolated, and they said Celebrity handled it well, though they were disappointed to miss the evening's entertainment and a night out.
The point is, all the policies and training Celebrity had put in place were executed as planned, minimizing the impact of the positive cases for most cruisers. And the two who did test positive were flown home on a charter plane, meaning they didn't have to quarantine in St. Maarten.
Despite the new rules and policies in place, our cruise was simply a blast. We ate (way too much) great food, made new friends, played trivia, danced at a silent disco, visited the spa, worked out and explored destinations. All the things we love about cruising, we did again, and maybe with even more gusto and appreciation than before. Being back felt special because it was, and we cherished every moment of it. We even did the things we often skip because we've done them so much -- we posed for photos from the ship's photographer and listened to shopping talks.
Guests used the word "surreal" over and over in describing what it felt like to be taking a vacation on a cruise ship and doing the things they loved after more than a year away. They talked about all the emotions being on a sailing brought up.
"I talk about it. The goosebumps still rise," passenger Lou Ciacciarelli said of seeing Celebrity Millennium for the first time.
He's not the only one who talked about goosebump experiences. Many of passengers and crewmembers talked about tearing up when they first stepped on the ship.
It was hard not to feel normal and just happy sailing -- without masks -- on a Caribbean cruise, where the waters are still blue, the people of the islands are still happy and the sun still shines.