I'm on a luxury cruise on Silversea's newest ship, Silver Moon from Ft. Lauderdale to Guayaquil, Ecuador in the midst of the omicron surge, and right now, I feel extraordinarily lucky.
I do believe cruising carefully -- and I emphasize carefully -- is possible. Despite my trepidation before boarding, and friends' pleas that I stay home, I’m still happy with my choice, more than one week into my voyage.
I'm a longtime cruise writer, but I’ve waited nearly two years to hop onboard a cruise ship. When I made my decision to return, I decided to embark on small Silver Moon, a luxury line with vaccine requirements that follows high-standard COVID-19 protocols.
Silversea also assumes all responsibility and costs, should you catch COVID-19 onboard. That is a possibility, on any ship, as it is on land, particularly during the current omicron surge, no matter the level of caution and here, it’s high.
So what is it like right now? Wonderful. I'm struck by how much is the same, more than what has changed. That's despite the fact that there are only 226 passengers onboard a nearly 600-passenger ship.
Sure, all crew members wear masks indoors and out, and hand sanitizing stations are everywhere, with reminders to use them. Servers handle all buffet implements at breakfast and lunch at the Terrace cafe. I love the special hand washing machines they have in this eatery; it wets your hands, adds soap, allowing you to scrub, then rinses your hands and even dispenses a paper towel with a bin below to toss it. I wish hotels, shops and airports back home had them -- not just for COVID-19, but to ward off seasonal colds and flus.
Getting our temperatures taken every morning is the biggest change (that, and no server placing my napkin on my lap). The butler assigned to my suite, or the suite attendant takes it. One sea day, I left my suite really early one morning to power walk, then stopped for a cappuccino at the Arts Cafe and dawdled on the back terrace. I had a message waiting for me on my television screen to get my temperature checked by the time I was back. We all know you can have a normal temperature with COVID-19, but I like that our butlers are clearly trained to pay attention to our health, not just to our wants and needs.
We’re already used to wearing masks indoors, so that’s no big deal. I don’t see one passenger with their mask below their nose, or worse, dangling off their chins. I don’t have to glare at anyone, as I do at home in supermarkets, or even worse, at the airport and on planes. I see many passengers wearing masks outdoors, too, not just indoors.
Best of all, most cruise ships, particularly small luxury vessels, possess that private yacht-like vibe, with plenty of outdoor space. I can hit the jogging track, comfortably take every meal on my spacious veranda or in-suite, or at several restaurants with outdoor seating. I can lift a martini glass at the pool bar; there's sometimes a pianist or trio positioned near the pool at lunchtime for entertainment.
Fresh outdoor air ventilates all the indoor venues, and is fully exchanged about once an hour. In Atlantide, a large indoor restaurant, the maître d’ seats passengers far apart. Same goes for every onboard eatery, even the smaller ones like the modern Japanese Kaiseki and the fancy French La Dame.
When it's time for a show in the Venetian Lounge, passengers automatically space themselves out. They seem conscious, not oblivious, to the pandemic, and yet, they’re having fun. I get it. If you've committed to cruising right now, you might as well enjoy every single second rather than dwell in anxiety and fear.
Is there COVID-19 onboard? As anywhere you go these days, the answer is maybe. On Day 2, our captain announced that "in the interest of transparency," two passengers and four crew members had COVID-19 and that all were doing fine. He also told us that the cruise director and assistant cruise director were isolating, as they were in contact with the infected personnel.
The next day, the captain told us that one more crew member had it, but no more passengers. We haven't received any COVID-19 announcements since. I asked my butler if there was any more cases onboard a few days ago, and he told me no. Silver Moon is currently off the CDC watch list; it was on prior briefly.
I don’t believe there is as much entertainment as prior. It's usually one singer per night, or a pianist. It’s probably due to COVID-19 precautions. I haven’t heard anyone complaining. I’m not, because frankly, reading in bed on a handmade Savoir mattress topped with silky sheets, and watching movies on the ship television is enough (finally, catching up with The Rock and his Jungle Cruise -- appropriate for this sail with Central American ports). I get up early for excursions, anyway, so I’m not into late-night frolicking.
I was nervous before going on my first shore excursion. I wasn't sure how it would be in Central America -- or anywhere, for that matter. In Belize, our tour guide told us he and the bus driver are vaxxed and boosted, plus tested every morning before they meet a group. Both wore masks, inside the bus and outside touring. I felt completely comfortable throughout the tour and was glad I went. Everyone wore masks, locals and visitors, indoors and out. Seeing and hearing first-hand how this country has suffered from lack of tourism in the pandemic, makes me feel good about my tiny part in assisting in spreading the word that it’s safe to come.
In Costa Rica, our guide says the same regarding vaccinations, and she’s wearing a good mask. Just stepping off the ship and onto land, a port employee greets us with hand sanitizer. I find that pretty much everywhere we stop. Everyone is masked, at every port.
Onboard, socialization is obviously muted. Passengers keep to themselves or traveling buddies. I've met only two. I ask both why they chose to still sail. One is a young widow from England, who says that she has has often cruised with Silversea, needs to get on with her life, and feels safe with this company. The other, a recently retired Canadian, told me that she has a long bucket list, was onboard with Silversea when the pandemic began, and feels most comfortable sailing with them.
Most travelers are in their 50s and up; I'm surprised to see many that I might think were too old or fragile to cruise right now. And yet, here they are, strolling, dining, touring, lying by the pool.
Most passengers seem to be North American, although I hear French, German and Italian-speakers, too, The few passengers who are traveling together really stand out. One fairly raucous group of six in their 60s, possessing Texan twangs, laugh loudly during a dinner in Kaiseki as if they haven’t a care in the world.
And maybe they don't, this minute, right now. That's a gift, in these times.
Silversea is giving PCR tests complimentarily to all passengers. Beyond being a requirement to get back to the U.S., we need one to enter Ecuador, which we do in Manta, before disembarkation in Guayaquil the following day.
I'm not sure how the other passengers feel about taking tests or the possibility of quarantine, as I talk to so few. My sense is that people are focusing on the now and enjoying their cruise. I don’t see or feel any fear, nor do I overhear anyone discussing it. We don't get off the ship for another week.
I actually feel safer than at home. I thought that comment a cliché PR comment told to cruise journalists until I got onboard. I know everyone is vaccinated and both passengers and crew are following the protocols to sail safely. I wish I could say the same for those I see in airports, hotels, supermarkets and restaurants at home.
While my friends hunker down back in Los Angeles, I am feeling the soft winds of Panama caressing my cheek. I am indulging in caviar and good champagne. My butler is smiling and seeking new ways to make me smile. He’s from India and is planning for the Indian chefs prepare us a special dinner in-suite later this week.
I swim in the pool and soak in the hot tub. I’m diving into a good steak and Merlot tonight, under the stars. Tomorrow I’m going on a jungle cruise, looking for howler and capuchin monkeys, and teensy tree bats. I am beyond grateful to find, and feel, what is right for me, right now.
In fact, one early morning, as I listen to hip-hop music thumping from my AirPods and fast-walk the track, I do a little dance by the stern, where no one can see. I’m downright giddy and filled with joy. I don’t remember the last time I was so gleeful. It takes me by surprise. I know I'm going to remember that moment, and hold on to that feeling until this pandemic ends.