(3 p.m. EDT) -- French cruise line Ponant returned to the seas this week, sending several of its expedition ships on a new series of French coastal sailings designed to entice Europeans into exploring their own backyard.
Belgian photojournalist Mike Louagie is on Le Dumont d'Urville, one of 24 passengers of French, Belgian and Dutch nationalities, on a coastal Normandy itinerary. Cruise Critic caught up with Louagie to find out how the cruise is going.
Cruise Critic: What was it like getting ready for the trip? What did you have to do to prove that you didn't have COVID-19?
Mike Louagie: I needed to get tested within 48 hours of departure -- not before. (The ship required) written proof from (a) lab -- in my case, my local hospital UZ Gent, Belgium -- that I tested negative for COVID-19. I also filled in a two-page medical form.
CC: Tell me about the boarding process. Were the crew wearing masks or are more of them wearing face shields (like the woman in your photo)?
ML: In terminal of Le Havre, we were first welcomed by staff. Most crew, including the captain, were wearing plexi face shields the entire time; some expedition team members and the doctor wear textile face masks.
During the doctor visit, we handed over the COVID-19 test results to the ship's doctor. Then you hand over the medical questionnaire; the doctor reads all answers carefully. Finally, there's a temperature measurement with "gun."
After the doctor visit, guests went through passport control by the police. We also passed a table, where our mobile phone and passport were disinfected. Behind the scenes, our suitcases were disinfected, too.
CC: How is the ship handling social distancing onboard? Does it feel awkward or strange? Do you have to wear masks on the ship?
ML: We need to wear masks in all public spaces, when close to other people -- on excursions, and in the Zodiacs and tenders. It feels awkward on embarkation day, then you get used to it.
There's an automated temperature check at the entrance of restaurant. You need to put your face in front of a special camera/device. We also need to disinfect hands as soon as we enter restaurant, bar and theater.
CC: How much of the ship is open -- are saunas and pools in use? Are there any special restrictions?
ML: The ship is fully open. While the ship did not limit capacity on purpose, Le Dumont d'Urville can carry 184 passengers, as opposed to the 24 guests who are onboard this sailing. The sauna is not in use. The pool is in use, with a maximum of two passengers.
CC: What is the meal service like? Has the line stopped buffets? Do the passengers care, or are they happy with the precautions that the staff are taking?
ML: Everything is being served -- no buffet. Passengers do understand the situation and do appreciate the efforts
CC: Has anything changed in terms of cleaning or sanitizing your cabin? Have things like mini bars been altered?
ML: You can smell a disinfectant immediately after cleaning, but it doesn't last long. Minibar and espresso machine work normally
CC: Are passengers restricted in number from gathering in public rooms for entertainment and lectures?
ML: No, with only 24 passengers, there's no problem. In case the ship is full, they have two groups in French and English.
CC: The group took an excursion to the Normandy Beaches. What was the excursion protocol?
ML: Yes, everyone in the group was wearing a mask. If you forget your mask, somebody will tell you. … I lowered mine in a tender and was immediately reminded – in the most polite way. Temperature checks are taken after excursions, but not every time.
CC: How do your fellow passengers feel about the experience?
ML: Everybody adapts. The cruise experience is so nice, with the crew so welcoming, that it's not a bother. I didn't hear anybody complain.
The strangest moment was when we went ashore in Boulogne-sur-Mer. The vessel can enter the port but didn't; we tendered instead. We had a private visit of Nausicaa, Europe's biggest aquarium. From tender to Nausicaa, it was a five-minute walk. We had to wear face masks, and we walked in a group. The locals looked at us as if we came from Mars.
There are funny moments too. I wanted to use a napkin to clean my mouth and took my mask instead, accidentally.
CC: You've been on so many cruises in your life. Does a cruise with all of these precautions still seem fun? Are people still meeting each other and drinking in the bars? Or do they generally go back to their rooms. Does the ship seem quiet?
ML: People are still meeting each other, although you cannot sit at bar. You need to sit at chair and table. You need to keep distance.
The ship is quiet, with only 24 guests. Still, it's a great atmosphere, and we all talk with each other.
My conclusion is that Ponant is doing a great job. They make you feel that they have done all what is possible to keep the cruise safe, and ask passengers to help by doing their part of the job.
They don't talk about chemicals and ozonisers and UV light. They rather make you feel that they have the right protocols. After a few days I understood through a lot of small details that they take it very seriously.
Mike Louagie is a freelance maritime photographer and writer who has sailed on countless ships and ferries around the world. See his work at https://louagie.be/.