Up until last Thursday, when the U.K. Foreign Office changed its advice on river cruising, the only nationalities allowed on a river cruise in Europe were Germans, sailing on German lines.
So we asked the editor of Germany-based website cruisetricks.de to tell us what it was like onboard one of the very first river cruises to restart after cruise operations were suspended worldwide.
The question is -- can a cruise still fun with enhanced safety protocols, social distancing and face masks?
Franz was travelling with A-ROSA on A-ROSA Alva along the Douro River in northern Portugal. This is his experience.
After having been in lockdown at home for more than three months I’m heading to the airport with mixed feelings. Part of me feels this is just routine (after all I'm a travel writer), like for any other cruise before Covid-19.
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The other part is wondering: Will this be a week of protecting myself from fellow passengers who refuse to wear masks? Will the fun of a cruise -- getting to know fellow passengers and crew; socializing and dining together, taking excursions -- all be compromised? Or will it be as enjoyable as before?
Flying? Not So Enjoyable
Flying from Munich to Porto didn’t raise confidence: crowds with almost no distancing when boarding, a fully booked plane, crew not really committed to enforce face masks. So I hide behind my face mask and keep a war distance from my fellow passengers.
The Luxury of Being the Only Tourist in Town
With only a handful of people in the transfer bus to the cruise pier and everyone wearing masks, I started to relax. It turned out that it’ll be like this throughout the whole cruise; relaxed, enjoyable, even marvelous when it comes to the hospitality of the Portuguese and the breathtaking landscape along the Douro River.
We’re only 33 Passengers on a 126-berths ship, resulting in flawless service and more than enough personal space everywhere. And that’s not just on board the A-ROSA Alva. There have been only very few tourists around at every place we visited; from the usually crowded, historic old town of Porto to villages along the river located in the Douro Alto port wine region or on a full-day excursion to Salamanca in Spain.
Obviously, travelling in these times is a very exclusive experience. Portuguese people especially in the north of the country are known for their warm hospitality. Is has become even more honest, almost loving.
Doesn't Wearing a Mask Kill the Fun?
My concern was that the face mask could be so present in everyone’s mind all day long that we won’t get into this wonderful, easy-going holiday mood that especially makes a cruise so relaxing.
My experience, however, was markedly different.
Yes, standing in front of your cabin, remembering you forgot to don the mask, again, is somewhat frustrating, but it's not like you have to wear a mask all the time -- the mask is only required where you can’t keep a sufficient distance: at guest relations or when you’re walking from your cabin to the restaurant or lounge.
There's no obligation to wear one in the lounge, or the restaurant, the sun deck or the outside area of the lounge.
Excursions: Different, But Not So Much
On excursions, it’s a different situation, however. Masks are compulsory for the entire duration of the bus journey, in addition to usually every second seat row being empty. Air conditioning provides dry air so breathing through the mask is not so bad, but when you are outside in hot, humid environments the mask becomes inconvenient, for example in a historic palace or a museum without air conditioning.
A-Rosa offers headphones to each guest for listening to the tour guides, so distancing on excursions is easy to maintain this way, thus removing the need to wear a mask.
Plus you’ll have major tourist attractions almost for yourself in these times. That’s worth coping with the face mask.
Enhanced Safety Protocols Onboard
There is no buffet in the restaurant, and all meals are served at an assigned table for two, in appropriate distance to the next table. Food is cooked a-la-minute by an excellent chef from Brazil and his small crew. Lots of local Portuguese dishes, lots of fish and seafood. Especially the deserts are elaborately decorated almost like in a Michelin-starred-chef’s restaurant.
Personally, I didn’t miss the buffet at all, not even at breakfast.
A-Rosa, similar to other river cruise lines that are operating at this time, has taken extensive measures to make a cruise as safe as possible. Amongst others, there is excessive cleaning all the time. You leave a table in the lounge after a five-a-clock-somewhere drink? A waiter is there to disinfect the table right after you. I saw lots of cleaning of handrails and surfaces during the day and we never had a cleaner cabin and bathroom on any cruise ship.
Some more recognizable aspects of the safety protocols were:
- Crew wearing face masks all the time, waiters in the restaurant in the bar lounge also wear gloves.
- Hand disinfection at the restaurant, lounge, when boarding the ship and excursion busses.
- Defined walking direction on the sun deck marked with arrow-signs on the floor.
- Contactless fever measurement once a day, typically when returning from a shore excursion.
- Spa and gym are open by appointment, sauna is closed.
But perhaps most importantly: Passengers were very consistent with the rules and just accepted the given. Where necessary at all, discreet hints of the crew regulated isolated carelessness. I did not observe any intentional disregard of the rules. It seemed like everyone tacitly agreed with the rules in order to secure a carefree holiday.
Yes there were a few: Most of the crew members of the journey remained almost faceless to me. Of most of the people who have taken such good care of us, I’ve seen their eyes only. First and only time I saw the full face of my waiter was on Facebook when he sent me a picture.
In general the face masks require more attention in communication, not only with crew but with fellow passengers as well. With social distancing making new friends doesn’t come as natural as it usually does on a cruise. It takes more of active effort to talk to other passengers as you’re not running into each other, literally.
You quickly learn how to communicate with your eyes only, and with gestures; hand on the heart and a light bow conveys at least as much sympathy as a bright smile. For myself I recognized just after a few days that I adjusted my way of communicating. And that’s not a bad thing at all.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed it tremendously. Given that you travel in a region with very low infection rates, cruising in times of Covid-19 is a unique experience in many ways. It’s very rewarding if you can manage to just ignore the few little downsides.
My answer to the question -- Can river cruising still be fun in the age of Covid-19? Yes, definitely. And I'd be back on in a heartbeat (though I'd still prefer not to fly).