(1:45 p.m. EDT) -- Variety Cruises made a little bit of history when the 49-passenger Galileo set sail Friday from the marina adjacent to the main port at Piraeus in Greece, where the small ship has been docked for four months.
Accompanied by the sound of its sister ships' horns blaring, flares blazing and a small crowd of well-wishers on the quayside -- one of which operated a drone to capture the moment -- the vessel headed out into the Aegean Sea, becoming the first cruise ship to restart operations in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Although Galileo is considered a small ship by cruise standards (and is classified as a "yacht" under Greek law), the ship offers weekly scheduled cruises, with a somewhat typical passenger experience onboard.
The Greek line received the green light to resume operations in May but decided to wait until the pandemic had eased in Europe before restarting. The decision to hold off was made partly because of the lack of flights that could bring potential cruisers to Greece, but it also helped reassure passengers that all possible safety measures had been put in place.
So, as we asked about river cruises, can small ship cruising be fun in the age of COVID-19? Cruise Critic is onboard Galileo now to find out.
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It's important to bear in mind two things ahead in understanding how cruising can safely return to Europe at this time. First, Greece has had one of the lowest infection and mortality rates for COVID-19 of any European country -- 4,048 with 197 deaths (compare that with the U.K.'s 54,000 deaths and counting).
In other words, Greece appears to have handled the pandemic extremely well, which is a reassuring message for cruisers.
The second thing is all tourists have to fill in a questionnaire for the Greek authorities, which then auto-generates an email with a QR code the day before you fly. Travelers are required to present this code at all stages before they arrive (one man was taken off my flight, as he did not fill in the form correctly).
At the airport, we had to scan our QR code, then were told either to go left for a COVID-19 test or straight on, which from what I can gather was entirely random. I was sent left. Someone in full personal protective gear stuck a swab down my throat and told me: "If you don't hear from us, then you're fine." (I didn't hear from them.)
Life Onboard the Ship
The ship has a maximum capacity of 49 passengers but is capped at 31 during this period, with two cabins put aside for isolation. Normally, Galileo would be sailing with 75 percent U.S. passengers, but because they are not allowed into Greece, the line has had to pivot toward European markets including Spain, France, Germany and the U.K. as well as the domestic market to make up the numbers.
That represents the makeup of our group, with the addition of a Ukrainian family. Most of us work in travel or write about it, with about a third "leisure" passengers.
Variety has put in place a strict set of health protocols onboard. Here's what you can expect:
- Before you cruise, you'll fill in a health declaration form and hand that in at check in;
- You'll undergo a pre-cruise temperature and oxygen-level check, both of which will be done daily;
- All crewmembers wear half-face masks, covering their mouth only, including outside and on the Zodiacs that bring passengers from the ship to shore;
- Cabins are sanitised with a cleaning system called "Pure Space" more typically used in hospitals. A water-based machine uses filters to draw in air-based bacteria and germs, sterilising the cabin in three minutes. As well as that, cabin stewards also place a UV lamp (also usually used in hospitals) into each cabin for 20 minutes, eliminating all surface germs.
- There is constant cleaning of all surfaces;
- No self-serve buffet is available. Instead, you point to what you want and crewmembers wearing gloves serve you.
The use of a transparent "half-face" mask rather than a full hospital-style mask means there is much more interaction possible between crew and passengers as you are able to see smiles and expressions. The half face mask, though not in keeping with some country's guidelines as it does not cover the nose, adheres to medical standard protocols in Greece, as defined by the health authorities here.
Masks are not mandatory for passengers -- they are entirely voluntary -- but in a nice touch, Variety has branded ones made in your cabin, should you wish. Passengers on our sailing elected not to wear masks onboard.
And although it's instinctive to want to give a handshake, this is neither practised or encouraged.
All in all, the vibe onboard feels exactly the same as a typical cruise experience -- friendly and attentive crew, the possibility to meet and get to know fellow passengers, and the opportunity to have some fun and forget the outside world for a few days.
Case in point: Greek night. We assumed this would involve just watching, but in true Greek style the dancers dragged up the surprisingly willing passengers -- and we all held (non-gloved) hands, dancing in a circle in close proximity to each other.
We might not have done this on the first night, but with daily temperature and oxygen checks, we have formed a "bubble" and felt safe to do what we wouldn't think twice in doing a few months ago. And that surely is a good thing.
Visiting the Islands
We were expecting the Greek islands we visited to be empty, but they are somewhere inbetween -- more like a shoulder season. The ones that don't rely on cruise ship passengers to drive the economy seem to have fared the best -- Poros was packed with diners (mostly Greeks); Milos had a number of sail boats bobbing about and Folegandros was also packed -- again mainly with locals, but also French and Brits.
On a typical July day, you can spot three, sometimes four, large cruise ships in the caldera of Santorini. Today there were none, just us. As we pulled in to dock (Galileo is small enough to moor quayside), I could not spot a single tourist. There was no line for the cable car, which went every 10 to 15 minutes with just a few people in it; the never-ending tender service operated by locals to and from the pier to the ships was non-existent and the donkey herders lay fast asleep in the shade.
It was certainly easier to get around, but it felt as if something was missing and there was a kind of apathy in the air.
In Mykonos our guide to the ruins of Delos almost gave us a hug he was so happy to see us: "You're the first cruise ship group I've seen all season! Thank you for coming to visit us!"
How Can This Translate to a Big Ship Experience?
Enhanced cleaning, no more self-serve buffet, even more sanitising stations and crew wearing face masks -- none of these will be a huge leap for large cruise ships to implement.
However, daily temperature checks, staggered dining times, capacity control in theatres and restaurants and the muster drill will likely prove trickier when you are dealing with ships carrying more than 1,000 passengers.
Having said that, a number of big ship lines including Taiwan-based Genting and Germany-based TUI Cruises, have restarted operations with new health protocols, proving that it is possible to provide a safe -- and fun -- holiday.
Variety -- and the Greek authorities -- are leading the way in helping cruising to restart, and perhaps even more importantly, ensuring and reassuring people that it is safe.
Passengers on our sailing seem happy with how the line has tackled the issue.
"You can navigate safely, people keep their distance, everything is very well served," said Paul de Bruyn, the director of a cruise specialist agency in Belgium.
"I always try and get in the heads of our clients and work out how we can convince them it's a safe way to travel.
"We see that the room is disinfected, all personnel are wearing masks, there is (hand-sanitizing) gel all over the ship and it gives a nice safe feeling."
Even younger cruisers seemed happy with the overall experience.
"I thought holidays were canceled this year, so I was pretty excited to be on this ship," Gisela Mestre, a 16-year-old from Barcelona, said.
"My mum's a doctor so she was informing us on how things are going, whether we would be able to leave or even to come back.
"I feel safer here on the ship than I do back at home, where we are going through a lot of problems.
"Here is like a glimpse of reality after everything that we have been through."
The line has struck a balance between enhanced health protocols and providing the onboard experience cruisers love -- themes our Cruise Critic forums members have been exploring since cruise lines first started releasing their safety protocols.
Positive messages like these -- that cruising is safe and still is fun in the age of COVID-19 -- could pave the way for other lines and countries follow Variety's example.
This season might be almost over, but with a fair wind and a following sea, we could see cruising back fully in the Eastern Mediterranean -- and elsewhere -- next year.