(10 a.m. EDT) -- When it became clear that cruise lines were turning to international ports as a path to return following the shutdown caused by the pandemic, Cruise Critic was quick to sign up. After all, 15 months without cruising feels like a lifetime when it's the form of travel you're most passionate about.
And we're here! Finally. Onboard Celebrity Millennium, the first cruise ship to sail with U.S. passengers in the Caribbean since the world was brought to a halt last year.
Celebrity Cruises is the first cruise line to return to this popular destination -- fittingly with the ship that was the first one they took out of service, Millennium. Our cruise left Saturday night from St. Maarten, and it will stop in Barbados, Aruba and Curacao before returning to the Dutch Antilles port it is calling home for the next few weeks. (The ship will do an itinerary swap with sister Summit in July, with Summit sailing out of St. Maarten through August and Millennium moving to Alaska.)
Here's what it's like being onboard a cruise ship again, sailing with a "ship-ton" of cruise lovers from an international port.
Expect to Experience Some Feelings -- Probably Often.
If you're a cruise lover, the chance to return to sailing is a special one. Being away from travel has left us all eager to get back onboard.
Sailing in this era absolutely will give you a whole new perspective on what a privilege it is to travel and how much cruising means to you.
I'm not usually one for tears, but I've choked up a couple of times already -- first just seeing Celebrity Millennium in port, docked next to a whole bunch of other ships awaiting their turn to sail with passengers onboard. The second time, I was barely past the security check point, just stepping onboard for the first time, where officers and crew shouted enthusiastic "welcome backs" and clapped for guests.
I wasn't the only one feeling these emotions. Passengers, crew -- everyone onboard -- sensed the importance of the momentous sailing. Here we were, fully vaccinated (every adult and every crew member was required to have gotten the jab), sailing with 600 guests, walking around without masks and feeling optimistic.
Our fellow cruisers called it "special" or "surreal", commenting on how they had been so eager to come back, many after having cruise after cruise canceled during the past year-plus. Likewise, smiles were apparent on crew faces, even behind the masks they're required to wear. Phrases like "We missed you" and "Welcome back; we're so happy you're here" have been the common refrain from everyone from waiters to hostesses, to managers and officers.
You'll Need to Be Flexible and Organized.
Celebrity Millennium is just the first cruise ship to return for U.S. passengers from Caribbean homeports, but others are following, and soon. (Look for our live coverage next week from aboard Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas.)
Here's the thing: While cruising is easing its way back, there are new logistical issues that are likely to pop up as everyone finds their footing. That includes making sure your paperwork is all in order.
Adult passengers sailing on Celebrity Millennium are required to be fully vaccinated by at least two weeks ahead of their sail date. Ports like St. Maarten and Barbados have the additional requirement of a negative PCR test. And to enter St. Maarten, we needed to fill out an application outlining our health conditions and our travel plans, as well as upload copies of our PCR tests and vaccine cards. To travel, we needed paper copies of the approved application and PCR tests.
We diligently filled out all our forms, took our tests and documented everything -- and then Barbados announced a change for entry -- passengers visiting the island would be required to have negative results from a PCR test 72 hours before arriving to St. Maarten. St. Maarten itself had a requirement of 120 hours, so that sent many of us scrambling. It also meant a last-minute itinerary shift, putting Barbados at the front of our schedule.
As cruising returns, cruise lines are going to be beholden to the ports they visit, and sometimes, changes will come at the 11th hour. Our best advice as we navigate these new waters is to be flexible and have Plans B and C in case Plan A doesn't pan out.
You'll See Health and Safety Protocols in Place.
Cruise lines like Celebrity have spent all of the past 15 months figuring out how they'll keep their passengers healthy and safe onboard, and you can't miss it.
The moment we got to the port to meet "Millie", eager mask-wearing agents met us to go over how we'd get through the check-in process and what to expect onboard. We had already downloaded the app, so we pulled up our express passes on our phones. The agent we worked with scanned our barcode, then asked a lot of questions around our health, taking pictures of our proof of vaccination as well as negative PCR tests, along with our passports.
The process was quick, in part because people were assigned appointment times. Guests stood in socially distanced queues waiting to board or check in, and sanitizing stations were everywhere.
Once onboard, we saw placards and signs posted throughout the ship -- they weren't disruptive but did remind us of things like social distancing and sanitizing. In the casino, about every other slot machine was closed for purposes of distancing. We saw the same in the gym with cardio machines and in the theater as well. Changes are discreet, and we have heard no complaints from our fellow cruisers.
While mask-wearing isn't required for guests onboard, we have seen several who have elected to keep theirs on in public spaces. It's also easy to keep separated from fellow guests when we're sailing at about 30 percent of capacity. Future cruises on this ship and others will slowly move toward a return to full capacity.
Changes Can and Will Stick.
Some of the changes we've seen onboard feel temporary: mask-wearing by all crew, for example; or the requirement in Barbados to take ship-sponsored shore excursions. As conditions continues to evolve and improve, we'll see cruise lines and ports adjust their policies.
Other changes are here to stay.
The new e-muster system, for example, is a hit. We filled out the health questionnaire on our mobile devices within 24 hours of sailing, so we didn't have to do it at the port. Then, we started our muster safety drill on our devices, before even boarding the ship. We watched a video on wearing our life vests and listened to the emergency signal. Once onboard, all we had to do was walk to our muster station and register with crew stationed there. No crowds, no jamming into a tight space and listening to safety instructions for 30 minutes. It also meant there was no shutting down of bar and restaurant services to accommodate a traditional muster drill, so the celebratory vibe never ended.
Likewise, the Celebrity app serving as our constant companion from booking through disembarkation is probably a permanent change. The app features the aforementioned safety drill, the health and safety form, a ship map, daily schedule, virtual key (no keycards required to enter your cabin), express pass for boarding, personal calendar and more. It's a powerful little app that actually does what it's designed to do: eliminate contact with others and help smooth out the overall cruise experience.
(We've heard from other cruise lines that they're improving their apps, too, and we should expect technology to continue to influence the cruise experience.)
People on our sailing who didn't use the express pass were still able to check in, though it took slightly longer. Likewise, those who didn't use their mobile devices for the safety drill could do so using the interactive TV in their cabins, and a printed daily schedule and keycards still were available. But this pandemic might have been the tipping point for integrating technology more seamlessly into the cruise experience. We've seen many cruisers on our sailing whipping out their phones rather than grabbing the paper schedules.
The buffet onboard also has changed from self-serve to fully served. You walk into to the Oceanview Cafe, and a crewmember hands you a plate. Then, you move from station to station, pointing at what you'd like, and the waiters serve as much as you want. This will be rolled out initially on every cruise ship sailing, and I think it is here to stay for most. The approach completely eliminates shared utensils, takes away the one-off chance that "that guy" will just grab a roll barehanded and put it back down; it also cuts down on food waste. It worked well with only 600 passengers onboard; it will be more challenging when ships start sailing at capacity, as it could slow down the process some.
This is Still a Vacation. You'll Have a Blast.
None of the changes has dampened spirits, which are remarkably high for this sailing. We've met cruisers who saw six sailings canceled in 2020 and 2021, people who couldn't wait to return to their favorite cruise line with the first sailing out of the gate and first-timers eager to travel.
Energy onboard is high from everyone. While the ship is about one-third full, you wouldn't know it from attendance to events like shows in the theater and trivia competitions.
The joy is pure and palpable. We caught "Uptown" in the theater, and the trio of singers took time out to remark on the importance of the return of live music. The audience enthusiastically agreed. The live shows have been a welcome return, and even though seats in the theater are blocked off (about every other bench on our sailing), no one has been turned away. The bonus of blocking off seats: more room for dancing. Some cruise lines will require people to make reservations for the theater, but that hasn't been a requirement for our sailing.
In the evening, bars and lounges have been busy, though not brimming. The hotspot has been the cruise lines popular and vibrant Martini Bar, complete with bottle-tossing bartenders and frost-covered surfaces. You still can sit at the bar. If you elect to sit at a table in a lounge or to join an activity like trivia, you might notice tables are set farther apart, and it feels like there are fewer of them. It's a subtle change, and it doesn't hinder the fun.
Likewise, around the pool, you'll see fewer deck chairs, set farther apart. People haven't struggled to get lounge chairs or for their pool time. That, too, could be influenced by the smaller number of people on our sailing, or perhaps it's simply that passengers are just so darn happy to be back onboard, things that used to seem important, like battling over a deck chair, just don't matter anymore. (Here's hoping it's the latter.)
For avid cruise fans, the experience of sailing again will feel familiar; it's the cruise we all love, with passionate travelers excited to share experiences, let themselves cut loose and see the world. For new cruisers, this sailing reintroduces hope and fun after 15 months of lockdown.