(3 p.m. BST) -- Marella Cruises became only the third cruise line to set sail in UK waters since March 2020 on Friday June 25.
The 1,924-passenger ship left Southampton for a three-night cruise along the South Coast, calling into Dover in Kent and Portland in Dorset.
There’s a repeat itinerary this week, then Explorer sets off on a series of longer voyages circling the British Isles that offer a mix of sea and port days.
The UK government’s Covid rules mean there are just under 1,000 passengers onboard. There is a higher ratio of crew to passengers, but fewer crew than if the ship was full.
Here’s how we found cruising in a time of Covid.
We’re all Brits, as mandated by the UK government for these staycation cruises, but as Marella’s cruises are sold almost exclusively in the UK that is nothing new. Most we met were past passengers thrilled to at last be on board after one cruise after another was cancelled over the past 14 months. For one couple it is fifth time lucky. "It feels so good finally to be back," they told us. The crew are equally thrilled to be on board after more than a year without work. "You can’t see it with these masks but we are all smiling. You can see it in my eyes," one said. We certainly could!
Families and vaccinated welcome
Passengers aged 18 or over must provide proof they are fully vaccinated, with the second jab at least seven days before sailing. Everyone must also test negative for Covid before boarding (Marella provides a free test at the port). The great news for families is that kids are allowed on too (there were more than 40 under 17s on our cruise). They just need a negative lateral flow test.
The other rules have become pretty familiar on these staycation cruises (and mirrors the rules on land): masks when walking around indoors, one-way systems to maintain physical distancing, no more help-yourself in the buffet. We're asked to visit thermal screening stations daily to have our temperatures checked, and there are constant reminders to follow the hands, face, space mantra, and stay in your cabin if you feel ill.
It’s tougher for crew. Most are fully vaccinated but must self-isolate for 10 days before joining the ship and again on board for another 10 days before starting work. They are tested regularly and can’t go ashore (except to escort excursions).
Life on board is a bit different
Masks are a pain, and the one-way systems a nuisance (and mostly ignored in the buffet as they make little sense), but neither really impact the cruise experience. However, social distancing rules do. In the spa, numbers in the thermal suite -- a large area on Explorer -- are capped at 10, and after every 90 minutes it is closed for an hour for a deep clean.
Restaurants are only allowed half their capacity, just like land-based hospitality venues in the UK, so they booked up fast, and with everyone is spaced out, the atmosphere felt a bit flat. In Indigo, the nightclub, dancing is banned (the dance floor now has seats).
The ever-popular Squid and Anchor pub had plenty of buzz, especially when live bands were playing, but a lot of seating is blocked off and we couldn’t stand, even with masks on, so crew had to turn people away when it got full. Most people seemed very relaxed about it all. Outside, apart from the crew having to wear masks, it’s easy to forget Covid (which presumably is why doors have reminders to mask up).
Spot the tweaks
Marella Explorer started life in 1996 as Galaxy for Celebrity Cruises, became Mein Schiff for Germany’s TUI Cruises in 2009 and joined Marella Cruises in May 2018 after a refit in the Navantia shipyard in Cadiz. A few months later, a few more tweaks were made here and there that only a keen eye would spot.
Of particular note, the pool bar looks smarter, the slide into the kiddies’ pool is new, a patch of Astroturf and weird Astro furniture has been added outside the Hideaway, a snug area reserved for teens, and bright neon lights beckon gamers to the playzone.
Our junior suite, a large room with loads of wardrobe space and numerous drawers, had a large balcony on which a table and chairs are a useful addition. There are also new bar stools in The Lounge that looked comfy. Unfortunately, Covid rules don’t allow you to sit at the bar so we couldn’t put them to the test.
Bubble up to go ashore
The long arm of Covid (and the UK government) has extended to trips ashore, which we felt most impacted the cruise experience. We were not allowed ashore alone, only on a ship's excursion, and straying from the "bubble" was strictly verboten. That got beyond ridiculous when our guide told us that the rules meant we had to be escorted to the rest room. I gather that’s so we didn’t slip off into a gift shop en route.
Most passengers opted to stay on board during our two port calls so most excursions were cancelled. There were just two in Dover – to Canterbury city and Samphire Hoe, for a close up of the famed White Cliffs -- and two in Portland -- to Bovington tank museum and a botanical garden and swan sanctuary in Abbotsbury.
We stayed put in Dover, but went to Abbotsbury. There were just six of us and an escort from the ship (her first trip ashore in over a month). Masks were required on the coach, sanitiser was provided and we had to sit towards the back of the vehicle, well away from the driver or guide.
Conclusion: Don’t let the rules put you off
The new health protocols sound onerous, and many don’t make sense, but don’t let that put you off. They are there to keep everyone safe and secure, and were a fair trade for three glorious days on board. After all, we were looked after by a crew who were delighted to see us and had someone else to do the cooking. What’s not to love?