(4:20 p.m. EDT) -- Embarkation day on the uber-luxurious 600-passenger Seabourn Ovation, my plan was to quietly sip my complimentary Aperol Spritz around the resort-style pool, catching views of the Piraeus harbor.
Then a local trio -- keyboardist, bouzouki player and singer/dancer -- was onboard performing Greek hits and suddenly I was swept up, arms linked over shoulders with the dancer and two fellow passengers.
As we kicked our feet, my mind went to "Wait, COVID!" but the thought was only fleeting. This is the first luxury cruise that I’ve done since the beginning of the pandemic that feels a lot like pre-pandemic times. And that is certainly something to dance about.
How Seabourn has achieved a "normalcy" for its posh guests is by doing things a little differently.
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While the 100 percent vaccinated Viking Ocean ships are requiring guests to spit daily in test tubes for PCR testing, this all-suite ship is carrying 100 percent vaccinated crew and guests with strict pre-cruise testing requirements, but less stringent onboard testing.
By virtue of being chosen for a pilot program with the Greek government, Seabourn Ovation is also offering guests a mask-free experience. The 415 crew wear masks onboard; the 230 guests onboard our sailing seemed gleeful to not have to. The mask-free program started when Seabourn returned to Greece. There have been no positive COVID-19 cases onboard, though one passenger was turned away after a positive test at the pier at startup in early July.
There are, of course, reminders we are in the midst of a pandemic. Guests, including my brother and I, arrive at the pier at assigned times so as to eliminate any congestion, present the required negative PCR test results and pass through medical screening that includes a nasal swab antigen test. Only when testing negative, and released from the holding area, are you presented with your first pour of good champagne – served on a tray by a friendly, masked waiter.
From there the experience is, well, Seabourn – extreme pampering, extraordinary cuisine, intuitive service by a crew that remembers your name, cushy hangout spaces with live music (my personal favorite is the piano bar), free flowing drinks and caviar whenever you like. Aboard Seabourn Ovation, it’s party like it’s 2019!
Everything is not exactly as it was. There is now the welcome addition of an eMuster, where you just swipe your card with a crew member at your assigned muster station and then watch a video on the TV in your suite.
The line has also moved to an eco-friendly, less paper-focused mode, with shore excursion tickets and information about your cruise accessible on the Seabourn Source app.
Seabourn has not, as other lines have, posted signs and other social distancing reminders all over the place on the ship. But then again, spreading out has never been an issue on this class of ships, designed by noted hospitality designer Adam D. Tihany. There is open deck space for all, starting with your spacious suite's private balcony.
It's not hard to find a lounger at the pool, but for those who want less contact with fellow guests, the for-a-fee cabanas at The Retreat, up on top of the ship, are living room-like open-air spaces with perks that include a bottle of iced Moet Chandon and a cabin steward to fetch caviar, ice cream sundaes or whatever your heart desires.
Dining is as it has always been at The Colonnade, Seabourn’s fancy version of a buffet, where you can still serve yourself from a bountiful spread – or have the waiters bring your selections. Outdoors remains the preferred spot to do breakfast and lunch, either in the Greek sun or at shaded tables, as well as casual dinner.
Added features that encourage being outdoors include a new healthy breakfast option at The Patio poolside grill – where selections include smoothies, grain bowls and a daily egg dish served in a Moroccan tagine.
The "secret" pool area on Deck 5 behind The Club lounge has been updated to be more lounge-like, and now hosts dance parties and live music performances some afternoons and evenings. Again, adding more open-space enticement.
Guests are naturally dispersed indoors too, with four dining options nightly -- The Restaurant, The Grill by Thomas Keller (of French Laundry fame), the sushi restaurant and the outdoor Earth & Ocean tasting menu experience -- all impressively open even with so few guests onboard. Plus, there’s the option of course-by-course room service if you want to hang out in your spacious suite.
In the evening, some guests hit the casino, others attend show productions, some sample the Smokin' Margarita and other craft cocktails at The Club or watch the stars out on deck.
Even when the ship carries more guests – the numbers will steadily rise to 85 percent capacity in October -- spacing out should not be an issue. Ovation was created with the luxury of space in mind.
"We are looking forward to the increased capacity," says Zoran Jacimovic, Seabourn Ovation’s hotel director. "Cruise ships need to have this energy from the guests."
Looking Out For Each Other
The trivia contest remains fierce competition. The lecturers impress with their knowledge -- on our sailing, including a Greek cultural anthropologist. Guests head to the spa for wellness sessions and massages and try to work off at least a few calories in the fitness center. It’s Seabourn as you know it.
But "bubbled" together, guests -- who hail from the U.S. (151 guests), Europe, the UK and Canada -- and the international crew, seem to take a little more time to get to know each other. There is a gratefulness on both sides: grateful to be traveling, grateful to be back at work.
"We all look out for each other," says guest services manager Jo Van Biljon. "Our ship is very well protected and I like that."
Community aside, I do find myself freaking out in the mask-free closeness whenever I hear anyone cough or sneeze. I do the same at home.
On shore excursions, we are reminded to wear masks. But on a tour of the Palace of Knossos on Crete, our guide, driver and several guests seemed to forget this on our bus ride back to the ship.
We were also encouraged to wear masks indoors when exploring the ports on our own -- which my brother and I have chosen to do.
Prior to our arrival in Limassol, 23 guests who had booked shore excursions were chosen by the Cyprus Ministry of Health for a rapid antigen test. My brother was among them, so when we arrived at the port at 6:45 a.m., he was whisked off the ship and taken in a van to a port area set up as a testing center.
A day before our arrival back in Athens, all guests will be antigen tested onboard -- and those returning to the U.S. will receive their required paperwork.
Meanwhile, Seabourn Ovation is a rare place where you can forget there’s a pandemic, at least for a week or two.
"We are proving we can do this in this challenging time," says Jacimovic. "There is the sense we are on the right path."