(2:37 p.m. EDT) A welcome chill in the air greeted guests on board Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam this week, kicking off a week of glacier peeping and whale watching.
"We are so excited to see tourists back in Alaska again. We have missed you guys," Juneau bus driver George Whittle announced to a small masked-up excursion group from Nieuw Amsterdam during our call on Monday. "Thank you for being among the first to prove to the world that you can vacation safely in Alaska."
Most cruise lines are now entering their final weeks for Alaska itineraries in September, after a delayed start to the season because of pandemic concerns and changing regulations.
We experienced one of these late-season voyages to explore what has changed for cruisers, and what is still the same.
Mandatory Vaccinations, Testing, and Masks
Perhaps the biggest change cruisers from years past can expect is a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for all passengers and crew. Guests must present proof of vaccination prior to boarding the ship, and those without it will be unable to sail with Holland America Line.
Because vaccinations aren't currently available for children under 12, that means no small children were on board the vessel.
Additionally, news of increasing COVID-19 infections caused by the Delta variant in late summer spurred Holland America and other lines to require a negative, medically-supervised PCR or antigen test taken within 72 hours of embarkation. Those regulations, however, are changing to two days prior to embarkation this month.
Rapid testing was not available at Seattle's Smith Cove terminal. This means in some cases, passengers without rapid testing left their home cities still waiting on test results, or were scrambling to find tests in Seattle prior to their cruise. Tip: look for testing sites that offer a rapid turnaround on results, even if you have to pay a premium, and test as early as possible to the required window to give yourself plenty of time.
Finally, Holland America also implemented a mandatory mask policy on board the ship in all inside spaces when guests aren't eating or drinking. Passengers found souvenir fabric cruise logo face masks inside their cabins on embarkation day as a little nudge to mask up.
Though all crew members wore masks the entire cruise, the implementation of this policy among passengers hasn't been strictly enforced. Most have complied in places such as theaters and in public areas, but we found mask wearing has been more lax inside the ship's bars and restaurants.
Emptier Ships and Ports
Our Nieuw Amsterdam sailing, which departed September 4, is approximately 75 percent of the ship's 2,160-passenger capacity, and for many people, it feels even less crowded than that.
Having sailed the Nieuw Amsterdam in pre-pandemic times, it is refreshing not to face huge lines in the Lido Market or to get off the ship at port stops. There is still some crowding in the ship's popular, forward-facing Explorations Central cafe during glacier watching days, as well as capacity crowds for comedy performances and the smoking-hot house blues band at B.B. King's, a smaller venue on the ship's Music Walk set of public rooms.
Locals in Alaska ports report that cruise ship passengers are pumping sorely needed funds into their tourism-reliant economies. In a typical cruise season, 6,000 to 20,000 cruisers visit a port like Juneau every day. In 2020 and 2021, those numbers have plummeted.
Meanwhile, as rates of COVID infection continue to be high in Alaska, local health authorities urge cruise passengers to continue wearing face masks while ashore, regardless of vaccination status.
Another big change during this cruise season is that cruise lines are temporarily no longer required to stop at a foreign port while sailing on U.S. itineraries to and from Alaska.
This is important because Canadian ports of call have typically been a key part of Alaskan itineraries from Seattle, but Canada has put a stop to cruise operations until at least November 1, 2021.
At the urging of Alaskan lawmakers this year, President Biden signed a temporary bill in late May bypassing the Passenger Vessel Services Act and allowing cruise ships like Nieuw Amsterdam to sail exclusively to U.S. ports in Alaska. For our sailing, this meant a call on Icy Strait Point instead of the more traditional stop in Victoria, British Columbia.
What Hasn't Changed
Overall, we were happy to see that the cruise experience fundamentally feels very much the same as what we experienced before the pandemic.
A favorite Holland America ritual of enjoying cups of hot Dutch pea soup while wrapped in blankets on deck admiring the icy blue glaciers was still happening on board yesterday in Glacier Bay National Park.
Stateroom service continues to be excellent, with masked cabin stewards visiting cabins twice per day to freshen them up. Buffet areas continue to be touch-free as they largely were on Holland America vessels before the COVID-19 pandemic, with crew serving passengers everything from sushi to freshly prepared salads.
All the reasons we looked to relax and escape on a cruise were even more present this year, and for a few memorable moments this week aboard Nieuw Amsterdam in Alaska, we did just that.