SeaDream Yacht Club forced to return to Barbados due to COVID-19…

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Some people are bound and determined to try to keep living life the usual, pre-COVID-19 way. As much as I would like to do that myself, I know, as someone who has an advanced degree in public health, as well as someone with plain old common sense, that it’s not a good idea. Cruising, right now, seems especially ill-advised, even as it remains a tempting diversion.

Bill and I enjoy cruises. We particularly like to sail on small vessels with all inclusive terms. So far, we’ve sailed on Royal Caribbean (one four night cruise), Hebridean Island Cruises (five cruises), and SeaDream Yacht Club (three cruises). Hebridean and SeaDream are both considered by many people to be “luxury” cruises, mainly because they offer a high standard of service and are all inclusive.

Until recently, I’d been wanting to sail on SeaDream again. Our last cruise with them was in May 2013. Over the course of an unforgettable week, we traveled from Rome (Civitavecchia) to Athens (Piraeus). It had been our habit to pre-book cruises on SeaDream. We’d pay $2500 for an “open booking” while still oboard, which would allow us to choose one at a later date that fit our schedule and logistics. But in 2013, Bill was staring down his retirement from the Army, and we weren’t sure what the future held in terms of his employment. We didn’t pre-book another cruise on our last voyage and, so far, things haven’t lined up for us to cruise on SeaDream again, although we are more able to afford it now than we ever have been.

Even though it’s been over seven years since our last magical SeaDream cruise, I’ve continued to follow them on Cruise Critic’s message boards. SeaDream has been in the news lately because it’s resumed cruises in the Caribbean. It recently had a three week transatlantic crossing for SeaDream I, which began in Oslo, Norway and arrived in Barbados. The resumption of cruising was met with many cheers. Indeed, right now, there are several representatives of the press and travel bloggers aboard the ship, including a representative from Cruise Critic. Everyone was hoping they could make cruising during a pandemic successful so that people might start having some fun again and people whose livelihoods come from cruising could get back to work.

One blogger in particular, Gene Sloan of “The Points Guy”, has been covering the voyage extensively and posting pictures on Twitter. A few days ago, he posted photos of staff members not wearing face masks. That led to a lot of angry comments from people who saw the post. But, Sloan reiterated, that before anyone was allowed to embark the ship, everyone had to have two negative COVID-19 tests– one prior to flying to the island and one by the ship’s doctor prior to embarking on the ship. Everyone in the group that has been cruising recently tested negative– and there are only 53 passengers onboard, as opposed to the 112 that SeaDream vessels can usually accommodate. Staffing is at 66 members, so service has probably been incredible. Aside from the testing, SeaDream invested in ultrasonic cleaning devices that supposedly made cleaning “hospital grade”.

Apparently, passengers were assured that they would not have to wear face masks on the ship during the cruise. That was the main reason some people booked the voyage in the first place. They wanted a break from the COVID-19 nightmare and the oppressive face masks that have come with it. And– make no mistake– despite my public health background, I do hate the masks, even as I understand that they’re necessary for now. I totally understand why some people booked so they could escape having to wear the damned things. Since SeaDream did have a successful three week cruise from Oslo and required so much testing prior to embarkation, I’m sure plenty of people felt perfectly safe. I know I would have.

As it turns out, a passenger on the current voyage did start feeling poorly. Passengers would have been required to be tested again anyway, per Barbados’ requirements, but the passenger who felt ill requested a test prior to the one that was already planned. It came up positive. Prior to the positive test, SeaDream had reversed course on its no mask requirement, and passengers were asked to wear masks when they weren’t eating, drinking, or in the water. People were pissed off enough about that– but now they’ve been ordered to their staterooms until they’re all tested again. And who knows if they will be able to continue the cruise, thanks to the one person who tested positive.

I posted about this situation last night, since I have at least one friend who has had the magical SeaDream experience (in fact, that’s where we met). I wrote this:

Not good. They are getting bad press, too, because they weren’t making people wear masks. I wouldn’t want to be on a cruise in which I had spent $10,000 (for two people) and be forced to wear a mask, either. Seems like now isn’t the best time to be cruising. And now they have someone who is COVID positive. Yikes.

In response, I got this comment:

Would you want to spend $10,000 on a cruise and catch the virus because someone didn’t wear a mask?

I was actually a little surprised and disappointed that someone would assume my comment was simply an “anti-masker” statement. I do hate the masks and feel quite fine in saying so out loud. That doesn’t mean I’m non-compliant or in need of an intervention. I do understand why masks are required for now.

From the very beginning of the pandemic, my mantra has been that it’s more important to stay home as much as possible. That’s what I’ve been doing. I have literally not left our neighborhood since October 4th, when we came back from Slovenia with Noyzi. During that trip, we didn’t even eat in a restaurant. This is the same thing I did for about three months last spring– I stayed home almost exclusively from March until June, going out only to walk the dog. That, to me, is much better protection against COVID-19 than a mask is. People will still get sick whether or not masks are worn; it’s just a question of the ease of virus transmission, which is somewhat less when people wear masks. So, to the person who made the above query, this was my response:

No, I would not consider spending that kind of money on a cruise until a vaccine is available. I don’t plan to cruise if people are going to be required to wear face masks, especially on a line like SeaDream, where alcohol is included. I have sailed with them three times and have seen firsthand how people can behave. Lots of money plus entitled attitudes plus booze equals trouble, particularly during a pandemic. People drink a lot on those cruises.  

The blogger who was sharing pictures of the staff members not wearing masks got screamed at by a fellow passenger. Evidently, they were told that masks would not be required and they would not have booked the trip if they were told they had to wear them onboard.

The mask mandate came on Monday night after the pictures went live and people were posting angry comments about the irresponsibility of not masking, despite the many measures that were taken before people were allowed to embark. But, as this article reports, despite everyone being tested three times pre cruise, someone came up positive. I have gotten sick on cruises before and would definitely not want to risk it right now with COVID. It’s very easy to get sick on a cruise. But I also hate the masks and would not find cruising fun while wearing them, anyway.

To be clear– I think it’s crazy to spend five figures on a luxury cruise right now. Some people don’t mind wearing face masks everywhere. That’s good for them. I would definitely not enjoy being forced to wear a mask on a cruise, yet I understand that masks help stem the tide of COVID-19. I will wear them where I have to wear them, but no one needs to be on a luxury cruise during a pandemic. So, until an effective vaccine is available, I won’t be cruising at any price.

I will admit that I would be particularly pissed off if I’d spent $10,000 to be stuck in my stateroom and forced to wear a mask in a place like Barbados. I have been to Barbados, and it’s a very beautiful place akin to actual paradise! But I don’t need to go there so badly that I’d travel there from Europe during a pandemic. And now, it’s possible the people who are on that cruise will spend ten-fourteen days holed up in Barbados in quarantine, likely at their own expense! No, thank you.

There is promising news of an effective vaccine being made out of company in Mainz, Germany, only twenty minutes from where I live. The story surrounding the creation of the vaccine is fascinating on many levels; I hope someone will make a movie out of it or write a book. The married couple who have been working on the vaccine are really interesting people who seem to be focused on doing actual good. I can wait to cruise until their work is completed and we have an effective weapon against the virus that makes it less contagious and dangerous.

As I mentioned before, I have sailed with SeaDream three times. It’s a beautiful experience. The staff is wonderful and kind and mostly genuine. The ship is small– a bit old, but pristine, and immaculately maintained. The itineraries are interesting, exciting, and unique. I have met several great people on that ship, to include a couple of famous folks (who were surprisingly normal). But as incredible as SeaDream or any other cruise experience is, I have experienced getting sick on at least three cruises– twice with nasty colds and once with the dreaded norovirus, which made me puke and gave me horrendous diarrhea for about 36 hours of sheer digestive hell as I was also enduring my menstrual period (fortunately, the sickness was coming on as we were disembarking).

It’s VERY EASY to get sick on a cruise, although with only 53 people onboard, there’s plenty of room for social distancing on SeaDream I right now. The fact remains that you’re in an enclosed environment and you eventually will be exposed to everyone. In fact, I remember on our last cruise on Hebridean Princess, one of the staffers told me that he was always having to battle sickness. It was passed around the ship. If someone came aboard who was sick, there was a very good chance everyone else eventually would be, too; and they’d still have to work, regardless, so that means they’d also be spreading their germs.

Alcohol is included in SeaDream’s fare, and they weren’t going to require masking while eating and drinking. I have seen firsthand that booze is freely offered on SeaDream. You could spend the whole time drinking champagne and eating warmed peanuts if you wanted to– and I have done just that. Ordinarily, that would be a selling point for me, but I have seen the way some people behave after a few drinks. On one SeaDream cruise, Bill and I witnessed a drunk man helping himself to booze, getting very angry at a group of passengers, and actually inviting one or two of them to “step outside”. Imagine how he would react to being required to “mask up” after paying so much to be onboard the ship!

I am a writer myself, although not a famous one (at least in most circles). I can imagine innocently posting a photo from my travels, having it go viral due to someone noting that precautions aren’t being taken, and then being yelled at by another cruiser for spoiling his experience. That has happened to Gene Sloan from The Points Guy, who no doubt was doing his part to publicize SeaDream’s cruise and get the industry going again. Yes, you’d better believe that some people will pay for a maskless experience– same way some people will pay for a condomless prostitute. I can’t blame them at all for wanting to vacation without a mask, but doing so right now isn’t a very smart idea. And paying $10,000 to do it and expecting that nothing will go wrong is also not a very good idea, even though SeaDream cruises are forever tempting. The fact remains that COVID-19 is a real thing and it’s sneakily determined to fuck up everyone’s fun, no matter what.

So I’m going to stay on land for now. I don’t want to wear a mask on a cruise. That wouldn’t be fun for me. And I don’t want to pay $10,000 to be on a luxury cruise, having made the extreme efforts to be COVID-19 negative, only to be trapped on a boat and confined to my stateroom because someone comes up positive (and I don’t blame them– they probably have no clue where they got the virus). I really hope SeaDream and other cruise lines can stay afloat during this mess. I would love to sail with them again, but not until we’ve sorted out this pandemic. Norovirus was bad enough. I’d like to avoid respirators for as long as possible.

Luxury is personal and subjective…

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A few days ago, I was hanging out on Cruise Critic’s message forums when I decided to check the luxury cruising board.  Bill and I don’t cruise a lot yet.  To date, we’ve taken a grand total of seven cruises with one planned for September.  Our first cruise was in June 2009.  We took a four night Baltics cruise on Royal Caribbean.  We liked that experience fine, but all the nickel and diming and crowded buffets made us decide that we’d prefer smaller ships that are all inclusive.

In April 2010, we booked our very first “luxury” cruise on SeaDream Yacht Club’s SeaDream I.  Although it was a five night cruise that wasn’t that expensive relatively speaking, it was a bit of a stretch for us financially.  But we took the cruise and really enjoyed it.  With no more than 112 people on board, most of them adults, stellar food, all inclusive booze, and the chance to swim off the side of the boat, it seemed like a totally different animal than Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas.  It wasn’t hard for the sales guy to talk us into booking another cruise for the following year.

Bill and I were celebrating our 9th anniversary on SeaDream I back in November 2011.

In November 2011, we sailed on SeaDream I for the second time.  It was time for our wedding anniversary and we journeyed to the southern Caribbean to commemorate our nine years of relative bliss.  That trip was also very magical.  I actually spent three hours in the spa and it was a bit too much.  We were blown away again, though, and it was no problem convincing me to book again for a third cruise.

Meanwhile, in November 2012, we decided to try Hebridean Island Cruises, a small British line I discovered by reading an article on Cruise Critic.  Like SeaDream’s two mega yachts I and II, Hebridean Princess is a small ship that carries fewer than 50 passengers.  Like SeaDream, Hebridean cruises are all inclusive and expensive.  Unlike SeaDream, when Hebridean says they are all inclusive, they really mean it.  We did a back to back cruise with them and they took marvelous care of us.  I realized in some ways, I liked Hebridean even more than SeaDream, even though Bill and I are a bit younger (and much more American) than the typical passenger.

Bill and I celebrating anniversary #10… after haggis and whisky.

 

In May 2013, we took our third and latest SeaDream cruise to Italy and Greece.  Although the European cruise was probably my favorite of the three, I didn’t feel moved to pre-book another cruise.  Consequently, we have not been back on SeaDream since May 2013.

A shot taken from SeaDream I in Amalfi.

We have been on Hebridean again, though, having sailed in March 2016.  We will be sailing Hebridean again in September 2017… or, at least, I will be sailing.  Bill is supposed to join me, but may have to work.

On our last cruise in March 2016.

It’s true that I haven’t been on any of the big, well-known luxury cruise lines yet.  I have not tried Silversea, Seabourn, Crystal, or Regent.  I haven’t even tried any of the so-called premium lines yet.  However, there is no doubt in my mind that both SeaDream and Hebridean are luxury cruises.  Both offer outstanding personalized service.  Both lines focus on pampering their guests.  I was perplexed when I saw Cruise Critic’s top ten list of luxury cruise ships and Hebridean was not mentioned, but SeaDream was.  I posted a comment to that effect.  I know Queen Elizabeth II is not known for being overly concerned with luxury, but she’s chartered Hebridean Princess twice.

Very soon, I found myself in a discussion with a couple of other posters.  One lady, a Brit who knew about Hebridean, agreed with me that Hebridean is a luxury ship.  Another poster, I’m guessing an American who had never heard of Hebridean, did not.  She seemed much more concerned with the size of the stateroom and toiletries than anything else.  And, you know, that’s fine…  Because, as another poster eventually put it before also putting down Hebridean Princess as an “old ship”, luxury is personal.  We all have our own ideas of what luxury means.  It’s subjective.

Bill and I aren’t especially hard to please, particularly on cruise lines that are all inclusive.  We like really good food, good booze, and personalized service.  We have gotten that on both SeaDream and Hebridean, even though the ships aren’t the newest or the largest.  Frankly, I like them both for being small and being able to go to locations that are off limits to larger vessels.  I like the fact that there’s no pressure to tip.  I don’t actually have a problem with tipping, as long as I know what the protocol is and what to expect, but I would prefer not to have to worry about it.  I like it better when the crew members are paid well and do their jobs because they have pride in their work, not because they’re expecting me to supplement their income with a monetary gift.  Feeling like I have to tip takes away from the guest experience for me and adds a level of stress.  So we pay big fares on small luxury lines to take away that stressor and others, like having to sign chits.

The lady on Cruise Critic who was responding to me seemed to think my ideas of what luxury is are all wrong.  It was as if it didn’t occur to her that people can have differences in opinion.  She says she wouldn’t want to be on an all British ship, even though she is married to a Brit.  Personally, I like sailing with Brits.  I actually prefer them to some of the other groups of people I have encountered while cruising– and those people don’t necessarily come from a specific country but are more of a “type” of personality.  I try not to judge a person by where they’re from; my focus is more on how they behave.  Assholes come in all nationalities.

I would say my favorite group from a specific country so far are Norwegians, who are friendly and fun loving, from what I can tell.  Some of the Brits I sailed with on SeaDream would beg to differ on that.  They thought the Norwegians on our cruise were extremely annoying.

I was feeling kind of frustrated by the Cruise Critic forum when another commenter wrote this…

I really think all these discussions become repetitive and boring. Let’s just be grateful that there are cruise line out there which suit different people and we can choose what we like best. No need to tear down one line just because we prefer a different one.

I must admit, I like the way she thinks…

 

One drawback to cruising on small ships is that sometimes you run into people with whom you don’t mesh.  That has certainly happened to Bill and me.  Based on her comments on Cruise Critic, I have a feeling that I wouldn’t enjoy the commenter who was so focused on her stateroom and where the fellow cruisers come from.  So the fact that she doesn’t like sailing with Brits and thinks Hebridean is beneath her is fine with me.  I’d just as soon not have to see her on my next cruise.

Anyway… I have a feeling our next cruise will be on a barge in France.  That’s what I’m hoping for… And since there are even fewer people on those vessels than on SeaDream or Hebridean, I pray that we all get along and enjoy the luxury… and the fact that we are able to take a vacation at all on ANY ship.  Many people are not that lucky.

Kids on SeaDream…

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SeaDream I in San Juan, Puerto Rico…

I will never forget the first time I boarded a SeaDream cruise.  It was April 2010 and Bill and I had booked a five night cruise that would take us from Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands.  I remember the fare was a very reasonable $1599 per person plus government fees.  Yes, it sounds like a lot for a cruise, but SeaDream is all inclusive.  I had been trying to sell Bill on the concept of a luxury cruise for a long time.  Prior to our first SeaDream cruise, we had been on Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas, which took us to four ports in the Baltics.  We spent almost as much for that cruise, which wasn’t nearly as intimate or special… although given how expensive Scandinavia is, I think we probably got a nice deal with Royal Caribbean’s cruise.

Anyway, though our first SeaDream cruise was not at all perfect, Bill and I had a wonderful and unforgettable time.  We disembarked in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands completely blown away by the experience.  It took me a couple of months to stop fantasizing about our next SeaDream cruise.  I talked it up constantly and constantly shopped for new voyages.

We took our second SeaDream cruise in November 2011.  That cruise was also very special, as we were celebrating our ninth wedding anniversary.  Bill and I made a couple of new friends and I got to swim in some of the world’s most beautiful waters.  I got a terrible sunburn, but I also got to enjoy the piano bar for the first time.  By the time we were enjoying our Champagne and Caviar Splash in Mayreau, I was making plans to book again.  When we got home, I happily began what was becoming a ritual, searching for our next cruise.

Our third SeaDream cruise was in Italy and Greece in May of this year.  By the time we boarded this cruise, I was beginning to feel like a regular, even though there are others who sail SeaDream a lot more than I could ever hope to.  I started noticing things that made SeaDream less magical to me, even though our most recent voyage was probably the best of the three.  It was the best even though I got sick with a nasty cold during that week onboard.

I think one thing that made SeaDream less mind-blowing the last time was that Bill and I also sailed on Hebridean Princess less than a year ago, and that experience in Scotland made us realize that there are other great small ships out there waiting to be explored.  Another thing that made it less special was the fact that there were some obvious cost cutting measures being taken.  On our first cruise, champagne flowed freely.  On our second and third cruises, I noticed prosecco was being offered instead.  I wasn’t upset about the prosecco.  I like it fine.  Also, I understand that if I had asked for champagne, I could have gotten champagne.  But it was a sign that there were some pennies being pinched.

And then, I started noticing a lot of people on Cruise Critic complaining about kids on SeaDream.  While Bill and I have been really lucky– we’ve only encountered one kid on our three cruises and that was a baby who rarely made an appearance– others report having to endure large groups of unruly children running around on what are very small cruise ships.  Think about it.  SeaDream I and II are both tiny vessels; each is designed to carry just 112 passengers.  There aren’t that many places to go onboard when the rugrats are running wild.  Add in the fact that there are no balconies on either SeaDream vessel and you realize that locking yourself in your cabin for a little peace and quiet can result in claustrophobia very quickly.  Who books a cruise to hang out in their stateroom, anyway?

Our last SeaDream cruise cost about $7000, not including airfare, transportation, and hotel.  That price includes a 15% discount we got for pre-booking onboard.  All told, we probably spent $10,000 to do Italy and Greece SeaDream style.  Our last voyage was very good, but it didn’t make me forget Hebridean Princess, which was gloriously kid free and, in many ways, ultimately a better value than SeaDream was despite its generally higher fares.  I thought about pre-booking another cruise on our last SeaDream cruise, but realized our financial future is less certain since Bill has to retire.  And I remembered that there are other cruises out there just waiting to be explored in places SeaDream doesn’t yet go…

But also, I know that if I spent $10,000 for a SeaDream cruise and had to worry about kids pooping in the pool, hogging the lounge chairs, or snorkeling in the hot tub, it would really piss me off in a big way.  I realize that some kids are great around adults and enjoy grown up travel experiences.  Those kids are few and far between, though, and the average kid on SeaDream would probably not enjoy the experience that much.  SeaDream has recently started offering a makeshift kid program for voyages that have a lot of kids onboard, but it’s nothing like what other lines offer, including Crystal, which is considered a luxury cruise line.

Frankly, I can’t understand why a loving parent would subject their kids to a cruise where they won’t be looked upon fondly by most of the passengers or staff and probably won’t be kept entertained.  There are so many vacation options out there for families with young kids.  Some of those options are quite luxurious and allow adults to have their fun while their kids are properly supervised and can take part in fun activities with other kids.  Why choose a cruise line that is advertised as an adult experience for couples?

SeaDream is not designed for children and most children, when they are bored, will make sure everyone knows about it.  What ends up happening, then?  SeaDream’s “regulars” get pissed off and decide not to book again.  SeaDream loses revenue and has to drop prices, which makes it more attractive to families.  And then the families show up with their kids, who will no doubt endure dirty looks from other passengers.  The staff will endure complaints from child free  passengers who are rightfully upset about not being able to use the jacuzzi for a couple of hours because someone let their child take a dump in it.  Or passengers who can’t go to sleep because someone has let their children run up and down the halls, shrieking.  The kids are just being kids, wanting to burn off their abundant energy.  But many people go on vacation to escape this sort of thing; and people on SeaDream ships pay a lot to be there.  It’s selfish to subject innocent vacationers to your kids on a ship that is not designed for kids.  It’s selfish to SeaDream staff to expect them to entertain your little darlings when they are trying to entertain adults who can be very demanding and expect a lot for what they’re paying.  And it’s selfish to your kids to expect them to act like adults when they’re kids and just want to be entertained and be able to blow off some steam.

Granted, I have seen some adults on SeaDream act much worse than kids ever could.  The difference is that SeaDream apparently has no issue dealing with unruly adults who bother other passengers and will even kick these people off if they get too out of hand.  They apparently don’t do as much about kids or their parents, who let their kids annoy others who have paid a lot of money to be on vacation and may not have that many vacation days available to them.  The end result is that people who might have been loyal to the brand now can’t be sure of what their $10,000 is paying for.

I met a man on my second SeaDream cruise who said he had sailed four times with SeaDream and it was his favorite line.  Recently, he told me he doesn’t want to sail on SeaDream anymore.  And he has also expressed doubts that the line can survive the way it’s going now.  I didn’t want to believe him when he first said it, but I must say that the griping on Cruise Critic is starting to reach a fever pitch.  Unfortunately, even choosing cruises that happen at a time of year when kids are usually in school doesn’t seem to be helping some hapless cruisers, nor does it seem to matter if one chooses an expensive cruise.  The recent very attractive Black Sea cruise was more than Bill and I could spend for a vacation, but apparently it’s overrun with obstreperous kids anyway.

I don’t know if or when Bill and I will sail on SeaDream again.  I still have very high regard for SeaDream and its wonderful staff.  When it’s good, it’s very good.  But Bill and I don’t have the time or the money to gamble on SeaDream cruises if we can’t be sure our vacation won’t be ruined by the antics of unsupervised children running amok.  There just isn’t enough premium liquor in the world for that.

Still… this is pretty hard to give up forever…