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.

Ten shocking, funny, strange, amazing, and annoying things I have encountered on small cruises…

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Last night over dinner, Bill and I were talking about some of the things we’ve seen on any of the seven cruises we’ve been on so far.  Cruising is a lot of fun, but if you’re on a small vessel, you can end up rubbing elbows with fellow passengers more often than you would on a larger ship.  Sometimes, that extra contact leads to making new friends.  Sometimes it ends up being way too close for comfort.

I write this, knowing that I have probably inspired a few blog posts or Facebook rants myself.  Indeed, on our first Hebridean cruise, I faceplanted in the dining room right next to the buffet on a formal night.  I bet a few people who were cruising with us remember that incident.

This post may or may not be for the faint of heart.  I just thought it would make for a funny blog topic.  All of these stories are true, though I have tried not to be too specific in the interest of not embarrassing anyone (too much).  If anyone else wants to share an anecdote, feel free in the comments section.

10. A man with a mustache resembling an overgrown caterpillar. 

On our second SeaDream cruise, Bill and I were mingling among the newly embarking guests and happened to sit down with a British couple we ended up hanging out with all week.  As we were checking out the new folks and making small talk, a man walked by with his very large group of family members.  He had a very unusual black mustache that pretty much demanded that you look at him.  Our new British friends were commenting on the way the facial hair was styled and the wife quipped, “It looks like an overgrown caterpillar!”  Leave it to the Brits to come up with such a hilarious and truthful assessment!

9.  A woman with an electric fan in her cleavage.

On our very first SeaDream cruise in 2010, there was a woman from California running around with a tiny electric fan clipped to her tank top.  It blew breezes toward her face.  We were in Puerto Rico and it was very hot.  I had to applaud her genius!

Wow!  Such ingenuity!  

 

8.  Some German guy’s balls…

While cruising in Italy a few years ago, I happened to be sitting on the pool deck, trying to catch a few chilly mid May rays of Italian sun off the coast of Amalfi.  While I was sitting there sipping prosecco, a young German guy, who had just been using some of the ship’s water sports equipment, casually changed out of his bathing suit while he was on deck.  I noticed he was trying to be somewhat discreet, but I still ended up with an eyeful of his family jewels.  Later, I was talking to a woman from Northern Ireland who confessed that she’d also gotten an unsolicited look at this guy’s junk.  While nudity is definitely not a big deal in most of continental Europe, I sure got more than I was bargaining for as I gazed at Amalfi’s famous coast.

7.  Brawl in the piano bar.

 

One night, while singing hits from the 70s and 80s in SeaDream 1’s piano bar, I witnessed a drunk and belligerent man calling out a bunch of partying Norwegians because he thought they were being too loud while he was trying to sing.  There we were, singing “Just The Two of Us”, and this guy suddenly got pissed off and demanded that the Norwegians “step outside”.  Fortunately, the Norwegians had cool heads and declined.  For a minute, I thought a couple of people were going to have to walk the plank!

6.  Liquor theft in the piano bar.

On the same evening of the same cruise, the cagey drunk guy and another guy decided to slip behind the bar and help themselves to scotch.  Most of the liquor was actually included in the price of the fare, but I had to admit being surprised at their moxie.  Fortunately, they were not busted by the very competent Portuguese bartender who brooked no nonsense and made a mean mojito.

5.  Fractured facts and annoying anecdotes about America…

On a recent cruise, Bill and I were two of only four Americans on a very small ship.  One of the other Americans happened to have a voice that carried and a mouth that rarely stopped running.  While sitting on a bus, waiting to go on an excursion, she regaled fellow passengers with strange stories about poor people in Appalachia force feeding their babies Mountain Dew, *fish* (not shrimp) and grits in the South, and tales of her parents forcing her to drink warm powdered milk when she was a child.  I kind of wished I’d brought along my noise canceling headphones, but we kept hearing snippets of fractured facts throughout the week, no matter where we were.

4.  Raging paranoia…

We met one couple from Texas on a cruise.  They were pretty nice to talk to, though the husband was a little bit on the odd side.  Once the cruise was finished, we went back to our homes in North Carolina and Texas respectively (this was before our year in San Antonio).  After our trip, I somehow ended up getting uninvited correspondence from the husband, who was first upset that SeaDream had sent us a cookbook as a gift and he and his wife didn’t get one.  Then he said he’d made a film of the cruise and posted it unlisted on YouTube.  He offered to send us the parts of the film he had taken of us, but there were many strings attached.  He said we weren’t to share the links with anyone and had a whole list of other rules designed to protect his privacy.  Apparently, it never occurred to him that perhaps Bill and I value our own privacy.  Neither Bill nor I like to see ourselves on camera, though Bill patiently puts up with me photographing him all the time (because I love him and mostly manage to get good shots).   Since I didn’t actually want to see the video, I tried to politely explain that we weren’t interested.  He wrote back that he didn’t understand, so I found myself forced to be blunt.  Naturally, that didn’t go over well, but at least he quit emailing me.  Not that I mind being in people’s videos or photos.  That’s going to happen when a person goes on vacation.  I just don’t necessarily want to see the photos or videos unless they happen to be flattering.  😉

*Speaking of unsolicited photos…

Here are a couple of unsolicited photos the aforementioned partying Norwegians took of me with my camera while I was singing to Bill…

I think I look pretty horrible in these photos.  I had a terrible blistering sunburn; my hair was all messed up from the humidity; and I felt as big as a beached whale.  But I kept the pictures because I love the way Bill is looking at me and the night itself was a lot of fun.  I guess I should appreciate the unsolicited pictures, even if they do make me feel kind of icky about my appearance.  Damned narcissism!

3.  Bolt ons galore!

 

I confess that before I took a small ship cruise, I had never heard of the term “bolt ons” to describe breast implants.  But on our first SeaDream cruise, a Canadian lady used that expression to describe the apparently perfectly perky breasts of a very attractive trophy wife type woman who was on the ship.  Whether or not that particular woman actually had bolt ons, I don’t know.  But since that cruise, I have seen a lot of obvious bolt ons.

 

2.  Celebrities!

 

On our first SeaDream cruise, we ran into a couple of celebrities, neither of whom I initially recognized.  One was a star of a then popular reality show that I couldn’t watch because we lived out in the boonies and didn’t get TV.  The other couple had discovered and launched the music career of a very popular female rock star.  I ended up becoming Facebook friends with the rock star couple, which has been a source of a lot of fun for me, mainly because I am a music geek.  We struck up a conversation after attending the worst karaoke show I’ve ever been to!  On another SeaDream cruise, a German guy surprised everyone by taking over the piano player’s piano and delighting everyone with a live performance.  I can’t be sure, but I have a feeling he, too, was in the music business.  He came over and gave me a big hug when he was finished!  Sometimes music can lead to unexpected bonding!

1. Hand job at the dinner table… 

While cruising through Scotland on the tiny Hebridean Princess, Bill and I were two of four Americans onboard.  The other American couple happened to be sitting within my line of sight, next to a wall in the ship’s dining room.  She was a brilliant but extremely introverted medical doctor who also had a PhD.  He was a much more outgoing professor of literature from an Ivy League university.  As we were eating, I happened to glance over their way and noticed the female half gazing intently into her husband’s eyes.  He was doing his best to keep a straight face.  I looked down and saw her hand kneading his package while the rest of us dined on Sunday roast.  I must say, Hebridean Princess is the last place I would have expected to see something like that!

I’m not sure when our next cruise will be, but it will probably be on a small ship.  And if it is, I am certain I can add to this list of misadventures.

Big cruise ships vs. small ones…

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Tiny SeaDream 1 next to a gigantic P&O ship in Antigua…

 

My husband Bill and I have done seven cruises, six of which were on very small ships.  Our very first cruise was on Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas, which is one of their oldest and smallest vessels.  I think Vision of the Seas carries about 2400 people max, which makes her pretty small for a Royal Caribbean ship.  Compare Vision of the Seas to Royal Caribbean’s enormous Oasis of the Seas, which carries over 5000 people, and Vision of the Seas seems positively dainty.

Bill and I enjoyed our first cruise on a big cruise ship, but we didn’t like the huge crowds and nickel and diming that went on all the time.  Though there’s plenty of do on a big ship and it’s easy to escape the crowds if you are so inclined, we determined that we liked the idea of small ships and all inclusive cruising better.  So we tried SeaDream Yacht Club and, to date, have been on three SeaDream cruises.  Either of SeaDream’s mega yachts only carries 112 passengers at a time.  So the staff gets to know your name.  So do the other passengers.

Later, we tried Hebridean Island Cruises, which is an even smaller ship.  Only 49 passengers are aboard at a time.  That means even more personal attention and even more inclusiveness.

Bill and I had a great time on our most recent cruise, but once we disembarked, I couldn’t help thinking I’d like to try another cruise line.  There are several I’m interested in.  One I’ve been wanting to try for years is Un-Cruise Adventures, which is an American line.  If we hadn’t moved to Germany, we might have cruised with them this year instead of Hebridean.  I’ve also been wanting to try Seabourn for a long time.  Azamara has kind of piqued my interest, too.  So has Paul Gauguin Cruises, though I doubt we’ll be trying one of those until we’re back in the States.  It takes way too long to get to Tahiti from Germany!  None of these cruise lines have ships that are super huge, but most of them are smaller than anything you’d find on a mainstream line.

Some people love the really huge ships with many restaurants, shopping venues, waterslides, rock climbing walls, Waverunners, and the like.  Me?  I like a ship that has really good food, all inclusive pricing, and excellent service.  I also like ships that don’t pressure me to tip.  One thing I like about Hebridean is that they operate on a strict non tipping policy.  SeaDream also doesn’t pressure passengers to tip.  Instead, those who want to tip are encouraged to donate to the crew fund.  The only exception is when you use the spa, where tips are expected.

Don’t get me wrong.  When I go out to eat or get personal services, I tip.  I have waited tables before and understand how it is, especially in the United States.  However, I find tipping rather awkward.  I never know how much to tip or how to go about doing it gracefully.  I would rather cruise lines (and restaurants, for that matter) pay their people appropriately.  I know it’ll probably never be popular practice in the United States not to tip because servers like being in charge of what they can earn.  But I think the people who employ servers should be paying them and not putting that duty off to the customer.  I thought this when I was a server myself, too.  I would seriously rather pay higher fares than deal with tipping.  I remember being on Vision of the Seas and noticing the video about tipping on the ship’s television channel.  I thought it was really tacky.

Another thing I liked about the smaller ships is that a lot of times, what you pay up front is what you pay.  At the end of a SeaDream cruise, we usually have a bill.  It’s never been as big as it was when we cruised on Royal Caribbean.  When we’ve been on Hebridean Princess, we have never had a bill at the end.  We don’t even give them a credit card when we board.  I like that.

I’m not sure when our next cruise will be.  Bill has said more than once that he wants to try river barging.  I am definitely up for that.  That means an even smaller boat.  I think most barges only carry about a dozen people.  Tipping is also expected and you don’t tend to cover as many miles on a barge.

There are drawbacks to small ship cruising.  For one thing, smaller ships don’t tend to be as stable as the big ships are.  You can end up getting pretty seasick on the small ships.  I never have on Hebridean Princess because they mostly stick to the lochs, which are usually pretty calm.  They also anchor at night.  I have gotten very seasick on SeaDream 1 on more than one occasion, often in the middle of the night when they move to the next port.

Another drawback is that it can be hard to escape people who get on your nerves.  If you happen to be on a cruise where a large group has booked, you can end up feeling a little like an afterthought.  Big groups on small boats can overwhelm the ambience a bit.  If there’s someone you clash with, it can be hard to avoid them.  On the other hand, the small ship also allows for very personal attention and service.  For instance, I got a big kick out of one of the bartenders on Hebridean Princess going out of his way to make me a Brandy Alexander.  That probably wouldn’t happen on a huge ship.

Anyway… my guess is that the next cruise we book will be a barge somewhere in France or perhaps Ireland.  Things will get even smaller!  But I haven’t ruled out Seabourn or another SeaDream cruise. I may even get crazy and try another line.  We’ll see.

Tiny SeaDream one in the foreground and a huge Celebrity behind it.  Actually, this photo makes me want to book a SeaDream cruise…