Out of port and cruising: Aboard the first cruise ship to set sail from the United States since the pandemic began

·10 min read

"Someday is here," a towering sign at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., declared.

"Vaccinated and ready to cruise," a couple's T-shirts proclaimed.

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"Welcome back!" three crew members on the gangway cheered in unison.

The messages appearing on walls, clothing and lips were triumphant: After 15 months of idle seas, cruising was revving back up. Before June 26, no megaship had departed from a U.S. port. Then one finally did.

"This is a history-making voyage," captain Kate McCue said over Celebrity Edge's loudspeaker on the momentous day. "We want the world to know that cruising is back in a big way."

During the pandemic, hotels and planes kept a few lights on, but not cruises. The entire industry went dark March 13, a day before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a No Sail Order. Cruise ships have been sailing in Europe and Asia since last year, but the rebound in North America has been slower. In June, a few ships kicked off the summer season from home ports in the Caribbean and the Bahamas, which are outside the CDC's purview. Celebrity Edge was the first vessel to receive the agency's approval to sail from the States under the vaccination proviso, which requires at least 95 percent of passengers and crew members to be fully inoculated. Ships that wish to accept nonvaccinated travelers must conduct a simulated cruise, so the crew can practice the CDC's safety procedures in a controlled environment. On June 22, Royal Caribbean International's Freedom of the Seas became the first ship to complete a test run. Less than two weeks later, it set off from Miami with real passengers, not volunteers - another first. (Royal Caribbean Group owns both the Celebrity and Royal Caribbean International cruise lines.)

In this early stage, every cruise matters. Each successful voyage will push cruising closer to its goal of resuming normal operations. (In 2019, nearly 30 million people cruised globally, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.) Of course, any slip-up could stall the industry's progress. For example, Royal Caribbean's Odyssey of the Seas had to delay its return from July 3 to 31 after eight crew members tested positive for the coronavirus in June. Cunard's Queen Elizabeth suffered a similar fate this month. The ocean liner plans to resume services from Southampton, England, in mid-August instead of mid-July.

"This cruise is a big deal because it's the first," said Richard Fain, chief executive of Royal Caribbean Group, who was aboard the Celebrity Edge. "The next one will be a big deal because it's the second. The third will be ho-hum because it's now the third. By the sixth it will just be, 'Oh yeah, of course, that's what they do.' "

On a sunny afternoon, under a blue sky smeared with white clouds, Celebrity Edge announced its departure with a loud blast of its horn. As the vessel sailed toward open water, passengers danced with abandon around the pool, cocktails in hand. Cruisers pressed up against the railing to wave at well-wishers on shore. From the beach, a bugle call rang out as the ship charged into waters that were at once familiar and uncharted.

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Celebrity outlines its health and safety protocols on its website, but the information applies to cruising in general, not to specific itineraries. For my western Caribbean voyage, I downloaded the free app, which helped answer some questions. For the rest, I called the cruise line with speed-dial frequency.

During these conversations, I learned about the specialized restaurants, the shore excursions and the Magic Carpet, a cantilevered bar that yo-yos between decks. I hung up knowing where I wanted to dine (Le Petit Chef, Eden) but unsure of whether I needed to present a negative coronavirus test result or vax card at check-in. One agent said both were required; in addition, I would receive a nose swab before boarding. The next time I called - minutes later - the employee told me testing and vaccine documentation were not mandatory. "It's the honor system," she said of vaccination status. (In response to the conflicting information, Celebrity spokeswoman Susan Lomax said, "Going into any 'grand reopening' you know there are going to be speed bumps, and ours came in the form of managing guidance updates from multiple authorities in multiple destinations in the days leading up to the sailing.")

Closer to departure, I received some clarifications. A man named Alfonso called me one morning to remind me to bring my vaccination card. I mentioned the Florida law that bans businesses from requiring such proof. (The week before the ship sailed, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won his lawsuit against the CDC.) He amended his answer to say the cruise line "strongly encouraged" it but would not deny me boarding if I showed up empty-handed. However, I would have to follow strict rules that, he hinted, could curb my freedoms on land and sea. The day before the cruise, I received an email detailing these restrictions: Unvaccinated passengers age 16 and older (or age 12 as of Aug. 1) must wear masks except when eating or drinking; pay for several antigen tests during the trip, at $178 per person; and sit in designated areas in public spaces including the dining room, casino and theater - the pandemic version of the smoking section. Our ports of call in Mexico and the Bahamas could also prohibit this contingent from coming ashore. (Midway through the voyage, Celebrity's parent company announced that unvaccinated travelers on Royal Caribbean ships must carry travel medical insurance in the event they test positive for covid-19.)

Veteran cruisers will notice a few changes to the check-in process. First, they must schedule an arrival time; no more swooping in sometime before the final boarding call. They must also undergo a "wellness check," a painless exercise that involves handing over your vax card and confirming that you have completed the health questionnaire. To my right, an employee asked medical questions to a couple who had not filled out the form in advance. Behind me, a staff member escorted a family with a young daughter to a testing site in a separate building.

With the exception of about two dozen children, all the passengers on Celebrity Edge were vaccinated. We almost had a pair of unvaccinated guests, but they decided to reschedule their cruise for when they were fully inoculated. The ship was carrying less than 40 percent of its capacity: 1,777 cruisers and 944 crew members out of a possible 2,900 and 1,110, respectively. The low occupancy rate meant that I could secure an in-pool lounger during peak sunbathing hours, eat breakfast at an ocean-view table (six mornings in a row, a record) and twirl around the nightclub without banging into anyone. At a tribute to Aretha Franklin, the theater felt like an echo chamber. From my balcony perch, I could see two men wearing masks with an empty seat between them.

The Scottish cruise director spoke a few words before introducing songstress Charity Lockhart. "Anyone from the United Kingdom?" Lauren called out to the audience. Two voices responded. "Canada?" Silence. "Not yet, not yet." Her voice turned solemn as she talked about the hardships the crew had endured. "They didn't know when they were coming back. They had to find a way to earn a living, feed their families and keep busy," she said. "It has been an emotional journey, and no more than now."

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On the seven-day cruise, we had three days at sea and three days on land. Every evening I received in my stateroom a schedule of activities and a gift, such as a box of doughnuts or an etched wine glass. Most of the onboard diversions involved booze, trivia, anti-aging consultations or live music. I spent an inordinate amount of time at the Oceanview Cafe, where the ship's safety measures were on display. In addition to a Purell stand and a hand-washing sink by the entrance, all of the buffet's self-serve implements had been removed. Nothing makes you more self-conscious of your portion sizes than having to ask a server for a spoonful of fried rice, and another, and another. At the cheese-and-dried-fruit counter, a crew member struggled to pluck apricots from the front of the case with a pair of tiny tongs. I stopped torturing her after three pieces. There was one holdover from pre-pandemic times: the beverage station. We were allowed to pour ourselves tea, coffee, water and juice, though a sign reminded us to refrain from refilling our cups with ice - a rule created to curb another virus, the norovirus.

Before the ship left Florida, I learned that I could go ashore in Mexico only if I signed up for a "curated tour" arranged by the cruise line. I had hoped this rule would change before Day 4, when we landed in Costa Maya. It didn't. (We could roam free in Nassau, on Day 6.) For guidance, I attended a presentation about the destinations. During the talk, Simon highlighted some of the top attractions, such as the Mayan ruins and Seven Color Lagoon in Costa Maya and snorkeling in Cozumel. He apologized for the last-minute cancellation of excursions to Paradise Island/Atlantis and Pearl Island in Nassau. "We are hoping to go there on the next cruises," he said.

After eliminating excursions that were too short or motionless, I chose the three-hour Salsa Cooking and Dancing with Beach Break in Costa Maya and the five-hour Jeep Adventure to Punta Sur national park in Cozumel, which included snorkeling, a Mayan ruin, a climb up a lighthouse and a crocodile sighting. After the tours, we could shop and eat in the cruisers-only "villages," though not all of the stores and restaurants were open.

The tour guides were strict about the protocols. They took our temperatures, asked us if were feeling feverish and reminded us to wear our masks at all times, except when eating salsa, drinking margaritas and breathing through a snorkel. They assigned us seating on the bus and frequently squirted sanitizer on our hands. At the beach in Costa Maya, a guest stood on the opposite side of the wooden partition. The guide gently scolded him and ordered him to return to our bubble.

Though I had more freedom in Nassau, I still had to mind my measures. "You can't come in here without a mask," a guard informed me at a public bathroom near the fish fry stands. I told him I had seen several people wearing blue shirts emblazoned with "Covid Enforcement Unit." He explained that they were in charge of enforcing the mask rule, adding that offenders could incur a $250 fine and/or a month in jail. On the walk back to the terminal, I saw only one bare face.

During the voyage, I wondered how I would determine whether the cruise had been a success. Clearly the passengers were overjoyed to be sailing again, as were the crew members. The locals in Mexico and the Bahamas were grateful to have visitors on their tours and in their shops and restaurants. To my knowledge, no one had tested positive for covid.

The telltale sign appeared on my final morning. At 7:30, I heard a knock on the door. The room attendant wanted to know when I was going to vacate my cabin. He needed to strip the bed before the next group of cruisers arrived later that afternoon.

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IF YOU GO

Celebrity Cruises

Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

888-751-7804

celebritycruises.com

Several Celebrity ships, including Celebrity Edge, are offering Caribbean itineraries from Fort Lauderdale this summer and into the fall and beyond. Celebrity Edge follows western and eastern Caribbean routes. Health and safety restrictions are in flux, so check the cruise line's website and app. Cabins start at $789 per person double and include WiFi, a beverage package and gratuities. Shore excursions range from $40 to $180.

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