Once again, each day dawns with new reports about Coronavirus mutations, infections and restrictions. Just a few weeks ago it seemed as if all that was in our past. Today, once again, COVID-19 is big news, at the top of the list of concerns for those of us who delight in travel and for others with holiday travel plans. COVID has had a personal impact for me and my family this year as well. Our holiday travel plans were altered because a member of our family tested positive. We experienced some anxious moments about his health and, although his symptoms were relatively mild, quarantine was the order of the day — or, more precisely, quarantine for 10 days, tests for members of his immediate family and, of course, no guests for the holidays.
Flexibility is today’s reality, for sure!
Still, it’s time to think about past and future destinations, and the differences we can expect.
In late September, we had the opportunity to “dip our toes in the water,” literally and figuratively, on a four-night cruise out of Galveston. We were more than eager to experience new travel protocols, and this seemed the perfect opportunity, with a single port call at popular Cozumel on the Mexican coast. Passengers were free to disembark and to explore freely. Shops and restaurants were open and taxis were abundant, but masks were required of all citizens and visitors.
Our Royal Caribbean ship, Independence of the Seas, sailed at less than 30% capacity: 1,260 passengers, with probably close to the same number of crew. It was quiet, but it was a wonderful experience. It whet our appetites for more and longer itineraries, held so long in check by the pandemic.
So, in mid-November, we flew to Fort Lauderdale to embark on three distinctive bookings on two different cruise lines. First, we visited the Caribbean ports of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Phillipsburg, Sint Maarten, and the beautiful island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. We sailed on the impressive Celebrity Edge, a modern ship designed to carry 2,908 passengers, but during our seven days on board, there were not quite 1,300 passengers. Then, after a few days in Florida, we set sail again on Emerald Princess, bound for the cruise line’s private beach resort on the island of Eleuthera. We sailed with fewer than 900 passengers. It was quiet and restful. That three-day excursion ended once again in Fort Lauderdale where, following a negative result to yet another COVID test administered by the ship’s medical team, we were authorized to remain aboard for another 10 days.
Our itinerary included passage through the Aqua Clara Locks of the Panama Canal, and our ship, designed for 3,080 passengers and more than 1,200 crew members, sailed with 1,374 passengers. Following an initial stop in Nassau where three other ships were in port, our captain set a course for Cartagena, Columbia, on the way to the Canal. Following our day spent traversing the locks and once again being awed by the marvel of the century-old engineering feat that changed the face of global commerce, our final port calls were in Costa Rica, and Jamaica, prior to returning to Fort Lauderdale to disembark.
It was quite an experience! We had previously visited five years ago, entering Gatun Lake through the old two-chamber locks which still operate perfectly, as they have since 1914. The new locks can accommodate much larger ships, of course, more than doubling the ability of the canal to facilitate shipping. It’s fascinating and impressive. Panama has changed during the intervening years, but despite the economic boost from the new locks, Panama and other Central American countries have suffered during the pandemic.
We agreed with other passengers that, as much as we have missed traveling, our disappointments do not compare with the hardships of crew members, some of whom were literally stranded at sea for up to four months prior to being transported back to their home countries. Nor did our “stay at home” time compare to the economic hardships faced by residents of these port cities that depend on tourism for their livelihoods.
Sharing pandemic experiences and future dreams with the staff and crew, and with residents of the countries we visited, became the most important takeaway from these trips. Each ship sailed at far less than full capacity, making it easy to get to know bartenders, cabin stewards and dining room servers. To a person, we found all crew members, including senior officers and maintenance personnel, more than accommmodating, and eager to interact with passengers. To be sure, everyone we met was happy to be back at sea. And those we met on shore during our excursions were delighted to once again welcome us to their countries.
If you’re planning a trip — sooner or later — we would urge you to go. But be smart about it: Get your vaccinations, submit willingly to the tests, abide by the rules (and know that the rules can change quickly), talk to the people you encounter, and enjoy every moment.
The world is different, but it’s still welcoming, and there are good reasons to get out and experience it!
We found that talk about our collective pandemic experiences, our fears and our heartaches, brought us together. Ask people about their families, about how the pandemic affected them and about their hopes for the future. Connect on a personal level. We have always found that to be the best part about traveling. It’s especially true now.
At the same time, however, I cannot help but be disturbed by the news that European countries are again closing borders and that more stringent rules are in effect for travelers arriving in the U.S. from foreign cities. I am appalled — and worried — by the rising numbers of positive tests throughout our country and around the world, and by daily reports of rising numbers of positive tests on cruise ships, and of cruise ships and passengers being turned away from world ports.
If you have recently been on a cruise or taken a trip abroad, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts, not only about your experiences, but about any future plans you may be considering.
We felt perfectly safe as vaccinated travelers; we fell naturally into the routine of masks in public places, limited passengers in an elevator, social distancing and constant handwashing and sanitizing, although we sometimes did it all with wry smiles and perfunctory observance. We also appreciated (and took advantage of) every opportunity to shed our masks, even if only for a few breaths of fresh outdoor air, or when nursing a cool drink in the company of others.
One final thought: I have to hope that none of us will easily abandon our travel plans. Travel is the single most valuable step we can take to learn about this world we all inhabit, the best way to forge understanding of different cultures and ideas, and the only way to become truly educated citizens of the world we all share. Travel enriches us all.
Let’s don’t give up on that idea. If you’re thinking of a cruise, a guided tour, a flight to an exotic destination, even a cozy stay at a B&B across the state line, go for it. Plan it, do it, enjoy every moment and return home safe, refreshed and full of the wonder of it all.
I do not know what the future holds. Perhaps, as 2022 dawns, what we must all hold onto is hope. May the new year be better for all.
To echo the words of Rick Steves: “Keep on travelin’.”