Would wearing masks be unpleasant? Would embarking and disembarking mean queuing for hours? Would they feel safe? We spoke to the first Mundy Cruising guests to sail since the pandemic began, and found out exactly what the experience was like…
Mr Balchin and Mr Graham travelled in a group of four with their respective partners, and have just returned from an 8-day 'England's Scenic Shores' sailing on board Viking Venus. My first question to them was a simple one - did they enjoy it? The answer was a resounding yes! Not only did the cruise live up to their extensive previous experiences, having clocked up well over 50 cruises between them, but in some ways it surpassed them.
Inevitably a few things were different: upon embarkation, each guest was given a lanyard with a dongle in case contact tracing was required, and there was daily testing processed by the onboard laboratory. Non-invasive saliva tests were provided to guests in their rooms and collected every morning, a convenient way of handling things, and health protocols were beefed up, with sanitation stations everywhere. A daily temperature check was also completed simply by looking at a small screen, and air was purified in the public spaces whilst guests slept. All of which amounted to significant yet unintrusive protection.
When I asked about the wearing of masks on board, few negatives were mentioned. They weren't necessary in the restaurants, bars or outside areas and were provided by the ship. Staff wore masks at all times, and although occasionally it was difficult to catch a word or two, it was no big deal.
Despite the months of relative inactivity for the ship, Viking's standards hadn't dropped. The food was good, the staff were fantastic, and the served buffet was actually an improvement. Guest speakers and presentations about each port of call were great and the entertainment, a young quartet, was amongst the best our clients had experienced on any cruise, despite the quartet only having been together for a few weeks. As you would expect, the ship was spotlessly clean, and the cabins were serviced quickly and efficiently.
On past cruises, even at full capacity, Viking's generously proportioned public spaces never felt full, and this cruise was restricted by the UK government to 50% occupancy, so there was always plenty of space to allow for easy social distancing in the restaurants. This did make it harder to strike up conversation with other guests, although travelling in a group meant this was less of an issue.
Interestingly, the biggest difference wasn't felt aboard but rather ashore. Embarkation was earlier than normal and time slots had to be booked to ensure guests arrived in smaller groups throughout the morning, allowing testing to be completed prior to departure. Thankfully the process was smooth, with just a handful of other guests at Portsmouth at the same time, but it did mean our clients had to make changes to their pre-cruise plans.
More restrictions meant that shore visits were only possible on Viking's own excursions, and this, for a group who enjoy exploring independently, was a significant change. Rather then hopping on local buses they had to opt for a Viking tour coach, albeit one that was spacious and only partially full. In addition to the shore excursions included in your fare by Viking, paid for options are also available. Particular highlights for our clients included a coastal walk in the Isles of Scilly, which Mr Graham described as "like our own mini Caribbean", and a hike along the beautiful Lizard Peninsula from Falmouth. Unfortunately a sea mist in Portland meant views of the wonderful Jurassic Coast were restricted.
Describing the feeling of safety on board, Mr Graham said he felt safer on the ship that anywhere else on land or at sea, and the group are now considering squeezing in an autumn voyage before a longer cruise they already have booked for spring 2022. They did have some concerns about joining a longer sailing if shore excursions are still restricted, but we are hopeful here at Mundy that this particular policy will be short lived, especially in light of recent announcements from the Greek and Icelandic authorities that fully vaccinated cruise guests can now go ashore independently.
It's true that a cruise around the UK perhaps wasn't the itinerary that our clients would have chosen pre-pandemic, but as Mr Balchin put it, "Sometimes you just have to get your cruise fix". We couldn't agree more!