The Last Royal Caribbean Cruise of 2020
The Last Royal Cruise of 2020. The year of COVID 19.
The Cruise to Nowhere !
We sail from Baltimore every year around the March / April time, dependant on the Easter break to meet up with many friends from the USA. We do a back to back cruise lasting 3 weeks which sails to the Caribbean and the Southern States ports, two different cruises but equally enjoyable.
Our ship was the Grandeur of the Seas, which would by this time next year will have left the Royal fleet for a new life with Pulmantur Cruises.
Before we took our flight to Baltimore we checked the Government web page to see if travel was permitted and whilst the COVID outbreak in Europe had set in, it was still pretty low and as for the USA only California had a few cases. Therefore no reason to cancel was the message so we took our flight from Manchester, with Virgin Atlantic on an old 747, in upper class seats departing on the 5th March for a couple of days in Baltimore before boarding the ship on the 7th March.
A superb flight was enjoyed with the normal fantastic Virgin crew and that wonderful bar that allows you to meet and have a sociable drink before eating, sleeping or enjoying a movie.
We landed early at JFK and had plenty of time to connect for our short flight with Delta to Baltimore. No COVID restrictions or issues at the airport, and the Delta terminal was as busy as usual.
Upon landing at BWI we took an Uber to our hotel for the next 2 nights, the Brookshire Suites by Best Western. A superb location, in the inner harbour area where we enjoyed our 2 days and prepared for the cruise.
That morning as we had breakfast in the Sky Lounge of the Hotel we were watching the TV news, it was announced that three cases of COVID 19 had been discovered in the state of Maryland, 3 people returning from Egypt. Could this have an impact on our cruises?? Later that morning RCI emailed to sail additional pre heath checks would take place and not to get to the port until 12pm. However as we checked out of the hotel, a phone call from the port advised that we could attend the port for embarkation. So we took our $8, (yes $8, £5! ) Uber to the port. After a wait of about 1 hour in clear blue skies we had our questionnaire filled and our temperatures taken and we were on board the Grandeur.
The ship is a Vison Class, one of originally six in this class, with the Legend and the Splendour now sailing under the Marella Tui flag as Discovery 1 & 2. Once Grandeur leaves the RCI fleet, only the Rhapsody, Enchantment and the Vison will be left, with the extended Enchantment taking over the Baltimore service from 2021.
It is true to say that the Grandeur, which is 23 years old now, is showing its age in places, that being said it is a traditional old school cruise ship, the type we enjoy the most. Very well proportioned, split along its length with plenty of pool space and hot tubs, 6 of them!
Our stateroom was excellent, with the revitalised bathroom area, and attentive stateroom attendant who looked after our every need.
The main centrum area if the heartbeat of the ship and is a wonderful area to laze around , have drinks or just people watch.
The ship has wonderful areas on deck 6, such as the rear lounge area, which is used as the Diamond lounge spill over in the evenings, and the small stage area that is the Pacific Lounge. The Schooner Bar runs along the glazed side of the ship and is a great place to enjoy music, sing a-longs and quizzes. The other side houses the shop area for the ship and the photo gallery.
Deck 5 has the Casino area and bar, and leads to the theatre.
Deck 4 has the R Bar, nice relaxing bar to enjoy whatever entertainment takes place.
The Viking crown lounge provides a wonderful vantage point to watch the ship sail by with a bar area that provides refreshments, it is also where the Suite Lounge area is located.
We walked around the ship and the nervous chatter of the news item about COVID 19 was being talked about, but hey we were on a cruise to the Caribbean, it won’t affect us, will it?
We departed on time and our Captain a Canadian called Patrick spoke, in what became a key feature of this cruise, in a very calming and reassuring way. The cruise was on and we sailed out of Baltimore under the suspension bridge and into the Chesapeake Bay, which takes around 10 to 12 hours to exit. However Captain Patrick made an announcement that a Hurricane force system was south of us and was making for rough waters and he was going to anchor near to the mouth of the Chesapeake before entering the Atlantic. So we sat until 11am the following day in flat calm waters before we headed off into the Atlantic. Would we make our first port San Juan?
As soon as we entered the Atlantic wow!
Whilst the seas were not ‘rough’ or ‘choppy’ at all, the swell was huge, and a cross-swell at that. The ship bucked around and whist the stabilisers were deployed, they did little to stop the ship from lurching about. As a consequence the speed of the ship was reduced to around 15 knots, it was then Captain Patrick announced that the San Juan stop was lost. Such a pity but understandable and remember we were in brilliant warming sunshine, on a ship, and those brave enough venturing into the pools which had become ‘wave pools’.
The food on board was wonderful, variety in the Windjammer and the main dining room, an enjoying experience as always. We took breakfast in the Suite area that was Chops Grill and had wonderful service and quality food. We dined in the Giovannis and again the food was excellent.
Our Hotel Director was Zoe, from Yorkshire UK and this was to be her last cruise before having a break before going to the Serenade of the Seas. The next four days were a joy and relaxing days at sea and the miss of San Juan was accepted by all however things were moving back in the US. By day 5 it was clear that COVID 19 had hit the US with some force / pace and cases were racking up all over the place. As we were due to enter St Maartin we gathered on deck to watch our entry into the port, however what we saw was not the coast line of St Maartin! Then Captain Patrick calmly came on the PA system to announce that St Maartin had closed its port to all cruise ships because of the escalation in COVID cases and the ability of the island to cope with any cases being limited. We were therefore looking at the coast line of St Thomas US Virgin Islands, we sailed towards the port and then we noticed we were almost dead in the water and not going into port, what was going on? It transpired that a crew member had transited through Japan within the last 14 days and we had been refused access to the port! We were therefore on route to Dominica. No sooner than we left the area, we were en-route back with a medical emergency and we were able to view the St Thomas area close up and looked on in envy at the other ships moored up at Haven side Port area. After dropping off the medical emergency we were on our way to Dominica, the TV feed of Fox news, MSNBC and BBC world wide news started to be filled with COVID 19 news with the US stations almost frenzied and panicking coverage. This was having an effect on the US elderly customers who were now becoming concerned about what was happening back home. Sales of the Wi Fi packages soared as people wanted to speak with loved ones.
Captain Patrick made announcements that reassured and the following day we moored at Dominica. We were able to have a very relaxing day ashore, enjoying the 85 degree heat, and we chatted with the locals in a bar who were concerned that the cruise industry would soon be stopping and the loss of income would have a devastating impact on the island and its economy so they were clearly looking to do as much business as they could with the passengers. Once we had all boarded the ship and shortly before we left for Barbados Captain Patrick made an announcement that whilst we were still able to go to Barbados, things were moving very quickly and liable for change. He also advised that we would be getting into Barbados very early as others ships would also be in the port
Barbados. The first thing we noticed is that it was full of ships, more than were scheduled. We disembarked and went to Carlisle Bay, our favourite, Harbor Lights Bar. We had a wonderful day in the hot sunshine, talc beaches and clear waters. We got chatting to PO and passengers who advised that they had arrived the day before to embark on the ship Britannia and that they were now cruising back direct to Southampton as the whole industry was closing down, they were also taking some TUI passengers stranded on the island as flights were being cancelled. They advised that they had been given a full refund and whist the cruise was no longer what they had hoped at least they would bet home safe and it was for free.
After a wonderful day ashore we boarded the ship ready for our next port St Kitts. Then Captain Patrick came on to inform everyone that the ship would not be doing the next cruise, in-fact no more cruises after this one. As of today, Saturday all cruises were suspended, by all cruise lines. St Kitts was lost and he would be sailing back to Baltimore immediately estimated to get to Baltimore on the Wednesday and not the Thursday. He was making available phones for people to re arrange flights etc Furthermore the cruise would be refunded fully or a cruise credit of 125% would be issued for this cruise we were already on, as would the next cruise if anyone as we were were, sailing on it.
We used the phone to rearrange our flight for an earlier one and Virgin Atlantic were wonderful in arranging this. All done and set, we even arranged an overnight stay at our hotel in Baltimore. No worries and just enjoy the next 3 -4 days! A medical emergency put paid to that, a detour of 14 hours to St Thomas saw us lose the Wednesday arrival at Baltimore so a quick call to our hotel and they kindly cancelled it FOC. The weather remained fantastic and we were able to sit outside in the sunshine for each day.
The in room TV news was now going over the top and people were beginning to become VERY worried (US people I mean.) Queues for food were being shown and dramatic rises in numbers confirmed Covid Virus. What was becoming a concern was the speed in which the US Government decided to close the borders with mention of flights being cancelled. It was therefore inevitable that our flight to Manchester was cancelled and we asked to use the phone again to ring Virgin to rearrange our flight home. We were advised no flights to Manchester would take place and that the US Government were opening and closing routes as what they call Gateways. Once again Virgin were wonderful, under the circumstances, and managed to get us a flight from Baltimore to Atlanta then onto London HR. We booked a shuttle flight with BA one way to Manchester and good old Willie Walsh charged us just under £500 for the privilege!! All that mattered now was would the flight be cancelled!
The ship moored at Baltimore at 5.20am on the Thursday 19th March. We were lucky to be allowed off almost first as our flight to Atlanta could not be missed and was early. We self-assisted and carried our luggage off the ship. As no evidence of the virus existed on the ship we were allowed off without any checks and we make our way to the airport.
At Baltimore airport we found a ghost airport, hardly anyone around, flights with seating capacity of 180 having 17 passengers was common. Our flight had 30 passengers to Atlanta!
Our Virgin flight to London was packed and we saw many Virgin crew having to be returned to the UK as flights had been cancelled. Again we were lucky to be in Upper Class and we were able to sleep well on board. The relief in getting back to the UK and not being stranded was huge. We then made our way to T5 to check in for our flight to Manchester which we made and arrived home after a 36 hour journey, a cruise to now where perhaps, and the last cruise by Royal before the close down.
Captain Patrick was at the exit of the ship wishing people a safe journey home.
He had been wonderful throughout in keeping us updated and his reassuring posts and humour were appreciated by all. The crew, who themselves had no idea what would happen to them, were also wonderful.
The fact is we had a superb cruise in spite of all that took place and the evolving crisis that was emerging and now engulfs the world and Royal refunded everything and even provided financial support to get us home.
In conclusion we must say huge credit to Royal Caribbean as a business and to the crew and senior managers who operated the Grandeur of the Seas. We will be back cruising in support of you as and when this crisis is over. Thank you.
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