(11:30 a.m. EDT) -- CroisiEurope is the first river cruise line to allow passengers from different nationalities to join its sailings, which resumed last month in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cruise Critic is onboard the 174-passenger Cyrano de Bergerac on a five-night wine themed itinerary through the wine region of Bordeaux.
With a 70 percent limit on cruisers as part of COVID-19 protocols, the 124 people are drawn from across Europe, including France, Germany, Switzerland, Monaco, the U.K. and Northern Ireland.
With the majority of ocean lines continuing to push back their anticipated 2020 sailing dates, river cruising has been at the forefront of getting passengers back on the water, with Nicko restarting in June and A-ROSA soon afterwards.
Here's our take on what it's like to sail with CroisiEurope in the light of new health protocols.
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Strict New Health Protocols
All passengers arriving in France have to fill in a health questionnaire (albeit ours wasn't asked for on arrival).
Onboard, CroisiEurope is has put the following new health measures in place:
- Pre-embarkation health questionnaire.
- Disinfection of luggage before boarding.
- Taking of temperatures on arrival and on return from shore excursions.
- Face masks and sanitising gel provided in the cabin and available throughout the ship.
- Social distancing and signage throughout the ship.
- Increased disinfection and cleaning in cabins.
- All crew members wearing face masks.
- No buffet meals.
- Snacks served on request.
- Passengers are no longer able to borrow library books, magazines and board games.
The Onboard Experience Was Not Overly Affected
Face masks and additional hand sanitisation stations aside, for the most part it was very easy to forget what was going on in the world around us and, all in all, it felt like a typical and very relaxed river cruise experience.
When seated in public areas passengers did not have to wear masks, so it was easy to strike up conversation. Any initial concerns on the first day were quickly dispelled with comprehensive information provided in the cabin and through reassuring onboard talks.
Although no dancing was allowed on the lounge dance floor (aside from couples travelling together) passengers could mingle on the larger al fresco sundeck. Cyrano de Bergerac's onboard musical duo provided music at lunchtime and in the evening and the ship's entertainment team laid on some multi-national quiz evenings and games.
Dining Was Much The Same
Out of all the river cruise lines CroisiEurope is probably one of the least affected when it comes to introducing COVID-19 measures for dining. Food and wine are a key aspect of the French-owned line, so lunches -- unlike many lines that serve buffets -- has always been a leisurely table-served affair (often four courses and with a three-course evening meal).
Additionally, CroisiEurope has always allocated tables at the beginning of the cruise so diners sit at the same table, with fellow language speakers, for the duration of the sailing. Families and parties travelling together are assigned tables -- up to a maximum of eight -- and any couples have a table for two.
Croissants (the best on river cruises!) are set on the table at breakfast, along with cheese, cold cuts and jams, and the waitstaff serve other hot and cold dishes to the table or from what used to be the buffet station. Overall the dining experience, particularly for anyone familiar with CroisiEurope, is little different.
Shore Excursions Felt Very Safe
In common with most river cruise lines, CroisiEurope provides individual audio devices for all passengers which makes social distancing easy as there is no need to stand close to the guide to hear their commentary. Unlike the U.K., wearing face masks outside -- not just inside shops and other enclosed spaces -- is much more commonplace in France, and now a requirement in some cities, so wherever we went the majority of people were wearing them and it didn't feel out of place.
It was compulsory to wear them on the tour coaches and all passengers, including the guides, kept them on when we visited towns, vineyards and historic monuments.
Destinations, including Blaye, Bourg and Libourne were much quieter than you would expect in August, with many some shops and restaurants closed.
With a notable absence of other visitors including riverboat passengers -- CroisiEurope is currently the only line sailing on the Garonne and we passed empty ships moored up as we left Bordeaux -- the upside was that it made it easy and pleasurable to get around.
Indeed, it gave the whole trip a really French feel. As when we strolled along the waterfront in Pauillac, and other ports, it was mainly locals in the bars and cafes and we didn't feel we were part of mass tourist hordes. In fact, I didn't hear another British voice on dry land throughout the whole trip.
Conclusion: It's Great to be Back Onboard
The comprehensive safety measures quickly became "the norm"; in the same way that we have all had to adapt to life on dry land. Inevitably, some people -- me included -- forgot to don masks when leaving cabins and walking around on the first day or so, but there were gentle reminders from the friendly multilingual crew members, many of whom were also getting used to things on their first cruise for many months.
The measures did little to impact on the holiday mood; especially as masks were not required when sitting in the lounge, dining room or on the sun deck. The happy "entente cordiale" vibe was certainly enhanced by CroiseEurope's generous open bar policy with free-flowing drinks throughout the day and at mealtimes.
The passengers on our sailing were a very happy bunch and commented favourably on the safety measures that had been put in place.
First-time river cruiser Debbi Hall, from Lichfield, near Staffordshire, said: "The crew are looking after us and they have done everything they can to ensure we stay safe, but they are not intrusive in the way that they are doing it so I think they have managed it really well."
Her father Roger Clemerson, who hails from the U.K. and now lives in France, said: "They are doing very well and I feel safe. The staff are great."
Also onboard was cruise specialist Alan Couser, Managing Director of Acetours Northern Ireland, who was with his wife and a group of four friends.
"I book a lot of CroisiEurope cruises and we came on this cruise because another that we had booked on the Rhone for the same week was cancelled so we switched to this one," he explained. "The safety protocols are very noticeable from the moment you arrive, from temperature checking and sanitation, but it hasn't put me off at all. In fact I have already booked the same cruise for this October."
In fact, there could be no better feedback than knowing that Alan has already booked the same cruise for October this year.