Peering out from my Crystal Serenity penthouse verandah in Nassau, I watched as wildly costumed and masked Junkanoo performers below whipped themselves into a frenzy, in a boisterous sendoff to passengers aboard the line’s Luxury Bahamas Escapes cruise.
We were embarking on a week of flitting around off-the-beaten-wake Bahamian islands, secure in the knowledge that all aboard -- from the 600-plus crew members to the 547 passengers – were fully vaccinated and had tested negative for COVID.
Back home, there were rumblings about the new Delta variant. And while the pandemic didn’t exactly disappear from consciousness -- the captain's welcome announcement included COVID-avoidance tips, for instance -- it certainly receded as the ship sailed into turquoise blue waters
An hour later, a waiter in the ship's elegant Waterside dining room moved aside a tabletop QR Code menu and handed me a thickly bound bill of fare.
"This is better," he said.
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And yes, it was.
Still, by week's end, two passengers had tested positive for COVID and Crystal itself had announced a change to its Bahamas sailings.
But changes are a given in the COVID era. And while Crystal's level of service and pampering remains unchanged from Before Times, flexible passengers are likely to be happier passengers.
Arriving In The Bahamas
The luxury line launched an all-Bahamas itinerary July 3 to jumpstart service at a time when requirements for sailing from U.S. ports were in COVID-induced flux. Crystal Serenity would sail from Nassau and Bimini, visiting lesser-known Out Islands.
I'd downloaded the required $40 Bahamas Travel Health Visa; pre-paid for a $25 rapid antigen test required to re-enter the U.S.; and tucked my proof-of-vaccination card into my passport.
But though getting up the gangway wasn't exactly a long shot, it wasn’t a sure bet, either.
A planned detour from the airport to the cruise port landed us at the Baja Mar Convention Center, where yellow-robed medical staff swabbed our nostrils for a free, Crystal-mandated antigen test.
My negative results appeared via email in 20 minutes, and after a gratis snack in an adjoining ballroom, I joined fellow passengers for the quick transfer to the ship. We celebrated with welcome-glasses of French champagne served by tuxedo-clad -- and masked -- waiters.
Among my shipmates was Middleburg, Va., resident Marty Engle, who was already anticipating the Wagyu steak served in Umi Uma, the ship's Nobu Matsuhisa-created restaurant. She and her husband had cruised on Serenity two years earlier in Europe, and the ship, rather than the destination, was the lure.
"The Bahamas at the end of summer? People said I was out of my mind," Engle said. "We may never get off the ship."
Good Prices, New Ports
Indeed, a number of diehard Crystal customers were on board. Many planned back-to-back cruises, included one lasting 42 days. One been-there-done-that passenger, a veteran of 37 Crystal cruises, impulsively booked a second week because the new itinerary appealed to his sense of discovery.
And others were merely lured by seven-night pricing that started at $1,999, per person, including gratuities, unlimited top-shelf liquor, access to three specialty restaurants, and some free shore excursions.
The Bahamas itinerary calls at islands rarely -- if ever -- visited by cruise ships. They include Bimini, a second embarkation alternative just 50 miles from Miami; Grand Exuma, home to a high-spirited gang of swimming pigs; San Salvador, where Christopher Columbus first set foot in the New World; and Long Island, whose 663-foot-deep Dean’s Blue Hole attracts the world’s top freedivers.
Our first call, home of the sprawling Resort World Bimini, gets plenty of tourist action from the states, thanks to regular ferry service from Fort Lauderdale. But the other islands are laid-back and lack tourism infrastructure. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Noting that transportation, guides and facilities aren’t on par with European and U.S. standards, the ship’s excursions team asked for “understanding and patience.” I didn’t need either. Residents were consistently welcoming and helpful.
A bonus: no crowds. For instance, on tiny San Salvador, where Columbus may (or may not) have first landed, a powdery stretch of idyllic beach drew exactly three – count ‘em three – people, all from the ship.
What's Changed -- And Not -- Onboard
While the ports of call may have been new to most of us, the onboard experience was a mix of expected attention to detail that Crystal is known for, and some new pandemic-spawned blips and protocols.
Capacity on the 980-passenger ship has been capped at 900, though actual numbers during the first four cruises were in the 500-600 range.
Despite the fact that everyone on our cruise was vaccinated, crew members were required to wear masks at all times -- meant as an extra dose of reassurance for passengers. We were issued wrist trackers in Crystal's signature blue hue that recorded contact with passengers and crew in case of an outbreak. The Marketplace buffet is no longer self-service. And, as have other cruise lines, Crystal has scrapped the group muster drill. Instead, passengers report for individual instructions.
Our temperatures were taken outside some, but not all, restaurants. Masks were required on tenders and shuttles, and on shore, per Bahamian mandates. Seating on tenders was staggered. And the by now familiar reminders about social distancing and hand-washing were posted throughout the ship.
Barstools in the intimate Crystal Cove piano bar lounge were roped off, but we could belly up to the bar in all other drink venues. And while placards with QR Codes were atop dining tables, waiters automatically delivered bound menus.
The fitness center had few, if any, restrictions, other than the usual request to wipe down equipment after use. And at a themed Viennese high tea, a hostess in 18th-century garb offered Jasmine tea with a decidedly 21st-century accompaniment: a spritz of hand sanitizer.
Inside the Luxury Bubble
Crystal's aim in requiring 100% guest vaccination was to create a blissful bubble of Before Times cruising. And for the most part, they succeeded. In the restaurants, I chatted up diners at adjoining tables. In the gym, I dripped sweat in a spinning class. In the ship's big-screen theater, I enjoyed a plush seat and popcorn -- a personal first since COVID.
And with the ship at just over half capacity, there was no jockeying for deckchairs, no lines for tenders and a more than 1:1 ratio of crew to passengers.
Midway through our cruise, the line announced that starting with its Aug. 7 sailing, it will add Miami (on Aug. 9) as a third embarkation point for the Bahamas itinerary and will allow a limited number of children and other unvaccinated passengers. Florida law prohibits requiring proof of vaccination, but Crystal has imposed an avalanche of requirements that effectively confer pariah status on the unvaxxed.
They'll have to wear a bracelet identifying them as unvaccinated; they’ll be sequestered to one area of the main dining room for meals and banned from other restaurants and onboard facilities. They must carry travel insurance that includes medical evacuation, and produce negative PCR test results before boarding.
Two passengers tested positive for COVID at the end of the line’s third week in the Bahamas, said Serenity's hotel director, Hubert Buelacher. They were isolated in staterooms with closed ventilation systems, and evacuated by air when the ship docked in Nassau. Crew members in close contact were tested and isolated for three days.
On our sailing a week later, and just hours after receiving the antigen test required to re-enter the U.S., our trivia competition was interrupted by the captain’s announcement requesting passengers from two staterooms to report in.
A fellow teammate and I exchanged knowing looks. Hours later, a notice slipped under stateroom doors advised that two passengers had, indeed, tested positive, and noted that protocols were being followed.
"You can’t eliminate 100 percent of the risks, but you can do all you can do," Buelacher said. "We’re very happy to be back cruising."
And so was I. The night before our return to Nassau, I looked into booking a cabin for the upcoming week. Flight schedules prevented it, but I can’t wait to get back to the bubble.