The weather turned very cold and windy on the day we left Charlotte, North Carolina for a seven-day cruise on the Royal Caribbean, "Mariner of the Seas." Ah perfect! We would escape to the Caribbean for seven days while old man winter played his chilly games with our neighbors who were left behind. Unfortunately, the bad weather was an omen for a cruise on which a lot of things went wrong.
The January 16 -23,rd 2005 cruise was the third for my wife Debbie and myself. Two of our earlier cruises were aboard Royal Caribbean ships. This time we wanted to experience a "super ship" and the "Mariner" is the youngest of this class that was sailing to the Western Caribbean. At 138,000 tons it is the second largest cruise ship afloat. Embarkation at the Port Canaveral terminal went smoothly. Although the lines were long, they moved quickly and once we got to the ticket agent, the final paper work took less than three minutes.
The ship itself is breathtaking; clean, interesting, fun and oh so large. The shops and bars at the indoor mall, The Promenade, offer everything from cologne to cocktails. Art work throughout the ship makes a walk on any deck a pleasant, interesting experience.
After a quick tour of the ship we decided to go to the Windjammer Cafe for a light snack. At the entrance a crewmember gave friendly directions to the cafeteria-style buffet lines. Just in front of her was a dispenser of quick drying anti bacterial soap, but few passengers were using it. This would change during the course of the trip.
It was windy and wet when we left Port Canaveral and this ugly weather followed us into the Caribbean. It was pouring when we arrived at Labadee, the first port of call. Tender boats dutifully pulled alongside and some passengers got off the ship, apparently assuming the weather would clear up. It didn't. To make matters worse, the wind blew so hard against the huge side of the ship that one of the mooring lines broke. That was enough for Captain Johnny Faevelen who decided to pull up anchor and set sail after only about two hours.
The glum news that we were skipping a port of call was soon accompanied by a more ominous announcement from the Captain. A gastrointestinal virus was onboard the ship and passengers needed to be scrupulous about keeping their hands clean and minimizing contact with others on board. Captain Faevelen announced that crew members were not to shake hands with passengers, a rule that he followed but one that was routinely overlooked by the dinning room staff especially on the last night as passengers said their goodbyes and handed out tip envelopes.
Up at the Windjammer the greeters were friendly but more insistent that passengers use the soap before entering. On the serving lines, utensils handled by passengers were replaced every few minutes. Crewmembers could now be seen all over the ship with bottles of disinfectant in hand cleaning, cleaning, cleaning everything the passengers came in contact with. Elevator buttons, handrails, doorknobs and even poker chips were cleaned with what smelled like bleach.
The cleaning regimen wasn't really a nuisance and being stuck on the ship for an extra day was made more palatable by a list of activities that the cruise director's staff put together on a moments notice.
Down on deck one, in the infirmary, things weren't going quite as smoothly. It was rapidly filling with people who all displayed the symptoms of fever, dehydration and gastrointestinal distress common to the Norwalk virus. The prescription for the 260 or so who got sick was plenty of fluids and confinement to the cabin for 72 hours. Family members who weren't sick were likewise confined, usually for 24 hours.
Passengers who got confined said the crew was helpful, offering things like free movies, refunds for missed excursions and credits for future cruises for days lost. But there was an iron hand inside that velvet glove of kindness. One quarantined passenger who asked what would happen if she ventured outside the cabin was told that she, her family and their luggage would be dumped at the next port of call if they were caught breaking the quarantine.
Being confined to a cabin above the topaz blue water of the Caribbean may seem cruel but for those of us who didn't come down with the flu, life onboard was gay. The food and service were excellent and the staples of cruise life; pool games, bingo, spa treatments and shopping went on as normal for the majority of the 3,400 passengers. One of the evening shows, a musical review, was cancelled, apparently some of the dancers were ill, but once again the cruise staff pulled together some passable entertainment that included singing, a comic and an illusionist. The ice show was not affected by the flu and it was spectacular.
The sick passengers were allowed to emerge from their cabins on Thursday and Friday, but were not allowed to visit the ports of call of Ocho Rios, Grand Cayman and Cozumel. Saturday was a scheduled day at sea. The passengers we talked to who were waylaid by the illness had little criticism of the way the crew handled the situation. Still, they weren't happy about losing a vacation in paradise and none were talking about cruising again anytime soon. For the majority of those on board this ill fated cruise the quarantine of the few allowed for a typical cruise experience of good food, great service and interesting ports of call.
David Hains David@tvdave.com