I recently boarded Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas in Nassau for a 7-night Caribbean cruise. I’d last disembarked a ship on February 17, 2020, meaning a mere 502 days had passed between the 2 cruises. I do not need to rehash the last 16 or so months. We all know that less than a month after I walked off that 2020 cruise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), quite understandably in my opinion, issued a no sail order for large cruise ships from US waters. While none of us really knew how long ships would be prevented from sailing guests at the time, I think I can safely say the not very many of us would have anticipated that it would be well over a year before cruise ships started sailing with passengers again from the USA. Cruise ships began sailing in Europe on a limited basis months ago, a fact that I’ve written about before. Royal Caribbean itself began sailing from Singapore in December 2020. My purpose in writing this is not to discuss the US response to Covid-19, the suspension of cruising, case counts, variants, or risk. Royal Caribbean offered cruises for sale that my wife and I were eligible to book from Nassau, and we did so with the able assistance of Meg at ecruisenet.com. I wanted to share the experience with you.

Background

I don’t need to talk about vaccines, viruses, epidemiology, or “vaccine passports.” An entire industry was shut down for over a year, and not surprisingly, the cruise industry began looking for ways to start sailing. Royal Caribbean and NCL had collaborated on what they called the “Healthy Sail Panel” early in the pandemic. On September 21, 2020, the Healthy Sail Panel issued recommendations that were shared with CDC as part of a public comment solicitation. As vaccines became available, the industry began pushing for a path forward from CDC. The back and forth on this is outside of the scope of this post. Long story short, the cruise lines began working to find ways to sail when it appeared CDC was not moving forward. One way for cruises to operate was to homeport a vessel outside of CDC’s jurisdiction. On March 19, 2021, Royal Caribbean announced that it would homeport Adventure of the Seas in Nassau for a summer season of Bahamas and Mexico sailings. Specific safety protocols were not announced at the time, but the press release alluded to details to come.

“Vacationers can rest assured their well-being and that of the crew members and communities visited are Royal Caribbean’s top priorities. Details on additional health and safety measures to be implemented by Royal Caribbean will be announced at a later date. The cruise line’s comprehensive, multilayered health and safety measures to come leverage expert guidance from the Healthy Sail Panel, Royal Caribbean Group’s Head of Public Health and Chief Medical Officer, and local government and health authorities.”

In all honesty, I found the announcement not surprising, but had a “wait and see” mindset. My wife and I discussed it a bit, and given that we were both scheduled to receive Covid-19 vaccinations, we decided we would book the July 3, 2021, cruise. There was time to see how things were going with Covid before final payment was due, and given the flexibilities available with Royal Caribbean’s ‘Cruise with Confidence” program, we confirmed a reservation.

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Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas in Cozumel

The Bahamas Health Visa and Getting to Nassau

We booked our cruise the day the new itineraries opened for booking through our travel agent. I’ve written about travel agents for cruise bookings before, so I won’t rehash my thoughts here other than to say that you should not discount their value for many cruise bookings. With the booking done, I began sniffing around for flights. While I probably should not have been, I’ll admit to being surprised to see the pricing on most flights from the Washington, DC area. Frankly, no matter the carrier, they were all at least a few hundred more than I’d anticipated, and only went up from there with each passing week.

This was to be our 51st cruise, but in all those cruises I had never booked flights with the cruise line. The high prices I was seeing on my own, as well as news that Royal Caribbean had procured some special fares to Nassau led me to check out their Air2Sea program. I’m glad I did, because we were able to book nonstop flights from DCA for almost $300 per person less than I could book directly with the airline. I won’t review the flights, both of which were AA operated by Republic E-175s. They were fine…and on time. We even cleared into J on the way down as AA Gold, and could’ve cleared 1 seat on the way back. We chose to keep our Main Cabin Extra seats rather than split.

One point I’ll add here. The Bahamas requires you to obtain a Health Visa to visit, including if you are just visiting to board a cruise. You can complete the health visa application beginning at 2 weeks before your trip to as late as 48 hours before. It’s pretty basic. If you are vaccinated, you need not obtain a pre-arrival covid test. Just complete the application and upload a copy of your vaccination card. Once you receive approval, which in my case came back within the hour, you’ll receive a link to pay your $40 fee. Once that’s done, you’ll receive your visa. Print a copy and take it with you!!!! We were asked for it at check in for our flight, and Immigration at NAS did ask for it when we arrived.

While the Bahamas does not require a pre-arrival Covid test if you are vaccinated, Royal Caribbean does require a RT-PCR test for all guests within 5 days of your cruise. We checked that box on the Monday before our cruise. Print a copy of your test results and take them with you too!

I booked the British Colonial Hilton in Nassau for the evening before the cruise due to its close proximity to the port. This would prove prescient as we would later learn that check in formalities for the Adventure of the Seas cruises from Nassau would be accomplished there. I won’t review the hotel. It was fine, if a tad expensive. Nice little beach. Restaurant operated on island time, but I have no real complaints. Spent an hour at the pool bar the next day waiting for our check in time, and enjoyed a few drinks and conversation with the friendly bartender. I’d stay there again if we were cruising from Nassau. If I were arriving more than a night before, I’d consider the Baha Mar Resort.

It’s Time to Cruise

Saturday, July 3, 2021, was a beautiful day in Nassau. Great, if warm, weather. A perfect day to board our first cruise in over 500 days. Ironically, the first Royal Caribbean cruise from the USA was arriving Nassau on the day of our departure. I happened to be taking a walk on the beach behind the hotel when Freedom of the Seas arrived.

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Freedom of the Seas Reversing Towards the Dock

We had checked in via the Royal Caribbean app a few weeks before our cruise. The earliest check-in time available was 2PM, so we took it. We completed the health questionnaire and watched the muster drill video on the app in our hotel room. (More on that later.)The hotel gave us a 1PM check out, so we went downstairs then, handed our bags over to the Royal Caribbean representatives outside the hotel and then went out to the pool bar to wait until our assigned time. They really are sticking to your assigned appointments nowadays, and I’m OK with that. It manages crowding in the check in area I suppose. At 2PM on the dot, we walked into the hotel lobby, presented our boarding pass, and were directed upstairs to accomplish our check in formalities.

Check in for the Nassau originating cruises is accomplished in the hotel’s ballroom spaces. There were 2 or 3 checks of our boarding passes before we arrived in the room where we were processed. We were asked a few health related questions, and the agent confirmed we’d completed the required questionnaire on the app. Apparently, the couple at the next table had not done the questions on the app, so they had to answer them at the desk. We were asked for our PCR test results and our vaccination cards which were reviewed then photographed using the agent’s tablet. Within minutes, we were handed a sticker which would allow us to board the shuttle bus to the pier. On the way out, I caught a glimpse of the seating area where those guests who are unvaccinated had to wait for the pre-boarding test results. We walked out to the front of the hotel and immediately boarded a shuttle that took us the short distance to the pier. It was just a short walk from what used to be Festival Place (leveled for new construction at the port) to our ship. Shuttles were available from there, but we elected to walk so we could get a good look at Adventure of the Seas.

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Hello old friend!!

We stopped for a customary boarding photo and made our way to the gangway where we were constantly greeted with smiles and “welcome back!” Boarding was so controlled that there were no real lines anywhere, including the elevator to get upstairs once we boarded. After security screening, we were directed towards the elevators where elevator protocols were explained, which are 4 people per elevator or your family. At that time we were also advised that we could remove our masks if we were vaccinated. I removed my mask at that time and did not wear it again while on board.

Given that it was after 2PM, we went directly to our stateroom where we found that our bags had already been delivered. We elected to unpack everything before heading out. Our first stop was our muster station to accomplish the last part of our muster drill. The staff went over a few details, scanned our ship cards, and placed a sticker on our cards. And with that, we were done. The new mustering process is the biggest improvement. Accomplishes the important task at hand without inducing massive crowds out on deck. From there, we went upstairs and ordered our first cocktails. All told, from check in, to the bus ride, to the room to unpack, to muster drill, and to the pool deck – 1 hour. Not bad in my opinion.

First cocktails of the cruise – hello Miami Vice

It was this moment that I stated that I thought we would wish we’d booked a second week on board. Nothing happened to change my mind.

Our Room – Junior Suite

We decided to splurge just a bit and book a junior suite stateroom for this cruise. You don’t get any “suite” perks, but you do get a noticeable increase in square footage, an actual bath tub, and double cruise points. Here are a few photos.

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Cruise Highlights

Our cruise included stops at Grand Bahama, Perfect Day at Coco Cay (2 day stay), and Cozumel. The 2 days at Coco Cay were what really sold us on this itinerary vs. Celebrity from St. Maarten. Royal Caribbean’s private island in the Bahamas has seen some significant investment over the years and it shows. From Thrill Waterpark to Chill Island, there’s something for everyone, including the largest fresh water pool in the Caribbean complete with swim up bar, to quiet beaches mostly untouched by development. There’s also the Coco Beach Club which is available for an extra charge.

We chose not to leave the ship at Grand Bahama. Frankly, we had deluxe drink packages, a pool, and this was our first vacation in over a year. We wanted to make this a “practice” sea day, so we did. We departed Grand Bahama and made top speed to Coco Cay to be there for the July 4th fireworks display that was part of the Freedom of the Seas cruise. We were anchored just off shore with a great view of the show. I should have done a better job of going outside and capturing good photos and video, but we had a comfortable spot in the Viking Crown lounge on deck 14, and just stayed there. It was a great show, but for me, the highlight was seeing several other ships come close to us so their crews could enjoy the show too.

The next morning, it was our turn to enjoy a Perfect Day at Coco Cay.

Thrill Water Park at Coco Cay

Adventure of the Seas is designed to carry well over 3,000 guests, but our capacity was capped at about 1/3rd. To say the island was delightfully uncrowded would be an understatement. For our first day, we booked passes at the Coco Beach Club.

Coco Beach Club Entrance

We were in the market for a private cabana for weeks prior to the cruise, but the pricing never seemed within reason. We went with Coco Beach Club day passes as a compromise, and I’ll be honest, I’m glad we did. It was a good experience, even at $180 per person. Pool chairs were plentiful, the infinity pool is beautiful, bar service was good, and lunch, was well…..excellent. At check in we were directed to another desk to make reservations for lunch. I did not know that was required, and I do not know if it can be done in advance. We arrived around 10am, and there were slots available at 11:30am and 1:30pm. We opted for the later slot, then went to the beach, which was delightful.

The water was warm!

After some intermittent sunshine, and yes, sufficient use of our drink packages, we made our way to lunch. It’s not the typical beach barbecue at Coco Beach Club. The menu is a significant upgrade to what’s available elsewhere on the island.

Coco Beach Club Lunch Menu

I was set on the grilled lobster, but definitely said yes to the server’s suggestion of adding the filet for a little surf and turf. I took a picture, but I’m afraid my food photography skills are subpar. Just take my word for it, the food was good. After some quality pool time, we made our way back to the ship. All aboard time was 5PM. You might note that this was just day 1 of 2 days at Coco Cay. Each cruise prior to ours had departed the island in the evening, and returned the next morning. I’ve heard various explanations for why it is necessary to leave for the evening. For some reason, we remained tied up at the Coco Cay pier overnight. If any reason was announced, I’m not aware of it. It doesn’t really matter, but was just an interesting factoid from our itinerary. No, we could not leave the ship after our all aboard time, until 8am the next morning.

We elected to spend our second day on Coco Cay near the large pool area for a change of pace. The DJ is entertaining, and there’s plenty of people watching, even with a vastly reduced number of guests. Social distancing was easy, and bar service was frequent. We enjoyed our day, the beach barbecue, and just being in the sunshine. We were back onboard by 3PM, and underway for Cozumel on time.

Our next day was a relaxing, and warm, sea day. We started at the gym!!! (Note: reservations are required at the gym for now. Make them in advance in cruise planner or on board.) The sea was especially inviting!!

Sea day! Cuba in the distance.

Cozumel was our final port of call. Note: masks are required in Cozumel, except when eating/drinking, or in the water or on the beach, with sufficient distance. We booked a Royal Caribbean shore excursion, Fury catamaran snorkel and beach break. We’ve done it before. It was fine. There was plenty of room on the cat to spread out, but in a new twist, or seat numbers were recorded and we were told to sit there for the rest of our time on board. Why? Contact tracing if it turned out to be necessary. It was warm in Cozumel, but the water was very inviting.

Snorkeling off Cozumel

We made one pass through the shops and then boarded the ship. We had booked a late excursion so, we were soon on our way to Nassau at top speed. Seriously, I think 23.1 knots was the fastest I’d ever seen one of these large cruise ships sail.

Our final day on board was spent doing our usual sea day things. Gym, pool, packing for home, dinner. Speaking of dinner, let’s talk about the food. Our main dining team was the best of I have had in years. My sense was that the dining room was staffed well, and with fewer guests to take care of, they had time to really take care of you, and they did. We dined in two specialty restaurants, Chops Grille (1 dinner and 1 lunch) and Giovanni’s Table (1 dinner). The culinary highlight of the week was Chef’s Table, a five course meal paired with specific wines for each. It’s one of those things that has been available for a while, but for whatever reason, we never got around to booking it. I’m glad we did. We will gain. I’ve already mentioned my food photography skills, so apologies in advance for not pictures.

Disembarkation

Throughout the week, the cruise newsletter reminded us to register for our departure time from the ship. We were not required to register since we had made our air travel arrangements through Royal Caribbean. To reduce crowding, you now wait in your stateroom until your tag is called. Disembarkation status is displayed on the stateroom television. Our tag appeared as “called” around 7:15am. We made our way to the elevator, went straight to deck 1, and walked off the ship. No lines. No muss. No fuss. Luggage was waiting in a tent at the end of the pier. A porter directed us to it, then walked us and our luggage directly to a taxi. Within minutes, we were on our way to the airport to wait for our flight home.

Our very delightful cruise had come to an end. My prediction made on day 1 had come true. I really did wish we had booked another week on board.

Covid Protocols and Safety

I debated how to address this, either throughout the blog or its own section. It’s likely the series of paragraphs many are most interested in. Should it be the first thing I write about, the last thing, or should I sprinkle it throughout? I did allude to some protocols throughout the post, but I feel like covid protocols and the question of safety warrant a place all their own. I wrote a piece in October 2020 that asked a question, “When Will We Cruise Again?” Turns out the answer to that question for me was July 3, 2021. I am not a doctor, scientist, epidemiologist, virologist, or guru. I cannot and will not give you any advice on how to live your life or make decisions about what is and is not “safe” to do during a global pandemic. Further, any specifics I discuss about my July 3, 2021, cruise aboard Adventure of the Seas apply to that cruise only. Any cruise you book today, will likely have procedures in place that have been refined to reflect the most current situation and will vary based on a lot of factors, not the least of which is where you are sailing from. Another cruise line could have slightly different protocols and requirements in place from the same port.

Vaccination and Testing – For Royal Caribbean cruises originating in The Bahamas, everyone over the age of 16 was required to be “fully vaccinated.” Fully vaccinated is defined as 2 weeks after your last shot. That requirement drops to age 12 as of August 1. The history behind that is that when these itineraries were first offered for sale, the vaccines were not available to anyone under age 16. Now, at least one of the vaccines is. As I noted earlier, I do not wish to debate vaccination with anyone. It is what it is, and I had started my vaccination regime before booking this cruise.

As a vaccinated guest, I was required by Royal Caribbean to obtain an RT-PCR test within 5 days of sailing and present the negative results at check in. I was tested again on day 5 of the cruise. (Note: you’ll receive a QR code to register for this test and book a time have it done while on board.) This test also met the requirements for return to the USA, if you are flying home immediately after your cruise. Note that if you are staying in the Bahamas following your cruise, you will need to make arrangements for a test that meets the 3 day requirement to return to the USA. Unvaccinated guests have to meet the same advance testing requirement and will also be tested at check in at the British Colonial Hilton before boarding.

Masking – Masks are not required for vaccinated guests while on board Adventure of the Seas or on Coco Cay. Local requirements apply at other destinations. Unvaccinated guests must wear a mask in indoor public spaces unless seated and actively eating or drinking.  Masks aren’t required outdoors in open air areas of the ship and are not required at Coco Cay unless in a crowded setting. Masks are not permitted in the pools or any activity where they could become wet.

Distancing – There is a noticeable focus on maintaining social distancing on board the ship. Signage is conspicuously posted all over as is hand sanitizer. Each of the elevator banks features signage reminding of capacity limits.

Elevator signage aboard Adventure of the Seas

Much to my surprise, this was mostly respected. I can’t count the number of times my wife and I were alone on the elevator and when we stopped on a floor were asked by someone boarding if it was OK if they joined us?

Signs and other reminders are great, but the biggest thing ensuring distancing was this. Adventure of the Seas is a ship that can carry almost 4,000 guests. There were about 1,100 on our cruise. Suffice it to say that the lack of crowds was noticeable. Here’s a side-by-side of the Royal Promenade, a popular area on deck 5 of Royal Caribbean’s Voyager Class of ships, from February 2020 (Navigator of the Seas) and July 2021 (Adventure of the Seas).

Do you see the difference? I’m not completely certain I picked the most crowded photo from 2020 either. With such a low number of guests, distancing on the pool deck was not a challenge, and the all important hunt for pool chairs was not the usual “hunger games” experience either. Some of the popular activities on the Royal Promenade and other places are temporarily on hold as to not encourage crowding.

Dining – The biggest changes in dining were in the Windjammer Buffet. You can no longer serve yourself in the buffet. Instead, you let crew know what you want and they provide it. Frankly, I hope that’s a change that stays permanently. I was actually surprised to find that we were seated with another couple whom we did not know in the main dining room. That’s not a complaint, it just caught me by surprise. There were 4 of us seated at a table designed for 8, and we were placed at opposite ends. We were 4 vaccinated adults, and it did not bother me. It was actually one of those things that felt at least a little familiar about cruising. They were delightful people from Puerto Rico and I’m glad we got to meet them.

What happens if you test positive? You will be isolated, contact tracing will take place, and close contacts will be tested. In the handful of instances where guests have tested positive so far, they’ve reportedly been returned home via private transportation. You can read more details of Royal Caribbean’s plans here. That does not mean that I believe or expect that the risk of someone onboard our cruise or any other testing positive is zero. Far from it. There will be positive cases on cruise ships. What really matters is having processes in place to manage that risk and a plan to safely and effectively manage positive cases when they do happen. In the end, I felt like the protocols in place were sufficient to manage risk.

Conclusion

This was a great cruise. I’m sure my opinion is not the least bit colored by the fact that I was way past due for a vacation. Seriously, I will never be able to pen enough words to say how great the crew was, and how nice it was to be at sea again. We had a wonderful time, met some nice people, enjoyed some great service, and never felt anything other than comfortable. The only thing wrong was this cruise is that we did not book another week aboard.

I was comfortable with the protocols in place to manage the risks from Covid-19, and would gladly book the same cruise again. I am certain there is some aspect of the cruise that I did not address in this post. If so, please leave a question in comments and I will do my best to answer.