I’m on the first big cruise ship to sail to Alaska in nearly 2 years. It’s so empty, it feels like my own private yacht
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Editor’s note: TPG’s Gene Sloan is sailing on Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas as a guest of the line. The opinions expressed below are entirely his and weren’t subject to review by the cruise line.
As I write this, I am sitting in the Centrum on Royal Caribbean‘s Serenade of the Seas — a soaring, centrally-located lounge and bar space that is one of the ship’s main gathering places.
It’s normally a bustling place, and it should be particularly bustling now. There’s a guitarist performing on the stage — the only live performance currently happening on board.
But the Centrum is stunningly empty — so empty that it almost seems like the guitarist is playing just for me.
As I look around, I count just two other passengers on the ground level of the room. A few more are in the balcony spaces above. Nearly all the clusters of chairs that fill the Centrum are unoccupied.
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It’s not the only spot on board Serenade of the Seas where I have had a this-cruise-ship-is-here-just-for-me moment since I boarded on Monday.
Last night, as I was dining at the ship’s Italian eatery, Giovanni’s Table, I noticed at one point that the entire staff was attending just to my table and one other table that was occupied. Afterward, I sat down with another cruise writer in the ship’s signature Schooner Bar for a drink and, for a time, we had the entire place (and the live piano music that it offered) to ourselves.
Serenade of the Seas is the first big cruise ship to restart departures to Alaska in nearly two years, and for now, it’s sailing with just a small fraction of the number of passengers that it normally carries. That’s resulting in an extraordinarily intimate and exclusive onboard experience.
It almost feels like being on a personal yacht. Just a very, very big one.
Here, a look at that and other things that are different (or not) on Serenade of the Seas as it finally returns to cruising after a COVID-19-caused, 16-month-long hiatus.
Surely this won’t last for long. But, at least for a short time, being on Serenade of the Seas is a chance to experience all that a big ship has to offer without the crowds that normally come with a big-ship cruise experience.
A Royal Caribbean executive this week told me that there are about 630 passengers on board for this sailing. This for a ship that can hold up to 2,476 passengers when full to the brim.
In other words, it’s only about 25% full.
Royal Caribbean purposefully is keeping occupancy low on its ships as it slowly brings them back into service this summer. But the low occupancy on Serenade of the Seas right now is also likely the result of cruisers having assumed that Royal Caribbean’s Alaska sailings wouldn’t operate this year due to a Canada ban on cruise ship arrivals that remains in effect.
The reason why a ban on cruise ship arrivals in Canada would make people think cruising wouldn’t happen this summer in Alaska is a long and complicated story. But until a few weeks ago, it seemed unlikely to most people who follow the cruise world that this week’s Serenade of the Seas sailing or any other big-ship cruise to Alaska would happen this summer.
Cruisers typically book sailings many months, if not a full year, in advance, and filling a cruise ship on short notice is difficult even in the best of times.
One amazing statistic about this first sailing of Serenade of the Seas in 16 months: There are more crew members on the ship than passengers. In all, there are slightly more than 800 crew members on Serenade of the Seas right now, a full complement.
That means the staff-to-crew ratio is nearly 1.3 to 1.
That’s a level of staff-to-crew that exceeds what you’ll find on even the most luxurious and pricey cruise ships, such as Silversea and Regent Seven Seas Cruises vessels. The result is a service level on board that, for now at least, is like nothing most Royal Caribbean fans have ever seen.
New health protocols
Royal Caribbean has implemented some new health and safety policies on board Serenade of the Seas that are noticeable, all designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
For starters, passengers must wear masks for now in the interior spaces of the ship. And some areas of the ship — the casino, for instance, and the pub — are off-limits to passengers who aren’t vaccinated for COVID-19.
The line also has made changes to venues to encourage social distancing. Many seating areas in lounges, bars and restaurants are blocked off with “table reserved for physical distancing” signs so that they remain unoccupied. Gyms are only open by appointment.
In addition, travel parties with unvaccinated passengers are not allowed to leave the ship in ports unless they purchase a local tour through Royal Caribbean.
These policies are in keeping with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rules for cruise ships in U.S. waters that aren’t sailing with at least 95% of passengers vaccinated for COVID-19.
Unlike most lines that operate in U.S. waters, Royal Caribbean hasn’t committed to sailing its ships with at least 95% of passengers vaccinated.
Royal Caribbean executives have said they decided against such a commitment because they normally draw a large number of families with young children who aren’t eligible for a vaccine. Without turning away those families, it would have been impossible to hit the 95% target, they have said.
Still, Royal Caribbean is mandating that all passengers 16 years of age and older show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination to sail on Serenade of the Seas (the age cut-off will drop to 12 on Aug. 1). The result is that a large percentage of passengers on board are, indeed, vaccinated for COVID-19.
Passengers who aren’t vaccinated are required to take a PCR test for COVID-19 when checking in at the terminal and an antigen test for COVID-19 onboard the ship near the end of the voyage.
Passengers under the age of 2 are exempt from the testing requirements.
While noticeable, the new mask-wearing rules and social distancing measures aren’t overly intrusive. While masks haven’t been required in most venues in my home state of North Carolina since May, and I have grown accustomed to not wearing one in most settings, I’ve quickly gotten back into the habit of putting one on while on Serenade of the Seas.
Despite the new mask-wearing rule on the ship and other COVID-19-related changes, the basic cruise experience feels relatively normal. As noted above, the most noticeable difference right now with the cruise experience on Serenade of the Seas as compared to pre-COVID times is that the ship is unusually empty.
Most of the ship’s venues — including showrooms, lounges, bars and eateries — are operating normally. Operating as normally as possible has been important to Royal Caribbean in its startup in recent weeks — one reason it has brought back a full complement of crew to Serenade of the Seas even as the ship sails at a reduced passenger capacity.
Perhaps the biggest change that I’ve seen this week is that passengers no longer can serve themselves in the casual Windjammer buffet on the ship. Instead, crew members ladle food onto passenger plates.
In addition, the Windjammer restaurant is closed at dinnertime.
New drinks for Alaska sailings
Serenade of the Seas is returning to service with one surprise for Royal Caribbean fans: A new warmed alcoholic drinks menu specially designed for Alaska sailings.
Dubbed The Last Frontier menu, it features an Irish coffee made with Jameson Irish whiskey, cinnamon syrup and coffee (and topped with whipped cream); a vanilla-spiked hot chocolate made with cinnamon-spiked RumChata and Absolute vanilla vodka (mixed with hot chocolate and topped with whipped cream); and a Malibu hot chocolate made with Malibu coconut rum and hot chocolate (again, topped with whipped cream).
There’s also a classic hot toddy on the menu made with Chivas Regal Scotch whisky.
In the interest of proper research, I tried them all, and I declare the vanilla-spiked hot chocolate the champion of the bunch.
TPG’s Gene Sloan will be reporting live from Serenade of the Seas for the next week as it sails to Alaska. You can find all of his dispatches on his author’s page.
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Featured image by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy
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