September 7, 2021 | Jesse Morris
It had been more than 500 days since I was last on board a cruise ship. I had doubts as to whether we would get back here or not. Covid-19 has taken so much away from us all. We are not out of the woods yet but based on my experience on board Celebrity Apex, I feel like we are a lot closer to normal than we were.
Our ship was sailing on a seven day trip from Athens, Greece. We flew in a day early. The CDC recently extended its mask usage requirements aboard aircraft. A very small price to pay to be able to travel again so we masked up and off we went. This was our first visit to Athens. We arranged private transportation to and from the airport, hotels and port. Mask usage was required by the company. Our driver met us at the airport and helped us with our bags and we were off.
We stayed at the King George hotel and had an amazing view of the Acropolis from the hotel. Most people in Athens are wearing masks outside. For dining, if you wanted to eat inside you needed to prove you have been vaccinated. Outdoor dining did not have this requirement. If you plan to see the sites they sell a combined pass for seven of the major places for 30 Euros per person and is good for five days. That is a really good deal as the price for the Acropolis alone was 20 Euros. There is an offseason price as well.
The areas in and around the Acropolis were far busier than I expected. It is a major tourist site and there were quite a few tourists but there were also a lot of locals. I would guess that about half the people were wearing masks but since everything is outside mask usage is not mandated. Anywhere you went inside, masks were on.
Before I jump into the actual cruise let me say that the majority of the people we interacted with in Athens were grateful to see tourists return. There are always a few people no matter where you go with a sour disposition but overall having people back was greeted more enthusiastically than not.
I was not totally sure what to expect with the embarkation process. I knew everything that had been shared publicly but things do not always go to plan. I was pleasantly surprised at just how smooth everything went. Celebrity has everyone complete an online check in via their computer or the Celebrity App and you are assigned an arrival time. Ours was 11:30am, among the first to board. When you get to the port a porter is available right away to take your checked bag (like normal) and you are immediately greeted by port personnel and asked to see your proof of vaccination. You are then moved inside and to a desk where they verify that you completed the process online that was required for your Covid test and you are given a vial with a sticker on it to identify you. You then walk around the corner, have your nasal swab done (a far easier process than expected) and then you wait 15 minutes for the results. There is a seating area that is distanced out so that you do not sit next to others and a huge television monitor where you look for your number. Once the number comes up, you return to the desk and get a sticker that shows you are approved to board. Very smooth and easy!
After the testing you start the walk toward the ship. There is no counter to wait at and no long lines. You walk to the next person who verifies your passport and your boarding pass on the app and you continue on to board the ship. At the ship they check your passport again and you are immediately on board! The rooms are ready and your room keycard is waiting there for you. As embarkations go, it was really one of the smoothest we have encountered to date. Masks are required on board except with eating, drinking or in the pool/hot tub.
If you have been on a cruise before, you are familiar with the muster drill. For those who haven’t, the muster drill is a safety briefing where they are required to review what happens in the event of an emergency. Normally, everyone piles into different areas on the ship, crowded into the clubs, restaurants or other venues and you sit there while they go over everything on the loudspeaker. You cannot skip the drill and the ship cannot depart until everyone is accounted for. Since Covid, this process has been reimagined and definitely for the better. When you get to your room you have the option of watching a brief video on your television or via the Celebrity app. After that, you hit a button that lets you hear what the airhorn will sound like in the event of an emergency. You then have anytime between when you board and the ships scheduled departure time to make your way to your muster station and have them scan your card. No waiting around, no sitting through a long speech and no crowds. Once you scan in you are done! It could not be more simple and I sincerely hope this process remains in place after Covid is a memory.
Celebrity Apex normally holds 2,910 passengers and 1,320 crew. They had a nearly full crew compliment but in our case, we only had about 500 passengers on board. 90% of the passengers were Americans with a large contingent of people from the United Kingdom as well. In chatting with staff on board the passenger counts ranged from 300-800 people for the most part. I have been on some of the smallest and most luxurious ships in the world and have been on the largest ships with a ton of people on board. This was by far the best service level experience of any ship I have been on. When you have that many crew and that few number of guests, it felt like they were falling over each other just to take care of us. Celebrity does a great job under normal circumstances with service but this was a different level and not something I would expect when the ships get closer to being full. In the conversations I had with the crew it was obvious that they were excited to be able to get back to work and to see people again. I think that’s a sentiment that many of us whose jobs were impacted by Covid can understand.
One thing I learned is that the crew is not allowed off the ship unless it is part of an organized shore excursion. They are trying to ensure that they minimize the exposure of the crew as much as possible. However, this does make it a challenge for crew to get the things they might need for day to day life. They can order whatever they need and have it brought to the dock and brought on board. However, this process can be lengthy. They really have to think well in advance about what they might need and there is no such thing and hopping off for a last minute item at a pharmacy or grocery store. There were no complaints about this process, it is merely the reality of the situation.
One challenge with such a small amount of people on board is that some activities may be poorly attended. We went to one trivia that was just my wife and I. (spoiler alert…we won). On the positive side, getting a good seat at a show or in a dining venue was very easy. Seats by the pool were abundant. Hot tubs were limited in that only people in your traveling party could be in them together, but that was never an issue as there were nearly always empty. One of our favorite spots on board is the Solarium. It is an enclosed area with a pool, chairs and a couple of hot tubs. Pre-Covid this would have been a hot spot on the ship. During our sailing it was mostly empty. The spa always had availability and the casinos had open seats and machines. The casinos did block off every other slot machine and seat at the table and still there were more than enough spaces for everyone. Social distancing was not an issue.
The shows on board were also among the best I had seen. My two favorite were Caravan and Crystallize. Caravan was done in “The Club” venue which is smaller and more intimate. The show is a twist on the circus variety show. I will not spoil it for you but it is definitely one I would recommend. Crystallize was in the main show theater and utilized lights and LED panels surrounding the stage along with aerial acrobatics to wow the audience.
The newest feature on board the Edge Class ships is the magic carpet. It is a platform that moves up and down the side of the ship that works as a multi purpose venue. On port days they use it to help people get off the ship. This is an improvement from the small ramp that most ships use. On sea days it becomes an open air lounge, full bar and a space for live music performances. Likely because there were so few people on the ship, I felt the space was a bit underutilized. I had expected it to be open in the evenings with music and the bar, but it was closed the majority of the time. As a focal point on the new class of ships, I thought it would be more available. Perhaps when the ship is back to full capacity that will change.
The Retreat Lounge, a spot for guests staying in suites, has its own pool, hot tubs and bar along with an indoor lounge. It’s a great spot to get away from the crowds when the ships are full. On our sailing it was more full than the rest of the ship.
Celebrity has 29 different dining venues, bars and lounges. Many of the dining venues are specialty dining options that come at an additional charge. Instead of a single “main” dining room, they have four separate venues with menus that are nearly identical, save for a few items specific to that venues theme. Normally I would recommend reservations but on our cruise there was virtually unlimited availability. We spent a lot of time at Café al Bacio. This café is located along the Grand Plaza and has specialty coffees along with some amazing sweet treats. They knew our names and preferences from day one and even if we were just walking by on the way to somewhere else we could count on a “Hi Mr. and Mrs. Morris!” from the bar. Another venue that is unique is Eden. It is a 12,000 sq. ft. venue that serves meals, has a bar and also is an entertainment venue. Uniquely decorated and with views of the ocean, Eden is a spot that most people would spend a lot of time at.
Our port stops were Mykonos, Santorini, Rhodes and Dubrovnik, Croatia. Only in Mykonos were we limited to taking a Celebrity excursion. You could not go off on your own there due to Covid restrictions. Everywhere else you could come and go as you please, with our without an excursion. The ports were beautiful and the people kind and happy to see us.
To return to the US, we were required to have a negative Covid test and Celebrity had staff on board in our last port stop to get everyone tested. The process was just as easy as it was during our embarkation process. They emailed your results to you. We got ours about 6 hours after the test but honestly there was no rush for them as they weren’t needed until the next day at the earliest.
Disembarkation was done based on luggage tags, pretty much like pre-Covid but with so few people there were no crowds, no lines and no waiting for the most part. Our driver was waiting for us after we left the terminal to take us to our hotel. The Academias Hotel also had fantastic views of the Acropolis and was in walking distance to just about anything we could want.
The airport in Athens was busy but we had passes to the airlines lounge and stayed there until our flight time. People were masked up per requirement at the airport and back on board the plane to go home.
To sum up, in terms of onboard experiences this was one of our best cruises to date. We felt incredibly safe. Nowhere at home can we be assured of everyone around us being vaccinated and recently tested. The service was incredible. Our cabin, a sunset veranda, had amazing views off the back of the ship. I tend to be hard to please with food but the cuisine was good and turnaround times were fast. We sail again out of Miami onboard the Scarlet Lady by Virgin Voyages in October and we will see how that compares.
I did not detail everything or this would have been a LOT longer but I am happy to answer any questions you have. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Until next time stay safe and healthy.
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