A Warm Welcome Back to Solo Alaska Cruising, Covid Style
By Jackie Sheckler Finch
We seemed plunked down into a different world. It looked like something from the depths of history. Or maybe from planets beyond our orb.
Great shards of ice glistened like diamonds in deep sapphire waters. Tidewater glaciers had swept like rivers of ice down massive mountain valleys. Mountains rose straight out of the ocean. Snow-draped peaks towered over sparkling fiords.
“It feels like going back in time,” said Brent Nixon, onboard naturalist and guest speaker. “We are traveling on one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
Dawes Glacier Voyage
As my first cruise since the COVID pandemic hit, the seven-night Alaska Dawes Glacier voyage aboard the Celebrity Millennium traveled round trip from Seattle with stops in the Alaska cities of Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway. We also enjoyed three days at sea and a magnificent close-up view of the Endicott Arm and Dawes Glacier.
Ship Captain Ioannis Kasimatis said it simplest and best. “Welcome back. We missed you.”
That message was repeated more times than I could count. I saw the welcoming words printed on multiple signs, on the daily cabin newsletter, on a sugar-decorated chocolate cake, and even hand-painted on a rocky hillside. And passengers agreed that we had missed cruising and were quite happy to be on a Celebrity cruise again.
Smooth Boarding Process
The boarding process went exceptionally smooth since I had done most of the necessary paperwork at home on my computer.
I had entered all the important information and took a selfie cellphone photo so I didn’t have to get in line to have an ID photo taken at the terminal.
I even took the shipboard safety drill on my cellphone at the terminal as I drank a glass of chilled lemon water offered by a crewmember.
That was my initial experience with the cellphone technology for the safety drill and I really appreciate it.
The first time my sister Elaine went on an ocean cruise with me, she loved it. All except for the mandatory safety drill, that is. We went to the drill, of course. It is a very important safety procedure and must be done before any ship sets sail.
But, I must admit, standing on that deck years ago in our bulky lifejackets in the hot Florida sun while a crewmember took attendance and then having to wait because several passengers were late was not a pleasant way to start a Caribbean cruise. Elaine stood there silently and solemnly, as though saying, “I’m doing this because I have to. But I’m not going to pretend to enjoy it.”
Over the years, I’ve seen many different variations of the safety muster on other cruise lines.
But this new Celebrity method accomplishes the important task of mandatory drills while doing away with the large shoulder-to-shoulder crowds and waiting times for all passengers to show up.
Hi-Tech Safety Drill on TV
With Muster 2.0, the key elements of the safety drill – including reviewing what to expect and where to go in case of an emergency and instructions on how to properly use a life jacket – are accessible to passengers through their mobile devices and interactive stateroom TVs.
Passengers can review the information at their own time prior to setting sail, eliminating the need for the traditional large assemblies. After reviewing safety information individually, passengers complete the drill by visiting their assigned assembly stations.
There, crew members verify that all steps have been completed and answer any questions and check off names of passengers who have done the drill. After that, I was given a sticker to put on my cruise card to signify I had completed all the mandatory safety drill steps.
Every passenger must complete the safety drill prior to the ship’s departure, as required by international maritime law. I did hear over the ship intercom that a few passengers had not completed their individual safety drill and the Millennium would not budge until they did. Those passengers quickly took care of that important drill and we were on our way.
This marks the first dramatic change to the safety drill process in a decade since ships started moving life jackets from guests’ staterooms to muster stations, which improved the evacuation process and has been widely followed throughout the industry.
$500 Million Fleet-Wide Modernization
Launched in July 2000, the Celebrity Millennium was revitalized as part of a $500 million fleet-wide modernization in February 2019. I never saw the Millennium before her makeover but she is a beauty now.
The namesake of the Millennium-class ships celebrating the new century in 2000, Celebrity Millennium has 11 guest desks with a maximum occupancy of 2,593 passengers.
On my seven-night Alaska Dawes Glacier Cruise, the ship was sailing at less than half capacity with 1,153 passengers.
The Celebrity Millennium is sleek and stylish with a beautiful central atrium and stunning white onyx stairway down the center. The sweeping staircase is lined with three-story-high mahogany pillars surrounded by long flowing white curtains.
The translucent steps are lighted for a soft glow. To me, the grand staircase looks like a stunning fusion of ancient Greek mythology and contemporary design.
The abundant use of marble and wood accents throughout the ship adds a luxurious European touch. The ship décor is very light and airy. Even the glass elevators have ocean views which I really appreciate.
In my opinion, being able to see the ocean is the main reason for cruising. Otherwise, I might as well just be in a fancy hotel.
Abundant Storage Space in My Stateroom
My stateroom has a big comfy bed and storage galore. My suitcase fits easily under the bed. My backpack went in the closet. And the two sides of the closet have more hangers than I need, plus two robes to use on the cruise and a complimentary reusable Celebrity tote to take home with me.
A desk has four drawers plus three shelves, several electrical outlets, a chair, and a mirror. A sofa and coffee table, a safe, small fridge, and a huge flat-screen TV are nice additions. Using the interactive TV features, I can keep tabs on the day’s activities, as well as on my cruise charges. Very handy.
Plush and Pleasing
My queen-size bed has Celebrity eXhale bedding, cabin attendant Shivraj told me. I had never heard of it but it is plush and pleasing.
Small nightstands with shelves are on either side of the bed with lamps and electrical outlets. Room darkening blinds can be pulled to shut out the sunshine. Mine are never closed because I want to see any ocean views day or night.
The bathroom has a large glass-doored shower, plenty of hot water and a long sink counter with drawers and shelves. Shower toiletries for shower gel, shampoo, and conditioner are in reusable bottles. A reusable bottle on the sink contains hand lotion and two bars of soap are on the counter.
Shortly after I boarded the ship, Shivraj knocked on my stateroom door and asked what time I would like to have my room cleaned each day. That is a nice option. Every night, Shivraj also freshens my stateroom, turns down the bed covers. and leaves a daily planner program and a piece of wrapped chocolate on my bed.
The planners are a wealth of information about what will be going on the next day. That info, plus much more, also can be found on the Celebrity cruise app which can be downloaded to cell phones.
Delicious Dining Options
I don’t know how they do it. When I walk up to the entrance of Metropolitan restaurant on the Celebrity Millennium, the host in charge of seating knows that I would like to sit at a window seat.
When I sit down, waiter Sugianto knows I am going to order a ginger ale and a big glass of ice water. He even knows my name, for goodness sake, and he remembers where I live.
That info came about on the first night of our cruise when Sugianto told me he was from Indonesia, then asked where I live. When I said “Bloomington, Indiana,” his eyes lighted up and he almost shouted, “Basketball!”
Basketball, indeed, in my Hoosier hometown. How in the world did this man know that? He just laughed and said he is a sports fan.
With hundreds of passengers on my cruise, I really don’t know how crew members can remember our names and other info. My stateroom attendant greets me by name every time he sees me in the hallway.
Great Seating for Solo Traveler
As a solo traveler, it is not always easy to get a prime restaurant window seat on a cruise ship. Why waste such a special seat for one passenger when two can sit there? But that’s what I always get on this cruise because the restaurant host remembers that I asked for it on my first dinner night and thanked him when I was escorted there.
The ship has an amazing nine restaurants/food bars of which four are specialty restaurants.
The main dining spots which don’t have an extra charge are the Oceanview Café buffet and the Metropolitan restaurant. Both are huge. Just out of curiosity, I counted the serving stations at the Oceanview Café’s dinner buffet – an amazing 14 stations offering everything from salads, breads, vegetarian specialties, and pasta to steak and Mexican and Indonesian selections.
Since the pandemic, the stations are no longer self-serve. Passengers choose what they want and the kitchen staff serves it. Fresh plates are needed at every station. The drink station offers complimentary ice water, coffee, tea, lemonade, fruit punch, hot chocolate, and an orange passion fruit guava cocktail.
Be sure to check out the entire buffet before making choices. I was waiting for a salad when another passenger spied my plate of seafood. She said she had no idea that was available and had already filled her plate with other food.
Selecting a Dining Time
Passengers can specify whether they prefer to dine early, late or anytime in the Metropolitan restaurant. That way, diners have a reservation for a certain time. I always pick anytime because I never know if I might want to stay ashore longer, finish writing a story in my cabin, or photograph the passing scenery.
If possible, I like to dine early because that is my habit at home, plus early dining – which usually starts at 5:30 – often seems to be the least crowded on a cruise.
Oceanview Café serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets. Metropolitan serves breakfast, lunch (unless the ship is in port), and dinner.
The Mast Grill by the Deck 10 pool offers burgers and other fast foods. The Spa Café near the Solarium pool features tasty health cuisine. Room service also is available.
For specialty restaurants that have an extra charge, Celebrity Millennium has Tuscan Grille which features Italian food with a contemporary twist; Sushi on Five with traditional Japanese fare; and Le Petit Chef, a one-of-a-kind 3D table animation art form.
At Le Petit Chef, four mini-chefs from Italy, Spain, France, and Japan whimsically whip up delicious specialty dishes, creating theater right on a diner’s plate. I had dined at Tuscan Grille and Le Petit Chef on another Celebrity cruise so didn’t pay the extra charge on the Millennium.
The Luminae restaurant is only for guests of The Retreat and Blu is reserved for Aqua Class passengers. Between the Metropolitan and Oceanview Café, however, I have been extremely well fed.
Oceanview Café has a huge smorgasbord of choices. The Metropolitan menu offers a variety of appetizers, entrees, and desserts. Before he brings the dessert menu, waiter Sugianto always asks if I would like another appetizer or entrée. My goodness, no. But I always have room for dessert.
Celebrity Shipboard Entertainment
I was wrong. And I’m so glad I was.
For some reason, I thought entertainment on my Celebrity Millennium cruise might be curtailed a bit. I figured Celebrity Cruise Line might want to save some money by cutting back on shipboard entertainment. Or maybe COVID might have made it difficult to find entertainers for our seven-night Alaska cruise.
Neither concern happened. My Millennium cruise has as much – or even more – excellent entertainment as I’ve enjoyed on any of my many cruises.
Seems like live music is happening almost all day and much of the night on the Millennium. Entertainment is so varied that passengers should be able to find something they like. I have liked it all.
Singers, Dancers and Live Bands
On stage in the huge theatre, the Millennium singers, dancers, and band have presented “Boogie Wonderland,” “Elysium,” “Hollywood Cabaret” and “IBroadway.” The shows seem to have a plot, such as “Boogie Wonderland” where a young man yearns to be a rock star even though it means leaving behind his high school girlfriend. In the end, of course, he becomes a boogie star but goes back to find his true love.
The sets, costumes, music, and entertainers are all fantastic. Even though the ship is less than half full of passengers, the entertainers are giving it their all. And the audience has been responding in kind. Standing ovations are not unusual. When they are not on stage, entertainers themselves are often in the audience to cheer on other performers.
A Wealth of Diverse Entertainment
And talk about diversity. This morning, I listened to a four-piece band and singer from Argentina. Named Magnifica, the group – two women on guitars, one on the keyboard, a guy on drums, and a woman singer – play a wide range of songs.
Some of their most popular on this cruise seem to be the oldies – hits by Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Frank Sinatra, Beatles, and more.
Then there’s the Blackwood Duo, singer Michael Redden, the Lucky Band, Celebrity Orchestra, Drake & Tara singers, comedian Dan Wilson, vocalist Savannah Smith, acrobatic artists Vlad and Anna, and the Savannah Jack group.
Popping up here and there is cruise director Alejandro from Argentina. With his wry wit, Alejandro casts hilarious zingers right and left. He also sings and dances a bit, a very little bit.
The theater shows are presented twice each evening, at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. The Savannah Smith and Savannah Jack performances were so popular that new shows were presented at 8 p.m. in the Rendezvous lounge for Savannah Smith and at 1 p.m. in the theatre for Savannah Jack.
I would pay to see Savannah Smith and Savannah Jack if they performed anywhere near my Indiana home. But on Celebrity Millennium, they are part of the complimentary cruise package.
“After having the music industry shut down for a year and a half, we feel so blessed to be here,” Don Gatlin said, introducing his Savannah Jack band and offering a “welcome back” to cruisers.
That “blessed to be here” and “welcome back” sentiment has been reinforced over and over on my cruise, from passengers to crew and to folks in the Alaska towns we visited. I am definitely glad to be back on a cruise ship.
COVID-19 Precautions on the Ship
Cruise ships and the people who work on them are just as determined to practice COVID-19 precautions as are the passengers who are happy to be cruising once more. No one wants to get sick or to see the cruise industry shut down again. I was very pleased to see the many COVID precautions that were taken before and during my Celebrity Millennium journey.
Remember these are the COVID precautions for my cruise and requirements can change quickly. If you are planning a cruise, be sure to check the requirements for your specific cruise line and for the ports of call your cruise will visit.
Vaccinations: As of August 1, 2021, all Celebrity passengers age 12 and older must be fully vaccinated and show proof of vaccination. Unvaccinated children ages six months to 11 years must complete a complimentary COVID-19 test at the terminal prior to boarding a Celebrity ship. On my cruise, tests results were taking anywhere from a half hour to two hours while those being tested were kept in an isolated area.
Proof of Vaccination: To board, I had to show proof of vaccination which I was given when I had two Pfizer shots in March 2021. The vaccine must have been administered at least 14 days prior to the cruise.
Masks: Masks are not required for vaccinated passengers while onboard the ship.
Masked Crew Members: All crew members must wear masks even though they have all been vaccinated. Entertainers also wear masks except when they are on stage. Even the ship captain wears a mask except when he is speaking to passengers from a stage.
Hand Sanitizers: Hand sanitizer stations are everywhere around the ship as well as on the gangway. Crew members can be seen constantly cleaning handrails, bars, tabletops and staterooms.
No Self-Serve Buffet: The popular ship buffet is no longer self-serve. All the different delicious food stations are still there but kitchen staff now serve food chosen by passengers which I much prefer even without pandemic precautions. Long before COVID hit, I stopped buying anything from the self-serve salad bar at my local Kroger supermarket.
Seeing what some shoppers did at that buffet was enough to turn my stomach. I also was sad to see children on another cruise ship playing in the self-serve ice cream station and laughing as ice cream spilled out of the kid-controlled ice cream spigot onto the floor before COVID brought about this much-appreciated, self-serve change.
Hand-Washing Stations: Hand-washing sinks are available behind a partitioned area at the entrance to the ship buffet. A crew member stands by to encourage passengers to wash their hands before enjoying the buffet.
Safety Spacing: Theatre seats have signs that some spots are reserved for no seating in order to practice safety distancing. Signs also are in elevators and other spaces asking that safety distancing be observed.
Masks Required Ashore: Alaska health authorities have asked that all guests, including fully vaccinated people, wear masks while ashore. Masks also are required on public transportation including buses, vans, aircraft, airport and tour boats. On-Your-Own tours are permitted in Alaska ports of call but families with unvaccinated children are asked to take a Celebrity curated tour to go ashore.
For more information: Contact Celebrity Cruises at www.celebritycruises.com, (888) 751-7804
The author’s cruise was sponsored by Celebrity but the opinions are the author’s alone.
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