I first encountered Christine Beehler when we became kindred spirits, so to speak. We were among a group of cruise enthusiasts interviewed by CNN.com during the pandemic for an article about our interest in cruising as soon as possible, “Cruise Fans Explain Why They Can't Wait To Cruise Again,” by Francesca Street (July 24, 2020). All of the cruisers interviewed were “off-the-charts” eager to get back on the ocean again; well, all except yours truly! I came across as the most cautious of the bunch, in stark contrast to Chris. The article began with a depiction of Chris’ last cruise which took place in March 2020 on the ill-fated Princess Cruises Coral Princess, which was denied docking during the pandemic declaration and then was stricken with a Covid-19 outbreak. That opening to the article immediately caught my attention; then it said, “…Beehler returned home on April 6; she also tested positive for coronavirus. Beehler is 72, with a partial right lung. She also suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema..…”
Most remarkable of all: Chris can’t wait to cruise again!
..... Chris initially planned a 14-day cruise departing San Antonio, Chile, rounding Cape Horn, and then up the east side of South America and ending in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she would then fly back to the US. Ultimately, Chris decided to extend her time on Coral Princess, and booked the 32-day cruise itinerary where the cruise continued on from Buenos Aires to Fort Lauderdale.
I asked Chris if she had any apprehension about returning to Coral Princess at that time in the face of the burgeoning coronavirus story abroad. “No, I wasn’t concerned. The coronavirus was confined mostly to China and Italy. There was only one reported case in South America at the time I left New Hampshire. A good friend suggested I not go. I downplayed her concern. I said ‘It’s South America. I’m going to be fine, they’ll take care of us.’ I did, however, during the days leading up to the cruise have fleeting thoughts about the news out of China—that if I ever did catch the virus I might have a hard time. I probably would need a ventilator. I might not make it. Yet I got on that airplane with complete confidence that nothing was going to happen.”
“On the plane over to Chile on March 3rd, word spread regarding a second case reported in South America—this one in Santiago, which was our destination. You could sense a bit of panic on the plane. The thinking back then was that this was a virus that was just connected to China and Italy. Even the one case in South America was supposedly someone who had come back from Italy. And there were a few cases on the west coast in the US that had kind of escaped. The concern level rose—even though it was only two cases on the entire continent—especially when we got to the airport in Santiago and they were taking a lot of precautions: the airport workers were in Hazmat suits, we had to complete multiple health forms and have our temperatures taken. It was nothing like that when I left Boston. At the port the personnel very deliberately went through our passports to make sure we hadn’t been to China or Italy, and then we boarded the ship.”
The cruise was uneventful for the first week.....
A few weeks later.....
..... That evening, the first of quarantine, March 31, Coral Princess stopped in Barbados for what Princess referred to as a service call. Chris said, “We had to detour to Barbados for what we were told was to pick up medical supplies. It was so interesting going into Barbados because there were all the empty ships with crew only anchored at the port. It was pretty eerie—distressing. At Barbados we saw an ambulance at the dock and someone was taken off the ship. Supposedly, he was airlifted to Florida. After we returned home I heard he passed away from the virus. So now things moved from stressful to ominous. We were confined to our cabins, and then we see someone taken off the ship.” A couple of days later, Princess reported publicly that Coral Princess test samples processed in Barbados confirmed 12 positive cases of coronavirus. On April 2, the Captain informed the passengers of the results. That same day, for reasons not entirely clear, the U.S. Coast Guard announced it would not allow Coral Princess to dock in their home port of Fort Lauderdale on April 4 as scheduled. Chris told me, “Two infected Holland America ships were just ahead of us and were docking the day before us. We heard that Fort Lauderdale didn’t want additional Covid-19 cases to take up their medical facilities.”
On April 3, Coral Princess met up with its sister ship, the Regal Princess, in the Bahamas to pick up additional medical personnel and supplies. There were no passengers on Regal Princess, just crew. Said Chris, “At this point we had been turned down by several places. There was a collective sense that nobody wanted us. So when our sister ship met us, we received a wonderful welcome from the crew on the decks of Regal Princess and in tenders.. They started their horns and the Coral Princess and the Regal Princess were communicating with each other, playing The Love Boat theme. When Princess ships leave port, their horns usually play out The Love Boat theme. It was…oh my gosh…I think everybody out on their balcony was crying......”
Read the entire stirring chapter in Cruising Interrupted, available now!
“Are we there yet?” After 40 minutes or so, and yet another “how close are we,” in the distance the mighty
Harmony of the Seas cruise ship came into view as we approached Port Canaveral. Up until a little over a year prior, Harmony of the Seas was the world’s largest cruise ship; it was indeed awe-inspiring and immediately captured LaKi’s attention. Perhaps the only thing LaKi likes more than getting in the water is being on the water on a cruise ship. The beach outing was a fun subterfuge; in reality we had decided to celebrate LaKi’s birthday with a cruise. She loves cruising; this was going to be the 5th cruise we have done with
LaKi in the last 4 years—most recently the previous Christmas on Anthem of the Seas, the culmination of The Joy of Cruising. A broad grin took over LaKi’s face as the ruse about the beach became clear; the grin did not disappear for the next eight days!
Harmony of the Seas was all we had hoped for and more. Besides the many highlights of Harmony, it was also our first visit to the newly imagined Royal Caribbean private island, Coco Cay. The private island had recently re-opened as Perfect Day at Coco Cay, a $250 million transformation of Royal Caribbean’s picturesque beach playground into a more kid-friendly space with a water park and hot air balloon rides adjacent to the beach, and theme park style eateries replacing the private island standard picnic style buffet. Oh, and
a newly constructed dock enabling cruise ships to anchor right at Coco Cay instead of requiring ship passengers to be transported to the island from the ship via a tender, a small boat only capable of moving a finite number of the ships passengers at a time and subject to safety issues related to the weather and getting on and off the tender.
Cheryl, LaKi and I had a wonderful time at Perfect Day at Coco Cay despite a fair amount of trepidation as to whether we would get to experience it at all. During breakfast prior to disembarking, a downpour started, and it did not appear our day at Coco Cay was going to be so perfect after all. When the Cruise Director came on the public address system and announced several additional on-ship activities, it brought to mind my dreaded experience on Anthem of the Seas just six months prior. (On Christmas morning on Anthem, right before we were due to stop at Coco Cay, the Captain announced it was too windy to tender and we had to skip the stop.) This time there was a happy ending: the weather cleared, sun came out, and Perfect Day at Coco Cay was wonderful. LaKi loved the water park and the Up, Up & Away balloon ride with me; it offered great views and a wonderful vantage point for photos. My wife and I enjoyed a shady spot to sip our Miami Vices while LaKi was on the waterslides, and we sampled the nearby wave pool.
The second cruise I booked post-The Joy of Cruising was also chosen directly as a result of writing the book. Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas, or Indy, as it was affectionately known to Brits after it was launched and based in UK in 2008, had a significant role in The Joy of Cruising. A popular feature in The Joy of Cruising, was “The Godmother: Elizabeth Hill,” which was about the first non-royal, non-celebrity person in UK chosen to serve as a cruise ship Godmother, of then new UK-based, world’s largest ship Independence of the Seas. Known as Cruise Like A Godmother on social media, Elizabeth’s story of being plucked from relative obscurity as a leader of a charity working with children on a working farm, to be named the Godmother (she had never been on a cruise before!) of the at-the-time, world’s largest cruise ship, was like a modern-day fairy tale....
In The Joy of Cruising I included a photo of The Godmother standing next to her portrait which is permanently displayed on Indy. My plan was to take a photo of my grandkids next to the The Godmother’s portrait for inclusion in this book.
Yet another cruise chosen as a result of my of my involvement with The Joy of Cruising, was our first Mediterranean cruise, booked for NCL Epic November 2020. I asked each of the passionate cruisers profiled in The Joy of Cruising about their most memorable cruises as well as cruises they have on their “bucket list.” A number of destinations showed up repeatedly: Alaska, Panama Canal; Galapagos, and of course, the Mediterranean, and, several cited Barcelona, Spain as among their favorite ports. Speaking to seasoned cruisers from around the world led us to broaden our horizons instead of always cruising to the Bahamas and the Caribbean. So, the Mediterranean cruise is our first step in that direction and we looked for an itinerary that included Barcelona. For our 28th wedding anniversary we will be spending a few days in Barcelona, and then on November 1 cruising from Barcelona to France, then Italy, and then back to Barcelona. In 2021, Alaska here we come. You know, research!
Alas, our 2020 cruise plans fell victim to the pandemic. It was going to have to be More Joy of Cruising…deferred!
Read the rest of More Joy of Cruising in Cruising Interrupted, available now!
“What are some of your standout memories and experiences,” I ask.
“So many! Sitting in the jacuzzi on my balcony with a drink in hand watching the sea pass by and listening to music; swimming with stingrays and swimming with pigs in the Bahamas; cruising down the Nile on the MS Mayflower; crossing the Drake Passage to Antarctica while cruising on the expedition ship Vavilov; watching the sea lions bathe their pups in the Galapagos; seeing the hanging coffins in the cliff faces as we drifted down the Yangtze on the Victoria Jenna–there are literally coffins from ancient times, cliffside cemeteries, very unique, very interesting. I’ve seen nothing like that elsewhere in the world. And the whole experience of filming the commercials...”
Sarah was featured in a series of destination excursions commercials to be shown on the ship’s television for a major cruise line. I asked Sarah to elaborate on what made the filming incredible.
“So as part of the process of filming, I got the opportunity to do every excursion available in the Eastern and Western Caribbean: from swimming with the stingrays in Grand Cayman, to bobsledding in Jamaica [4000-foot sled coaster ride down a mountain and through a rainforest], to snorkeling in Cozumel, to the Flying Dutchman in St. Maarten [the world’s steepest zip line, from the top of St. Maarten’s highest mountain.]”
All sounds wonderful but no thanks on the Flying Dutchman; loved looking at the mountains in St. Maarten but that’s where it ends for me! I was fascinated about the Jamaica Bobsled ride; I remember the famous Jamaican Olympic Bobsled team and the fun movie based on their story, “Cool Runnings.”
“It’s really fun; kind of feels like a wooden roller coaster, but you get to guide yourself and control your own speed. I did it three times and I thought it was so much fun.”
Prior to the pandemic, I interviewed Sarah about her near-term cruising plans. Notably, while still planning to see the world, Sarah emphasized she is focusing more on experiencing it via the seas. “Ideally, I’d love to reach my next seven countries via cruise, bringing me to 120 countries. I’m working on transitioning from overland travel to cruise travel, as I prefer the leisure and luxury of it all.”
Of course, the pandemic derailed those plans. It would take several pages to chronicle the travel opportunities—cruise and overland—that Sarah had to forgo due to the pandemic. Her plans to increase her focus on cruising in 2020, following her Top 10 Cruise Influencers of 2019 accolade was thwarted by Covid-19 and the suspension of cruising and will have to be deferred.
Her last trip before the pandemic was the kind of grand, sweeping, multi-country excursion that has characterized the growth of The Five Foot Traveler.
Unfortunately it ran into the realities of a global pandemic and winding down the trip and returning home became an adventure that just adds to The Five Foot Traveler lore. Sarah had been invited to tour the Arctic and parts of Sweden and Norway by a couple of tourism boards many months prior. Her flight took off March 2, a week-and-a-half before the global pandemic declaration.
“When I left for the Arctic there was this vague talk about a virus in China—supposedly it was like the flu. I wasn’t really stressing about it, but I always take some extra
precautions when anything is going around, and I actually had an N99 mask with me. I’m a germaphobe by nature, so I always travel with a mask, wipe down my airplane seat and tray table and things like that. So the trip itself really wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for me. For the first part of the trip my photographer and I weren’t paying much attention to the news and we were just having this unbelievably unreal experience in the Arctic. Then, my photographer, David Rocaberti, received a call from his family in Madrid and was told the virus was getting really bad there and that they had shut down schools; he has two girls. We were like ‘there’s nothing we can do and it will get under wraps soon.’ We weren’t stressing…yet. The next day we took a train into Norway and as soon as we got there the country was going on lock-down and we were going to be quarantined in a cabin in Norway that we had originally planned to stay in for just one night. So all of
sudden it went from a bad flu to being caught up in a global pandemic and things got really scary. My family is in the states and my brother is high risk and my dad had to go to work every day. My photographer’s family is in Madrid which was already an epicenter before New York was. We couldn’t figure out how to get home to our families; all the information we were receiving was contradictory.”
“So the cabin in Norway, did you have to rough it, or was it decent accommodations for you to spend this difficult time?” I asked.
“Oh my gosh it was stunning. It was like the greatest place I could ever possibly be quarantined,” Sarah laughed. “The views were amazing; we were isolated; under normal circumstances it would have been spectacular. Even still we’re incredibly grateful for where we ended up. We were in a big, luxurious cabin called Dyrøy Holiday in the middle of nowhere; we saw the Northern Lights dancing overhead. It was spectacular.The only issue was the changing news every day, so we didn’t know when we would be allowed out of the country. So, we weren’t able to appreciate the luxurious accommodations because we were glued to our phones keeping up with the rapidly evolving news......”
Read the rest of Sarah’s wonderful travel journey in Cruising Interrupted.