The realities of cruising amid sudden COVID-19 surges.
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Exterior of the Viking Venus ship in the Mediterranean
The 'Viking Venus' at anchor in Santorini.
| Credit: Courtesy of Paul Brady

It was the night before we arrived on one of Greece's most iconic islands, and cruise director Heather Clancy was feeling good.

Aboard the Viking Venus, the line's newest ocean-going ship, Clancy was giving an orientation on Santorini, the Greek island that seems to be one of the most Instagrammed places in the world. (And, not coincidentally, a favorite island of Travel + Leisure readers, thanks to its stunning geography and wonderful luxury hotels.)

We were due to arrive at the island the following morning, Dec. 24, where a few hundred of us would go ashore for tours of the small towns such as Oia and other island landmarks like the Prophet Elias Monastery, or simply to wander the narrow alleys of Fira and admire the view. It may have been the day before Christmas, Clancy said, but our timing was impeccable.

Visiting in late December, she noted, "was so much better than being here with 40,000 of your closest friends and eight megaships anchored in the caldera," the sort of thing that happens every week in summer.

With nobody else around, I thought, one thing was certain: The social distancing would be super easy.

Interior of the Viking Venus ship decorated for Christmas
The Viking Living Room aboard the 'Viking Venus,' decorated for Christmas 2021.
| Credit: Courtesy of Paul Brady

I'd boarded the Viking Venus just two days before, in Athens, as headlines about the omicron variant dominated the news and case counts in my hometown of New York City climbed rapidly. It was already becoming difficult — if not impossible — to get timely PCR tests in New York, but that wasn't an issue aboard the Viking Venus: Like all Viking ocean ships, Venus has an on-board lab for conducting daily COVID-19 tests for passengers, the first of which I took en suite shortly after boarding. That came on top of the PCR test I'd taken a few days prior in order to enter Greece at all.

Still, simply going on the trip was something of a leap of faith. True, Viking requires all passengers and crew to be fully vaccinated, and masks were to be required in all indoor areas on the ship except while eating and drinking. But before I boarded the Venus, outbreaks of COVID-19 had been reported on other cruise ships with similarly strict policies. (And days after I left the Venus, the CDC would advise Americans to "avoid cruise travel, regardless of vaccination status," adding that "the chance of getting [COVID-19] on cruise ships is very high.")

The pool deck onboard the Viking Venus ship docked in Malta
The pool deck of the 'Viking Venus,' while docked in Valletta, Malta.
| Credit: Courtesy of Paul Brady
Interior of a stateroom onboard the Viking Venus
The bedroom and walk-in closet of an Explorer Suite aboard the 'Viking Venus.'
| Credit: Courtesy of Paul Brady

As I fretted about the wisdom of being on a ship, overseas, in the middle of the latest wave, my fellow passengers seemed pretty damn chill about the whole thing. Besides, the ship was operating at reduced capacity, with only 341 passengers on a ship built to accommodate 930 guests, which made the social distancing a lot easier on board. (There were 445 crew members aboard to look after us.) It was always easy to find an uncrowded spot outdoors on deck and also in public spaces like the Viking Living Room, a center-of-the-ship lounge which became my favorite spot to people watch in the evenings, as guests roamed to and from dinner and entertainment venues like Torshavn, the late-night jazz club-slash-cabaret with triple-digit pours of Armagnac and a strict no-dancing policy. (Blame COVID-19 not the guy from "Footloose.")

Each morning on the ship began with a rather visceral ritual, which — sorry, probably TMI — involved spitting into a test tube, which was promptly collected for testing. Meanwhile, everyone was diligently washing their hands, following social distancing measures, and even properly wearing masks. (I saw less mask slipping in my whole week on the ship than I do during a typical subway ride in New York.) During our visit to Santorini — which was as uncrowded as cruise director Clancy had predicted — activities were naturally outdoors. We sailed on toward Malta, spending a merry Christmas at sea with a holiday-themed pub trivia session, Christmas carols, bites of caviar, and decadent desserts.

Then things got weird.

In-room PPE and covid tests onboard the Viking Venus
In-room personal protective equipment and sample tubes for daily PCR tests.
| Credit: Courtesy of Paul Brady

On the morning of Dec. 26, we arrived as scheduled in Valletta, Malta, docking within view of the gorgeous old city. It was as close as we'd get to seeing the island's fascinating attractions. Before I'd had the chance to get breakfast, Clancy made the disappointing announcement that "there is no clearance for guests to go ashore," attributing the decision to "local health authorities here in Malta" and the spread of the omicron variant on the island. Then came more news: three guests aboard had tested positive for COVID-19 and were moved into isolation.

Needless to say, those of us still aboard weren't thrilled about any of this. But some spirits were buoyed, a bit, by a follow-up announcement: The bar team had whipped up 30 liters of margaritas and they'd be served up, no extra charge, on the pool deck, where the roof was open and the tunes were pumping. "You know the old saying when life hands you lemons," Clancy announced. "Well, my mother told me to grab limes and tequila and make margaritas."

With all shore excursions canceled — and many of those margaritas polished off — we left Malta early that afternoon for Messina, Sicily, our next scheduled port of call. Upon arrival, the crew announced that Italian health authorities requested everyone aboard take a rapid antigen test before anyone could go ashore, according to the Viking crew. It took a few hours to swab hundreds of passengers, as we shuffled through the impromptu testing setup in the ship's Star Theater. Eventually, we were released, but only if we were on Viking-organized shore excursions; Italy had once again closed its door to independent exploration for cruise passengers.

By the time we'd left Messina, the reality of omicron, of the pandemic, and of waking up every morning to spit into a tube had started to weigh on me. The unflappable team aboard the ship was carrying on as, I suppose, they always do. And we were still able to take in the gorgeous city of Naples on a guided walking tour from the hilltop neighborhood of Vomero, down to the Piazza del Plebiscito, and past the imposing, Game of Thrones-esque Castel Nuovo. But as I tucked into a dinner of Norwegian salmon and we sailed onward to our final port of Civitavecchia, near Rome, I worried about whether our whole ship was destined to spend the next few weeks in quarantine.

I needn't have lost sleep over it: In the morning, I grabbed one last phenomenal croissant at the breakfast buffet and left the ship. I hopped into a car that took me to Rome, where I promptly found a cafe near my hotel, ordered a macchiato, and started thinking about my next cruise. Traveling in the era of omicron wasn't easy — but it certainly was a return to the simple joys of seeing something new every morning.