I've been on a lot of cruises over the past 25 years — around 60 by my own count —and not being able to set sail for 18 months due to the global pandemic felt like an eternity. Even if I didn't write about cruising for a living, I would still be a big fan of relaxing days at sea and of the ease and convenience of discovering exciting new ports around the globe.
Cruising continues to be complicated by the ever-changing COVID-19-related restrictions and fluctuating caseloads of individual countries. However, Viking's science-based commitment to vaccination requirements and daily saliva-based PCR testing felt incredibly reassuring following the rising Delta variant.
Understandably, this "time out" was necessary as the cruise industry developed new health and safety protocols before getting guests back aboard. As ships resumed sailing this summer, I embarked on Viking Ocean Cruises' special "Welcome Back" itinerary — a 10-night Malta & Adriatic Jewels sailing — aboard the line's newest ocean ship, the 930-passenger Viking Venus. Here's what I experienced on board.
What You Need to Do Before Cruising
Viking sent detailed instructions on the pre-travel prep work I'd need to complete. After an hour or two spent downloading the required VeriFLY app and submitting two digital passes (one for Malta and one for Viking) with uploads of my vaccination certificate —as well as completing the digital Passenger Locator Form and Health Declaration Form that Malta required (and making printouts) — I went to a mobile COVID-19 testing van in New York City and got a negative PCR test, taken within 72 hours upon arrival. While Malta did not require this, Viking strongly recommended it in case the country changed its protocol. It also serves as a way to pre-emptively avoid a possible positive test upon embarkation — and a subsequent quarantine in Malta. This sounds like a lot, but it was easy and made me feel even more confident about my choice to cruise.
The Testing Process on a Cruise
Viking requires all passengers to be at least two weeks past being fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Testing is also given immediately after boarding. Again, this just provides more reassurance to the traveler.
In each stateroom is a test tube, alongside a health questionnaire, a packet of disposable masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes. My smiling cabin steward informed me that before I could head out to explore the ship, I needed to complete the above testing process.
However, once I learned the science behind these PCR saliva tests, met with the ship's physician, and toured the onboard testing lab (installed on all six Viking ocean ships), I understood the line's commitment to preventing the onboard spread of COVID-19. In fact, these initial tests returned two positive results, and those passengers were isolated and tested again with nasopharyngeal swabs. Upon getting a second positive result, the passengers were escorted off the ship to Viking-arranged quarantine at the Corinthia Hotel (Viking also issues cruise refunds and return flight bookings post-quarantine). Although all passengers and crew must be fully vaccinated, break-through infections can occur, although most are asymptomatic, per Viking.
Over the next ten days, all passengers and crew members were tested daily, with the onboard lab technicians giving the results to the doctor by afternoon.
The testing became part of my morning ritual to wake up. It seemed a minor inconvenience for the reassuring feeling it offered— and an investment in our own safety, given that Viking's founder and chairman Torstein Hagen told us in a media briefing that the company is spending as much on its COVID-19 protocols and testing as it is on fuel.
The Other Onboard Protocols
Can a cruise be enjoyable amid such hyper-vigilance? I discovered that if you take a "go with the flow" approach, it can be almost as enjoyable as a cruise in the "before times." It probably helped that I live in New York City, where mask-wearing and hand-sanitizing were embraced early on and never really went away. For me, wearing a mask in all indoor public spaces when not actively eating or drinking wasn't really a big deal. The masks Viking provided were comfortable and fit well, and there were plenty of hands-free sanitizing stations around the ship. However, crew members were masked at all times, so not seeing their smiles was definitely an adjustment.
Tech geeks might be interested to know that Viking also employs a pair of UV-light-emitting, virus-zapping robots. These robots roam through the ships' public spaces after hours to treat surfaces and air; the latter is cleaned using new air-purification technology as well.
Passengers were also required to fill out a daily four-question health survey (via the Viking app or on paper); have their temperature taken scanned before entering onboard restaurants for breakfast or upon returning from an excursion; and carry around a tiny tracking device (which is only to be used if someone tested positive). The compact gadget helps determine who had been in close proximity to that person for more than 15 minutes (unmasked in a restaurant or bar, for example). Pretty cool, really.
A few other social-distancing protocols: In restaurants, bars, and lounges — all places where masks would be removed for extended periods — passengers were prohibited from sitting or gathering with more than six people. However, since the ship was sailing at half capacity (by chance, not protocol), seating was never an issue — and probably wouldn't have been even if more passengers were in attendance.
The two á la carte eateries, The Restaurant and Manfredi's — as well as the set-menu Tasting Room — offered socially distanced dining. Most folks dined in groups of two — sometimes four — or, in my case, one. The World Cafe offered a full buffet for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but passengers couldn't just heap what they wanted on their plates, which were behind plexiglass partitions. Instead, passengers were served by masked and gloved crew members. On my last night, I tried World Café's sushi offerings and ate outside on the Aquavit Terrace as we approached the port in Valletta, a magical way to end the journey.
Aquavit Terrace, with its aft Infinity Pool — where passengers could claim a chaise and relax for hours mask-free — was one of my favorite spots onboard. The soothing thermal area in the LivNordic Spa was also a mask-free zone, but new protocols required reservations to enjoy it for an hour with a limited number of other passengers. I didn't use the gym, but instead, I got in several 16-lap (four-mile) power walks on the open-air track on Deck 2.
The one thing missing onboard was a dance floor. Viking, which generally attracts a 65-year-old-plus crowd, isn't known for its nightlife — there's no casino, and the vibe is typically tranquil — but passengers can normally show off their moves in the Torshavn lounge, where the ship's band plays top hits from the past 50 years. This time, though, seats — socially distanced and in groups of two or four — were positioned where the dance floor usually is, while sofa and banquette seating accommodated up to six.
Knowing we had all tested negative that day, most passengers remained unmasked while sipping cocktails and enjoying the music. A few solitary moves while standing near your seat were tolerated, but anything more got shut down by the staff.
The Itinerary & Port Experience
The Malta & Adriatic Jewels itinerary visited eight ports in Malta, Montenegro, and Croatia. Viking's port protocols are based not only on the local mask and social distancing policies but also on the most recent COVID-19 case counts and positivity rates.
Viking initially let us know before we embarked that independent exploration wouldn't be allowed in any ports because of rising case numbers in the region. However, as we sailed from Kotor, Montenegro, we got word that we would be able to explore the four Croatian ports (Dubrovnik, Split, Zadar, and Sibenik) independently. I set out on my own in Dubrovnik, which I had visited several times before. However, I stuck with my scheduled guided walking tour of Split but would have preferred to go solo. After that, I opted to self-explore both Zadar (home to the intriguing Sea Organ installation that allows the waves to play music with a sound that's part wind chimes, part whale sounds) and Sibenik (think: Venice-meets-Bellagio complete with fascinating architecture and 1,001 staircases). An excursion to the stunning Krka Waterfalls is a must when in either port — just be prepared for lots of steep stairs, some without arm rails.
Back in Malta, we called on the archipelago's other inhabited island, Gozo. Since we could not explore independently, I took a morning excursion to swim in the magnificent Blue Lagoon of Comino island (population of two!), followed by an afternoon tour of Ggantija. This 5,600-year-old monolithic temple also happens to be the world's oldest free-standing structure.
The Bottom Line
As someone who has generally been risk-averse since the start of the pandemic, I found Viking's preparation and financial commitment to passenger health and safety reassuring.
However, a few passengers chafed at the daily routine — onboard masking in particular — but many people I spoke with said they actually booked with Viking because of the cruise line's stringency. From my perspective, the trade-offs were well worth the excitement of getting back aboard a ship and experiencing some of the Mediterranean and Adriatic's true gems.
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