Apple juice? No.
Orange then. No.
Cranberry? Tomato? Pineapple? No, no and no.
There’s Grapefruit, but who on earth drinks grapefruit juice? Welcome to the chaos of our coronavirus cruise ship. To be honest, the lack of breakfast fruit juices was probably the least of our problems, but more of that later.
We weren’t planning to write any blog posts about our recent Vince-less trip; after all you’re normally here to hear about the ups and downs of our poorly organised and full of misadventure motorhome trips. I suppose we did set a precedent a while back with some motorcycle malarkey, and we do seem to get more feedback when we post about the results of our disasters. What a horrible lot you are! As disasters go, this one is up there with the best so what the heck – fill up your flask and pack some sandwiches – it’s gonna be a long one Matron!
Gill and I both have big birthdays in 2020 and in September we celebrate (if that’s the right word…) our thirty-fifth wedding anniversary so what better year to push the boat out (sorry) and go off on a dream cruise? We’d spotted a bargain trip on Travelzoo which would put us in Madagascar on my actual birthday. Better still, we’d be on a brilliantly named island – Nosy Be 😀
We should have realised that this wasn’t going to go to plan when we received an email shortly after we’d booked. It said “for our guests’ comfort and safety, we can no longer dock in Madagascar and will add a second stop in the Seychelles instead”. It seemed churlish to complain, even though to this day we haven’t found out the true reasons for the cancellation. I mean who would complain about an extra day or two in the Seychelles? If only we knew…
The first part of the trip couldn’t have gone better; we had an evening flight from Glasgow so no early start, yay! Despite a bit of snow on the way up from home to Glasgow Airport, we had plenty of time to dump the car and check in. It turned out that our early evening flight was the last one of the day so we walked straight up to the check-in desk, straight through security, and found ourselves in the departure lounge with time to spare. I’ve never had a flight like it, without a single queue. We’d never flown Emirates before and can’t fault the experience. We enjoyed free drinks, attentive staff and a great selection of new movies to keep us quiet!
Seven hours later we enjoyed the smoothest of smooth landings at Dubai Airport. We did that thing where you close you eyes as they crack open the aircraft door, and inhaled the smells and humidity of foreign lands. There’s no sensation like the excitement of visiting a new country. We retrieved our luggage and headed for the ATM to draw out some cash for trains and taxis. 500 Dirhams later we were on our way into the city. That sounds like a lot but it’s about £100. Hopefully it would last us; the signs were good as the Metro into town was less than £6.
I have to say I’ve never travelled on such a clean and efficient Metro system in my life. It’s driverless – eek – and travels overground. We had fantastic views of all the amazing glass and concrete skyscrapers in Dubai Centre. As we boarded the train I could see that it was pretty crowded to our right but the front carriage to our left had lots of seats available. It was only when we got off that I spotted the sign promising heavy fines for travellers using this carriage without a Gold Class ticket. Oops. I think we got away with it.
After a quick snooze in the hotel – well it had been a long journey – we headed out to explore. We didn’t have loads of time, just the late afternoon and early evening. As we were boarding the ship the next day we decided not to waste time going to the top of the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building. We’d read that queueing for the elevators could take a couple of hours, and that at sunset you could be standing three deep at the windows. We’ll save that for a future visit hopefully. Instead we visited the Dubai Mall on our way to a little boat trip that we’d booked at home. Regular readers will know I’m not the biggest fan of shopping as a pastime but wow! What a place. I’ve never visited a shopping mall which had an aquarium full of sharks and rays three storeys high before. It was vast with every possible designer shop you can imagine and a huge choice of eating places besides.
At the far end of the mall the exit leads to an outdoor lake. It’s surrounded by walkways and blessed with views of the Burj Khalifa and dozens of other architectural marvels. These are doubly attractive as night falls and they all light up. Our little boat trip took us out on the lake as dusk fell and gave us a ringside seat for the musical fountain display staged every thirty minutes. Far better than any Disney display, the hundreds of powerful fountain jets send water waaaaaay up into the night sky. The sound is like fireworks exploding, accompanied by loud music and a multi-coloured light show. As it progresses, the surrounding buildings are used as screens for projections of swirly lights and stars. What a magical end to our first and only night in Dubai.
We took a short (and scary) taxi ride to the port the next morning to join the ship. I don’t know if UAE law forbids the use of mobiles whilst driving, but if they don’t – they should! I lost count of how many times our driver was tooted at for sitting at a green light, or for weaving gently in and out of his lane due to checking his Insta feed or what tomorrow’s weather was going to be like. (Hot probably, like the day before and the day after I suspect).
It was such an exciting thing to be boarding the Norwegian Spirit for the first time. We were anticipating all the lovely places we were going to visit, as well as getting to know the ship itself and looking forward to making new friends from far afield. The ship was on its second cruise after a massive winter refit so everything was fresh and immaculate inside. We’d read reviews saying the ship had been a little run-down and had been showing its age. Now it looked like a brand new vessel with its posh chandeliers and gleaming glass lifts wafting between decks. We couldn’t wait to grab a cocktail up on the top deck and watch Dubai receding into the distance.
Cruises seem to inspire mixed reactions in our friends and family. Some are entranced by the idea of sailing around in an all-inclusive 5-Star hotel being waited on hand and foot by attentive staff, watching first-class entertainment, drinking under the stars and calling in at exotic foreign locations. Others can’t stand the thought of being cooped up for days with rich (and often very loud) pensioners, queuing for everything, getting seasick and then being squeezed into sweaty coaches for a quick city photo-tour and cash extraction. The truth lies somewhere in-between, and a er… tolerant attitude is essential. Certainly on the Norwegian Spirit there were enough dining options and plenty of bars. Queuing was only evident occasionally in the Garden Café, the main buffet-style dining area. One trope which holds absolutely true is the daily battle for sun-loungers. I know I can be prone to exaggeration from time to time (you mean you hadn’t realised?) but we heard directly from a German couple that they got out of bed at 4.30am each day to invade the pool area for their favourite spot. They simply caught up with their sleep during the day in the sunshine. Unbelievable but true.
Our first ports of call went entirely to plan, as they were prior to the Coronavirus uncertainty. Well, I say according to plan but it wouldn’t be a Vince trip without some kind of catastrophe, would it. Our Abu Dhabi and Oman excursions went like a dream, all pre-booked and organised. I caught sight of the Yas Marina F1 circuit, which ticked one of my boxes off. Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque is truly one of the most magnificent buildings we’ve ever seen. The photos don’t do it justice. We had a detailed explanation of Islamic worship in Muscat’s own mosque, followed by a stroll through Mustrah Souq being bombarded with requests to “Come inside, many bargains for you, kind sir…”
No, it was the Fujairah port where things went a little pear-shaped. We didn’t have any paid-for excursions booked so we decided we’d wing it and explore on our own. Why not? After all we have years of Vinceperience of turning up in unknown places and getting to know them right? What could possibly go wrong? We only had a few hours there so we shared a taxi with two lovely ladies we’d met aboard ship. The driver didn’t have a lot of English but he recognised the words “City Centre” and promptly drove us to the proudly named “City Centre Shopping Mall” which was nowhere near the actual city centre, sigh… Whatever, we had a browse around and a coffee, meeting our new friends to ride back to the port. When we arrived it was chaos. People were everywhere, getting in and out of cabs and minibuses and vehicles were coming from all directions. I slammed the door of our own cab and watched it disappearing into the mêlée. With my – unlocked – phone still on the front seat. Oh noooooooooo!
Words can’t explain the sick feeling which swept over me. Stuck in a strange country, unable to speak the language and imagining all my messages, data, emails, banking and photos available to anybody who found the phone. Yes I know, it should have been password protected. It actually had been, until the day before when I’d been to the gym for a run. My headphone controls don’t work with the iPhone unless it’s unlocked. And I hadn’t reinstated it – aaaaaarghhh! In a right old state we went to the tiny port office where we met a true gentleman, Zeeshan Rana who rang the various taxi firms to see if it had been handed in. Sadly without any luck. We tried to use his company PC to log into iCloud to track my phone but that site was blocked. Gill had her phone turned off for the trip rather than pay expensive roaming charges; fortunately it was still in her bag. Damning the expense, I turned it on and began tracking my phone on the Find My iPhone app. Oh my goodness! It was just round the back of our building. Zeeshan and I ran outside hoping to catch the cab before it left – until I realised I was actually tracking Gill’s iPhone. Which was in my hand. With some embarrassment I signed out of Gill’s account and into my own – and yes! There was my phone heading back into town. Cutting a long story short, we contacted the driver by ringing my own number then Zeeshan drove me in his own car to meet the taxi in town for the handover. I can’t get over the kindness of strangers to a hapless foreigner in their country. Would I have done the same if it happened to a visitor to the UK..? I hope so. Zeeshan wouldn’t take any payment from me for his time and efforts – he explained that somebody had done him a kindness once and he was returning that karma. It was down to me to pass it on some time in the future. Top man.
I’m afraid it was all (well, mostly) downhill from there. I’d read online that the Seychelles government were going to refuse entry to cruise ships, but we still went there. And were refused entry. I’d read online that there had been riots with bottles and bricks thrown at docking ships on Réunion Island, but we still went there. And were refused entry. Mauritius was the same and the Captain didn’t even bother going to our other destinations; Richards Bay, Mossel Bay and Port Elizabeth in South Africa. We were sentenced to sixteen, count them – sixteen days lost at sea, cruising in circles until Cape Town finally let us in.
One consequence of this was that supplies ran low – they ran out of white wine first, then rosé, and I’m sure we were down to the last (and cheapest) red by the time we docked. Fortunately for me Captain Morgan remained on board for the duration. The menus were a hoot, as each day the chefs tried harder and harder to come up with dishes made up from the remaining supplies. The menus themselves had been photocopied by Tippex-wielding admin staff who’d cut out bits of paper and literally pasted the new dishes over the top. We were particularly fond of the Spam Biryani and the Tinned Peaches à la Mode.
We did have a lovely meal in one of the speciality restaurants on my birthday. Gill treated me to a Teppanyaki evening which involved sitting with a dozen other guests and having our food prepared and cooked in front of us by a wise-cracking, knife-juggling hilarious Philippino chef. I swear at one point he was throwing eggs in the air and catching them in the top of his chef’s hat! Needless to say that after one or several drinks we made a lot of new friends.
Our sixteen days at sea seemed to descend into the routine of a long, lazy breakfast, a walk round the promenade on deck 7 (10 laps = 5.6k!), an adjournment to the rear pool deck for seats in the shade & a read, lunch with a wine or two, more pool lazing with added cocktails, then showers and dressing for dinner. We had several dinner dates with folks we’d met – canny Scots and ex-pat Brits who’d spent their working lives in Canada or Australia. We met one or two long-time cruisers who’d done more than 40 cruises. I think we were definitely the poor relations when it came to disposable income! Most evenings we would then amble along to the full-size theatre for that night’s show. It would be tempting to say that the shows were a bit cheesy – not helped by the trend for TV talent shows to refer to poor contestants as ‘cruise ship singers’ Not at all. Some of the shows were good enough to grace the West End, and one group doing a mix of opera and musical theatre songs had actually appeared on Broadway. Fair play to the cruise company.
All hell broke loose with the arrival of a message in our cabin one evening. This was after all the South African excursions had been cancelled. It didn’t mince words – We would like to advise all guests that South Africa will not be offering visas for entry – only transit visas. So all guests will be taken directly to Cape Town airport on our arrival on 22nd March. Our luck held out for once as that was our plan anyway, our flights were booked and the Emirates web site said they’d be flying as normal on that date. Phew. At the Guest Services desk however, pandemonium ensued as all of the guests who’d booked a few days in Cape Town on arrival, went into full panic mode. They had no flights booked on 22nd so had to cancel hotels, cancel original flights and find alternatives. We were out at sea so there was no phone signal and the ship’s internet – slow at the best of times – was overwhelmed and crashed. I felt sorry for those guests, but even more sorry for the Guest Relations staff who had to endure hours of angry guest confrontations in a variety of languages! There were only three ship-to-shore phones made available for guest use; people were queuing right round the lounge when we went to bed, and were still queuing as we passed through on our way to breakfast the following morning.
The talk for the rest of the trip was of nothing but ‘…would we get to Cape Town before the port closed?’ ‘…will the airport still be open?’ ‘…will the airlines be flying?’ And of course ‘…why is the Captain invisible except for his blasted daily weather forecast over the tannoy?’
It’s hard to recapture the anxiety and stress everybody endured in those last few days now that I’m sitting at the desk at home with a coffee and the radio on in the background. We were very fortunate in some respects. Dubai and the other UAE ports all closed just after our ship departed. South Africa went into lockdown – cancelling all flights from Cape Town – also just after we left. We are in contact with some Aussies who didn’t get home for four days after being kicked off the ship. Some had to travel via Johannesburg, Doha, Dubai, Amsterdam or Gatwick with long waits at intermediate airports, all the time not knowing if their next connection would be cancelled.
Our own journey home, though long, went as scheduled. We retrieved our car at Glasgow Airport without any idea of what time it was as we’d put our clocks forward four hours three weeks previously, then back an hour on two separate days as we neared South Africa, then forward again two hours when we landed back in Dubai so that we didn’t miss our connection. I’m still not sure we’ve got it right as the clocks went forward again in the UK last weekend.
Our lockdown life here in South West Scotland is not quite as restricting as it is for some folks. We managed to score some supplies in Glasgow on our way home and our local supermarket has reasonable stocks. Luckily enough we missed all the panic-buying and empty shelves. We live in a very rural area so we can move freely around the garden (plenty of work to do there) and there are some lovely forest walks for our daily exercise. Vince isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future, but we keep him charged up. Don’t tell anybody but we sometimes fire up his heating and escape with a drink or two so we can sit in his comfy lounge and imagine we’re still abroad in the sunshine…
Wherever you are I hope today’s post has given you ten minutes respite from the doom and gloom – we’re thinking about you, and everyone else separated from, or worse still, losing their loved ones. Hopefully in a little while we can meet again, either on the road or here in these pages. And if you’re really bored – there’s several years of motorhome malarkey to catch up on in our earlier posts 😀
Take care, and stay safe!
PS as always – clicking on any photo will enlarge it to full size.