The one big reason you’ll want to cruise this summer
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There was a point early Sunday where I felt like I was in some sort of alternate universe.
I was wandering around Perfect Day at CocoCay, Royal Caribbean’s much-ballyhooed private island in the Bahamas, and it all looked familiar. The giant waterslides that have been wowing cruisers since 2019, the sprawling Oasis Lagoon pool area, the pristine beaches — it was all there.
And, yet, something just wasn’t the same.
It took me a few minutes to realise what it was: The place was almost empty. At least, it felt that way.
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I strolled over to one of the closest crescents of sand, Harbor Beach, and found only two people lounging in the sun. There was row upon row of empty chairs.
It wasn’t much different over at the beaches along Breezy Bay.
There were fewer than 20 people spread out around Oasis Lagoon, which is designed to absorb more than 1,000 cruisers with space left over.
It was during this stroll that I realised just how rare a situation is unfolding in the cruise world right now — one that cruise fans looking for an unusual experience might want to take advantage of as soon they can by booking a soon-to-depart sailing.
With only a handful of ships back in operation and most running at a significantly reduced capacity, some of the places that cruise ships go — particularly cruise line private islands — are almost empty right now.
I had arrived at Perfect Day early Sunday on Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas — the first Royal Caribbean ship to resume operations in North America. And, like many of the cruise vessels just starting up operations around the world after a 15-month shutdown, the ship only was sailing with a fraction of the number of passengers it normally holds.
That meant that it only disgorged a small number of people at Perfect Day — far fewer than the number the island normally would see on any given day.
Perfect Day is designed to handle two Royal Caribbean ships at once with many thousands of passengers. Royal Caribbean CEO Michael Bayley once told me it was built to absorb 8,500 or 9,000 people at a time without feeling crowded.
But on Sunday, there were no more than a few hundred passengers lounging around the island at times.
Like a kid in a candy store, it took me a while to come to terms with the abundance of options that I was facing. Would I lounge by the pool? The beach? The waterpark? Before me lay thousands of empty lounge chairs.
Would I get a Thrill Waterpark pass and ride one of Perfect Day’s 13 giant waterslides? There wasn’t a line to be seen for any of them. Or would I grab a front-row seat to watch the musicians play at Skipper’s Grill? There were plenty of open seats for the taking.
On Sunday, Perfect Day wasn’t just Royal Caribbean’s private island. It was my private island. And it was pretty darn amazing.
An almost-empty ship
I am on the very first sailing of Adventure of the Seas since the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic in March 2020. It only began late Saturday, and I haven’t had much time onboard to explore. But the ship also is about as empty as I’ve ever seen a big ship. The bars around the vessel were mostly empty Saturday night, with just a couple of passengers here and there in most venues. Restaurants were far from full.
I’m one of just 1,068 passengers aboard this week’s sailing, which began in Nassau in the Bahamas. This for a ship that can hold up to 3,807 passengers with every berth filled.
In other words, the ship is running at just 28% of its total capacity.
Royal Caribbean and other cruise lines purposely are limiting capacity on ships as they start back up. It’s part of a plan to slowly ease back into full operations. But the low number of passengers on some initial restart sailings of ships such as Adventure of the Seas also is being driven by weak sales.
While cruisers are booking again, they’re often looking at sailings later this year or in 2022, just to be safe. And that’s leaving space on close-in departures.
The biggest close-in availability is on sailings out of non-U.S. ports such as Nassau that some cruisers are leery of booking due to perceived hassles with overseas travel.
For someone who books one of these initial sailings, an unusual experience awaits.
At one point wandering around Perfect Day, I came across a sign telling me to “spread out and soak up the sun.” It recommended that I keep at least six feet distance from my fellow passengers. I chuckled. That definitely won’t be an issue this week — or likely for weeks to come.
Later on, I found myself the only person at the Captain Jill’s Galleon attraction, where I had some silly fun shooting the water cannons at the non-existent children that usually are careening across its decks.
Across the way at the kiddie splash park called Splashaway Bay, there wasn’t a single passenger — child or adult — to be found. The only humans in the area were the park’s lifeguards.
There are fewer than 50 children on this sailing — about 6% of the total passenger count. In the old days, it wouldn’t be uncommon to find 1,000 children on a Royal Caribbean sailing.
If this sort of uncrowded cruise experience sounds appealing to you, it’s yours for the taking. But probably not for long.
Cruise executives at several lines have told me they plan to increase capacity levels on ships gradually over the coming months as they settle into their restarts. And they will be operating more ships, too, in the coming months.
For the record, Perfect Day looked, well, perfect on Sunday. The beaches were immaculate with lounge chairs neatly aligned in rows. The waterslides, splash areas and other attractions were superbly maintained and shiny as new. And the landscaping looked better than I had ever seen it.
My take: This might just be the perfect time to visit Perfect Day — and a bunch of other cruise destinations, too.
TPG’s Gene Sloan is reporting live this week from the first Royal Caribbean cruise in North America since cruising shut down in early 2020. You can find all his dispatches from the ship at his author’s page.
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Featured image by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy.
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