How COVID-19 has changed cruising in Europe: On board Norwegian Epic in the Mediterranean

Heading to Civitavecchia, the port of Rome, for my first cruise since the COVID-19 pandemic put everything on hold, I think back 20 months, when I made this same journey.

It was a beautiful, blue-sky morning, like today, and excited chatter buzzed through the transfer coach as we left the Italian capital.

There was talk of a weird new virus doing the rounds. But nothing more was said, and soon we were sailing in bliss around the Mediterranean. How surreal - and carefree - those times feel.

Though I'd feared otherwise - mainly due to all the new COVID-19 protocols - I'm quickly back in the cruising groove, sipping a prosecco on the pool deck of Norwegian Epic as the sun splays a golden trail on the Med.

Later, at the ship's French bistro, as the distant Lazio mountains silhouette against a purpling sky, I enjoy glasses of Languedoc rose with scallops and lobster thermidor, then gooey brie and a rich dark chocolate cremeux, before scanning the evening's entertainment options via the Norwegian app.

I could catch a show by a Spanish illusionist, do a pub quiz or karaoke, bust some moves at a 1970s disco, hit the casino, go for vodka cocktails at a Scandi-style ice bar or watch a Beatles tribute band strum feel-good tunes at the Cavern Club - a mock-up of the Liverpool venue in which the real Fab Four used to play.

Lusting after my bed more than anything, I end up retiring to my cabin, gently rocked to sleep by the ship's faintly swaying motions, telling myself it's OK, relax. It's a seven-day cruise (including a full day at sea). There's plenty of time to do everything.

The next morning, refreshed, I open my curtains, step onto the balcony and there, before us, is the Bay of Naples. The rocky outlines of Capri curl up off the horizon and Naples city sprawls the other way, its church domes poking out of a chaotic jumble of pastel-toned palazzi. After breakfast a la carte - fruit, yoghurt and eggs benedict at the Taste restaurant - I'll step ashore for some Neapolitan delights.

So cruising - and its many gratifying prospects - is back. But how has it changed?

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Let's start with embarkation. In this upside down world, my most recent arrival at Civitavecchia terminal (with face masks on) is through the exit, the spartan section that you only tend to see when you're collecting luggage post-cruise and bleary-eyed.

After your vaccination status is checked - all guests and crew must be fully-jabbed at least 14 days before departure - clinical staff swab your nostrils at a COVID-19 pop-up.

You're then given a code and a seat in a waiting room for 20-30 minutes. If you've tested negative, you're given a pink wristband and directed to the glossier part of the terminal to pass security and check-in.

Your body temperature is checked then you're ushered, with your key card, up the gangway.

Before boarding, you'll be invited to douse your hands under a sanitising station. They're all over the ship and the crew are noticeably more insistent on passengers using them now - especially outside dining rooms ("Washy, washy," they say).

On European sailings, unless you're eating or drinking, it's mandatory to wear a face covering when moving through the ship's public areas, even for a spa treatment ("Healthy, Healthy, Masky, Masky" is the slogan).

Head in the clouds, I sometimes forget my mask - and returning to your cabin can be a trek.

The 4100-passenger Epic was the world's third largest cruise ship when it was built in 2009. Revamped in 2015, it was remodelled further during the 18 months it was out of service due to the pandemic.

Visually, Epic's most striking changes are seen at its Haven, an exclusive retreat where 75 suites, plus the pool and restaurant, sport a makeover.

But there are tweaks ship-wide. NCL established a Healthy Sail Panel, tasking medical experts to boost health and safety.

NCL's Nick Wilkinson says the 70 new measures range from retro-fitting vessels with thermal detectors and medical-grade air filters to fumigate public areas nightly and more intensive daily cabin deep-cleaning by crew who are tested weekly.

"We also encourage guests that if they feel unwell at any time, they should go to the ship's medical centre, where they can be tested," says Wilkinson.

"If you or a close contact test positive, you're treated and isolated by the on-board doctors and nurses. Arrangements will be made for your transfer to a 'COVID-19 hotel' - with NCL covering the costs.

"We look after our guests and we have hotel partners in every port."

NCL took the cautious route when it resumed Mediterranean sailings on its fleet in July, reducing passenger capacity for the so-called "Great Restart".

Our cruise is about half-full, carrying mainly Americans and Europeans, with the staff-passenger ratio about one to one.

Next northern spring, when Epic returns to the Med after wintering across the Atlantic, it's expected to be busier, with more families hopefully able to cruise together again.

Because numbers for fully-vaccinated under-18s remain low, children are almost invisible on our cruise - although one evening, I share a teppanyaki table with an American couple travelling with their 15-year-son.

Regulations differ depending on where you're cruising. Our itinerary spans Italy and Spain, which both require passengers to complete online health control forms before entering the country (you're given a QR code which immigration staff may scan).

While you can explore Spanish ports independently, roaming around glamorous Palma de Mallorca or seeking out Gaudi's gems in Barcelona, in Italy you must do an organised cruise shore excursion if you want to disembark.

On these "bubble tours", don't bank on wandering off to go shopping. The Italian government may remove this stipulation in 2022, but watch this space.

I have mixed emotions seeing the sun slip into the sea as we head back to Civitavecchia. It's great to be on board again.

The ship being half-full is a nice bonus, fellow passengers are considerate of personal space, the service is excellent, the crew all smiles (behind their face coverings).

Is cruising as good - as fun - as before?

Well, not quite, not yet (in Europe at least). With all the form-filling, mask-wearing and testing, how could it be? But it will get there.

What hasn't changed is that a cruise is a unique, possibility-packed holiday. After all, where else could you while away a day wine-tasting in Tuscany before feasting on, say, sushi or a Brazilian churrascaria then watching a Broadway-standard production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert?

And spending the next day whooshing down water slides, or lounging with a good book as you cross the Mediterranean while a live Jamaican band play reggae and calypso? And let's face it, how else could you wake up in places as life-affirming as Naples, the Balearics and Barcelona while only unpacking once?

FIVE WAYS TO MAKE THE CRUISE SMOOTH

1. You're given a KN95 mask, but pack some spare face coverings. You'll need a mask on board and on shore excursion coaches.

2. Check in online, book a time slot for the cruise terminal COVID-19 test and watch the video on the ship's pandemic protocols.

3. Physical-distancing measures mean fewer seats are available at the Epic Theatre - where the main shows are staged - so reserve your seats. It's free.

4. Stay abreast of ship and shore regulations via NCL's daily newsletter. If you require an antigen test for an international flight, you can take one free-of-charge on-board the day before your cruise ends.

5. It's best to book ahead at a la carte restaurants, but you'll always find sit-down and canteen-style alternatives. European sailings have no help-yourself buffets. Gloved staff will fill your plates

THE DETAILS

CRUISE

Norwegian Epic has a seven-night Mediterranean cruise (Civitavecchia-Civitavecchia) in April 2022, from$US1567 (AU$2115) a person for a balcony stateroom. Barcelona round trip itineraries are also available. Some deals include a free bar, speciality dining, Wi-Fi and shore excursion credits. See ncl.com

MORE

traveller.com.au/cruises

italia.it/en

spain.info

Steve McKenna was a guest of Norwegian Cruise Line