It’s all in the hands of the gods, the Vikings say. So perhaps the goddess Freya, using her powers to alter fortunes, determined that there be three cases of COVID among the passengers on Viking’s first four sailings in Iceland this month—and that I be onboard Viking Sky to tell the tale of our star-crossed voyage.
It’s hardly a story of doom and gloom, though. On the eight-day Iceland’s Natural Beauty cruise we saw a unique piece of the world that’s been on our bucket list for some time.
We sailed the Norwegian Sea and crossed the Arctic Circle; watched the sun set at midnight; saw waterfalls and fjords, the crack in the earth where America meets Europe, geothermal fields and lava fields, and an erupting volcano. We felt like Vikings as we jumped from the sauna to the snow room in the Thermal Suite; I got a blueberry hair rinse and a honey facial that left me smelling like a fruit salad. We ate steak and lobster, and sushi fresh from the untouched waters at the top of the world.
Per Viking protocols, we all wore masks in public places even though we were fully vaccinated, and spit (“a few drops is enough”) saliva into a vial every morning for housekeeping to collect. Staff served us at the buffets; we made appointments to use the gym and the spa to limit the numbers; we social-distanced in the theater. We filled out health check forms every day, and carried contact tracers that tracked whom we spent time with. They took our temperature as we entered the dining room every morning.
When I posted about all this on Facebook, some travel advisors said their clients felt the protocols were too invasive. But many fellow passengers told me they specifically chose to sail Viking to Iceland (where 90% of the adult population is vaccinated) because of the protocols on land and at sea. And as a COVID-cautious New Yorker, I appreciated them.
Especially on Day 4, when they announced that a passenger had tested positive for COVID-19 and passengers on shore excursions were being returned to the ship.
And again on Day 5, as we attempted to go ashore in the tiny town (population 700) of Seydisfjordur. “Just have a seat over there for a few minutes,” Guest Services said. “Uh oh,” I thought.
Soon, the captain was on the intercom: “Please be assured that our comprehensive and advanced protocols worked exactly as they were designed,” and no other cases were detected. Still, this tiny town was being extremely cautious. Shore excursions were canceled again.
We sailed on to the next port, even tinier Djupivogur (pop. 300). Morning excursions departed as scheduled, but soon the Icelandic Coast Guard was calling them back. We skipped Heimaey altogether and sailed on to Reykjavik, where we were allowed off the ship at 6 pm.
A Visit to the Onboard Lab
In the meantime, Viking took a small group of journalists behind the scenes to tour the tiny but efficient lab they have onboard every ship. The three lab technicians there test all the samples using the RT-QPCR test, also called the NA18 (nucleic acid amplification) test, “the gold standard” of PCR tests, Viking said.
When they first identified a positive test, they retested the sample to be sure. They then notified the doctor and the patient, who was confined to his or her (they won’t say if it’s a man or a woman) cabin, they said.
Next they pulled up the contact tracing data, which identified anyone who had been within six feet of the patient for a total of 15 minutes or more over the past two days, and contacted everyone on the list to make sure they were symptom-free. (Which they were, through the duration of the cruise.)
Viking offered all guests a 50% future cruise credit and free drinks. The Sky would be sanitized with the UV-sanitizing robot used for all public spaces, and would sail again on Saturday as originally scheduled.
And just a couple of days behind us, on the same itinerary, our sister ship Viking Jupiter reported a case of COVID onboard as well. (This time, though, Iceland allowed them ashore.) Counting the one passenger whose case was caught prior to boarding on an earlier sailing, that meant three of the first four Viking sailings in Iceland have been affected by COVID—and yet, it has not spread to a single fellow passenger.
Guests Take It in Stride
The guests on Sky were mostly Viking loyalists—many of them telling me it was Viking cruise number 6, or 8, or 10 for them—and almost everyone with whom I spoke was happy with the 50% future credit (though many travel advisors fumed over the lost commissions on all those trips rebooked onboard using it).
“We are disappointed about missing the ports, but know this is always possible when cruising,” said Maryellen Yacka, who was sailing on her 20th cruise and already has three more Viking cruises booked. “We have missed two ports in South America (on Celebrity), and two ports crossing the North Atlantic because of weather. We are so grateful to have had this chance to see Iceland, and are very glad we had the weather we had. We could hear the tone of the captain’s voice when he announced we had to return to Reykjavik. It is what it is—but we still had a great cruise and who knows? Maybe we will try and come back again and see what we missed.”
Still, one younger couple, taking their once-a-year trip while the kids are in camp, felt it’s just not enough compensation for what they consider a ruined vacation. The $3,000 voucher they will receive “isn’t going to do anything for us to get on an ocean cruise next July,” Diane Halperin says. “What is not already sold, and anywhere we haven’t already been, is $5,000 to $10,000 per person.” (Travel advisors take note: pick the right head for these early beds.)
A Patient’s Perspective
Viking declined to share any information on the patient involved, other than to say he, or she, is asymptomatic and in isolation in a Reykjavik hotel at Viking’s expense. But as the gods would have it, I came upon a Facebook post by travel advisor Sherry Leybovich, who failed a PCR test while trying to board Celebrity Apex last week. Halfway through a seven-day quarantine in Greece, she is asymptomatic, except for the loss of taste and smell.
Because she is fully vaccinated, she only needs to quarantine for seven days and then get a letter from a local doctor saying she is medically cleared, the US Embassy has told her. Delta has changed her flight at no extra charge; her travel insurance is covering the hotel.
And while she told me on Sunday she was “very disappointed, and in somewhat of a state of shock,” by Monday, she was already looking forward to her next cruise on the Millennium, at the end of August.
So here’s what I learned this week:
- Carry your COVID tracking device; it’s a huge relief to know immediately that you were nowhere near the guy who’s sick.
- Take some big excursions the first few days, in case you are confined to the ship later.
- Isolate as much as possible for 10 days before sailing, suggests Sherry Leybovich. “I attended a dinner and that is most likely where I got it, as several others are also positive,” she notes—and it cost her a cruise. Next time she will maintain a bubble.
- Keep in mind that prices are discounted right now, precisely because of potential hiccups. It’s not the time to splurge on that big-ticket, once-in-a-lifetime vacation you cannot afford to repeat when it’s not on sale.
- Protocols work. You are less likely to become ill—or to have everyone quarantined onboard—if you are on a ship where everyone is vaccinated.
- Take the insurance. COVID is everywhere.
- Steal a bottle or two of that Freyja shampoo, and thank the goddess for your shiny hair.
And, perhaps, the best lesson of all: Be prepared to follow the example of Karen Natzke. She walked right over to Guest Services and used her 50% credit, plus the onboard booking bonus, to sign up for another week on Viking Sky. As others flew home last Saturday, she sailed off again across the Norwegian Sea, determined to see the towns she had missed the first time around, without the expense of a new airline ticket. “We’re loving the second time around,” Natzke says. “We caught an organ concert in Reykjavik between the sailings and now we’re doing different tours and activities. And the weather has been amazing.”
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.