Never a Better Time to Cruise Says Andrea McVeigh!

ANDREA McVIEGH thinks that there has never been a better time than now for a cruise as she and husband Patric head off to enjoy a week-long trip on Celebrity Apex...

There’s probably never been a better time to go on a cruise. And that’s despite all of the current travel restrictions, regulations and essential protocols for movement between countries. I discovered this recently on a trip aboard luxury ship Apex, the most recent addition to Celebrity Cruise Line’s fleet.

Completed and scheduled for its inaugural sailings in early 2020, Apex, along with the entire cruise industry, spent eighteen months or so at anchor during lockdown, preparing to welcome the return of something approaching normality.

So my husband and I jumped at the offer of a recent week-long trip around the Greek Islands and Croatia on board Apex at the beginning of August, in order to sample and report upon experiencing the ‘new normal’ of cruising during a pandemic.

But what exactly had we agreed to? Both of us were double vaccinated, which was a mandatory requirement for embarking the ship in Athens. We also booked ‘Fit to Fly’ PCR tests 48 hours before departure, via Randox at Belfast City Airport. These weren’t essential for entry to Greece, given our vaccination status, but most airlines are happier if you can show proof of a negative test before flying.

If you fly with British Airways or Aer Lingus, here’s a tip – download the Verifly app, which holds all the documentation you’ll need together in one place, including your Passenger Locator Form, test results and vaccination status, and links this information to your flight details, greatly speeding up the airport check-in process. It’s also a good idea to print everything out too as back-up, just in case your phone runs out of battery charge or you can’t get a signal.

It’s mandatory to book a DIY PCR test to take after you arrive back in the UK – this will arrive by post and must be registered and posted back on the second day after you return. The reference number of the test is essential for completing the UK Passenger Locator Form, so do this prior to departure.

Although it was quite a daunting task to make sure all the protocols were in place, it actually isn’t that difficult. If you are worried about the complexity involved, book your trip through a travel agent – they’ll be happy to guide you through all necessary requirements.

Flying from Belfast City via Heathrow, we arrived in gloriously sunny Athens in real need of some Vitamin Sea!

We’d booked a hotel in the port city of Pireaus, where Apex would be awaiting our arrival the following day, and quickly got into holiday mode with a cocktail.

We soon forgot about the past eighteen months of ‘Stay at Home’ edicts, lockdowns and virus fears. We were finally ‘abroad’ and boy, did it feel good!

The next morning, after a taxi transfer to the ship, we showed our proof of double vaccination with the NI Direct app at cruise check-in and took a quick, free, antigen test in the cruise terminal. The result came through in about 20 minutes and we were cleared for boarding.

Seeing Apex in all its glory was one of those real ‘wow’ moments. It boasts 16 guest decks; 1,467 staterooms; 29 restaurants, bars and lounges and designer touches from the likes of Kelly Hoppen CBE and Parisian design duo Jouin Manku. Apex certainly holds its own against the world’s most stylish hotels.

Entertainment is of a very high standard too, with The Theatre boasting state-of-the-art technology including a 23-foot-tall 4K LED screen curving around the stage to immerse audiences in the show. There’s also a 20-foot tall Tree of Life, complete with over 3,000 LED leaves, to set the stage for one of the productions.

Another great thing about cruising with Celebrity is its ‘Always Included’ offering which means that unlimited drinks (Classic Beverage Package), Wi-Fi and daily gratuities are all taken care of within the cost of your cruise. Guests can upgrade amenities if they wish with the purchase of an Elevate or Indulge package. Remember when I said there’s never been a better time to go cruising?

Here’s why – the Apex has a normal capacity for around 3000 guests, but on this particular sailing, numbers were limited to less than a third of that in order to maintain social distancing. The crew outnumbered the passengers, so it was unusual to see a queue of any kind, and the ship felt very spacious and underpopulated. It was also spotlessly clean. In fact, a cruise ship is probably one of the most sanitary and hygienic places you could spend a holiday and, with all of your fellow travellers double vaccinated and with proof of negative tests, it’s hard to imagine a safer environment.

Day 1: We had been booked into a Suite, which qualified us for The Retreat tier, with privileges such as use of a dedicated 24/7 lounge with complimentary drinks, an exclusive pool area, sun deck and restaurants not available to other passengers. It’s certainly worth paying extra for these perks, which also includes a Premier drinks package and more luxurious Staterooms.

Shortly after boarding, we took advantage of our VIP status by visiting the exclusive Luminae restaurant for lunch. The food and drinks were excellent – a theme common to every one of Apex’s restaurants, bars and lounges. Some of the restaurants require an additional charge, but there are four complimentary main restaurants – Normandie, Tuscan, Cosmopolitan and Cyprus. Each features the same mouthwatering menu that changes nightly, plus each one also offers its own ambience, along with a selection of exclusive, regionally inspired dishes and drinks. We had our evening meal at Cyprus, chosen for its selection of authentic Greek and Cypriot cuisine.

In the evening, Apex set sail for Dubrovnik, with a full day at sea ahead of us before we reached our first port of call.

Day 2: Our day at sea gave us the chance to check out more of the ship’s attractions. High-end shoppers won’t be disappointed, with Cartier, Mont Blanc and Bulgari all represented, while there are plenty of places to soak up the sun, swim, admire some of the stunning artwork and sculptures which adorn the ship’s public spaces, or, as we did, simply appreciate the fact that we were actually on holiday!

As we only had seven days on board, our mission was to eat at as many of the restaurants as possible, although another week or so would have been required to even come close to experiencing all of the culinary treats. Some of our standout dining experiences during the first few days of our cruise were The Rooftop Garden Grill – an al fresco feast of BBQ-style specialities – and the Fine Cut Steakhouse, a carnivore’s dream!

Our holiday was only beginning though and we had much, much more to look forward to over the coming days!

You can read all about the rest of Andrea’s trip onboard Apex in next month’s Travel News, in which she’ll be writing more about the ship itself plus the ports of call in Dubrovnik and the Greek Islands of Rhodes, Mykonos and Santorini.

FACT FILE:

Find out more about Celebrity Apex, the itineraries available and the various attractions onboard at www.celebritycruises.com. Details on all health and safety measures across the entire Celebrity Cruises holiday experience can be found at www.celebritycruises.com/healthy-at-sea.

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