(10:15 a.m. EDT) -- Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten became the first ocean-going line in the world to restart cruising after a three-month suspension of operations.
The line began with one ship, the 628-passenger MS Finnmarken, which set sail from Bergen on June 16 with around 200 passengers from Norway and a handful from Denmark, to operate the classic 11-day coastal voyage to Kirkenes and back.
Since Hurtigruten set sail, SeaDream Yacht Club followed suit as the first luxury line to return, also from Norway, and Dream Cruises announced they would offer cruises for Taiwanese passengers on July 26.
To prepare for this first sailing, Hurtigruten's crew trained to learn new health protocols, and the ship has been fitted out with signage for passengers encouraging them to wash their hands often and keep their distance. Hurtigruten also removed the buffet and introduced staggered seating times to avoid crowding.
Pre-boarding, passengers must fill in a safety questionnaire to confirm they have had no symptoms. The line carries out mandatory temperature testing in all ports and in the restaurant for passengers and crew via a heat sensor. The line also has an extra crew member who serves as a health and safety officer on every ship.
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We caught up with Hotel Manager Tor Elvind Line, Captain Kurt Naerbo, and Arne Vetaas, a passenger traveling with his 90-year-old mother onboard Hurtigruten's MS Finnmarken on June 26 -- 24 hours before the end of the cruise.
Warm Greetings Along the Coast
Would the first cruise ship to set sail be greeted warily by coastal communities or welcomed with open arms?
Vetaas, an airline pilot with Norwegian, described the warmth and hospitality MS Finnmarken and its passengers and crew received as it sailed along the coastline from Bergen to Kirkenes, calling in at 34 ports along the way. (Hurtigruten also serves as a coastal ferry for Norwegians and actually never stopped service for mail and other essentials while cruising was shut down; Finnmarken is the first traditional "cruise" ship the line has put back into operation.)
"It was great, it was kind of touching at every port we arrived in you see how important this service is to the local communities," said Vetaas, who has also sailed with Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line. "We were met by Norwegian flags and bands playing on the quayside, so it was really great."
Another memorable moment came as the ship left Bergen and met another vessel, which was greeted with a signal, he said.
"It's been an extraordinary journey because you see the warmth from everybody, you see the happiness from people around the coastline to see the first ship back."
Captain Kurt Naerbo agreed. "This cruise has been very different to a normal cruise, very exciting," he said. "All the passengers are very happy, everyone smiling."
The ship returned to Bergen on Saturday without reports of illness or incident.
Many cruisers have been concerned that the onboard experience they so love when cruising, things like shared tables and socializing, will change post-COVID, when mask wearing and strict social distancing could be enforced. Some have vowed not to cruise until things are back to how they were.
We asked Vetaas if he had noticed a markedly different vibe on his cruise, bearing in mind that Finnmarken is not a typical cruise ship with a theater and multiple dining venues.
"On a different type of cruise, it's crowded in all the places everywhere, especially in the dining rooms, but on here it's not like that at all," he said of the ship, which sailed only two-thirds full. "It's been easy to talk to people, even from one metet, there's been a lot of communication between passengers."
Signs throughout the ship prompt passengers on proper measures, including washing hands and staying one meter apart from fellow passengers. But otherwise, things feel normal, Vetaas said.
"Sometimes I forget there is this COVID-19," he said. "It's almost like usual, and sometimes you have to remind yourself we are in this situation."
Hotel Manager Line noted that the signs were not only good reminders, they also brought the passengers together as part of the hygiene solution.
"We encourage guests to contribute on this because crew can't do it all by themselves," he said.
As all passengers are Norwegian (or Danish), the line has put no restrictions in terms of offering shore excursions, but these have been altered to reflect new health protocols, Line said.
"Hurtigruten has been in touch with all our suppliers, and they are compliant with all our health measures," he said.
An example he gave was the RIB boats. A normal tour might take 12 people, but during this time, the capacity has been reduced to six. The same reductions are being carried out on buses and other boats.
"They have been as strict as us in terms of compliance," he said.
Few Concerns In Norway
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the U.S. and many other parts of the world, the virus has been considered under control in Norway. Which is why Vetaas had few concerns about getting back onboard so soon.
"The situation in Norway regarding the virus is under control, and we didn't have any concerns or second thoughts," he said. "I am traveling with my mother who is 90 years old, and even with her we did not have any concerns."
The line is ramping up the regular coastal service to four ships, all sailing two-thirds full, and has also just launched a 14-day round trip from Hamburg only for Germans, but with no land-based excursions.
Currently, the cruises are only open to those three nationalities. Things could change from July 15, when a further loosening of border restrictions for member states will be announced by the EU. This is unlikely to be the case for U.S. citizens, though.
"It's been fantastic to be back onboard, and hopefully we can get some more foreigners back onboard," Line said. "It's been quite strange to just be talking Norwegian -- normally all the announcements are in English and German, too.
"It's been a very good atmosphere onboard, both for guests and crew."