Most travelers either love or hate them. Bad memories of the Catskills, or a world of activities at your fingertips? Too much bland food or well-seasoned meals? Visions of a huge overloaded power boat or majestic super ship that is the stuff of dreams? An ill-imagined Vegas at sea, or a well run small city? This reporter went on a six-day cruise to the Canadian Atlantic Provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick recently, and what transpired indicated that it was a good break in routine. Much of what you can do onboard has no additional cost.
Is a megaship a true Petri dish of disease for seniors and immune-comprised voyagers? Happily, in my case, no. If you mask indoors, stay as far away as possible from clusters of people, and take lots of walks in the outside sea air, you should be fine. RCCL, to their credit, does as much as possible on their end to make sure that passengers do not catch COVID. Should that happen, there is specific advanced protocol to take care of you and make sure you are isolated to not infect others.
The ship, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines’ Oasis of the Seas, is the fourth largest cruise ship in the world, the other three larger ships also part of the Royal Caribbean fleet. For anyone who has seen or visited The Intrepid Museum at Pier 86, this cruise ship is almost 300 feet longer and weighs more than five times than the Intrepid. It is three #1 train subway cars wide.
On this trip, there were 5300 passengers and 2200 in staff starting out at Cape Liberty (née the Bayonne Navy Yard). The route? An almost 1700 mile round trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia and St.John, New Brunswick. Majestic skies greeted us with beautiful weather for five of the six days, with a day of solid rain and fog. On-board pools and whirlpools were available for the sunny days; only the sheltered whirlpools were open during the inclement weather. The temperatures were a bit cooler out on the open sea, which made for fewer swimmers.
While Bayonne NJ is not exactly around the corner from Manhattan, it’s possible to get there by a ground service provider, without flying anywhere. Upon check-in at the pier, you are given an internal credit card for all transactions, imbedded with an RFID chip used to get on and off the ship, locate you in an emergency, and it is your key to your stateroom. We boarded the ship in the early afternoon, greeted by a reggae band playing on a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon.
Up Close and Personal on the World’s Fourth Largest Cruise Ship
At 4 p.m., we were off. Cars on the Brooklyn Bridge glimmered in the sunlight, Manhattan and Jersey City skylines tall against the pastel blue sky, and harbor traffic flowed in all directions. A half hour later, we entered the Atlantic Ocean for the day and half voyage, for most of that largely out of sight of land.
With the digitalization of previous time-consuming lifeboat drills. the only physical task was to check in at what would be your evacuation meeting area. The time saved can be spent focusing on daily shipboard activities, mostly senior-friendly. There are also many options for an evening’s entertainment. The 15 fully accessible decks saw wheelchairs and motorized scooters used throughout, with strategically placed ramps provided for mobility-challenged people. Mask-wearers were in the minority of passengers, but staff were required to wear them at all times.
Dining on board was as casual or deluxe as you wished. The main dining room, on three different levels, offered either a set of early or late dinner, or timings of your own choosing. My choice was the latter, and it worked very well. My dining room servers, Deepak and Michael, were well-trained, personable and efficient, as they served tasty large portions. In addition to the daily varied meat and fish choices, menus for vegetarians and vegans were also available.
After dinner, walking outside on an exposed upper deck at sea verges on the indescribable. Before you, a floating small city of thousands, literally in the middle of nowhere, no other lights than the ones from the ship. As this city forged on into the night at 15 miles an hour, the perfume of the salt air was omnipresent. The quiet of the sea and the gentle motion of movement instilled calm. For that night and a few others, eschewing the on-board shows, rock concerts, reggae bands and adult comedy (sold out every night), I found a jazz club with a respectable Brazilian quintet. It was never that crowded, and easy to maneuver in and out.
Monday morning saw an exploration of the huge vessel. The ship has seven “neighborhoods,” with Central Park as the ship’s “town square,” which did have a Manhattan vibe. Bracketed by a wine bar, two other bars, a cafe, three extra-fare dining rooms, high-end shops and the library, it evoked Madison Avenue above 60th Street, never that crowded, with a very similar vibe.
Lunch at the buffet, on Deck 15, was by huge windows commanding an astounding view of the rolling Atlantic. During the day, the pools were filled with revelers of all ages splashing in the relative warmth. Housekeeping in the cabins and public areas was exemplary. This continued throughout the cruise.
First stop: Halifax
On Tuesday we docked early in Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, and the largest Canadian city east of Quebec City. On that day, the Oasis made history as the largest cruise ship ever to dock at that port. All passengers walked off the ship onto terra firma— in both our Canadian ports of call there was direct access, no worrying about tendering in.
Halifax had changed since a previous visit quite a few years ago. In place of many traditional buildings and stores, a respectfully redeveloped downtown seemed less touristy than on previous visits. Many attractions were within walking distance of our pier via a harbor boardwalk. Musicians provided regional music, and bars and restaurants were in evidence on the beautiful sunny day. It’s easy to walk a few miles during your port call, or take advantage of the shore excursions offered by the cruise line.
After lunch with a friend at a restaurant, a walk back towards the ship took me to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, near our dock. Masking there was mandatory. The museum deals with the story of immigration to Canada from the 1600s until today. This equivalent of Ellis Island admitted nearly one million immigrants between 1928 and 1971. Four hundred years of immigration history are on display, with stated apologies for exclusionary Canadian policies now deemed unfavorable. A temporary exhibit running through October 16 features work of the acclaimed portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, an Armenian immigrant who entered Canada in 1924.
Overnight Through the Bay of Fundy
After watching Halifax vanish as we headed out to the Atlantic, a pre-dinner whirlpool soak was the ticket to reviving the senses. Dinner that night was at the Solarium Cafe, where most of the food was served buffet style. With a later reservation, I found myself together with a handful of other people in the large space, a hidden gem unique for a ship this size. The buffet was filled with largely Middle Eastern appetizers, which were very good, and a well-cooked chicken entree. As Nova Scotia’s land faded from view, the ship made its way around the south of the province and the Bay of Fundy.
On Wednesday morning, we docked at St. John, where it was 55 degrees, with rain off and on. This did not portend for an experience as nice as the one the day before. Shore excursions were available to cruise passengers; the port is just a few blocks from the center of town. Interesting local choices for snacks and souvenirs were just a few steps from the pier: St. John, New Brunswick’s largest city with 75,000 people, was hilly, compared to the Halifax waterfront’s level ground. Downtown, here called Uptown, has many older single-family and small apartment buildings, some dating back to the middle of the 19th century.
Up the hill in the center of town was the City Market and King’s Square, a vertical urban climb of 100 feet in a few blocks. City Market dates from 1785, the oldest farmers’ market in Canada. It is filled with 30 different stalls of local fish, baked goods, jams and local souvenirs and knitted goods. King’s Square offered scenic views down the hill towards the harbor. A few small museums within walking distance of the pier, some unique shops and a three-and-a-half mile Harbor Trail complete the attractions in Uptown. The Trail, considered easy, winds from Uptown to Reversing Falls, a natural tidal phenomena connected to the fast moving current of the Bay of Fundy.
Rain, Fog and Foghorns
After the torrential rains as we pushed out from St. John at 9 p.m. Darkness and rain obscured our passage out of the harbor, as the receding shore line became a blur. Night became Thursday morning while the fog became our 360 degree landscape, a booming foghorn sounding every few minutes to warn other ships of our passage, The rain had stopped in the morning, but the color permeated every window and every open deck. The last full day at sea saw the ship pitching somewhat, charging ahead at almost 25 miles an hour. There were a few people on the sheltered hot tubs, with no one at the swimming pools, which were not under cover. The ship weighs 225,000 tons, which was enough to smooth out the rough waves around us.
Given the gray day before us, after breakfast my inclination was to head back to my cabin. Later, I had a pleasant outdoor light lunch with decent hot coffee to ward off the chill and light rain. In contrast to the lighting in my stateroom, inadequate for reading, the Central Park Library was the perfect place to catch up on Sunday NY Times, albeit a little late. I wasn’t alone either, with passengers reading books, working on their laptops, or playing games.
As afternoon approached evening, dinner was a somber affair, as the last cruise night meant the end of a great trip. Sleep came shortly thereafter on calmer seas as we passed below the tip of Long Island.
Friday morning arrived with a seasonally early sunrise. An early wake up came as the ship neared New York Bay. After almost 1670 miles of travel, the behemoth docked on time at 6:45 a.m. All passengers were given the option of disembarking upon arrival, or later, but there was no need for my early departure. We had a quick breakfast and a last visit to the stateroom. Getting off the ship took twenty-five minutes from the start of disembarkation line-up to the taxi stand, which included customs and immigration. The taxi straight to Manhattan took about 40 minutes from the dock.
Post-pandemic, cruising safety has evolved. While no entity can completely guarantee complete a non-viral experience, Royal Caribbean did as much as it could to keep everyone as healthy as possible. If you are a mask-wearer, keep wearing one indoors. The beauty of having a stateroom and access to open decks insure that passengers aren’t masking 100% of the time.
Royal Caribbean does offer a comprehensive WiFi package, beverage plans and extra-fare haute dining. While the inclusive cost of a cruise is relatively inexpensive (as low as $864 dollars for two people on a seven night Canada cruise from Boston, inside cabin), those additions can add up. (Do note that a cruise is your travel mode, your hotel, and your food, which makes the numbers far more enticing.) There are usually up to a dozen different cabin types, and the numbers will increase as the cabins get larger and higher on the ship. You want to determine what you want to be near; given the size of the ship, I discovered that the walk from my forward cabin to the main dining room was six blocks and an elevator ride.
Dining is what you want it to be. RCCL has an app that you can use before and while on-board to reserve the extra-fare dining venues, your dining room reservation times and shows. Many of the fancier dining venues are booked up almost immediately as you enter the ship, so this app can be a big help. There are a number of interesting lunch alternatives including a hot dog bar, a fast-food Mexican taqueria, an extra-charge BBQ joint, a pizza parlor, a dessert cafe, and a sports bar. Eat food there, bring it back to the cabin, sit indoors, sit outdoors: all part of the fun.
Royal Caribbean does offer shore excursions, in this cruise’s case, anywhere from an hour to seven hours. These forays offer guides, can be accessible is some cases, and will make sure that the ship does not leave without you. There is no pressure to take any of them by the cruise line.
Getting on and off the ship was almost akin to traveling internationally, timing from check-in lines to boarding the ship were very similar to air travel. Getting to and from the pier will involve either using your own car or a taxi. There is no public transportation to to this location.
The best observation? The fact that 7500 people, staff and passengers, from all over the world could be in each other’s company, without disagreement. From a Manhattanite’s view, this was the best feature of all.
RCCL will have two four-night cruises available and four nine-night trips through the middle of October. The four-night cruises will call at Halifax, and the nine-night ones calling at both Halifax and St. John, with with the four nine-night cruises also calling at Boston, Bar Harbor and Portland in addition.
Please note that COVID-19 regulations can always change for the cruise line and the countries that the cruises visit.
You can obtain specific information on cruises to Canada or anywhere else on their website at http://www.royalcaribbean.com, or call 866-562-7625.