With the confusion and uncertainty as to how the heck you travel with Covid-19 and the inconsistent requirements (along with a bit of missing logic and emotions clouding what science actually says), it was off to Athens to join the Seabourn Ovation.
I found my journey to Athens to be, well, uneventful. Yes, I know you were all looking forward to my stories of missed connections and wayward luggage, but essentially nothing exciting happened.
Air Travel – Business But Not Much “Class”
Although I am perfectly happy sitting in my usual United Airlines Economy Plus bulkhead aisle seat, I was originally able to purchase Premium Economy (larger seats with footrests and alcoholic beverages) for $200 more, so I figured “Why not?”. United then gave me a “one time” offer to be placed on a priority waitlist for upgrades to domestic first class and Polaris business class to Athens. I did get upgraded on one domestic flight and the international one, but the Covid-modified service was so ordinary that I’m not so sure it was worth my $420 + 20,000 miles.
I was also able to upgrade my whisky in the United Club (I have a lifetime membership, so no benefit there) before boarding my Athens flight to premium brands, but the food offerings were so pathetic and limited that I literally chose to have three Carr’s water crackers just to nibble on something. At least my drinks were served in actual glasses.
Internationally, the service was so stripped down that I pretty much was paying for a lie-flat seat and not much else. There were no pre-flight cocktails. I had my usual two double whiskeys (very limited choices and served in mini bottles) and then my choice of a single non-descript red or white wine with dinner…all served in plastic cups. Dinner and breakfast were served all at once and, just as in economy, I got to remove the aluminum foil from my main course (which, admittedly, was better than whatever was being served in the back of
the plane). NOTE: It has been established that you cannot get Covid-19 from food or surfaces, so the idea that somehow this stripped down service is a health and safety focused matter is nonsense.
Moral of this short story: United Airlines delivered me and my luggage to Athens without any drama, but with essentially no style. What does this mean for you: It is going to be a while before most airlines can and will provide the Business Class service regularly provided pre-Covid and you need to lower your expectations when purchasing a Business Class seat for 50% more than you did pre-Covid while getting 50% less than you did.
Entry into Greece
As far as the requirements to enter Greece, it was very simple and quick. You need to submit the required Personal Locator Form (PLF) a few days before my arrival. It asks basic information about you and where your first address is in Greece (hotel or ship) and if you have been vaccinated. You must have your original Vaccine Certificate along with your passport. That is it.
When checking in for my flights I was repeatedly asked by the airline desk agents if I had my QR Code and each time I said that I had submitted the form, but the QR Code would be emailed to me while I was flying. Why didn’t the airline desk agents know this?! My vaccine card and passport were also quickly checked. (Note: United has a system in its app that require you submit these and your passport days before your flights. It was pretty much a futile act as it had no effect on my check-in.) My PLF actually arrived as I was sitting on the plane about to take off for my flight to Athens and I took a screenshot of it just in case I had connectivity issues when I arrived in Athens. (A small example of disaster-proofing oneself; just like I had a PCR test done 72 hours before I departed and brought the results with me…just in case the requirements changed to require one while I was in transit.)
Upon arrival, there was an officer that asked to see my QR Code and my vaccine card. He gave both a quick look…and did nothing with the QR Code! (In fact nothing will ever be done with that QR code…ever!) It was then to Passport Control where that officer only looked at my passport (and he seemed bothered that I had so many stamps in mine so he had to keep flipping pages to find a spot for his stamp.) It was that easy.
The Mask Thing
OK, now the mask thing which for some is a HUGE deal…for reasons that I cannot fathom. You must wear a mask anywhere indoors in Athens such as the airport, cars, hotels, etc. If you are outdoors no masks are required. While there are some vaccine deniers and/or skeptics in Greece, the reality is many want the vaccine, but haven’t been able to get it, so it is about safety.
Along those lines, when you are on the Seabourn Ovation no masks are required anywhere onboard. The fully vaccinated crew, however, are required to wear masks at all times…at least for now. However, when you are on a tour bus or indoors during a tour, you must wear a mask…just like everyone else in Greece. Seabourn does provide you with two high quality face masks, but they are so thick that I have opted to use the lighter fabric ones I brought with me.
A Night in Athens – So Worth It!
“My Guy” in Athens arranged for my transfer to my hotel, the St. George Lycabettus. I was greeted and offered a delicious Greek fresco coffee and a tour of the hotel since it has been extensively remodeled. To me it remains a funky boutique hotel with a few misses, but which is more about its incredible views of the Acropolis and its location in the upscale and residential Kolonaki District of Athens with restaurants and parks just outside its doors. You get a feeling that you are living in Athens rather than staying in a hotel and that is, when you travel, what it is about. Isn’t it?
Once in my room, I headed out onto my balcony and soaked in the amazing view of the Acropolis. I stayed out in the blazing hot sun (it was about 107 degrees) for longer than I
probably should have, but I just pictured the Greeks living low on the plain looking up at the Acropolis and how it must have been even more awe-inspiring thousands of years ago.
After a nap it was time to head off to dinner at To Omorfo, which was established in 1936 as the place where intellectuals and socialites would gather for conversation and great food. As it was only a short walk from the hotel the stroll kind of made me more readily embrace Greece.
I was offered seating inside or out; obviously selecting outside as dining in the fading light of the evening always seems more authentic. I ordered a carafe of the local white wine and then the waiter invited me into the kitchen to see what was being offered that evening. (There are no menus and the offerings are different every day.)
Returning to my table it seemed like seconds before some delicious bread was served and then, all at once, all of the various dishes appeared. Grilled Bream with a lemony and rich olive oil flavor, Grilled Tomatoes with an absolutely amazing rice stuffing, Orzo with Calamari, a fantastic Pork filet with some of the best mash potatoes ever, more Calamari, a Greek salad and, of course, more wine!
After dinner, as I was strolling back to the hotel I noticed a street heading down the hill that was lined with tables filled with people…and a tiny taverna. So I pulled up a table, ordered a bottle of Ouzo and, well, just enjoyed a couple of hours of people watching. Magic.
I returned to my hotel, took a moment to gaze at the Acropolis lit up at night, which is spectacular, and slept…only to wake up to a tasty breakfast sitting out on the hotel restaurant balcony with that view again.
Boarding the Seabourn Ovation
Boarding the Seabourn Ovation was a bit different. Due to Covid and the need to socially distance you are assigned a boarding time. So when my time was assigned a few days before the cruise I contacted “My Guy” and changed my pickup time from my normal 12:00 p.m. But then my time was changed again, so I had to contact her again. A bit of a inconvenience, but more so I felt bad for making a simple pickup a pain for her. But now with my time set I had to wait…and wait…and wait…until my 1:45 PM transfer to Piraeus to meet the ship.
Upon arrival my luggage was immediately taken and I was escorted to a temporary building where my passport and vaccination card were examined, a consent to have the Covid test signed and the test taken. The test, which takes literally 10 seconds, is a nasal swabbing, after which you are given a number (think taking a number at a bakery). I was then escorted to a waiting area where I was offered water and a cold towel. It took 18 minutes for my test being completed to be shown on a television monitor. I handed in my number and was told my test was negative, so I was escorted into the actual cruise terminal and completed the boarding process. As everything is now electronic it took seconds. (When doing the Guest Registration for the cruise you have always entered your credit card information, as an example, but now it actually is accepted and you don’t need to present one at check-in.)
What was wonderful, was my being greeted with hugs, huge smiles and an energy that was so genuine and positive. Everyone…and I mean everyone…was so thrilled to be back and equally thrilled to see not only me, but all of the Seabourn guests coming back. I noticed and the crew more so saw, tears from some guests as they boarded. The emotions of not only being back on Seabourn, but of there being some freedom from the Covid ordeals and engaging in “normal” are so real and raw.
And, just like that, I was on a cruise…a Seabourn cruise. Yes, I knew I would have some travel experiences, but for now it is about the Seabourn Experience.