Wandering ship becomes 'best cruise ever' despite coronavirus fears

Passengers leaving MS Westerdam after the cruise ship was allowed to dock in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on Feb 14, 2020.
Passengers leaving MS Westerdam after the cruise ship was allowed to dock in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on Feb 14, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Passengers on board MS Westerdam, which was allowed to dock in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on Feb 14, 2020, after five other countries refused to let the cruise ship into port.
Passengers on board MS Westerdam, which was allowed to dock in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on Feb 14, 2020, after five other countries refused to let the cruise ship into port.PHOTO: REUTERS
Passengers celebrate as MS Westerdam docks in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on Feb 13, 2020.
Passengers celebrate as MS Westerdam docks in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on Feb 13, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS/ANGELA JONES
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen greets passengers on board MS Westerdam in Sihanoukville on Feb 14, 2020.
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen greets passengers on board MS Westerdam in Sihanoukville on Feb 14, 2020.PHOTO: AFP
Passengers disembark from MS Westerdam after the cruise ship was allowed to dock in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on Feb 14, 2020.
Passengers disembark from MS Westerdam after the cruise ship was allowed to dock in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on Feb 14, 2020.PHOTO: AFP
Passengers on board MS Westerdam on Feb 12, 2020.
Passengers on board MS Westerdam on Feb 12, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS/MARIA ANGUS
Passengers passing their time on board MS Westerdam on Feb 12, 2020.
Passengers passing their time on board MS Westerdam on Feb 12, 2020.PHOTOS: REUTERS/MARIA ANGUS
Passengers in a spin cycling class on board MS Westerdam on Feb 12, 2020.
Passengers in a spin cycling class on board MS Westerdam on Feb 12, 2020.PHOTO: CHRISTINAKERBY/TWITTER

SIHANOUKVILLE, CAMBODIA (REUTERS) - After nearly two weeks cast away in search of a port that would take them, passengers aboard the MS Westerdam cruise ship spoke of an ordeal that was anything but harrowing.

"Everyone says 'poor you'. But there was no poor you. We had free Internet and free wine. We had three-course meals. There was so much choice," said Ms Zahra Jennings, a retired staff nurse from Britain.

How was it? "Lovely," she said.

The 1,544 passengers and 802 crew had never expected a port stop in Hong Kong to metastasize into full-blown fear that some of the ship's passengers carried the coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China, late last year and has killed more than 1,500 people.

Turned away by Japan, Taiwan, Guam, the Philippines and Thailand, it was Cambodia that finally let the lost ship dock - and it was discovered there that none of the passengers was infected.

The only complaint aboard? "They ran out of hash browns a couple of days ago, and tomato sauce," said Mr Robert Sayers, a 60-year-old chemical company employee from New Zealand. "But that was it. It was fine, really."

Cruise ships around Asia face widespread fears they may be spreading the virus since it was found aboard the Diamond Princess that is now at anchor in Yokohama and where 218 of the passengers have been diagnosed with the virus.

Vietnam turned back two ships on Friday (Feb 14).

ROSES

It was Valentine's Day when the first passengers disembarked from the Westerdam. Prime Minister Hun Sen flew in from the capital, shaking hands with passengers and handing out roses. Government officials draped "Welcome to Cambodia" banners on buses. All passengers were given free visas.

Mr Hun Sen, an authoritarian ruler condemned by Western countries for human rights abuses, said: "Our current disease around the world is fear and discrimination," he said. "If Cambodia didn't allow this ship to dock, where should these 2,000 passengers go?"


Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen flew in from the capital, shaking hands with passengers and handing out roses. PHOTO: AFP

 
 
 

Holland America sent letters to all passengers saying it would reimburse the cost of the cruise, give them another free 14-day cruise, and charter them flights home. The company, it said, would do its best to match the class of flight they had originally booked.

The cruise had been scheduled to end in Shanghai on Saturday. In Shanghai it was 14 deg C, overcast and raining.

In Sihanoukville, it was 27 deg C and sunny.

Holland America arranged free coaches to a nearby beach for the stranded passengers, across the street from the villa where Mr Hun Sen stays in Sihanoukville and surrounded by Chinese casinos.

"This was my best cruise ever," said retired Canadian aerospace engineer Pierre Ashby. "Usually you buy a cruise and you know exactly what you are going to get. This was an adventure."

His wife was sitting beside him in a yellow bathing suit with two red roses. Barefoot in the sand, he smiled and gestured out to sea.

"Take your time."