ON BOARD THE WORLD DREAM - For months, Mr Jarwin Tan Peralta, 40, was eating alone and walking through darkened corridors on the empty World Dream megaship.
Berthed in Rotterdam for about seven months, the ship had been on hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic. "We have gone from dark alleys and very few people on board to bright lights and people everywhere now,'' said the ship's hotel director.
It was "quite sentimental" for the gregarious man to experience the renewed energy on board, with computers alive again and the merriment of 1,400 guests palpable.
Mr Peralta was among 1,100 crew members who were back to work with fresh haircuts and new hope on Nov 6, when the World Dream sailed off for Singapore's first pandemic cruise to nowhere.
Behind the scenes, it was a feat of logistics to regroup the international crew and prepare the mothballed ship from end to end to receive guests expecting safety and luxury.
It would take nearly a month for the ship to arrive in Singapore, its new home port, on Oct 25.
The 19-deck World Dream passed through the Suez Canal, picking up crew members from Europe and Egypt. Other crew members flew into Singapore from Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere.
Each crew member was quarantined, either on the ship or in Singapore hotels. They are also more spaced out now in their cabins and work spaces.
All were trained in safe cruising as well, sometimes over Zoom.
Mr Peralta, who oversees the majority of the crew, has an extra pandemic role now: safe measures officer. The Filipino said operator Genting Cruise Lines has also hired cruise ambassadors from Singapore to ensure safe distancing. Among them are former tour guides, an air stewardness and hotel staff.
He observed that the new safety regime - covering anything from 500 bottles of hand sanitisers to a flow plan to turn the ship back in an outbreak - will make Singapore's standards a benchmark for the industry.
Also excited to be sailing was production manager Leonardo de Souza Martins, 30, who works with the entertainment team.
The Verry Christmas musical production, also shown last year, was completely renewed for Singapore residents cruising in a pandemic, said the Brazilian.
Super-fine drifting snow was created for a tropical audience dreaming of a near-impossible wintry escape, for instance.
The 14 athletic Santas were masked behind their beards, a requirement once more than 10 entertainers are on stage. His international cast included Belarus beauties, Ukrainian acrobats and an opera singer from Shenyang whose stage name is Yi Mo.
For safety, the shows were allocated to guests according to their decks. Separate entrances and exits were planned for an audience capped at 250 people.
Still, this did not seem to dampen the wonder. Mr Martins said emotions surged after staging the show for a live audience. "It was super nostalgic having guests again and doing what we love."
After the show, some guests were "teary-eyed" after a long season of little entertainment and they thanked the cast, said cruise director Shari Faye Lamela, 29.
To elevate the cruise experience in sober times, some entertainers doubled their roles. They played storyteller to kids, taught boxing or appeared on game shows.
Both Mr Martins and Ms Lamela indicated that the teams were overjoyed to be employed again. In the preceding months, some staff did "live-selling" of clothes for cash. Musicians staged Zoom shows, while Yi Mo, the Chinese opera singer, appeared on TikTok.
Among the new joiners was Second Officer Zachary Loh, 30, who started work this month. "This is a coveted job - 2020 is a year of breaking glass ceilings," said the Singaporean. Cruise lines traditionally tend to hire international crew.
So desirable was the position that Mr Loh, who wed in July, even gave up his honeymoon for it.
Mr Michael Goh, president of Dream Cruises and head of international sales at Genting Cruise Lines, saw many smiling faces as he mingled tirelessly with guests. "I know we have done something right. But our job will continue,'' he said.
Because the ship had ceased operations for eight months before speedily ramping up to sail, it would take some time to finesse all facets. The zip line over the ocean was still being maintained, for instance, while an interactive table at the whisky bar needed a new password.
Meanwhile, Mr Peralta, the hotel director, reflected: "I had no doubt that we would be back."
He has witnessed challenges over the years, from Sars to financial crises, from the time he started at the company as a bellman 15 years ago. After each setback, cruise passengers returned for more of what they loved.
On the two-night cruise, long-time clients kept coming up to him. In a sign of pandemic times, he would smile and say: "Sorry, I can't hug you."