ON BOARD THE WORLD DREAM - Christmas came early during Singapore's first pandemic cruise to nowhere.
Being able to watch multiple Santas rollicking on stage on the World Dream megaship ticked that festive box for me - even if the jolly men were masked for safety behind their beards.
Just as significantly, it was the gift of a journey after a near-year of no travel.
The World Dream sailed on Nov 6 with 1,400 Singapore residents like me on board after the ship had hibernated in the port city of Rotterdam for about seven months.
Pleasure cruises without ports of call are now piloting under a scheme rolled out by the Singapore Tourism Board to safely and gradually resume cruises - and ultimately, to revive leisure travel.
A pair of operators are offering cruises to nowhere, with Genting Cruise Lines making the first splash on Nov 6 with the World Dream. Royal Caribbean International will launch Quantum of the Seas in December.
Vigilance and verve
The challenge for cruise lines is to seamlessly fuse heightened safety with the comfort and fun that appeal to cruise lovers the world over.
Did I think Genting Cruise Lines succeeded in its dual mandate of vigilance and verve during my two-night Super Seacation?
The free-spirited cruise life has been reinvented with public health measures, from Mice pods for contact tracing to mandatory masks everywhere - and all that may be irrevocable, just like how 9/11 changed the face of flying.
Still, I could find some comfort in rules-based cruising. Halving the ship's capacity added not only safety, but also privacy to the cruise experience.
And protocols to turn the 19-deck ship around in an outbreak offered a semblance of safe harbour, for it will be a long while before the spectre of stranded ships like the Diamond Princess can fade from memory.
That Covid-19 test
But first, the Covid-19 test. Before boarding, all passengers aged six months and above were ushered to a mass testing facility at the carpark of Marina Bay Cruise Centre. The pop-up facility had been designed to clear 125 people every 30 minutes, with each test costing $60.
And so I began and also ended the cruise, reluctantly, with my first pair of antigen rapid tests for Covid-19.
When I asked, the Raffles Medical Group team was on hand to explain soothingly that this was a "mid-turbinate" procedure, with the swab extending about 3cm into my nose. The swabber would make five gentle twirls.
Seated in a booth with my chair facing inward for privacy, my test was done in a few seconds. Though there was a minor nosebleed, my rite of passage was a fair bit better than I had imagined.
On board, I toured the medical centre. It was equipped with a new real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine that yields Covid-19 test results in 60 minutes while being able to rule out 22 other respiratory viruses such as H1N1 and influenza. PCR tests are the most accurate ones for Covid-19 available.
Seven isolation cabins for suspected Covid-19 cases and 34 quarantine rooms for their close contacts had been configured, apart from the existing intensive care unit equipped with a ventilator.
Cruising in the Strait of Malacca and the southern tip of the South China Sea, the World Dream can return to Singapore shores in less than six hours if there are Covid-19 cases.
Soap and water
At restaurants, self-service buffets had been suspended. Some outlets had automatic hand-washing stations. My hands were soaped and rinsed for about 20 seconds at a nifty kiosk that also unfurled a paper towel.
The 999-seat Zodiac Theatre's capacity was slashed to 250 people safely distanced in five zones. Like the restaurants, I entered and left on separate paths.
The new measures comprised at least 40 per cent of operational costs, according to Mr Michael Goh, head of international sales at Genting Cruise Lines and president of Dream Cruises, who was seemingly everywhere on the ship to observe the first sailing and to bond with guests.
He saw "many smiling faces", he told The Straits Times. From my conversations with guests, and some eavesdropping, the safety regime did not really cramp their style even if the Covid-19 screening was a hot topic of conversation.
Businessman Andy Hoon, 40, treated his daughter to the getaway as a gift after she completed her Primary School Leaving Examination. A veteran of almost 20 cruises, he was quite unfazed by the restrictions of pandemic cruising, except that he had to wait for the Covid-19 test results.
However, with fewer guests, he enjoyed the greater space and seclusion on the German-built vessel. His daughter, Inge Poetri Hoon, 12, had extra attention during a Christmas decoration class that could also end earlier, for instance.
Another cruise loyalist, Institute of Technical Education student Jonathan Koh, 22, delighted in returning to the seas with his parents. Unable to even take his father's car to Johor, he had not travelled for about eight months. "We're all wearing masks and it's very safe. Cruises are not new to me and I have a lot of fun,'' he said, before heading to the pool.
Fun lovers like Mr Koh can play all day and continue into the night if they are sleepless. Whether they desire to zip-line over the ocean on a moving ship, sip detox cocktails, or sit in an old-school barber's chair in the spa, the cruise caters to different clients.
I had my fill of shows, and loved the Verry Christmas musical performance, a melange with acrobatic Ukrainian elves, a campy opera singer from Shenyang, drifting snow, a giant polar bear and an uplifting spirit.
Like me, some guests experienced the joy and poignancy of watching the talented entertainers connect with a live audience again after a long season of not being able to do what they love.
Other shows included Twice as Nice, a Las Vegas singing duo, ritzy in red, who established the pandemic context of their performance with valiant comments such as: "We're back here on the World Dream to celebrate with you. Not even the pandemic can stop us."
Each night, there were laser shows, though the fireworks at sea had ceased for now because of the pandemic.
I also tried a virtual reality game. For the Finger Coaster game, I drew a roller-coaster track that became my virtual 500m route in a theme park, as I sat strapped in a chair with a virtual reality headset. The ride was complete with heart-stopping ascents and free falls.
Zen and feasting
For zen moments, I popped by TV host Denise Keller's ocean-facing yoga class. My itinerary was too non-stop for me to join the class, but in the final minutes, settled in my chair and guided by her, I closed my eyes and let the pandemic world fade away.
Chatting with her later, she spoke about the beauty of "being one with the ocean" on the cruise. "Everything has changed, and we adapt,'' she added.
What has not changed, however, is that you can still expect food galore. With 35-plus dining and bar concepts, no two-night itinerary like mine could ever cover every outlet.
My culinary journey included Australian electrician-turned-celebrity chef Mark Best's Prime Steakhouse and Umi Uma, which serves sushi, teppanyaki and Korean barbecue in different corners.
And for the first time in ages, I had a midnight supper at the Blue Lagoon 24-hour joint, savouring fried rice, salted-egg fish skin and the holiday mood.
The cruise had been rainy much of the time, yet that was not a huge dampener in the end.
Standing on my balcony high above the monsoon-grey waves - wild, elemental and stretching to nowhere - I felt like a vulnerable dot on the ocean. Yet it was also liberating to sense nature unbound and to step out of Singapore.
In contrast, my well-lit suite was all cohesion and comfort, with a plush three-seater sofa, Nespresso machine, writing desk, chinoiserie flowery art and Etro toiletries from Milan in the oversized bathroom.
Gazing at the ocean and then stepping into my suite - that was very much a picture of the cruise in a pandemic, a controlled step into the unknown.
• The writer was hosted by Genting Cruise Lines.
WHAT: The World Dream sails from now till Dec 30. Two-night cruises depart from Marina Bay Cruise Centre on Wednesdays and Fridays. Three-night cruises leave on Sundays.
PRICE: Fares start at $359 a person, based on twin sharing.
INFO: Go to dreamcruiseline.com, call 6808-2288 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org