ONBOARD QUANTUM OF THE SEAS - To cruise amid a pandemic is to brace ourselves for the worst-case scenario - a Covid-19 cluster on board, a vacation cut short, an untimely quarantine.
Yet it is also the furthest getaway possible during these times, a chance to feel free and small, dwarfed by nature, the very things people travel to pursue.
Digging my suitcase out of storage and almost-forgotten passport out of a drawer brings a frisson of excitement. Even passing through immigration and security at the Marina Bay Cruise Centre is novel, rather than a chore.
After almost a year of no travel and months of simulating vacations at home, many in Singapore feel the same.
Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas, which I was recently on, is one of two ships piloting a safe cruising programme that kicked off last month. It is 99 per cent booked for the rest of the year.
But cruising is not without risk as the debacle last week on Quantum of the Seas has shown.
Last Wednesday, on the third morning of a four-day cruise to nowhere, the ship returned to Singapore a day early after a passenger on board tested positive for Covid-19.
Although the test turned out to be a false positive, it is unnerving to come within striking distance of a virus we have spent most of this year trying to keep at bay.
Being isolated in my cabin for the day, like all other guests on board, offers the tiniest glimpse of being quarantined, complete with the requisite uncertainty.
How long will this last? Are more undetected cases lurking?
My stateroom comes with a balcony, the fresh air a welcome change. Like clockwork, staff deliver breakfast, lunch and dinner, complete with sides and even dessert. The fare is nothing to shout about, but it is sustenance and a distraction until we finally disembark, with the last passengers leaving the ship at around midnight for an antigen rapid test conducted at the cruise centre.
It is not the first pandemic sailing to be cut short. Last month, the SeaDream I turned back to Barbados during a Caribbean cruise to nowhere after at least five passengers tested positive for the coronavirus.
But passengers who spoke to The Straits Times were undeterred.
Entrepreneur Ian Lin, on his third Royal Caribbean cruise with friends and family, says he enjoyed the smaller crowds and shorter queues for activities such as surf simulator FlowRider.
A total of 1,680 passengers were on board the cruise, less than half the ship's capacity of about 4,900 guests.
Mr Lin, who is in his 30s, will be going ahead with another cruise on Genting's World Dream at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, flight steward Leon Chen, 31, who travelled with his girlfriend, says: "We are confident of the safety measures put in place and we understand that if you want to board a cruise, there is a risk that you have to take."
Amusement park at sea
Quantum of the Seas may have scaled down some of the fun - gone are the parades, dance parties and sports tournaments - but there is still plenty to keep guests occupied.
The North Star (USD20), an observation capsule that elevates us almost 100m, makes our behemoth vessel look tiny. This is no mere lift ride. Up high, the capsule sways a little, a combination of the wind and the roll of the sea.
Rock climbing, too, is made trickier by the elements. From below, the routes look benign, but when perched on tiny climbing holds midway up, I feel every inch of the ship's tilt. Each time I reach higher, the wind threatens to undo my precarious grip.
Yet it is thrilling to feel so exposed, to be caught and lowered gently by an auto-belay system when I slip and tumble off the wall, and glimpse the horizon on my descent.
There are other activities too, such as the FlowRider, where passengers ride a body board on an endless sheet of rushing water.
Behind, others spin, whirl and try to stay aloft in the RipCord by iFly (US$40 or S$53), an indoor skydiving tunnel.
In the Seaplex, an indoor activity area, guests whizz and dodge on bumper cars. It all feels like being on a huge, floating amusement park.
Then there are the intangible things, the sense of possibility that comes with being abroad and unfettered. Free from the demands of daily life, people are more relaxed, more open to conversation.
In the queue for the FlowRider, I meet a group of friends who offer tried-and-tested tips for how to avoid wiping out.
Seasoned cruisers, they let me in on their favourite place on board - the adults-only Solarium, with whirlpools, deck chairs and a bar under a glass canopy at the ship's bow.
On my way to dinner, a woman enters the lift sparkling, from her rhinestone-studded mask to a black sequinned dress and gold, glittery shoes. Our eyes meet and I smile.
"Is this too much?" she asks.
"You're on vacation," I say. "Go all out."
Safely distanced holiday
Those looking to escape itinerary planning, essential with a multi-city vacation, will find that cruising is not quite the free-and-easy trip it used to be.
Most things, including meal reservations, shows and activities, must be booked ahead on the Royal Caribbean app so that crowds can be managed.
Even a nightcap takes forethought - catch a late show and you might miss the cutoff time of 10pm, when bars stop serving alcohol.
Staff work swiftly as the curfew looms, but the new regulations leave some guests cold.
At the Harp and Horn bar on the first night, there are raised voices when patrons in line are unable to get their drinks before the till closes.
"For some repeat guests, they expect that things will go back to the way they were before the pandemic," says cruise director Bobby Brown.
But there are rules and everyone, from crew to guests, must adapt. With smaller crowds allowed at performance venues - only 250 guests, down from over a thousand - the applause sounds thin during a magic show and comedy juggling act.
Dance captain and performer Marina Stacey, used to feeding off the crowd's energy, admits this took some getting used to. Gone are the days of rousing cheers from a packed theatre. Masked up onstage, a smouldering gaze and the shimmy of her shoulders must replace facial expressions and a megawatt smile.
Still, even being onstage is a triumph after months at home in Vancouver, where the 30-year-old spent most of this year taking dance classes online to keep herself in the best physical shape possible.
For the crew, this cruise is a chance to rise to the occasion. Get safety measures right and the ship could be a prototype for other vessels around the world. This means more jobs to go around, a reprieve for crew members who have gone months without work.
So it is understandable, the fervour with which they enforce safe distancing regulations, politely and apologetically, but always with a firm hand.
"Please stand 1m apart," I hear throughout the ship - at the casino, bar and in line for activities.
At Wonderland, which specialises in imaginative cuisine such as gazpacho served in test tubes topped with bread foam and boiled eggs with pureed yolks served under a dome of smoke, a server excuses herself amid taking our order to ensure that groups at separate tables do not mingle.
And at Jamie's Italian, where the meat platters are extensive and the pastas hearty, groups of guests are well-spaced throughout the eatery.
There are other measures too, a surfeit of caution to keep guests safe. We wear watch-like Tracelets on our wrists for movement tracking and safe distancing, keep masks on and sanitise our hands at stations around the ship.
Are these enough? Can any amount of regulations guard against the most insidious virus of our times? For now, the safe cruising pilot continues.
It will not be for everyone. There are doubtless those who have been spooked by this episode. But every trip abroad is a calculated risk, a chance to experience the magic of travel that has so long eluded us. Take a chance on a cruise, and you might just find that at sea.
• The writer and photographer were hosted by Royal Caribbean International.