Another Caribbean Christmas, Part Two

The holiday begins

Day One – Christmas Eve

I woke up at 04:15, before my alarm went off, with my stomach turning over, I was either worried about the antigen test and failing at the last hurdle, or last night’s panini was reacting. After a huge dump, I reckon it was the panini, I washed, dressed, dropped off my key in the early checkout slot and walked the 2 minutes over to the airport. The instructions said the testing point was near the TUI check-in desks at Zone D right by the entrance from the hotel. Was it hell as like. It was at the opposite end of the airport by check-in desk one in Zone A. Fortunately the queue was very short and the test quick. They promised to e-mail the result in 30 minutes. So I went for a coffee and Danish pastry in a coffee shop to wait.

I remembered to turn off Wi-Fi, so I got the message via 4G and I was “fit to fly”. So off I went to check-in, in Zone D. I bumped into a couple who had been in the test queue in front of me and they had just been to Zone D, only to find we were checking on in Zone B! So far I have been flooded with messages from P&O, repeatedly telling me the same thing but missing out on important little things like this. There were two queues and no sign as to what the difference was, so I grabbed a passing P&O person and she explained the short queue was for premium seat passengers and the longer queue was for economy. I should have guessed. We joined the snaking economy queue together with about ten other people who had been in the wrong queue and heard my conversation!

The queue was around 40 people long and there were only three check-in desks open, 2 for economy and 1 for premium. An old man was making his way slowly down the queue speaking with every group of passengers. He was trying to ensure that everyone had the correct paperwork before getting to the check-in desk. I was astonished that at least 3 groups in front of me had joined the queue without going for the antigen test. He also made everyone fill in a paper copy of a form we had all filled in online 2 days ago!

The queue crept forward at a snail’s pace. A fourth desk opened but it was a second for premium passengers. Finally, my turn arrived and I was checked in without any more hassle. Boarding card in hand I tackled the airport security check to get into the lounge. Empty your carry on luggage into one crate, iPad, phone, Kindle, loose change, keys and watch into another, jacket and belt into a third. Shuffle through the metal detector holding up your trousers with one hand and get dressed again. At least I didn’t have to take my shoes off as I saw someone having to do to get through the metal detector.

The flight was on the departure board but said, “Gate advised in an hour and 40 minutes.” So I got a cup of strong breakfast tea, bought a paper and settled down to wait where I could see the departure board. A man, his wife and two teenage daughters sat down opposite me. They had been to Pret for takeaway coffee and snacks. The man realised he had forgotten to get any sugar so he put his drink and paper bag full of snacks on his seat and went off back to Pret. On his return, he sat down on his coffee and snack, yelled as it went everywhere and scalded his bum. The girls collapsed in giggles and the mum got the blame for not warning him! They went off to join a flight to Belfast where I expect they will not have a happy Christmas.

Eventually, the flight gate number came up on the board and I strolled to the holding lounge which was fairly busy. Then a flight to Italy was called for boarding and three-quarters of the people got up and left us. Where was everyone? This was to be a Boeing 787-9 with over 350 seats onboard and I doubted there was half that number in the lounge. Was Covid that bad? The flight was called and we were loaded onto buses to take us to the plane which was standing well away from the terminal. I was on the last bus of 3, each had a capacity of 68 and mine was nowhere near full. I climbed the steps to the plane, found my extra legroom seat and discovered I was sitting next to the couple who had directed me to check-in Zone B! The last people boarded and looking around the economy cabin it was less than half full. A stewardess later told us that there were 54 in the 63 seat Premium Cabin and 101 in the 288 seat Economy Cabin. A total of 155 on a 351 seat plane.

WorthingGooner, Going Postal
TUI Boeing 787-9.
Alec Wilson
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Apparently, around 80 had failed the PCR test in the last couple of days and a further 4 had failed the antigen test that morning. Others had pulled out prior to flying because of the double jabbed rule. Still, it made for a comfortable flight. The normal airline lunch of chicken or beef was not available, it was chicken pasta bake or nothing! However, it was very tasty and they were very generous with the free drinks. I only wanted a soft drink first time round as it was only just after 10 am but I got two cans of Pepsi Max. The couple next to me asked for gin and tonic and each got two at least double gins and two cans of tonic. The free wine with lunch was two glass fulls each as a start and more if requested. However two glasses of a pleasant French white were enough for me, but the couple next to me had 4 glasses of red each, but who was counting.

I had a little post-lunch snooze and was woken by another drinks service, my companions had a soft drink this time and I had another Pepsi Max. I jokingly said to them I bet that when the next meal (tea) comes around it will be an egg sandwich and a scone with jam and cream. Well, I was very nearly right. It was two egg rolls and a fruit scone with strawberry jam and clotted cream. It went down a treat with a cup of tea.

Despite having taken off nearly 30 minutes late, the captain advised us we would be landing only 5 minutes late at 14:32 local time. Chatting to a stewardess she said that normally the flight carried a second crew out with them who would take the plane home with the returning cruise passengers and the outbound crew as passengers. Then a second round trip would be made the following day by fresh crews. Today was an exception, the numbers returning to the UK was so low that they had been combined into a single flight which would be going back the next day (Christmas Day). So Christmas Eve’s returning passengers got an extra day’s holiday. Consequently, the same crew were to take the plane back tomorrow evening and they were all staying overnight in the only hotel that had sufficient vacancies, a five star. As they were working Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and not landing until Boxing Day morning they were on double time and two days off. It was going to be party time in their hotel tonight.

Coaches arrived at the bottom of the aircraft steps to take us to the ship. Premium class passengers disembarked first, followed swiftly by me and my travelling companions. The first coach was small and soon filled up. I got on the second and off we went. My driver was getting frustrated by the slowness of the coach in front but with the narrow road and traffic, it was impossible to overtake. Our driver turned off onto what he said was a short cut and we whizzed through several ramshackle shantytowns and arrived a Bridgetown Port first. Scrambling off the coach we went through a snaking taped-off path to about 30 check-in desks. Everyone had a paper boarding pass downloaded from the internet in the UK, and had uploaded a passport type photo, credit or debit card detail and a photo of the details page of their passport, but that wasn’t enough. We had to have the boarding pass scanned, our passport swiped through a reader, and photographed and our card details taken again.

WorthingGooner, Going Postal
Barbados Port.
© WorthingGooner, Going Postal 2022

At this stage, in the past I have always been given a ship’s pass-card, that is multiple purpose, it works as an ID card when going on or off the ship, opens your cabin door and it acts as an onboard charge card. Your account is then settled against your credit or debit card at the end of the cruise. This time we were told our cabin steward would be waiting for us to hand them out.

We were now free to go through security, yet more bag X-rays and metal detectors. Finally up the gangway to the ship. A final scan of the paper boarding pass which brought up the photo that had been uploaded in the UK and I was on the ship, itching to get to my cabin for forty winks before dinner. Not so fast WG, procedures have been changed. First, you have to go to your muster station where your paper boarding pass is once again scanned to prove you know where to go in the event of an emergency. Finally I could head for my cabin, but getting into it was another thing. Apparently, the cabin stewards and stewardesses were off duty and no one had warned them that new passengers were boarding so people were all standing around waiting.

My stewardess, a Philippine called Caroline finally arrived and let me in the cabin, promising to be back shortly with my passcard. I dumped my carry-on luggage and grabbed a drink of cold water from the otherwise empty fridge. A few minutes later she tapped on the door and handed over the passcard and two letters from P&O neither of which made much sense to me. Maybe it was because I had now been up nearly 29 hours so I read them again. The first said as I was on “Freedom Dining” they had preallocated me a seat on a table of six for the second sitting on Christmas Day. Well, I had booked “Club Dining” where you always sat at the same table with the same people. Freedom Dining means you can request a time through the ship’s multi-purpose internet app or just turn up and take a chance that a table is available for you.

The second letter welcomed me back as a Mediterranean level member of the P&O Peninsula Club (past travellers with over a certain number of days at sea) and as such they were giving me free internet access for the cruise. I was to see the internet librarian to get it set up. Very nice, but I had already paid for internet access back in the UK and there was no librarian to be found.

A quick trip to reception was called for. I joined a short queue where several people were bothered about being switched from Club Dining to Freedom Dining. The first story I was told was that people preferred it so the ship had been switched to all Freedom Dining. I pointed out that looking at the numbers complaining clearly there were a high number of passengers who preferred Club and had booked Club only to find on arriving onboard that it had been scrapped and they hadn’t been told. A more senior officer was called and apparently, “Due to Covid”, there were only going to be around 1100 passengers on board, instead of 3,100 and it was easier for them to switch everyone to Freedom Dining. Unfortunately, they had made the decision at the last minute and hadn’t warned the passengers!

As for the second letter, the girl on reception promised me that the money I had spent on the internet package would be refunded and set me up with the internet access. Mind you it is very poor and keeps logging you out in the middle of doing something. In addition, I can only see the articles on Going Postal, I can’t see the comments, but as no one reads them so it hardly matters!

WorthingGooner, Going Postal
Luggage coming on board.
© WorthingGooner, Going Postal 2022

When I got back to the cabin my suitcase had magically appeared so I was able to quickly unpack before dinner. I used the app and booked dinner to six-fifteen, I would have liked it a little later but it did appear to be possible. I sat with a pleasant couple who were complaining that they had booked Club dining and had been bumped to Freedom so I was able to tell them what was going on. I had a very pleasant meal, a prawn cocktail, followed by lemon sole and mixed finally mixed ice cream, coffee and mini mince pies. I had a number of choices as to what to do with my evening, but to tell you the truth having been up 36 hours I was shattered, I must be getting old, so I went to bed and slept like a log.

In Part 3 – Christmas Day, Boxing Day and Sunday 26th

© WorthingGooner 2022