Top Picks For You

I Was Quarantined on a Cruise Ship. Here’s What It Was Like

My dream of visiting Santorini was so close and yet so far away.

Long before those iconic white buildings with azure rooftops perched high above the Aegean Sea filled my Instagram feed and took over my TikTok, Santorini rose to the top of my travel bucket list. I’d seen stunning pictures in a glossy magazine decades earlier and knew I had to see it for myself someday.

Despite having been to 38 countries and other Greek islands, I just hadn’t made it to “the one” yet—so when the stars finally aligned, my dad and I booked a seven-day Greek Enchantment cruise on Holland America Line. I was delighted I’d finally experience Santorini and booked a full-day shore excursion to ensure we’d see as much as possible.

In August 2023, my father and I made our way to Venice, where the cruise began. Once aboard the Oosterdam, I could feel my excitement growing. After a few fun days in Croatian ports, the countdown was on: Just one relaxing sea day stood between me and Santorini!

But the next morning, I awoke around 5 a.m. feeling nauseous. Over the next several hours, I became one with the bathroom in my cabin, enduring multiple waves of gastrointestinal misery that left me reeling. I called the spa to cancel my treatment for later that day, fully committed to staying in bed and resting. After all, I had to be in tip-top shape for Santorini the next day.

Continue Reading Article After Our Video

Recommended Fodor’s Video

After my symptoms subsided, I contacted the ship’s medical staff to see if any other guests were complaining of a similar ailment. The nurse asked a series of very specific questions about my symptoms before coming to my room to take my temperature (no fever). She explained that because no other cases were on board, all signs pointed to a viral illness. She handed me a prescription bottle filled with several doses of antidiarrheal medication, a fact sheet on Norovirus, and a CDC questionnaire where I needed to document everything I ate, drank, and did for the last three days.

Then she delivered the final blow: I was to be isolated in my room for 24 hours from when my symptoms ended—which would be noon the following day. My Santorini excursion was set to leave at 8 a.m. When I tried to protest, explaining how much better I was already feeling, it fell on deaf ears. This was the policy. End of story. She turned to leave, and it wasn’t until I shut the door that I realized tears were running down my cheeks. Why couldn’t this have happened on literally any other day of this trip?

The Oosterdam’s interior.Courtesy Holland America

Waffling between shock and devastation at this unfortunate turn of events, I spent the next 24 hours mostly alone (my dad skedaddled early in the morning and busied himself onboard until well after dinner time; I didn’t blame him one bit), feeling a bit sorry for myself. I immediately thought back to the day before when, on an excursion, I had sat next to a woman coughing so hard I worried she might be choking. When I asked if she was all right, she said, “I have a nasty sinus infection, but I’m certainly not going to see the ship’s doctor to ask for antibiotics because they’ll just quarantine me and ruin my vacation.”

At the time, I thought that was a selfish response, risking infecting others. Now, I could almost see her point. Although, a sinus infection alone wouldn’t be cause for isolation–unless it were the symptom of an infectious disease. The CDC has several guidelines for travelers and cruise lines regarding this subject.

Dr. Joseph Scott, the senior director of fleet medical operations at Holland America Line and Carnival Corporation, tells Fodor’s, “Because of their infectious nature, people diagnosed with influenza, COVID-19, or acute gastroenteritis, are asked to isolate in their staterooms until cleared by medical staff. Our medical and guest experience teams are committed to making that period of isolation as comfortable as possible.” He added, “At Holland America Line, the health and safety of our guests, crew, and the communities we visit, is our top priority.”

After the nurse left my room, a note was slipped under my door, stating which services and amenities Holland America Line made available during my isolation period, including:

Meals: Room service was available 24/7, and I found they were happy to accommodate my requests for incredibly bland food (white rice, dry toast, and ripe bananas) rather than forcing me to order specific dishes off the menu. They brought my orders to the door but just handed off the tray because they weren’t allowed to come inside. I even developed a lovely rapport with the man who took my phone orders, and he asked how I was feeling each time.

Cleaning: There’s a specially trained cleaning crew for guests affected by a gastro-related illness, and they follow policies set by the Public Health Department. They arrived in personal protective equipment (to protect themselves from germs and minimize cross-contamination) and sanitized my room according to their various procedures with higher-concentration disinfectants. 

Laundry: I was offered one complimentary laundry service, which could be placed in a bag and handed to my room steward. I made use of this perk and was thrilled with how well every garment turned out. They even carefully folded my thong underwear, which made me laugh.

Entertainment: I’ve done 16 other cruises over the years and always prided myself on never turning on the TV in my cabin. However, I quickly found myself grateful for the wide array of on-demand movies, passing the time with such classics as The Devil Wears Prada, 40 First Dates, and Legally Blonde. I knew I could count on Anne, Meryl, Drew, and Reese to bring some levity to my situation. The cruise line also sent a packet of crossword and sudoku puzzles to my room, which was a thoughtful touch.

Balcony: I always book a balcony cabin because there’s no greater feeling than being “alone” while you look out on the horizon. Plus, on some trips, like my previous Alaska cruises, they are crucial to seeing more wildlife and scenery. But having a balcony cabin on this trip quickly took on a new level of importance: it meant I was lucky enough to spend a little time outdoors in the fresh air, something I wouldn’t have had access to in an inside cabin.

Luckily for my dad, traveling companions don’t isolate only if they remain vigilant about washing their hands regularly. The next day, he left at 8 a.m. for our shore excursion (the cruise line took the liberty of canceling my ticket and providing an automatic reimbursement to my account).

3-Spa Hydro Pool
4-Thermal Suite
1. The Oosterdam’s spa has a hydro pool.Courtesy Holland America 2. The Thermal Suite has floor-ceiling windows.

At precisely noon, the nurse called to ask if my symptoms had remained gone for the full 24 hours. They had, so she officially released me from isolation. Freedom! Figuring I still had about six hours to catch some of Santorini before the ship raised her anchor, I hopped aboard the next tender boat and officially stepped ashore on the island that has been calling to me for years. I’d take my own self-guided tour, do a little shopping for souvenirs, snap a million pictures for my own Instagram feed, and maybe have a bite to eat.

But at 95 degrees, with 77% humidity, no shade in sight, and still a bit weak from my illness, I knew I wouldn’t make it up the 600 exhausting steps to town. I saw the long line for the cable car ride and made my way to the front to ask the people next in line how long they had waited: nearly two hours. Even if I could endure that long wait, with four other ships in port that day, the line to get back down would also be two hours or more. Knowing that would leave me with maybe an hour or two at most up top, I laughed and accepted defeat. For some reason, Santorini was still not meant to be.

Over the years, I’ve learned to read the signs from the travel gods: when plans aren’t working out, and everything feels like an uphill battle, it’s time to course correct.

I took the next tender back to the ship and rebooked my missed spa treatment for an hour later—I had the whole place to myself, because every other guest was living my dream life ashore. And from the spa’s Thermal Suite, where I relaxed on an ergonomic lounger covered in heated mosaic tiles in my post-massage haze, I glanced out the floor-to-ceiling windows onto the cliffs of Santorini. There they were, taunting me, just out of reach. But my, were they glorious.

mickeymcbride1037 October 27, 2023

'Gotta hand it to you Ms. Schildhouse--

Your honesty and professional reflections have restored my faith in travel related journalism.

For once, although this article was "about your experience; it wasn't about you.  It was about the circumstances and components and processes in place to protect you, ensure others on the cruise as well as the dilligence and consideration shown by the cruise line and more importantly--the consideration for you well being shown by those who are aware of your condition.

I sincerely hope that others in the "reflecto-my-opine,hot-take, glib, 'blog-o-rant o'sphere" study this and follow your lead.