Travel agent Martin Sandland-Owens was among almost 1,000 guests aboard the first ship to sail out of UK waters in almost 14 months. Martin, a Personal Travel Concierge at The Holiday Village, sailed with husband Stan on MSC Virtuosa from Southampton on a four-night cruise. After all the anticipation, did it pass muster?

Martin Sandland-Owens

Checking in

We were given our room keys and a band each, which we were told had to be worn at all times for NHS Track and Trace. This also doubled as cabin key and was scanned by staff when you ordered drinks.  

They checked to make sure our insurance covered COVID, and that we had proof of our vaccinations. We had to have a COVID swab test done – we could do it ourselves or have it done by a member of the medical staff. It was a nervous wait. If the result had been negative, I would have cried.

Every passenger that booked was cleared to board.


The ship holds 6,334 at full capacity but only had around 970 passengers on this cruise (due to current UK COVID regulations). The bars and restaurants seemed busy enough, but there were times when it did seem quiet and a bit deserted. The weather wasn’t great at sailaway, so most people headed for the solarium. With its heated pool, Jacuzzis and a bar too, this was the busiest place throughout the cruise.

Our one port of call, Portland

We had a temperature check before disembarking. MSC has a rule where you have to be on an organised excursion or you can’t disembark. We heard a few people complaining but most guests were aware, as this was made clear by MSC before guests booked or got onboard. Passengers were warned not to venture away from the tour. If they did, they would not be allowed to embark the ship again.

The view from the cabin

Onboard checks

On return everyone had another temperature check. All these were carried out touch-free. These checks were also carried out every day at breakfast and dinner when entering the main dining rooms or buffet, although checks weren’t made when entering speciality restaurants.

What was different onboard

It was like a normal cruise, except masks had to be worn while moving around the ship. We were allowed to remove these once we sat down to eat or drink, or if we were socially distanced in outside areas.

The muster drill

We had to watch a video in our cabin and then call an automated service to let them know we’d completed it. Then we had to proceed to our muster station to have our key card scanned so we knew where to go in an emergency and that was it – muster completed. I really liked this as it saves the long muster drills of the past. A lot of cruise lines are choosing this and we think it should stay. 


Seats in the venues were distanced and audience capacity for shows was capped. Everyone got to see the shows as they were on a number of times on each day.

In the Virtuosa Lounge people were dancing but had to keep their masks on.

MSC Virtuosa, Indochine Restaurant


The restaurants were socially distanced and guests had a table for their own party. I thought it was nice touch that groups of single travellers were on tables together. There were no condiments on the tables. You had to ask and the waiters served them.

At the buffet, food was plated by staff, rather than guests helping themselves. This was nice and I think it avoids the situation where people sometimes waste food.

Out on deck


There are hand sanitisers everywhere and staff refused entry to venues, restaurants or shops until you used them. Everyone seemed to comply with this, as well as the one-way systems around the ship.

The staff wore masks all the time, and, whilst this didn’t bother us, we did realise how much you lip read without knowing. They also wore their Track and Trace bands.

Fellow passengers

There were a few families, and the kids’ clubs were running, but with lower restrictions on numbers and capacity. We met a lot of NHS workers onboard and quite a few said they felt safer onboard than they do going to shops and places at home.

We met a lot of avid cruisers who were delighted and excited to be finally able to cruise once more. We also met a number of new-to-cruise people who said they’d had a fabulous time and can’t wait to book again.


Apart from masks and the repeated messages reminding you of the rules, everything was as a normal cruise would be. My husband, who’s never been on a MSC cruise before, commented that he loved it, even with all the restrictions in place. He said he’d definitely cruise with MSC again and he can be quite fussy.

We also enjoyed cocktails made by Rob, the robotic bartender.