By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
Isolated from the numerous horror stories of cruise ships and coronavirus, Magnifica was the exception.
Yes, isolated. That is the word — and the reason the MSC Magnifica was able to roam several oceans for nearly three and a half months on an aborted round the world cruise while the COVID-19 pandemic spread globally, without any of the passengers or crew catching it.
When most ports were turning away cruise ships out of virus fears, the Magnifica spent the final 40 days of an unlikely odyssey in blissful isolation at sea.
For nearly 2,000 passengers and more than 900 crew, it was, in essence, a five-star quarantine and virtually the last carefree party on Earth, operating in a self-contained bubble, cloistered from COVID.
“It was one of the best places to be because you’re on the ship with everybody that you know doesn’t have a virus,” said Michael Woywod, who along with wife Cher were among the minority of Americans on the Italian ship.
Captain Leotta took stand for safety
As of May 2, 2020, more than 40 cruise ships had confirmed positive cases of coronavirus on board. Most notorious were the Ruby Princess, linked to 852 cases and 22 deaths, and the Diamond Princess, with 712 passengers and crew infected and 14 deaths.
Stories of what people endured on these and other cruise ships are harrowing. A Japanese health expert who visited the Diamond Princess at one port called the situation on board “completely chaotic.”
How was the Magnifica able to avoid a similar fate?
The Woywods attribute that to Captain Roberto Leotta declaring the world cruise over at Sydney, Australia, about midway through the planned 117-day voyage.
“No question about it — I’d stake my life on that had that captain not taken the responsibility and acted the way he did, knowing how disappointed people would be, there would have been somebody who would have caught the virus,” Michael Woywood said.
“He just said, ‘Look, I’m not going to take the risk. MSC is not going to take the risk. It’s my responsibility as the captain of the ship, and I’m sorry but the cruise has officially ended.’”
Coronavirus becomes a threat
The Magnifica had departed Genoa, Italy, on January 5 on a 35,000-mile route with 43 planned stops in 25 countries.
It was weeks before awareness of the pandemic crept into the idyllic routine of cruising and exploring exotic ports of call. As the ship proceeded through South America, French Polynesia, the Cook Islands and New Zealand, reports on CNN about the coronavirus became more worrisome.
By the time Magnifica reached Australia, stopping first at Tasmania, COVID-19 was a major concern. There were several cases on the island, and Captain Leotta decided to not let passengers go ashore.
Then came Sydney.
Imagine the impact of hearing that the plug was being pulled on your pricey trip of a lifetime — cost of the world cruise was $17,000 per person and up — and you’re a hemisphere away from home.
This was after Magnifica docked in Sydney Harbor, with the famed opera house a convenient backdrop for selfies. The Woywods had tickets to the opera for that night.
Dilemma: To stay or go home
But anyone who chose to leave the ship in Sydney would not be permitted back on board. The cruise line offered airfare home for any passengers who wanted to depart there or at the subsequent stop at Melbourne.
Everyone else was welcome to remain on board for the duration.
Several hundred disembarked, including most of the Americans who were concerned about getting back into the United States if they didn’t fly back then.
The Woywods, formerly of Seattle, now live full time in the Bavarian Alps, so they were headed to Europe, along with Michael’s cousin Stephan Woywod and wife Hannelore, who also live in Germany.
“For the 500 people who got off, I think they sort of panicked because at that point nobody knew where we were going to go,” Woywod said.
“Our thing was, why get off? We had a five-star ship, we had two pools, we had entertainment every night. We had a drink package, which means we had unlimited booze. We had a beautiful cabin with a balcony. And the weather was incredibly beautiful. Everything was great.”
Fake news spread like virus
The planned cruise was over, but the adventure was just beginning.
With it came drama and a world of uncertainty about when and where it would all end.
On the way to get provisions at the Western Australia port of Fremantle, Magnifica was deemed a pariah due to an erroneous report in Australian media that there were 250 passengers on board with upper respiratory illness.
In reality, that was just the log of routine visits to the onboard clinic during the cruise. Nobody on the ship had COVID-19.
“It was disappointing, first of all because it was fake news. It was wrong. And you can imagine, this news went all around the world immediately,” Captain Leotta told the BBC.
Sailing off to somewhere
Greeted by protesters, Magnifica remained offshore at Fremantle but got needed supplies and fuel.
Problem was, at that point Magnifica was still a ship without a destination on a cruise to Saint Somewhere.
It really was something out of a Margarita-addled Jimmy Buffett song.
And the situation changed from day to day as MSC sought a port to terminate the trip. Dubai said yes, then no. There was a brief stop at Sri Lanka, where an elderly woman with a medical emergency not related to coronavirus was evacuated; she later died. A crew member from Sri Lanka was also allowed to leave.
Meanwhile, every day was Groundhog Day on a 12,000-mile return trip spanning five weeks, including passage through the Suez Canal, finally ending April 20 at Marseille, France.
For the Woywods, the days passed quickly, starting with pilates in the morning. There were 10 award-winning chefs on board providing a variety of international cuisine, including the Woywods’ vegetarian and vegan preferences.
Each night there was a gala stage show — quite possibly the last place in the world with live theater still being performed.
The ship did run out of wine three days before reaching Marseille. So Prosecco was served as an alternative at dinner.
News reports were grim
Passengers on Magnifica were aware of the problems on other ships, Michael Woywod said. In one port they saw a ship flying a black flag indicating coronavirus cases onboard.
“It was all unreal. We would watch all this stuff unfold in America and Europe and all over the world on TV as the virus got worse and worse and worse,” Woywod said. “There were times when I was watching [news reports] we felt kind of guilty that this is all happening [throughout the world] and these people were having such a horrible time.
“Our children were our primary concern; their health and safety [in the U.S.].”
It was tense during passage off the coast of Somalia, known for pirate attacks on shipping. But throughout most of the trip back to the Mediterranean the ocean was tame and the mood chill on Magnifica. Bonds were formed among passengers and the length of the journey fostered insights into the cultural differences among the many nationalities onboard.
With French the largest segment of the demographic on Magnifica, it made sense to end at a French port, and Marseille was available. The Italian ship couldn’t have gotten into Italy, which was locked down.
Uncertain road home
Transport from Marseille to Germany created the most anxiety the Woywods experienced on the trip.
MSC provided buses to various destinations, but they were told that at Strasbourg they would have to walk across the bridge over the Rhine, toting all of their luggage, to catch another bus on the German side to take them to Munich .
As it turned out, German police provided an escort for the French bus to cross the river.
Another couple the Woywods befriended from South Africa took nearly a month getting home, twice forced into quarantine.
Cruise industry adrift
COVID-19 has been a debacle for the cruise industry and will be a challenge to overcome. A “No-Sail Order” issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remains in effect at least until July 24, and could be extended.
A lingering problem has been thousands of crew members stranded on numerous cruise ships and unable to return to their home countries long after passengers had disembarked. The U.S. Coast Guard reported that as of May 9 there were more than 70,000 crew remaining aboard idle cruise ships in U.S. waters alone.
As for the future of cruising, it is understandable that some people will shy away from what has been an incredibly popular travel choice — the cruise industry had flourished with 2,100 percent growth since 1970.
But several major cruise lines have already reported an encouraging stream of bookings for 2021 and 2022.
World cruise, take 2
MSC offered passengers on the world cruise a choice of 50 percent off any future cruise or a refund in cash of 35 percent of the cost of this trip.
The Woywods are already making plans to do the 2023 world cruise, which will follow a more northerly route and include many of the stops that were cut out this time.
MSC is offering that route on the 2021 world cruise, beginning January 5 on the Poesia, sister ship of Magnifica.
“Even though we missed 17 ports, we had so much fun in the ports we did go to and they were so exciting. It was just a great experience,” Michael Woywod said.
Among the unforgettable moments: Looking down at Rio de Janeiro from the vantage point of Christ the Redeemer statue; and stopping at Pitcairn Island where descendants of the Bounty mutineers came aboard to sell their wares.
They also ended up with a unique cruise experience to tell.
Added Cher Woywod, “In the end, we did go around the world.”