October 31, 2020

One couple tells their story being aboard the Westerdam

Author Stephen Blake just arrived back in Canada with his wife Susan posing with Holland America Line President Orlando Ashford after their ‘adventure’ aboard the Westerdam. Here is their story of 14 days at sea.

By Stephen Blake

We finally arrived home safe and sound after wondering if we were ever going to find a port to take us! It was quite the journey and a great adventure. We must say that Holland America treated all of us on the Westerdam royally and we have no complaints. In fact, we have a lot of praise for the way they handled the situation.

We started our trip in Hong Kong on January 27. All went well, even though we knew that the coronavirus (Corvid-19) was making the rounds in China. For that reason, we decided to pass on the side-trip to Macau and just stayed in Hong Kong. Almost everybody was wearing a mask, so we decided to do the same. There were line-ups for masks in front of drug stores that stretched for blocks. Most stores were sold out. At that time there were only one or two cases of Corvid-19 reported in Hong Kong. We spent our four days touring and joined the Westerdam on February 1st.

We filled out a health form to get on the ship. One of the criteria was that we could not have been in China in the last 14 days. We heard over 300 people in China who planned to take the trip were informed that they would not be allowed to go. Another group of people who don’t live in China, but who had traveled there, were also denied boarding. We ended up with only 1450 passengers down from a 1950 possible capacity. The ship had originally been sold out.

We sailed away with our first destination of Manila, Philippines. An immigration official from the Philippines was on the ship testing passengers with a heat-sensing camera. The whole ship’s contingent was paraded past the camera to ensure we had no sick people. On the next day at sea, the Captain came on the speaker and said he was very sorry but the President of the Philippines has denied us entry. They decided that no ship, which had visited China, Hong Kong or Macau, would be allowed into the Philippines. We were disappointed but a new port was put on our trip to make up for losing Manila.

At the same time, the Captain told us that we would not be ending our cruise in Shanghai. We would now end in Narita, Japan. A new itinerary was given to us. We were to land the next day in Hualien on the east coast of Taiwan. As we approached Taiwan, Hualien pulled its permission. We diverted to our next port and were to do an overnight stay giving us two days in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Great!

We arrived in Kaohsiung and were screened again when we left the ship. We had a great day travelling out to Lotus Lake and visiting a number of temples. We returned to the city and explored around and visited a market. It was very easy to use the underground so we traveled on our own. While we were having dinner back on the ship, the Captain told us that the Taiwanese had pulled their permission for us to be there. We were to stay the next day but forbidden to leave the ship. They allowed us to do our fuel bunkering and then we had to leave. The crew scrambled to change the ports again because we were not permitted to land at Keelung, where we were to overnight and visit Taipei.

It was off to Japan. Before we arrived at our first port, the Japanese pulled our permission to land at any ports in Japan. That also affected where we would end our cruise. At this time we were informed that the cruise was cancelled and we would head for a port where we could disembark. Holland America was very good and gave everyone a full refund on the cruise plus gave us future cruise credits equal to the amount we paid for the cruise. Susan and I like the sea days and the crew filled the activities with historical lectures, entertainment and lots of food! They also gave everyone free Internet and phone calls home. Free drinks were served one evening and wine was served with our dinners. Shipboard life was great and most passengers were quite content.

We were told we were heading in a southwest direction and that there were two ports that were willing to take us. The head office in Seattle, along with the ship’s crew, were working on which port would be best for us to connect with flights home. Even though it was reported in the news, based on some passenger’s comments, we were never told we were on the way to Guam. We were finally told that we would be going to Laem Chabang in Thailand for flights home from Bangkok.

As we arrived in Laem Chabang, we were told that we would not be allowed to berth at the dock but would have to anchor off an island until health authorities could come on and check everyone. We were given a warship escort to make sure we adhered to their demands. Before we arrived to our anchorage, we were told that permission was pulled and Thailand would no longer allow the Westerdam to land or anchor. Out to sea we went again!

Westerdam docked in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

The next day, we heard that we were sailing for Sihanoukville, Cambodia and we would fly home from Phnom Penh. We arrived on Thursday, February 13th and waited for information on when we would be leaving the ship and our travel arrangements home. We originally had our own flights booked but since they were from Shanghai and later changed to Narita, they were of little value.

Holland America told everyone that they would pick up the cost of flying us all home. We would go by chartered planes to Phnom Penh and then connect to our other flights. The Captain woke us up at 6:00 am to tell us that the Prime Minister of Cambodia was coming to visit us at 7:00 am and to greet the first lot of passengers leaving the ship. We were all to go to the decks to cheer him and wave the scarves that the Prime Minister had generously delivered to all the passengers the night before. Fortunately, our balcony suite faced the dockside so we just went out on our balcony to watch and wave.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (center holding flowers) visits Westerdam.

The media were gathered on the dock along with air traffic control and police. At the appointed time, two helicopters flew in and landed beside us on the dock. The Prime Minister came out and shook hands and presented flowers to the first group of 140 passengers leaving for the airport. He gave a speech in Cambodian, which was not understood by anyone except the Cambodians. Rough translation was that he welcomed us and said there was nothing to fear because none of us were sick. The first group arrived in Kuala Lumpur and were screened again. One elderly American woman had an elevated temperature and was taken to hospital along with her husband, who had come down with pneumonia. She supposedly tested positive for Covid-19 and the game changed again! Susan and I were to fly to Phnom Penh in the second wave on Saturday. We were given another temperature check as we left the ship. The Deputy Governor of Sihanoukville came aboard our bus to wish us well and safe journey home.

We were no longer permitted to fly through Kuala Lumpur. We were allowed to fly to Phnom Penh where we were taken by bus to the Sokha Hotel, a 5-star palace across the river from the city. We were given rooms and told we would get our flight departure information the next day. Now, because of the one lady who was sick, we had to get retested for the virus. We had already been thermo-tested about 8 times. This time we were getting the full treatment. We lined up for nose and throat swabs and our tests were sent off to a lab for testing. Amazingly, they were only able to test about 60 percent of the people on Saturday. We wouldn’t get our results until the next day and no homeward flights could be booked until the results were back.

On Monday, we were given a tour of the city from the Mayor of Phnom Penh. Buses were brought to the hotel and we loaded on. The Mayor came on each bus and wished us good luck and safe travels. We expected to fly home on Monday, the next day. Just before we left on our police escorted bus tour, we were informed that the President of Holland America had flown in and was giving us a cocktail party at 6:00. The Cambodian police and army stopped all the traffic and cleared the streets so our bus entourage could drive unimpeded through the city. We were really treated royally.

We got back to the hotel and changed for the party. As we were preparing, we got a phone call telling us our test results were negative and we would be flying out that night. We were to be ready to leave at 7:30 to the airport. I got the details of our flights, went online and selected our seats. We would fly to Narita, Los Angeles and then to Vancouver. Flights home were good, but it was a long day.

On arrival in Vancouver Tuesday morning, everyone on the airplane got up, collected their bags and was waiting to leave. Over the speaker, we were all told to sit down again. In came two ambulance paramedics and two Canada Customs agents wearing masks. I said to Susan that they were coming for us. They were! They asked some general health questions and took our temperatures. All eyes in the airplane were on us! Our temperatures were good so the Customs officers took us off. The two passengers across the aisle from us had done a trip from Vancouver to LA and back and weren’t feeling well. The ambulance attendants took them off and two other Customs officers escorted them out. Our Customs pair had us fill out a health questionnaire with contact information. We were told to keep the pens they gave us because they didn’t want to touch them after we had! We were told to drop our forms in envelopes they held open so they wouldn’t have to touch them. Too funny! We were taken through the terminal, by-passed all the normal lines, and led into the secondary area. The Customs officers collected our bags and took us out a side door. They said good-bye and we were on our way home.

That is the gist of our trip and hope you get an appreciation for the adventure we had. It turned out to be a great 4-day Hong Kong stay, 13-sea day and one port free cruise, and a grand three-day stay in a 5-star hotel. We cannot praise Holland America enough for the way they handled this situation that evolved as we travelled. They could not have made any better decisions with the information available. We are very happy with the way things turned out.

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