Sun, sea, Champagne - and sanitiser

Sea Princess glides into Otago Harbour on an earlier visit to Dunedin. PHOTO: GERARD O'BRIEN
Sea Princess glides into Otago Harbour on an earlier visit to Dunedin. PHOTO: GERARD O'BRIEN
Hearing the words norovirus and gastroenteritis on day two of an 11-day cruise is not want you want or need. Business editor Dene Mackenzie found himself in that situation on a cruise last year from Brisbane to Vanuatu and Noumea, and back to Brisbane.

Sailing down the Brisbane River at dusk and drinking Champagne, we had no hint of what was ahead for a cruise on Sun Princess to Vanuatu and Noumea.

Although, to be fair, the words norovirus and gastroenteritis were in the back of my mind because of recent publicity at home, and my sponge bag contained medication to stop upset stomachs.

But what was the worst that could happen, I asked my friend Dave Rawson, accompanying me on my trip.

As we went up for our first meal, we walked past hand sanitisers separating the cruise passengers from the food. However, you do watch people ahead of you not being careful with how they plonk the food on their plates. After all, it is the first meal and seeing rows and rows of gorgeous-looking food in front of you is a major temptation.

We shared a meal with a couple who were retired teachers and union officials who had spent most of their careers teaching in sole-charge two-teacher schools in Australia's outback.

Nothing to worry about, they assured us when I asked whether they had ever got sick. (You can see at this early stage, I was worried.)

A couple of glasses of wine later, we wandered out to see the outdoor movie, having to wrap up in a ship-supplied rug, as it was chilly.

The next morning dawned sunny and warm as we went for a walk around the ship before hitting the extensive breakfast offering. Despite some in front of us complaining because their favourite item was not there - these people are serious cruisers, having the cards to prove it - breakfast was a delight.

Lying out on the deck later, having drinks brought to us as we read and dozed, life seemed pretty relaxed and exactly what was planned.

The reason for this article is because about 200 people became ill on sister ship Sea Princess, which docked in Brisbane last Thursday after completing a two-week round trip between Australia and New Zealand, the ABC reported.

Sea Princess, which can carry more than 2000 passengers, is scheduled to visit Dunedin today.

When we were told of the outbreak of norovirus, it was not played up at any stage. Groups of passengers had disembarked in Lugenville for a day of exploring. Some passengers had complained of temperatures and had, at the last minute, decided to stay on board. To be fair, temperatures at Lugenville were hot and not what we were used to at home in Dunedin's winter.

That night, there was no update on norovirus issued by the captain but there was a subtle shift in procedure. Three days after the initial warning of norovirus, this passenger was expecting a more informative update. Rumour had more than 100 people of about 2000 confined to their rooms, including the people next to us, it seemed. I could not get this confirmed from any staff.

Suddenly, at dinner, there was no longer the ability to pile your plate up high with food. Instead, you pointed and the wait staff provided your food. In fact, that was a welcome change, as immediately you started eating less.

The library was removed of books and the games room, where people played bridge and other card games, was closed. Surfaces around the ship were being constantly sprayed and wiped.

Continuing to think Dave and I would get sick, I started drinking a lot more - both water and cocktails, on the basis of prevention is better than the cure.

I even took a risk by having prunes and baked beans for breakfast.

At this stage, Dave and I caught up with an Australian couple, John and Mavis, who preferred to eat in the downstairs restaurants. We joined them for a few lunches and coffees in the atrium, still feeling healthy despite others seemingly dropping before our eyes.

The criticism I have of the ship's crew at this stage is although the cabins were being cleaned thoroughly and the doors and handles of the cabins along the ship were being sanitised, we were not being given much information.

The lovely guy who cleaned our room seemed to be working non-stop, wiping down everything with sanitiser. Staff everywhere were making the special effort to keep norovirus at bay.

The fact of having pools to yourself for an afternoon swim, not having to queue so long for a drink or a meal suggested people were confined to barracks or were being extremely careful. More meals were being delivered to rooms.

Two days later, the dining rooms were near empty at 7pm. The popular Riviera Bar was serving five people and only a handful were outside watching the top-of-the-table AFL game on the large outdoor screen.

We continued to get notes in our room about washing hands thoroughly and taking care to not use public facilities, unless it was urgent.

Several on-board activities were curtailed. The choir in which I was singing was hit by illness defections but we still got to sing on the last day at sea.

During the cruise, we had had only one meal on our balcony, a champagne breakfast that sounded nice in the reading and was outstanding in the delivery. The rest of the time both Dave and I went to the restaurants. No need to book; there were always tables available.

We decided to be in the group leaving last because we had nothing to do except go into Brisbane after we had docked.

The one thing I did expect to see in Brisbane was medical teams to test us as we came off. There was a team, but they were there to meet an elderly man who had had a medical incident the previous evening. He was taken off by ambulance staff, his family in attendance.

The rest of us just wandered off, got our bags, showed our passports and moved out into the city.

As we waited for taxis, rows of new passengers were waiting to board. I did mention to Dave, I thought there would have been medical staff and perhaps sanitising staff around to ensure no further sickness.

Two days later, enjoying a coffee made by a young man from Mosgiel who was waiting to move to Melbourne, I read of the ship in which we travelled being in the midst of another norovirus outbreak. This time, it was more serious. When the ship returned to port, I was told staff were not given their leave and others were brought in to sanitise the ship from top to bottom.

For two guys who seem to get colds or worse every New Zealand winter, surviving a norovirus cruise seemed easy.

Our newfound friends John and Mavis are due in Dunedin on January 26 on Sea Princess, the ship sanitised in Brisbane. Here's hoping we can catch up with them in top health in Port Chalmers.

Dene Mackenzie paid his own way on Sun Princess and all land-based excursions. But he accepted an upgrade offer to a balcony room.

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