(CNN) — A "cruise to nowhere" feels like a fitting metaphor for Covid-era Hong Kong.
As with the city's previous failed attempts to re-establish international travel, it offers a facsimile of forward movement that ends up taking you right back to where you started.
While the possibility of traveling abroad is slowly returning to the US and Europe, movement in and out of Hong Kong -- once Asia's biggest international hub -- remains at a near-total halt. As the semi-autonomous region pursues a zero-Covid policy, repeated attempts to establish travel corridors with neighboring countries have been abandoned, and most incoming travelers face up to three weeks of self-funded hotel quarantine. Before the pandemic, Hong Kongers were among the world's most well-traveled people; now, many would-be holidaymakers favor staycations, as their passports gather dust at home.
The Genting Dream cruise ship was completed in 2016.
Marc Fernandes/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Dream Cruises has come up with a fitting alternative vacation option -- a voyage with no destination, taking passengers from and to Hong Kong by sailing in a big loop. Journeys last for either two or three nights, with cheaper sailing options midweek, and rooms range from a HK$1,688 balcony cabin (about $217 US) to a HK$23,838 suite (about $3,065 US) with access to a private deck and pool. Cruising may not be for everyone, but at a time when any other option would require quarantine, it seems a lot more attractive.
Boarding the Genting Dream -- a 335-meter-long vessel (almost 1,100 feet) that can normally hold more than 3,000 people -- was reminiscent of getting back on a plane, but with the additional health measures of much other travel in 2021. Ticket sales are capped at half-capacity; inside the cavernous Kai Tak cruise terminal, passengers were almost outnumbered by staff checking and re-checking travel documents and medical forms.
Life on board
A demonstration of the PCR COVID-19 testing facilities at the medical center on board the Genting Dream.
Lam Yik/Bloomberg/Getty Images
While the cruise industry hasn't necessarily had the best coronavirus track record, safety precautions on the Genting Dream ship are strict. All passengers must be fully vaccinated and produce a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours before departure, as well as undergoing pre-boarding checks and health declarations. And everyone on board gets a tracking device (cutely named Tracey) to monitor their whereabouts in the event of an infection.
But that formality subsided when embarking passengers were greeted by bubbly staff handing out balloon animals and posing for selfies.
Face masks were mandatory in public spaces, as they are in the rest of Hong Kong; but aside from that, guests cheerfully disregarded suggested social distancing measures while milling around by the swimming pool and exploring the labyrinthine corridors of the 18 decks, as dusk fell and the ship glided slowly out of Victoria Harbor.
I traveled with three friends, sharing two of the cheapest available cabins -- fairly spacious twin rooms with pull-out sofas, comfortable beds, an en suite shower and bathroom, and a private balcony overlooking the sea. At around 20 square meters, they weren't that much smaller than a lot of hotel rooms on dry land, and felt much more secluded, with the only noise being the sound of the waves outside.
For a vessel that's usually a vehicle to a different destination, rather than being the destination itself, the Genting Dream did a decent job of offering enough activities to keep its temporary residents -- mostly older adults, with a few families and children -- occupied throughout the cruise.
Booking for pool access was only casually enforced, and while the hot tubs were closed, sun loungers and sofas by the deck bars were freely available. For the more adventurous on board, there was a basketball court, a mini-golf course, a play area with activities for children and an arcade for teenagers, lethally fast water slides twisting down to the main deck, and a hair-raising ropes course with a zip wire jutting out over the open sea. But the most packed attraction was the below-deck casino, which offered slot machines, blackjack, giant bingo, and cabaret singers crooning love songs in Mandarin and Cantonese.
Not all of these facilities were open throughout the cruise -- but staff were attentive, helpful and pleasant, ready to open a closed-off rock climbing wall or pour drinks at one of the many bars that sat empty as guests packed out the dining rooms.
The pool on board the ship.
Two buffet-style restaurants were included in the ticket price, serving a mix of Asian and Western dishes. While paid-for restaurants were available, most people on board got their money's worth by piling their school dinner-style trays high with a mishmash of meals. Attempts at creating a party atmosphere were enthusiastic, but fruitless -- inside the ship's sole club, a DJ playing early '00s hip-hop gamely pumped dry ice onto an empty dance floor, while passengers had more fun at the adjoining neon bowling alley.
Broadly, the cruise atmosphere was one of decompression, and relief at experiencing something -- anything -- a bit different from regular life, where maintaining relative normality inside Hong Kong's borders has come at the expense of being able to easily move outside them.
The main deck of the Gentine Dream cruise ship, sailing from Hong Kong
Coming from one of the most densely populated cities in the world, it was oddly freeing to look out over the open water and see nothing but distant container ships, or watch the sun set below a skyscraper-free horizon. With no phone signal, and no particular need to do anything beyond sit on a balcony and stare at the stars, it was tempting to lean into the comfort of this sealed-off idyll. Far away beyond the skyline was disease, stress and uncertainty; on this unusual cruise, drinks flowed, people had fun, and life was good in a brief bubble of normality, floating in the endless blue of the South China Sea.