I was one of 1,248 passengers on Cunard's first cruise ship to leave the UK since January 2020.
The sold-out, five-night Western Europe cruise ported in Amsterdam for two days in October.
Owned by Carnival Cruise Line, Cunard is more formal than its American counterpart.
In October, I spent five days on board Cunard's Queen Elizabeth cruise ship. It sailed out of Southampton, England, on October 13.
In July 2021, my colleague Monica Humphries embarked on Carnival Cruise Line's first voyage to leave the US since the pandemic and documented the experience for Insider.
So when Cunard (the popular British cruise line owned by Carnival) followed suit and announced its return to international cruising, I couldn't wait to purchase a ticket.
The sold-out five-night Western Europe voyage on the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship ported in Amsterdam for two nights.
It not only marked the cruise line's first international voyage since January 2020, but it was also my first experience on a cruise.
One month before the cruise, I purchased my ticket. A standard inside stateroom cost £628, or around $856.
All passengers on the cruise were required to be double-vaccinated and the ship operated at 60% capacity, a spokesperson informed me via email.
The Queen Elizabeth cruise ship usually has a capacity for 2,081 passengers, according to the Cunard website, which means there were around 1,248 people on this voyage.
The various health checks required before boarding were a stark reminder of how much the travel industry has changed.
There was more paperwork than I had anticipated due to both Cunard and the UK government's COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Cunard asked passengers to fill out a health declaration form before boarding and to provide proof of their vaccination status.
I also had to fill out the UK Government's Passenger Locator Form with details of my vaccination status and my pre-booked PCR test upon my return to the UK.
When I arrived at Southampton port, I was directed to the COVID-19 testing center.
All guests were required to do a rapid antigen test at Southampton before embarkation.
My passport and vaccination letter were checked by two different staff members before I went into a private booth to do the test.
I didn't realize how nervous I was until one of the employees told me to have a nice cruise, and I replied: "You too!"
The rest of the check-in process went smoothly.
After the COVID test, I was directed to a waiting area where I stayed for around 20 minutes before I received a text message informing me of my negative result.
The rest of the check-in process went smoothly, and I was impressed by how thorough the staff were. For example, my passport was checked four times in total, and I had to complete a verbal health declaration despite already filling out the same form manually at home.
Then it was time to embark the ship.
The check-in terminal was connected to the Queen Elizabeth ship, so the embarkation process was short. After going through security checks, I was led down a narrow hallway which led me to the ship's entrance.
The first thing I saw — and heard — upon stepping onto the ship was live music.
Guests fluttered around the reception lounge, trying to figure out where their rooms were located as the cellist and violinists played calming music.
The reception staff left guests to find their rooms themselves.
I asked a member of staff what I was supposed to do next. They simply told me to "find your room," the number of which was printed on my boarding pass.
For someone who had never been on a cruise ship before, the lack of guidance I was given felt a little intimidating.
My 152-square-foot room was small but luxurious.
My room had a king-sized bed, a TV, a tea and coffee station, a mini-fridge, a desk, and two sets of drawers. There was also a telephone which you can use to order room service.
There was a complimentary bottle of Champagne and a bouquet of flowers in the room from Cunard's press team. (For full disclosure, Insider paid for the cruise ticket, per our reporting standards.)
My TV was already switched on when I arrived and was playing a safety instruction video.
The instruction video informed me where to locate my life jacket (the closet) and where to go if there was an emergency.
Just a few moments later, I met Bert, my steward, who instantly made me feel welcome. He showed me around the room and said he would be there to get anything I need throughout the voyage.
Then it was time to explore the ship.
The Queen Elizabeth ship is 964.5 feet long and has the capacity for 2,081 guests and 980 crew members, according to Cunard's website.
I felt a little overwhelmed, but I knew the only way to tackle it was to start exploring right away.
The ship has 12 decks, and luckily there were maps around to help me find my way.
There are maps of the ship posted by the elevators of each deck, however, I would have appreciated a paper copy to keep myself from getting lost. At one point, I accidentally stumbled into the staff kitchen.
I was surprised by how empty some parts of the ship felt on my first evening.
I decided to explore the Queen's Room on Deck 2, which had a seating area and a stage for evening performances. It was almost completely vacant of people.
As I explored other areas of the ship, I noticed more people in the bar and restaurant areas — but due to the ship's 60% capacity, these areas weren't as busy as they likely could have been before the pandemic.
Cunard is known as one of the most formal cruise lines, and it wasn't hard to see why.
Cunard is known as one of Britain's most formal cruise lines due to its traditional decor and smart dress code.
This might be a surprise to some, since the cruise line is owned by Carnival in the US.
But Cunard couldn't be more different from its American counterpart, according to the YouTuber and cruise expert Emma Cruises.
"Carnival is the spring break crowd, whereas Cunard is the afternoon tea crowd," she told me over the phone before I set sail.
I spotted various references to royalty on the ship.
Launched in 2010, the Queen Elizabeth is Cunard's newest luxury cruise ship.
The cruise line has been linked to royalty since 1934 when it named a ship after Queen Mary, according to its website.
The Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth II, and Princess Diana all visited Cunard ships over the years. Elizabeth II made history by traveling on the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1990, marking the first time a reigning monarch had sailed on a passenger ship operating a commercial voyage.
I found plenty of tributes to the royals, including portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.
As the ship prepared to depart Southampton, I was surprised by how many people relaxed into cruise life right away.
While exploring the ship, I encountered couples sitting on tables and looking out at the sunset, while others sat in the hot tub, and one man was even jogging. I imagine that these people must have been on the Queen Elizabeth ship at some point before and know the layout well.
I was thoroughly impressed with Cunard's health checks.
I found the thorough health checks impressive during the embarkation process and throughout my time on the ship.
Though I wasn't told what Cunard's mask-wearing policy was when I arrived on the ship, I decided to wear one anyway.
It was only when I left my room one day, having forgotten my mask, that Bert politely told me that I had "forgotten to protect myself."
I then learned that passengers were asked to wear masks in all public areas unless they were dining.
I was one of the youngest people on the ship, but thankfully not the only solo traveler.
At 25 years old, I was one of the youngest passengers on board. (I was later told by the Cunard press team that the average age of their guests is 61.)
But that didn't stop me from making friends. I met Janet Russell, 70, and Celia Steele, 78, at a solo traveler meet-up organized by Cunard the morning after we embarked on the ship.
We became fast friends, and the ladies referred to themselves as my "surrogate grandmothers."
I ended up spending a lot of my time with Russell and Steele, both on board the ship and when we ported in Amsterdam, as we had signed up for the same walking tour of the city.
After the tour, Russell joked that the other tourists probably thought that I was on vacation with my two grandmothers. She referred to herself and Steele as my "surrogate grandmothers."
There were a multitude of of activities on board, such as a free line dancing classes.
We learned a routine to Billy Ray Cyrus' "Achy Breaky Heart," which I will definitely be trying out again at home.
The instructor never specified whether we could or couldn't keep our masks on during the class, and I noticed some people chose to take theirs off.
In the evenings, a jazz band played and guests were invited to ballroom dance.
The Queens Room, which stood empty on my first night of the voyage, came alive on the nights that followed. Couples were invited to ballroom dance, something which I would have loved to have participated in if I had a dance partner with me.
I was later told by Cunard's entertainment director, Sally Sagoe, that Cunard's rules had recently changed to allow dancing, something that wasn't previously allowed due to the cruise line's former COVID restrictions.
There were two Gala Nights during the voyage, and the first was black-and-white themed.
The first Gala Night of the voyage took place on October 14. Guests were asked to dress in black tie wear. Like a lot of people on board, this was the first time I'd dressed up since the pandemic.
The night consisted of dinner at the Britannia — where I made friends with two lovely couples seated next to me — followed by a theatre performance.
The second Gala Night was 1920s themed.
The second Gala Night took place on October 16, and guests were asked to dress in 1920s attire. Similar to the first Gala Night, this evening involved dinner followed by a theatre performance and a visit to the Queens Room for dancing.
It was a truly spectacular night, and I was happy to see that most guests took part and followed the dress code.
There was a wide variety of food on board.
There were two restaurants to choose from, the Britannia restaurant and the Lido buffet.
On most nights I opted for a three-course meal at the Britannia restaurant, which was included in the price of the cruise. The food was excellent quality, and the servers always had good recommendations.
The Lido buffet restaurant also had its perks, including the stunning sea views.
Whenever I visited the Lido buffet, the servers kindly saved me a table by the window.
I was grateful to see that staff were responsible for serving food at the buffet — not the guests — in line with Cunard's new health protocols.
The Lido Buffet also offered afternoon tea each day.
The Lido buffet restaurant offered afternoon tea every day between 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. during my voyage.
Afternoon tea usually consists of finger sandwiches, scones, pastries, and cakes — all of which were served at the buffet.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my first cruise on the Queen Elizabeth, and wouldn't hesitate to book another cruise in the future.
I felt safe throughout the voyage, thanks to all guests being fully vaccinated as well as Cunard's mask-wearing policy.
Although I was a solo traveler, I never felt like one. Cunard's programme of daily activities — from line dancing to formal Gala Nights — kept me busy and made making friends easy. It's for this reason that I'll definitely consider booking another cruise in the near future.
Read the original article on Insider