Ocean cruises in North America are under a No Sail Order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as health and safety protocols are being revamped to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections at sea. The date when cruising can resume still remains uncertain. But border closures and other pandemic restrictions have spurred a new niche—the virtual cruise.
Last weekend, we set sail on a rather unique cruise from the safety of our home. We didn’t have to worry about wearing masks, keeping social distance from fellow passengers, sanitizing our hands each time we entered the dining room, or wiping down the high-touch surfaces in our cabin with antibacterial wipes. We didn’t even have to worry about packing our bags.
Setting sail on our virtual cruise
We were invited on a themed mystery voyage (a virtual cruise) aboard the SS Ranchi, a historic ocean liner operated by the venerable P&O Steamship Navigation Company. (Well, actually the invitation came from Red Herring Games, a bespoke UK event planning company.)
Before the virtual cruise weekend was to start, a box arrived at our doorstep with all the typical embarkation paraphernalia cruise lovers welcome receiving before a voyage: boarding passes, luggage tags, a deck plan, itinerary and more.
But this box was sealed with bright red tape because it contained some of the evidence we would need to solve a vexing murder mystery, It also contained interesting snacks from across the pond to complement the self-service meals we would be eating at home.
The itinerary for the voyage
Conducted over Zoom (isn’t everything these days?), the themed mystery cruise extended over the course of a Saturday and Sunday. Although we didn’t stop at any ports, our days at sea were chock full of many activities veteran cruisers have come to enjoy onboard. There was a mix of fellow passengers from the U.S. and the U.K. onboard with us; we learned later that there were actually 97 booked passengers for this cruise (not counting the many “double occupancy” and “family cabins” behind computer screens)—in addition to the 10 “suspects” among us.
One of the real joys of cruising is meeting fellow passengers and crew. Similar to real cruises, some on our virtual cruise came as couples, some as groups of family or friends, and some as solo cruisers. In this case, their own homes were their virtual “cabins.”
Passengers could opt to attend as many enrichment activities as we wanted—in the unlikely event we couldn’t spend the entire weekend on the cruise (although the pandemic offers far fewer distractions than usual). The company did a wonderful job, too, in creating virtual backgrounds that recreated the ambiance of an ocean liner.
Some of the highlights of the virtual voyage included:
- An art workshop with Marie Jones, a talented and enthusiastic teacher who was as skilled at engaging her audience as she was in teaching technique. Her goal: To dispel fears of the blank page for guests and convince everyone that they have a hidden talent for drawing. Surrounded by her own artwork in the background, we felt as if we were really in her studio. She even challenged us to continue discovering our talents after the virtual cruise.
- A one-hour onboard cooking class with chef Ruchita Green. The chef, who ordinarily offers private cooking experiences on land, provided a hands-on demonstration on how to prepare a traditional Indian meal. Recipe cards with ingredient lists for Vegetable or Chicken Kolhapuri were provided to guests before boarding so we could cook alongside her in our home kitchens. (It was fun having a voyeuristic sneak peek into other passengers’ home kitchens via Zoom.) The chef made an awesome curry based on her family recipe and the camera even allowed you to see the smoke coming up from her pot.
- Three published crime writers spoke about the craft and business of mystery and crime writing during an interactive Writers’ Panel. Avid mystery readers were able to “meet the authors” of books they had read and ask them questions. The UK writers included Fiona Veitch Smith, Martin Edwards and Chris Curran.
- And, of course, no cruise would be complete without convivial cocktail hours. The schedule included two free-mingling cocktail hours to meet other guests. In addition, the onboard mixologist demonstrated how to make the ship’s signature drink, a Ranchi, made with Bombay Gin. Of course, those who preferred could opt for any wine or spirits from their home bars. Some of our fellow passengers even dressed up in cocktail attire before for dinner!
You might want to try the Ranchi yourself!
- 25 ml Bombay Sapphire
- 20 ml Campari
- 3 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters
- 25 ml Lime Juice
- 25 ml Sugar Syrup
- 75 ml Fever-Tree Tonic
- Put an old-fashioned glass in the fridge at least 30 minutes before making or fill with ice water to cool the glass before you make the drink.
- Roll your lime on a hard surface to break up the cells inside and extract more juice.
- Carefully cut the lime, juice it and put the juice aside.
- Measure out the ingredients, other than the tonic, and put in shaker.
- Add ice, preferably deep frozen, and shake for 10 seconds.
- Use your Hawthorne (strainer) or sieve to filter out any pulp or ice crystals
- Fill your old-fashioned glass with ice.
- Top up with tonic and garnish with a slice of dehydrated orange with clove.
Make sure to chill your tonic in the fridge!
Adding to the fun, there were also table quizzes and a virtual escape room.
The unsolved mystery
However, the heart of the cruise was the murder mystery event that extended over both days of the weekend. The evidence box included various clues in the form of notes, photographs, passenger lists, communications from police officials, news reports, coded messages and brief bios of the ten suspects.
Passengers were divided into small groups and invited to question the suspects. There were even some surprise emails with other clues. The solution wasn’t provided until 9PM on Sunday evening.
Behind the scenes
We were floored by the professionalism of the crew we met onboard so we asked more about them. Everything about the virtual cruise was exceedingly well-organized and well-rehearsed beforehand to ensure that the two day voyage ran as smoothly as a real cruise, from stem to stern.
Before the pandemic, Red Herring largely ran corporate or private group events but lockdown led to a slew of cancellations and postponements. “The moment we saw the ‘writing on the wall’ and realized that video conferencing was the only way people were going to be able to meet, we revised all our plans and repositioned our entire company to assist with virtual events,” says Jo Smedley, Red Herring managing director.
The company was especially nimble at pivoting because they had an inventory of dinner party games already online that they were able to repackage for virtual events. They also were able to draw upon their bank of talented freelance actors as virtual crew and suspect passengers.
If you want a virtual escape from lockdown or want to gift one to a friend for a special occasion, check out the Red Herring website. The virtual cruise is eminently affordable at about $56 USD. We really enjoyed the experience.
Disclosure: Our cruise was hosted by Red Herring but any opinions expressed in this post are our own. We had a fabulous voyage!
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