Travel in the age of COVID

The COVID-19 Realities of Traveling to Greece in August 2020

You’re going to Greece? In times like these? Is that safe? Is it allowed? “Is it fair?” Some of the comments I received from various colleagues when I disclosed my guilty secret. Isn’t that a terrible shame that a choice to embark on a dream anniversary trip to the Greek isles ( at a time when crowds and prices are low) is undertaken sheepishly, almost ashamedly, and met with judgement and disapproval.  Kind of like if we found a way to go shopping on a Sunday, or drank alcohol in west Toronto on the south side of Bloor street in the old Presbyterian days. A moral sin and ungodly act…

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In reality, our choice was not sinful, unsafe or illegal. Although International travel is still banned for Americans, many European countries like Greece have opened their doors to both Europeans and Canadians. While the Europeans with their big families, designer bikinis and fancy beach floats were most happy to soak in the storied, salty waters of the Aegean, abiding by various new safety precautions, few Canadians were seizing the opportunity when we were there. “You are probably the only Canadians on Naxos this year”, one of our hosts told us smilingly.

If one has faith and puts credence in the current health guidelines by our government, there are measures everyone is obliged to take to travel responsibly and safely in the COVID-19 era – without putting themselves or vulnerable others at risk. We certainly had to abide by them. On our vacation, these protocols were hardly inhibiting or repressive. The worst would be on the return with a forced two-week isolation at home in Canada. But really, not so bad for work-from-home writers like me – or my husband who had extra time off and looked forward to time in the garden!  

What were those COVID-19 guidelines – and how did they manifest during our flight, transfers and 12 days on Mykonos, Naxos and Santorini? Well, let me show and tell you, first-hand.

Mask wearing – and empty airports in Toronto and Zurich

Our stylish burgundy and grey cotton masks went firmly on our face from the moment we entered Pearson… a bit of a ghost town on August 3, 2020. As our Toronto Athens Air Canada flight had been cancelled that date, our plan was to fly the Toronto Zurich route on Air Canada – with a Olympic air transfer to Mykonos from Athens. Although our ultimate destination was Naxos for a week, we thought a night in glamorous Mykonos might be nice after a long flight.

 

We were told at check in to immediately scan a QR code, as Greece was demanding a form filled out online detailing our travel plans for the purpose of contact tracing. Information about who we were and where we were staying (and declarations that we were indeed in good health) needed to be received by the Greek government 24 hours before arrival in the country. I was just under the wire (maybe 20 hours) downloading the QR, filling the form and sending while standing at the bag check-in counter. The form I submitted was immediately confirmed by return email – giving me a code I would have to display on my phone upon arrival in Greece. 

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One quick temperature check and a few health questions — and we passed security. With absolutely no crowds, it was quicker than ever before!

Interestingly, at the gate waiting for the flight from Toronto, (also very empty) mask wearing was not as strictly enforced. After all, people were having coffee, drinks or snacks from one of the two restaurants left open (no Starbucks or ‘Timmy’s’ at the Europe gates open during COVID times). And it is kind of impossible to sip or munch with masks on.

I particularly missed the La Mer and La Prairie face cream sampling in the duty-free store, a necessary casualty of COVID times. Thank goodness one can still safely spritz a little fancy perfume

On COVID-era plane travel: Business class to Zurich

We were terribly lucky on three counts. Firstly, because my husband Francois works for Air Canada, we fly standby for very little. His C1 pass allowed us spots in business class for the long overseas flight – not always possible with so many airline staff competing for these limited seats, and economy passengers often purchasing upgrades. Business class seats, most importantly, meant lots of space to stretch out and achieve natural social distancing.  We were also lucky because they had just resumed full food and alcohol service in business class. We had a very good meal (although no choices) of eggplant pasta and smoked salmon salad with our choice of Prosecco or wine or both. No fancy brandies, whiskies, champagnes and ports on offer yet – but we are not big drinkers anyway. We were also lucky that our fine flight director, a lovely older man created a very welcoming ambiance onboard, despite the restrictions. The Olympic Air and Aegean air flights were similarly pleasant with appropriate safety messaging and mask protocol, but no overbearing attitudes. 

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Having said that, our trip home Athens to Toronto was very rigid and oppressive. Strict and unyielding mask rules and correct mask wearing protocols were in place. In addition to masks and shields, the stewardesses appeared to be wearing full plastic body covers over their uniform and surgical gloves – something we saw nowhere else. I was wondering if there would be complimentary gall bladder operations offered after the cheese and fruit plates? 

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Arrival in Greece

From empty Zurich and Toronto airport we arrived at bustling Athens International, teeming with tourists. Getting through customs, however, was surprisingly fast and easy. There were no 20 questions or big temperature check upon landing. As I mentioned, we had sent in the form to the government 24 hours (a little less than that for us) declaring we were in good health and where we were staying while in the country. A quick flash of the QR code confirmation, along with our passports and we were good to go, transferring easily to our Mykonos island flight.

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Greek safety precautions: restaurants, stores, beaches and attractions

At no point in our travel did we encounter a service staff member in Greece that did not abide by the mask rules. Every waiter, cab driver, store cashier, hotel receptionist, ticket agent, ferry ticket taker, bus and cab driver wore them. However, only in certain scenarios were tourists also obliged to wear masks. 

Mask wearing was mandatory for all service staff in:

·       Cabs, ferries (in dock and inside) and airplanes

·       Restaurants, cafes, bars and eateries  – inside and out

·       Beach bars and beach chair/umbrella ticket stands

·       Hotels, B&Bs and apartments

·       Museums and attractions

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                                                                 A carefully-masked art gallery owner in Naxos town

Mask wearing was mandatory for tourists:

·       Inside stores

·       Inside closed indoor museums and attractions

·       When entering and exiting ferries/ships

·       Inside the large inter-island ferries

·       On ports and when ships/catamarans, sail boats are docked at ports

 

                      At Mykonos port and inside ferry

Mask wearing was not mandatory for (nor practiced by) tourists:

·       In restaurants – inside or out

·       On outside deck of ferries

·       In hotels or lodging common areas

·       At outdoor attractions

·       At beaches

·       At sea on smaller cruising vessels or sailing ships

·       In streets, squares, outdoor sites or outdoor markets

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010A02F0-5347-43A3-82DD-7A65299DF08DParadise restaurant, Plaka Beach Naxos

For example, we had to wear masks inside the Temple of Demeter’s small museum on Naxos, but not outside at the ancient temple site. We had to wear masks entering the big Superjet Ferry to Naxos, and to Santorini – and sitting inside. But not out on the fresh air deck where you could watch the blue seas and great grey islands loom up on the horizon. We had to wear masks on Santorini buses  – but not in cabs.

              Masked inside site of Akrotiri, Santorini, Maskless outdoors at Temple of Demeter, NaxosOne silliness I perceived was a rather jammed cruise we took from Naxos to swim in Rena cave and visit the turquoise beaches of Koufonisia island. 60 people were packed on board like sardines. Strict mask protocols were in place upon entering the vessel, and in port, but once we cast anchor, it was masks off for everyone (including crew). Kind of hard to go cave swimming or snorkeling with those N95s anyway at the best of times. Really, the true problem here was not mask protocol, but the fact they allowed far too many people on board, for any time, let alone COVID time!EA40D960-5FC8-4E2D-895A-19D956FBEB37

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One older couple took no chances and, between bouts of furious cookie eating from their little snack bag, carefully kept their masks on through the cruise. They were the only ones I saw who did this.

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Hotel buffet breakfasts — a new approach

Yes, the buffet still exists at hotels, but generally it is a little pared down – and there are “no touch” and no self-service rules. Friendly service staff with their masks and visors serve each guest individually. Point to the dishes you like, and they fill your plate. No host did this with more warmth and generosity than Nicoletta, owner of The Grotta Hotel in Naxos Town – one of the best little hotels I have ever stayed at, overlooking the harbour and Portara. Her breakfasts, personally served to you, include that thick dreamy Greek yoghurt with fresh honey and nuts – and a choice of no less than 6 different flavours of home-made quiches and cheese pies… Not to mention fruits, cheeses, juices, deserts, capuccinos and cucumber, ginger and lemon water.

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                      Nicoletta and staff serve a delectable breakfast at the outstanding Grotta Hotel in Naxos

 Santorini – social distancing in semi-private pools

No spas or big swimming pools seemed to be in operation in summer 2020 Greece. However in Oia, Santorini, we were so fortunate to have booked (largely on travel miles) a phenomenal deluxe room cliff side at the Armeni Village with a semi-private small pool – at a price steeply discounted because of COVID. The rule in place was that no more than 2 people could be in the pool at Any time. This was not a problem, as it was not overly busy in our little cliff-side niche; the buff fellows from Switzerland seemed content to sunbathe while other couples came and dipped at different hours. So for the most part, it was ours when we wanted it. The pool was carefully cleaned each night after 8.   DE75850A-D86B-41B3-B2CA-3269429B96C0Pool at Armeni Village, Oia Santorini

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French, Italian and Greek Tourists Abound on the Greek Isles this August

Hora town on Naxos was bustling – especially after 11pm. People dining on fried scampi, sizzling souvlakis, plates of famous Naxos potatoes and delectable vanilla and pistachio gelatos. Stores were still open and shopping, whether for olive oil, ouzo, fresh honey, or some Cycladic statuary was a delight after dark. The warren of narrow cobbled streets were absolutely teeming with life and the spirit of celebration. Like being at a county fair on a Friday night.

In Oia Santorini, the same thing – times 10. Especially just before sunset. Fashionistas in their Prada and Armani whites strolled the marble pathways like a catwalk,  looking for the right cliffside view of the orange pink splendour to snap their selfies. The restaurants were packed, largely with French Italian and Greek tourists, celebrating with their families. Yes, many children were out having dinner, ice-creams and playing in the lively cobbled squares close to midnight. The concept of social distancing on the streets of Oia Santorini, especially at sunset hour, was completely and utterly un-heard of. It was hard to even move in the swelling crowds. Still, some shop owners shook their masked heads sighing, “ah well, hopefully next summer all the tourists will be back again”. Hard to believe that August in Santorini is usually even busier… swarms and swarms of crowds everywhere. So we were very lucky (and smart I think) to travel here this August, rather than any other.

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Our advice for anyone out there dangling on the precipice of booking travel in COVID times? Just do It – life is too darned short! At our little beach in Plaka, Naxos, we had a front row chair and umbrella on the sea. The islands were vibrant – but not oppressively touristed. Prices were way down. Enough safety procedures were in place to give any sensible traveler confidence that the right protocols were being respected and nothing was taken too casually. 

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Greece currently imposes no social distancing rules with goats

Travel right now, I believe, is especially vital for the soul. To be abroad makes you aware of the joy, exuberance and celebration still alive in the world. Here in Canada, we wake up each day to more of the panic porn, and endless media parade of doom and gloom news. Cautionary messages wherever we look, strategically planned to keep us uptight, small, on guard and afraid — unnecessarily. 

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View of Portara, Naxos at sunset

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I encountered no one coughing, sniffling or with visible symptoms of illness. No one fearful, sad and scared. Rather I encountered scores of jubilant families from across Europe enjoying life, sun and sand. Lovers embracing and kissing on whitewashed balconies dangling over the sea. French, Germans, Swiss and Italians soaking in the dazzling Greek light. And surely that epic and enduring light has the power to purify just about anything.

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