This was supposed to be a story about a Washington woman who found herself on a 131-day world cruise amid the coronavirus pandemic, and who not only lived to tell the tale, but cherished every second of it.
However, after her ship was denied entry at several ports and the itinerary shifted several times, Lana Mountford’s cruise was canceled on March 17, and she disembarked the Regent Seven Seas Mariner in Fremantle, Australia, feeling beyond disappointed. Only 55 days into what was supposed to be a 131-day world tour, Mountford had to head home to Bellingham.
Mountford, 68, saved for several decades to realize her dream of traveling the world, and this cruise would have checked off multiple destinations on the bucket list she started 61 years ago at age 7.
So when her world cruise came to a premature end, Mountford was devastated and afraid of what it would mean for her to return to Washington, where, due to her age and her health, she’s among the most vulnerable in a state that was an early epicenter of the novel coronavirus in the United States.
“For the first time since I started this, I’m frightened.” Mountford wrote in an email to The Seattle Times while still at sea. “I’m leaving a safe comfortable environment and returning to [Washington] state via at least three airports (probably more), multiple shuttles, etc.”
But now, home in Bellingham, Mountford is already hopeful about continuing her travels when it is once again safe to do so.
So even though this was supposed to be a story about a woman who rode out the coronavirus pandemic aboard a cruise ship, it’s turned into a tale of one woman’s undaunted optimism and determination to live her dreams even in a time of fear and uncertainty.
From childhood dream to worldwide cruising
As a 7-year-old in Kansas City, Missouri, Mountford read a book called “Children of the Northlights” that was set in Lapland and discovered that there were people in other places whose lives were vastly different from her own.
That day, she started a list of “places to see before I die” and Lapland, the region that spans across Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia, became the first destination on it.
As Mountford learned more about the world, she added more places to the list. Now, six decades after she started it, Mountford’s list bears 88 countries. After decades of saving money, Mountford has managed to check off 22 of those places.
With some mobility issues from osteoarthritis and balance issues from a brain surgery to remove a tumor, Mountford has found that cruises are the best way for her to travel.
“It was that [brain] surgery that prompted me to get serious about travel,” said Mountford. “It took 15 months to recover from that and then another year to try to figure out how I could travel while still having those issues.”
She took her first cruise in September 2017 at age 65. Having also previously completed a 65-day cruise, Mountford was no stranger to long days at sea before she boarded the Regent Seven Seas Mariner for her world cruise, but she couldn’t have predicted just how unique this trip would be.
Her ship left San Francisco on Jan. 24, three days after the U.S.’ first confirmed case of COVID-19 was found in Washington.
By Feb. 1, just a week into Mountford’s world cruise, a man who had disembarked the Diamond Princess cruise ship tested positive for COVID-19 and the ship’s passengers were quarantined. The Princess became the harbinger of bad news for the cruise industry as more passengers tested positive, numerous people died and several other cruise ships began to see infections on board.
The day after the news about the Princess, Regent Seven Seas Mariner crew members slid a letter under every passenger’s door, introducing new best practices for the safety of those aboard, including mandatory quarantines for anyone with cold symptoms. A couple of weeks later, Mountford came down with a poorly timed case of strep throat.
She quarantined herself in her cabin until she was better, but by then, the coronavirus was spreading rapidly all over the world. After the ship was denied entry at several ports, and on the same day that the World Health Organization announced the Diamond Princess cruise ship had accounted for half the cases of COVID-19 outside of China, the Regent Mariner’s captain canceled the Southeast Asia segment of the cruise and a new itinerary was set.
Mountford took everything in stride — her illness, the canceled segment, the itinerary changes.
“I’m having a great time — quite an adventure under the circumstances,” she wrote in an email while at sea before docking in Geelong, Australia. “I travel solo, and this is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trip for me, so I’m determined to enjoy the heck out of it, no matter what.”
On board, Mountford tried to live in the moment, enjoying the shows and food and capping off most of her nights with a glass of her signature Baileys on the rocks. At the ports, she sometimes remained on the ship, taking photos from the balcony and simply enjoying being “away,” even if she never set foot on shore.
Then, the outbreak officially became a pandemic and the Regent Seven Seas Mariner’s itinerary changed daily as ports became wary of cruise ships docking at their harbors. Mountford’s friends began to worry about her well-being, but Mountford stayed upbeat, determined to enjoy her cruise around the world regardless of the route taken. She said the Mariner’s staff ensured its passengers were well looked after, and she felt safer aboard the ship than she would have in Washington.
“We ran out of grapes and bananas at one point. …but we don’t seem to run out of wine,” she said. “They’re keeping us happy and healthy and well-fed.”
Dreaming of Lapland from quarantine
Now back in Bellingham, Mountford is in quarantine, recovering from jet lag and the stress of flying through three airports to get home. Even though she’s disappointed the cruise was canceled, she’s already reverted back to her characteristically high spirits.
“I have to make my own coffee now; that’s kind of a bummer,” she joked. “I’m disappointed, but, God, other people are destitute. I feel very, very lucky.”
To occupy the time, she’s resumed her precruise hobbies — composing music, needlework, pottery and serving as treasurer of her homeowners association.
Allison Rice, one of Mountford’s oldest friends, describes Mountford as “a force.”
“She’s the kind of person you don’t look twice at when you see them,” Rice said. “[But] she’s an interesting character even if she wasn’t on a world tour.”
Before she began checking off the bucket list she’d been curating for decades, Mountford was a tech worker at Amazon, which hardly sets her apart in Seattle. However, after she had her fill of technology, she went back to college in her 50s to study choral directing.
“She’s definitely been a mentor to me and an inspiration as someone who’s achieved a lot in the later part of her life,” said Rice.
And Mountford is far from done. Her bucket list still beckons.
She has plans for a 68-day cruise in October that will take her to the Amazon. If that gets canceled due to the pandemic, she’s holding out hope for a May 2021 cruise billed as the “Grand Arctic Adventure” that will finally bring her to Lapland, the place that first ignited her drive to see the world.
Mountford’s even looking forward to a cruise in 2022 that would make up for some of the stops she missed this time around.
Meanwhile, her disappointment about the canceled world cruise has already subsided.
“What’s to complain about?” she said. “I had great food, I had great service, I was on a ship. It was lovely.”
This story was updated to correct the date the cruise was canceled, which was incorrectly stated as March 19. The cruise was canceled on March 17.