In "Choose to Cruise: A Primer", we explored what cruises were all about and how to pick one. I promised that in this second installment I'd take you along on an actual cruise with me and my wife, Ute, from start to finish. My experience will show you what I liked, what obstacles I faced as a scooter user with myotonic muscular dystrophy, and how I handled them.
|A wheelchair-accessible cabin on the Millennium|
After shopping around we decided to take a seven-night western Caribbean cruise on board the new flagship of Celebrity Cruises, the Millennium. Our choice was based on several criteria. First of all Celebrity is the premium line of Royal Caribbean, one of the three lines I find particularly sensitive to the needs of travelers with disabilities.
Second, the Millennium is a brand new ship — her maiden voyage was in July of last year. Third, she's a big ship, carrying almost 2,000 guests and 1,000 crew members.
Fourth, she features 26 wheelchair-accessible cabins ranging in category from deluxe suites to outside cabins with and without verandas, to inside cabins. Fifth, she's one of the prettiest ships afloat with some unique features — like the largest spa at sea and an unusual specialty restaurant of historic interest. Our sailing date was Jan. 28, Super Bowl Sunday.
Sunday morning we made the 45-minute drive north from our home in Miami to the pier at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. We arrived around noon and, after parking our car at the terminal garage, we checked in.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were no lines or crowds milling around. That's unusual for a ship this size. Celebrity lets passengers start embarking early, even before their staterooms are ready, so everyone doesn't have to board at once.
The size of our cabin was a second pleasant surprise. The bathroom had a roll-in shower with a seat and room enough to turn my Amigo scooter around. Even better, our veranda was big enough for me to drive the scooter onto. Light switches had been lowered, and the closet bar swung out and lowered for easy access. There was closed-circuit TV with a remote control, and even a minibar.
When we'd booked the cruise I'd made two special requests — an extra mattress for one of the beds (to raise the height) and a raised toilet seat. Soon after we arrived, our room steward appeared, confirmed our order, and 30 minutes later had everything in place.
Having checked out the room, it was on to lunch, which was a buffet at the Ocean Grill. As soon as we approached the line a waiter stepped forward to take my tray so that my wife didn't need to handle it.
I know I'm on a cruise when there are more items on the buffet than I can possibly eat, and I want them all! I limited myself to freshly sliced turkey, some pasta and roasted vegetables, ignoring the pastries and ice cream.
|The author and his wife, Ute, on deck|
After lunch we explored the ship. The stories were true — this is absolutely one of the most gorgeous vessels afloat. No one design style prevails — she's what I would call modern European with a generous use of rich woods and elegant textiles.
One room I really liked was Notes, a musical library, where you could listen on headphones to any of more than 1,500 CDs.
The spa, which you enter through a glass-domed solarium, is the most luxurious I've ever seen, and the priciest as well. A facial costs $109. It did have something that I fancied, a Mediterranean float, for $239. This is a combination of all kinds of treatments, seaweed, massage and more. You can easily double the price of your cruise with just a few days in the spa!
From our tour of the ship we could see that everything we expected to find accessible in fact was. There are numerous self-opening doors to the decks, which is one of the things I look for on a cruise. Aisles are spacious in all public rooms, the showroom and the cinema. Tables in the dining room are accessible. Of course, I continue to be disappointed that there are no pool lifts available on most ships but I'm told they're coming. The entire Royal Caribbean brand fleet should have them by the end of this year.
We were due to sail at 5 p.m. but first we had a lifeboat drill mandated by the Coast Guard. The procedure for the Millennium is much the same as for other ships carrying people with disabilities. While other passengers don their life vests and proceed to muster stations, in our case a crew member is sent directly to the cabin to escort the passenger to safety.
Dinner that night was at 6 p.m. We had opted for the first sitting so we could catch up on some overdue sleep. (When school is out, there's usually a high demand for the later sitting since families with children almost always dine early.) We found ourselves at a table for eight with three other couples roughly our ages.
Only one of the couples had never cruised before, and we'd all been looking forward to dinner. Celebrity is known for its excellent food; its menus are designed by Michael Roux, who operates Le Gavroche, a world-famous, Michelin three-star restaurant outside of London.
The chef exceeded our expectations! I loved having to choose between roasted tomato bisque enhanced by a trace of cognac and whipped cream, Oriental vegetable consommé, and chilled peach and honey soup; and then for an entrée pick either king salmon, linguini with clams, roast chicken, honey-glazed pork chop or roast aged prime rib of Nebraska beef. I haven't even mentioned the five appetizers, two salads and eight desserts (including my favorite, crème brûlée)!
|Ann Spolan of Delray Beach, Fla., exits the ship to go ashore in Cozumel (a Carnival ship is in the background).|
When we awoke on Monday morning we were in Key West, Fla. I decided to stay on the ship, have a breakfast of bagel and smoked salmon served on the veranda, and read my Tom Clancy novel. Ute took the free Key West trolley from the pier into town to mail a few postcards. By lunchtime she still hadn't returned so I went up to the spa where I had an interesting concoction of roasted eggplant and vegetables with a yogurt sauce, and tapioca pudding for dessert.
That afternoon we sailed for Calica, Mexico. I'd boarded the ship with a bad case of bronchitis and it didn't seem to be getting any better, so I decided to visit the ship's medical center. The facility was very impressive. It had a fully equipped emergency room, two hospital rooms and an isolation ward. Both the doctor, from Paraguay, and the nurse, from Scotland, were very helpful. They sent me back to my cabin with an antibiotic and cough syrup. They also gave me a nebulizer treatment to stop my wheezing.
That evening was the captain's Welcome Aboard cocktail party where we met Capt. Giorgos Panagiotakis and Hotel Manager Dimitrios Anagnostou. This was followed by dinner and a really first-class show called "Spectacle of Broadway." I counted a cast of 17 dancers and vocalists, plus a full-sized band. The costumes and talent were equivalent to the best of Las Vegas.
The Olympic revived
Tuesday morning we were in Calica, a sleepy little port on the Yucatán Peninsula. There's nothing at the port itself but there are some good tours to the Mayan ruins of Tulum or Coba, Cancun shopping, and beach snorkeling. None of these is accessible to those on wheels. Ute went off to hike up to Coba, and I decided to take in a movie in the ship's cinema — "Rules of Engagement."
That evening we had reservations at the Olympic Restaurant, a special feature of the Millennium and typical of a dining revolution that's sweeping cruising today. Since its inception the cruise industry has relied on a standard way of feeding passengers — in two sittings, one around 6 p.m., the other at 8. That's because in order to conserve space almost all ship dining rooms are designed to hold only half of the passengers at one time.
In recent years, as guests have expressed dissatisfaction with this system, cruise lines have come up with a variety of changes. Some offer more dining times, others offer complete freedom to eat where and when you want, and still others have opened alternative restaurants which require reservations and may have an extra charge attached. That's one of the solutions offered aboard the Millennium.
The legendary Olympic, the sister ship of the Titanic, was launched by the White Star Line in 1911 and was one of the most luxurious liners afloat in her time. After she was withdrawn from service years later, some private buyers obtained pieces of the woodwork paneling, hand-carved in the style of Louis XVI, that decorated the first-class dining room and installed them in a private home in England until they were auctioned off a few years ago and bought by Celebrity. Using these materials, the Millennium has re-created not only the Olympic's dining room, but the entire dining experience — menu, service, wine cellar, live music and more. It's a memorable experience well worth the extra $25 charge.
The menu consists of a four-course dinner: a soup, salad, or appetizer; an entrée; a choice of cheese and crackers; and a dessert. Along with each course is a suggested wine that can be ordered by the glass. I had the grilled filet of sea bass while Ute tried the flambéed scampi, which is prepared tableside. The white-gloved Russian-style service in this dining room (where every plate comes under a silver dome) is unreal — at times there were as many as four waiters hovering around us.
When we got to the cheese course they brought a trolley of exotic cheeses prepared from the milk of cows, goats and sheep — all obtained from one of the most exclusive purveyors in Paris. For dessert we had marvelous crêpes Suzette, which were also cooked at our table. I'm sorry I didn't order the Waldorf pudding, the same dish served on the R.M.S. Olympic in 1914. I guess I'll just have to go back!
|Andy Vladimir found the streets of Cozumel very accessible to his scooter.|
The next morning we arrived at Cozumel. As an early birthday present for Ute I had booked for her the tour I'd have most liked to go on if it had been accessible — Chichén Itzá by plane ($240). The Chichén Itzá Mayan ruins are among the most famous in the Yucatán dating back to A.D. 445.
I'd decided that this would be my one chance to go shopping on this trip and I was looking forward to a free day. It turned out to be a breeze, and a happy one at that.
I rolled off the ship onto the pier where there was a taxi stand. Cozumel is five minutes and $5 away. The taxi driver helped me transfer into his cab and then, with the help of another driver, put my scooter in the rear of his station wagon. At the suggestion of the ship's shore excursion director I asked to be let off at one of the most popular Mexican craft stores, Los Cinco Soles.
The shop is a veritable treasure trove. I haven't seen many places with this variety of Mexican crafts, silver, jewelry, pottery, dolls, toys and clothing. I spent an hour there and then headed down the main street of Cozumel to see how accessible it was. It turns out the curbs were all ramped and many of the merchants whose stores weren't accessible had put out wooden ramps with pictures of wheelchairs on them. These guys really want our business!
Getting back to the ship was equally easy and I spent the afternoon buried in my novel. When Ute returned that evening I gave her a silver brooch I'd bought at Los Cinco Soles. When she tried to put it on she discovered that the clasp was broken.
I took the brooch to the port lecturer's desk where he took custody of it and promised to get it repaired or get a new one. Celebrity guarantees satisfaction with any merchandise purchased at a shop recommended by the ship. The guarantee is valid even after you reach home.
Thursday was a day at sea en route to our next port of Grand Cayman. I enjoy days at sea and on this cruise every day had been perfect cruising weather.
Online and on shore
I decided to take one of the many computer courses offered by the ship. I picked "MS Word, Intermediate Level." I knew the ship had an Internet Café but I wasn't expecting to find a completely equipped computer training classroom on board. The cost was $59 but it was money well spent. I not only got a really good class, but a manual as well, and the opportunity to return to the classroom any time I wanted to practice at no additional cost.
Friday we arrived at Grand Cayman in the West Indies. We didn't dock at this port, but anchored in the harbor so that going ashore required using the tender (small boat). This is rather tricky with my cart, which weighs 145 pounds without me. Moreover a tender transfer requires getting me and my scooter down a steep gangplank.
The Millennium crew was obviously well trained to handle situations like this. They transferred me to a regular wheelchair and took me down to the tender where my chair was locked in place. Then they brought the scooter down. Ashore they followed the same routine. It was a smooth and seamless operation and I felt perfectly safe.
However, after all that effort, Grand Cayman had little to offer us. Neither the streets nor the shops were accessible for the most part. There are some interesting tours such as swimming with stingrays, the turtle farms and some grand beaches, but regrettably there's really nothing this port can offer those of us in wheelchairs.
How do I rate this cruise as a whole? It's almost as good as it gets. You have to be prepared to accept the fact that there are many things you wish you could do but you can't. Top among these are shore excursions.
However, the cruise lines and the ports both recognize this problem and have held some encouraging meetings to date. If you regard the ship as the destination, the Millennium provides a wonderfully accessible and luxurious cruise vacation.
I give it four and a half stars out of a possible five.
In addition to the price you pay for your cruise, you'll need to budget for some other expenses. Cruise fares aren't all-inclusive, no matter how they're advertised. To begin with, airfare and airport transfers aren't necessarily a part of the cruise package. If they aren't, the cruise line will offer you an air add-on. This is usually a good deal, but not always.
Next there's tipping. I figure about $9 per person per day, or $63 per person for a seven-day cruise.
Then there's the cost of shore excursions. On our Celebrity Cruise, tours ranged from $19 for the Key West Conch Train to $39 for the stingray snorkeling to $240 for the Chichén Itzá trip. Of course, you don't have to take any shore excursions, but even then you may want to budget some funds for taxis to get into town or visit some of the main attractions on your own.
One of the biggest on-board expenses is beverages and snacks. You can expect to pay $1.50 to $2 (plus an automatic 15 percent tip) for a soda and $3 or more for a mixed drink. For the most part meals are included in the tour price, but not always. Besides the alternative restaurants, some ships feature Häagen-Dazs ice cream bars and Johnny Rocket Hamburgers, which are extra.
If you want any of the services in the spa, be prepared to pay from $47 for a woman's haircut to $85 or more for a massage or facial.
In addition, if you plan to use the Internet you can go online for around 95 cents a minute. The cost is $12 a minute for regular phone calls.
Finally, no matter how frugal you are you'll be very tempted to drop a few dollars at the casino and buy some souvenirs at the gift shops on board.
For a list of cruise lines and travel agencies you can contact, see "Choose to Cruise: A Primer."