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Explorer of the Seas, Belize City, Costa Maya, Cozumel, Grand Cayman

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By James Glasbergen

There's nothing like sailing through the Caribbean on a big cruise ship to help cope with the winter blahs. Cruising is the most accessible way for wheelchair users to see the Caribbean. How else can you visit four different islands in one week without having to change hotel rooms? While most major cruise lines offer great access aboard their ships, the major accessibility issues concern the access at each island, particularly when ships have to anchor at sea. Although ships dock at the majority of the ports in the Caribbean, many ports require that ships anchor at sea and use small boats called tenders to bring passengers ashore. Only a couple cruise lines currently have tenders that are accessible to wheelchairs and scooters. Royal Caribbean is one of those cruise lines, so I wanted to pick an itinerary that involved tendering at multiple ports and see for myself how "accessible" their tenders truly are. I chose a 7-day Western Caribbean cruise aboard the Explorer of the Seas with stops in Belize City, Costa Maya, Cozumel, and Grand Cayman. Three of the four ports required the use of tenders, with Costa Maya being the exception.

Explorer of the Seas

Upon arriving in our cabin on embarkation day, I was happy to find a hoyer lift which I rented from a local Miami company. They conveniently had it delivered right to our stateroom, and on disembarkation day we were able to just leave it in our cabin for them to pick up. We were very happy with our ocean view stateroom (, , , ). There was plenty of room to move around, and the bed separated into two single beds. The bathroom was also very accessible (, , , , ).

One thing I was impressed to find right away was a note from the person in charge of disability concerns inviting me to a Q & A the next morning. It was a chance for people with disabilities on the ship to ask about any concerns they had regarding accessibility over the next week. I was actually the only disabled person to show up, but I found it very helpful as I was able to ask her several questions, most importantly regarding the accessibility of the tenders at each port. She was helpful with information, and she actually checked in with us periodically throughout the week to make sure everything was going alright.

Access around the ship was very good as well. The Palace Theater and Studio B (where the Ice Show took place) both had accessible seating areas, and the pool had a pool lift for disabled persons. The only tight spot was the Casino which was hard to navigate through when it was full of people. It definitely was not built with wheelchairs in mind. The ship's crew were helpful as well, particular in the dining room and the Windjammer buffet room. The minute they saw a person in a wheelchair, they were there with a tray offering to help. Not only did they help collect the food, they brought it over to the table and even offered to cut it up.

Belize City, Belize

Our first port of call was Belize City, Belize. It was the first of three ports in which we had to use tenders () to go ashore. Transferring from the ship to the tender and back was relatively easy as there was a ramp between the two (, , ). A person in a manual wheelchair may have found it slightly steep on either end of the ramp, but assistance was readily available. There was plenty of room aboard the tenders for wheelchairs and scooters (, ). At the pier, there was an excellent 2-level ramp set up to get off of the tender (, , ), so we had no trouble exiting from the upper level ().

We didn't do much in Belize City other than take a stroll through the cruise terminal, which basically consisted of several buildings full of shops (). There was a tourist information stand there where you could pay to take a variety of tours, but none were accessible. The good news is that we were told they had a wheelchair accessible van with a lift on order and were expecting it within 3 months, so wheelchair users should hopefully be able to get out and do some sightseeing around Belize City in the near future.

Costa Maya, Mexico

The next day, we docked in Costa Maya, Mexico (, ). Fortunately, we did not have to tender, which made the whole process of getting off the ship a lot easier and a lot faster. As in Belize, there was no accessible transportation nearby so we spent the day in the cruise terminal area. There was a big market area where local Mexicans were selling souvenirs at cheap prices. There was also an accessible beach (, ) where the sand was hard enough to wheel on in a wheelchair (). To access the beach, there was a ramp located near the pool ().

Cozumel, Mexico

The third port of call was Cozumel, Mexico. At the time we arrived, cruise ships had only resumed going back to Cozumel for a few weeks after Hurricane Wilma devasted the island in October, 2005. We again had to use tenders to go ashore since the pier where ships used to dock was heavily damaged by the hurricane. Boarding the tender from the ship was easy due to a nice ramp (). As we tendered ashore, the damage left by Hurricane Wilma was immediately evident. The cruise ship pier was in ruins and many buildings appeared to be blown out. We also noticed that many palm trees were nothing more than trunks with a few beat up palm branches on them. While getting onto the tender was easy, getting off at the dock was another story. We were on the upper level of the tender, and there was a steep ramp going from the upper level down to the dock (). On each end of the ramp, there was a good 8 or 9 inch drop () which meant that they actually had to lift me onto the ramp. It was not an easy task given that my chair and I are a combined 500 lbs. and the boat was rocking slightly. Furthermore, once on the ramp there were little ridges every couple feet that were there to prevent people from slipping (, ). However, they stuck out high enough that a wheelchair could not easily roll over them. Needless to say, getting down the ramp took a bit of time as I had about four guys helping me down. I was happy to finally touch down on the dock without incident. That was the easy part though. I didn't even want to think about how they were going to get me back up that ramp later in the day. More on that later.

The first thing we did was take a stroll through the cruise terminal where there were once again a number of shops with Mexican vendors selling souvenirs. There was also a taxi stand offering various island tours, and they actually had a wheelchair accessible van with a lift. The only problem with the van was that it did not have a raised roof or a lowered floor, so tall people like me have to sit hunched over or with your head tilted sideways. We decided to a do a 2-hour island tour that included a stop at San Gervasio, home to some Mayan ruins. San Gervasio was not very accessible at all, which explains why wheelchair users are granted free admission. Admission was USD $5.50 for everyone else. There was an accessible ramp at the entrance for wheelchairs and scooters (). Once inside there was only one small area near the entrance where a wheelchair could get to. The rest was inaccessible due to rocky paths. So, if you're in a wheelchair, you can see everything you are able to see in about five minutes. Otherwise, it normally takes about 30 minutes to walk through San Gervasio. After the Mayan ruins, we went for a little drive around the island and saw some of the coastline. The cost of the 2-hour tour was USD $50 per person, not including admission to San Gervasio. My neck was a little sore at the end from sitting hunched over for a couple hours, and to be honest the tour wasn't the greatest, but it was nice just to get away from the cruise terminal for a while and see some of the island.

After returning to the cruise terminal, we walked into town and I got to enjoy a little sunshine for a bit while my friend did some snorkeling. Then it was time for the moment I was not looking forward to--getting back on the tender. By this time, it was 4:30 p.m. and the water had become increasingly choppy since the morning. The tender was rocking back and forth like you wouldn't believe, which meant the ramp was shifting 5 or 6 feet forward and back every time the tender rocked from side to side. To say that it was not going to be easy to get me on the ramp would be the understatement of the year. The ramp was very steep, there were ridges on the ramp every foot or 2 that I practically had to get lifted over, there was an 8 or 9 inch drop just to get on the ramp, and worst of all, the ramp was moving! They wanted to put me on the tender last, so we waited for the boat to fill up with people. Of course, that meant we had a big audience when it was finally my turn to board. I can honestly say that I wasn't really nervous about getting on because I knew they would get me on eventually. However, it became clear that a lot of people were nervous for me! Once again, there were about 5 or 6 Mexican workers running the show and figuring out a way to get me on. The key was to time it so that they lifted me on to the ramp at a time when the ramp would stand still for 5 or 6 seconds. On the first attempt, they got me almost all the way on the ramp when it suddenly pulled away from me and dropped me off the ramp. The men were holding on to my chair, but it was a dangerous couple seconds because they had to quickly pull me back before the ramp shifted back out at me, which could have caused some serious damage to me and/or my chair. In fact, we heard one or two screams from nervous onlookers on the tender. The workers quickly decided to let that tender take off and have us try our luck with the next tender. My friend and I joked about how many people were going to approach me on the ship over the next few days and comment on my harrowing tender experience, and sure enough, there were at least ten. Anyway, we waited for the next tender and this time they decided to board me first. Fortunately, this tender was not rocking quite as bad. They got me on the ramp fairly quickly and practically lifted me all the way up the ramp and into the boat.

It was an interesting experience for sure, not to mention a slightly dangerous one, but if you ask me, it's just one of those things that comes along with traveling in an electric chair. I would rather put up with a little discomfort and get to see the world than just stay behind on the ship. It's like flying. It may be a pain in the neck for wheelchair users (especially those with less mobility), but the payoff from a week or two in some exotic destination always makes the hassle of a couple flying days worth it!

George Town, Grand Cayman

Our final stop was George Town, Grand Cayman. This was the one port that I was told on the very first day I might have a problem with. The ramp exiting the tender in Cozumel was a rough ride, but at least I was able to stay in my wheelchair. The problem in Grand Cayman was that I got onto the tender from the ship on the top level, but when we arrived at the pier we all had to get off on the bottom level. So, somehow I had to get down 6 steps. The ironic thing is that if they had the exact same 2-level ramp that they had in Belize City, it would have been perfect. I was told that they usually tendered at a different spot in Grand Cayman, and if we had tendered there I would not have had any problem, but this was a new spot they were tendering at. Anyway, after all of the passengers exited the tender, the crew looked at me and scratched their heads. There was no way they could carry me in my chair down those steps. So, after some contemplation, we decided that the best option was to pick me up and carry me down the steps first, then go back up and bring my wheelchair down. They sat me on a big block and my friend propped me up while they brought my chair down. I was not very happy about it. There isn't much I hate more than having to transfer out of my chair in a public place, mostly because it brings with it the risk of a full moon in broad daylight...if you know what I mean. As I mentioned above though, it's one of those inconveniences that you just have to deal with in order to see cool things. Hopefully Royal Caribbean will solve that tender issue soon though, because it is a problem that has an easy solution.

Like in Cozumel, there was a taxi service in Grand Cayman that had an accessible van and does tours. I called them a couple weeks in advance to make a reservation because they only had one accessible van (, ). The cost was USD $75 an hour. The driver picked us up at the pier and asked us what we wanted to see. Other than the Turtle Farm, I did not have anything in mind other than maybe seeing a bit of the island. I basically left it open to him to show us the main highlights of the island for however long it took...big mistake! The first half of the tour was really good. We started out at the Turtle Farm, home to over 16,000 giant and baby sea turtles. It was completely accessible. Next, we made a stop in the little town of Hell. There was a souvenir stand there selling items with every cliche about Hell you can imagine on them (ie. having been to Hell and back, etc.). There was also a post office where you could send postcards from Hell. By the time we got back in the van and drove near the cruise terminal, we had been on tour for about 2 hours. It should have ended there. However, I had stupidly told him earlier that I wanted to see a bit of the island, so he proceeded to take us on a 2-hour excursion along the coast. Again...big mistake. The driver hardly said anything the whole time other than to point out several things damaged by Hurricane Ivan in September, 2004. There really was not much to see on the coast. In fact, my friend started falling asleep in the front seat. We finally had to tell the driver to just bring us back to the ship because we were running short on time. It was frustrating because we felt like we wasted a beautiful afternoon bored to tears inside a van, and we didn't even have time to walk around and check out a bit of George Town on our own. Oh well, at least I know what the island looks like now. I didn't realize it was so big!

Conclusion

Overall, I really enjoyed our cruise on the Explorer of the Seas. The access and the service on the ship were excellent. It was easy to see why Royal Caribbean is considered one of the best cruise lines for disabled travelers. That is not to say there isn't room for improvement, though. While all tenders were supposed to be "accessible," there were clearly still accessibility issues at 2 of the 3 ports we tendered at. This is yet another classic example of how the term "accessible" does not always mean what it is implied to mean. That is why planning and asking specific questions is so important for people who have accessibility concerns. In general, we found the western Caribbean itinerary to be pretty good for access, though. With accessible taxi services in Cozumel, Grand Cayman, and coming soon to Belize City, it is nice to see more and more ports offering services for disabled travelers.

COZUMEL PICTURES

GRAND CAYMAN PICTURES


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