Airport/Hotel transfers, Ft. Lauderdale hotel, Ft. Lauderdale accessible taxis, the Sun Princess, medical rentals, gangways, Princess Cays Bahamas, St. Thomas, Dominica, Barbados, Isla Margarita, Curaçao
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By James Glasbergen
Since I had never been on a cruise before and had heard so many people rave about them, I figured it was time to give cruising a try. I did a little research on the internet and found that Princess was generally regarded as one of the better cruiselines for accessibility, so I booked a 10-day Southern Caribbean cruise aboard the Sun Princess. The ship departed from Ft. Lauderdale and made stops at Princess Cays (the Bahamas), St. Thomas, Dominica, Barbados, Isla Margarita, and Curaçao before returning to Ft. Lauderdale.
Upon arrival at the airport in Ft. Lauderdale, there was a Princess representative waiting for us at the baggage claim. I had booked hotel and airport transfers through Princess at the time I booked the cruise. After waiting outside for a few minutes, a big coach bus came around and picked us up. It had a wheelchair lift. The bus took us to our hotel, where we stayed overnight before leaving on the cruise the next day. We stayed about 15 or 20 minutes from both the airport and the cruise terminal. We had an accessible room, which was a decent size ()(). There was only one bed though, so they had to bring in a roll-away bed. The bathroom was easy to get around in and included a roll-in shower ()().
When we checked in to the hotel, there was an information sheet from Princess waiting for us which listed our pickup time for the transfer to the ship the next day. There were actually about 200 people staying at our hotel that night who were going on the same cruise the next day. In the morning we all had to have our suitcases standing outside our doors by 10 a.m. so they could pick them up and bring them outside. We had to be outside by 12:30 p.m. to identify our luggage and to board the bus. There were three huge coach buses taking people from the hotel to the port. One of the buses had a wheelchair lift, but they could not get it to work so they had to call in a Handi-Van to take us to the port, which was not a problem.
Ft. Lauderdale also has wheelchair accessible taxis. At the end of the cruise we took a taxi from one pier to another pier for the next cruise. Advanced reservations were not required. I think we waited about 40 or 45 minutes for the taxi to come. We had to call once to make sure they were still coming. If there is one thing that I have learned about calling for an accessible taxi, it's that you have to keep calling every 20 or 30 minutes to make sure they haven't forgotten about or messed up the call.
The Sun Princess
Upon arriving at the port, they immediately took our luggage and we went inside to check in. There was a designated special assistance area where people with disabilities could check in. It took only a few minutes to register and get our cruise cards, and then we were able to board the ship. We stayed in an accessible cabin. I was really happy with the cabin as there was quite a bit of room to move around ()()()()(). The bathroom also had plenty of space ()(), and there was a nice roll-in shower (). There was a small lip going into the bathroom, but there was a ramp for it (). Our stateroom attendant was great. He brought in one of those egg crate mattresses which he thought I requested for my bed. I didn't even know that some ships had those things available upon request, which makes me wonder if there are hotels that do too. Anyway, I was glad to keep it because those beds can be pretty hard and uncomfortable.
By late afternoon before the ship left Ft. Lauderdale, they had delivered all of our luggage and a hoyer lift to our room. I rented the lift from a Ft. Lauderdale medical company, which was very convenient. I just told them our cabin number and they had it delivered right to the cabin. On the last day of the cruise, we were able to just leave the lift in our cabin and they picked it up later that day. Since we were leaving on another cruise later that afternoon, they actually picked the lift up from the Sun Princess and delivered it over to our cabin on the next ship, which was fantastic.
I found accessibility around the ship to be quite good. There were not many places that I could not get to. The worst was Shooting Stars which had a revolving door at the entrance, so I had to go in through the fire exit. Once inside, there was not much room to sit anywhere as the seating area was built up on a platform. Other than that though, the ship was great. The restaurants were all accessible, and the waiters were great. They were constantly offering to help me with my tray, and a few even offered to cut up my food. Clearly, they had had training. There were also a number of wheelchair accessible bathrooms located throughout the ship. The two locations where most of the entertainment took place, the Vista Lounge and the Princess Theater, were also accessible. The Princess Theater had wheelchair seating behind the very last row on each side of the theater, while in the Vista Lounge you could sit just about anywhere as the two aisles going to the stage were only slightly sloped. There was also room to sit at the back.
The only disappointment I had with the whole cruise was with the gangway. I had called Princess prior to the cruise and was told that there would be a ramp to get on and off the ship, and therefore I would be able to wheel straight on and off without having to get transferred into a manual wheelchair and then get lifted over the steps. While there was a ramp to embark the ship in Ft. Lauderdale, I was surprised upon arriving in St. Thomas to find that the gangway had stairs (). Since my electric wheelchair and I were a combined 500 lbs., there was no way I could be lifted in my wheelchair over the steps. So, they had to transfer me into a Princess manual wheelchair and carry me and my wheelchair down separately, and then transfer me back in to my wheelchair at the bottom of the steps. I was not happy about it. I complained to the guys that were there and to the purser's desk, and I was told that there was nothing they could do about it for that cruise, and that unfortunately we would be using the same gangway in every port. What made the matter more frustrating was that as we walked past all of the other cruise ships in each of the ports we went to, they all had ramped gangways and our ship was the only one with steps. One of the employees that helped with the transfer actually told me that the Sun Princess was the only Princess ship whose gangways were all steps instead of ramps. I don't know if that was true or not, but I do know that on any future cruise I book, I will always make sure that the gangway on the ship is ramped or else I won't book that cruise. It seems to me that in an age where everyone's trying to improve accessibility, getting a ramped gangway would be one of the easiest improvements to make. It should be standard on all ships. Incidentally, I had read in a few places that all Princess ships are equipped with a stair climber mechanism that carries wheelchairs over steps. Well, I saw one sitting there () so I asked the guy about it, and they are apparently only used for manual chairs and to me look pretty much useless.
After returning from the trip, I decided to e-mail Princess to relay my frustrations about the gangway. One thing that really impresses me about Princess is their customer service. I have e-mailed them a few times in the past with accessibility questions and they have always been quick to respond. In this case, they sent me a quick e-mail followed by a written letter a couple weeks later responding to my comments. In the letter, they basically apologized for the inconvenience I experienced on the cruise and thanked me for the feedback as it is useful for them in evaluating their product. They also promised to forward my comments to the "appropriate senior management for their review and information for future planning." On one hand, I was a little disappointed with the letter as it was somewhat general and did not directly address the gangway issue and what their current policy or status is regarding ramped gangways versus gangways with steps. I just hope that when they say they will take the comments into consideration for future planning, they mean it.
Princess Cays, the Bahamas
Our first port of call was Princess Cays, the Bahamas. Unfortunately, it required a tender to get people to shore. The tenders were not wheelchair accessible, but I was told that they sometimes lift people in manual wheelchairs into the tenders, depending on the sea conditions and other safety factors. It is ultimately the Captain's call if he wants to allow someone in a wheelchair to get lifted into the tender. For Princess Cays, I was not interested in even asking about the chances of me boarding the tender because I was told there wasn't much to see or do there and I didn't think it was worth the hassle.
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
The next stop was St. Thomas, where the only wheelchair accessible shore excursion on the whole cruise was offered. It was a 2-hour island tour aboard a wheelchair accessible trolley (). The trolley had a lift (). We were originally supposed to take the tour in the morning, but as soon as we got there the lady asked us if we wouldn't mind going in the afternoon instead. Apparently Princess did not tell them that I was in an electric wheelchair, so they were expecting someone with a collapsable manual chair and therefore did not have the right trolley with the lift there. That was not a problem with us. I suppose the lesson is to always make sure when making a reservation that the people take down all of the important details and not just put something vague like "wheelchair user" which could have a million different meanings.
Perhaps my expectations were too high, but we did not find the tour to be overly spectacular on the whole. While we covered most of the island, it did not seem like we saw very much. I just figured there would be a lot more to see in St. Thomas, although I suppose it is hard to truly show off an island in two hours. The highlight of the tour was a trip up St. Peters Mountain to Mountain Top where there was an observation deck () providing a great view of Megans Bay (). There were steps to get down to the observation deck, but there was a lift right next to them (). We stopped for about 30 minutes at Mountain Top where, in addition to the great view, there was the opportunity to look through the many shops or try a banana daiquiri. Mountain Top claims to be the original home of the banana daiquiri.
The third port of call was Roseau, Dominica. Since none of the shore excursions were accessible, there wasn't much to do other than stroll around town for a while. There were not many curbcuts anywhere so I spent most of the time wheeling along the road. There was hardly any traffic, though. Unfortunately, since it was Sunday all of the stores and markets were closed. There wasn't much to see in town either, so we just walked around for an hour or so before heading back to the ship.
The next stop was Barbados. I found a local company that gave us a tour of the island in an accessible bus (). I told them that I was basically just interested in seeing the island, so they picked us up at the port in the morning and drove us around the island for most of the day. The tie-downs that they had in the van were unlike anything I have ever seen before. They were basically just big clamps. He used one clamp to hold my chair down, and that was enough to keep me pretty secure. My chair moved a little on steep hills, but not too bad.
I didn't have anything in particular that I wanted to see in Barbados, so they just took us for a drive through Bridgetown and through all 11 parishes on the island. I didn't realize that Barbados was so big! The coastal driving was amazing. We also drove by a number of tourists spots such as the monument in Holetown commemorating the arrival of the first English ship to Barbados in 1625, as well as the Morgan Lewis Mill which is the last remaining windmill on Barbados. We also saw the cool rock formations in the water at Bathsheba.
The next port of call was Isla Margarita. This was the second island on the cruise that required a tender to get to shore. We were told that once ashore, there was not much to do in the immediate area and you had to drive a half hour to the closest tourist spots. Since I had been unsuccessful in finding any organizations with an accessible vehicle, it wasn't worth the hassle of seeing if I could get lifted on to the tender to get to shore, only to find nothing to do once we got there. So, we stayed on the ship for the day.
Our last port of call was Curaçao, which turned out to be the highlight of the cruise. I contacted a company that was planning to launch a new program to serve tourists, and we turned out to be the first foreign customers! We were picked up at the port in one of their accessible buses (). We started off by taking a drive through Willemstad. The best view of the city came from the Queen Juliana Bridge, which is one of the highest bridges in the world. From there you get a great overview of all the colorful buildings in the city. Next, we stopped at the Curaçao Liqueur Distillery, where the famous Curaçao liqueur is made. It is located in the Chobolobo Mansion, an old Country House built in the 1800's. It was completely accessible. After loading up on free samples, we got back in the bus and continued our tour. We stopped at a Kunuku house, or country house, which was quite interesting as we got to see how a typical family in Curaçao lived over a century ago. Pretty primitive! It also was accessible. Then we went to lunch at a popular restaurant serving local food. There was a small ramp at the entrance (). Next, we made a number of scenic stops. First we took a brief drive through Shete Boka National Park. Then we stopped at a couple beautiful beaches, Playa Forti and Playa Kenepa. We also stopped at a scenic outlook that provided a great view looking towards Christoffel National Park. Finally, we made a brief stop at the Sunset Waters Beach Resort which had a nice beach.
To end the tour, we drove over to the company's head office. They had a Welcome sign waiting for us there and all of the workers came out to meet us (). We felt like royalty! It was amazing, I really had no idea what to expect on each of the different island tours we took (St. Thomas, Barbados, and Curaçao). I was just hoping to get away from the port and see some of each island. I certainly did not expect the people in Curaçao to go all out for us the way they did! It was easily the highlight of the whole cruise. I definitely plan to return to Curaçao some day, and next time for longer. One day was not enough to see the island. I don't think accessibility will be a problem, either. The company we took the tour with mentioned that they would be able to help out with accessible transportation, and they also rent various types of medical equipment, such as hoyer lifts.
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