Topics Covered:

Flying Day, accessible stateroom, medical equipment rentals, Reflections dining room, St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Antigua, St. Lucia, Barbados, ship entertainment


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By James Glasbergen

Traveling independently can seem like a daunting task for many individuals with a disability, so there was little surprise at the amount of interest that accumulated when the idea of going on a group cruise was floated around to consumers of the Independent Living Centre of Waterloo Region.  The idea became a reality on January 10, 2009 when 14 people (including 8 wheelchair users) set sail on Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas for a 7-day round-trip Southern Caribbean cruise out of San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Accessibility was priority #1 for this trip, so the itinerary was selected based on the accessibility of both the ship and the ports of call.  Of course, our desire for 7 days of great weather was also a factor in the decision to choose a cruise out of San Juan. 

Traveling with a group of wheelchairs certainly has its challenges.  As a disabled traveler who regularly travels with my electric wheelchair, I always dread flying day.  While  it is a small price to pay for the end result, the process of flying can be a hassle as the airplane seats are not comfortable and there is always the possibility of things not going as they should, such as finding missing luggage on the other end, or worse yet, having something on my wheelchair break during the flight (see Travel Tips for ways to protect your chair).  So, one can understand my anxiety at the prospect of flying with 8 wheelchair users – 7 of whom would be flying with electric wheelchairs.  The key to a successful day was preparation, which meant contacting the cruise line and the airline well in advance to make sure they were fully aware of our special needs and requirements so that everything would go off without a hitch at the airports in Toronto and San Juan, and then from San Juan airport to the cruise terminal.  I also contacted a company in San Juan who fixes wheelchairs so that we had an emergency phone number that we could call in case we arrived at the airport in San Juan and one or more of our power wheelchairs were not working.  Fortunately, all of the preparation paid off as everything went just about as smoothly as can be expected.

Our trip began with a 6:30 a.m. direct flight from Toronto to San Juan, which meant a 1:30 a.m. pickup for our group so that we could get to the airport in plenty of time to check in.  We arrived at the airport a little early as the check-in counters had not opened yet, although it is definitely better to be a little early than a little late when you're traveling with a large group that requires special assistance.  When the check-in counters did open, Air Canada was ready for us as they designated 2 check-in counters for our group only.  It took a while to check all 14 of us in and bring us through security, but the fortunate thing was that everyone was able to remain seated in their own wheelchair right up to the gate rather than having to transfer out of our wheelchairs earlier.  Upon arrival at the gate, Air Canada had several aisle wheelchairs ready for us, and they also had several helpers assigned to our group to aid us in transferring from our wheelchairs to the aisle chairs, and from the aisle chairs into the airplane seats.  Of course, the whole process took some time as there was only enough room on the plane to transfer a couple of us at a time, and then they had to disconnect the batteries on each electric wheelchair and wheel them away.  So, our plane was a little more then an hour late taking off, but better late than never!

Upon arrival in San Juan, it took us about 2 hours to get through the airport as we first had to wait for the handlers to bring our wheelchairs back to the door of the plane in order for us to deplane.  Then it took a while to reconnect batteries and make sure each electric chair was in working order before they could transfer each person back into their wheelchair.  Once in our wheelchairs, we were escorted by airport workers from the airplane to the baggage claim, where a Royal Caribbean staff member was waiting for us to direct us to our prearranged transfers to the ship.  Royal Caribbean arranged for 2 wheelchair accessible vehicles () to transfer our group from the airport to the pier.  These 2 vehicles could only take 2 wheelchairs each at a time, so they had to take half of our group at a time and make two trips.  Fortunately, it was only about a 20-minute drive between the airport and the pier, and we had plenty of time as it was only mid-afternoon and the ship did not set sail until 10 p.m.

Once onboard the ship, my friend and I went to our stateroom on deck 7 to get settled in.  We had a wheelchair accessible balcony stateroom (, , , , , , , , ), which included a good-sized bathroom (, ) with a roll-in shower ().  While there was ample room to manoeuvre in the cabin, we decided to move the beds and some furniture around to create even more space for ourselves (, ).  The balcony was completely accessible and looked to be about twice the length of the balconies in the regular staterooms (, ). 

One thing I was happy to find upon arrival in our stateroom was the piece of medical equipment that I had rented for the cruise.  World On Wheelz works with a medical company that supplies a large variety of medical equipment to cruise lines, so I was able to rent a number of Hoyer lifts and wheelchairs for several members of our group, and each piece of equipment was delivered to the ship and waiting for us upon arrival.

Next, we made our way to the Reflections Dining Room where we were slotted in for early dining at 6 p.m.  Our group was assigned two tables near the entrance of the dining room so that we wouldn't have to weave through tables and chairs to get to our place.  While this was convenient, there was a large pillar between our tables that made it a little awkward to get all of the wheelchairs around each table.  The service in the dining room was fantastic.  Our head waiter Sony, waiter Rainer, and assistant waiter Dwight went out of their way to see to our needs.  No request was too big or too small, and they were more than happy to help out with things like cutting up food for those who needed it. 

Our first port of call was Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.  While Royal Caribbean was able to arrange wheelchair accessible shore excursions at 3 of the 5 ports on our itinerary, this was the only port where they were able to arrange an accessible excursion for our entire group, which included 8 wheelchair users.  The tour was a 2 1/2 hour island drive that took us up to Mountain Top for a great view overlooking Magen’s Bay.

Prior to leaving for the cruise, Royal Caribbean told me that they had 3 wheelchair accessible vehicles with hydraulic lifts reserved for our St. Thomas tour.  However, when our group arrived outside the ship at 8:30 a.m., there were only 2 accessible vehicles waiting for us.  That was not enough to accommodate the whole group, so they ended up calling for an accessible trolley (, , ) to help out.  The accessible trolley was able to accommodate more wheelchairs than either of the other 2 other vehicles, so the plan was to use the accessible trolley and one of the other vehicles () for our whole group.  So, one of the vehicles left and we waited for the trolley to arrive.  When it did, they immediately loaded 2 electric wheelchair users into the trolley.  I was to be the last person in, but unfortunately the lift broke down when it tried to lift me.  So, they closed up the trolley and had to call for the other vehicle (, , ) to come back and pick me up.  Once that was done, all 3 of our vehicles were finally off to start the tour, albeit an hour late.

The tour went up along the side of the mountain and offered great views of Charlotte Amalie harbor, St. John, and the British Virgin Islands.  The highlight of the tour was a stop at Mountain Top, where we were able to get out and walk/wheel around for 30 minutes.  Inside the visitor centre were several shops, a bar where you could order one of their world-famous banana daiquiris, and an observation deck where you could go outside and see the magnificent view overlooking Magen’s Bay.

The only unfortunate part of the tour was that the 2 ladies in our group that were on the trolley could not get out at Mountain Top due to the broken lift.  On the bright side, Royal Caribbean later refunded their money, and at least they still got to see the island and Magen’s Bay, albeit from the inside of the trolley.  We made sure they each got a banana daiquiri at Mountain Top too!  Getting them off the trolley at the end of the tour was an interesting experience.  They ended up backing up one of the accessible vehicles against the side of the trolley and then letting the lift down inside the trolley ().  It took a little time and precision driving, but it worked perfectly.

The second port of call was Philipsburg, St. Maarten.  Downtown Philipsburg is only a 15 or 20 minute walk from the cruise port, so most people in our group took a stroll into town for the day.  There is only one company on the island that has a wheelchair accessible vehicle, so I was fortunate enough to have them take my friend and I on a 3-hour tour around the Dutch and the French side of the island.  Although this company only has one accessible vehicle, it was actually quite a modern vehicle () which included a hydraulic lift (), tiedowns (), and could accommodate up to 2 wheelchairs ().  The cost to hire the vehicle and driver was $100/hour, which was expensive for two people doing a 3-hour tour, although if you can get a bunch of people to go on the tour with you and divide the cost, it would obviously be a lot more reasonable. 

The tour itself wasn’t overly memorable.  There seemed to be a lot of construction on the island, and a lot of places looked to be run down, likely from past hurricane damage.  We did make two stops, the first one being at Maho Beach.  This is a world-famous beach best-known because it is located right up against one of the runways for Princess Juliana International Airport.  There is no closer place to watch a plane land as incoming planes narrowly miss the beach before they touch down (type in "Maho Beach” on Youtube and you'll see what I mean!).  Unfortunately, we were only there for 15 or 20 minutes and we did not get to see any planes land.  Hopefully next time!  The other stop we made was at Orient Beach on the French side of the island.  People who get their kicks out of seeing well-fed seniors in all their glory will not be disappointed at this beach.

Next, we docked in St. John's, Antigua for the day.  There was no accessible transportation available at all on this island for tourists.  Apparently any accessible transportation they have is reserved for their local paratransit service.  So, we spent the day walking around the area near the cruise port.  Most sidewalks were not accessible, so I spent most of the time wheeling on the street, which wasn't a big deal.

Our fourth port of call was Castries, St. Lucia.  There is a company in St. Lucia that specializes in wheelchair accessible tours, but they could not yet accommodate electric wheelchairs at the time we were there.  Their vehicle was a simple modified van (no raised roof or lowered floor), and they had a set of manual ramps which enabled them to wheel manual wheelchair users into the van (, ).  They had a brand new van with a hydraulic lift on order from the United States which could accommodate electric wheelchairs, but it had not yet arrived.  So, most of our group was unable to see much of St. Lucia, although the one manual wheelchair user in our group was able to do an island tour with this company.

Since we could not do a tour in St. Lucia, a few of us decided to take a stroll into downtown Castries.  We didn't get very far before being approached by numerous men trying to convince us to go on an island tour with them.  Of course, they did not have accessible vehicles, but they did have fairly large vans, and they said it would not be a problem to have 4 guys lift me in my wheelchair into the back of the van.  One person in our group actually took them up on it, so they lifted her in her electric wheelchair (a combined weight of over 500 lbs.) into the back of one of their vans and off they went for an island tour.  While I would love to have seen a bit of the island, I'm a little more distrusting of 4 guys lifting me up several feet into a van in my power chair, so I decided to forgo the tour and we continued on into town. 

The sidewalk leading into town was not really accessible, so I spent most of the time on the street again.  Once in town, we spent some time walking through the market.  It was quite a poor area, and I felt a little out of place as I was stared at up and down by quite a few people.  Even people that walked by me would continue staring at me for 15 or 20 feet as they walked away from me. It was actually an uncomfortable feeling as I wasn't quite sure if some of them were staring at me simply because they weren't used to seeing electric wheelchairs, or if they were staring at me because they were looking for ways to pick my pocket.  Needless to say, we didn't stick around for long before heading back to the ship.

Our last port of call was Bridgetown, Barbados.  This was another port where Royal Caribbean is able to arrange a wheelchair accessible shore excursion, but only for one or two wheelchair users.  So, I contacted another organization in Barbados that took me around on an island tour when I was in Barbados 5 years earlier.  This time they had access to a brand new wheelchair accessible vehicle that could accommodate 4 wheelchairs (, , , ), so we arranged to have them take our whole group () for a short tour of Barbados .  They took half of our group in the morning for a 3-hour tour, and they took the rest of us for a tour in the afternoon.  Of course, they were not a sightseeing company, so there wasn’t the narration that you would have on a normal tour, but we were happy to just be able to get out and see some of the breathtaking island scenery.  I’m glad they could help us!  A word of caution for anyone doing an island tour in Barbados though -- some of the roads are very steep and it was a bit of a bumpy ride at times, so be prepared.

In between our stops at the various ports of call, there were plenty of things to do the around the ship.  Every night we received a newsletter in our cabin that outlined all of the activities taking place on the ship the following day.  Whether you were interested in bingo, karaoke, trivia games, gambling at the casino, bidding at the art auction, dancing at the Vortex nightclub, Broadway style shows and comedians in the Tropical Theater, or simply relaxing with a drink by the piano in the Schooner Lounge, there was no shortage of things to do to stay entertained.  Of course, that doesn't even include the pool games, the exercise gym, the movie theater, the rock climbing wall, or the mini putt.  It is simply impossible to be bored on a cruise ship!

Like all good things that come to an end, we were sad to have to leave the ship at the end of our 7 days.  On the final morning, our group disembarked the ship at approximately 8 a.m. and went outside to catch our ride back to the airport in San Juan.  Unfortunately, there was a bit of a mixup with the accessible transportation as the accessible vehicles were not waiting for us, and we actually had to call for them to come get us.  Given that the transfers were arranged through the cruise line, the cruise line should have arranged a pickup time with the transportation company so that their vehicles were there when we disembarked and we did not have to call out after them (I later notified Royal Caribbean of this miscommunication and they promised to correct the problem for the future).  While this delay meant that we didn't all get to the airport until 11:30 a.m. for a 1:15 p.m. flight, it turned out that our flight had been delayed anyways so it all worked out perfectly.  Getting through the airport in San Juan turned out to be a slightly quicker process than it did for our flight a week earlier, and we were fortunate once again to arrive in Toronto with everyone's wheelchairs in working order.  All in all, everything went incredibly smoothly the whole week, and the trip turned out to be a resounding success! 

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