Steve and his daughter recently returned from a fantastic wheelchair accessible 7 night France and Spain Royal Caribbean Cruise. I’m excited that they wanted to share their experience of cruising for the first time in this guest post. Their holiday sounds incredible and it has definitely got me wanting to book my first cruise. Steve shares how they got on, what the wheelchair access was like, what they got up to and why he loved this wheelchair accessible Royal Caribbean Cruise.
This October half term, I wanted to go away with my 9 year old daughter abroad, but I really didn’t want to fly because of a) the general busyness of airports and travelling to them, and b) I currently have an ongoing pressure sore, which I have agitated the last two times I have flown. I had considered going on a cruise before but always dismissed it (as many people do), as something you do when you’re retired!
Then, back in August, I was catching up with some old friends who were telling me that they were going on a 14-night, Mediterranean cruise at the beginning of October – this was to be their first time. They are the same age as me and have two young children, so I immediately thought, “Well, if it’s okay for them, it’s okay for us!”
That evening, when I got home I started looking online for cruises from Southampton (which is only about a 40 minutes drive away from where I live, in Poole). I found a couple of different ones that I was interested in – one with P&O Cruises, the other with Royal Caribbean. They both had pretty much identical itineraries, so I, first of all, tried to book with P&O (the cheapest of the two)! Annoyingly, you can’t book a wheelchair accessible cabin online and have to phone up, so I gave them a call only to be told that there were no accessible cabins left!
So I phoned Royal Caribbean (again, you can’t book accessible cabins online, with them either) and they had some inside cabins with ‘Virtual Balconies’ left (more on the balcony later)! I booked there and then – a 7-night cruise with 4 stops, at the ports of Bilbao, La Coruña, Cherbourg & Le Havre, onboard ‘Navigator Of The Seas’. I was very excited!
Arrival, Checking In & Boarding
Before I knew it, it was October and cruise time! On the day of departure, as I’m lucky enough to live relatively close to Southampton, we were able to just get a lift and dropped off at the cruise terminal. For those wishing to drive themselves there, I noted that there was plenty of parking and disabled parking there (of which, I think you need to pre-book). Pulling up at the port, the first thing that hit me was the sheer size of the ship – it was colossal, up close!
Just a quick note at this point to say, this review is mainly aimed at people like myself, who up until this cruise, had never been on one before. So apologies to any seasoned cruisers, who will already know most of what I’m about to write about!
It has to be said, that checking in and boarding the ship, was probably the easiest and smoothest holiday experience, I’ve ever had! On getting out of the car, there were porters waiting with trolleys and buggies, to take your suitcases onboard – you didn’t even need to take them inside the terminal to the check-in desks. From then on, I think it took us less than 15 minutes to check in and board the ship. Boarding, was a breeze from a wheelchair access point of view, too – straight through a shallow sloping tunnel walkway – no messing around with aisle chairs and hanging about for assistance to arrive, like on aeroplanes!
Once onboard, we were greeted with a glass of champagne (well not the 9 year old daughter!), Our cabin wasn’t going to be quite ready for a couple of hours – but by now we were a bit peckish anyway and noticed that the buffet restaurant was already open for lunch, so we headed there. So to cut a long story, short – within one hour of getting out of the car I had; checked in, boarded, had a glass of champagne and eaten a curry – amazing!
Our Wheelchair Accessible Cabin
We had booked an accessible double cabin (as no twins were available at the time of booking). This came with one kingsized bed, which obviously we had to share – this was fine for me with my daughter, as the bed was plenty big enough and she jumps at the chance to sleep with dad when the opportunity is presented!
The room was a good size, with plenty of space to move around. There was ample storage space, with plenty of drawers and the wardrobe even had a pull-down hanging rack. Unusually, there were even more than enough clothes hangers! There was also plenty of space under the bed, where you could store your suitcases – or maybe handy for anybody needing/bringing a mobile hoist.
Also in the room, were a mini-fridge and a TV. As well as the many channels (including Sky Sports), the TV had lots of Royal Caribbean’s own channels providing information – even a channel where you could monitor your onboard spending account!
The en-suite bathroom had a toilet with all the usual grab rails, and the shower was a roll-in type with a foldaway wall-mounted seat and just one horizontal grab rail. I must admit, I found the toilet quite uncomfortable. I didn’t like the shape of the seat or the fact that it was slightly angled or sloping forward. Also, the shower could have done with a pull-down rail on the other side of the seat.
I mentioned earlier about our ‘virtual bacony’ – this was an HD screen, the size of a patio door, displaying a constant live video feed from a camera pointing forwards, located at the front of the ship. It was quite handy to see when we were near a port etc, but I’m not sure if it was worth the extra uplift in price from a standard inside cabin.
Wheelchair Access Around The Ship
After unpacking, we went for an exploration around the ship, and thanks to the use of ‘wayfinders’, it was really easy to find anything you wanted and discover things you didn’t know were there. These were located on the walls in the corridors, near the lifts; they were large touch screens, displaying maps of the ship and lists of events that were happening now or in the future, such as entertainment, quizzes, meetings, etc. They were really useful—you could scroll through a whole program of events and then the wayfinder would show you the route there, etc. Or you could simply use it to find your way back to your room, or any other location on the ship.
The ship was generally very grand looking inside, especially the main area that they call the ‘Royal Promenade,” which consisted of lots of shops, bars, and cafes all located off an indoor promenade. Other indoor areas included a casino, a video arcade, a cinema, extensive kid’s clubs for various ages, and even an indoor ice rink – a place where my daughter spent plenty of time.
There was generally an activity happening somewhere, all day long and into the early hours. Things like quizzes, sports games, treasure hunts, singers/musicians in the various bars, karaoke, movie screenings, lone traveller and LGBT meetings – I could go on forever, to be honest!
The evening entertainment and shows were pretty good too, with probably something for everybody. In the main theatre, performers during our cruise included “The Take That Experience,” an ex-contestant from the X-Factor (sorry, I can’t remember her name), a Broadway-style production, stand-up comedians, and there was a really good dancing show on the ice rink.
General wheelchair access to public areas all around the ship was very good – I can’t really think of too much that was inaccessible to a wheelchair user. I’d heard lots of stories beforehand, of the lifts being really busy, but I found them not too bad and the majority of people were pretty courteous. Most doors to get out onto the decks were automatic opening sliding doors anyway and had level thresholds. Even the public toilets had push button openers – including inside, to the disabled cubicles.
My only minor gripe on access was in the main theatres – there were spaces left out at the back of the fixed seat areas for wheelchair users to sit, as is usual in most theaters. However, the adjacent end fixed seats where a companion would sit with you weren’t marked as such. So, 80% of the time, these end seats were occupied by someone able-bodied who was not accompanied by a wheelchair user. I did mention this in my feedback form to Royal Caribbean, at the end.
Out on the various decks, as well as bar areas, there was a range of leisure and activity facilities, including several swimming pools and hot tubs, a giant TV screen in the pool area, a surfing simulator, a climbing wall, a mini golf course, table tennis, a ball court, and a running track. I couldn’t use the swimming pools because of my pressure sore – however, I did note that they had hoists (the white plastic seat types that you have to transfer onto), which was great. It was just a shame that I wasn’t able to use them, this time.
The mini golf course was also 100% wheelchair accessible. We spent a lot of time playing here – I’d never played mini golf before in a wheelchair, so it was a nice novelty and my daughter absolutely loved it – along with the table tennis tables.
Food & Dining
There were two main eating/dining rooms that were included in the standard full board package. The Windjammer cafe – this is a casual, self-service restaurant, mainly used for breakfast and lunch, but also open for dinner and various other times for snacks. This is a buffet-style, self-service restaurant with a really vast choice of food, which was of superb quality, considering the amount and variety available.
However, at breakfast and lunch times, it can be quite difficult to find a seat, as it gets extremely busy – even though it is huge. There are some tables reserved for wheelchairs, but only a handful and I think I only used one of these, once.
The other included dining option was the main ‘Saphire’ dining room (split over three-floor levels). Here, you get table service and order from a menu. As well as evening dining, this was also open for breakfast (and I believe lunch, but we didn’t do either of these). For evening dining, you are assigned a table, for one of the two dining sessions – 6pm, or 8:30pm. The same table remains yours at your chosen time slot, for the whole of your cruise – whether you choose to use it every night or not. You are also assigned the same two waiters, that serve you every time.
We really liked this, as we built up a lovely rapport with our two, and they were great with my daughter, letting her vary and tailor her food from the set menu and entertaining her in various ways, such as origami and magic tricks. The food was also great here and of very high quality. There were some other dining room options, that you had to pay a surcharge for, but we never tried these; the included options, were plenty and easily nice enough for us.
It’s also worth noting that there were several complimentary drink stations strewn about the ship: hot drink stations serving a variety of teas, coffees, hot chocolate, and hot water. There were cold drink stations with water, squash or juice, and iced tea, as well as a couple of help yourself ice cream dispensers. Fizzy drinks, sodas, and alcohol were not complimentary; you could either pay for them individually (as we did occasionally) or purchase a “drinks package,” allowing almost unlimited drinks.
I’ll try to keep this part, brief! We really weren’t too bothered about the destinations that we were cruising to, as it was more about the ship for us, on our first cruise. We just wanted somewhere that had reasonably good weather, wasn’t too far in distance (or too long in time), but long enough to give a good taster of the whole cruising experience. So the four European ports in France and Spain were ideal really.
Upon doing a bit of research on each port, the place that I really wanted to visit most, was the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao—this place didn’t disappoint! A really impressive building, with amazing historic and contemporary art displays. Great wheelchair access and it was also free to all visitors on the day we were there, as they were celebrating an anniversary of being open (I think it was 11 years). I couldn’t possibly add any photos of the displays inside because photography is mostly not permitted there, so of course, I didn’t take any!
Bilbao itself is quite a contemporary city, especially the area around the Guggenheim, by the river. My daughter’s favourite place was actually La Coruña, due to its many streets and little touristy shops. A typical girl who loves to shop!
I’d visited Cherbourg a couple of times before and Le Havre, once. (although many, many years ago). We did spend a few hours wandering around Cherbourg enjoying a drink and a couple of cakes from the many beautiful patisseries. However, we didn’t even get off the ship at Le Havre – there’s not particularly a great deal there from memory, that would have been of interest to us and we just fancied a day relaxing on the ship, as it was near to the end of our cruise. There was the offer of a trip to Paris from Le Havre, but this was to be a coach journey of over 3 hours, each way. Besides the fact that I’d been to Paris before – we couldn’t justify spending a total of 6 hours on a coach.
All of these ports were easy to access off the ship, as they were purpose-built established ports, where the ship could dock and offer direct ramped access to the shore, which was really easy (just as boarding was at Southampton). Most of you will no doubt know that this is not always the case with some ports, where a ‘tender’ boat is sometimes required to reach land, and these are mostly not wheelchair accessible, from my understanding.
Of the three ports where we did get off, La Coruña and Cherbourg were both within easy walking/wheeling distance of the town/city centres. Bilbao required a 15-20 minute coach journey, for a small fee of 10 Euros. There were plenty of coaches available, however – there was only one wheelchair accessible coach – which was quite frustrating having to wait the extra time of 30-40 minutes for it, to do a round trip before being able to get picked up. I was expecting there to be low floor public transport type buses, rather than a high up coach, with a platform lift.
So, to conclude, without a shadow of a doubt, I’m really glad that we went on the Royal Caribbean cruise. We absolutely loved it, and the 7 nights were an ideal first taste of the whole experience. We will most definitely be going on another at some point (probably several more!). I personally, however, wouldn’t be one of those people who only go on cruises, for their holidays. That’s not a criticism; it’s just my personal preference, as in some places, such as city breaks where there is a lot to take in, I think you need more time to explore than what a cruise allows you when in port. But if you are like I was and hesitant as to whether or not to go on your first cruise, I would say go on, go for it!
Thank you to Steve and his daughter for sharing their fantastic holiday with us. Have you been on a cruise before? Has this got you wanting to book a cruise? If you’d like to share your own accessible travel story in a guest post, please click here.
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*Main feature image credit: @Royal Caribbean