Sorry for the hiatus in my blog writing over the last several weeks, but, as many of you know, I was off on an international adventure with my boyfriend on a Royal Caribbean seven-day cruise to the Western Caribbean. My boyfriend and I have been together for about two years now and we wanted to do something exciting with just the two of us to see how we would be able to handle 10 days alone with no help.
I did a copious amount of research on accessible vacations and I decided on taking a cruise as I read so much about how cruise ships are accessible. We decided on a seven-day cruise leaving out of the Port of Tampa, Florida going to Key West, then to Cozumel, Mexico, then to Belize, and then to Costa Maya, Mexico. I have so many stories so I will split this adventure up into several blogs, so you don’t have to read a novel all at once!
Needless-to-say I was pretty nervous at the prospect of going alone with one person on a vacation who would be responsible for all of my care. I wanted to plan a trip where I could stay in one location and take mini adventures from day-to-day. I’m going to save my conclusions of my overall experience after I dive into all of the exciting, challenging, and fun excursions we embarked on for the last blog.
I prepared for this trip for weeks. I created a document with an extensive packing list for everything I might need in case I got stuck in a foreign country for whatever reason. Considering I’m mildly neurotic about making sure I don’t forget anything, I think I packed the kitchen sink, and then some. As the old saying goes “I rather have it and not need it, then need it and not have it!” Most of my suitcases were dedicated to medical supplies and just a few items to clothing. I also decided to bring a big egg crate because I have the most sensitive skin in the world, and I was unsure of the mattress surfaces on the ship beds. I also brought along my manual chair for excursions in foreign countries as I was fairly confident a power wheelchair would not get me far in countries where ADA compliance is not quite as strict.
Our cruise was set to depart on Sunday, April 15 from Tampa, Florida. We decided to leave on that Friday and drive 9 ½ hours from Raleigh to Tampa in order to have a day exploring downtown Tampa, and meeting up with a longtime friend whom I had not seen in about four years. I’m sure I could’ve flown down to Tampa had it not been for not with the ridiculous amount of gear we were carrying with us. The drive went pretty smoothly and we checked into a hotel in downtown Tampa. Before meeting up with a friend for the afternoon to go play, drink, and frolic about we first needed to give me a shower, and wash my hair before heading onto the ship. This was quite an endeavor because at home I usually do a type of bed bath and then stick my head in the sink to wash my hair. This was clearly not an option, and while we did get a roll in shower I did not bring a shower chair with me because I just couldn’t fit anymore gear into the car.
In the typical roll-in showers in hotels they usually have a small pulldown shower seat, which is quite dangerous, but it is all we had to work with at the time. Aaron put many towels on the shower seat for padding, picked me up like a princess, and strategically sat me down on the shower bench while I held on for dear life. He got in the shower with me while I wrapped my arms around his body as he washed my hair and body. It was dangerously comical, but we made it work. I definitely don’t suggest this method unless you have a very strong man who can lift you up and make sure you don’t fall flat on the floor 🙂 We were testing out this shower method as the ship had a similar set up for a roll-in shower, and I needed to make sure we were capable of getting me semi-clean every few days on the ship.
When we headed to downtown Tampa to meet up with one of my great friends Jill. We absolutely fell in love with the town. We went to a famous area called Ybor city that has a Cuban influence where we watched cigars being rolled, smoked cigars, bounced around from one cool Cuban spot to another, and reminisced the night away with Jill. We decided that Tampa was worth a trip in and of itself one day as there are so many little gems the city has to offer in addition to the entire West Coast of Florida. I spent over 12 years in Miami, but somehow never managed to get out West.
On Sunday morning we packed up our gear at 5 AM in the morning in order to arrive down to the port of Tampa to board our Royal Caribbean ship, Rhapsody of Seas. We decided on this ship because it was one of the smaller ones in the fleet with only 2,900 passengers. Some of the Royal Caribbean ships have upwards toward 6,000 passengers. I had never been on a cruise before and I grew up with an unfortunate stigma thinking that cruise ships were pretty awful with the idea of being stuck on a floating island with thousands of people unable to get off for days at a time. I’ve had to re-adjust my expectations of traveling since my accident because finding things that are handicap accessible that allow me to use my power chair & manual chair can be slightly limited. So, I drove down to the port with an open mind and absolutely no idea what to expect.
It was complete mayhem when we got there at 9:30 AM for a 10 AM boarding time. There were hundreds of people everywhere, we had no idea where to park, and we were driving around in circles. We found a nice policeman who guided us where we could unload our luggage and park our car. Fortunately, we saved up enough money where we booked a Junior Suite, which allowed us to have a type of VIP service. For a variety of reasons we got an extra special VIP service for the whole cruise, which I will go into more detail later what that meant, but it helped us tremendously in so many ways including boarding the ship more quickly.
One major advantage of being in a wheelchair is you get to skip all of the lines. When we entered the building to board the ship the staff of Royal Caribbean were beyond fabulous. They parted the lines as I suppose Moses parted the Red Sea, so they say 😉 I could see all of the other passengers look at us with envy as we cut ahead of them and made our way to the VIP lounge to be the first to board the ship. Now, you don’t have to book a suite in order to cut all the lines as long as you’re in a wheelchair. It only took us about half an hour to get to our waiting area before boarding the ship. I was so excited and anxious to see what a cruise ship looked like.
They finally called our names and as we rolled up the gangway to enter the ship with our cruise ID badges. We were greeted with smiles and offers to help us in any way we needed. When we entered the cruise ship I could see about 10 floors of pure elegance, lights, beautiful decorations, and so much to explore. I was like a little kid in a candy shop who wanted to explore every inch of the ship at that exact moment.
I did think we were going to go to our room right away, but I didn’t realize that we had to wait until about 1 PM to be allowed into our room until our luggage had arrived, and the staff cleaned the rooms from the previous cruise that had just departed that morning. So, basically we had several hours to kill, which was music to my ears. At that point in the morning I had 100% battery charge in my wheelchair, and by the time we went to bed that night I was down to about 30%. It takes at least 6 to 7 miles for my battery to lose that much juice, which gives you an idea of how much I made poor Aaron roll around 10 decks of the ship.
Aaron was so patient with me as he could see my excitement and desire to learn where everything was on the ship before 1 PM that day. We literally pressed every button on the elevator to get off on each floor of the cruise ship and roll around the entire length of the ship for that floor, and then do it again for another floor. Mind you this was one of Royal Caribbean’s smaller ships … I could not even imagine what one of the larger ships would have been like.
There was a casino, a theater, multiple levels of lounge areas for music, two small pools, VIP lounges, three specialty restaurants, three main dining rooms, vast amounts of outside deck to roll around, multiple floors of passenger rooms, etc. I was so looking forward to swimming, but to our disappointment because the ship was one of the smaller ones in the fleet the pool was so tiny, and not exactly feasible for me to get into with the vast amounts of people constantly swimming in the pool. At least I know for next time we need a slightly larger class ship in order to partake in swim activities, and not get trampled by folks in the pool!
Once we finally got into our room we were slightly surprised with how small the Junior Suites were actually. We had a fabulous state room attendant who helped us move all of the furniture out of the room except the couch, which allowed me to roll around with my power wheelchair with more ease. The staff were extremely accommodating and willing to help us in any way they could. To our wonderful surprise we had a lovely lady named Ligia come down to meet us personally, and said that she would be our VIP staff who would help us with anything that we may need over the course of the next seven days. I will dive into more detail of all of the amazing things she did for us incoming blogs.
She escorted us around the ship and showed us some private lounges that we could relax in with minimal amount of people. One thing I learned very quickly, which is specific to me, is I really don’t love crowds. I prefer to find little nook’s with less people. I am the type of person who either likes to hang out with a bunch of people for a few hours or have complete solitude. I was slightly overwhelmed with the amount of people constantly buzzing about the ship, but if you take the time to explore carefully you can always find areas on the ship that do not have too many people. However, some people absolutely love to be surrounded by folks all the time, so it really depends what kind of person you are.
I was really intrigued to see folks from all walks of life on the ship. You have folks who just wanted to party by the pool, elderly folks who had been on 30 to 50 cruises before, permanent cruisers who stayed on the ship for months at a time, families, couples who want just wanted to party, etc. I had never seen such a diverse group of individuals in such a confined space before.
After we were all settled into the room we headed up to one of the private lounges, had a drink, and started chatting with some folks who had been on their 26th cruise. They were an absolutely lovely couple in their 40’s who we got to know quite well over the next week and hung out with quite a bit. They said after about their 15th cruise they just stopped doing excursions and generally just stayed on the boat because they found it more relaxing. I think they must of thought we were nuts for the amount of excursions we were about to embark on, but as “newbie” cruisers we wanted to try everything, which in hindsight, might have been a little bit too much.
The first night we ate in one of the dining rooms that you could eat at any time called the Windjammer. Aside from the specialty restaurants where you can make reservations there are also two large dining rooms that have specified times guests can eat at based on your cabin number.
Bright and early on Monday morning we were set to arrive in Key West, which I had been too many times, and were just going to walk around by ourselves as I was familiar with one of the coolest towns on the planet! We had every intention of going to bed early, but I think the excitement overcame us and we ended up having a few more drinks than planned, and listened to a fabulous reggae band with some of the guests. We were dancing the night away on the dance floor with folks coming up to me telling me how proud they were of me… I get that quite a lot with the whole wheelchair thing 😉 I know it bothers a lot of people, but it did not bother me one bit as I know their intentions were sweet and they didn’t mean anything by it. If they want to think I am awesome for dancing in a wheelchair on the dance floor, then so be it! I’ll take that awesome thank you very much.
We finally ended up going to bed around 11 PM, which is usually way past my bedtime, but it was worth it. The only unfortunate challenge we ran into on a daily basis was that we usually had to get up between 5 AM to 5:30 AM in the morning in order to be ready by 9 AM to get off the ship. One challenge with a cruise ship is that while you go to many cool destinations you only have eight hours at that destination, and if you are not back on the ship by then they will leave you. I mean they will literally leave you in a foreign country and you are on your own. I certainly did not want that to happen! So, as you can imagine, getting up every day on a vacation between 5 AM to 5:30 AM in the morning definitely took its toll on us by the end of the trip.
Monday morning we docked at Key West, got up early, had room service delivered to our room as we never really had time in the morning to go sit down for a breakfast, and we were ready to go.
In my next blog next week I will take you into our wonderful world of cruise ship excursions over the next several days. We found the coolest little local gem of a spot called Blue Heaven in Key West while meeting up with one of Aaron’s Family friends; braved dangerous snorkeling adventures in Cozumel, Mexico; experienced thousand-year-old Mayan ruins while driving down treacherous roads in Belize; sipped piña colada’s while watching dolphins, and so much more!