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Sunday, 8 May 2016

The pros and cons of cruising in a wheelchair

To set the scene, we have cruised before and loved it. About 10 years ago, we did a couple of cruises on the Queen Mary 2, one transatlantic and one in the Med. We found it really enjoyable and that was why we decided to try it out now that I use a wheelchair.

Why P&O?
We almost went with Cunard again, on the grounds that we love the QM2 and were sure of getting good service. However, we wanted to visit the Norwegian Fjords and preferred earlier season, before the worst of the mozzies and whilst there was still a chance of seeing the Northern Lights. P&O had an early season cruise, visiting four towns on the fjords and for what we would have paid for Cunard's inside cabin, we could have a P&O balcony. So we decided to switch and booked a week on Azura, one of P&O's bigger ships.

We chose to drive to the port in Southampton. It was really easy! We pulled up in a line of cars outside the terminal building. Porters helped us unload cases, which were then taken straight to the ship. When we had got ourselves sorted out, made sure we had everything we needed and were ready to go, we handed the car keys over and someone else parked the car in the car park in the blue badge area, which was helpful for our return.

Wheelchair users were fast tracked through check-in. It was very easy and we were on-board quite quickly. We had one hitch - we had accidentally been upgraded to a better cabin but it wasn't accessible and we only spotted the mistake the day before boarding. This seemed to cause some difficulties as the luggage went to the wrong place initially and our key card needed three attempts at being activated before it would work.

Accessible cabins
Our cabin was on deck 14 and had a balcony. All the accessible cabins are right next to the lifts, which is helpful. More on that later. The cabin was a very good size. Plenty of room to get a wheelchair around it and easy access onto the balcony. Neil had to move a chair out of the way but then I could access the balcony independently.

The en-suite wet room was excellent! It had rails to the left of the toilet (which suits me best) and the shower area had drainage around it, so that the whole floor didn't get wet when you had a shower. In true style, we broke the toilet...

... but they sent a chap to come and fix it pretty pronto!

Getting around the ship
They have obviously attempted to make the ship look as luxurious as possible but this has one major drawback for wheelchair users and their pushers. Thick, plush carpets are the worst for wheelchairs, especially if you have small front casters. Most of the public areas are carpeted and it became exhausting trying to get around independently. I wasn't the only one who found this difficult. It became quite a talking point amongst fellow wheelies.

The other major negative about this cruise was that the ship did not have anywhere near the right lifts to people ratio. We often had to wait ages for a lift, only to find it was already full. Because it was such a nightmare, many people got in a lift going in the wrong direction, rather than risk not getting in one at all. There were many wheelchair and mobility scooter users on board, as well as people with restricted mobility and the downright lazy. Neil made a point of delivering me to a lift and then using the stairs - because he can!

There are two main kinds of restaurant on board and we used both. The main restaurants were 'club dining' and 'freedom dining'. The only difference is that club dining means you always sit at the same table with the same people. We were glad we did that, because the two other couples at our table were great fun! We tended to eat here in the evenings for our main meal.


The other restaurants are buffet restaurants. There were two of these on deck 15, which was easier for us to get to. We had breakfast and lunch in the buffet restaurants, as well as occasional snacks. You just head in and take whatever food you fancy. My only criticism of it was that there wasn't as much variety as Cunard's buffet restaurants, but there was still enough to keep you going.

Going ashore
I suspect I found this experience more irritating than most other wheelchair users. They were well equipped with people to aid and assist you on and off the ship but they only wanted to do it their way. They didn't listen to what I wanted and tried to take over and I felt quite disempowered by their attempts to be helpful.

All four of the ports we visited had a proper dock within easy walking distance of the town/village. They had ramps to get on and off but depending on the tide, this could mean an uphill or downhill transfer. Either way, they wanted to pull your wheelchair backwards, which I positively hate! Because of this, I chose to walk off, but even then, they wanted to help me, even though they had no idea what my needs were or how they might be of most assistance. For some reason, they were very reluctant to let Neil, who knows my needs better than anyone, help me off. 

Ports of call
We visited four of the ports in the Norwegian fjords:
  1. Stavanger
  2. Ålesund
  3. Olden
  4. Bergen
I have to say, my absolute favourite was Olden, even though it was the least accessible. We took a taxi ride to the Briksdal Glacier, which we attempted to ascend, with me in my chair. The views were utterly stunning but the gravel path was steep and narrow in places. We didn't make it more than half way up but even so, it was well worth the effort.

All the ports had towns which favoured cobbles of one type or another and most places were quite hilly. I found my freewheel absolutely invaluable! I cannot imagine how we would have managed without it!

One tip for climbing steep paths: if you need a break, turn sideways to the path. That way, you won't go up or down and you can rest a while. Going down, I found it easiest to adopt a skiing approach and zig-zag from side to side. That way, you don't lose control and can always head slightly uphill as a way of slowing down.

Summing up
In general, I think cruising is a good wheelchair holiday, except for the difficulties with carpets and lifts. On this occasion, I didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped, as I got sick. Towards the end of the Olden day, I started with an awful headache and dizziness which lasted the majority of the rest of the holiday. This was made worse by the exhaustion of pushing on carpets and in the end, I had to let Neil push me all the time.

I would do another cruise but in a few weeks, we're heading off to the Mobility Roadshow, where I will certainly be on the lookout for something to make carpets more manageable!

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