BACKGROUND INFORMATION Organising a holiday where you are travelling with people in wheelchairs is a challenge. We have an eight year old and a six year old, both of whom are in wheelchairs and this presents its own unique difficulties. Will the hotel be fully accessible? Will the room be big enough for two adults, two children and two wheelchairs? Will we be able to get out and about or will we be stuck in the hotel? How do we get to the hotel in the first place? Camping is a no go with area and self catering, while an option, does not really give a break from cooking and there are still questions about accessibility when getting out and about. What we really want is accommodation where everything is organised by the hotel and then when we travel around, the room comes with us. Hmmm. Sounds like a cruise to me.
And so it was that we set about looking at suitable cruise lines. We ended up with a shortlist of possibilities. We wanted a cruise which included Rome which narrowed down the choices, but in the end it was the manner in which Celebrity engaged with us on accessibility issues which swung our decision to them. Not least because they put us in a room which they would only normally release to parties of five or more. We wanted a veranda but there were no veranda rooms which could accommodate the two wheelchairs without going up to the top two classes of suite, so Celebrity gave us a veranda room which was over 500 sq.ft at no extra cost. They also put us in direct contact with the ship's doctor and with the manager of the Youth Program; both of which meant we could work out some of the finer details of being onboard.
TRAVEL TO EMBARKATION So decision made, off we went to Heathrow to catch our flight out. We chose a flycruise arrangement because that way the Celebrity Special access department and the Flights department could sort out access issues and provide special accessible Handyvans from Rome to Civitavecchia. It was unfortunate that our first impressions were tainted. We were told a Celebrity representative would meet us at Heathrow, but nobody was there when we arrived. This didn't matter that much because the airline took over and made the transition onto the flight very easy. In contrast, when we arrived at Rome, Celebrity was there and we found ourselves under their care from the start. They help with pushing the children, getting our hold luggage and getting us all on board the Handyvan. We just had to walk, and point at our bags on the carousel! The Handyvan was well fitted out and comfortable with more than enough room for us, the chairs and our luggage (which was a lot as we have to travel with a significant amount of medication and other equipment). We were identified immediately at Civitavecchia (it is hard to be missed when you have two children in chairs whizzing around) and were onboard and in our stateroom within 30 minutes.
STATEROOM We had been given room 7107. This is one of four Family Ocean View Staterooms with Veranda, two are on deck 07 and two are on deck 08. These rooms are 575sq.ft, those on deck 07 have 53 sq.ft verandas while those on deck 08 have 105 sq.ft verandas. Both the Celebrity suites and the Sky suites are smaller (at around 300 sq.ft.), only the Royal suites (590 sq.ft) and the Penthouse suites (1291sq.ft) are bigger. The rooms are at the extreme front of the boat, ours was on Deck 07 port side. The stateroom has two windows facing forwards as well as the veranda. The view out of the windows to the front looks onto the helipad, but this only obscures view to the starboard side - the view to the port side is completely unobstructed. The room is not disabled access, but as our children are young they can be lifted easily, so we did not need specialist toilet fitting and the like. The drawbacks were minor: there is an automatic door system on the accessible rooms - we had to push our door open while also pushing the wheelchairs, but that is something one gets used to in day-to-day life anyway. There was a funny dogleg to get out of the door, so my son (in his powered chair) had to develop a technique to avoid his chair getting stuck on the threshold. However, such a skill is easy for a Playstation playing eight year old! There was also a step into the restroom and onto the veranda, but again we can lift the children, so no real problems there for us. It would be a problem though for adults or older children with mobility problems. We knew beforehand that we would not be in an accessible room, however there are plenty of wheelchair accessible staterooms on the Solstice Class ships but none that can accommodate two wheelchair guests and there carers without having to pay for two interconnecting rooms. The restroom was well equipped and was somewhat larger than most staterooms. There was a living/lounge area and a dining area which was a great space for the children to play and to accommodate the wheelchairs. The sleeping arrangements included a master bedroom and the children's bedroom, both of which were separate rooms within the stateroom. We originally had had concerns about the veranda. Being on the front of the vessel, the wall slopes from the helipad up to the bridge. This means that there is steelwork which runs across the veranda and obscures half of the view when looking out of the sliding doors. In practice though, this is not a problem. Being at the front of the ship means that you are exposed to winds that verandas further back do not get, so the steelwork provides shelter from the winds, and in fact probably makes the veranda less windy than those further back. The view is not obscured at all when on the veranda and there is plenty of space to stand. In the end we were grateful for this "architectural" feature. The only problem with being at the front was that the whole room shook and juddered when coming into port. This meant that when porting at 04:00am, you would be woken up. We were particularly impressed with the television system which allowed you to do everything from booking room service to ordering any photos taken on the cruise. You can even see what the captain is seeing via a camera mounted on the bridge.
SHIP INFO The ship is big! Be prepared to walk lots if you are at extreme forward or extreme aft. It holds an occupancy of 2850 souls and is 1033ft in length. Deck 02 contains the gangway and the medical facilities. Deck 03 is the reception area with the Grand Foyer, Guest Relations, Shore Excursions, the Passport Bar and the lower floor of the main restaurant "The Silhouette". Deck 04 and 05 form the entertainment areas. Both have access to the Equinox Theatre. Deck 04 has the cinema "Celebrity Central" and the nightclub "Quasar", Fortunes Casino, the Martini ice bar, the wine bar "Cellar Masters" and the upper deck of The Silhouette. There are also about five or six shops spread along the Boulevard where they also hold occasional street markets. Here you could buy necessities if you have forgotten to take things with you, including paracetamol or wash products. Most importantly, you can buy chocolates (including Cadburys products) and Pringles! Deck 05 has boutique shops, the photo studio and galleries, the art gallery and auction room, the Bistro offering crepes, the Cafe Al Bacio coffee shop, and the speciality restaurants (Murano, Silk Harvest, Blu and Tuscan Grille). Deck 06-11 are primarily staterooms, but at each level next to the central atrium there are feature rooms: Online Celebrity (the computer suite) on Deck 06, Team Earth (Celebrity's nod to all things environmental) on Deck 07, the Card Room on Deck 09, and the library is on Decks 10 and 11. Deck 12 is the first of the "Resort" decks. It included the fitness centre, the Aqua Spa including salon, the Solarium - an adults only area which includes the indoor pool and the Aqua Spa cafe, the main pool area - with the usual mass of sunbeds, some of which are in sheltered areas if you don't want to have any more sun!, the Pool Side bar, and an automated fountain which blows water out of the floor - the children loved to play in this, getting wet at apparently random intervals. Deck 14 (there is no Deck 13) has the forward facing Sky Observation Lounge and the conference centre (complete with table tennis table!!), the jogging track around the mezzanine style deck above the pool, a grill for pool side meals and a further bar. Towards the aft is the Oceanview Cafe - the main cafeteria style eating area, and right at the stern is the Oceanview bar where you can sit and watch the sea disappearing on the horizon. Deck 15 is in two parts separated by the pool area. The forward section contains the Youth Program area (X-Club for teens and the Fun Factory for school and pre-school children). The aft section is the Lawn Club, which is almost entirely laid to lawn with natural grass (they periodically get the lawn mowers out) and this area includes the Hot Glass Show. At the extreme aft is the Lawn Club Bar where you can sit on the grass drinking cocktails. All these decks are serviced by the central atrium glass lifts and also by a set of lifts in the forward section of the ship. Deck 16 is only accessible by stairs and is solely given over to sunbathing.
DINING The ship boasts almost 20 separate areas to eat. The Silhouette main dining hall is on two levels. Mainly in pastel colours it is dominated by the Wine Tower, the Solstice Class' unique vertical chrome and glass wine cellar. The children loved going to this restaurant, the waiting staff were entertaining and our waiter could do amazing things with napkins, knives, forks, spoons and cocktail sticks!! The main lower deck area is reserved for the main seatings, the upper deck is for those who have signed up to the Select Dining arrangement where you can reserve a time to eat to your choosing, or even simply show up when you are ready (with the risk you may need to wait for a table, though we never had to). We ate at two of the speciality restaurants: the Murano - an Italian/French style restaurant which was for adults only. This was perfect for my wife's birthday, and we used the babysitting service though we could have put the children into the Fun Factory slumber party had we wanted to. The Silk Harvest welcomes children and specialises in oriental cuisine - be prepared to have to interpret how to use the menus, and if ordering sushi rolls, don't expect small slices; we ordered four rolls (one per person) only to find each roll was the size of a chocolate log! All the food from the Oceanview Cafe to the restaurants was amazing. The food on Celebrity is really something and the staff were always willing to help us with the food and pushing the wheelchairs. Both my wife and I had a birthday during the cruise, and we each got the most amazing chocolate cake. I can't have sugar, so our room attendant got a gift! We had a slight blip when Room Service didn't get an order right (or rather they didn't bring any cutlery), but Celebrity sorted the problem out and went a long way to make up for "any inconvenience".
ACTIVITIES The Hot Glass Show is unique to Celebrity and is renowned for good reason. It is amazing to watch these works of art being created at 1200F before your eyes. The glassware is sold at an auction during the cruise. Celebrity run a three tiered program focussing on aspects such a educational lectures, lifestyles (cooking, etc) and creativity. My wife and I went dancing. No one has ever been able to teach me how to waltz before, though many have tried, but their professionals had me sorted within 15 minutes and by the end of the cruise I was converted. I think my wife will find it much easier to get me to ballroom classes now. Other activities include challenging the captain's staff to games at the Lawn Club and there were some Wii completions in the nightclub area. -Children's Clubs We did not expect the children to want to spend much time away from us on our holiday, but they only had to go to the Fun Factory once and they were hooked. If anything it made it very difficult to convince them to do anything other than go to the Fun Factory. Part of this was probably the Playstation 3 consoles which my son loves, but my daughter is very creative and they did a lot of painting and drawing activities. They teach the children a lot about environmental issues. They do treasure hunts, and they arrange a talent show towards the end of the cruise. My wife has a degree in childcare and development and she thought the team and facilities on the Equinox were superb. The team provided us with a deckphone for the duration of the cruise because of our children's special needs - that way they could contact us directly at any time. On the other hand, this means we could not leave the ship while the children were in the fun factory, but this is probably a reasonable expectation.
SERVICE Celebrity certainly knows how to look after their guests. We have some particular and quite demanding needs associated with having disabled children. The Celebrity staff accommodated them brilliantly and helped us with carrying drinks, tray, pushing chairs, etc. whenever they saw we were struggling. It made everything so much easier. They certainly have staff with the skill of knowing when to be there to help without being overly intrusive - a difficult balance to achieve.
ENTERTAINMENT We went to three shows in the Celebrity Theatre: a dance show, a comedy/magic show, and a circus style show. All three were incredible. The quality of the performers are clearly West End/Broadway quality and at the top of their game. There are wheelchair access facilities which allowed our children to sit at the front and this gave them unobstructed views of the stage. Having said that, there were plenty of other locations in the theatre that the wheelchairs could be parked with excellent views of the performances.
PORT & SHORT EXCURSIONS We arranged shore excurions before going on the cruise and took three, two of which were easy access wheelchair friendly tours. The arrangements were made through the Special Services department who organised Handyvans for the children. Mikonos Beach Tour for Families - this was the only tour which did not have disabled access transport (because Mikonos is not a particular disabled friendly environment). Our children are light enough to be carried on and off the coach and their chairs could be stored in the luggage compartment. We had been told the drivers could not help us with the children for insurance reasons, but in practice they were more than happy to help.
Easy Istanbul - We were the only family to book this tour and therefore we had a tour guide all to ourselves. We saw everything we hoped to see, and the guide was very helpful in getting the wheelchairs up kerbs and over ramps where this was difficult.
Easy Ephesus - This was our only disappointment. While we saw everything on the schedule, it did feel as though we could have seen more, but that the tour company wasn't willing help us go any further than was absolutely necessary. For example, we couldn't get any access into Ephesus itself on the basis of accessibility, even though we could relatively easily have navigated some of the cobbled surfaces.
We did get off the boat at other ports. Santorini was the only tendered port. The gangway attendants were more than happy to carry the children and the wheelchairs into the tender and off at the other end. We knew Santorini wouldn't be great for wheelchairs due to it's location on the top of the volcanic crater. However, the port was great for wheelchairs and the cable car is wheelchair accessible, so we were able to get up into the town to see the views with relative ease, even if we weren't able to do much more when we got up there.
At Kusadasi, the port for Ephesus, the ship docks right by the centre of the town, so it is an easy walk with the wheelchairs to the restaurants and bazaars. Highly recommended. Just be aware that the wheelchair ramps in Turkey simply follow the incline of the stairs, so be prepared to go up and down 1:1 gradients.
Naples port is also by the centre of the city, although access is surprisingly not as good as in Kusadasi. This didn't matter that much as we wanted to try some real Napolese pizza and there was a recommended Pizzeria right by the port. We did also walk up to the Castle which is fairly straightforward, but be prepared to cross Italian roads!!
Getting back to the ship and being welcomed with ice-covered face flannels and cold water was a most welcome touch.
DISEMBARKATION Celebrity organised accessible transport to take us to our privately arranged hotel in Rome, though we had to organise our own transport from the hotel back to the airport. The concierge arranged special luggage collection for us and we were allowed to disembark at 09:45 to catch our 10:00 transport (all other passengers were disembarked before 09:30). SUMMARY Altogether an excellent experience for our first cruise. Celebrity food is excellent, the ships are amazing, and they go the extra mile to make you feel pampered. Make sure you try one of their cocktails.
They are very good at making arrangements for those with accessibility needs, both before and during the cruise and the onboard facilities on the Solstice Class ships are superb.
Would we recommend cruising with Celebrity? Definitely. Would we do it again? Oh yes!
Only on cruising does the hotel room come with you.