This a review of the Volendam's 5 December 11 voyage around New Zealand, a Sydney to Sydney round trip. But there is a back story to this review.
In July my wife Gail, who posts on these boards as Abby Ruth, was diagnosed with ALS (motor neurone disease for those in the UK). The disease is marked by a progressive weakening of the voluntary muscles. We got evidence of this on an earlier Black Sea cruise, when Gail literally fell off a tour bus trying to get up a very high set of steps. We canceled all remaining ships tours, and either got around ports on our own or made a deal with a cab driver to take us around. By early Fall, Gail was using a walker, and three months before leaving, we decided to rent a wheelchair in Sydney and take it with us on the ship. We had already made arrangements for private tours in vehicles which Gail could enter and which could carry the folded chair.
A little over two weeks before leaving, I discovered that Volendam has bathtubs in its cabins, unlike the Cunard and Celebrity ships we have previously taken. I knew that this would be a problem for Gail, since we have installed rails at home for her to use when showering. I called our HAL cruise consultant to ask about switching to a handicap cabin which would have a stall shower. He told us that the boat was full, and that we would be on a waitlist for any disability cabins which open up. I decided to bypass him and go directly to HAL's Access and Compliance department. They immediately e-mailed us a form on which I stated our needs, and 36 minutes after I clicked on Send, their return e-mail gave us our new cabin number, in a wheelchair accessible cabin three grades above the one which we had booked. As far as I am concerned, this defines customer service (and raises some questions about the cruise consultant).
I decided that the flight from Philadelphia to Sydney was worth spending my accumulated US Airways miles in order to go business class. Our routing involved a number of Star Alliance airlines, starting with Air Canada, via Toronto and Vancouver. Wheelchairs awaited us at each destination, and in Vancouver we had the pleasure of using Air Canada's business class lounge for a few hours. We liked Air Canada's pod-like business-class seats, which are placed at an angle to the plane's wall and aisle. I was thus able to help Gail get up from her seat when she needed to use the toilet. Even in business class, the 15.5 hour flight from Vancouver to Sydney was tedious, and we both slept a lot. The big surprise on landing in Sydney was having overheads opened and the plane sprayed; we were not allowed to touch our luggage for five minutes after spraying, by which time presumably all of the cooties which we had brought from North America would have fallen over clutching their throats. At Sydney too a wheelchair was waiting, and an unpleasant surprise.
Thursday 1 December
There's nothing that makes the heart sink like getting paged at baggage claim when not all of your bags have yet appeared. One of my bags didn't make it onto the plane in Vancouver. I soon learned that it was the bag with all of my clothes. Unless I wanted to walk around Sydney in a tuxedo, I was going to need some new clothing. Because I was flying business class, Qantas, acting for Air Canada, gave me $100 for emergency outfitting. This doesn't go far in Sydney. At the department store next to my hotel, I spent $186 on two sets of underwear, two pairs of socks and two dress shirts. Since I am a big guy, I didn't have much selection. The only underpants which fit were black and, bizarrely, had no fly. I eventually fixed that deficiency with my wife's scissors. She was totally wiped out from the flight and slept all afternoon and we wound up eating an expensive but not bad dinner at the hotel.
We stayed at the Swissotel in Sydney. This was not the cheapest option at an average $250 a night (at the time of writing, the Australian and US dollars were at parity) but it included free wired internet and has a superb location between the accessible Town Hall underground station and Sydney's largest bookstore with, as it turned out, several accessible restaurants nearby. We had 1919, a handicap room overlooking Market Street but getting no street noise whatsoever. The bathroom was huge, and the roll-in shower was designed not to flood the rest of the bathroom. A full breakfast buffet was tasty, but ran $35 a person.
Friday 2 December
Our first activity was a four-hour tour of Greater Sydney with Geoff Kemble of Wheelchairs to Go, who has a one-chair Toyota van with a lift. Gail went in the back, and transferred to the front passenger seat. Geoff was knowledgeable, and insisted on pushing the chair at places where we dismounted, including an area near Mrs. Macquarie's Chair with a stunning view of the Opera House, skyline and Bridge. We had lunch at an outdoor cafe in Tamarama Beach, where Geoff surfs when he is not driving one of Sydney's 700 wheelchair cabs (which by the way, do not charge extra, but should be booked in advance; they are very busy).
After wimping out and eating in the hotel the first night, we were determined to find a nearby accessible restaurant. The Westfield Mall is a block from our hotel, and has a sort of restaurant food court on the 6th floor, all accessible but requiring going up a long ramp. We ate at Spiedo, a sophisticated northern Italian restaurant (ie, no red sauce) with an open kitchen. Quite good, about $100 for the two of us which is moderate by Sydney standards.
Saturday 3 December
The agenda today was to see whether Sydney's rail transit system is really as wheelchair-friendly as it claims to be. The answer is, pretty much yes. We decided to take the ferry to Manly, a picturesque half-hour trip across Sydney's harbor. Again the sky was clear and the temperature in the mid-60s on this official third day of summer. We went to the Queen Victoria Building, catty-corner from our hotel, and walked through the 1891 building to an elevator which took us down to an underground concourse leading directly to Town Hall station. This is one of the stations on the city loop reputed to have wheelchair access to trains. I bought two $20 all-day, all-mode tickets and asked how we would get Gail to the platform. A station agent came out from the office, ushered us through an open gate without checking our tickets, and took us on the lift down to the proper platform for Circular Quay, from where the ferries depart. On the platform, he introduced us to the platform manager, and we learned that a wheelchair ride on the underground trains is a customized event; you don't just nonchalantly roll onto your train.
The Sydney underground loop is not really a subway as most of the rest of the world knows it. Rather, it is the termination of suburban electric trains; it is closest in practice to the Parisian RER. The door bottoms on the heavy double-deck railcars do not line up with the platform, requiring the platform manager to bring out a portable ramp to get onto the train. Not only that, but the platform manager needs to know where you are getting off, so that she can alert the platform manager at the other end as to what car you are in, in order to be waiting with the exit ramp. A little clunky, but it works, and the station staff were unfailingly nice about it.
At Circular Quay a lift took us down to ground level, where we exited through the wide gate which is next to the booth with a human at each station. This is a very labor-intensive railroad. We walked over to Wharf 3 for the Manly ferry, and got in line for one which was just discharging passengers preparatory to loading. Passengers walk up a ramp to get on the boat, but it is uneven, changes slope, and has raised metal strips for traction. I needed to take Gail up the ramp backwards, and we eventually disembarked backwards as well. I put Gail's chair on the outside deck in a space next to a bench, but she had to be sideways in order to allow space for people to pass. I sat next to her, and we had a spectacular trip across, culminating with the discovery of a handicap bathroom in the Manly terminal. After wandering around Manly for a bit and having lunch at an outdoor cafe, we caught a boat back, boarding just as the gates were closing. I guilted some people into moving over on an outside bench so I could be next to Gail, and we had another spectacular ride back.
Through the wide gate and up to the platform on the lift, and there was a train already in the station. This time a conductor on the train (I told you it is labor-intensive) set up the ramp and radioed ahead to Town Hall for the ramp to be waiting. I could have taken Gail off, backwards, without the ramp, but sure enough the platform manager was waiting as we pulled in.
So yes, Sydney's rail and ferries are wheelchair friendly, but with a little help.
Back to Westfield Center for dinner at Xanthia, a Greek restaurant with a shredded lamb shoulder to die for. Gail got a mushroom and truffle moussaka, which satisfied her mushroom addiction.
Sunday, 4 December
Today Tony Estevez, one of the principals of Wheelchairs to Go, took us up to the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in his huge two-chair Toyota HiAce Commuter, also with lift. We stopped first at Ferndale Animal Reserve, about an hour outside of central Sydney, where every animal is a native Australian. We got to pet a koala bear (all of his mates were asleep, since that it really what koalas do most of the time), as well as cockatoos, wombats and wallabies. The latter are like miniature kangaroos, and we saw a wallaby baby half-out of its mother's pouch. The wallabies are about the size of German Shepherds and quite placid with being fussed over by people. Kangaroos are much bigger, and are not allowed to wander freely. We got to hold a truly ugly lizard looking like a miniature dinosaur, and were introduced to wombats, which are sort of like slow-moving furry casks. Our good weather luck ended on Saturday. The same showers that cut our visit to Ferndale short brought heavy cloud cover/fog which completely covered the iconic Three Sisters. And the accessible cable car which was to take us to a wheelchair-friendly path of rain forest on the valley floor was out of service, awaiting a part from Germany.
Our plan B was to drive to the old Government House in Parramatta, a late 18th/early 19th home of several early NSW governors, including the famous Macquarie. We got there just as it was closing, but were given a lively ground floor tour by the site's director. The site is not far from Parramatta station, one of the accessible stations on the City Rail system (not all of them are), so we could have reached it from the hotel.
Dinner was at the Fat Buddha, an accessible Chinese restaurant open 24/7 in the 1891 Queen Victoria Building, a sight in itself with its exuberant Victorian decor.
Monday, 5 December
Back to the QVB for some shopping at the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company) store, which has an excellent children's book section, and a good selection of CDs, especially classical. We bought a book for a nephew and I bought a classical CD incorporating an aboriginal digeridoo, which I'm not likely to find back in southern NJ.
We asked the desk to call a wheelchair cab for the short ride over to Darling Harbor and the ship. After waiting over a half hour, we concluded that the promised cab was not going to show up, and settled for a station wagon. The reality of the Sydney disabled cab scene is that the wheelchair cabs are generally booked up with hospital patients or people going to clinics. And non-wheelchair cabs don't want to handle chairs. After the Swissotel doorman flagged down a station wagon and I rolled Gail out, the cabbie looked at her and said "I don't want no wheelchairs" and roared away. The second cab took the chair, but cursed under his breath when he heard the destination, perhaps a mile and a half from the hotel.
At the wharf 5 terminal, Holland America had a wheelchair help desk but, uniquely in my experience, no porters were available to take passenger luggage. So a HAL team member wheeled Gail into the departures hall, and the HAL wheelchair guy and I hand carried the luggage to where it needed to go. We eventually made it onto the ship and looked around our recently acquired disabled cabin, 3429. This is right at the back of the ship and opens onto the outdoor promenade deck. The windows are heavily silvered, so we were not concerned about people looking in. The cabin is large, with ample room to park the chair, and three closets. The large bathroom has a roll-in shower at one end with a clever set of floor drains to keep it from being flooded.
We were able to get a table for two, more comfortable for Gail since her speech tends to deteriorate in the evening when she is more tired; we had originally asked for a table for 6.
Tuesday, 6 December and Wednesday, 7 December
A very rough crossing of the Tasman Sea. Gail can be unsteady on her feet on dry land; in a heaving sea, I needed to be with her every moment of the day. All that kept us going was the expectation that the water would be calmer as soon as we reached New Zealand coastal waters. This, incidentally, is nothing unusual. The Tasman Sea is known for its heavy swell, which in our case was as high as 12 feet.
We liked the Volendam. HAL's crews do seem friendlier and more helpful than those on other lines, and we appreciated some of the line's trademark practices, like fresh-squeezed orange juice at breakfast, keeping entertainers in the same lounge for the whole trip rather than moving them around as Celebrity does, and allowing free internet access to nytimes.com which meant that we could keep our NY Times iPad app constantly updated. The food was imaginative and well-prepared, and I was surprised to discover that the cheese selection (always a dessert option) was more sophisticated than on the Cunarder we had sailed in a few months before. What was even more surprising was the quality of the food in the Lido, where excellent curries were regularly available. A portion of the Lido became the ship's Italian restaurant at dinner time which seemed rather strange; we were quite happy with the main dining room for dinner.
The ship handles its passengers well; we typically got an empty elevator, which made maneuvering the chair easier. Getting around with the wheelchair was no problem, and often in the dining room, a steward would take the chair to our table. There are a number of handicap bathrooms at various places around the ship.
Probably the only real downside were the three daily announcements over the PA system from the ship's cheery Cruise Director. These communicated nothing that wasn't in the daily program, and wound up sounding like commercials, not something I want on a cruise.
Thursday, 8 December
Having actually reached New Zealand, we stayed on the ship for a day of scenic cruising through three impressive fjords (misnamed sounds): Milford Sound (lent an air of mystery by early morning fog); Doubtful Sound and the largest of all, Dusky Sound. One breathtaking vista followed another, with the common theme of steep green-clad hills coming down into quiet dark waters. Milford Sound triggered memories of scenes from one of the Lord of the Rings films. We both took huge numbers of pictures as we absorbed the always-interesting commentary by Jeremy, the ship's tour guide and amateur historian.
Friday, 9 December
The ship's first port was Oban, on Stewart Island, a national park with only about 400 permanent residents. Since this is a tender port, we inquired about wheelchair handling, and were told that the dock at Oban could not handle wheelchairs (too narrow?) and that we therefore could not disembark. Considering that that there is a rather steep 700-foot uphill climb from the dock to the town, we were not upset. In any case, our interest always tends toward how people live in different countries and toward architecture, rather than nature. So we spent a relaxed day on the ship along with quite a few others.
Saturday, 10 December
Our first landfall, in Dunedin, where we had arranged for a half-day tour in a minivan with Kim of Iconic Tours. He was standing at the bottom of the steepest gangway I have ever seen, holding a sign with our name. But how was I going to get the chair down a near-45 degree ramp? Luckily, two crew members took over and got the chair down, and took it up when we returned. Kim had an auxiliary step in his van, and Gail could sit in the passenger seat next to him, while I sat in the back. We had a thorough tour of Dunedin on a sunny spring day (winter starts later in NZ than in Australia), including a lovely Rose garden and a stop at the southernmost synagogue in the world. We also toured Olveston, a turn-of-the-20th-century mansion built by a Dunedin magnate and occupied by his wife until 1966; everything in the house is original.
A highlight of the evening was the Indonesian crew show. We had seen this on board Maasdam and were under the impression that this was something that the crew whipped up in their spare time, using costumes brought from home. However, several years later and on a different ship the show was virtually identical, leading me to suspect that it is a HAL "product" with less spontaneity than I had thought. Nevertheless, it was lively and fun, and we really enjoyed it. Gail was able to leave the chair and sit in a balcony seat, though I had to help her up when we left.
Sunday, 11 December
Akaroa was really the only tender port for which we had plans. Uncharacteristically for us, we had booked on a two-hour nature cruise leaving directly from the tender dock (the original port of Lyttleton/Christchurch was scrubbed due to earthquake damage). We had notified the ship of our need to take the chair on the tender, and were told that that our ability to disembark would depend on the weather and the height of the seas, which seemed reasonable to us, and that someone from Guest Services would call and let us know how things stood. When no one called, I did, and was chagrined to be told that the wheelchair lift on Volendam was not in working order, and that access to the tender could only be obtained by those who could walk down (and then of course back up) 13 steps, which certainly left Gail out. I e-mailed Black Cat cruises, which had been paid in advance, and they graciously refunded our money.
So another relaxing day on the boat, not the worst of things given the fact that the day was damp, cold and grey.
Monday, 12 December
Our first North Island port today, Wellington. Getting off the ship was an adventure. The gangway was very steep, and it required two HAL crew members to take Gail down in the chair, backwards. It was never clear to us why such steep gangways were necessary, since the ship can disembark passengers on decks 1, 2 and 3 as well as from the tender doors on Deck A. The latter probably can't be used for gangways because changing tides might put it below dock level. So for anyone in a wheelchair, getting off and back on the ship at various ports is a white-knuckle experience.
Laura the Explorer from Flat Earth Tours met us with a standard Kia minivan. Gail was able to get into the front seat by going in butt first and swiveling around, but we learned later that NZ law requires that second and third row passenger seats in such vans be recessed from the doors, which makes it difficult for Gail to use them. We got a great half-day tour of Wellington, which is breathtakingly hilly. We rode a cable car from downtown to a hillside suburb and learned that some hillside dwellers park on streets below their houses and install private cable cars to reach their property. Toward the end of the tour, Laura waited for us outside of the national museum (Te Papa) while we bought gifts. We tend not to be museum-goers when we travel; we are more interested in how people live. Incidentally, the small coffeehouse and pastry shop at which we stopped for a break had a serviceable handicap bathroom, even though New Zealand does not have anything equivalent to the US ADA.
Tuesday, 13 December
Today's port is Napier, the highlight of the trip for me. It was a NY Times article about Napier a few years ago which triggered my desire to go to NZ. The town was virtually destroyed in a 1931 earthquake and was rebuilt in the most modern style, which at the time was art deco. The residents have been wise enough to realize how unique a town they have, and the art deco downtown has been preserved.
For the first time, we got some pushback at our desire to take the chair down an extremely steep gangplank. We were asked several times if Gail was able to walk down the gangway, and were told once that we couldn't depart the ship. Then a ship's officer came up from outside and personally helped another crew member take the chair down. I think that HAL's heart is in the right place, but the execution is occasionally shaky.
We toured with John of Hawkes Bay Scenic Tours in a 10-seater Toyota Hi-Ace. Gail had to sit in the second row, and it was a struggle getting there; we would have been better off in a minivan rather than this larger vehicle, but regrettably for us, the tour sold well and the company had to lay on a larger vehicle. Although on-board time was 1:30 due to the tides at Napier, we got to see a lot of the surrounding countryside, including some magnificent views from high points, and one of the local vineyards. As we neared the end of the tour, John let us out for a 20-minute wander around the art deco district. Since Gail had such a struggle getting into the van, she stayed on board whenever the rest of us dismounted, and while we were downtown, John drove her to nearby residential area where many of the houses were in art deco style. Back on board, and then an afternoon nap before getting dressed for our first formal night of the cruise. We ducked out of an earlier formal night during the rough passage across the Tasman Sea and ate in our cabin.
Wednesday, 14 December
We docked at Mount Manganui, a suburb of Tauranga which in turn is the port for Rotorua, a center of both Maori culture and geothermal activity. Having no interest in either of the latter, we took this as an extra sea day, although I went off for an hour to check out a local bookstore and to buy a newspaper. Gail elected to stay on board, which was a wise move since the weather was humid and overcast, with some sprinkles as I returned to the ship. The ship is much nicer, and quieter for reading, with everyone off on tours. Because of the tides, we were in port until 11pm, but quite a few people stayed on board to eat.
Alarming news came in the form of a letter from the captain telling us that we would probably miss the call at Waitangi due to predicted nasty weather in the Tasman Sea. We will need Friday, he thinks, to make up for the loss of time from slowing down the ship to keep passengers comfortable in 20-foot swells.
Thursday, December 15
A desultory tour of Auckland on grey rainy day. The guide was late, although some of that may be because I told him, following HAL's port information leaflet, that we would come in at Prince's Wharf and we in fact docked at Queen's Wharf, next one over. Still, the Volendam is pretty hard to miss. One feature of this tour is that it is conducted in an S-class Mercedes. Either our guide is misinformed, or there is truly not that much to see in Auckland, which in fact looks like any largish American city. Apparently the high spot of the tour was to have been an hour or two in the Auckland Museum, and our guide was miffed when we declined, explaining that we want to see how people live, not what they collected. We were dropped back at the ship, and I went out a little later to buy a gift for a friend and to change my remaining NZ dollars for Australian dollars. Curiously, I got a better rate at a hole-in-the-wall currency exchange in Auckland's Westfield Center than in the HSBC bank next door, which wanted to charge a NZ$10 fee to exchange NZ$133.
At dinner, the Captain confirmed that we will miss the Bay of Islands call, and offered a glass of champagne in token recompense. We are warned that the sea will be rough from 7am Friday to 7am Saturday, but that things should get better over the weekend.
Friday, 16 December through Sunday, 18 December
Well, the seas were rough on Friday, and even on Saturday, but no worse than they were coming to NZ. Things smoothed out on Sunday. Sunday was the final dinner of the trip, with the chef's parade, baked Alaska and a high level of general silliness. Perhaps someone wasn't paying due attention to the food, because Gail's dinner of a spinach and mushroom strudel came back with explosive force later that evening. We initially thought "norovirus," although Gail had been punctilious about using the ship's Purell dispensers. But she ran no fever and felt better in the morning, and ate normally thereafter. Food poisoning? Can't say, since we know no one else who had that dish.
Monday, 19 December
Before learning that Volendam would dock at the Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay, we had booked one post-cruise night at the Holiday Inn Old Sydney, which is literally across the street from the Passenger Terminal. I immediately started worrying about how I was going to manage the chair and the five bags and talk a cab driver into taking me on a short ride. To my surprise, it all went smoothly. HAL had a special disembarkation group for the handicapped which met in the deck 5 Ocean Bar, and a crewman took Gail in the chair through Australian Customs and out the cab rank, with me following with all of the luggage piled on a free cart. As it happened, there was a wheelchair cab waiting, so the dispatcher had us jump the queue and take the wheelchair cab, and he in turn did not object to such a short fare. The final miracle was that our handicapped room at the Holiday Inn was cleaned and ready for us at 8:30am.
A word on Sydney's wheelchair cabs. There are about 700 of them, and as noted above, the investment in such a vehicle is generally repaid with a steady flow of work from hospital and clinic patients. It is very rare to find a wheelchair cab on a cab rank. But if you get a wheelchair cab, you will pay the same as anyone else making the same trip. The meters on all Sydney cabs are programmed for the same fare structure and then sealed, and cabs are regularly inspected to see if the seals are still intact.
In spite of off and on sprinkles, I wheeled Gail around the area (called The Rocks), which is the oldest part of Sydney. There are some streets with steep hills which I skipped out of concern for being able to push the chair up them, or control it coming down, and some streets with steps, so we didn't see everything. In the afternoon I left Gail in the room and went to Sydney's Central Station, which has a large railfan bookstore, and in the evening, we went to an Italian restaurant behind the hotel, which we learned about on these boards. With her swallowing difficulties, Gail does well with pasta dishes.
Tuesday, 20 December and Wednesday, 21 December
Up at 5, breakfast at 6, cab at 7 and flight at 10, the first leg of our Sydney-Bangkok-Frankfurt-Philadelphia routing. Aside from a 25-minute wait for a wheelchair at Thai's check-in desk, the trip was uneventful. We spent 7 hours in Thai's business-class lounge in Bangkok, which has some rudimentary food available, as well as free wi-fi, but we were unable to identify anyone on the internet who could handle a wheelchair for a short tour of Bangkok. The one handicapped bathroom in the lounge seemed to be about a half-mile from where we were sitting near the entrance, but was clean and serviceable. The 11-hour Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt boarded around midnight (3am Sydney time) and after a post-takeoff meal we slept most of the way into Frankfurt. There we were met by a wheelchair and taken to the business class lounge near our gate, quite a distance from the gate where we landed. Having flown in and out of Frankfurt a lot on business, I was aware that a shortage of gates means that some planes get "bus positions" requiring a walk down a flight of steps and a bus ride (usually standing) to the terminal itself, and was stressing about whether this would happen to either our inbound or outbound flight. Not an issue for this trip, and we were later told that wheelchair people could be handled on bus position planes by a special vehicle. Another long layover, then 8 hours across the Atlantic (the 747 was wi-fi equipped, but it was not working on our flight), another possibly lost bag which eventually emerged from the bowels of Philadelphia's luggage delivery system, and then the welcome sight of our friends who volunteered to pick us up waving as we emerged from the customs area.