My wife and I sailed on Navigator of the Seas for a 10 day Eastern Mediterranean cruise 10 October 2008. She is disabled, with limited mobility. She uses a scooter or manual wheelchair outside our home, and can walk about 15-20 yards on crutches when required. This was her fourth cruise. Two years ago, we were on the Splendour of the Seas for a similar cruise - 7 days Eastern Med. The weather was absolutely horrid on that one, so we decided to do a virtual repeat, This time the weather cooperated! I'll first review from the point of view of the disabled cruiser, and follow with general comments.
We booked cabin 7600 - an "accessible" cabin. It's not possible to book these cabins online, so our travel agent books for us. Apparently there is a procedure for agents to follow to allow booking of these cabins, but I have no idea of what it might be. Once the booking number is assigned, all Internet activity (ordering Gifts and Gear, online check in, etc.) is fine. The infrastructure and facilities of NOS are wonderful: The cabin is 1-1/2 size and allows for wheelchair or scooter to turn around easily inside. The bathroom is roll-in, no lip at the floor, and there is an extra set of drains in the floor to prevent water running all over the cabin. The roll-in shower has easily accessible low controls. However, the shower bench supplied had no rubber tips at the feet, which enabled it to slide around. My wife's solution was to place a towel on the floor under the bench, which kept it dry enough to be safe. The toilet seat height and bars are fine. The door to the balcony has a small shallow ramp covering the door track, which automatically raised and lowered itself (by simple gravity, not any kind of fancy thing) allowing roll-in balcony access. Of course, the balcony is a bit small for any maneuvering of a chair, but is adequate for use. The closet is equipped with an ingenious mechanism so the cross rod for hanging clothing can be used either at standard height, or with a simple pull on a handle, by a wheelchair user sitting down. The in-room safe is at a good height. Of course, the higher shelves (closet and above the TV set) are out of reach for a wheelchair user, but there was adequate space at a low level.
There are two problems in the cabin. There is no full-length mirror, so a chair user can not see how they look when dressing. The controls for the air conditioning are too high for a seated person.
The public areas we frequented are well suited to the disabled. All doors were either automatic electric eye (for everyone's convenience) or, in the case of doors to the restrooms and the "wheelchair" stalls, buttons are provided which are at the correct location and level for the wheelchair user. The Windjammer is problematical in that most of the tables are impossible to reach in a wheelchair. Some lines "reserve" a few tables at the entrance to each section (a sign on the table "This table reserved for the disabled") which we mentioned to the Windjammer manager. The casino slot area is OK, but the tables are too close to the wall (or low railing) for a chair to maneuver, although if one could get to the table in a chair, the height is OK. My wife played the first night on her scooter, but caused so much congestion that on succeeding casino visits, she parked the scooter near the door and walked to the table (we are avid casino players). The Nutcracker Dining room (3rd deck) is unsuitable for chair users. All the chair users in our seating parked their chairs at the entrance, and walked to their table. I believe that the upper levels have better accessibility. The Metropole Theater has good facilities. A row of movable chairs is set in back of the last row, and the staff will gladly remove one so the scooter or wheelchair fits right in, and their friends sit with them. The location of these seats is OK - sound and view are fine. The shows we saw were well done and we enjoyed them.
As many of the public areas are carpeted, making using a manual chair more difficult, this trip my wife (as I mentioned above, she is a regular scooter user) rented a scooter. As directed on the RCI website, she contacted the Special Services department, which emailed addresses of two companies which provide this service. Our travel agent contacted both of them, and returned to us with a set of prices from each. Since my wife is a large lady, we chose on the basis of what the offered weight capacity was, rather than simply on price. We chose "Special Needs at Sea" which quoted $425 for the ten days for a scooter of suitable capacity. As promised, the scooter was in our cabin before we arrived (at a little after 2 PM) and we simply left it in the cabin when we disembarked. The charger worked perfectly, fully recharging overnight.
In general (but see below for a BAD exception) the staff is great. They - especially the staff in the Windjammer - were an immense help. Getting on ad off ship at ports of call was handled well (those little gangplanks are DANGEROUS for wheelchairs). Our waiter in the main dining room took charge of my wife's crutches as soon as we reached the table. The headwaiter staff managed all the wheelchairs and provided us with a roll-in parking spot at the entrance to the dining room each night. We're nor club hoppers or pub frequenters, and spent most nights in the casino. In the places where we usually spent time - theater, Boleros, casino - the bar waiters got to know us and our preferences quickly.
But not all is rosy. Our practice has always been to not book any excursions until the Excursion Desk can see and talk to my wife face to face. They said that the first two ports, Messina and Thessaloniki had nothing suitable. For Istanbul, they booked us on "Easy Istanbul" which was presented as being suitable for wheelchair users, and for Malta, a tour that was listed as a coach only tour. Since we had booked tours on previous cruises (not with RCI) which were advertised like "Easy Istanbul", we expected a wheelchair van with lift. At the departure area, we saw a regular tour bus, with six steps up to the seats. Another two couples who also had booked, turned away immediately - one was a woman in a chair who could not walk at all, and another a gentleman who used a walker but with great difficulty. My wife has limited ability and can sometimes manage a short flight of steps. We asked the tour guide if there would be much walking, and were told there would not be. At the first stop, she stayed on the bus. The second stop was to be a long one, so we got off, and got her chair from underneath. The guide started walking - over a rough cobblestoned area, and walked and walked. Well, we just stopped, sat down in a cafe, and had a cup of coffee while the group went to wherever they went. The next stop was the Blue Mosque - high point of the tour. At the entrance to the Mosque there is a good size flight of steps. My wife went to ask the guide if she could use the chair once she was at the top, and while asking, the bus driver pulled away with her chair still underneath! Istanbul traffic being what it is, we were not able to get the chair back at that moment, so again, we sat and waited for the tour to go through the Mosque.
Upon our return to the ship, we immediately contacted the Excursions Desk as soon as it opened. Our point was that the tour had been misrepresented to us. We spoke with the manager of the department who was quite apologetic, but insisted that she always emphasizes to her staff to correctly determine what is in each tour and sell it accordingly. To us, it seemed not enough "emphasis." She agreed that the tour we booked for Malta (but not yet taken) was not suitable and immediately refunded our money for it. We demanded a refund for the "Easy Istanbul." That she had to put through her authority chain. It took almost 72 hours (and prodding on our part) to get the refund for that one. But nothing could make up for the frustration and humiliation my wife went through on that disastrous tour.
Now, for our critique of the cruise disability aside. First and foremost, it is abundantly clear that Royal Caribbean is cutting corners wherever it can. Dining in the Main Dining Room (we always opt for second seating) has degenerated to a less than good experience. Until we complained several times, the food was often brought out cold when it needed to be hot. A three course (used to be four) took over an hour and a half a number of times (why?????). The main courses offered have sunk in both number and variety, to say nothing of quality. Of eight items offered, generally two were pasta, two were fish, two were beef (and I will put a bet on the fact that "black Angus sirloin" here was nothing but a buzz-word) one was a variable, and one was some kind of vegetarian something or other. A shrimp main dish my wife ordered consisted of TWO shrimp! A "shrimp ravioli" main course didn't have a single solid piece of shrimp in it - truth in advertising would require it to be labeled "shrimp flavor ravioli". A main dish called "turkey" was in fact a few slices of deli-style turkey roll. Admittedly, we all mourn the loss of lobster tails for one dinner, but the depth that the food has sunk to is simply unacceptable. In the course of the ten days, we had dinner in the Windjammer twice. Once the "special offering of the day" was Mongolian Grill. FINALLY a decent dinner! The other time, it was chicken Marsala. Somewhat overblown, and of course PASTA. Sigh. Our table mates had occasion to eat at Portofino one evening, and said it was good. But why should we have to pay $40 for the two of us to get a decent dinner? I would be happy if RCI increased the price of the cruise by that 40 dollars and gave us a decent dinner every night!
And... the coffee is atrocious.
As my wife and I are rather heavy smokers, we were concerned about the smoking policy on this cruise. RCI no longer permits smoking in the cabins, but the balcony where smoking is permitted, served us well. The few public areas where smoking is permitted are, except for the starboard side of the pool deck, small and usually inconveniently located. In Boleros, the area has room for no more than 20 seats. The Schooner Bar's "designated area" is only a couple of tables, and is off in a corner where it isn't possible to see what is going on. The casino now has a "No smoking on formal nights" policy. While we understand the policy of giving non-smokers their time in the casino, we would have liked it better if one of the two nights in question was moved to a non-formal night, so that we could enjoy gaming on a formal night.
Corner-cutting was obvious in many other places. Boleros, a very busy place, had only two bar people and they worked the entire evening without a break. One of them told my wife that they no longer actually mix drinks, but use prepared mixes for bloody marys and that kind of drink. Many of the staff, while very friendly and eager, simply looked overworked all the time. Since we are night owls, not getting to sleep until after 2 AM, it is our habit to order a small amount of room-service breakfast to keep us until we can have a "brunch" at Windjammer. One day we ordered it for 9-9:30 AM. At 9:45 I looked outside the room and saw that the order slip - placed before the required 3 AM - was still hanging on the door handle. Sigh.
We ordered two items from Gifts and Gear and were badly disappointed. The "Non alcoholic grape juice cheese and crackers" contained two small jars of strange flavored jam, a package of Melba Toast and a wedge of..... PARMESAN cheese! The "chocolate covered strawberries" was nothing more than some packets of standards like chocolate coated raisins, coated peanuts, and so forth. Two years ago, these items were delivered as advertised and as expected.
There are areas on the ship that need some work. The railings on the balconies need a sanding/varnish very badly. Other areas look a little threadbare. An occasional foul odor here and there lead to a conclusion that the sanitary system is not 100 percent right.
In sum, not a very pleasant cruise experience. The most disappointing thing is that just two years ago, we did a very similar cruise with Royal Caribbean and loved it. What has happened in such a short time? It saddens me to think that Royal Caribbean is playing to the "McDonalds is my kind of place" level. If that is a conscious business decision, I hope that the increased patronage they will get, combined with the lowered cost from their point of view, is enough to offset what they will lose. My wife and I will now look elsewhere when choosing a cruise line.
Accessible cabin - VERY WELL DONE!