When my wife and I looked back over our previous trips we realized the strongest memories came from our longer cruises, so we opted to once more do a back to back, this time on the Celebrity Silhouette cruises of September 3 and 15. This review is written from the perspective of a paraplegic using a wheelchair and will hopefully give insights for those who also use wheelchairs.
I’ve already, in a review of our previous Holy Land cruise on the Silhouette two years ago, covered our views and memories of the ship itself. This time it was just as enjoyable. We booked an Aqua cabin for the September 3 portion and an outside for the September 15 portion. They were both enjoyable cabins, but what amused us was what we felt to be an attempt to make a dramatic distinction between Aqua and "lower” categories. This is understandable as Aqua is billed as a unique experience, which it is, with all sorts of extras and additional "luxuries” which were appreciated. Both cabins were similar, with the exception of our balcony in Aqua. But what made us laugh was the flimsiness of the towels and facecloths. Having less plushy towels was fine (although we loved the plushier towels and bathrobes of Aqua), but the facecloths we couldn’t believe. We couldn’t buy such flimsy and thin facecloths in any store in our city, not even the dollar stores. They had to be seen to be believed. We did notice that as the days progressed we did receive a few that were a bit more substantial. So much for showing the difference between categories.
Another observation. Blu was excellent as usual and we enjoyed the menu, the small cafe feeling and the very focused service, not to mention the wall to wall, ceiling to floor window overlooking the sights and the sea (it was fun to come sometimes at 6 p.m. and see the couples who were always there already every time waiting to claim their window-side seats). But we were very pleasantly surprised on the second leg of our cruise to find that in our view the food in the main dining room, which had always been excellent, had actually improved, with lighter but enjoyable sauces, etc. In fact we commented to each other that we never really felt overstuffed at the end of a meal, even though we had enjoyed all the courses.
As observed in my earlier reviews, the Celebrity S class ships are excellent for wheelchair users, including automatic double door openings practically everywhere and a judicious use of non-carpeted sections, especially on level 4 (where most of the shops are). On level 5 we would go out on the deck at the front elevator area, roll along the flat surface of the outside deck and enjoy the sun and breezes (when they weren’t too strong), and then return inside at the middle elevator area entrance, escaping the plushier carpets in front of the more upscale shops placed on this level.
As for room in the accessible cabins, we had an opportunity to see a "Royal Suite” that was being offered as a bingo prize and found it nice, but crowded with furniture, which I’m sure most passengers would love. But for us we appreciated the open maneuverable space of the accessible cabins both in Aqua and the outside cabin, especially for myself in a wheelchair.
One final note on the ship. If you wish a memorable last day (leaving Naples) book a window-side table in the Tuscan Grill (which has the best fillet we have ever tasted). We watched as the lights of Naples disappeared into the distance, but the view did not stop as the ship continued along and in sight of the coastline and the twinkling lights of the coastal towns for hours. A marvelous way to spend one’s final night on board (we had said our farewells to our MDR staff the previous night).
Now to the ports, especially from a wheelchair user’s perspective.
Rome: One of Europe’s greatest cities to visit, easily among the top two or three, and with most of the major sights within "walking” distance. But for wheelchair users the cobblestones and uneven sidewalks can be a major challenge, not insurmountable, but still a challenge, especially any holes created by missing cobblestones, which have the potential to trap and bend the smaller front wheels of a wheelchair. Interestingly there is a marvelous smooth strip up the middle of the pedestrian path from the Rotunda Piazza to the Trevi Fountain.
Malta: Took a cab (a sedan, I transfer from my collapsible wheelchair to the front passenger seat using a transfer board, I also use the board to transfer into and out of bed) on a tour of the island which gave many insights into life there and we enjoyed the fascinating geography of the island. As the ship was there till 10 p.m., the evening trip back along the coastline to the ship was a beautiful close to the tour. We didn’t use them, but a taxi company in Valletta has about 5 wheelchair accessible cabs.
There were only 3 sea days in the 23 day voyage, so we took advantage of the following day to try a class in abstract art, something we would never have the time or patience to do if we were at home. But it’s so much more accessible if all one has to do is take the elevator to the studio on the fourteenth level. And working with acrylics was a marvelous experience that we will probably continue to pursue at home.
Athens: Found an agency that provides wheelchair vans for Athens residents and booked a transfer with the company. We first visited the new Acropolis museum and it is absolutely outstanding as well as very wheelchair friendly, and with a lovely cafe on an open large balcony looking right up at the Acropolis. Then a trip along the main street of the Plaka, which is very level and smooth and then back to the museum for our pickup and a one hour tour around other central Athens areas.
Mykonos: Lovely as usual, but the lack of cabs can be a problem. We were told there were none available when we enquired (which was after lunch), but a suggestion was made to use the water taxi at our dock, which went to a pier in the town of Mykonos and worked very well. It runs every hour (or half hour?). There is a ramp up and 2 steps down into the boat, but the two men handling the boat helped me board and unboard (there is also a steep ramp down to the water taxi dock at the ship, so someone will have to help with this, on our return one of the men from the water taxi helped me up the ramp).
Santorini: There is no way someone who can’t stand (such as myself) can take the tender and the cable up to Fira, but I have always just enjoyed sitting on our veranda or the back deck of the Oceanview Cafe and just soaking in the sight of Fira and the steep cliffs around us. It’s especially enjoyable if one goes there when the ship travels in and anchors and watch the darkness turn to light over the whole scene.
Kusadasi: This is our fourth time there, so instead of revisiting Ephesus or putting up with the unending invitations of storekeepers to step inside and view their wares (although we did have a couple of favorite shops we revisited) we strolled along the very wide and smooth waterfront promenade that led from the ship area to a nice beach used by the residents. Speaking of residents, it was nice as we wandered further from the ship to be basically in an area frequented pretty well solely by local residents, with only the occasional (including ourselves) "tourist.” And on the way there is a fascinating large statue of a hand releasing birds, this is just before the beach area.
Rhodes: This was our first trip to Rhodes and we loved it. No cabs needed, just turn to the right and walk along the path across from the walls and enter at one of the gates. The first gate is probably the best option, then follow the shopping street that is parallel to the wall until one comes to the square at the street that goes up to the famous Mosque of Suleiman. This street is lined with interesting shops and cafes. It is fairly smooth, but a bit steep, but doable. When we reached the area just before the Suleiman mosque, we turned right and took the passageway to the famous Palace of the Grand Masters of the Knights of St. John. Interestingly we found that the palace is a reconstruction done by the Italian fascist regime during the 30’s. The original had been destroyed in the 1800’s by a blast from explosives stored in the basement of a neighboring church during the Greek war of independence. Then my wife went down the very pebbly, but historic Street of the Knights, which was lined by the inns for the Knights various nationalities. Many of these inns, especially on the lower part of the street were the original inns. The knights famous hospital is also on this street.
A marvelous place to visit. Interestingly, when the Knights of St. John were driven from Rhodes by Suleiman, they travelled to another of our ports, Valletta. So my wife and I have now visited all of the first three cities (the third being Jerusalem) where they resided.
Chania: The actual port is Souda, and taxis and a local bus or a ship’s transfer can take passengers to the beautiful waterfront of Chandria. In our case I had found a wheelchair van (linked to a medical supplies store) and arranged a transfer to and from the waterfront (it should be noted that the times the driver could give me were limited, because he was also transporting patients, etc at other times).
While commencing our stroll down the waterfront one of my wheels had become loose and threatened to fall off, but we were saved by a pleasant slim young man who seemed to come out of nowhere to ask if he could help. After we said yes he displayed unbelievable strength, lifting one side of my chair (with me in it) with no apparent effort and he seemed to know exactly how to maneuver the wheel safely back into place, a very intricate task. He was definitely our angel, and we believe may have been a real angel, as after thanking him, when we turned back after a very short couple of words to each other, he was gone.
Venice: After a nice day at sea, including the special MDR brunch from 10:00 to 1:00 we arrived in Venice enjoying the view from our veranda. My wife enjoyed a morning tour that included a trip to the island of Murano and a gondola ride. In the afternoon we proceeded on our planed adventure to travel down the grand canal. First to the new people mover near the dock. If you use this you buy tickets for one euro each, I think the machines give change for bills. When we got off at the next (and final stop) I was a bit worried about finding our way through the busy piazza, but we just went along to our left, took the next crosswalk to the right (and the vehicles did stop for us) and went to the ticket booth for the vaporettos (a sort of public water bus). I enquired about the 3 day passes, but the ticket seller very strongly encouraged us to just buy 4 tickets for my wife and none for me (if we had bought the passes which were more than 20 or 30 euros each, I believe I would also have had to purchase one). This arrangement worked out very well. The docks along the way are not manned, you just flash the ticket in front of a ticket reader and proceed onto the boat. But don’t forget to do this, as fines can be around $400, although I didn’t notice anyone checking while we were riding. And the staff tying up the boat at each stop can be very helpful to individuals in wheelchairs boarding and unboarding. Just remember that it’s best to be one of the first on and last off, so that the entrance/exit to and from the vaporetto can be more at the level of the dock.
If you get on at the Piazza Roma dock as we did, the vaporetto can be quite full and gets much fuller as the next dock is in front of the train terminal. There is a lot of jostling and pressing by the standing room only crowd, but no one seems to take offense at this, its just part of the process on these boats when they are crowded (which is very often). I was fortunate (and sometimes helped by the "conductor”) to find a space set aside for wheelchair users at the front of the seating section. That’s if the space wasn’t already filled by the standing passengers, but they graciously would move to make room for me. The view down the grand canal was fascinating (the journey to St. Mark’s takes about 40 minutes), but in the evenings was magical with the lights from the residences and hotels (including large chandeliers) making a strong impact on the scene. From the dock for St. Mark’s you first have to travel up a narrow but interesting street of shops before turning right and proceeding into the square. This path can be confusing so try to research the maps before using it. I should mention that the Venice city website, www.comune.venezia.it, has a section, "Barrier free itineraries” [in the "Your Life” section], with excellent maps showing accessible routes and areas for wheelchairs, with the corresponding vaporetto docks, with comments on sites along these routes. It can be accessed through http://www.comune.venezia.it/flex/cm/pages/ServeBLOB.php/L/EN/IDPagina/23431 . There is also a website, www.veniceconnected.com, that offers many 360 degree views of many parts of Venice. You can almost "walk” down many of the paths/streets.
By the third day after exploring the areas around St. Mark’s and around the Rialto bridge we were tired, so declared the third day a "sea” day and relaxed on the ship until it sailed at 5 p.m. I should mention that one of the perks of the Elite level is being able to use a reserved section of the Sky Observation Lounge (holding complimentary drinks) to watch the sail-away.
The B2B transfer on the second day in Venice went very smoothly, we just showed up at 9 a.m. to have new pictures taken and be given new cards (they took our previous ones) and then with the help of our cabin steward had our things transferred to our new cabin. Celebrity also offered free lunches at Bistro on Five for the 60 or so B2B passengers.
Koper: Thankfully this port was not a tender port, as two of the following ports were. So we just left the ship and asked the tourist booth the best route for wheelchairs. They said to follow the walk to the right of us, until we reach the end, where we crossed the street and proceeded up the hill to a nice smooth street on the right that led to the city square. Those not in wheelchairs would just go right up the stairs from the dock to this street. We explored a shopping path at the opposite side of the square, but when the path started to get steeper I suggested my wife go explore, which was a good suggestion as there were steps at the end of the street. On our return to the square we found a side ramp to the church on the square and enjoyed exploring the interior. While returning to the ship we found at the bottom of the hill a lovely seaside plaza, with a very nice cafe beside it. A local jazz band entertained the quickly moving line of passengers going through security before re-boarding.
Ravenna: The dock is about 20 miles from the town. But here we took one of Celebrity’s "Easy” tours, which are designed for those in wheelchairs and use vehicles with ramps or lifts. This was one of the more expensive "easy” tours, but very rewarding. The six of us (3 in wheelchairs or using a cane, each with a companion, a requirement for these tours) were taken by an excellent guide to explore the famous, ancient glass mosaics in two churches and one mausoleum from the 5th and 6th centuries. After the tour we were given twenty or thirty minutes to shop or have a nice cappuccino at cafes and shops just outside the entrance to our last stop before returning to the ship. Note: If you find yourselves interested in booking a Celebrity (or Royal Caribbean) Easy tour, the website may say some of these are not available, but contact Celebrity’s "Special Needs” department and they often are able to book these for you. Be prepared to give them the dimensions and weight of your wheelchair.
Split: For those of us who can’t stand (and the vast majority of wheelchair users can usually stand and take a few steps) we remain on board, which is understandable as people (including myself)are generally getting heavier, as are the wheelchairs, and so crew having to lift the wheelchair and its occupant onto and off of the tenders can seriously hurt themselves. My wife enjoyed her morning tour of the city and we spent the afternoon together on the ship.
Dubrovnik: Again we used a Celebrity "Easy” tour and the six of us travelled along a road which reminded us of the Amalfi road, but we never felt nervous as our driver was excellent. After stopping briefly to look back down onto Dubrovnik, we proceeded to the lovely seaside resort town of Cavtat. It was such a peaceful and beautiful scene. The only other town were I have felt this quiet peace so strongly was Ravello, a town high over the Amalfi coast. Then back for a guided tour of Dubrovnik and back to our ship. My wife and I received an invitation to go the the helicopter pad for the sail-away. I couldn’t go as the path to the pad is through a working area with lots of stairs, but I encouraged my wife to go and she enjoyed it and waved up to me at my spot above in the Sky lounge.
Kotor: The other tender port. My wife enjoyed a tour to a nearby town of Parast, with a motor boat visit to the beautiful Our Lady of the Rock Islet and its church, and then the town of Kotor itself. What is special about this port is entering the harbour early in the morning and departing in the evening, as it is like the fjords in Norway, even though technically it is not a fjord. But the trip through the cliffs, especially where the channel becomes very narrow, is memorable and shouldn’t be missed.
Valletta, Malta: We returned to Malta, but this time we focused on Valletta, which was above our dock. We used the new elevator to go up to the city. One only has to progress along the walkway to the right until crossing the street and proceeding through a large opening (with a sign over it identifying it) leading to the elevator. I think the cost to use the elevator is a few euros (they only charge you for going up, not going down), but the ticket machine was being fixed so we were waved through. At the top is the lovely Upper Barrakka Garden, with outstanding views. We then explored the Merchant and Republic streets and then to the highlight, St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Don’t miss this cathedral. When we first visited 40 years ago, we enjoyed it but our return this year was a revelation. The interior is amazing, covered in gold gilt all over, with the marble flat tombstones of the knights making up the floor of the cathedral, and there is so much more. Don’t miss this church. There is a ramp at the front of the church, but your companion will first have to go to the side on the left to purchase entrance tickets, but these also give you each an audio guide to carry with you.
Catania: The streets here look confusing, but we had arranged a limo transfer (limo’s are best for me as they are usually easier to transfer to) for a trip to the lovely town of Taormina, overlooking the sea below. There is a long main street, which is relatively smooth. Off the main street most paths are steep and have stairs, but the street itself is very enjoyable to explore, especially a cafe halfway along sitting on a large piazza overlooking the ocean and coastline below. Just as on our previous visit years ago, we were able to find a table right beside the railing and enjoyed a lunch with a memorable view. Another positive was that on this day the top of Mount Etna could be easily seen (it could also be seen from the ship) along with the smoke arising from it.
Naples: Here we relaxed in the morning and also did some packing. Then in the afternoon took a Celebrity "Easy” tour of Naples. On all our earlier visits we had travelled directly to the Amalfi coast, so this time we wished to explore Naples itself. In this case we were combined with a Celebrity panoramic tour (these tours are in buses, and are for those who do not wish to do too much walking) and the bus had a lift at the back, which worked out fine and the tour was excellent and gave many insights into life in Naples, and also offered many scenic views.
Flight home. Rome’s airport can be very confusing, but there are staff there whose sole function is to guide wheelchair users and their companions through the terminal’s complex intricacies and they do an excellent job of this. Both on arrival and departure we appreciated our guides’ help so much we tried to tip them, but in both cases they turned our offer down. The ticketing counter will usually have you wait near the counter until a summoned guide arrives. This may take some time, but it is more than worth the wait.
And so to home, along with memories of a memorable vacation.