(Warning: if you love cruising, try not to get jealous! And if you dislike cruising--what's your deal?! :D For folks with disabilities, or anyone for that matter, cruising can be an awesome way to travel.)
I love cruising.
You either love cruising or you don’t, or you’re someone who hasn’t cruised yet and has no idea if you’ll love it or hate it, but I have never been on a cruise where I regretted taking the trip. I’ve always enjoyed the hell out of cruising.
The people who don’t like cruising or the idea of cruising have some valid reasons. One: it’s easy to pick up viruses like colds and COVID and crappy, puke-inducing viruses. Two: you really don’t get to experience the countries you visit in-depth; your fleeting visit will only consist of an afternoon or sometimes an overnight stay. Three: cruises can be crowded, noisy, full of screaming kids, etc. Four: if the seas are choppy, you’re gonna get sick (I’ll debate this as not a good reason NOT to cruise—I get motion sickness if I look down at my phone while in a moving car, but on a ship, that’s what Dramamine and Bonine is for).
My reasons for cruising, besides simply enjoying the cruising lifestyle, get more specific as I age.
One: there’s a floating hospital onboard. And these hospitals can do everything from curing your seasickness to even performing minor surgery in a pinch. After the surgery and chemo I’ve gone through this past year, I appreciate the idea of medical professionals just a couple of decks down from my cabin. If something goes wrong, I have expert medical help seconds away.
Two: Even though the port visits may be fleeting, you still get a great glimpse into the country (or state) you're visiting. This is especially true for the Alaska cruise I and my husband just disembarked from. We visited Vancouver, Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and Glacier Bay. Glacier Bay has been one of my bucket list items that I desperately wanted to check off. I’ve also really wanted to take a ride on the White Pass Railroad (I’ll discuss both of these awesome adventures in future blog posts.) And we cruised the inside passage, which is beautiful unto itself.
The ship we sailed on for this trip was Holland America Line’s MS Koningsdam. It isn't a very old ship, it began service in 2016. To me, the interior design of the ship looked old and retro, not very modern, so I assumed it was an older ship. It isn’t.
This was my first time sailing with HAL. We usually sail with Princess, sometimes Royal Caribbean, once on the Celebrity Millenium when we sailed through the East China Sea. HAL is in the same category as these other lines, so there were a lot of similarities, but there were some things about this ship that stood out.
First (and this was especially nice in Alaska), the pool deck has a retractable dome ceiling. On nice days, it is left open, but on colder or rainier days, they can close it and encase the pool area in a warm little cocoon.
Second, the ship actually has a bow you can walk out onto, which was a great lookout point when we were sailing through Glacier Bay.
Third, there are a lot of music venues on the ship, which were fun to attend in the evenings. They call it the "Music Walk."
Fourth, there is a wonderful library with huge, panoramic windows. Other spots with wonderful views: the Thermal Spa area (which we used a LOT) and the Explorer’s Café on the 12th deck.
Fifth: HAL does a good job with enrichment programs. When we went through Glacier Bay, a group of National Park rangers actually boarded the ship and gave talks over the loudspeakers while we sailed amongst the glaciers. One of the rangers also gave a presentation about sea wildlife in the theater. Other enrichment lectures in the theater included lectures on whales, volcanos, the Iditarod, and how the ship works.
One minus: the food isn’t as good on HAL as it is on Princess or RC or Celebrity, mainly because it didn't seem there were as many selections, especially in the main dining room for dinner. And I’m a vegetarian, and the main dining room didn’t have tempting or varied selections. The other cruise lines all do food better EXCEPT we thought HAL had the best buffet sushi, and we ate a lot of it. We also liked their burger stand.
Now, let’s get to what this blog is supposed to be about: how well is this ship set up for the disabled? Here are my observations.
THE LONG WALK
First, no matter what, you end up doing a hell of a lot of walking on cruise ships. Just walking to and from venues gave me at least a mile of exercise each day, more when we were in port and on excursions. If you have a wheelchair or scooter it's easier, but if, like me, you rely on canes or hiking poles or walkers, you’re always going to walk a lot more than you expected. Even with daily soaks in the thermal spa, I was pretty sore when I finally disembarked the ship (I’m still recuperating from all the exercise!)
The Koningsdam isn’t the hugest ship out there—it holds about 2500+ passengers—but depending on where your cabin is, you can still expect to walk a lot. Our cabin was located on the 1st deck ALL the way in the back. In fact, we were the absolute last cabin, stuffed in the aft of the ship. The awesome thing about this was that nobody ever walked by our cabin and woke us up at night. There was a staff entrance past our cabin door, but we never heard anyone use it. The staff were exceptionally quiet.
Midships is the best place to get a cabin because that’s where the ship is most stable, but those cabins are primo so they always cost more. If I can’t get midships, I go for the back because the back of the ship is where all the restaurants are. The main dining room was a floor above us, the buffet was eight decks up—when we took the elevator up from our room, we only had to walk a couple of feet to get to the buffet line. And luckily the entire trip was pretty damn smooth, so we didn’t have to take any Dramamine.
All the shows, including the theater and the club venues (and the casino, if you’re into that), are up in the front of the ship. The library was that way too, as well as the thermal spa and gym, so whenever we wanted to go to these places (although I have to admit, I didn’t even poke my nose into the gym on this trip), we had to hoof it.
So, if you don’t want to do as much walking, get a cabin midships. Then you’re equidistant to everything. You’ll still walk a lot, though, so be prepared or have a scooter or wheelchair as backup.
Here are some other things I noted for this particular ship:
We had a cabin with a window view but no balcony, and I have a pretty wide walker. On our last Princess cruise, the walker was just a tad bit bigger than the doorway, which meant we always had to wiggle it around to get it into the stateroom. But the doorway on our HAL stateroom was just big enough to roll the walker in. Yay! I was glad because I used the walker A LOT on this trip.
The bathroom in our stateroom was nice and big (for a cruise ship bathroom). There’s a little ledge you have to step up on to get into the bathroom, and I’ve never seen a stateroom that didn’t have this issue. But I’ve also never reserved a stateroom set up for the disabled (ours was just a regular room), so maybe those rooms are a little easier to maneuver in. The bathroom came with a nice walk-in shower with bars to hold onto and a removable shower head. This was the nicest stateroom bathroom I’ve seen. On some lines you can request a chair to sit in; we didn’t do that so I’m not sure if HAL has that option (Princess does).
THE THERMAL SPA
We decided to splurge and get the Thermal Spa package, and we used the spa area almost every day. The relaxation room with the heated stone lounge chairs had the most gorgeous views. And the big hot tub with the jets felt great on my back. The trouble I had with this (and all other) sauna room was the slick floor. I was always afraid I was going to fall so I had to hold onto my husband’s arm when I got close to the hot tub.
So aside rant: I don’t get why most places don't install slip-proof floors around pools and hot tubs where the water that invariably gets splooshed around makes those marbled-looking floors into a fancy Slip-n-Slide. I mean, if you go into the shower area, they’ve installed a non-slip floor, but the floor around the actual hot tub on the Koningsdam was smooth and slick as glass. WHY???!! (I’m sure there’s a reason, but I always have a difficult time coping with this).
The hot tub did have a chair that could lower you into the water if you are in a wheelchair.
There were sauna rooms too, but I didn’t use em. My husband, who loves saunas, could only stay for a minute or two in the ones on the Koningsdam before he couldn’t take it anymore. So, I knew I’d be too wussy to tolerate em.
There are bathrooms for people with disabilities scattered all over the place. Some have buttons to open the doors, some don’t. Pretty much wherever you find a set of regular bathrooms, you’ll find a bathroom that can accommodate wheelchairs as well.
DINING AND CLUB VENUES
Here’s where I have a super-difficult time with my balance—in the buffet. I just can’t carry plates if I’m using my hiking poles because my hands are full of—well, of hiking poles! So I really started using my walker when we went to the buffet, simply so I could stack plates on it and roll ’em to my table.
The problem with the buffet area on this particular ship is there was no place to park said walker once I wanted to sit down. We either had to move a chair away from the table (and those chairs were frickin’ heavy!) or we had to try and fold the walker up and scrunch it somewhere. The tables were all kind of crammed in on each other without a lot of space in between. On my next cruise (which will be on the Ruby Princess in October) I’ll have to compare the buffet areas and see if the tight spaces are common or if it’s just the Koningsdam that had this issue.
The other dining venues were fine. In the main dining room, the waiters would stash my walker close by but out of the way for me, and the other eateries we went to (the pizza place and hamburger stand) were out on the open decks and had plenty of maneuvering room.
I’ll throw the clubs into this section as well: the Billboard Lounge, the Rolling Stone Rock Room, and the B.B. King Blues Club were all easily accessible.
Lastly, the theater. Wheelchair/scooter areas were definitely available if you entered on the 2nd deck. There might have been a couple of spots you could park your wheelchair or scooter on the 3rd deck too.
OTHER STUFF OF (POSSIBLE!) IMPORTANCE
Apparently, you can rent wheelchairs while onboard, in a pinch. I ran into one guy in a wheelchair who was renting. I’m not sure if all cruise lines will do this. I remember a while ago, I was on a cruise (I can’t remember which line) and thought I might need a wheelchair, but they didn’t have any they would give you to use throughout the cruise or on shore excursions. It seems that HAL will do this, which is nice.
There were only two areas of the ship that were inaccessible for folks with wheelchairs/scooters/walkers without help that I noticed. If you wanted to get out on the bow of the ship (which is great for whale and glacier watching!) you had to climb through a hatch that was a good foot and a half off the ground. When I went out, a steward helped me get my walker over the lip, but I’m not sure if they could do the same for a wheelchair.
Also, on the top observation deck, the highest point required me to walk up a few steps, and I wanted to get up there to get the best glacier view I could! Luckily, my husband was with me at that point, so he lugged the walker up the steps for me.
Other than that, the MS Koningsdam is very accommodating to folks with disabilities of the walking/balancing kind!
So that’s it for the rundown of the ship! Tune in next time for a blog about the Mendenhall Glacier excursion we took in Juneau.