It was a cold day bundled in my down overcoat in New England and I couldn’t count down the hours fast enough to spring break where I can feel the warmth of the sun to feed my soul and keep me going until the summer months. As my companion and I found our seats with our friends after boarding the plane, I smiled. I love everything about getting on the plane. From the steady hum of the air flowing in to the congested people frantically trying to find their seat, to the random kindness of a stranger helping someone with their bag. It was people watching at its finest.
After a connection in North Carolina, we arrived in Miami, Florida. The transfer from one plane to another in North Carolina went pretty seamless with the fact it was also spring break for K-12. They did however put me on the plane last instead of first, which I hammed it up waving to everyone that was staring at me as I rolled by in the aisle chair. I definitely prefer to go first and try to get there early, but unfortunately it doesn’t always happen. The biggest reason is a restroom break needs to be made before getting another connection. We then went from the airport to a hotel and just took the hotel’s 15-passenger van, where my companion had to pick me up due to three steps. The hotel was a Day’s Inn and the room that was confirmed by phone as being accessible was not accessible. I wasn’t able to use the bathroom because it was too small, but there were a few grab bars located in the shower stall. I ended up showering in a friend’s room that went with us (about 14 people total) because somehow he got a room with a larger bathroom.
The next morning, we got up early and took the same van to get to the port. After arriving at the gates for check-in, they scooted us to a different area where we were able to bypass the line, but then got a throughout pat down of my belongings. The Carnival Glory is a large ship and is fairly new. The ship itself is very accessible in the dining room, theater, pools, spa, and other activities. There were not lifts on the pools or hot tubs, so I just did a floor transfer to get in. There are also elevators located in the front, middle and back of the ship. Water and non-alcoholic drinks were complimentary with our “soda card” but alcoholic drinks were pricey.
The only part that is not wheelchair friendly is the room itself if you do not pay extra to have a larger “accessible” room that a manual chair could fit in. In a regular room, a power chair would have difficulty maneuvering around. There is not enough room in the bathroom, unless you get a larger suite (very pricey). I was penny-pinching, so I did not get an accessible room and my companion had to pick me up in and out of the bathroom when needing to use it. We figured you don’t spend much time in your room except to get ready and sleep, which was true.
After check-in was completed, we thankfully retired our parkas for swimsuits and a tropical cocktail on the deck. The blistering sun felt so much hotter after months upon months of snow, dark days and freezing temperatures. Unfortunately, due to a last minute upgrade in rooms, the bag tags were incorrect and I went without luggage for a day. I was more panicked about the medical materials, but I was not sent a new set of bag tags for the new room assignment. Next time I will double check with the check-in personnel that the location is correct and have new bag tags printed if needed. The new room included a better view, but had to take one wheel off each time I went through the door–we made it work.
We were exhausted from a long day, so we all had a large group dinner and went to bed. The five course meals and desserts made it even easier to drift off to dreamland. The first day of the 7 day cruise was what they call “a day at sea,” so we lounged around the pool, soaking in the warm sun with lots of sunscreen applications. It was a relaxing day and in the evening we went to a show. Onboard, you can also enjoy a dance club, karaoke, live music, comedy and more. I really enjoy the variety on cruises and even though we were a big group, you could break off and do your own thing as well.
The next morning we woke up to a turquoise ocean gently caressing the shoreline of pure white sand from crushed seashells and coral, blending effortlessly like a watercolor painting. We took the elevator down to the lowest level and disembarked down a somewhat steep ramp to the first stop, Cozumel, Mexico. We ventured downtown through the concrete walkways to do some shopping and grab a local bite. You could hear a mariachi band playing in the distance and a welcoming crowd of smiling faces. As we walked and touched a lot of unique items at the booths, I bought a set of wind chimes made out of glass that made the most beautiful sound. It reminded me of the wind chimes my mother puts on her porch every spring, new life emerging. We strolled down the road some more into a jewelry shop, with some of the most beautiful pieces. We were browsing like we knew what we were doing, admiring all of the glittering jewels. The people that worked there suggested a few things and all of a sudden my companion pointed and said “that one.” It was a beautiful purple tanzanite stone flanked with two white sapphires on either side. In true fashion, you negotiate the price in Mexico, just like I did with the wind chimes. The banter is just like that of a car salesman in the US and by staying firm I left the shop with a ring that was faceted to catch every inch of sunlight at an affordable price.
We found this lunch spot with a few other friends that overlooked the ocean and it had a tiki hut laid-back feel. The kind of place you envision when you think vacation. We knew that it was the place to go. We started with a cheers and ordered some delicious local food. I had the barbacoa chipotle burrito (marinated, pulled pork) and it was so refreshing with a hint of lime and mint. We spent the rest of the afternoon sunbathing and took a much needed rest before dinner. After our meal, we spent time gazing at the yellow, orange and red sunset reflecting on light purple clouds; it was breathtaking and fit for a postcard.
The next day was Belize, and unfortunately none of the excursions were “safe” for someone who is a wheelchair user even though I really wanted to do the river trip through the caves. I was told there are dry spots where you have to lift your raft and walk, and the staircase to get down to the rafts was extremely steep. Docking in Belize was not like Mexico. The ship has to dock by dropping anchor in the water and then passengers transfer into a smaller 20 person boat to get to the shoreline. We decided to stay on the ship and lay out by the pool; I listened to my music through my iPod and read books and magazines I had been saving for months. We got AMAZING seats that day.
Isla Roatan, Honduras had an accessible port. A sinking ship, which seemed to be rusted in place, welcomed us as we pulled into the port while having breakfast. The boat docked near a yellow-brick-road leading through a downtown of shops, and just like in Mexico we took the elevator to the bottom level and took the long ramp down. We opted to go to Mahogany Beach that day instead of shopping. We all needed a beach day. The blue and white beach lounge chairs, palm trees and floats were beckoning to be used. I bought a new bikini for each day, planning to basically live in them the entire trip. The air was warm, slightly humid with a breeze to cool us on the 85 degree day. In true beach-vacation-style we admired the ocean and played in the gentle waves on floats while waiters and waitresses brought cocktails to us. The clear water allows you to see large fish swim below, so we also engaged in some snorkeling with our bright yellow lifejackets. The path to the beach was accessible until you got to the sand, which we then used the floats to drag me into the water. A beach wheelchair would have been useful.
The food was similar to Mexico with tortillas, beans and rice with the savory and spicy aroma of cilantro and parsley. Next to the restaurant, there was a collection of hollowed conch shells. The mussel of the shell are removed for eating but I did not try it. I did however treat myself to a conch shell from the discarded pile as a souvenir–the locals laughed.
The last port of call was the Grand Cayman Islands where my sister visited a few years before. The most exciting activity she did was swimming with stingrays, something that was definitely on my bucket list. To accomplish this with a manual wheelchair was difficult and would not be possible without an able bodied person to assist. Just like Belize, at the Grand Cayman Islands you have to transfer/get carried into a smaller 20 person boat; breaking down the wheelchair was also required. When we arrived at the small port we then went on a large bus that was not accessible and I had to be carried up the large 3 steps. Next, I had to transfer onto another boat that took us to the stingrays.
The boat ride was about an hour and a half to the tourist area filled with stingrays. The water was only 3 feet deep, but I wore the goggles and a life jacket so I could enjoy the experience. I sat on the edge of the boat and was lowered down into the water by two men. It was quite a process but worth it. The stingrays are so beautiful as they glide through the water and their mouths are shaped as if they are always smiling. Our guides picked up the sting rays and would rub them on your back or stomach. Their skin was soft and squishy like a wetsuit, not slimy like a fish, and they were friendly. After we got back in the boat it was then then the same process to get back to the Carnival ship. That night we had a lovely dinner at the ship and went back to the room for a good rest.
The last day was on the sea, I booked a spa appointment and treated myself to a massage. The spa was very spacious, large enough for even a power wheelchair, including the locker room. After coming back refreshed, I went through the buffet line and after sat out on the deck and talked with the other ladies about the trip, how much we missed our families, and the dreaded cold. When departing the ship, you leave your luggage out the night before so the crew can take it to the bottom of the ship overnight. In the morning each tier is called as well as room numbers and sections to keep it as orderly as possible. When you leave you pay for any drinks (alcoholic), fill out a customs card, go through security, and retrieve your luggage from the correct area. We flew out that day at noon.
I’ve been on 10 cruises and many included Mexican locations. My favorite cruise line is Carnival and it is also very family friendly, great for groups. The rooms are small due to the ship’s size; however they do have accessible rooms upon request. They are big enough for a manual chair but do not have as much room as a hotel. Also, some (well most) of the excursions are not wheelchair accessible due to limited resources and minimum requirements in other countries. I would ask the excursion desk for low impact activities or bring an able bodied companion. I would also strongly suggest traveling with credible groups and stay in the tourist areas unless you know someone or are familiar with the other parts of Mexico. I feel it is a sign of respect wherever you travel and will also keep you safe. Do your research. Additionally, I would recommend getting better pricing on flights and cruises by going in December, January or non-holiday/vacation weeks to save money.
Language: The first language in Mexico is Spanish, but in the tourist areas English is also widely spoken. The dialect is slightly different in both countries, but I feel it is respectful to try to learn the language when in another country, so try!
Shopping: Tourism is a huge part of the economy in Mexico and Honduras. When shopping within the local shops, negotiating the price is common from jewelry to crafts. Also, go for the local handmade crafts instead of the usual chain shops with the usual items (i.e. shot glasses, magnets, etc.) Two of my favorite items from Mexico were the conch shell and my favorite handmade craft was a set of uniquely painted Mexican tiles that I use for coasters, she was painting them as she was selling them. You’ll treasure them even more.
Food and Beverage: The food in Mexico and Honduras is phenomenal, definitely try the local cuisine. I love authentic Mexican food, and after living in southern Arizona for a year I have incorporated the flavor to mix up my New England style meals. My got-to is a chimichanga or burrito, but tamales in Mexico are out of this world. For beverages I stick with bottled water, bottled coke products, local beers and cocktails with no ice.
Restrooms: Wheelchair accessible restrooms can be found on the cruise ship of course–all large enough for power wheelchairs. The ports in Mexico and Honduras were new with accessible amenities but the Cayman Islands required a tender boat to reach and were far less wheelchair friendly.