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Royal Caribbean Sisters Get High Marks For Access

Although cruising is often billed as the most accessible vacation option, all cruise ships are not created equal. Generally speaking, when you're talking about cruise ships, bigger is better as far as access is concerned. With that in mind, let's take a look at the three largest cruise ships afloat, and see how they stack up access-wise.

Royal Caribbean International's (RCI) Adventure of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas and Voyager of the Seas share a three-way tie for the title of the world's largest cruise ship. These massive beauties are nearly a third longer than any existing cruise ship and can carry up to 3,114 passengers each. The major difference between them lies in the interior decor; as the layout and access features are essentially the same on all the ships.

Each ship has 26 accessible staterooms, including 16 outside staterooms, nine inside staterooms and one stateroom which overlooks the Royal Promenade. All accessible staterooms have roll-in showers, fold-down shower benches, roll-under sinks, wide doorways and plenty of maneuvering room. Ten of the outside staterooms also have balconies with ramped thresholds.

The pathway access on the RCI sisters is excellent. All decks are accessible by elevator or stair-lift, and the ships are pleasantly devoid of those two to three inch coamings (door sills) that are standard on many old cruise ships. In place of those obstacles, you'll find threshold ramps, automatic doors and level access.

Thanks to this barrier-free design, all the public areas are nicely accessible. You'll even find a lift-equipped pool and an accessible nine hole golf course on board. In short, access is first rate on these ships. In fact, after a week of nosing around nearly every nook and cranny on the Adventure of the Seas, I was unable to turn up any truly inaccessible areas.

Of course the ship itself is only half of the accessible cruise equation. Port access is equally important. So what's the most accessible itinerary among these RCI sisters? RCI Access Coordinator, Charles Newton and travel agency owner Connie George both agree; it's the Eastern Caribbean itinerary of the Explorer of the Seas. The Explorer of the Seas departs from Miami and visits Nassau, Labadee, St. Thomas and San Juan.

The most popular port on this itinerary is Labadee, RCI's private Haitian island. Passengers are transported ashore in an accessible tender which features a track lift boarding system. Once ashore visitors can enjoy the beach and surf in a beach wheelchair. RCI currently has nine beach wheelchairs on Labadee, and by all indications they are a very big hit. Admits one travel agent, "I have wheelchair-users who keep cruising back to Labadee just because of the great beach access."

Even though San Juan is a very old city, it's still possible to book an accessible tour in this port. Joaquin Rio at Anticipation Tours (787-630-3030, www.anticipationtours.com) offers accessible city tours and airport transfers in lift-equipped vans. Visitors can enjoy the scenic views from the historic El Morro fort on Joaquin's Old San Juan Tour, or opt to visit the Bacardi Distillery, El Yunque rainforest or Luquillo Beach. All are nicely accessible.

Variety is the key word on St. Thomas, where a number of accessible choices await cruise ship passengers. For those passengers who don't want to venture off too far, the Havensight Dockside Mall operates a free lift-equipped shuttle to and from the dock. Approximately 80% of Havensight's shops have a level entry.

Alternatively, Accessible Adventures (866-282-7223, www.accessvi.com) offers a 2.5 hour island tour in a lift equipped open-air trolley. All Accessible Adventures trolleys have tie-downs and each vehicle can accommodate three wheelchairs.

For a more customized tour of the island, contact St. Thomas Dial A Ride (340-776-1277, dar@viaccess.net). Says Operations Manager Lloyd Herman, "We offer everything from shopping to snorkeling, and we try and build the tour around the customer's interests." All tours are operated in lift-equipped air conditioned vehicles and must be booked at least a month in advance.

All in all, this Eastern Caribbean itinerary teamed with a RCI Voyager-class ship makes for a very accessible cruise experience. And more good news is on the horizon. Due to the popularity of these Voyager-class mega ships, RCI is adding to their fleet.

Beginning in December 2002, the Navigator of the Seas will sail the Eastern and Western Caribbean from Miami, and offer the same top rate access as her other Voyager-class sisters. Thanks to this addition, RCI will be able to offer more sailing dates for their Eastern Caribbean itinerary.

For more information about the Adventure of the Seas, visit www.royalcaribbean.com or call (800) 327-6700 and request their Accessible Seas brochure.