By Jann Hartman

Well, I can truly say we’ve been to Hell and back. Although it was absolutely great. Does that make sense? No? Well, let me explain.

This was our sixth cruise, but the first with Costa Cruise Lines on their very nice ship, the CostaRomantica. We were scheduled to go on their western itinerary to Key West, FL; Playa del Carmen or Cozumel; Grand Cayman; and Jamaica. We had been to them all before, but knew there was plenty more for us to see.

For this cruise we opted to drive down to Florida rather than fly. We have had some trouble with the Sea/Air packages in the past, especially short layovers (and one or more plane changes). It is always best for us to try and fly in the day before and stay overnight somewhere near the port. And, many of the hotels have complimentary shuttles to the port.

The cruise ship was very nice but even with the elevators it can still be a little hard to navigate from one area to another as stairs are not an option for me. This was my first trip using a portable wheelchair. They do have 6 accessible cabins (which are first down the hall off the elevators). The location would have been good. But, we booked too late to get one!

Our cabin was at the very end of the hall which I would not recommend. But, it was very quiet which was good for my required daily naps. The halls were accessible except when the rooms were being made up (which was most of the morning). It was almost impossible to get passed the linen carts in the hall with my wheelchair, but we worked it out. Wheelchairs were available on the ship to use, but they weren’t always there when people needed them, so we were glad to have our own. The CostaRomantica opened right out onto the dock at most all ports. Some smaller ships use stairs at all ports, and in some ports all ships have to anchor out and you have to take a tender (small boat) to the dock. We once rode a dug out canoe to shore on another cruise when I was more ambulatory!

Our ports of call:

Key West, FL: took the Conch Train, and got a nice ride around the “key”. It’s a good way to see a lot in a short period of time. It is a rather long walk from the dock to the train. A wheelchair was absolutely necessary for me. Some construction made it a little hard to get around town, but we coped. Good Key Lime Pie, but we liked the pie and conch in the Bahamas on a previous cruise even better.

Contrary to what the Tour Directors on the ship assured us: the Mayan ruins at Tulum, Mexico are not handicapped accessible, and neither was the bus that took us there. I did manage as I am still able to use crutches. There are vehicles that are supposedly handicap accessible to take you out to the ruins from the parking lot and shopping area. But, the ramps are way too steep and dangerous. And, the opening through the stone wall to get you out to the ruins was too small for even my portable wheelchair. So, I walked through on crutches, and then sat under a tree while my husband took pictures. The ruins are on sand, and there are no walkways to use a wheelchair. Bogged down in the sand, under the HOT Mexican sun was not a fun day. We were able to get some cold bottled water back at the stores before boarding the air conditioned bus. But, when we finally found the bathrooms, they were closed. We would have been better off just going shopping in Cozumel or snorkeling at the beach or in the lagoon. (Both Cozumel and Playa Del Carmen are reached by the small tender boats.)

Next, we went to Jamaica, where we had enjoyed snorkeling the last time we were there. We went to a “Greathouse” owned by the family of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which was very interesting. But the rest of the tour was two shopping stops, and the driver seemed a little miffed that I didn’t get out and shop! They do have a wonderful grapefruit soda called, “Ting” that I enjoyed, and brought back a six pack for the boys (we first had Ting when we were on a family vacation on the island of Saba years ago). “Red Stripe” Beer is their best seller. Still, I have no huge desire to go back. Other people seem to enjoy Jamaica. But, I think you need to be careful in Jamaica and things do need to change. I do have compassion for the people, but don’t like to feel ripped off.

This was our second time we visited Grand Cayman. You have to take the tender into the port, which can be a problem for those with mobility problems. The island is easy to get around once you are on shore. But, for those who only want to shop you will find shops closed on certain holidays, like Easter. We were there on Good Friday. They did open some shops until noon for us, and that was a nice compromise. We did swim and snorkel with the Sting Rays last time we were there. The Rays are really used to people and come for the food. I do recommend it, but did it when I was still ambulatory and very proficient with crutches. So, this time we opted for a private taxi tour of the island by a native Caymanian. We saw the Turtle farm, Tortuga Rum factory (they give samples), the Conch Shell House, and we sent a few postcards from a town called Hell, where we met the devil! So, now we can say we’ve been “to Hell and back.”

The food was great on the ship. Lots of seafood, steaks, and pasta done in a variety of ways. We enjoyed the wine tasting, and learned a lot from the sommelier. The waiters work very hard to see that your needs are met. They never stop, and even try to anticipate your wants. We were told by a travel agent that the tips are the only pay they get. So, we always tip at the end of the cruise and just count this as part of the cost of the cruise.

On the ship, we enjoyed taking the elevator up to the disco on the top deck of the ship: it was very accessible and practically deserted during the day. You can get a nice panoramic view from there, and it was a great place to relax and take pictures as the ship was coming in to port. It is also air conditioned and out of the sun.

This was our first time having the first seating for dinner, and it was a bit more “rushed” than the second seating seemed to be. But, our table mates were very interesting and the difference in ages was interesting. We were one of two “older” couples in our 50s with grown kids. One other couple was from Canada and were on vacation without their kids. The other couple was celebrating their first anniversary, and had no children. They were all very interesting to get to know. We have met wonderful people from all over on our cruises.

We really prefer the sit down meals better than the buffets. We prefer leisurely meals so we almost always eat in the dining room. Most Americans don’t tend to eat fish for breakfast, but it makes my husband very happy to see the choice of fish on the menu, especially at breakfast. One thing we did not enjoy was the bottles of water that they sell for the shore excursions: it is mineral water not spring water. But, thankfully, we could buy spring water at all ports!

We had a great time, and brought home many more memories than souvenirs and gifts. We take lots of pictures and buy postcards and pins for my hat! I also save coins from each island, and stamps when we can find them.

We enjoy cruises, and would sail again with the Costa Cruise Lines. But, this past fall, we traveled through 11 countries in Europe by train. This was the first trip using my small Amigo scooter. I have our European Vacation 2000 and some pictures of the trip on my website: http://www.geocities.com/arojann.geo/vacation.html