By Adam Lloyd

For years, cruising has been an immensely popular vacation choice for people with disabilities. The opportunity to see the world without having to make a plethora of travel arrangements or constantly worrying about finding accessible lodging and activities makes for a wonderfully convenient, stress- free trip.

Pioneers in accessible travel, the cruise lines have continued to keep their senior and disabled patrons in mind, incorporating accessibility improvements into their new ship designs and onboard services. However, while with each successive ship handicap accommodations reach ever closer to perfection, access considerations in the planning of itineraries and participation in shore excursions continue to lag behind.

Expectations were high for my 11-night Caribbean cruise aboard the Summit, the third entry in Celebrity Cruises’ Millennium Class. It had been professed that the ship was perfection-the culmination of an innovative original design along with several alterations based on experiences with her two sister ships.

She does not disappoint. Open, airy, and bathed in light, the Summit is a beautifully laid out, tastefully appointed ship. With 10 elevators, 26 accessible staterooms (including six suites), and largely uncluttered public areas, getting around the ship in a wheelchair is, with only a few exceptions, a breeze. The wheelchair-accessible cabins couldn’t be better. Wide doorways, spacious bathrooms with all the proper adaptions, and ramped verandas complement easily maneuverable bedrooms. The rest of the ship proves to be equally impressive.

What’s striking is how well the Summit’s accessibility features blend in with the rest of the ship’s design. Wide hallways and well graded ramps look a natural part of spaces rather than add-ons. The elegant furnishings in the lounges, casino, and dining rooms are plentiful enough to accommodate a full passenger load, yet spaced far enough apart to allow wheelchair users easy passage. Even around the pool, automatic doors and well defined areas for the chaise lounges provide ample access in every direction.

Simply put, the Summit combines solid accessibility features without sacrificing the overall look, comfort, or utility of the ship’s design; it is a rare example of style and accessibility complementing one another rather than working at odds. The Summit’s accessibility is not, however, a total bed of roses, as she does come up short in several areas including the disco, theater, and in her “physical” recreational offerings.

Looking for a fun way to spend some time on our first day at sea, my friend Jeff organized a basketball game with people we had met the prior evening. One of the more impressive features on the Summit is its Sports Deck-boasting volleyball, ping-pong, a compact football field, and a full-length basketball court. While physically unable to play basketball, I planned on watching and, perhaps, acting as referee if the need arose. We knew that the midship bank of elevators reached only to deck 11, and since the basketball court is aft, headed that way. It was with great surprise that we discovered the aft elevators, too, do not go to deck 12. Instead, we took a detour down to Guest Relations where it was confirmed that there is stairs-only access to Sports Deck. This experience is representative of the dichotomy in accessibility encountered throughout the Summit. Impeccable access can be found in areas where it is thought obvious that people with disabilities will spend their time, but in places where physical or more lively participation is the focus, less attention to accessibility has been paid.

Prime examples are the pool and AquaSpa. For a newly built ship, the lack of any wheelchair access to either the highly touted thalassotherapy or standard swimming pool is disappointing. Not only are there no chair lifts into the pools, but one is required to walk up three steps just to reach pool-side. Spending 11 days in the Caribbean without the opportunity to get in the water definitely leaves something to be desired.

Smaller problems, yet equally annoying, are found elsewhere. In contrast to the reasonably spaced seating in the Cova CafĂ© Milano and Rendez-Vous Lounge, it is very difficult to navigate past the crush of chairs filling Revelations, the ship’s lively disco. On each Revelations visit, I was forced to grab the attention of a cocktail waiter to clear a path through the room. Despite having mastered some pretty impressive wheelchair dance moves, I was reluctant to ever leave my table for the dance floor, for fear of disrupting fellow revelers on my way there.

Seating is also an issue at the Celebrity Theater. Spanning three decks and decorated in lush red tones, the theater is a spectacle to behold. Unfortunately, the wheelchair accessible seating – removable chairs in the uppermost row on decks four and five – is not reserved for people with disabilities and quickly fills up with able-bodied audience members, who are often unwilling to move.

Fortunately, the access issues at Revelations and the theater are easily resolved. Not so with the rather glaring oversights at the pools and Sports Deck. That said, access aboard the Summit is better than on many comparable ships. The areas where accessible accommodations are lacking are few, and the ship’s incredibly helpful staff do everything in their power to make up for any shortcomings. This is most clearly evidenced during the debarkation of disabled passengers at ports-of-call.

Getting off the ship at each port varies in difficulty. Most piers have a long, metal gangway, across which wheelchairs can easily traverse, but on two occasions – Costa Rica and Aruba – wheelchair users needed to be helped down a short set of stairs. A couple of crewmen would gather around and lower each chair, step by step, until it reached the bottom; the trip up was handled similarly. A rather precarious debarkation did occur, however, in Grand Cayman, where a long, very steep stairway and a tender stood between passengers and the shore.

Unlike on some newer ships of Princess and Holland America – which have wheelchair lift devices on their staircases – the Summit provides only two narrow plates that fold down at either edge of the staircase, meant to transform the stairs into a quasi-ramp. Unfortunately, the two plates are so far apart that any standard-size wheelchair slips in-between, rendering the plates useless.

Peering down the flight of stairs from my 200-pound, power wheelchair, I was fully prepared to pass on going ashore. Before I could retreat back into the ship, however, four crewmen approached, ready to carry me down to the platform below. After assuring me that this task was “no problem” (an answer I secretly suspect they are required to give), I nervously decided to go for it.

Remarkably, with great difficulty, strength, and one small slip, the foursome managed to get me down in one piece. Seeing the huge effort this took, and staring – now up – at the looming staircase, I half joked, “I’m never getting back on the ship, am I?” Uneasy laughter answered back.

Ports-of-call continue to be the weak point where accessibility is concerned. Of course, most of the blame cannot be placed on the cruise industry. Few places outside the U.S. have good accommodations for the disabled, and while the cruise lines make increasing efforts to find activities that are inclusive of all, their options are severely limited.

Conversations with Celebrity’s special services office – the people in charge of disabled accommodations – revealed that this particular itinerary is one of the line’s least accessible offerings. In fact, on this sailing, not a single ship-organized shore excursion could accommodate a power-wheelchair user. Still, the destinations – including Cozumel, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia – intrigued me enough that I was willing to research accessible in-port activities on my own.

One of the largest problems disabled travelers face is locating accessible transportation. The most common solution is to hire a taxi big enough that one can transfer from the wheelchair into the car and stow the chair in the back. However, for people like myself, who must remain in their chairs, there is often no good option available. Fortunately, at over half our calls, a variety of activities and shopping were within walking distance of the gangway.

In Cozumel, our first stop outside the States, I was determined to make it from the International Pier to the shops of downtown San Miguel – reportedly an easy three mile walk away. San Miguel is, indeed, only three miles north of the pier, but in many areas the island’s sidewalks resemble the heavily pocked surface of the moon. Steep curbs and driveway drop-offs add to the challenge. More than an hour later, hot and quite jostled, I finally reached the central plaza. Once in town, however, curb-cuts start to appear and, while most of the colorful shops have one or two steps up, there are enough at sidewalk level to make the journey worthwhile.

In Cartagena, Colombia, and Limon, Costa Rica – where transportation is an absolute necessity to see anything of interest – further research was needed. Alas, the quest for an accessible vehicle in Colombia came up empty, but in Costa Rica I struck gold. Vaya con Silla de Ruedas – translation: “Go With Wheelchairs” – is a Costa Rican tour company run by affable American expatriate, Erik Shiozaki. Using a Ford van, equipped with a wheelchair lift and four-point-tie-downs, Shiozaki takes mobility-impaired visitors to a variety of accessible tourist sights. I chose to visit a small butterfly farm, Costa Flores (a tropical plantation featuring acres of gorgeous heliconia), and a private rain forest refuge, Carhay.

Wheelchair access at each site is surprisingly good, if somewhat rugged. For me, the most exhilarating and profound of these visits was to Carhay. A family-owned reserve, this area of rain forest has been left completely undeveloped. Using naturally felled wood, the proprietors have built a wheelchair-friendly, 700-meter boardwalk deep into the jungle. We didn’t spot any sloths or monkeys, but as a longtime wheelchair user, normally confined to paved city streets, the experience of simply breathing sweet, damp jungle air, and sitting amidst the lush greenery of a Costa Rican rain forest was incredibly moving. The availability of accessible transportation and several progressive Costa Rican tourist attractions turned what might have been just a port-by-port shopping cruise into a genuine adventure approximating the experiences available to able-bodied cruisers at every port-of-call.

With quality accessible ship designs now an everyday reality, cruise lines may now be free to turn even more of their attention toward the accessibility of shore excursions and fostering accessible tourism in the nations whose ports they visit. In the meantime, the absolute comfort and personal attention found aboard the Summit go a long way toward making up for any challenges disabled cruise-goers may face while in port. Cruising is still one of the best, most disabled-friendly vacations available. As I found on the Summit, with continuing efforts at improvement, life on the high seas is only getting better.