Norwegian Cruise Lines Mediterranean Cruise Aboard the Epic
By
John Falkingham © 2013

During May 2013 my wife and I sailed on the Norwegian Cruise Lines EPIC from Marseille to Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona, Naples, Civitavecchia and Livorno. My wife, Cheryl, is mobility disabled and uses a wheelchair. She can walk a short distance and negotiate 2 or 3 steps with the aid of a cane and a strong arm. She can transfer from her chair to a vehicle provided it is not too low (our own vehicle is a Dodge minivan). I am able-bodied. We have travelled a fair bit and I have spent a lot of time perusing the Internet for other peoples’ experiences and using Google Maps Streetview to plan itineraries that she will be able to navigate. I think we are similar to a large number of other disabled couples and would like to offer some of our recent experience in the hope that it may be helpful to others.
John Falkingham
Ottawa, Canada


Marseille, France
We booked an accessible room at the Quality Hotel Marseille Vieux Port. It was an excellent choice. Clean, recently renovated, very reasonable for the area and completely accessible. It is a few short blocks from the tourist section of the Old Port and I could easily manage Cheryl in her manual wheelchair. The Old Port area itself is very accessible with broad smooth walkways and curb cuts at all of the corners and crosswalks. There are all kinds of restaurants and a great local fish market every morning (not that we were buying but interesting to see the variety of edible things that come from the sea). Getting away from the Old Port area is problematic with a manual wheelchair because there are some rather steep inclines. I walked around the area to the major tourist attractions and I think that it would be no problem for a powered chair or scooter – again the curbs were all cut at the crosswalks and corners. I am sure there are parts of the old city that would not be so accessible but Marseille has done a great job of making the tourist areas wheelchair-friendly.

The only problem we encountered was getting from the airport to our hotel. The airport is actually a long way from Marseille. We were travelling with another able-bodied couple and had quite a bit of luggage, as well as Cheryl’s chair. There was not a taxi van to be had at the airport. The taxi drivers waiting in the queue were all very helpful and worked together to squeeze us into the largest vehicle available - a sort of mini-SUV with Cheryl in the front and the other three of us in the back with a couple of suitcases on our laps. The fare was 75 euros. When we transferred from the hotel to the ship, the hotel staff ordered us a very large van that could accommodate us very easily.

The Cruise Ship EPIC
We had rented a mobility scooter from Norwegian’s Special Needs at Sea Group. It was waiting in our cabin when we boarded. We had an accessible balcony cabin that was the largest we have ever had on any ship. As might be expected, the EPIC is very accessible throughout although it is a very large ship that takes a while to get around – even with a motorized scooter. The one annoyance was that the dining room we preferred – “Taste” – is on Deck 5 aft. Our cabin was on Deck 8 aft. However, the aft elevators do not open on Deck 5. This necessitated us travelling the length of the ship to the forward elevators to get down to Deck 5 and then going all the way aft to the dining room. With over 4000 passengers, we often had to wait for two or three elevators before one came with enough room for the scooter. Like I said, a minor annoyance.

Palma de Mallorca
In general, we don’t like the mass bus tours that are typically offered by the cruise lines. Not that there is anything wrong with them – just a personal preference to avoid the madding crowd. We had arranged a taxi tour to the north coast of Mallorca over the Internet before leaving http://www.taxitourmallorca.com

The vehicle was a “Eurotaxi” that was plenty large enough for the four of us with Cheryl’s folded wheelchair in the back. José was a wonderful guide and took us on a great four hour tour of the villages outside of Palma including Soller and Valdemosa. He gave us enough time to look around on our own although many of the villages do not have wheels-friendly streets due to cobble stones and few curb cuts. It was a great day for us and the tour for all four of us cost only 160 euros. José would have kept going had we not had a deadline to be back aboard ship.

Barcelona
Again, we eschewed the tours offered by the cruise line and opted for a walking/rolling tour on our own. Barcelona is a major cruise port so exiting the ship was via a permanent gangway with a gentle slope. Cheryl rode the motorized scooter. The cruise pier is a long affair that is separated from the mainland by an impressive-looking bridge. Most passengers use shuttle buses provided by the cruise lines to get from the pier to the main tourist area – the walking streets called Las Ramblas. However, with the scooter that was not an option for us. The walk over the bridge took us about 30 minutes along a very accessible, if somewhat narrow, sidewalk. The sidewalk was not quite wide enough to let me walk comfortably alongside Cheryl. Once over the bridge we travelled along a broad, smooth sidewalk toward Las Ramblas. It was very pleasant and completely wheels-friendly. From the end of the bridge to Las Ramblas took us another 30 minutes. Throughout Las Ramblas, we had no difficulty getting around with the scooter. I estimate the total distance we travelled was about 10 km and, although I had harboured some concerns about the scooter battery, it handled the distance with ease. (We did take along the charger as a backup just in case!)

Naples
We had visited Naples on a previous trip and had decided to spend the day on the island of Capri. The cruise ship pier in Naples is very close to the hydrofoil ferry that travels between Naples and Capri. Getting off the ship and into the cruise ship terminal was no problem for Cheryl on the scooter. However, getting out of the terminal grounds was somewhat of a challenge. The local authorities have installed offset gates at the crosswalks to prevent people from running across the road. However, the gates are too close together to allow the scooter to weave through them. Thanks to a bunch of super friendly taxi drivers who saw our predicament, we managed to escape through the taxi parking area – they moved their cars and man-handled the barriers to get us through – and then pointed us in the right direction to the ferry pier – Molo Beverollo. Kudos to the Napolitano cabbies and shame on the walkway designers!

I had phoned the hydrofoil operators (SNAV) beforehand to confirm that they could accommodate the scooter on the hydrofoil. These are fast vessels that accommodate passengers only – no vehicles. All passengers sit inside in seats not unlike an aircraft. We knew that Cheryl would have to vacate the scooter and sit in one of the fixed seats. We parked the scooter on the after-deck outside the passenger cabin and I was able to help her to a seat. The crew were all very friendly and helpful. Wheel-chair bound passengers may be able to drive a wheelchair into the cabin. The whole way from the pier to the cabin is completely accessible EXCEPT for a large sill (about 15 cm high) at the cabin door. There are small steep ramps on both sides of the sill but it is quite likely that a chair could get hung on it – certainly Cheryl’s scooter would have.

Capri itself is basically a high rock with steep sides. The hydrofoil docks at Marine Grande at sea level. To go beyond the pier area, it is necessary to go up. Most people take the funicular up to the main piazza. I have read that the funicolare can accommodate wheelchairs but it could not accommodate Cheryl’s scooter. We decided to brave the road route up to the piazza. This was total length of about 2.5 km with a fairly steep slope all the way. The road is narrow and there are no accessible sidewalks. I called it an “experience” but Cheryl’s words were considerably more colourful. This route is certainly not for the faint of heart. Note also that, while there are pedestrian routes indicated from the pier to the piazza, these all involve many staircases. The whole trip up, with a few stops to gather our wits and many more to let traffic pass, took about an hour. The area around the piazza itself is generally accessible – although there are some steep slopes. They were no problem for the scooter but would be difficult for a manual wheelchair. We spent a couple of hours exploring the town and had a great lunch in the Capri sun. However, all in all, it wasn’t really worth the effort – and all the time there, Cheryl was dreading the trip back down. The trip down was considerably easier and less harrowing – mainly because there was much less traffic for some unknown reason.
Once back in Naples, I scouted ahead for a better scooter route from the ferry pier to the cruise ship terminal and did find one by going out to the main street and using the vehicle entrance to the terminal. However, it was not easy. The traffic designers at the ship terminal seem to have gone out of their way to make it difficult for scooters or wheelchairs – security reigns supreme, I guess.

Civitavecchia

This is the port for Rome and most passengers take the long bus trip into the Eternal City. We had also visited it on an earlier trip and elected to spend a more relaxing day exploring the port town itself. This was a most enjoyable as Civitavecchia is a quite charming seaside resort with wheels-friendly areas. The cruise ship pier itself is very long and it took us about ½ hour to get from the ship to town. Most passengers use shuttle buses provided by the cruise lines but this was not an option for Cheryl’s scooter, Fortunately, there is a wheelchair accessible pedestrian walkway running the length of the pier that, although long, is quite safe.

Once in town, we found a wonderful seaside walk that meanders for a km or so. It is new, very smooth and completely accessible. We travelled along the lower winding walk away from the ship pier, ascended a moderately steep ramp at the far end and returned along a wide pleasant sidewalk next to the street. Returning to the main street (Corso Centrocelle), we found it to be wide walking street that is very wheels-friendly for several blocks. Off of this street, however, there are multiple staircases that make wheeled travelled impossible.
The only difficulty we encountered was navigating the short distance from the Fort to the seaside walk and the Corso Centrocelle. A busy traffic circle lies between them that required some advance scouting to pick out an accessible route. It was not particularly dangerous or harrowing (much less so than Capri) but it is curious that the three very accessible areas converge on this not-so-pleasant chokepoint.

Livorno
Livorno is the port for Pisa and Florence, where most cruise passengers go on bus tours. The port is very industrial and pedestrians are not allowed to travel in it. The only way off a cruise ship is to take a bus or taxi. Cheryl elected to stay on board for the day while our friends and I took a wonderful, but totally inaccessible, trip to Cinque Terra.

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