Wheelchair Accessible Vollendam Cruise:
Osaka, Japan, Pusan, Korea, Kodiak & Sitka Alaska
By Kim & Shaun O'Sullivan  © 2011

Shaun & Kim O’Sullivan of Australia's Gold Coast share their cruising insights aboard the Holland America Vollendam where they found visiting ports of call challenging

My husband, my sister and I wanted to do a cruise to see what all the fuss was about. My husband, Shaun, is a T12 paraplegic and is unable to walk.  We went to our wonderful travel agent, Dianne from Flight Centre Booval and started the planning, as this can be the most important part of any holiday with a wheelchair.  We booked a wheelchair accessible cabin and Lynn, my sister, had her own cabin. 

We chose the Holland America ship called the MS Volendam.  Originally, the cruise was to sail from Osaka, to three other ports in Japan and then to Alaska and onto Vancouver, Canada.  However, after the tsunami hit, the ship still sailed from Japan, then went via Korea and Russia before continuing onto Alaska and Canada.  We still decided to go as the main reason we had picked this cruise was to see Alaska, a long held dream of ours. 

Shaun boards a wheelchair accessible Osaka taxi.

We flew to Osaka from the Gold Coast with Jetstar. Whilst a no frills airline and no air bridge we had no difficulty getting on an off with the wheelchair. After two nights in Osaka we boarded the ship at Kobe on the 2nd May and had absolutely no trouble getting onto the ship.  This was a very streamlined process.  We had obviously pre-booked the wheelchair accessible cabin and though compact was well set up. 

My husband’s wheelchair is a manual chair and he could navigate the room with relative ease.  He did mention that someone with a larger chair or an electric hair might have more difficulty manoeuvring in the room. 


 

We had to ask for a shower chair and this was happily provided. We also had a chair removed from the cabin which made moving about a little easier. The cabin staff were only to willing to help with any request.

Vollendam roll-in shower.

The ship was well set up and easy enough for my independent husband to get around to all sections.  There were several public wheelchair toilets, so he did not have to keep going back to our cabin.  While the oceans were relatively smooth, the going was fine, however when we were in the Baring Sea, we encountered 20 metre seas and that made for some interesting times.  However the staff were more than happy to help when needed. 


 

 

 

 

 

 

Shaun & Kim O’Sullivan enjoy dinner with another passenger aboard the Vollendam.
Shaun & Kim O’Sullivan enjoy dinner with another passenger aboard the Vollendam.

Our first stop was Pusan, Korea, and he was easily able to leave the ship as we had pulled up at a dock. He went off on his own and managed to hire a taxi with a driver who could not speak English, but they managed to have a fantastic time and ended up in places that no one else on the ship managed to experience.  Hopefully I will get my husband to write about his shore excursions in the not too distant future. 

After we left Pusan, Korea, we got a very interesting phone call. Basically they asked if he could walk and when he said no, he was told he would not be able to get off on the tender ports. Our travel agent had been told that they would try everything possible at these ports and indeed my husband had completed copious amounts of paperwork regarding his injury and his wheelchair. We sailed into Vladivostok and he was able to get off there as it was another dock, however there were steps everywhere from the port and he was unable to get much further than the dock. My sister and I went into the town, but you would not be able to get very far in a wheelchair, even if you could cross the walkways, as the state of repair of the footpaths and the roads was very poor. 

Our next port was Petropavlovsk and this was a tender port.  My husband did not worry about it too much, as Vladivostok had dented his need to travel in Russia.  He was happy to view it from the ship.  Even though it was overcast the large harbour was completely encircled with snow covered mountains and with breaks in the clouds you could see a majestic snow covered volcano – scenes you don’t see much of in Brisbane.

Vollendam crew assist Shaun aboard the tender.
Vollendam crew assist Shaun aboard the tender.

We then headed off to Alaska, knowing that we had two tender ports that we had been told would not be able to take us.  I went to the office to find out what the real story was, as we had received correspondence prior to leaving home, stating that everything would be done to assist him from the ship, however it was ultimately the captain's decision on leaving the ship.  The office told me that they had no idea that my husband couldn't walk, however I told them that was not right.  They then tried to blame the travel agent, however I knew that wasn't right also, as we travel regularly using Dianne as our travel agent and my husband had returned plenty of paperwork.  They then told me they would get back to us shortly with a decision. 

When I hadn't heard from them the next day, I went back and that is when they said they found our paperwork and the return letter from them stating that they would try everything, however a part needed fixing for the wheelchair accessible tender had been left back in Singapore. That was at least two weeks prior to us boarding the ship. I told them that we should have been contacted and given the option.  I also said if my husband was unable to leave the ship in Alaska, we wanted our money back as they had not even bothered to try and meet with my husband so they had no idea what he was capable of.  After a couple of days, my husband went to the office and had a conversation with somebody in charge.  The upshot was an arrangement was made whereby 4 crew members carried him down a ladder and placed him in the tender which transported him to the landing jetties in Kodiak and Sitka in Alaska.  He just had to agree to a time going over and coming back so that they could arrange for the crew to be available.  On the second transfer, someone came and took photos so that other people could see what may be entailed for a wheelchair to leave the ship on a tender.  All this was probably only possible due to my husband being reasonably functional and both he and his wheelchair’s combined weigh being less than 100kg

Kodiak was wonderful.  Once again, Shaun found someone who would take him on a shore excursion and my sister and I went on a pre-arranged one through the ship.  Again, I am hoping he will put this experience into words.  Our next stop was Sitka, also a tender port, and the experience was also positive, again finding someone to take him on a shore excursion once he got off the ship.  From there we sailed to Vancouver. 

Overall it was a very positive experience. The ship was well set up for accessibility. The food was fantastic, the crew went above and beyond the call of duty and except for the minor problem with the tenders, everything went very smoothly and we would not hesitate in recommending the Holland American Line to anybody.  In fact, we have already booked another cruise with the same cruise line, and I intend doing shore excursions with Shaun as I am sure he had just as much fun as us, if not more. 

Don't miss Kim & Shaun O'Sullivan's  2010 Tour of Egypt.

or Kim & Shaun's train journey aboard the Rocky Mountaineer to Banf & Vancouver, Canada

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