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A Floating Resort Or A Floating Prison?

The perceptions surrounding a cruise holiday differ depending on the perspective of the individual.  And this perspective alters dramatically when you are an individual who uses a chin controlled power wheelchair.

The fact that someone with such a high level of disability would even consider going on a cruise says a lot about Joanna.  No task is too difficult and nothing stands in the way of this wonderful woman.

Joanna Fowler is a quadriplegic presenter for PBF Australia.  She shares her personal spinal cord injury story with young adults on a regular basis, as part of the PARTY (prevent alcohol & risk related trauma in youth) programs at Queensland hospitals.

In her spare time Joanna likes to “test” holiday accommodation, to see if it is truly accessible.  Last Christmas it was her sister Amanda’s 50th birthday and Joanna joined Amanda and her young family on a cruise with Royal Caribbean Voyager of the Seas in the South Pacific.

Twelve days cruising from Sydney to New Caledonia and Vanuatu might sound like a relaxed and relatively stress free holiday to organise, even taking into consideration wheelchair accessibility.  But on closer examination, the intricate details that went into the planning of this trip were nothing short of a military operation.

The planning began almost 12 months prior to departure.  Apart from the usual passports/visas/injections, it involved liaising with a travel agent cruise specialist, rental equipment suppliers, carer providers and specialist accommodation. The lists of things to do and provide was extensive – over 9 pages.

From previous experience, flying to Sydney from Brisbane was out the question.  If any of Joanna’s equipment (eg: specialist power wheelchair) gets broken then she is broken.  So with 2 carers and her family sharing the driving, they embarked on the 11 hour drive down to Sargood on Collaroy. These luxurious self-contained apartments in Sydney make a beachside holiday actually possible for people living with a spinal cord injury.  A refreshing concept, the resort provides a complete set up so you don’t have to bring a thing.

By stark contrast, Joanna had to supply all her own specialist equipment for the cruise ship.  Not only her hoists, slings and shower chair, but Joanna actually took her bed.  Listening to her special needs, the rental rep from Arjohuntleigh worked closely with Georgina from CruiseAbout Armadale, to coordinate the delivery and installation of the bed.  This involved all electrical items having new sockets and testing for certification, and transformers to convert the power.  Security clearance also had to be arranged for all staff involved. Joanna spoke very highly of Georgina and her ability to go above and beyond the usual responsibilities of a tour operator.

Once on board, the ship was totally equipped for disability access. There were a few little lips between door ways that created a bounce as she went over them, but this was nothing new to contend with.  The magnificent stateroom allocated for Joanna was surprisingly spacious and featured a balcony with expansive views of the ocean.

The selection of delicious food on offer and being able to join her family in the dining rooms and at the amazing shows was really great.  Unfortunately Joanna could not participate in the majority of on board activities, such as the rock-climbing wall, ice-skating rink, and mini-golf.  It should be noted that the FlowRider (surf simulator) offered a special hoist to assist people depending on the level of their ability.

Shore excursions are the highlight for the majority of cruise guests.   If you can transfer yourself from your wheelchair to the tender boats, then these are accessible for wheelchair users.  Unfortunately without this ability the only port where it was physically possible for Joanna to disembark was Noumea in New Caledonia.

The casual-chic capital of Noumea features spectacular reefs, beaches, mountains and the worlds’ largest lagoon.  The highlight however for Joanna was that fact that this shore excursion was totally accessible.  From the “Hop On & Hop Off” Bus to the magnificent aquarium and market place.  There were ramps in every doorway, allowing her access even into the smallest local patisserie. Something that is not always possible even in Australia.  The island staff simply could not do enough to help her and, in Joanna’s own words, “I felt like a real person”.

Upon their return to Sydney, Joanna and her family spent a few more nights at Sargood on Collaroy to be part of the infamous New Year’s Eve fireworks on Sydney Harbour.  A fun evening for Aussie families that also presents its own challenges. However setting up camp from 3pm on the Taronga Park Zoo side of the harbour, they managed to beat the crowds and watch both the 9pm and midnight shows.  Channel 7 News even popped by to have a brief chat with Joanna ( 

Living as a high level quadriplegic can be isolating.  Inclusion in the community is essential. People sometimes come up to Joanna and congratulate her for simply getting up in the morning.  She doesn’t appreciate this.  A feisty, strong woman with a wonderful sense of humour, Joanna ensures that she is an active part of her local community.   Getting out and experiencing life and all its beauty, is what makes the incredible effort that goes into organising her travel adventures completely worth it.

Royal Caribbean Voyager of the Seas
Sargood on Collaroy - Sydney
Joanna & her bed in her Stateroom
Joanna, Amanda & Andy - Captain's Dinner
Joanna & family in Noumea
The girls at the beach
Accessible cafe in Noumea

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