To absorb the full majesty of the incomparable West Indies as you island-hop from the luxury headquarters of a cruise liner, you must treat yourself to your very own taxi driver/font of irresistible trivia – and one never to be found in a guidebook.
‘A rainforest, madam? No problem. A beach bar? The best on the island is just half an hour away. Shopping? You have the purse, Moses knows the perfect place!’
But if you crave the additional ingredient of cheering, waving crowds lining the roadside for every mile of your regal progress, there is one essential accessory – a wheelchair.
Having been hoisted by driver and a small army of volunteers into the back of a partially de-seated minibus, my wheelchair and I towered in splendour over the passing scene.
Indeed, it was hard to resist a raised papal salute of gracious acknowledgement.
How could I have neglected to pack my white gloves? This could well become an addictive ego-massage beyond price…
From the moment my wife suffered a stroke in 2011, we were determined to prove that being stuck in a chair from dawn to dusk wasn’t the end of the world.
Although suffering paralysis of the left arm and leg, and a reduction in her field of vision, her speech and brilliant mind were mercifully unimpaired.
And, after more than half a century together, we had been privileged either to visit on holiday or be separately dispatched as journalists to most parts of the globe.
If we could no longer travel, we could always live on our memories.
It took a full three years for an innate shared wanderlust to begin to take root. But getting up in the morning and retiring at night was difficult enough without having to drag our house around like a pair of restless tortoises.
If only we could find some way of travelling while our bed somehow managed to keep pace with our progress from town to town, island to island or country to country…
A cruise? By heavens, it could work! We decided to give it a go.
Scouring the travel pages, we settled on a P&O cruise around some of our favourite Caribbean islands on Azura.
It involved travelling by air as far as Barbados – sailing from Southampton in late winter would have meant several days afloat before we felt the sun on our backs.
Phase one went like clockwork. We stroke victims require a fair bulk of equipment over and above the usual clothing requirements.
So we had a car big enough to transport William and me, our son Nick, and my sister Margaret (travelling with us as amateur carers), and my wheelchair and a mountain of luggage.
It arrived dead on time to take us from our home in North London to the airport.
The Thomson flight attendants, both on the ground and in the air, looked after me with well-practised and good-natured efficiency. I was manhandled to my seat with gentle authority – and had no fear of being dropped.
After landing in Barbados, all the passengers disembarked before I was hoisted from my chair by two pairs of hands and taken off the plane in a yellow cage which rose to the level of the exit door.
Then I was reunited with my own wheelchair, and taken into the arrivals building.
After nearly four years of reasonably contented captivity in the UK, just feeling the wheels beneath me turning on foreign soil somehow filled me with an overwhelming feeling of achievement.
An abandoned dream had become triumphant reality.
Our bus turned yet one more corner and suddenly there was Azura, towering over the shops and colourfully bedraggled houses of Bridgetown, no less awesomely than Christopher Wren’s newly built St Paul’s Cathedral must have appeared to 17th Century Londoners.
Everything within this 115,000-ton leviathan over 18 decks proved to be big, big, big. And so, marvellously, was our suite.
It was perfectly designed for our needs – a wide doorway to get the wheelchair in, and easy access all areas; a magical balcony for sipping rum punch as the sun set each evening; and a shower room that was just the job, with shower seat and grab rails perfectly positioned.
And then there was our cabin steward, the omnipresent Jerry from Goa, on hand to attend to our slightest need.
Out and about on board, it was trickier for us all to navigate the long yards of luxurious carpeting – easy on the foot but not good news for the wheelchair-pusher.
When I mentioned this to our captain, Robert Camby, his response was instant and typical.
‘No one has ever pointed that out to me before and it will be in my report as soon as we get back to Southampton,’ he said.
‘We have a committee which does nothing else but consider the needs of the disabled. It meets regularly and is chaired by a woman in a wheelchair.
‘In this case, there must be many places where we could introduce a timber track for wheelchairs alongside the carpet.’
Our days fell swiftly into a contented routine. We began with a continental breakfast delivered to our cabin balcony – but soon discovered we preferred the table service in the superbly upholstered Meridian restaurant. Indeed, all the food choices were extraordinary.
At The Glass House restaurant, wagu beef burger, Morecambe Bay and Devon crab sliders, and lobster buns were being served with The Mail on Sunday’s wine man Olly Smith’s imaginative pairings – a glass from Japan, anyone?
There was stunning Indian food at Sindhu, and a fine-dining option at 17, recently rebranded as Epicurean.
Fascinating lectures included talks about how Marco Polo’s Silk Road has become one of the less salubrious highways of the world’s drug-runners, and how to identify the perfect gemstone.
Some wonderful tribute acts and performing troupes in the big auditorium and on deck meant there were always some memorable diversions.
And in a few idle moments during one day at sea, I watched a massive 300lb block of ice being sculpted into a magnificent translucent swan in just 35 minutes by Joel Soriano, an absurdly gifted member of the Azura catering team. And that was all before we even got on shore…
The official escorted island tours were off the menu because the buses couldn’t take wheelchairs – but we soon learned to turn this to our advantage.
Not only did it grant us a longer time to get me dressed in the morning, but the taxi drivers who awaited us at every port of call were happy to be our packhorses all day.
A modest charge of around $30 (about £20) per head took us to beach bar, rainforest or shopping centre, according to our whim.
So one moment I was gazing at the passing scene from a bar on the very edge of a palm-fringed beach in Grand Turk, in another being pushed through a rainforest in glorious St Kitts and, yet another, sipping a cooling daiquiri on the world-famous Bikini Beach in St Martin.
By the end of our odyssey, our happy group had travelled thousands of miles, been wined and dined under Caribbean skies, and given panama-hatfuls of wonderful memories.
And I hadn’t even left my chair.
Source: Daily Mail