QM2 is so-so for wheelchair users

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Since watching the first piece of steel placed at a ceremony on July 4, 2002, I have observed with excitement the magnificent Queen Mary 2 grow from dream to reality.

This fitting carrier of the Royal Mail and the flagship of the historic Cunard Line is spectacular, to say the least. At long last on a windy and rain-swept day, we boarded the liner in New York for an eight-day sailing to three Caribbean islands.

I travel in a wheelchair, so these comments are focused on how the ship handles handicap issues. Boarding went very well, and the courteous staff moved wheelchair passengers to the head of the line and assisted on the gangway. We were on board within 45 minutes of arriving at the pier.

As you view this ship from land, you are struck by its enormous size. It is 150 tons and dwarfs everything around it. This size compels the use of a power wheelchair or scooter. Pushing a manual wheelchair from the Commodore Club on Deck 9 to the Britannia dining room on Decks 2 and 3 would exhaust an NFL linebacker.

The public rooms of the QM2 are generally accessible and are connected by wide corridors. The two exceptions are the Queens Lounge Ballroom and the G32 late-night dance club. They are located behind the restaurant and require the use of special lifts for wheelchair access.

The major negative issues for a wheelchair guest are that the midship elevators are small and the companionways outside the staterooms are narrow. Each day, going and coming from the cabin required four or five turns to maneuver the power chair out of the cabin door. Once in the hall, we were faced with an obstacle course of cleaning carts and vacuums as we moved toward the elevator.

Having your spouse, dressed for a formal night, move laundry bags on the way to dinner took the edge off what should be an elegant evening.

Our room was a handicap cabin, and the size was adequate. There was a roll-in shower and an excellent array of grab bars in the bathroom. The toilet seat was low and not comfortable for a disabled person.

Some new ships have installed seats for aiding wheelchair swimmers to enter the pool; we saw none on the QM2.

Deck 7 is a wonderful teak deck that enabled me to completely circle the outside of the ship. It is one-third-of-a-mile long and is completely wheelchair-accessible. I loved motoring around this deck, taking pictures as I went.

The ship is a wonderful success as an ocean liner and will be the standard of the industry for years to come. A travel professional, however, must point out that the wheelchair traveler has some unique challenges on this ship due to its size and design. It is unfortunate that the largest passenger ship ever built has some of the smallest elevators and narrowest cabin companionways on the seas.

Bill Tuohey, who has been sailing on cruise ships since 1976, has been in a wheelchair for 10 years and retired from his position as a judge in 2000. He and his wife, Eileen, maintain a Web site, Sailingonwheels, athttp://groups.yahoo.com/group/sailingonwheels , where cruise passengers in wheelchairs can share their thoughts about access on ships. Tuohey can be e-mailed at[email protected].

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