The day we dared to go to sea with Poppy

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - CRUISE -

Hav­ing a daugh­ter with cere­bral palsy made car­toon­ist Bob Mo­ran wary about risk­ing a fam­ily hol­i­day. Then he hit upon the idea of tak­ing a cruise around the Med – and never looked back

Ever since our daugh­ter, Poppy, was born three and a half years ago with brain dam­age, my wife and I have tried to avoid the kind of sce­nar­ios that could po­ten­tially end in dis­as­ter. Poppy is happy, she’s cheeky, she’s de­ter­mined.

She also has cere­bral palsy and epilepsy.

When your child is di­ag­nosed with a dis­abil­ity, the world sud­denly seems like a scarier place, full of alarm­ing haz­ards and im­pos­si­ble chal­lenges. But we have tried as much as pos­si­ble to give her a nor­mal life.

Dil­lon, her brother, was born 20 months later – thank­fully, with­out com­pli­ca­tions.

Since then, the four of us had set­tled for the se­cu­rity of not ven­tur­ing too far from home, ex­cept to at­tend Poppy’s fre­quent hos­pi­tal ap­point­ments. My wife Sal and I like to think that we cope with most of the chal­lenges life has thrown at us, but we would be ly­ing if we said what we have been through hasn’t changed us. Where once we loved to travel, since hav­ing our chil­dren, we had con­vinced our­selves that we would not be able to cope with any­thing more am­bi­tious than a quick trip down the mo­tor­way to stay with the grand­par­ents.

That changed last year, when a col­league sug­gested that a cruise – where the ho­tel moves with you – might be par­tic­u­larly well-suited to a child with spe­cial needs. Poppy loves to swim be­cause be­ing in the wa­ter re­laxes her over-tensed mus­cles. Larger ships come with sev­eral pools. At three, she could walk in­de­pen­dently, but falls over fre­quently and can’t al­ways see steps or holes be­cause of her poor eyesight. There would be lifts (26, in fact) be­tween decks, I re­minded my­self, and long, flat stretches of deck space. And, of course, plenty of crew around to lend a hand.

Still, Poppy has epilepsy and her fits can be se­vere. What if she had one on the ship? She can’t walk for long pe­ri­ods. With Dil­lon still so lit­tle, we go ev­ery­where with our dou­ble buggy. It’s enor­mous. We were both plagued by – ad­mit­tedly ridicu­lous – vi­sions of Poppy falling over­board.

But our great­est fear was: “What if we spend the rest of our lives as par­ents never ven­tur­ing away from our safe lit­tle Hamp­shire ter­race?”

We de­cided to give it a try and booked a week-long cruise around the Med. On the morn­ing of the trip I woke in a state of panic, con­vinced that we would for­get some cru­cial item of lug­gage.

As we made our way through the busy air­port for our flight to Genoa, I started to won­der if we were mak­ing a huge mis­take. We had done some re­search and plumped for MSC Cruises, whose ships and fa­cil­i­ties promised a re­laxed and fun ex­pe­ri­ence for fam­i­lies with­out com­pro­mis­ing on the more lux­u­ri­ous el­e­ments of a grown-up cruise. The route we chose be­gan and ended in Genoa in northwest Italy and in­cluded stops at Si­cily, Spain, Malta and France.

It’s hard not to be awestruck when con­fronted for the first time, by 139,000 tonnes of cruise ship. When we trav­elled, our ship, Preziosa, was the new­est ves­sel in the fleet. Cost­ing $550 mil­lion (£431 mil­lion) it is 1,092 foot long and 17 decks high. Plenty of room, then, for us and the ridicu­lous amount of lug­gage we had brought.

While the mag­ni­tude of the ship was over­whelm­ing, the size of our cabin was dis­ap­point­ingly small (on re­flec­tion we should have booked one of the 45 de­signed for those with ac­ces­si­bil­ity is­sues) – which was an added challenge for Poppy, who finds it dif­fi­cult to move around with­out a lot of space. She wasn’t the only one who strug­gled with the cram­peded con­di­tions – chang­ing a nappy y in a con­fined cabin will likely end in dis­as­ter. Sal and I be­gan to feel l a bit trapped by life at sea. Dil­lon was too young for the e kids’ club and Poppy’s com­plex needs,eds, lim­ited mo­bil­ity and lack of Ital­ian lan­guage skills s (many MSC pas­sen­gers are Ital­ian) made ade it im­pos­si­ble for r us to leave her on the he ship alone. I hoped that things would im­prove mprove on the ex­cur­sion­sns ashore. In Malta, we booked a trip to the beach. Poppy and I went swim­ming in the sea while Sal re­laxed in the sun and Dil­lon stood, trans­fixed, star­ing up at the life­guard in his tower for 20 min­utes. Then ev­ery­body buried me in the sand. It was bliss. But the rest of the ex­cur­sions in­volved two hours on a coach for a one-hour visit; it just wasn’t prac­ti­cal with small chil­dren and all of their clob­ber.

The ship’s Con­ti­nen­tal ap­proach to meal­times and bedtimes was dif­fi­cult to ac­com­mo­date. Sal and I be­gan to won­der what we had done.

Then, one morn­ing, ev­ery­thing started to change.

An ex­er­cise class on the main deck caught Poppy’s at­ten­tion. Be­fore I knew it, she dis­ap­peared into a crowd of pas­sen­gers. I pan­icked. A mo­ment later, she ap­peared on the stage next to the in­struc­tor. Bor­row­ing the head­set, Poppy in­tro­duced her­self to the crowd of el­derly Ital­ian ladies and pro­ceeded to per­form some cour­ses to get through, Poppy and Dil­lon rev­elled in the late din­ner time. Poppy sat up beau­ti­fully and blushed when the waiter cer­e­mo­ni­ously placed a cloth nap­kin on her lap. Dil­lon smashed only one tum­bler. While us grown-ups were busy moan­ing about the un­fa­mil­iar, Poppy and Dil­lon were em­brac­ing all of the new ex­pe­ri­ences: the dif­fer­ent food, for­eign cul­tures and the bizarre float­ing all-singing, all-danc­ing Euro­pean car­ni­val at sea that was our cruise ship. One af­ter­noon, Poppy and I plonked our­selves at the front row of a chil­dren’s the­atre show. I was un­sure how much she would be able to see with her im­paired vi­sion. I set­tled in some­what re­luc­tantly for a kitsch med­ley of Dis­ney songs per­formed by the ship’s ac­tors in full cos­tume. Our to­tal com­mit­ment to CBee­bies’ Mr Tum­ble meant that the kids had had lim­ited ex­po­sure to Dis­ney films. But Poppy, who sat star­ing with an open mouth, was cap­ti­vated. Then she started grab­bing my arm and point­ing out things on stage. She gig­gled as the lights caught the tips of her shoes and ob­served that the Beast, who was pin­ing af­ter Beauty, looked a lot like her un­cle Pa­trick. At the end, she got out of her seat and ap­plauded so en­thu­si­as­ti­cally that her glasses fell off.

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