Logistically, most of the Caribbean presents a daunting challenge to disabled travelers as well as those with injuries or age-related mobility problems. But with a heightened sensitivity to their concerns -- and regulations requiring compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) on cruise ships and in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico -- tour operators and destinations are making the Caribbean dream vacation attainable for more people than ever before.
Wheel Aboard: "Cruising takes the worry out of getting off an airplane and lessens dependence on local transportation and finding accessible accommodations," says Connie George, of the Connie George Travel Agency (888-532-0989; http://www.cgta.com). With more cabins being added that feature widened doorways with flat thresholds, wheel-in showers, onboard ramps, elevators and accessible activities, cruise-ship travel is at the forefront for vacationers with disabilities. And thanks to the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that all ships traveling within U.S. waters, including those flying under foreign flags, must abide by ADA laws, cruisers can be assured that any ship leaving from a U.S. port will be able to accommodate them.
Princess Cruises (800-PRINCESS; http://www.princess.com) has been designing ships with wheelchair maneuverability in mind since 1984. There are up to 28 accessible cabins on each ship (279 fleet-wide); on the Grand Class ships, such cabins are available in several room categories.
Other cruise lines, such as Carnival, Holland America and Crystal, also have modified cabins and public areas. Royal Caribbean (800-722-5472 ext. 34492 for Access Desk; http://www.royalcaribbean.com) has hydraulic lifts for pools and Jacuzzis, and casinos with wheelchair-approachable tables and slot machines.
Going ashore can lead to unexpected problems. In some cases -- depending on a port's facilities or the weather -- ships anchor offshore and use small boats to transport guests to shore. To assist with the transfer, Royal Caribbean has installed lifts to move guests from the ship to the boat.
Accessible shore excursions vary from cruise line to cruise line. Princess offers an Accessible Scenic Island Drive and Shopping Tour on St. Thomas, and ramps are available throughout its private island in the Bahamas, Princess Cays.
Access Coordinators for Royal Caribbean can assist in planning cruises and will recommend practical shore activities. RCL's passengers have full accessibility on St. Thomas and Puerto Rico and at the line's private Bahamian island, Coco Cay, and beach, Labadee, Haiti, where beach wheelchairs are available.
Air Accessibility: Connie George has been booking vacations for wheelchair and walker users, as well as deaf travelers, for 10 years. To find the right trips for her clients, she interviews them about their interests, abilities and limitations, especially in terms of mobility. "We have to know all of this before we can even determine if there is appropriate transportation," she says.
Most Caribbean airports are small and, in some cases, accept only commuter planes. Passengers usually get off and on by stairs on the tarmac.
Some airports do have accessible terminals, though. At the Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport in Puerto Rico, the newest terminal allows jet-bridge entrance directly onto the airplanes. For some American Airlines (800-433-7300; http://www.aa.com) and American Eagle planes that require tarmac boarding, there is a lift with a ramp that carries one person assisted by an employee. And on St. Thomas, the airport recently started using a lift to transfer wheelchair passengers from the plane's galley down to the tarmac.
At the airports where steps are required, wheelchair users are lifted and transferred in the in-flight wheelchair by airline staff. If you need further assistance -- help with boarding, special seating, medical oxygen, care for a service animal, guidance for the visually impaired -- airlines recommend requesting this when you book your flight and then following up at least a week in advance.
Finding the Right Hotel: Just because a room is labeled "accessible" doesn't mean it fits your particular situation. Before reserving, call the hotel directly and ask for descriptions of rooms, prepared with specific questions about the widths of doorways and the bathroom configuration. It's also important to find out whether there are stairs in any part of the hotel that are necessary for guests to use, and whether they have ramps.
Enlightened Destinations: St. John is pioneering an island-wide effort to offer an inclusive travel package for travelers with disabilities, says Kat Darula of Multi Design for People (http://www.designforpeople.org), a Rhode Island-based consulting and design firm. "It is not just about providing a hotel room with accessible components or an accessible bathroom; it is about the hospitality and travel industry being aware of and responding to the entire travel experience," she says.
Darula and a team from the Rhode Island School of Design originally joined up with Stanley Selengut, owner of the Maho Bay Camps (800-392-9004; http://www.maho.org), in 2004 to transform his Estate Concordia into an accessible eco-destination. A few months ago they debuted four rooms designed to meet the needs of wheelchair users, with enhanced facilities, walkways and ramps throughout the property.
Darula's crew then set off to devise a plan with the government of the Virgin Islands to promote St. John as an inclusive destination for travelers with disabilities. In July, Estate Concordia hosted four wheelchair travelers who participated in a weeklong trial to test out the accessibility of the island's transportation, restaurants, hotels and activities. The experiment allowed consultants from Darula's team to observe areas where inclusive design solutions can be implemented.
"It has great potential to succeed as a model for developers and the travel industry in the Caribbean," says Darula.
Another innovative model of accessibility is Sea Without Barriers at Luquillo Beach on Puerto Rico (http://www.gotopuertorico.com), a wheelchair-accessible beach with a ramp from the parking lot to a platform on the beach. Aquatic wheelchairs are available, as are accessible bathrooms and shower facilities. Boquerón Beach, also on Puerto Rico, is being prepared as the next Sea Without Barriers project. Aruba's Tourism Board, aware that visitors want to know about accessibility, provides detailed online information about hotels and activities on its website (http://www.aruba.com/pages/disability.htm).
These are encouraging signs that the Caribbean as a whole may eventually become accessible to all. "Nobody argues with the 'why,'" says Darula. "They want to know the 'how.'"