Photos by Stephanie Allen Productions
Before I broke my neck, I had visited the Cayman Islands and vowed that someday I’d return to see the remaining islands of the Caribbean, the Virgin Islands and the West Indies. After I broke my neck I put my dream trip off for years, not wanting to struggle with likely wheelchair inaccessibility. Finally last year, after several friends were diagnosed with life-altering diseases, I decided it was now or never. I figuratively jumped into the blue waters with both feet.
I braced myself for disappointment but did my research to better my chances of success. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the expression goes.
I selected a cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas, a ship recommended by accessible travel author Candy Harrington. Then I made dozens of phone calls starting 10 months in advance, interviewing potential tour companies that could and would assist me with my specific needs. I wanted to do more than look at the tropical sea from a vehicle window. I wanted in it. After just one bump, I reaped the rewards of my efforts. Good planning and good people made it possible for me to fulfill my dream.
Harrington was right — the ship was wonderfully accessible and the service was splendid. My first stop in St. Thomas offered plentiful, accessible shopping where I snatched up unique Island Christmas gifts for friends and family. But I was dead wrong on my excursion choice. There was no way I could safely board the large catamaran for my snorkel trip. And I so wanted to snorkel. Deeply disappointed, I left my travel companion, Stephanie, to go without me and I headed back to the ship.
So when we got to St. Croix, I was hell-bent on getting into that water. This time, I approached it from the beach area of the Sand Castle on the Beach Resort. I rolled to the edge of their deck and pushed myself to my feet. With one arm around Stephanie’s shoulders and the other around the shoulders of a stranger, I shuffled across 20 feet of uneven white sands and into the warm, blessed waters of the Caribbean Sea. I had arrived!
I bobbed up and down on the gentle swells for about an hour, reveling in the freedom and motion, breathing the salty air. Only when my fingers shriveled like prunes did I reluctantly prepare to leave the azure sea. I was well aware that getting out would pose more problems than getting in.
Stephanie grabbed my gait belt from the pack on my chair. Seconds later, three tourists from New York appeared at my side. “My mom had a stroke and had to re-learn to walk,” one man explained. “I saw the gait belt and thought you might like help.” I rode a swell to get my feet under me, then gratefully used two men’s shoulders as crutches to hobble back to my chair. After I sat, the third man washed the sand from my feet!
In Antigua, the service and kindness of the tour guides at Stingray City warmed my heart. I sat in my chair at the edge of the grass, discussing with Stephanie my options of how to get across the sand to the speedboat docked 20-some feet away. A huge, strong man came up to me and said, “Put your arm around my neck,” in a soothing Island accent. Thinking I would use his and another’s shoulders as crutches, I did as he asked. I was stunned when he scooped me up in his arms like a bride and carried me away. “You have no idea how much I weigh!” I sputtered in shock. “You have no idea how strong I am,” he responded. I stopped arguing. He was solid, steady as rock as he stepped into the boat with me in his arms and placed me safely on the seat.
Nigel, the boat captain, whisked us away, gliding across the glassy bay in the speedboat to the stingrays. I was again carried from the boat and into the water, where I moved almost normally. I swam with the rays, fed them and snorkeled around the bay. Nigel, whose two uncles use wheelchairs, made sure I saw and did everything.
In St. Lucia, I selected Dive Fair Helen tours, which proved to be an excellent choice. It didn’t matter that there were few ramps. The men just picked me up in my chair and carried me to where I needed to go, this time onto a 39-foot Sea Hawk dive boat. They helped me in and out of the water as needed.
I snorkeled for two hours during the excursion, with a lasagna lunch during a break. Organ pipe sponges and purple urchins attached to the reef seemed inches away as I looked through the crystal clear water. Swimming through a school of dazzling tropical fish, I realized I had achieved a great personal goal in this paradise.
Grenada, the Island of Spice, was the final stop before cruising back to our port of origin in Puerto Rico. The fact that I was only 99 miles from Venezuela was enough to give me an adrenaline rush! I hadn’t been that far from the United States in 20 years!
Grenada’s Spice Route was my only land excursion. Mandoo Seales
The next day, we were off, heading back to San Juan, Puerto Rico. I trusted that due to good planning and good people, even more adventures awaited me there.
• Dive Fair Helen, 758/451-7716; www.divefairhelen.com
• Mandoo Tours, 473/440-1428; grenadatours.com/half.htm
• Royal Caribbean Adventure of the Seas, 866/562-7625; www.royalcaribbean.com/findacruise/ships/class/ship/home.do?shipCode=AD
• Sand Castle on the Beach, 800/524-2018; www.sandcastleonthebeach.com
• Stingray City Antigua, 268/562-7297; www.stingraycityantigua.com