Imagine dipping your feet into crystal clear waters along miles of golden sands, hearing your own breathing as you scuba dive, and seeing the sparkle of gold, silver, and gems in quaint shops. These alluring Caribbean travel experiences have historically not been accessible to wheelchair users, but fortunately that is changing.
Traveling internationally has always posed huge challenges for people with mobility impairments, and the nature of most Caribbean destinations – old buildings, cobblestone streets, and deep sand – has kept many seniors and wheelchair users away. However, more and more islands are now filled with experiences accessible to everyone.
The larger islands: Bahamas, Puerto Rico and Barbados
The Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas is an enormous Caribbean playground that provides excellent access for wheelchair users and others with mobility impairments. The resort provides guests with disabilities a detailed access guide with information about accessible rooms, attractions, and more. Atlantis is one of the many Caribbean resorts where people with impaired mobility can enjoy many refreshing zero-entry (sloped) pools. All that being said, the property covers an area a mile long, and the resort shuttles are not accessible. Manual wheelchair users would be wise to seek assistance, or rent an electric scooter for their stay.
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Many of the major sights in Puerto Rico are at least partly accessible, like the majestic El Morro fortress and the Bacardí distillery in San Juan. Luquillo Beach, about 45 minutes outside of San Juan, has an accessible area for mobility-impaired visitors. Puerto Rico also offers some options for wheelchair-friendly tours using vans with lifts, like Rico Sun Tours. This is often the best way to see Old San Juan, which is riddled with cobblestones and very steep streets. It’s bad enough to spill your rum; you don’t want to spill out of your wheelchair.
The island country of Barbados can be circumnavigated by car in just four hours, but offers numerous accessible attractions. Visitors can hire local transportation company Blessed Rentals for a visit to Harrison’s Cave, which takes guests through stunning caverns in a tram—with a wheelchair accessible car. Beware the hair! The caverns are a full-frizz zone; it “rains” inside.
Later you can see the breathtaking views from Cherry Tree Hill and unique rock formations on Bathsheba Beach. Guests at the Hilton Barbados Resort can use floating beach wheelchairs at no charge to immerse themselves in the beckoning blue waters along their private beach.
The smaller islands: St-Martin and St Thomas
One might think that the smaller the island, the less accessible it would be. Fortunately, great things come in small packages. St-Martin/Sint Maarten is an island divided into two countries, commonly known as the French side and the Dutch side. The main cities are mostly flat with good wheelchair access on sidewalks and into restaurants and shops. This is important, because the locally made chocolate should be available to everyone. The more scenic mountainous areas can be explored by booking an accessible tour or hiring private transport.
St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands is also a great option for travelers with limited mobility. While the island is hilly, there are numerous wheelchair vans available for hire, sidewalks with curb cuts, and most parts of Charlotte Amalie are flat with good wheelchair access to restaurants and shops. While St Thomas has one of the best selections of accessible water activities in the Caribbean, including scuba diving, they can get short-staffed during the high season so booking these activities well in advance would be wise.
If all of this sounds too daunting, then finding paradise by way of an accessible all-inclusive resort is always an option. While the Turks & Caicos in and of themselves aren’t very wheelchair friendly, the Beaches Resort there offers everything visitors with disabilities could possibly need by way of accommodations, food, and activities. The Sandals Resorts in St Lucia and Antigua each have two ADA rooms and seven accessible restaurants on the property, as well as several beach wheelchairs.
Choosing accessible transportation
One major decision travelers with disabilities and their families have to make is how to reach various Caribbean destinations. Cruises are a perennial favorite, and given that the newest ships are usually found in Caribbean waters, they are usually also the most wheelchair friendly. However, many Caribbean ports of call only allow disembarkation via a smaller boat called a tender, which is usually off-limits to non-manual wheelchair users. For example, Grand Cayman is a tender-only port, but ironically one of the most accessible locations in the Caribbean. By viewing itineraries on the cruise line’s websites, you can see which ports use docks and tenders. Power chair or scooter users may want to rent a manual wheelchair for situations like these.
Flying to an island and staying in an all-inclusive accessible resort may be a more comfortable option, but know that accessible tour and transportation options for exploring outside the resort may be limited.
The definition of “accessible” is different in every country, and expectations (especially by Americans) with regard to anything comparable to ADA standards should be kept low. But the most important thing to keep in mind is the positive attitude Caribbean residents and hospitality industry employees have towards disabled guests. Although a challenge might seem insurmountable to the wheelchair user, pretty much any problem can be solved in the eyes of the locals—sometimes with the right amount of nerve and a sense of adventure.
A more accessible Caribbean isn’t just about a boy with cerebral palsy rolling on the beach for the first time or a woman going scuba diving after an accident-related amputation—although these are fantastic developments in accessible tourism. It’s about making family-friendly destinations truly inclusive for the entire family. It means grandpa doesn’t have to stay at the hotel or onboard the ship while everyone goes exploring. A family of four—including a child in a wheelchair—can all stay in the same accessible hotel room because there are enough beds and space for everyone. It means all visitors to this sparkling corner of the world get to have the same opportunity to dip their feet in the water.