Topics Covered:

Caribbean resort booking policies, deplaning in Aruba, Aruba airport transfers, Palm Beach resort, medical equipment rentals, island tour/accessible transportation

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By James Glasbergen

If you are looking for an accessible winter getaway destination that promises guaranteed sun and guaranteed heat, look no farther than Aruba.  Many Caribbean islands have accessible all-inclusive resorts, but Aruba is one of the few islands that offers wheelchair accessible transportation as well.  In addition to its accessibility, Aruba's location just off the coast of Venezuela means that visitors can be assured of warm weather and plenty of sun.  Combine the beautiful weather with an all-inclusive resort and accessible transportation and it is easy to see why Aruba is the best choice for wheelchair users looking for an all-inclusive Caribbean resort.

Given the many inquiries I get every year from disabled travelers looking for an accessible all-inclusive resort vacation in the Caribbean, I decided to go down for a week and check out accessibility for myself on this desert island. One obstacle for disabled travelers when booking an all inclusive resort in the Caribbean is that most Caribbean resorts (along with the major tour operators that book those resorts) refuse to guarantee a wheelchair accessible room at the time of booking.  They will only put an accessible room on request, and while it is almost never a problem to get the accessible room, they refuse to guarantee it.  In other words, there is a very small chance that even though you requested a wheelchair accessible room at the time of booking, you could be placed in a regular room.  I doubt there are many able-bodied people who would spend a few thousand dollars to stay at a resort where there is no guarantee that they will be able to shower while they are away, so it doesn't seem fair that the tour operators and resorts expect people with disabilities to book without a guarantee of accommodations that will meet their needs.  Hopefully these resorts will see the light and reconsider this policy in the near future.

While I don't like the idea of going on a vacation where I am not 100% guaranteed to have a wheelchair accessible room, I wanted to give it a try anyway to see how it went.  I selected a nice 4-star all-inclusive resort located on Aruba's s sunny Palm Beach.  Upon booking through the tour operator, I immediately followed up with the resort directly to see if there was any way that they would block off one of the 4 wheelchair accessible rooms that has a roll-in shower.  Like the tour operator, they would not guarantee it, but they did put it on request and told me to follow-up a week before arrival to confirm, which I did.  After that, all I could do was hope that everything would turn out as planned when I arrived.

Upon touchdown in Aruba, it was refreshing to look out the window of the airplane and see palm trees, people walking around in shorts and T-shirts, and most importantly, no snow!  I expected that we would deplane via a jetway, but I soon realized when our plane stopped and they started bringing the steps over that I would be in for a little adventure.  As usual, I waited around in my seat for everyone to get off, the whole time wondering how they were going to get me off of the plane.  As always, they brought out one of those small aisle wheelchairs and transferred me into it.  I thought they might have an elevator that they would take me down in (as they did on our trip to Greece in 2006), but I soon realized that they were going to take me down the old-fashioned way -- down the steps.  I might have been a little nervous had I known in advance they were going to do that, but it actually turned out to be no big deal at all.  Three or four guys were helping lift me down the steps, and they had me down on the tarmac in no time.  From there, they brought a wheelchair accessible vehicle over to transport us to the terminal.

There is only one company in Aruba that offers wheelchair accessible transportation.  While I could have booked our round-trip transfers between the airport and our resort directly with this company, the tour operator actually offered to make the arrangements, so I decided to let them do it to see how it would turn out.  The coach buses that transported all of the other tour passengers to the resort were not accessible, so we had to pay the tour operator $90 round-trip for the alternate transportation, which I'm not sure was entirely fair either.  It seems to me that if they cannot provide wheelchair accessible transfers as part of their package, they could at least pay for the cost of alternate accessible transportation.  Oh well -- just another thing to fight for.

Upon arrival at our resort, I was happy to find that I got the accessible room that I wanted.  It was a fairly large room with 2 queen beds (, , , , , ) and an accessible bathroom (, , ).  There was also an accessible balcony (), although the view overlooking the alleyway between our hotel and the next hotel wasn't much to get excited about. 

I was also happy to find upon arriving in our room that there was a Hoyer lift waiting for us.  I arranged to rent this equipment through a local medical company, which delivered the lift to our resort and picked it up at the end of our stay.  The company rents a large variety of medical equipment, including wheelchairs, walkers, scooters, oxygen tanks and concentrators, and more.

Access around our resort was fairly good, although several places required a detour to get into. To eat at the Italian restaurant, we had to notify them when we made the reservation that I was coming in a wheelchair so that they could be ready with a ramp at the side entrance.  The main entrance had steps leading down into the restaurant.  The Caribbean restaurant -- which we did not eat at -- had an accessible entrance at the back of the restaurant as the main entrance had steps.  The ballroom, where all of the nightly entertainment took place, was also not accessible through the main entrance as there was a flight of stairs leading into it.  To access the ballroom, we had to go into the buffet restaurant and through the kitchen where everyone was working in order to enter the ballroom through a back door.  Lastly, there was a bar/music room that was not accessible by the inside, but rather had to be accessed from outside near the pool.  The only places that were accessible from the main entrances were the buffet restaurant, the Mexican restaurant, and the casino.  While it was a little annoying to have to take side routes to a lot of the places we wanted to go, at least it was all accessible.

Access along Palm Beach was also fairly good.  There was a concrete pathway that allows people to walk/wheel along the length of the beach past the various resorts.  There was also a section in front of our resort where the sand was hard enough to allow a wheelchair to wheel on to the beach, although there was no way for a wheelchair to get close to the water (except perhaps by a beach wheelchair). 

We were fortunate to be able to do a little sightseeing in Aruba as well.  As mentioned, there was only one company on the island that offered wheelchair accessible transportation (, , ), but 1 of their 3 lift-equipped vehicles was in for repairs at the time, so they were not sure that they could spare one of their 2 remaining vehicles to take us sightseeing.  Fortunately, they found some time to show us around the island for a couple hours one day.  They took us to a number of the more popular attractions on the island, including the California Lighthouse, Alto Vista Chapel, the Ayo and Casibari Rock Formations, and the outside of an old gold mine.  We did not go to the Natural Bridge as it was a bit far out, not to mention that the bridge actually collapsed several years ago anyway.  In the end, it was a rather whirlwind tour of the island, but we were just happy to be able to get out and see a bit of the island rather than simply hanging out at the resort all week.  The cost for the van was USD $55 per hour, so USD $110 for an island tour wasn't that bad. 

We also arranged for the same company to give us a ride into Oranjestad a couple days later so we could spend some time on our own in Aruba's capital city.  They picked us up mid-morning at our resort and then dropped us off in the middle of town, where we then had a few hours to walk/wheel around town checking out some sites and doing a little shopping.  They picked us up later in the afternoon to bring us back to our Palm Beach resort. The cost for the round-trip transfer was USD $50, which I thought was quite reasonable given the length of the drive -- 20 minutes each way.

By the end of our 7-day trip to Aruba, we had gotten what we had hoped for -- 7 days of relaxing heat and glorious sunshine.  Of course, that is what Aruba is known for.  I asked one of the locals if there is ever a day in Aruba where the sun doesn't shine at some point, and he responded with a smile, "never."  With weather like that, it is understandable that Aruba is nicknamed "One Happy Island." 


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