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Caribbean Holiday Sandals Halcyon Beach - St Lucia October 1995 and 2005

Hotel Beach Front If you’ve a Special Occasion coming up and are disabled and were thinking of celebrating this by taking a holiday in the Caribbean, then I can recommend the Sandals Halcyon Beach Hotel at Choc Bay in St Lucia. This is an ‘all inclusive’ adults only resort for couples over 18 years old.

 We have now had two holidays at this resort, the first when we were celebrating our Pearl Anniversary in 1995 and no longer had young children to consider and, the second, in 2005, to celebrate our Ruby Anniversary. On the first occasion we booked the holiday through Lunn Poly and Kuoni who both did a lot of checking up for us with Faxes going backwards and forwards until everyone was satisfied that my needs could be met. They even supplied me with a fairly detailed layout of bedroom and en suite bathroom. On the second holiday, we booked through Thompsons who also went through Kuoni and the Kuoni "Special needs" agent checked and confirmed that our needs could still be met.

Our First trip in 1995
Living only 40 miles from the airport, a taxi was booked for 8 a.m. to take us to Heathrow on 22nd October. We were picked up right on time and, it being a Sunday, traffic was light so we experienced no delays and arrived with time to spare. Check in went smoothly. The baggage allowance was generous and even with15 kilos of medical supplies we were well within limits. We mingled with the crowds until it was time to go through to the departure lounge and, finally, embarkation. We were travelling on British West Indian Airways and they had been passed all my details and requests by Kuoni, so they knew I wanted to remain in my own chair until reaching the plane. Once on the plane I was expertly lifted by two members of staff into my seat immediately behind the first row on entering the plane. It is of course obvious to us, that the most accessible seats are the first row which ‘they’ say we cannot have because we would block the emergency exits ! Personally I find this hard to believe when you really look and see how the seats are placed in relation to the door. It is high time pressure was brought to bear on those who make these ridiculous rules ! In fact, if there was an emergency, unless you were in these front seats you would never get out ! On the way back it was a similar story but, perhaps because it was a Sunday night flight, expert help appeared to be in short supply and on the plane my husband found it more expedient to carry me to and from the wheelchair. However I digress. At 1 p.m. we were airborne. I had not flown since my accident 14 years ago and apart from a small delay in take off everything was going smoothly. The direct flight of 8 hours was fine and the cabin crew were pleasant and anxious to please. In case you are wondering about access to the toilet, I avoided this aspect by inserting an indwelling catheter the night before the flight and this method proved invaluable and worked well. St Lucia is 4 hours behind GMT and we landed at 5 p.m. local time. I was strapped into a very narrow chair to be taken off the plane last and was carried down a steep flight of steps to the ground. My own chair was waiting for me at the bottom of these steps and I was quickly transferred into it. Ground crew whisked us through immigration control and in no time we had collected our suitcases and were outside being greeted by the ‘Sandals’ representative who arranged a taxi to take us to the hotel.

 Fifteen hours after leaving home we were being shown to our room.In spite of everything going smoothly, weariness was beginning to set in, it was 11 p.m. U.K. time, it was dark and we had little  Hotel Roomappreciation of the surroundings that were to be home for the next 14 days. We noted the self help equipment (monkey pole, shower seat and raised toilet seat) requested in advance was all present in the room but, shock, horror, the one thing we had not bothered to check was the height of the bed ! We made the mistake of assuming all beds to be of a standard or approximately standard height. The top of the mattress of this one was 32 inches off the floor ! This being nearly twice the height of my wheelchair seat it was physically impossible for me to transfer onto the bed unaided. Being weary, we climbed into bed (in my case my husband had to lift me) resolving to sort out and take stock of our surroundings in the morning.The bed was extremely comfy and we slept well but awoke early, our bodies had not yet adjusted to the time difference.

After a cup of tea my husband unpacked and we checked our surroundings in detail. It really was very nice. We had ample space to store our belongings and plenty of room to manoeuvre the wheelchair. I quickly discovered that I could get under the writing desk but not the wash basin. The chair would only partially go under the latter and for the duration of our stay I managed by approaching the basin diagonally. The shower seat was excellent, its adjustable legs allowed the height to be set just right for me and rubber suction feet kept it very stable. A hand rail, standard in the room as part of the combined bath/shower also helped and I had no problems at all showering. However I found I needed more support for loo transfers if I wasn’t to dislodge the raised loo seat adaption. It wasn’t long before the hotel staff were checking to see if everything was to our satisfaction. We explained the difficulties and the bed problem was partially resolved by changing the base to lower it by an inch. This was all that could be managed and with the help of the monkey pole and a helping hand from my husband I was able to to get on the bed without much effort and get off unaided. The hotel kept a stock of aids for handicapped people and I found a folded walking frame, placed alongside the loo, provided the additional support needed for extra lift and balance while using the loo.

The view from our window was lovely - lots of tropical greenery around our veranda, then a level path, a small area of lawn with sun loungers on and just below the lawn, the Caribbean Sea. Not surprising, the beach was one area where access was difficult. At this point, there were three to four steps down to the sand, better access was available via the hotel’s boat launching ramp but wheelchairs are not the easiest of vehicles to take on a beach. Nearly everywhere else was wheelchair friendly and, with swimming pool and entertainment areas, three restaurants and four  Relaxing in the poolbars all accessible without negotiating a single step, I did not feel the urge to use the beach. The swimming pools had steps rather than ladders into them. I’m sure had we asked, the staff who were very friendly and helpful at all times would have helped me in, but as it was, my husband was able to do this for me. There were some foam li-lo’s in the water and, unlike air filled li-lo’s, I was actually able to get onto these ! They were so comfy, one had to be aware of just how long you had been lounging on them so as not to get burnt. The swim up bars were a feature that Pete (my husband) particularly enjoyed. The water and air temperature was ideal. Humidity was high but mostly this did not bother us. When it did feel a bit hot, we could take a dip in a pool or retire to the comfort of our air conditioned room. Sailing, canoeing, snorkelling, diving, water skiing and pedalos are all available on site. Whilst not specifically catering for the disabled, the water sports staff were very willing to help and assisted my husband in getting me into a canoe but, with no back support, I could only hang on to the sides to keep my balance while Pete did all the paddling.

St Lucia is a mountainous island with twisty roads. Car hire is possible, but we did not find the island particularly wheelchair friendly. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the capital Castries had toilet facilities for the disabled in the duty free area of the port and the local market ! Sunset CruiseThe hotel does arrange tours and whilst these are specifically for the able bodied, we were able to undertake a couple of boat trips on a catamaran. One was a sunset cruise- lovely - and the other a day trip. The crew helped with boarding and landing but once on board my movements were very restricted and for the day trip I had to revert to the indwelling catheter again. At least that way I had the freedom to do just about what everyone else did. All too soon the holiday was drawing to a close. We had spent most of our time making use of the excellent hotel facilities but had managed to see something of the island and its capital Castries.

‘Sandals’ arranged a taxi to take us back to the airport, the Kuoni representative was there to whisk us through check in and in no time at all we were in the departure lounge. Here we noted there were toilet facilities for the disabled. The 9-45 p.m. embarkation was not so smooth as on arrival. The Kuoni rep had pre-booked what we thought were suitable seats but unfortunately the plane layout was different to that expected. This time we were held to board last, nevertheless we got seated even if with more difficulty than our outward journey.The return night flight was not so comfortable as our outward flight, prompting us to complain to the airline. Thankfully, our taxi was awaiting our arrival when we touched down at Heathrow at 9 a.m. on a cold but bright November morning and we were soon home reflecting on a great holiday and wondering when we would go again.

Our second trip in 2005
For convenience, we again chose a direct Sunday flight from Heathrow and used a taxi to and from the airport. However on this occasion the arrival in St Lucia of a wheelchair guest was not expected! This caused a few anxious moments but in the end all was resolved and it was not a problem. At Hewanorra, the St Lucia airport, the taxi provided by Sandals to take us the 40 miles to the hotel was an ordinary saloon car and with luggage and the wheelchair this was a tight squeeze. Had our wheelchair not broken down into smaller components it would not have fitted into the car. At the hotel, Reception was not expecting us either and we were initially shown to a totally unsuitable room. Another room, this time suitable, was immediately offered but the aids we had requested, which had been confirmed as being available at the time of booking, had not been delivered to either room. Our immediate needs of a raised toilet seat, and monkey pole were provided within the hour but it was not until the following day that a suitable shower seat and hand shower were fitted. Since the inital booking and checks, there had clearly been a communication problem between the booking agents and the hotel. We took this up with the local Kuoni agent and complained about it on our return to the UK., writing to both Thompsons and Kuoni.

The Halcyon had changed little in the ten years since our last visit, a few more rooms and an indoor entertainment room had been added to the complex but nothing had been done to either improve or degrade access for a wheelchair user. The island itself had also changed little but what we did notice was the huge increase in traffic which made travel by road very slow in peak periods and also convinced us that hiring a car was not a good idea.

Sandals had added another hotel to the two, the Halcyon and Regency, it owned. The new one, the Grande St Lucian is located in Rodney Bay not far from Pigeon Island. You can use the facilities of all three and a courtesy shuttle bus service runs between them all but it is not wheelchair friendly and the only way we could use it was by bodily lifting Wendy on and off the bus. Not very easy and, as with lifting her in and out of the swimming pools, this is becoming more difficult with advancing age. It does however give you a choice of 14 restaurants to eat in and another venue to spend the day in at no cost. We did not visit the Regency because from our first visit in 1995 we had ascertained this hotel to be unsuitable for a wheelchair user. However we did pay two visits to the Grande and it is worth commenting further on this hotel which is mostly wheelchair friendly but does have some idiosyncrasies.

Unlike the Halcyon, the Grande's living accommodation can be considered high rise, it being mostly 4 stories but it does have lifts which make all floors accessible. The grounds were also totally accessible and where there were steps there were alternate level waysBeach Restaurant Toilet of by passing these in the majority of cases. The major swimming pool area is built in such a manner that a wheelchair could be pushed into the water and the beach was also very accessible. We asked about suitable accommodation for a wheelchair user and we were shown two very well equipped rooms suitable for a wheelchair user, one of which was a suite. There was also a public toilet suitable for a wheelchair user at the "Bare Foot" beach restaurant. The above is the good news. The bad news is that two of the major restaurants at this complex had steps to negotiate and there was no way round them. It was our understanding that wooden ramps could be provided to help negotiate these. Whilst the Grande is set in a beautiful location and has its plus points for a wheelchair user, it is a much larger complex than the Halcyon which we still preferred for its level grounds, accessibility to all facilities and very friendly staff who really made you feel very welcome. However, it is let down by the room facilities which could easily be improved. We pointed out the advantages for a wheelchair user staying at the Halcyon to the manger and gave him a note of the improvements he could make to a room to make this hotel more disabled friendly. He promised to consider the matter seriously and bring it to the notice of his superiors. We are hopeful changes will be made because the hotel is scheduled for refurbishment in the not too distant future. We briefly called at the hotel in February 2009 and although some refurbishment had been done, a room totally suitable for a wheelchair user had still not been constructed. The manager explained that work was still on going but in order not to disturb guests unduly, progress was very slow because building work could only be carried out in periods of low occupancy!

The only tours we did this time was a repeat of the Sunset Cruise. They now employ larger boats and they are more difficult to get a wheelchair on board but many hands made light work and there is now room to wheel around on deck, not that you need to. We also took a helicopter trip round the island. This required a short taxi ride to the heliport at Castries and a high difficult bodily lift into the helicopter but we managed. The wheelchair must be left behind. Its a thrilling ride but unfortunately the weather was not at its best when we did it and rain showers obscured some views. Its a good way to obtain an overview of the Island. I also went on a guided rain forest walk, definitely not suitable for the disabled and Wendy remained at the hotel for the morning. You need to be fairly fit especially if you want to do the round trip and tackle the 565 strenuous steps to the top of one of St Lucia's highest peaks. Even though the guide paused frequently to allow the small party to take a breather, I didn't think the climb really worth it. The interest was in the open top landrover ride to and from the walk and the first part of the walk. If you find the natural world fascinating, then I would rate this tour one of the best and most informative and enjoyable tours available on the island.

The weather turned very wet at the end of our two weeks, it resulted in cancelled flights which disrupted our return home. It is just as well we can cope with pretty much anything which is thrown at us and it just goes to emphasise that even the best preparations for a holiday and travel can go wrong. We had to accept temporary overnight accommodation with no aids and had to argue pretty hard to get suitable seats on the next flight offered to us. We did eventual get home, 27 hours behind schedule and, after all the hassle, I was left in no doubt about why I find holidays with the motorhome so much more relaxing and enjoyable. I must be getting old!

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