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Jamaica, Montego Bay - February 2008 Music Controls

Two years ago, I swore I would never fly anywhere again. With all the security, long check in times and delays, I no longer find flying the pleasure it once was. However, we Jamaican Dancer had to cancel last year’s holiday planned for Wendy’s 60th birthday and friends had asked us to accompany them on a Caribbean Cruise. In for a penny, in for a pound I thought, and not wishing to arrive jet lagged for the cruise, we had decided to fly out 10 days early and chill out at the Sandals Royal Caribbean resort which is not far from the Montego Bay cruise terminal where we were to embark on the cruise. Travel Counsellors made all the arrangements for us and the agent, Tracy, went out of her way to ensure that our special needs could be met.

We drove to Gatwick on the afternoon before our early morning Virgin flight, picking up an APH car park chauffeur before parting with the car at the airport and using Virgin's early check in facilities. Divested of our heavy baggage, we booked into the Gatwick Hilton for our overnight stay which we paid for using Tescos Deals vouchers. We chose the Hilton because it is only a short undercover walk away from the South Teminal from where we would depart. The adapted room was very well equipped except the toilet was very low and an enquiry about the availability of a seat riser proved negative. Just as well it was only one night!

We arose at 0530hrs and checked out and made our way back to the terminal where we had breakfast before going through into the departure area only to find there was a 2-1/2 hour delay on our flight which turned into over 3 hours by the time the plane was in the air. There are plenty of facilities in the departure area, but the wheelchair accessible toilet facilities are of a low standard. The toilet seats are low and once seated the hand bars are too high and it requires super human strength to complete a transfer. They were also in use by everyone. The toilets by the boarding gates were far better quality but what severely handicapped person has time to use them when you have been called to board? On our return, we wrote to BAA pointing out these problems to them. It is staggering to find a major hotel chain and such a major public area with not only illegal, but dangerous facilities and I think businesses need reminding that they have an obligation under the DDA to provide facilities according to Government guidelines. Should they not, then they should realise they run the risks of being sued should an injury be incurred.

We had no problems boarding and after a 9 hour comfortable flight we touched down at Sangster Airport, Montego Bay. Here it was a frustrating process disembarking due to the 43 passengers who had requested assistance with disembarkation and there only seemed to be a handful of helpers and even less airport wheelchairs. To make matters worse they would not bring our own wheelchair to the aircraft door or allow myself to push a wheelchair once we had acquired one. They eventually relented on this as long as I followed one of the airport helpers for the long walk to the baggage hall where we were relieved to find our own chair. After a search for our suitcases which by now had been pulled off the carousel by persons unknown and dumped in opposite corners of the baggage room, we were painlessly through immigration and customs and two hours after landing were being greeted by the Sandals rep in the airport foyer. We had requested a taxi, preferably an estate car but, to our amazement, a wheelchair friendly people carrier with a tail lift had been organised for us for the short courtesy ride to the resort where we arrived in a shower of rain at about 6pm Jamaican time just as the sun was setting. We quickly established the adapted taxi belonged to Ken’s Taxis, and he had two such vehicles.

Room 401 Sandals reception was expecting us and we received a warm welcome and after completion of registration formalities we were given a choice of two rooms, Numbers 81 and 401. Wendy chose 401 which was the one most suited to her needs and we retired to a bar whilst the room was prepared and the aids, a raised toilet seat, a bath chair and hand shower were fitted. We had also requested a 'monkey pole' but a search of Jamaica had not produced one. However, we did bring a trapeze with us and were able to suspend this from a cross piece on the four poster bed. As per our previous visits to Sandals resorts, we found the bed far too high and a standing transfer was required at bed times and for safety, even with the aids, help was required with the every day tasks. By the time we retired for our first night we had been on the move for 22 hours. Sleep came easily.

The first day dawned cloudy but it soon brightened up and for the remainder of our stay it remained sunny and dry although it was rather windy at times. We had a quiet poolside room on the ground floor of a two story block. Access was level and the room and ensuite gave plenty of space to maneuver the wheelchair. For views of the room, see our photo gallery of Jamaica which can be accessed at the top of the left hand menu.

The resort is built on level ground and the pathways smooth. Where there are one or two steps, alternative routes take you round these or there is a ramp available. There is also good access to the beach but access to the private island is not possible without considerable help to board the boat. We did make one evening trip across to the Thai restaurant located on this island and the staff happily lifted the wheelchair and Wendy on and off the boat. Help was always available and Wendy was also able to make two further boat trips, an evening trip along the coast to Montego Bay and a trip out to the reef in a glass bottomed boat. None of these would have been possible without the help of the staff. Other areas of difficult access were the swim up bar and the pools. Steps are provided into the pools and it was possible to lift Wendy in but I am finding this an increasing struggle with advancing age. Access to the gardens, other restaurants and bars, lounges and hotel shop is not a problem. A courtesy bus is available to take guests to another two nearby Sandals resorts. This is not wheelchair friendly and we chose to use a taxi to take us to one of these, Sandals Montego Bay, for the day. This resort is not very wheelchair friendly and whilst we had a change of scenery and an enjoyable day, I cannot recommend a stay at this resort for a wheelchair user.

Most of the tours from the hotel use buses or mini buses to get to their destination and are not wheelchair friendly, nevertheless we decided to undertake two tours using these because hiring a taxi for our own use worked out very expensive. Apart from this, it is safer to go on an organised tour in a country noted for its high level of crime.

Wendy had always wanted to swim with dolphins and our enquiries at the tour desk indicated a disabled person could undertake this but it would be limited. We booked this and an inland tour to an estate so that we could see more of Jamaica. Both would be full day trips. We also booked a half day shopping trip into Montego Bay. Lifting Wendy onto the front passenger seat of a mini bus is slightly easier than the big lift into the small busses and we hoped the former would be used for our tours.

Shopping Trip – Thankfully not too many wanted to go into Montego Bay on the day we chose and a mini bus was used which took us to a touristy area of shops and a local craft market. There is not a great deal to go to the shops for unless it’s a totally new experience for you. You can get quite hassled to buy something especially in the craft market which has over 240 stalls each one selling much the same as the other. Getting around in a wheelchair was not easy, especially in the craft market. We purchased what we went for, probably at over inflated tourist prices and were persuaded to help the local economy a little more than intended.

Swimming with Dolphins – Much to our surprise, one of Ken’s wheelchair friendly people carriers turned up to take us the 1-1/2hrs drive (about 50miles) along the coast road to Dolphin Cove near Ocho Rios and back again. While waiting for our transport we were chatting to the Dolphin Cove Montego Bay agent who was surprised that Wendy had been restricted to a limited swim. She could see no reason for this and she promptly phoned Dolphin Cove on her mobile and organized the full swim for Wendy. At Dolphin Cove you can swim with sharks, sting rays, relax on a beach, wander a jungle trail, swim with dolphins and more. We arrived late morning a little later than planned. It’s a step descent from the road down to this seaside site but help was at hand and, once down, it was not too difficult to get around along the shore but it was a steep push back up or round the jungle trail which was also a bit rough. We only went along a small portion of the latter. The complex is not really wheelchair friendly and there are no wheelchair accessible toilets but with the help of a carer you can manage. Wendy’s swim was scheduled for 2-30p.m. and we pottered around watching the shark show and various activities until then.

A helpful dolphin tow

Entry to the Dolphin enclosure and water looked daunting, there being flights of wooden steps into the water at all entry points. Swimmers were all fitted with floatation jackets and led into the water. In Wendy’s case two dolphin trainers bodily lifted her and carried her down the steps into the water. Two dolphins then towed her and a trainer out to the display area for the half hour encounter which included a tow and foot push, the latter, of course, Wendy could not do so another variation of a tow was substituted. Wendy found it difficult to swim with the floatation jacket on but one trainer remained with her all the time to ensure she came to no harm. Thanks to the trainers, who offered all help necessary and deserved much credit, Wendy thoroughly enjoyed her encounter and achieved one of her life long ambitions and has a DVD and photographs of the experience to prove it.

Estate Tour - There were quite a lot of people for this tour and this time a small bus turned up for the early start for this guided tour which took us about 20miles inland to the Hilton Estate where we were to have a Caribbean breakfast, some free time to do local shopping, a talk about local produce, a visit to the local school and a “German village” and finally to round the tour off, rum punch and Caribbean lunch to the accompaniment of a local band. Unfortunately it was a public holiday and the school was closed but some local children came and sang traditional songs with the band for us instead. It was an enjoyable day which gave a little insight into the Jamaican way of life, but it was not an easy one with a wheelchair. I welcomed the rest by the pool the next day!

When we didn’t tour, we soaked up the sun and enjoyed the hotel facilities. The good thing about picking a good hotel, especially when touring is limited with a wheelchair, is you can always relax in it. The Sandals Royal Caribbean is made for relaxing and we were certainly well looked after and treated very well by the friendly staff who gave every assistance to ensure we enjoyed our stay. It is a great shame it has no wheelchair adapted rooms and it is only for this reason we hesitate to go back.

Sandals began life in Jamaica in 1981, ironically the Year of the Disabled. It has 10 resorts on the island and we were to learn not one of them had an adapted room and it seemed likely that an extension to the Royal, which is currently being built, won’t have either. We had the opportunity to talk to several of the section managers and the General Manager and we made some suggestions about how easy adaptations could be made. I also requested a contact in the Sandals Group to whom I could write to about the lack of facilities in a hotel which already had the basic structure in place. This has now been done and an acknowledgement received. We hope for a favourable outcome.