On October 1st 1999 my husband, Bob and I, Pip, left Heathrow airport for a months travels, mainly in New Zealand. We had chosen to fly by Air New Zealand because even in economy class they have 4ins more leg room than other airlines. I have been paraplegic since a road accident in 1961 so the thought of 11 hour air flights fills me with dread. ANZ asked what requirements I needed for the flights. I explained that I would need transport to my seat and could they book seats near to the largest accessible toilet so that en route stewards did not have to negotiate the narrow aisles with the on flight wheelchair when the aircraft was full of passengers. Without exception they had taken my request into account and every flight had pre booked seats in the most suitable situation.
Before confirming our holiday I had done some research on the internet to find hotels which promised suitable wheelchair accommodation and having decided on our routes and preferred stops I headed for the travel agents for them to do the necessary bookings. Our first port of call was Los Angeles where se were to stop for 2 nights. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Select on Hollywood Boulevard. Besides the difficulty in getting in and out of the back of American cabs we were soon settled into our room which was wheelchair accessible and had a wheel-in shower. Our day in LA was to be spent getting a flavour of the city. In the morning we were close enough for Bob to push me up to Rodeo Drive and do some window shopping. Level pavements and ramped curbs made it easy pushing. In the afternoon we hired a limo and driver to take us on a 3hr trip to see the sights. It was an extravagance I know but when time is limited easy access in and out of a vehicle was vital. We saw all the tourist attractions and even got out as far as Malibu and Venice beach. For us a day in LA was enough. Last year we had visited Cape Cod, New England and Niagara and that was the USA that we liked the best.
On October 3rd we were back at the airport for our flight to Auckland. We had arranged to collect a car fitted with hand controls from Avis on our arrival. As it is the norm to leave your car on North Island and collect another when you cross to South Island we reminded them that we would need hand controls on the 2nd car too. I had made this quite clear when making the booking in the UK thinking it would be easier to take the same car across on the ferry but had been assured that there would be no problem with the 2 cars. Despite this no such request had been made. The car waiting for us in Auckland was fine, a Mitsubishi Estate automatic with the necessary controls and, as we had a week on North Island, we were assured there was plenty of time to forward our request. Reassured we set off to find our hotel.
Most of the hotels I had chosen were in the Flagg chain. The brochure I had booked from was 12 months out of date and some of those classed as independent handicapped suitable are no longer shown as such in the newer brochure because Flagg have upped their standards. Therefore anyone booking a Flagg hotel now which bears the relevant handicapped symbol can be assured that their facilities will be of the highest standard.
Our first stop was the Surrey Hotel in Auckland, level access a small lift but big enough for my Quickie 2 chair. The bedroom was ample with a wheel-in shower in the large bathroom. There was also an easily accessible dining room. on the same level. We were staying there for 2 nights so we had a day to explore Auckland. First stop was the Disability Resource Centre to collect a parking permit to enable us to use handicapped parking bays throughout the country. Auckland is a beautiful city we would have liked much longer to explore. Whilst there we did visit Kelly Tarlton's Underwater Adventure which is quite accessible including the boat ride round the king penguins if you can make an easy transfer onto the boat seat.
The next day we were off north to Whangerei. There we stayed at the Sierra Motel the first of those hotels not to reach the Flagg standard. It was not as plush as the Surrey (but cheaper too). We had a small flat with level access to a lounge, kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom all were wheelchair accessible with grab rails but the shower was a cubicle inaccessible to a w/c. We were here for 3 days during which time we explored the town basin in Whangarei including the Claphams Clock Museum and watched glass blowers at work. We went up to visit Russell the oldest town in NZ and reached by car ferry. We crossed back to Paihia and took a boat ride round the Bay of Islands. The boat was easily accessible for a w/c and I could wheel myself both inside and outside the boat. We paid a visit to the Waitangi Reserve to see the Treaty House and Maori Meeting House. This is where Britain and The Maoris first signed the Treaty establishing NZ as a British Colony. Most of it was accessible although the theatre only had a small space to fit a w/c for the introductory video and the Meeting House was up a couple of steps. However, the elaborate carvings made the effort worthwhile. The grounds are beautiful and good paths weave through the forested area.
Our next stop was the Brian Boru Hotel in Thames on the Coromondel Peninsular. Here we were disappointed with our room. Beautiful as it was the bathroom had no grab rails and the bath/shower was up a step. As we were only there for one night we decided to make do, put the luggage holder next to the loo to act as a grab rail and got on with it. When we were in the dining room for breakfast the next day the proprietor saw me and apologised for not having read our hotel voucher properly and not having put us in the disabled adapted room!!
Our travels over the next few days were based from Taupo where we stayed at the Baycrest Motel. A brilliant place to stay. Excellent facilities, wheel in shower, lake views even our own thermal tub on our private patio. Mineral water was pumped up from 40ft below the earth at a temperature of 50degs. If you can get up and down from floor level it was a wonderful therapeutic treat. Our explorations around this area included the Whakarewarewa Thermal Village, the Buried Village at Et Wairoa both accessible with an able bodied pusher. We took a small 4 seater plane from Taupo Airport to fly over the lakes and snow-capped volcanoes in the Tongariro National Park Getting in and out of the plane was none too elegant but the pilot was willing to help and it was quite painless. We took a ride on The Ernest Kemp steam boat which, with the help of the captain to lift my chair aboard, explored some of the bays of Lake Taupo and the incredible Maori rock carvings. We visited the strange area known as The Craters of the Moon where the steaming ground, bubbling mud craters and spouting geysers really look as they belong to another planet. We were assured that the wooden walkways were wheelchair friendly and on the whole they were with one or two difficult areas. When the going got really tough the warden on duty appeared by magic to help.
Our next stop was Wellington where we stayed at the Sharella Motor Inn. Again excellent facilities and a wheel-in shower. When in Wellington the Te Papa Museum is a must. Only opened in 1998 it is fully w/c friendly. It is the Museum of NZ and exhibits explain about the culture, people, land forms, fauna and flora. There is also an excellent restaurant with views over Wellington Harbour. We also took a ride on the Kelburn Cable Car, a funicular railway which gives panoramic views from the top and is easily w/c accessible. Heavy rain stopped us exploring much more of Wellington but it was very modern and would therefore be wheelchair friendly I am sure.
When we reported to the ferry terminal and to the Avis desk we were greeted with the news that they could not provide a vehicle with hand controls on South Island so we would have to take our current vehicle and pay the $250 fare. Bob took them to task saying when we had queried this in the UK and in Auckland we had been assured there would be no problem and therefore no cost. If they could not fulfil that promise it was their problem not ours. We son the argument and were able to take our car on the Arahura ferry. The boat was easily accessible with a large lift from the car deck to all other decks and a disabled accessible toilet. The trip is 3hrs long much meandering through fjords and islands.
Once docked we were on the way to Kaikora on the East coast north of Christchurch. This was the only place where there was no Flagg hotel. Instead I had booked the Anchor Inn over the internet. It was a real find. Brilliant facilities for me topped with a view across the bay backed by snow-capped mountains. Whilst here we visited the fur seal colony at the end of the peninsular. Here even I could get within a metre to the huge bull seals lying in the grass around the car park. There were also hundreds of seals lazing on and swimming around the rocks off the shore. We also booked to go whale watching and were assured that, although I couldn't take my w/c on board they were used to getting handicapped on board. The boat to our horror was not in the water and was accessed by a portable set of steps then over the prow and down into the cabin. As the steps were very narrow lifting me aboard was very difficult and very ungainly but we managed. Once aboard I was seated in the best seat and every time we saw a whale the captain always positioned the boat so I had the best view. We saw 6 huge sperm whales each measuring some 40mtrs long - amazing. On returning to land queried their assurance that the boat was "easily accessible". With sympathy they assured me that a new boat was to be shortly in service fully adapted!!
On now to explore the West Coast. First stop Greymouth and the fully accessible High Park Motor Inn. We took a trip a few kilometres north to Panakouki and the Pancake Rocks and Blow Holes. These are strange rock formations on the coast made wheelchair friendly by tarmaced paths and wooden walkways. Further south we stayed at the Glacier Gateway Motel at Franz Joseph. Again the facilities within the room were excellent although access to the room was up a steep ramp. I couldn't get my chair any where near to the foot of the glacier but the helicopter rides were reasonably accessible. Lots of willing staff to lift me on board and the trip over 3 glaciers and landing on Mt Cook was awesome. It is hard to describe these rivers of ice flowing from snow-capped mountains down through rain forests. We felt privileged to see them.
Our continued journey south saw some of the most magnificent I have ever experienced. Several viewpoints within the rainforests had wheelchair accessible paths to give me access which meant I didn't have to rely on Bob's photos at the end of the holiday to enjoy the views. At Wanaka we stayed at the Wanaka Motor Lodge. This hotel we knew was not going to be fully adapted but it was an accessible room and although the bathroom was not adapted with our own ingenuity we made it suitable for me to manage one night. Wanaka is a small town on the edge another magnificent lake. Paths around the top of the lake made it an easy place to take an evening walk and watch the beautiful sunset.
Our next stop was Queenstown. En route we toured the Gibson Valley Winery for a conducted tour and taste. You could get an excellent meal here and there are full facilities for w/cs. After a bit of difficulty locating our hotel because it had changed its name since I booked. No longer a Flagg hotel it is now called the Alpine Lodge and situated about 8 km north of Queenstown but the facilities were superb once again. Queenstown is a busy tourist town in comparison with the quiet towns we had been visiting previously. It is reasonably flat and very accessible for w/cs Whilst here we took a lake trip on the steamship TSS Earnislaw (easily accessible), rode in the gondolas (cable-car) up to the Skyline Centre from which the panoramic views were superb, visited the Kiwi & Wild Bird Centre (another of those "wheelchair accessible" attractions that needed the help of the management to negotiate but we did see live Kiwis) and finally the Shotover Jet Boat ride. This I wouldn't recommend if you are fragile. Willing young men lifted me into the front seat of the powerful boat. With a lifejacket on and a lapstrap securely fastened I wedged myself between Bob and the centre rail whilst the boat raced down the gorge glancing off the rock faces and doing 360 degree spins where the river permitted. A real adrenaline rush and a cardiac workout but well worth it.
Fiordland was to be our next point of call. Based at Te Anau and the Luxmore Hotel (full facilities again) we took a trip on the Monarch of the Mist down the incredible fjord known as the Milford Sound. The boat is easily accessible but only onto the middle deck. The best views (and the disabled toilet) were on the deck above but the stairs were not too steep and the crew would be willing to help carry your chair up. We were advised not to catch the 1.0pm boat as all the coach trips from Queenstown were on that one. We took the 3.30pm boat and had 6 passengers and 7 crew on board! The Mirror Lakes and the Chasm on the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound both had w/c paths to view them but the amazing scenery can be enjoyed from the comfort of your car. We made the trip twice once in the rain when there must have been 1.000 waterfalls falling from these incredible rock faces hundreds of feet high.
It was now time to return to the East Coast and a stay in Dunedin. The Southern Cross Hotel in the centre of the city was our destination. Facilities were adequate but a little cramped. The highlight of our stay here was the visit to the Royal Albatross Colony at Taiaroa Head. They allowed me to park right next to the visitor centre entrance which saved a difficult push up a steep gravel
path. The actual observatory was up a steep winding path and closed on the day we visited. However the visitor centre was modern and full of fascinating information with TV screens showing live pictures of the colony. There was a patio area outside where we were lucky to see 2 huge birds gliding only a few feet overhead. They are the biggest flying seabirds with a wing span of up to 10ft. This is the only place in the world where they can be easily viewed.
Our final drive from Dunedin to Christchurch was interesting but uneventful. Our room at the Camelot Cathedral Square Hotel had all the facilities but I wouldn't recommend staying there as the noise of the city gave us two very disturbed nights. Christchurch is a wheelchair paradise. The week prior to our stay they had hosted the w/c games and some 600 chairs had been resident. The city
is very flat and even most of the buses are accessible. We visited the Arts Centre. the Botanical Gardens, the Aquarium and the Gondolas that went up the Port Hills and all were w/c accessible.
On 23rd October we flew from Christchurch to Auckland for our final night in NZ. We stayed at the Silver Point Motel which had adequate facilities but no restaurant. As we had no hire car at our disposal we had to make do with room service toasted sandwich!!
We broke our journey home with a three night stop in Fiji. We stayed at the Warwick Resort Hotel situated on the Coral Coast. We had been promised an ocean view, handicapped adapted room but on our arrival we were told that we could have either or. As my chair would not go through the bathroom door of the non-adapted room we had no alternative but to accept the disabled room at the back. The room was enormous with a garden view and 2 bathrooms. Unfortunately the adapted bathroom was accessed by a steep slope but at least it had a wheel-in shower and handrails. Most of the resorts facilities had level access even if some times we had to use unorthodox routes!!
The final night of our holiday was at the Airport Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles. We didn't have a wheel-in shower but other than that the room was superb. Even the hotel bus which took us to the airport for the final leg of the journey had a lift to accommodate a wheelchair.
I would have no hesitation in recommending New Zealand as a holiday destination for any wheelchair user. At the few places where I found wheelchair access was not provided the friendliness and willingness to help demonstrated by the New Zealand people more than compensated.
I hope I haven't bored you with this epic but it was such a wonderful holiday that it is difficult to know what to leave out!
Back to Travel Tales