By Adam Lloyd

The end of another year lurks just over the horizon as Jack Frost begins to tighten his grey, icy grip around the next three months of your life. Are you going to be satisfied digging in and braving the cold, dreary winter while you scuttle along between home and work? Of course not. What you really want is some time in the sun – a warm, sandy beach with blue skies, azure waters, palm trees and a cool rum drink. For those of you who believe that paradise exists only as a state of mind, think again; I’ve discovered at least one incarnation in the Caribbean island of St. John.

Purchased in 1917 from Denmark, St. John is the smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands. Early on, two-thirds of the island were designated as National Parkland, resulting in one of the most pristine, least developed islands in the Caribbean. However, while this leads to beaches and vistas of unparalleled beauty, it also creates some problems for those of us who are concerned with accessibility.

Getting There

Too small for its own airport, travelers wishing to go to St. John must first fly to neighboring island, St. Thomas. Typical of many Caribbean islands, St. Thomas’ Cyril E. King Airport does not have any jet-ways. Instead, passengers must embark and disembark using a portable staircase.

For those who cannot navigate the flight of stairs, the airport recently purchased a $90,000 lift which accesses the plane through its galley door. Wide and gentle in its motion, the lift is a great alternative to being carried down the steps in an aisle chair. The American Airlines ground crew proved quite efficient and knowledgeable about performing a transfer into a wheelchair.

The airport itself is small and easy to get around, though no braille signage is available and audio announcements are almost non-existent. There are plenty of taxis waiting to transport passengers to their final destinations, but don’t expect to find any wheelchair accessible cabs. Instead, wheelchair users need to arrange transportation ahead of time (three weeks to be safe) with Dial-a-Ride (340-776-1277), the island’s accessible transportation service..

For a lifetime $25 membership fee, Dial-a-Ride will meet you at a designated time and location to drive you to wherever you’re going. The per-ride cost for this full size van equipped with a lift, is half that of a typical cab fare. Though the vans appear somewhat ragged, the lifts are sturdy and the drivers are adept at operating them and in using the tie-downs. Don’t be too surprised when the van pulls out onto the left side of the road. That’s the way traffic flows on both St. Thomas and St. John.

Continuing on to St. John requires a boat ride from one of two points on St. Thomas. Some 45 minutes from the airport is Red Hook, with an hourly ferry that runs from 6:30 a.m. until midnight. The ferry is $3 and is only a twenty minute voyage to Cruz Bay on St. John. There is also a $7 Charlotte Amalie ferry, just 10 minutes from the airport, but a 45 minute boat ride to Cruz Bay. The last Charlotte Amalie ferry departs at 5:30 p.m.

The other option, if you are staying at that particular hotel, is to catch one of the Caneel Bay or Westin boats that leave from Charlotte Amalie. This service is included in the hotel’s cost and schedules are available through the hotels. These boats do not go to Cruz Bay (St. John’s “downtown”) but to the individual resort to which they belong.

Getting on the boat can be an adventure, especially if you’re in a power wheelchair. From easiest to most difficult here’s the scoop. The ferries at Red Hook have a nice, long ramp on which a wheelchair can board the ship and exit in Cruz Bay with little trouble. There are no tie-downs on board, but setting yourself against a wall with your breaks on works pretty well. There is no wheelchair bathroom access. The same is true of the Charlotte Amalie ferries.

The Caneel Bay boat has a short gang plank which, due to the tide in Charlotte Amalie, sits a good three feet above the dock. Your best bet is to have Dial-a-Ride unfold the van’s lift just above the gang plank. Then, with the assistance of 3-4 crew members, time the ship’s bobbing and make a run for it! Believe me, it works, but it will take a rum punch or two before the adrenaline stops flowing. Portable stairs provide access for other passengers. Once on board plant yourself against something solid and lock your breaks as the open ocean can be bumpy. Exiting at Caneel Bay, is much easier with only a two inch disparity between the dock and gang plank. Bathrooms are down a steep flight of stairs.

The Westin’s boat is impossible to board if you use a wheelchair. The entrance-way is too narrow and the main deck of the ship is not even with the initial entry level. If you are in a wheelchair and staying at the Westin, use the public ferry and have St. John’s Dial-a-Ride take you to the hotel.

Cruz Bay

When you exit the ferry’s dock you are at the heart of Cruz Bay. Calling Cruz a “downtown” is stretching the concept of stretching a concept, yet, for St. John, this is the big time. A collection of small shops, restaurants and a couple of small inns inhabit the eight block commercial center. There is not a single traffic light, cars share the roads with donkeys and roosters, and life moves at a snail’s pace. If you were hoping for discos, casinos and parties until dawn, St. John isn’t for you. However, if you need a few days to escape from the world this is the place to do it.

How much time you will need/want to spend in Cruz Bay will depend greatly on where you are staying. For example, there is little reason to leave one of the island’s all-inclusive resorts to go into town, however, those staying at the campgrounds or inns are more likely to seek out the variety of activities and restaurants that Cruz Bay has to offer.

Unfortunately, accessibility is not a major concern anywhere on the island and Cruz Bay is no exception. If a disabled visitor is able to gain entry to an establishment it is probably more by accident or luck than by design.

During my time in town I found several shops and restaurants that have wheelchair access, but the majority of buildings, including the primary shopping mall – Mongoose Junction – with long flights of stairs, are impossible to get into. Additionally, while many sidewalks do have curb cuts, the quality of the pavement is such that you will find yourself traveling in the streets for long stretches. Nowhere is there braille signage and the public phones I saw do not have TTY jacks. A note for our hearing impaired readers – the TTY/TDD call relay operator’s number on St. John is 800-440-8477.

Some of the places that are wheelchair accessible include the Cruz Bay Grocery, the U.S. Post Office, Cruz Bay Clinic, Chase Manhattan Bank, Scotia Bank, J.J.’s Texas Coast restaurant (outdoor seating over gravel), Sogo’s Restaurant (via a steep ramp), the Raintree Court shops (top level), Wharfside Village shops (lower level), and Connections Internet Cafe.

For those not concerned with wheelchair access, the numerous boutiques and West Indian restaurants can provide hours of entertainment away from the beach. There are even a few small night spots for dancing and getting to meet other travelers and locals.

One cautionary tale on the local cuisine: After searching for an accessible restaurant one afternoon I discovered Sogo’s, a delightful West Indian eatery that serves dishes from conch fritters to spiced chicken. It was extremely hot and I was hungry. I ordered a passion fruit punch and the day’s special: Kingfish. After three glasses of the punch I was feeling much cooler and ready for the meal. The Kingfish was meaty and delicious, cooked in a tomato and onion sauce and served with rice, beans and sweet plantains. The food was incredibly good and I was thankful to have made the discovery. That is, until I spoke to a friend that night who had grown up in the islands.

As it turns out, Kingfish, despite regularly being eaten by island natives, can be a rather dangerous meal. A large number of the fish carry the bacteria Ciguatera, which can cause severe illness for weeks on end. There is no way of predicting which Kingfish will be infected and which will not. Luckily, I survived this culinary Russian Roulette unscathed, but it should serve as a warning for others to take care in what they eat while traveling in the tropics.

Where to Stay?

Accommodations on St. John run the gamut from $900 a night luxury resorts to $48 campground facilities. There are also dozens of private home and condo rentals. Determining where to stay depends on several factors: your budget, the activities you’re interested in, and how willing you are to rough it.

Caneel Bay

Founded by Laurance Rockefeller in 1955, and now run by Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, Caneel Bay’s (800-928-8889) seven beaches and 170 lush, sprawling acres make it one of the most beautiful resorts in the entire Caribbean. Much like a small village, Caneel has 166 guest rooms situated in cottage-like edifices throughout the property. The last of these rooms were added in the 1970s, and as a result virtually every instance of accessibility at the resort is pure coincidence. Yet, for those willing to work around the limited accommodations, Caneel can be an awe inspiring vacation spot.

Although expensive (rates run from $250 to $950 depending on the season and room location), the rooms at Caneel are not luxurious. Instead, they appeal to a Caribbean minimalism that blends nicely into the natural surroundings. Stone walls and wooden ceilings frame the wicker and wooden furniture which is accented in soothing tropical tones. Large, glass picture windows reveal spectacular views of the sand and water just beyond each room’s patio. A ceiling fan and louvered walls allow guests to enjoy the gentle trade winds, or if it gets too hot, recently added air conditioners are all individually controlled. The bathrooms, which are fairly small, all come equipped with tubs and sometimes two sinks.

Only a handful of rooms have barrier free entry for wheelchairs. These are scattered between the Tennis Cottages, Caneel Beach, and Turtle Beach. However, beyond the absence of stairs, do not expect any accessible features. Light switches are not lowered, nor are closet bars, and there are no grab bars in the small bathrooms. In its favor, there is ample space to maneuver within the bedroom itself. During my stay I opted to remove much of the furniture and rented a hospital bed from a medical supply pharmacy on St. Thomas.

Accommodations for visually and hearing impaired guests are similarly non-existent. There are no braille number plates anywhere, and visual alert kits are not available. Of course, meant as a place to escape from the world, there are no phones, radios, or televisions in the room to begin with. For those wishing to make phone calls there are three inaccessible pay phone booths, none of which have TTY jacks, or two “house” phones near the hotel’s activity desk which can be used for outside calls with the help of an operator.

The grounds are gorgeous to behold. Sweeping green hills dotted with tropical flowers, exotic trees, and lush mountains in the distance. There are paved paths throughout the resort which, with the exception of three very steep hills, are easy to traverse. For those less inclined to walk hundreds of acres there is a regular shuttle service with stops at key points around Caneel’s campus. One of the shuttles has a ramp, but no tie-downs, for wheelchair use.

At night the paths are only dimly illuminated by domed lamps, and the hotel-issued flashlights must be constantly squeezed to connect the bulb’s circuit. On the positive side, the lack of light provides a view of the stars unlike any you’ve ever experienced. The feeling as you stare up at the sparkling, endless expanse of the universe, hearing nothing but the soft chirping of nocturnal tree frogs, while a gentle breeze kisses your skin, makes all of the difficulties of such a trip worthwhile. It is truly mesmerizing.

A rarity among Caribbean resorts, Caneel boasts seven distinct beaches on its property. One is more beautiful than the other and, with the exception of Turtle Beach (accessed via a long flight of stairs) and Honeymoon Beach (a long walk from most rooms), the relatively even grade allows for good wheelchair access until reaching the looser sand. The water itself is extremely calm with almost no waves. Caneel’s main beach, appropriately called Caneel Beach, offers snorkel and scuba gear, Sunfish sailboats, kayaks, and windsurfing. Additionally, the resort has a lap pool, a fitness center, gift shop, and eleven tennis courts, several of which are wheelchair accessible.

Three unique dining rooms serve deliciously tempting meals, breakfast through dinner. An all inclusive meal plan costs $100 per person/per day, and will probably save you money compared to paying the menu prices at each seating. None of the restaurants offers braille menus, but the staff is happy to review selections for you.

The Equator is located atop a steep hill in the ruins of an 18th century sugar mill. The view and setting are by far the most beautiful of the three dining rooms, but accessibility is by far the most difficult. Making your way up the Equator’s hill requires taking a long flight of 18th century stairs, or heading up a rather steep service road. Do not attempt this hill without help! The cuisine at the Equator is a fusion of West Indian and Southeast Asian. It makes for an interesting combination and is a nice contrast from the other two dining rooms.

The Beach Terrace, right on Caneel Beach, serves all meals buffet style. However, do not think cafeteria food. Mouth watering rack of lamb, veal medallions, lobster and shrimp are regular staples at this all-you-can-eat feast. For families with children, the Beach Terrace is an ideal option since there are no long waits between courses and the incredible variety of foods will keep everyone happy.

Turtle Bay Estate House is the resort’s formal dining room, with jackets required at dinner. Exquisite continental cuisine is served over four courses in a lovely, open air setting at the north end of the grounds. There are four dinner menus which rotate nightly. Don’t be surprised if meals last two to three hours. Eating here is an experience, not merely a place to quickly add on calories. Wheelchair access to this dining room can be found via a ramp next to the service/kitchen entrance. There are three fairly flat speed bumps to be crossed while heading around back.

Adjacent to the Estate House is Turtle Bay’s terrace, where 4:00 tea is served daily. A variety of teas, cookies and scones are set out for guests to enjoy while taking in the stunning ocean views down below.

In addition to the dining rooms, Caneel has two bars, one of which serves a limited food menu all day and makes wonderful tropical drinks. The Caneel bar also offers live music at night, but festivities wind down quickly with last call coming at 10:55. However, guests are welcome to stay and relax past closing, well into the night.

Caneel Bay’s staff, from the resort’s manager to the maids and the grounds keepers are all extremely courteous and helpful. They are aware that accommodations are not ideal for disabled guests and go out of their way to make things as easy as possible, so don’t hesitate to ask for changes that will make your stay more pleasant.

The Westin Resort, St. John

In 1986 it was decided that St. John could use a second luxury resort and construction began on what was to become the Hyatt Regency. Forty-five acres of manicured landscaping was used for the project, and a man-made cove and beach were constructed for the resort as well. Following the devastating hurricane season of 1995 the Hyatt closed, but was refurbished and reopened two years later as the Westin Resort, St. John (800-808-5020; $245-$1,200). With 285 rooms, including seven suites, the Westin is the island’s largest hotel. Designed like a small neighborhood, there is little reason to ever leave the grounds.

Greeting guests as they check in is a large, open-air reception lobby which is situated on a hill, overlooking the entire resort. Below, thirteen, two-story guest lodges are situated throughout the campus. Two public restrooms near the reception desk are wheelchair accessible, as are the pay phones. However, there is no TTY port available on these phones.

Rooms at the Westin are reasonably sized and most feature a balcony or patio. They are appointed in cheery Caribbean colors and rattan furniture. All units are air conditioned and come with an in-room refreshment center, cable tv, hair dryer, and a telephone with fax data port. Braille number plates mark each room.

There are three wheelchair accessible rooms at the Westin, one each with a garden, pool, and beach view. All three are ground floor units, and two come equipped with roll-in showers, lowered switches, and bathroom grab bars, while one unit has a tub. Currently, no visual alert kits or TDD/TTY units are available. Guest room buildings which do not contain a wheelchair accessible room cannot be accessed by wheelchair users without encountering at least one small step.

Brick paths lead from building to building and are somewhat bumpy until you get used to their feel. Unfortunately, stairs are employed around much of the resort, with only one barrier free path winding its way through the entire property. This means that what should often be a short walk from say, the pool to the reception area, turns into a long, round-about trek.

Facilities at the Westin include a “mall” complex, complete with retail shops, a fitness center, the kids club, and the Mango Deli. However, forget using any of these if you are wheelchair dependent as multiple steps bar entry. Six lighted tennis courts are located near the mall and also require a step up to reach them.

A quarter-acre, waterfall enhanced swimming pool lies between two major clusters of rooming units and serves as a focal point for social activities. A pool side snack bar provides food and drink service, and for those who can’t pull themselves away from Wall Street, the snack bar has a television which airs CNBC.

Across from the pool, on the opposite side of one room cluster, is Great Cruz Bay, the Westin’s private beach. Long, and not overly crowded, the beach frames a body of water which is oddly uniform in color. Being man-made, the bay lacks many of the underwater reefs and vegetation that normally contribute to the varied hues of most Caribbean waters. Still, the water is warm, calm and clear.

A huge selection of kayaks, windsurfers, sailboats, jet skis, paddle boats, and motor boats are all available for the use of guests. There is even a giant floating trampoline for the kids. There is only one area, near the dock, where a wheelchair may attempt to get onto the sand. However, none of the beach is really packed down hard enough to travel far.

When it’s time to eat, the Westin offers two main choices in addition to a beach-side grille and the previously mentioned Mango Deli.

The Coccoloba Grill & Lounge is located on the second floor of the reception lobby. Large picture windows offer views of the entire resort as you dine on fresh seafood creations with a Caribbean flair. To its detriment, the only entry to the restaurant is up a flight of stairs. No braille menus are available.

The other dining option is the playfully decorated Beach Cafe & Bar. This open-air dining room sits right on the beach and serves delicious buffets during breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wheelchair access is no problem, and the inventive, pastel lizard motif makes every meal here a lighthearted affair.

As is the case at Caneel Bay, the entire Westin Staff is extremely friendly and apologetic for the resort’s shortcomings with regard to disabled access. A good effort is made to help adjust the existing facilities to better suit your needs, so be sure to speak up when something can be done to make your stay more agreeable.

The Inn at Tamarind Court

Not everybody can afford to stay at world class resorts. Fortunately, even the budget minded can experience St. John’s beauty, though lack of accessibility becomes an even bigger hindrance. At $38 to $138 a night, the Inn at Tamarind Court (800-221-1637) is an inexpensive hotel choice, located three long blocks from the ferry in Cruz Bay.

This pink, two story building is pretty much as inaccessible as hotels come. Entry to all the rooms requires climbing a flight of stairs, and braille number plates, visual alert kits, and other accessible aides are nowhere to be found. Still, the accommodations might be workable to those with less severe mobility impairments, or who have a non-mobility related handicap and are willing to wing it.

There are six economy rooms which share two common bathrooms, eleven standard rooms each with private baths, one “apartment” complete with kitchen, and two suites which consist of two connecting bedrooms but no living room. All of the rooms are non-smoking, air conditioned and come with a complimentary continental breakfast served in the courtyard each morning. There is also a bar which closes at 10 p.m. and serves dinner between 5 and 9.

Staying in Cruz Bay requires a 15-20 minute cab ($2.50-$5.50), or rental car, ride in order to reach the island’s nicer beaches such as Trunk Bay (voted a Top 10 in the World by Conde Nast), Cinnamon Bay and Hawksnest Bay.

Cinnamon Bay Campgrounds

Another frugal alternative, and one that involves going back to nature, is the Cinnamon Bay Campgrounds (800-539-9998 / 340-776-6330), part of the U.S. National Parks Service. From Cruz Bay, the campgrounds are roughly a fifteen minute ride.

A small, accessible reception building greets visitors as they approach the campgrounds. Housed here are the front desk, the Tree Lizard Restaurant (serving three meals daily), accessible public bathrooms, and a general store which sells groceries, souvenirs and supplies which campers may need during their stay. Guests will also find safety deposit boxes, coin-operated lockers, and three pay phones.

There are three types of accommodations available at the campgrounds, each with accessible options. Cottages ($70-$135) are screen-lined, providing refreshing breezes from the trade winds, and are 15×15 feet, with electric lights and an outside terrace. Each is equipped with four twin beds, fan, picnic table, charcoal grill, propane gas stove, ice chest, water container, cooking and eating utensils. Beds are made upon arrival, and fresh linens are available at the front desk twice a week. Of these, one (unit 1A), is wheelchair accessible. None of the cottages have braille number plates or visual alert kits.

Tents ($52-$80), made of high-quality canvas, are 10×14 feet, with a solid floor. Cots, picnic table, charcoal grill, propane gas stove, ice chest, water container, gas lantern, and cooking and eating utensils are provided. Bedding is provided upon arrival, and fresh linens are available at the front desk twice a week. Two tent sites (1 & 4) have wheelchair access.

Baresites ($25) are dirt clearings which fit one large tent or two smaller tents. A picnic table and charcoal grill are provided. Campers are responsible for their own tent, bedding, towels and cooking utensils.

All campers have access to one of four central bathhouses which include lavatories and cool water showers. Bathhouse number two has wheelchair access in the form of a roll-in shower and wheelchair accessible toilet facilities.

Unfortunately, many of the campsites and the beach are accessible only by dirt and sand paths, some of which are very steep. Wheelchair access to the beach is dubious at best. However, if you are able to make it down to St. John’s longest beach, windsurfer, kayak, sailboat, snorkeling equipment, and beach chair rentals are available. The campground also leads tours of the island’s plantation ruins, snorkeling expeditions, and nature walks.

Maho Bay Campgrounds

Another eco-campsite is located just some ten minutes past Cinnamon Bay, at Maho. Unlike Cinnamon, however, Maho Bay (800-392-9004) is not run by the National Park Service. In 1997 the campground was awarded Smithsonian Magazine’s Global Environmental Tourism Award. It will never be awarded anything for its handicapped accessibility. As inaccessible as we found the Inn at Tamarind Court to be, Maho’s rooms prove even more difficult to manage. Here, in what closely resembles a Star Wars’ Ewok village, Maho Bay offers two styles of room accommodations.

Maho Bay Campsites ($70-$115) are tent-cottages, hidden among the trees and connected by elevated, wooden walkways. Steep, wooden stairs with warning signs are the only way to get from one area to another.

The 16×16 foot abodes are made of translucent fabric on wood frames, with screens and terraces that take advantage of the cooling trade winds. Each cottage has a separate sleeping area with twin beds. Bed linens, blankets, towels, cooking and eating utensils are all provided, as are a propane stove and ice cooler. Every tent-cottage has its own private deck, and barbecue areas and fresh water are available along the walkways. There are no braille signs, visual alert kits, or any kind of disability aide devices.

The shared bathhouses are equipped with modern, low-flush toilets and pull-chain showers connected to a recycling system that irrigates the surrounding vegetation. An outdoor restaurant, boasting an impressive view of the bay, serves breakfast and dinner every day.

The Maho Bay store, also up a flight of stairs, is stocked with frozen foods, produce, canned goods, breads, drinks, and various sundries.

Harmony Studios ($105-$195) are perched on the hill above Maho’s tent-cottages, with vistas overlooking the beaches and turquoise waters of the Virgin Islands National Park. These two story buildings include solar powered electricity, two twin beds, kitchenette with microwave, kitchen appliances and cooking utensils, dining table and chairs, tiled bathrooms, all linens, and a 6×18 foot deck with furniture. Some larger units add an additional queen-size sofa-bed and dining room. Again, no disability features are available.

Down a set of stairs, at the beach, guests of either style accommodation have access to windsurfer, kayak, sailboat, snorkeling equipment, and beach chair rentals.

While the other hotels on St. John all lack important disability friendly features, with grit and determination, it is possible to work around most of these limitations. Maho Bay’s facilities, however, with their multiple levels and endless stairs and warning signs (not in braille), are strictly for the ablest of able bodied travelers.

Other Sights

Along with the shops and restaurants of Cruz Bay, and the activities and beaches at each hotel, St. John has several other attractions.

The famous underwater, self-guided snorkel trail at Trunk Bay is perfect for exploring the island’s marine life. As are the numerous scuba sites near St. John, including the RMS Rhone wreck dive, where the movie The Deep was filmed.

Those more attracted to land based wildlife will find feral donkeys, pigs, and roosters roaming freely throughout the island.

Finally, of a more historic bent, tours of the famous Annaberg ruins are given through the National Park Service. Established in 1718, Annaberg Sugar Mill is one of St. John’s best-preserved examples of the island’s cultural past during the colonial and post-emancipation era. Self-guided and ranger-guided tours take visitors through the sugar factory ruins. Parking is a short distance from the ruins and requires a short uphill walk to the site. No wheelchair access is possible.

A separate park tour takes you to the 0.3 mile Petroglyphs Trail. There, carved in the rocks, beside a freshwater pool are pictures and symbols whose origin has yet to be determined. One theory holds that they are the work of Amerindians who once inhabited the Caribbean islands; another theory holds that African slaves, of the island’s colonial era, are responsible for these petroglyphs. Again, no wheelchair access is possible.
There is an adage that nothing good comes easily, and while I don’t believe this is always the case, it certainly does apply to a vacation on St. John. There are plenty of places throughout the world where conditions are less than hospitable for disabled travelers, yet they are frequently visited because of their undeniable allure. They are worth the difficulties that must be faced because they are such special destinations.

Few places anywhere, even elsewhere in the Caribbean, can compare with the sheer physical beauty of St. John. For a group of travelers, many of whom are deprived of one of their senses, St. John is a place to fully indulge those that remain. Genuinely mesmerizing views; the feel of the warm sun, cool water, and gentle breezes on your skin; the enchanting sounds of the island’s wildlife; the delicious, unique tastes of Caribbean cuisine; and the intensely fragrant air, scented with thousands of tropical flowers – truly, this is an instance of paradise.

We may expect more from the island’s accommodations because it is a U.S. territory, but in reality, traveling to St. John means working around accessibility problems and experiencing as much as you are able to manage. It is understandable that some will not find the challenge worth trying, but for those who are able to make it work, you are in for a remarkable experience that will stay with you always.