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Archive for the ‘Travel Attractions’ Category

My bucket list may be near-infinite, but it’s not all dreams and fantasies. Even traveling with my chronic pain, I’ve gotten to see and smell and touch a bunch of my bucket list destinations.

* Paris

Bastille farmer's market

The farmer's market at the Bastille in Paris

Paris was my #1 bucket list item from childhood. I studied there as a healthy college student many many moons ago. I’ve been back repeatedly.

Two years ago I took a weeklong jaunt to Paris. Just me and my pain, alone together. I rented a studio apartment in the 3rd arrondissement and spent the week visiting my favorite places and seeking out a few new sights. An old friend from high school lives in Paris now–he and his wife took me to dinner and to a few of their favorite spots.

I wouldn’t have done it this way if I weren’t already familiar with Paris, and I didn’t speak functional French. Since I am and I do, I felt comfortable rambling around my favorite city in the world on my own.

My pain certainly made itself felt on this trip. The worst attack came at the very end. I failed to plan properly, and my taxi driver dropped me at the wrong terminal. Because I was exhausted and already in pain from the walk from my apartment to the taxi stand, I became somewhat disoriented and decided to walk to the correct terminal. Bzzt! Wrong answer! I made it, after a long and horrible walk, dragging my heavy luggage behind me, crying quietly the whole way. I had to stop repeatedly.

Would I do it again? Oh yes. Anytime.

* Kauai

Last summer my friends Andrew and Catherine took me along on a trip to Kauai. I hadn’t been to the oldest major Hawaiian island since I was 5. (All I remember is being stung by a jellyfish.)

We had an active, adventurous blast! We snorkeled at Poipu. We spent a day driving around the island and did some snorkeling on the Na Pali Coast. We did an all-day boat trip out to Moku’ae’ae (with more snorkeling, of course). Another day found us driving up to Waimea Canyon, stopping to snap photos and take short hikes.

Andrew & Catherine at Waimea Canyon

Andrew & Catherine at Waimea Canyon on Kauai

My pain didn’t bug me much on this trip. Both of my travel companions had varying levels of hidden disability themselves, different from mine but still pertinent to travel. We all took care to respect one another’s limits and needs. This made for a more comfortable than average island vacation.

Next, I want to explore Oahu, beyond the bounds of Waikiki.

* Mt. Shasta Region

Liz Hamill Mossbrae Falls

I have conquered Mossbrae Falls!

My fabulous fiance Eric and I spent a week in the fall of 2009 hiking the waterfalls of the Shasta-Lassen region. Though we didn’t make it up to Mt. Lassen, and I wasn’t able to do long hikes, we found plenty of short and medium-length walks in beautiful forests along charming rivers and streams. I got to see waterfalls I’d never seen before. I got to watch Eric leap off a waterfall and plunge into an ice-cold swimming hole. (After sunset. Rather him than me.)

We stayed in a cheap motel–the “good” Motel 6 in Redding, in fact. See–I don’t always need luxury accommodations to enjoy a trip! We ate in the diner down the block and grabbed sandwiches for lunches. The trip was charming and cheap for both of us and reasonably comfortable for me.

Next time I want to go to Lassen proper–I’d like to stay at the farmhouse hotel in the southern reaches of the national park, or maybe in Susanville, and explore more of northeastern California on and beyond Highway 395. Hey–another bucket item!

* Victoria & Albert Museum, London

I have this thing for medieval and Renaissance art. Especially textiles. And jewelry up through the Art Deco period. The V&A houses one of the most amazing collections of beaux-arts in the world. Granted, they’ve moved the textiles. But in a way that worked out beautifully last June–it gave me the opportunity to explore the rest of the museum. Including the absolutely awe-inspiring jewelry collection.

Victoria & Albert Shoes

Are these not the most awesome shoes ever? From the Victoria & Albert in London

But next time, I want to go to the new textile museum that’s being set up in London. It won’t open for a couple of years, so I’ve got time to save up.

* A Big Cruise Ship, Any Big Cruise Ship

I’ve always wanted to know what a cruise on one of those gigantic ships actually feels like. Yes, really. I am a plebian Philistine with no taste and no appreciation for What Real Travel Is All About(tm).

Philistines represent!!!

In the last two years I’ve been on two big-ship cruises: one to Ensenada on Carnival’s Paradise–a small and somewhat shabby ship by industry standards, but impressive enough for me as a first-time cruiser. The other cruise went to Cozumel on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas.

Perhaps the Great Travel Writers will forgive me somewhat for saying that my overall opinion of big-ship cruises is…meh. Cruises have many great features for disabled travelers, and I’ll probably cruise again. But the overall experience just doesn’t mesh well with my personal travel idiom. I like less fake and more freedom, frankly.

Liz Hamill on Navigator of the Seas

That's me, standing in front of one of the many enormous sculptural thingos on Navigator of the Seas

* The Caribbean

I only got one day on the island of Cozumel in the Caribbean Sea. But I got to ride a jeep around, taking in the beautiful scenery, local poverty, and native ruins. And I got to take a snorkeling tour on a Caribbean reef. For me, that constitutes a good start.

I added this to the “done” list, but the fact is that I’ve barely whetted my whistle when it comes to traveling in the Caribbean. There’s much, much more I’d like to do in this island chain. Most of my interest centers around historic sites left by the native islanders, and fish. I love paddling about in warm water, following pretty and colorful fish around as they go about their business.

Liz Hamill & Nancy on Cozumel

Me and Nancy with our fabulous snorkel guides on the beach in Cozumel

Next time I visit the Caribbean, I’d prefer to do it without the giant cruise brick. I’d like to settle onto one island (maybe Cozumel again, maybe one of the Saints…I haven’t planned this trip yet), rent a car and a snorkeling kit, and take at least a week to explore on my own. Well, “on my own” meaning “with my husband or at least one friend” in reality. I’ll probably avoid the all-inclusive resorts, instead picking out a nice a la carte hotel or cottage-resort with an attached restaurant but no meal package and no property walls between me and adventures of my own design.

* The Bottom Line

Having chronic pain does not prevent me from attacking my bucket list with a strong will and a happy adventurous attitude.

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On British Museum steps

My beloved fiance sitting on the steps of the British Museum

I spent last week in London to celebrate my dad’s birthday. My family are a bunch of unabashed and unashamed museum geeks, so we went hog wild. We visited the Museum of London, the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Victoria & Albert–three separate times.

I discovered, to my joy, that London museums make great refuges for a traveler with pain.

Getting In

Most of the major museums in London are free. FREE. Which means that anyone who’d like to come in out of the (near-endless) rain can just walk in and shelter in the British or the V&A. The big free museums in London that I know of are:

For a fairly complete* list of free museums and other cheap stuff to do in London, check out this Fodor’s article.

Benches V&A London

Nice soft squishy bench seats with backs on the 3rd floor in the V&A

Sitting Down

Bench placement varies by museum. The British has lots of benches scattered in its major galleries, so that I could lounge at my ease while appreciating great art. On the other hand, the Museum of London doesn’t have many benches in the good galleries.

It took me a while to realize that instead of benches, the London museums all have racks of ultra-light black camp stools. Again–FREE.

For me, lugging a seat around so that I can sit down wherever I want involves a trade-off–convenience vs. encumbrance. In this case, I found that the convenience of sitting in front of any bit of art I wanted to enjoy while resting won. Your mileage may vary.

Eating and Drinking

The Tate Gallery in London originated the upscale museum cafe concept. I didn’t eat in the Natural History, but visited the cafes in all the other museums. Good stuff. All provide healthy full-meal options and reasonable numbers of seats for diners. I stuck with the lower-priced cafeteria-style museum eateries (the British has a full-fledged white-tablecloth restaurant too).

Outside the British Museum

Sometimes you've just gotta lie down: A pack of youthful folks chilling out in front of the British Museum

Using the Bathroom

Being that the museums are free, the bathrooms tend to be a bit overused. Expect lines at the popular museums, and a fair bit of dirt. There are wheelchair accessible stalls and rooms in all the museums, but these can be tough to find depending on the museum. You get what you pay for. *shrug*

The Bottom Line

Museums in London are heaven-sent for travelers with pain. Free entry to climate control. Public restrooms. Free seating in galleries filled with great art. Easy access to water and real food.

Absolutely fabulous.

* This kind of information about attractions changes constantly. Please don't hold it against me (or Fodor's) if they're not 100% accurate.

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Trust Paul Theroux to find the most lugubrious polysyllabic means to take the fun out of, well, fun. Because that’s the translation of “undiluted jollification.” Since I’m on an anti-Theroux kick at the moment, I thought I’d try to think up a few places where travelers with pain can get their undiluted jollies. (No, not like that! Well, maybe like that, but that’s your business not mine.)

1. Disneyland

The Mouse realized years ago something that the mainstream tourist industry has yet to pick up on—people with disabilities want to leave home and SPEND MONEY HAVING FUN. Disney’s accommodations for park guests of all ability levels are incomparable. They want as many people as possible to walk, run, roll, crawl, hop, hobble, and cartwheel through their gates, then to have the time of their lives inside.

Even depressive goth teenagers get caught smiling at Disneyland. My own severely dignified father, who wears three-pieces suits to work daily, laughs like a little kid when Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride bursts into Hell.

2. Hawaiian Beaches

When I travel for pleasure instead of work, I go to Hawaii. When I step off the plane and into that delicious tropical breeze, my pain just floats away. I don’t know why, and I don’t really care. I spend whole days lolling on the sand with a drink in one fist and a cheap romance novel in the other; other days I have to be drug out of the sea by my ankles.

Granted, the overcrowded, overbuilt beaches of Waikiki don’t quite do it for me. Too many people, too few parrotfish. But I’m no misanthrope—it doesn’t harsh my buzz to see other people enjoying the sand and surf off the Kona coast. Hawaii feels fabulous, and everybody ought to have a chance to feel that good.

3. Musee d’Orsay

I visit the d’Orsay to worship at the altar of beauty. In the Musee d’Orsay, the Impressionists smear the walls with bright colors and joy of life outdoors. When I look at a Monet landscape, I feel myself walk through a flower-strewn meadow, listening to the whirr of insects and soaking up the gentle sunshine. Faced with an ornate piece of furniture, I envision myself folding up a silken nightgown and stowing it in the drawer with the whimsical slug-shaped handle crawling across it.

The Musee d’Orsay, a former railroad station that served the heart of Paris, refuses to permit the pale pathos of mere observation. Art, when it’s done right, creates experience for all who come in contact with it.

4. The French Laundry

I’m so glad I ate at the French Laundry, despite the bizarre gyrations involved in getting reservations and the breathtaking cost of the meal. Not just for a taste of the food, which is of course magnificent. There’s an embarrassing plethora of magnificent food in California’s Napa Valley.

What makes the FL special is the whole dining experience. Unlike similar pinnacles of cuisine in Manhattan, once you’re in the French Laundry, the staff treat you like…well, like people who can afford $500, 4-hour lunches. The servers’ choreographed performance as they slide each plate in front of each diner is worthy of a Broadway stage. And after 14 courses wallowing my way through some of the best-prepared food on earth, I was content to bolster my blown budget by skipping breakfast the next day. And lunch.

5. Shasta Lake

I love lakes; I grew up spending half of each summer on my family’s property on Loon Lake, Washington. I chose Shasta Lake for this post because it’s bigger and thus more fun to zip across in a power boat. Few revolutions happen on the shores of lakes. There’s little of import to observe (stars, deer, teenagers flirting awkwardly on swimming floats). Plus, staring at bikini-clad vacationers is creepy.

Lake vacations lend themselves to the simple pleasures—hiking in the woods, canoeing along the shoreline, fishing off a dock, racing a jet-ski across the deeps, counting constellations and watching the moon rise. All things that travelers with pain can have fun doing (well, maybe not the canoeing).

All of these destinations (and the many others of their kind around the world) tend to be friendly to travelers with pain, hidden disabilities, and visible disabilities. None are perfect, but all allow people of every ability level to step outside of the observer role and into the better and much, much more joyful part of participant.

Do you have a favorite destination that’s pain-friendly? What do you do when you’re there?

Speaking of which…if I led a trip/tour for travelers with pain, would you come? If so, where would you want to go? What would you like to do there?

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Grant Ave, Chinatown

After spending about six hours in San Francisco’s legendary Chinatown neighborhood…I’m tired and my feet hurt. And I’m now the proud owner of much silk brocade. No place in the City has a richer cultural heritage than Chinatown, and Chinatown rivals Union Square for opportunities to indulge in serious retail therapy.

But how’d it go for this traveler with pain?

Getting to Chinatown

Adjacent to Union Square, you can get to Chinatown on foot, in a cab, on a MUNI bus, or on a cable car. My friend and I walked, as the Hotel Triton is about a sixth of a block away from the Chinatown Gate.

Bari and a cheap Chinatown folding fan

Exploring the Attractions (Which, in Chinatown, mostly means Shopping)

When tourists want to pick up souvenirs of their trips to San Francisco, they often buy them in Chinatown. And in fact, the point of going to Chinatown is to gawk at the architecture and browse in the zillions of independent shops. Chinatown’s shops tend to specialize in jewelry (pearls and jade dominate), stuff made out of silk brocade (clothes, scarves, tote bags, coin purses, etc etc), table and bed linens (real linen and cotton with lots of starch), porcelain, home furnishings, and of course tchochkes galore. Some of those tchochkes are distinctly X-rated.

Buyers are expected to haggle with shopkeepers, even in the t-shirt shops.

But What’s It Like Physically? 

Walking Chinatown is medium-strenuous. The neighborhood sprawls for miles, and it’s easy to walk quite a ways just by window-shopping on Grant. There are precious few on-street benches, and shops don’t carry places to sit. The only way to grab a seat is to either brave the crowds in the public parks or to rent a chair in a tea house, cafe, or restaurant.

Chinatown’s got a few hills–it doesn’t have the steepest streets in the City, but Chinatown’s not on a flat spot either. My quads got a workout as I shopped. The sidewalks are run down here–uneven, sometimes narrow, and crowded on the weekends. No-power wheelchair users have a helluva time navigating Grant and Powell.

Eating and Drinking

Chinatown may be the only place in the City where there’s not a Starbucks on every block. In fact, the food and drink in Chinatown runs to dim sum and tea. A few coffee shops cater to both tourists and locals.

Many upstairs restaurants in Chinatown do not have elevators, so if you can’t climb you’re out of luck. Don’t expect much in the way of English-speaking wait staff–expect to point and nod a lot. If you’ve got major food allergies, pick one of the larger, more tourist-friendly restaurants so that you can make your needs known. Also, if you’ve got serious dietary restrictions, dim sum probably isn’t for you.

Portsmouth Square Plaza park benches and playground

Stopping to Rest

A few small parks dot the Chinatown landscape. These have plenty of benches, but also plenty of locals with semi-permanent claims to spots on those benches.

While resting up, I enjoyed the people-watching. The young people in the park smoked weed behind the restroom, and the older denizens gambled on makeshift tables made from upturned cardboard boxes. Nope, it’s not the squeakiest clean place to catch your breath. On the other hand, no one attacked me, threatened me, or gave me a second glance. Tourism is a tremendous source of revenue in Chinatown, and tourists tend to remain fairly safe so long as they stick to the touristy areas.

Using the Bathroom

None of the shops I visited had public-accessible restrooms. The cafe had a customer-use bathroom, and Portsmouth Square Plaza had public facilities. By some minor miracle, the park stalls were reasonably clean, and both the sink and the hand-dryer worked. No promises on the public restrooms, so be prepared to shell out for coffee for a reasonable shot at a urine-free toilet seat.

The Bottom Line

Doing San Francisco’s Chinatown requires significant energy, the ability to walk, to deal with crowds, and to stay standing for long periods of time. I don’t recommend it for a traveler with pain who’s having a bad day, or for anyone who’s got trouble walking or staying on her feet for more than 30 minutes.

On the other hand, Chinatown can be a great adventure for a traveler with pain who’s using slow to moderate walking as a means of exercise, and who can use bright shiny objects as a distraction from discomfort.

I had a great time and I can’t wait to go back.

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A San Francisco Cable Car - A Mobile Landmark

A recent article on Huffington Post’s Travel channel describing one travel writer’s “Most Overrated Travel Experiences.”

As always, pretty much all of Mr. Juddery’s picks for “overrated” are sites and attractions commonly described as “on the beaten path,” usually in sneering tones by travel writers who strongly favor backpacker’s hostels and “authentic” travel experiences that skip museums, monuments, clean bathrooms, and reliably safe food.

What seems to get missed in these more-traveler-than-thou articles is that lots of people have never been to Paris/New York/Tokyo/Yellowstone before. Easy (if shameful) example: I’ve never been to Washington D.C. When I make it to my nation’s capitol, I will see the Washington Monument, take the White House tour, and get lost in the Smithsonian Museum. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that itinerary.

As for fancy restaurants being somehow unworthy…well that’s just wrong for travelers of every ability level. Anyone who visits San Francisco or the Napa Valley and skips the stunning high-end restaurants will NOT find hole-in-the-wall food that’s “better” in any sense of the word. (Though there’s some good cheap food in both regions.) In addition, such luckless tourists will miss out on an important part of local life and culture in central California. We’re a bunch of foodies in this neck of the woods, and we go out to dinner at places like Masa, Fleur de Lys, Michael Mina, Etoile, and Bouchon for birthdays, anniversaries, and (if we’re lucky) Thursdays. After a year of saving up, we calculate dates and program our phones for speed dial at 8:45am to gain the privilege of spending $500 per person for a meal at the legendary French Laundry.

So what has all this got to do with travelers with pain? Quite a bit.

1. If I’ve got the money for it, I’m going to stay in a resort hotel. Will I pick an independent if there are nice ones at my destination? Yes. But if the only indie choices are hostels and cheap motels, I’ll take the Hilton every single time. Yup, it’ll be the same as every other Hilton–same comfortable beds, same clean private bathrooms with soaking tubs, same working elevators, same bell assistance and room service available.

2. Fancy restaurants have the ability and inclination to cater to all sorts of dietary restrictions. Ethnic holes in the wall have neither. ‘Nuff said.

3. Landmarks and monuments, so long as you haven’t already seen them a dozen times, tend to be some of the easiest places to visit for travelers with pain. They’re often accessible to wheelchairs. They often have restrooms, elevators, and places to sit indoors. Benches for gawkers tend to cluster just outside of landmarks and monuments. And if they don’t, we can take a quick look, take that silly photo, and leave.

But leave with a feeling of accomplishment–by visiting the Eiffel Tower or the Washington Monument or the Great Wall of China or the World’s Largest Thermometer, we’ve gone out into the world and seen one of its landmarks. For a healthy person who can go literally anywhere in the world without having to spend so much as 5 minutes thinking about their physical health, spending half an hour admiring an architectural wonder probably seems commonplace and dull. For a traveler with pain, it can be a major big deal.

4. Other attractions that sit squarely in the middle of the beaten path, like churches and museums and gardens and famous houses, tend to be the most accessible to travelers with pain and all sorts of disabilities–hidden and visible. Such places often have restrooms and benches and concessions–those little creature comforts that off-the-beaten-path places don’t have in abundance…or at all. Those little creature comforts that can make the difference between an enjoyable trip and a disastrous pain flare in an unfamiliar place.

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One of the unusual seahorses on display

Last Thursday I joined my friend Alana and her 2-year-old daughter Keiran on a day trip down to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Alana is 9 months pregnant and did not want to drive from San Jose to Monterey with just a toddler for company, and my flexible work schedule made me a viable companion. Why is this relevant? Because being pregnant–especially third trimester–creates a set of specific physical challenges.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a California icon. The denizens of the Aquarium’s tanks include members of the local Monterey Bay species, endangered and threatened wildlife, and a few bright tropical fish that attract the attention of toddlers brought up watching Finding Nemo. Right now, the Secret Lives of Seahorses shows off the unusual mating and breeding practices, and the wide variety of the versatile species. The cute, cuddly-looking sea otters pour on the charm, hoping their adoring fans might start throwing fish.

Getting There

There’s no parking attached to or immediately adjacent to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Unless you sacrifice a goat to the parking gods and show up at 6am to get a street-side spot on Cannery Row, expect to walk at least a quarter of a mile and possibly more than a mile from one of the Cannery Row area’s parking garages (some of which are several long, steep blocks from Cannery Row). If you’re staying in Monterey or Carmel, it might be worth the extra money to take a cab and have it drop you at the door. Another alternative is for the most able-bodied member of your party to drop off passengers at the door of the Aquarium, then park. That person can also go get the car to pick you up at the end of your visit.

Folks with disabled placards can try to snag one of the few, precious handicapped spots next to the Aquarium building. But don’t count on this–it’s a small, small little lot.

Navigating the Interior

As aquariums go, this one’s medium-sized. If you can’t walk at least a quarter of a mile, plan to use a wheelchair or scooter. The Aquarium offers free wheelchairs for use by guests on a first-come, first-served basis. If you prefer a scooter, you’ll have to BYO. Strollers are permitted, but stroller users are encouraged to park the beasts in designated areas rather than pushing them through tight exhibit spaces if the kid isn’t actually riding.

Navigating the Aquarium can be a challenge–some of the signage is confusing, and the crowds around the exhibits can bottle up the flow of foot traffic. Maps help–you can pick one up at an information kiosk, or print out the PDF from the web site and bring it with you.

Elevators serve both of the major sections of the Aquarium.

Seating

The Aquarium’s got plenty of benches scattered throughout its exhibit halls. Most of these are low, flat, hard wood. The ones that sit up against walls have back rests, in the sense that I could lean back against the wall. Oh how I wish I’d brought a pillow! A stadium seat that’s got a back rest might work pretty well at the Aquarium.

I could watch fishes and read placards while sitting and resting–that’s a nice feature.

Crowds

If you have anxiety problems in crowds, the Aquarium may be a big challenge. Weekends are the worst–expect to be crushed into exhibits with hundreds of people, fighting and maneuvering to get to see the residents of the tanks. On weekday mornings throughout the school year, flocks of school kids on field trips shriek and run and point and yell. The quietest you’ll ever find the Aquarium is midafternoon on a weekday…for relative values of “quietest.”

Food

There’s an on-site Cafe at the Aquarium that serves expensive but tasty and healthful food. A dense scatter of tables and molded plastic chairs seat cafe diners. On crowded days, the wait for a table can be an hour. For a quicker and more comfortable lunch, leave the Aquarium and head up Cannery Row to one of the seafood restaurants. They’re touristy, but they’re comfortable and numerous.

Restrooms

It seems that the designers of the Aquarium considered the crowds when they planned the restrooms. Bathrooms lie next to several of the major galleries on both of the main floors. Ladies rooms have plenty of stalls–enough to keep lines from forming most of the time. Because there’s more than one major restroom, getting to them isn’t difficult. Signs are pretty good, and the maps point out the restroom locations.

Sadly, I didn’t see any couches or armchairs in any of the ladies rooms I visited. But Alana found the kind of changing table she prefers–the changing area set into a counter, rather than a pull-down plastic table.

Kid’s Stuff

Upstairs, off to the right of the kelp forest tank, lurks the best thing that could happen to parents of young children at the Aquarium. The play area. School-aged kids can run, slide, crawl, and splash while their parents sit down and take a well-deserved rest. The toddler area is segregated by a low wall so that the little ones don’t get mowed over by bigger kids.

The Bottom Line

For me, the Aquarium takes a whole day’s worth of spoons. I wouldn’t try to tour Cannery Row on the same day, even though the Aquarium foots the Row. The Monterey Bay Aquarium makes for a full, tiring day for a traveler with pain. It’s great fun, and totally worth the effort and spoons.

Photo (c) pmarkham on flickr

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