Let's go to Fiji
A couple of weeks ago Rebecca Dubber headed to Fiji for the first time on a family holiday, She had never been before so had no idea what to expect in terms of accessibility. Here are some of her thoughts around what went well, and not so well on her recent trip to Treasure Island Fiji.
Leaving New Zealand was a breeze, no issues at the airport and it somehow worked out cheaper for our party of 22 to fly premium economy on the way over, flash, I know!
I have to admit, premium economy was excellent! Having spent most of my travelling life flying economy it was a real treat, I'm a bit of a shorty, but even I noticed the extra comfort of a little more leg room and bigger seats. The highlight for me being the leg rests on the seats that came up to a nice height supporting and elevating my legs to stop any swelling.
It was definitely a nice to have, and if you can afford that type of thing I would recommend it for sure, it definitely made a difference to my travelling experience as a wheelchair user.
When we arrived in Nadi, we were swiftly put onto a bus heading for the Denarau port where we would board out water Taxi heading for Treasure Island.
What I noticed straight away was how friendly the Fijian people were, nothing was an issue for them, and they were more than happy to assist me in any way they could, I think they were a little surprised by how mobile I am out of my chair too.
I had no issues getting on the bus or onto the water taxi, and despite a bumpy ride out the island, I was so far enjoying my first Fijian experience until we began to approach the island.
Treasure Island is quite a small island and is surrounded by a protected reef, so there's no jetty for the boats to stop at, everyone gets off at the beach!
At first, we didn't realise this was what was happening until a smaller boat pulled up next to us and all of a sudden we were being ushered off one boat onto another.
With some help from our guides and my partner I managed the transfer relatively easily, the next obstacle, however, presented itself quite quickly in that once we were on the smaller boat we were now going to have to get off at the beach.
"I'm sure the other wheelchair users will cringe with me when I mention SAND and lots of it. Wheelchairs and sand don't mix"
Now I'm sure the other wheelchair users will cringe with me when I mention sand and lots of it. Wheelchairs and sand don't mix, so I spent the three-minute ride to shore contemplating how long it was going to take to get up the beach, an hour, two maybe, the rest of the day? I wasn't looking forward to it.
There was a large group of resort staff waiting for us on the beach, singing a welcome song and greeting each of us individually as we got off the boat. I was one of the last off, and to my surprise, two strong Fijian men grabbed an arm each and proceeded to help carry me up the beach.
Now, usually something like this would make me very uncomfortable, I value my independence and my ability to choose when, where, and how I receive help. But in that moment, I think I knew that having those two men carry me up the beach was going to be easier than trying to do it myself in my wheelchair. So in hindsight, I wouldn't want it to happen all the time, but I was happy they helped in that moment.
My partner trailed behind me with my wheelchair, and once we were up on solid ground, I was able to get back in my chair and follow the rest of our group to check in.
I could see he was impressed by what had just happened, but he assured me for the rest of the trip we'd figure out a way for only him to need to carry me – I think he got a little jealous.
I think the biggest lesson I learnt on the way over was Prepare. Prepare. Prepare! I don't think I did one shred of research other than looking at what spa treatments were available on the island. I guess I just assumed it would be fine and there would be no issues with accessibility.
I think if I had done some more research, I would have been better prepared for the trip from Denarau and I would have known precisely what was coming and how to tackle it.
If I were to go back, I would definitely look at a few things; differently, I would make enquiries with the resort about wheelchair access including access to the Bures, beach and activities, I would also contact the transfer company to ask how we disembark at the resort – is it beach or jetty? And then ask what their protocols are for wheelchair users and how they can accommodate me.
The Island Experience
After making up to the beach and to reception it was time to check in, we were greeted with warm smiles and a welcome drink, after sorting through all of the rooms we were given our keys and shown to our Bures.
The main area around the island was paved, so it was easy to get around on, the Bures were a little harder to get to as it was a mix of grass and hard sand, thankfully I have some good upper body strength so was able to manage this no trouble.
Once outside our Bure I was shocked to see a step half a meter high up to the deck, I remember when we booked that an accessible room was requested, so I was intrigued if this was Treasure Island's idea of an accessible room.
The step up was so high that I wouldn't be able to get up without either having to get out of my chair or have my partner lift me up every time we wanted to come or go, as we contemplated what to do a very friendly maintenance person walked past and asked if we were okay.
I asked him if they happened to have any portable ramps that they could put up to the deck for us, after pondering this for a second he confessed they didn't, but without hesitation, he insisted that they would build us a ramp.
We dropped our bags and headed for the pool while they built us a ramp, and on our return to the Bure, we were blown away by the ramp they had created. It absolutely warmed my heart that they were so accommodating of us and having a ramp really made a difference to the quality of our stay.
I did wonder why they had to build one though, had they never had someone in a wheelchair stay at the island before? I did see a couple Bures with permanent ramps on them, but I'm guessing they were already booked out.
"Had they never had someone in a wheelchair stay at the island before?"
Once inside the Bure it was very spacious and open plan, the bathroom was huge too, and while I couldn't see anything that signified it was a wheelchair accessible room, I could move my chair freely around the room.
I compared our room to the rooms of our family, and they were no different to ours, so, if you don't need the modifications that come with a wheelchair accessible room, e.g. railing in the bathroom, you should be fine to stay in a standard Bure as we did.
The trip was very laid back and relaxed, most of our time there was spent by the pool, or on one of the hammocks outside our Bure, on one afternoon we ventured to the beach for some snorkelling, and on our last day we booked an island hopping tour to see what some of the surrounding islands were like.
Venturing to the beach was a planned affair, in the morning my partner walked around to scout the best access point where I could pretty much roll up to the beach, and then he would carry me to the spot he'd picked. This worked really well for us, so we had a great afternoon with little fuss.
Before heading down to the beach, we also practised some ways to carry me and my chair, so there was no need for extra help.
The boat ride was smooth, and while not ideally equipped for a wheelchair – we had to get on at the beach again, and only two out of the four stops we made involved getting off on a jetty, and only one of those was for more than 15 minutes. It was a lot, but we made it work.
The first island we stopped at we had to get off at the beach, so I opted to stay on the boat and enjoy the crystal clear water and coral below.
The second island did have a jetty so looked much more accessible, but we only had 15 minutes to explore, and I figured it would probably take that long to get off and back on again, so I opted to stay on the boat and watch the fish swimming through the water.
Our third stop was to Musket Cove, which is one of the more prominent resorts in the Mamanuca Islands, we were stopping here for lunch, and I was pleasantly surprised by how accessible it was.
Getting off the boat was a breeze because the island had its own marina and the ground was flat and mostly paved or grass which made getting across in my wheelchair pretty easy.
Getting to go on the island tour really showed me the variety in options for an accessible island experience, while Treasure Island was manageable for me it might not be for someone else, so it's good to know there are other more accessible options in Fiji If you are looking to stay at an island resort.
The Fijian people are amazing, most of the reason I had such a great time was because of their warmth and hospitality, nothing was an issue or too much to ask the staff made an effort to learn my name and would greet me by name if they saw me around the resort.
My advice if you're thinking about an island resort holiday? Do it! There are so many options in Fiji so have a look, and I'm sure you'll find something to suit your needs, and even if it's not perfect, I guarantee you'll be made to feel welcome by your hosts whatever your needs may be.