Miami on Wheels: Traveling With a Disability

Cuban favorites on Ocean Drive, Miami, Florida
Cuban favorites on Ocean Drive, Miami, Florida

By Sonja Stark

Kristina and a friend at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami.
Kristina and a friend at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami. Photos by Sonja Stark.

Vacation – an absolutely sublime word in the depths of winter. Just saying it sends a body into the ‘three R’ orbit – Relax, Reflect, Restore. Vacation is the life pause we all need to recharge the batteries so we can return to the fast-paced treadmill called life.

And, the choices we have to vacation are endless… or are they? What if your options were limited due to a disability or handicap?

Until recently, I never gave my mobility much thought. I’d slap on some sneakers, grab my suitcase and jockey my way through airports, hotels and restaurants with the greatest of ease. Then my friend, Kristina met up with a patch of black ice this winter that shattered her tibia and hospitalized her for days.

She and I had plans to escape our snowy winter, so, despite her injuries including the titanium plate, eight screws and bright pink cast, we didn’t let it jeopardize our fun in the sun.

According to the United States Census Bureau, one out of every five Americans is disabled. And based on a Harris poll, people with disabilities spend roughly $13 billion a year on travel. Handicap tourism is a growing segment of the travel market and should be recognized in the industry but some places accommodate the disabled better than others, as we quickly learned, when we decided to vacation in Miami, Florida.

Assistance in Transportation

Hurdle number one: airport and airline services for disabled travelers. Long gone are the days of foot space for the average traveler. Add crutches, a wheelchair, a small backpack of medications and a leg cast and those tight areas are even more compact. Our advice: call ahead.

We call the general information line at the Albany International Airport five minutes before we pull up to the front terminal and request help with our luggage. They provide a wheelchair and an airline staff person to shadow us through the TSA lines and help Kristina to the gate.

Regardless if your injury is sensory, physical or a learning disability, airports are supposed to accommodate your needs.

On the contrary, once we board the American Airlines jet, the airline cabin crew offer little assistance stowing or retrieving bags. Kristina sits directly behind first class, and even though it was designated as an upgrade for handicap, there is little legroom and the armrests are bolted to the seat.

Young performers on Lincoln Road in Miami
Young performers on Lincoln Road in Miami. Photo by Sony Stark

Overall though, the departure and arrival are stress-free and thankfully there are no delays. Kristina is wheeled around at a rapid pace and the bathrooms provide clean, accessible access for wheelchairs.

Hotel Surfing

Many hotels profess to have handicapped access rooms, but the standards vary greatly. Before we arrive in Miami, we did some research online and contacted a hotel employee in advance to ask about accessibility features.

Even though most of our time is spent in South Beach, not the mainland, we opt for the Biscayne Bay Marriott on North Bayshore Drive, overlooking the beautiful port of Miami.

The Biscayne Bay Marriott just completed a $31 million renovation featuring a reinvented lobby, a new Bayview Ballroom, and the Catch Grill & Bar. Wheelchairs are available for use throughout the property making it easy to navigate through automatic doors, down wide hallways and up short ramps. Not only is the staff attentive to Kristina’s situation, but the spacious double guest room also goes above and beyond what we expected.

Chef Joe Natoli serving up appetizers at the Catch Grill & Bar
Chef Joe Natoli serves up appetizers at the Catch Grill & Bar.

The bathroom features an ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant roll-in shower with a padded fold-down seat, one long grab bar and easy-to-use shower controls. The 60” hose is especially helpful when protecting Kristina’s cast from getting wet.

A mini one-stop-shop shopping mall connects the Marriott with everything from coffee to cocktails and beauty to banks. Again, the halls are wide and the elevators are convenient for those in wheelchairs and on crutches.

Ocean to Table

“Reeling” in the compliments as one of the best new fish houses in Miami is the Catch Grill & Bar. It’s extraordinarily handicap-friendly as it sits smack dab alongside the lobby of the Marriott Biscayne. You can pick from outdoor marina-side tables or communal booths.

Chef Joe Natoli starts us off with a smorgasbord of unique appetizers: crab claws with mango mustard, (a seasonal dish), crispy glazed shrimp with chili sauce, crab cakes with chipotle remoulade and a bowl of plantain chips accompanied by fresh Cuban ceviche de Pescado (fresh fish with lime juice and spices). The starters alone are enough seafood to drown in, but our wait staff insists we wash it down with a bottle of Holy Mackerel Golden Ale. Delicious.

Natoli cooks with all local ingredients, adding a kick of Haitian spice and Latin flavors to his entrees. Mahi-mahi, black grouper, and red snapper are caught daily using sustainable and eco-friendly fishing practices. I enjoy the mahi-mahi pan-seared with mango habanero sauce and house-made yucca fries.

Pan-seared mahi mahi with lemon cream sauce and mango habanero sauce - yummy!
Pan-seared mahi mahi with lemon cream sauce and mango habanero sauce – yummy!

SOBE on Wheels

The following morning, it’s time to hit the beach and explore the Art Deco District in South Beach. Sidewalks are wide and clean of litter and we find several accessible-friendly features from not-so-bumpy boardwalks to public restrooms in Sobe (South Beach).

We start our sojourn in SoFi (south of fifth), considered one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in South Beach and wheel north on Ocean Drive. SoFi has the highest property values in the city and it shows. Large scale development projects and high rises like the Portofino and the Phillippe Starck designed Icon Building wreak of money.

Ocean Drive is probably the most recognizable area for tourists. The paved trails are wide enough to accommodate bikes, rollerblades, dog walkers and wheelchairs at the same time. It boasts a bevy of nightclubs and popular eateries such as the News Café and the Clevelander as well as elegant boutique art deco hotels.

Fashion shoot on Espanola Drive
Fashion shoot on Espanola Drive

In the heart of South Beach is the grassy, tree-lined Flamingo Park, which is mostly residential but neighbors a funky historic district called Espanola Way. The bohemian neighborhood runs from Collins Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue. Romantic low-rise cafes, boutiques, and art galleries dress the streets that dance with Spanish eclecticism. Live rumba and open-air markets abound on weekends.

You can’t escape the intoxicating smells here, so I wheel Kristina up to a take-out window for Cuban cuisine at David’s Cafe. We share a wrapped sandwich of roasted pork, ham and melted Swiss cheese grilled and topped with onions. Yummy.

Dress to Impress

Next stop, a shopping oasis equivalent to L.A.’s Rodeo Drive. Between Alton Road and Washington Avenue, twelve blocks in total is the famous Lincoln Road pedestrian shopping district. Places like Swarovski, Christian Audigier, Vespa and Cuban cigar shops make this the hottest shopping spot in the city.

The ecletic, unique boutique Barbizon hotel built in 1937 by one of Miami's premier Art Deco architect, Herny Hohauser.
The eclectic, unique boutique Barbizon hotel built in 1937 by one of Miami’s premier Art Deco architect, Herny Hohauser.

Kristina and I don a pair of dark sunglasses and people-watch as fashion models and flashy playboys kick back their riches at sexy watering holes and trendy jazz restaurants like Van Dyke Cafe.

South Beach is home to the fourth-largest boardwalk in the world. Called the F.D.R. Boardwalk, it runs two and-a-half miles between 21st and 46th Streets. The wooden beachside walk packs a plethora of runners, walkers, bikers, strollers and, yes, wheelchairs.

It was around this area where a surfer catches my eye and my lens. Oh and be forewarned, up here on the north end houses the only clothing-optional beach called Haulover Beach.

Mass Transit in Miami

The only concern we had with Miami was public transportation. We weren’t sure how to ride the Metrorail or Metromover, and the maps said that it didn’t go to South Beach anyway. We didn’t rent a car because we were told that parking meters and garage fees were expensive and scooters were out of the question. And the one time we rode the bus, the change machine rejected our money.

As far as cab rides, well, let’s just say that the city doesn’t offer nearly enough supply for the demand. Not knowing cabbie etiquette in Miami, we tried hailing a taxi the first morning to quickly discover that nobody was willing to pick us up.

“You can’t hail a cab like they do in NYC. You have to call for a ride,” suggested a local pedestrian seeing us struggle.

Wheelchair accessible cabs aren’t as ubiquitous as regular four-door sedans, so to accommodate Kristina’s borrowed standard-size wheelchair, we jerry-rigged the trunk of every cab with bungee cords and rope. It wasn’t the ideal situation but we got from point A to point B without incident.

This might change in the future, but for now, the Marriott Biscayne Bay does not offer free shuttle service to the airport nor a parking discount for handicap guests. Cab fare will cost you $23 from the airport while the Super Shuttle (1-305-871-2000) is $16 but reservations are required.

Relax, Restore, Reflect

View of South Beach
View of South Beach

Regardless of Kristina’s injury and the time spent looking for solutions to being wheelchair-bound, we still found time to relax, restore and reflect. It was a vacation after all!

We leave “America’s Cleanest City” with hints of sun-swept tans, flavors of Cuban cooking and a deep appreciation for handicap accessible airports, hotels and restaurants.

Miami Resources

Miami Beaches

David’s Cafe

Marriott Biscayne Bay

Catch on the Bay

Lincoln Road Locator

Accessibility Resources:

Emerging Horizons: Travel Information for Wheelchair Users and Slow Walkers

The Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality

Handicapped Accessibility at Mariott Biscayne Bay

Video by Pilotgirl Productions

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