The reason for this diary, apart from being something we can look back on an enjoy in years to come, is to perhaps help other people in wheelchairs who may be thinking of embarking on a trip such as ours. and would like some first-hand stories and advice. Of course the main piece of advice I can offer is "do it!"

We are a family of four - Donna, Neil (parents), Chelsea (13) and Richie (17). Richie has cerebral palsy which restricts his mobility. He can communicate normally but cannot walk unaided. His chair is a manual one which he can operate, but he usually depended on us during this trip. I do not think anyone could do the things we did by themselves in a wheelchair, for reasons that will become obvious later on.


10th December Singapore-Bangkok- Helsinki-London

Getting through Changi airport, arriving and departing was unbelievably easy, due, I suspect to the fact that we were a family with a wheelchair (it comes in handy sometimes!) In fact, on our arrival the airport personel could not do enough for us. We had a speedy navigation of customs and were outside the airport with the airport helper flagging down a taxi in record time.

We stayed at Changi Village Hotel, not far from the airport, as it is advertised as being wheelchair accessible and will store luggage after you check out until you return to catch your next flight. As far as accessibility goes, the room and the access to it we had no problems with. The only part of the hotel that was not accessible was the dining room. Fortunately Neil is able to haul a wheelchair with a person in it up stairs without too much trouble (depending on the number of stairs), but I certainly could not have managed it, and anyone on their own would be eating in the lobby! It became evident on our travels that while much of the western world is paying lip service to making things easier for people with disabilities, sometimes they haven't thought the whole thing through.

The area around Changi Village Hotel is interesting in that you can eat authentic asian cuisine along with the local population without feeling like a tourist. We shared the outdoor food area a couple of times while watching the soccer on tv (not much choice, really), had nice cheap Indian fare and were the only non-asians there. Good for the kids to experience. Only a couple of kerbs and steps to negotiate as well.

To get to and from Orchard Road we used taxis and trains. Taxis would take y0u no matter how bulky the baggage, and the trains, while very accessible, did not always have accessible stations. Here again the chair had to be pulled up a couple of steps. (On a number of occasions on our trip we actually put the chair on an escalator - not to be condoned, but it certainly saved a lot of grief in the long run).

Orchard Road shops were not particularly easy to access. Sometimes there were elevators, but they were often hidden. Some places just had steps and we avoided many of those. It did not stop Richie enjoying his one day in Singapore, however, as the most important shop, HMV, had 3 accessible floors!

We would have liked to have spent a bit more time in Singapore and gone to the zoo and cultural places, but we were on a strict schedule, so this time the one day had to do us. We went back to the hotel, collected our bags and took a shuttle to the airport to await out flight to Helsinki, leaving at 10.30pm.


11th December London

After stopping at Bangkok to pick up passengers, then spending the next 12 hours or so crossing Asia and Eastern Europe, and a final leg from Helsinki, we arrived at Heathrow, tired and glad to be there.

The flights were not problematic, apart from being too long, and if I were to use one word to describe Finnair, I would say "efficient". Whilst they definitely did not have the same happy-go-lucky attitude of the Aussie Qantas staff, they looked after us pretty well. The older MD-11 aircraft do not have the up-market accessories found on most larger airlines now (eg on-demand movies from the back of your seat), but we did fly overnight, which made them less necessary. The plane certainly was clean and tidy, as was the airport, or what we saw of it at Helsinki. Even though we had only 10 minutes to disembark and board our British Airways flight to Heathrow, it was done with the utmost efficiency and no bag was mislaid in the process.

Landing at Heathrow was interesting, however, as it was blowing a gale at the time and after circling for a while we oozed through the pea soup and touched down on a couple of wheels. I'm sure it was completely safe, and probably not out of the ordinary, but my hands didn't unclench until I got my bags!

Customs again was easy, and in no time we were in our taxi heading towards our accommodation. We rang one of the many taxi van companies on the free phone at the airport, got a quote then met them outside Terminal 4. I think it cost around 30 pounds, which was well worth it for ease of access. Actually it was quite competitive. The company is called Heathrow Car Services Ltd.

Our accommodation was at Rotherhithe at a hostel called the London Thameside Youth Hostel. I booked this because it looked relatively modern, was advertised as accessible and the price was cheaper than a motel, especially so close to attractions. We were indeed at the side of the Thames, and our first dinner was across the road at a quaint old pub looking towards Tower Bridge.

The room was a family room with our own bathroom, and we accessed this by the lift. We had a double bed and bunks - Richie of course took the bottom bunk and got around pretty easily. The only down side was that although they advertised a laundry and cooking facilities there were none. However breakfast was included in the price and it was good. Even the kids managed to get down before it closed on most mornings! There is also a bar with wide-screen TV and restaurant for dinner.

We did not hire a car in London, and found it easy to use the buses, which stopped just across the road from the hostel. As in all big cities, there are a number of saver tickets you can buy if you plan on using them a lot. Most of the buses are wheelchair friendly, with a hydraulic step that comes out. After a day or two we were using them quite confidently. The trains on the other hand, are not as friendly, and you need to find out beforehand which stations you can use. We found we did not need them, except to pick up our car at London City Airport on our way to Manchester.


14th December Manchester

During our stay in London we managed to squeeze in a number of attractions, including The London Dungeon, Harrods, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, the London Eye and lots of window shopping. We didn't buy much because of the high prices, but had fun looking.

All of the above were wheelchair-friendly, and by this stage we were running on a flat tyre, but it did not slow us down!

The first day we walked from Rotherhithe to the London Eye following the Thames which was really nice, and had very few complaints from the offspring so it must have been vaguely interesting. From the Eye we caught a bus back to the hostel. The next day we did Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, Harrods, Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park before meeting a newly-discovered relative of mine from New Zealand, Amanda and her partner, Joe, for dinner somewhere in the financial district. Even though we had just met, it was as if we had known each other for years. It was fun comparing notes on our shared Maori ancestor, Miriam Potiki, and her Imperial Army Major, Joseph Greenwood. After a few wines and a nice meal we bid them adieu and caught a bus back to the hostel.

On the 14th we left Rotherhithe by train to pick up our rental car from London City Airport. The train was accessible, although we had to change lines a couple of times. There were lifts, luckily. One thing I omitted to point out was the fact that we travelled with three large backpacks and a bag on the wheelchair. That way the person pushing the wheelchair had hands free. It was much easier getting on and off public transport as well, although by the end of the holiday they were rather heavy!

London City Airport, compared to Heathrow, is tiny, very clean and modern-looking. We did the paper-work and picked up our Skoda (diesel) in no time. We managed to fit all bags, people and wheelchair inside and headed off in the direction of Manchester. This was not immediate, however, as I was driving, and had trouble with indicators being on the opposite side, and London is not the easiest city to navigate through. After a couple of wrong turns we did end up in the right direction, on the M1.

Driving in England is definitely not a relaxing thing to do, especially not on the motorways; we were one of the slowest cars, even though our Skoda zapped along at 80 mph most of the time. As a result, when there is an accident it tends to be a big one and can hold traffic up for hours. Going to Manchester was relatively easy though, apart from having to watch out for crazy commuters.

We went to Manchester to see an old friend, Mary - old in age as well, being 80-something, but certainly not losing her mind in any way. She lived in a suburb not far from our motel, which was in Worsley. The motel was a Novotel, so quite modern, and the facilities were wheelchair friendly. Nearby was a lovely old pub, but not particularly accessible, so Richie stayed in the room and watched TV on the night we went up there. This was the time of the office parties and subsequently we were awakened in the wee hours by drunken renditions of Christmas carols.

While in the Manchester area we drove the half hour or so to Liverpool and went to the Beatles museum, something I have always wanted to do. There is a bell to ring for someone to come and operate the open lift, as the museum is downstairs. The lift is not an all-weather lift, and this day was the only day it rained on our whole trip! All survived. Once inside you are taken into the world of the Beatles and their lives since, and it cannot fail to impress, whatever your age. It's well worth a visit. The kids have an appreciation now of the importance of their music and the significance of events that have happened since, especially the senseless killing of John Lennon.


16th December Cornwall

The day of the 16th December was cold but sunny, which made driving down to Cornwall easier. I let Neil drive this one - one day was enough for me!

The trip took the best part of a day, including stops, and having to make a detour because of the inevitable pile-up on the motorway. Luckily we had the radio on which alerted us to what was happening, or we would have been sitting in a queue even longer.

At around 6pm we checked in at our timeshare, Carvynick Cottages, in Summercourt, near Newquay. This was a timeshare swap for our unit near Mogo, on the NSW South Coast. Usually we end up with much better units than ours, and this one was no exception. The only drawback was that it had stairs and the main living areas were on the top floor, which made it slow for Richie getting up there. Luckily he can crawl, so once he was up there he didn't go down except to go to the toilet or out in the car. We did not tell them beforehand that we had a wheelchair, as usually the units are accessible enough for us. They would not be for someone on their own, however.

During this week we did a lot of touring around, checking the area out, both with and without the kids. Fortunately TV was entertaining for them - ie reality shows - and they were happy to stay in one place for a few days, so we looked around a couple of times and went to dinner at the on-site restaurant by ourselves. Places we visited were Newquay, Land's End, Penzance, Truro, Redruth and Falmouth, all within an hour of our unit. I loved the village atmosphere and the countryside, and would love to go back one day. Neil enjoyed visiting Pendennis Castle near Falmouth - it belonged to Henry Vlll and was used as a fortress through to World War 2. The kids liked the friendly people and the television! Chelsea and I also went clothes shopping andto The Bear Works near Redruth where she chose and filled three stuffed animals, which was fun.

As far as wheelchair accessibility goes, this area is not particularly good as a lot of the buildings are old, and public transport is minimal. However our rental car solved the transport problem and apart from shopping for books and dvds, Richie was not worried about exploring the area. The resort did have a really nice pool indoors which Richie used without any problems.

As mentioned earlier, there is a restaurant on-site. It is called Viners Bar and Restaurant and it was originally a farmhouse built in the 17th century. It was at this restaurant that I tasted the best oysters ever, and for this reason I shall return!

On the morning of the 21st, after a very relaxing week, we packed up and headed off to Portsmouth, via Andover, where our friends Lynda and Colin live. At this time, Cornwall was the only part of England which did not seem to be covered in fog. Heathrow was closed and chaos reigned, but fortunately we were travelling by boat that evening. I knew I booked it for a reason! The weather did affect us a little, however, as the radiator in our diesel car almost froze, leaving us in limbo at a petrol station while it thawed out. It was only 1 degree outside. At this time Lynda phoned and mentioned that Stonehenge was on the way and we should have a look at it if we could see through the fog. We managed to find the carpark and after looking at the queue of both buses and people as well as the admission price I decided it was too much hassle at this particular time to view a bunch of old stones. However, on returning to the road out, what should we drive straight past, but the old stones themselves! So we got a good look through the fog for free.

After having tea with Lynda and Colin and drying our washing on their radiators (as you do) we set off for the hour or so drive down to the ferry at Portsmouth. I say "hour or so", but it turned out to be rather more than that because we got hopelessly lost trying to find the industrial area where we were to return the rental car. Even the taxi driver who picked us up had trouble. If we have learned nothing else from our travels, it is to pay the extra money to get a hire car with a GPS system attached.

It was with a sigh of relief that we boarded the Mont St Michel at 10.30 pm, ready to sail to Ouistreham/Caen, France at 23.15.


22nd December Paris

Because of the wheelchair we boarded last, and were escorted via the lift to the reception area on the boat. So far, so good. We had 2 cabins, one normal twin and one twin with disabled facilities - wider doorway, accessible shower, more room to move. The people at the reception had no idea which cabins were which and initially sent us to the wrong ones, and didn't seem at all concerned. However we sorted it out ourselves and embarked on a tour of the facilities including restaurants, bars, a games room, disco and a cinema. The only problem was that they nearly all closed at midnight, so we didn't have long to play.

The crossing I believed would be around seven hours, which left time for a few hours sleep, but after getting settled in, then crossing La Manche - beautifully calm and not fog-bound - and getting woken by a voice telling us it was 6 am (but really 5 am because of the hour time difference) there wasn't much time left for zzds.

Apart from the above minor hitches, the trip was well worth it. It was much cheaper than four seats on the Eurostar, and the kids could see that we were actually going to another country, even though it was dark. The view looking back on Portsmouth harbour at night was beautiful, and the early morning bus trip into Caen from the landing at Ouistreham was quite surreal. I say early, but really it was around 8 am, but still dark.

We managed to get Richie onto the bus to Caen because Neil could help him up the steps and the madame bus driver was very accommodating. However anyone on their own would need to get a taxi - probably quite expensive, but readily available. The trip takes around half an hour by bus, and the countryside and buildings are very pretty.

We got off at the railway station at Caen and I proceeded to use my best French to book four tickets to Paris. It was easier than I thought, and I even took the liberty of booking first class (42 Euros per adult), as I was hoping to sneak in some shut-eye during the two hour trip. I was to be thwarted in this endeavour, however, as I suddenly felt nauseous once the train had departed, and spent most of the trip either in the toilet or sitting on the floor outside it! To top it off, somehow I jammed my little finger in one of the automatic doors that go between cabins, and it immediately swelled up and went blue. At the time of writing I am booked in to have an X-ray, two months later, as it has never been the same since. Oh well, such are the perils of travelling the world! Everyone else had a pleasant trip, so that is the main thing.

We arrived at St Lazare, (with me feeling much better having emptied my stomach contents completely and the finger was numb rather than sore), at 11 o'clock, and were then taken under the wing of the very friendly porters and had an unofficial tour of the bowels of the Paris SNCF system. They decided that the RER train that we were going to catch to Noisiel, where our hotel was, was not easy to access, so they led us underground past all kinds of pipes and dirt and concrete, to emerge in the middle of Paris at a bus stop where we were to wait to go to the Gare de Lyon. The image of tiny French porter carrying Neil's 20kg back-pack will stay with me forever! They stayed with us until the bus arrived (in this we cannot praise the French rail staff enough) and then they made sure the driver knew where we were going. We did get a wonderful tour of Paris between St Lazare and the Gare de Lyon, but at this stage I should warn all intending disabled travellers in Paris - avoid the Gare de Lyon at all costs! We spent more time there trying to find a lift than we did actually getting to our destination at Noisiel. We did eventually find the lift that would take us to the track we needed, but guess what - it was hors de service! To cut a long (and boring) story short, we finally found someone who took us outside to a goods lift about twenty metres away, and we were then able to catch our RER train to Noisiel. Once at Noisiel I phoned the hotel, L'Hotel des Deux Parcs, and they gave us directions from the station. It involved walking across the road from the station and catching a bus, but it was easy. The buses there have the hydraulic platform that comes out once you push the wheelchair button. It should be noted that when you do this the doors close, and you think they are going without you, but it is the first part of the process of activating the step. Never fear!

After arriving in France at 7am, we were to take around eight hours to reach our hotel in Paris. I was glad to get there because at last I could sleep! Neil and the kids went for a walk but did not buy anything because they didn't speak French, but instead waited till I woke up, by which time it was a bit late to find a restaurant. We went to a Lidl (like Aldi) supermarket and bought snack food and strange tasting flavoured milk - yuk. Still, it filled a gap until the morning.


23rd December Eurodisney

We had only three full days to explore Paris, and that included visiting friends, so today had to be the day for Disney.

It was overcast and chilly, but not far to travel (only a couple of train stops from Noisiel). We had no problems buying tickets and there was a lift to the platform at Noisiel, which made our Paris stay relatively easy.

On arrival at Marne-la-Vallee, the Disney Station, we queued up with mostly British tourists over for the weekend (or the day), as the Eurostar goes from London to Disney daily. Also they (and Aussies on their Xmas holidays) are probably the only ones silly enough to brave a day outside in Paris in the middle of winter! As with Disneyland in LA, and most theme parks in Australia,we got a discount for Richie (and a free carers ticket, which we had come to expect but were to find out in the US later was not always an option). The full adult ticket was 54 Euros, and children 46 Euros, so if you almost double that for Aussie dollars, it could have been quite expensive. You can choose to visit only one section of the park, as there are actually two parks in one - Parcs Disneyland (rides) and Walt Disney Studios (backlot). But it would be a shame not to do both after travelling so far.

The day was ok, but unfortunately the weather turned so cold we ended up buying gloves and Chelsea and I bought warmer jackets from one of the many tourist traps in the park. We were to wear those jackets for the rest of the holiday, not because it was as cold as Paris, but because they were so nice (and expensive, but we didn't care at the time). Of course they will now hang in the wardrobe in Brisbane, only to be brought out for overseas winter trips!

Richie and I left Neil and Chelsea to enjoy the rides (which is the norm for us) while we tried to keep out of the cold. The thought of going on a roller coaster in zero degrees was not pleasant.

Our day finished in Planet Hollywood at around 7pm. We hadn't visited one of those for years because they all seem to be closing, so it was quite good to revisit. It was just as expensive as we remember it - around 85 Euros for our meal


24th December St Remy les Chevreuse

As tomorrow was Xmas Day and we were leaving for New York via London the next day, today was the day for visiting our friends, Louise and Stephane (and Stephane's daughter Emmeline).

Louise's sister Yvonne and I have been friends since we were five (that's a long time!) and Louise I remember, apart from being Yvonne's younger sister, was an accomplished pianist and later a French teacher (which I always wanted to be and have done on occasions when schools were desperate!) Over the years Yvonne has kept me informed of Louise's travels and recently her marriage to Stephane, with whom she lives in St Remy Les Chevreuse, on the outskirts of Paris.

Christmas Eve in France is traditionally when families get together in the evening to have dinner, so I was worried about being a pain, imposing our family on them for the day. However, it was not a problem, and we successfully ate and drank our way through lots of yummy French cuisine from noon until around 5pm. We found lots to talk about inbetween, sharing common interests, and Chelsea enjoyed meeting Emmeline, who is around her age and speaks English with a Kiwi accent (more points!)

Their house has a wonderful view out over the village, and has more land than you would expect to find within an hour and a half of the city. It also gets very hot in summer, so of course we must return to experience that.

The RER train trip was easy both ways, especially with local knowledge, so we knew where to change trains and also which trains to get the next day, Xmas Day, for our excursion to the Eiffel Tower.


Christmas Day Paris

We woke to another bleak day, but it didn't matter because it was Xmas and we had presents to open!

Neil and I went downstairs to breakfast and took a doggie bag of croissants up to the kids, who would now rather sleep than wake at 5am for Xmas (thank God!) We then rugged ourselves up and caught the train to the Eiffel Tower. We actually caught the RER Line A to Chatelet, then RER C to Notre-Dame and from there on the Metro to La Tour Eiffel. The first two trains were easy, with accessible platforms - we didn't even have to go up or down to get to line C. The metro, however, is a definite no-no for wheelchairs, unless you have someone with you who can haul a chair with a person in it up and down stairs. We expected this, but did it anyway. It got us to the Eiffel Tower quickly, but you can use another RER train to get there more easily.

We spent an hour or so at the tower, which was quite eerily shrouded in fog so we only saw the bottom half - makes for interesting photos! Neil and Richie went up to the second level using the lift, which does cater for wheelchairs. It cost 8,40 Euros for the two, which wasn't too bad.

After consulting our map we decided to visit the Louvre, and first investigated going by boat (Bateaux Mouches). However they are not necessarily wheelchair friendly from this departure point. Getting down there involved stairs, and not all boats were accessible apparently. Also the cost is exhorbitant if you're only going from A to B. So we decided to hop on a bus. This was not an easy mission either, as the bus we chose, which went pretty close to the Louvre, was not wheelchair friendly. Fortunately another passenger helped us get the chair on and off. Other buses are accessible, but you have to find out beforehand.

Once at the Louvre, we discovered that it is open every day except Xmas! It didn't matter really, as we then proceeded to walk through the Tuileries Gardens and then the whole way along the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, which was a great experience, and took us all afternoon. All of Paris seemed to be doing the same walk (probably because nothing else was open), but it was nice to be sharing our Xmas day with other people. Chelsea and I walked under ground through the tunnel to come up immediately under the arch, which Richie couldn't access in his wheelchair. We then found an entrance to the RER line underground and made our way back to Noisiel. We had tea at the motel - and I should point out here that the owners and the staff were really accommodating at Les Deux Parcs. The rooms were clean and accessible by lift, and the bar/restaurant was good value. It was nice to have a yummy meal served by friendly people on our last night in France.


26th December Paris-London-New York

Another freezing day saw us bid adieu to Les Deux Parcs and make our way with heavier-than-before backpacks to the now familiar train station at Noisiel, en route to the airport. We had to catch two trains, the first to Chatelet-Les-Halles on Line A and the second on Line B to l'Aeroport Charles de Gaulle. Each segment took around half an hour, with no problems connecting, so we made it to the airport in good time. We got off at Terminal 2 and walked into where we thought we had to check in, only to discover that we had to be at 2B, and needed to get on a people-mover to do that. After wandering around trying to find out where to get on, we ended up where we were in the first place upstairs. It is quite confusing if you haven't been to Charles de Gaulle before.

Check-in was also interesting as we were moved from pillar to post. The British airways check-in desk was not operating, and even though we tried to check-in automatically, Neil's booking wouldn't go through, and an official took his passport away. Rather disconcerting! You have to advise them of your intended address in New York before leaving England or Europe, and the machines wouldn't process Neil's.

Eventually we got through and still had plenty of time to board. I had been worried that Heathrow would still not be operating because of the fog, but it was back in action. After calling in a machine to blast the ice off the plane (eek), they let us take off, and in 40 minutes we were back in London. This was when it got really interesting.

Because Heathrow is often (always) overcrowded, our plane had to pull in in the middle of nowhere and everybody except us and another lady in a wheelchair went off in a bus. We had to wait for a high-lift to come, and of course it didn't. So we sat on the plane with cleaning people around us and cabin crew bringing us snacks for about an hour, when finally we did what we had suggested in the first place - got Richie down the stairs. The British Airways crew were really embarassed and apologetic, so we didn't growl at them. The only thing on my mind was that we had so little time between landing and taking off again for New York we would miss our friends Jenni and Grant who might have turned up to see us. Thank goodness they didn't or it would have been a wasted trip for them.

At around 5.50pm we flew out from Terminal 4 at Heathrow on our eight hour trip to JFK International, New York, New York.

This was not the end of the day, of course, as we went back in time as we flew, arriving in the Big Apple at around 8.45pm. I was a little out of sorts, having enthusiastically consumed the three bottles of wine the nice British Airways man gave me on the way over! However our journey through customs was not nearly so long, and after being concerned about getting grilled about baggage - this was New York, after all- we whizzed through, after all except Chelsea were fingerprinted, and found a taxi big enough to take us. Actually, it probably wasn't a taxi, as he had no ID displayed, and he got hopelessly lost trying to get us to our hotel, the Ramada Plaza, which was supposed to be at the airport! It was actually quite a way from the terminal, the address being JFK Airport, JAMAICA, NY(!) but we did get there eventually. The kids immediately tuned into one of the many live courtroom dramas they were to watch on TV in the US, while we had a shower and hit the hay.