This blog article is part of a series of traveler’s stories. Stacy Rounds is a traveler and wheelchair user. Here she shares her experience traveling with her husband to accessible Key West, Florida.
When my husband asked if I wanted to spend our 22nd wedding anniversary some place warm and sunny, I was surprised and excited. We typically don’t do anything extravagant to celebrate, so the idea of getting away from it all on a trip HE wanted to plan made me smile from ear to ear. Since I’m usually the one booking our family vacations and trips, I was thrilled that he was taking care of all the arrangements. All I had to do was pack my bag! He did get my input on our destination before he finalized the plans, but together we decided on Key West, Florida. It was the perfect spot for a romantic escape!
Day 1: Arriving to Accessible Key West
We made this trip prior to the pandemic, so there were no masks or concerns about traveling. Worried about rush hour traffic, we opted to stay at a hotel close to Reagan National Airport for our early morning flight. We had a layover in Orlando, but my husband had planned plenty of time between our flights so we didn’t have to rush.
As a wheelchair user, you never know how long it may take for the crew to get you off the plane using the aisle chair. I’ve almost missed connecting flights before so it was nice not to worry about that. Before long, we were flying above turquoise water without a care in the world. The weather was perfect when we landed in Key West and picked up our rental car. He did all the driving so we didn’t need a car with hand controls. I just had to remember to bring my accessible parking hang tag to make parking easier.
We stayed at the DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Grand Key, just 10 minutes from the airport. A spacious room, roll in shower, chair lift into the hot tub outside by the pool and a free wheelchair accessible shuttle that ran from the hotel to downtown Key West every hour made it a great choice. We headed downtown in the rental car for dinner at Two Friends Patio Restaurant and enjoyed conch fritters and key lime pie.
We walked to Mallory Square just in time to witness the sunset and ended our night at the famous Captain Tony’s Saloon, which has been patronized over the years by many well-known artists, writers and celebrities such as Ernest Hemingway and Jimmy Buffett. The history on the walls and ceiling was so interesting and I had a great seat right in front of the guitar player.
Day 2: Exploring Seven Mile Bridge and the Aquarium
I wanted to drive up the coast, so we headed north to Marathon. The view on Seven Mile Bridge made me feel like I was in the Caribbean. Puffy white clouds, a clear blue sky and teal blue water surrounded us. It was heaven. If our stay was longer, I would have spent the entire day driving up the coast and stopping along the way at our leisure.
Since we wanted to get back to Key West that evening, we decided to stop at Aquarium Encounters and signed up to pet and feed an adult nurse shark with assistance from one of the marine biologists on staff. The shark’s back felt rough like sandpaper. Her stomach was smooth and her mouth had small razor teeth. She sucked in her food off the sticks we held, sounding like a vacuum. We headed back to Key West for dinner and more exploring downtown. The nightlife is vibrant with lots of great people watching, so we strolled the streets before calling it a day.
Day 3: Good food and Relaxation
A delicious, healthy breakfast at The Café kept us satisfied until dinner. We headed to the resort pool and relaxed under the warm rays of the sun watching an iguana scurry up the palm tree next to us. I had strained my right shoulder prior to the trip and it was really bothering me. I had noticed a spa next door so my husband urged me to book an appointment.
A one-hour massage at Bodhi Spa & Wellness with Judith felt like such a treat. She made sure I had a glass of champagne when I was done when she learned I was there for my anniversary. That evening we took the accessible hotel shuttle downtown and ate at Only Wood on their outside patio under the lights savoring our time together and planning our last few days.
Day 4: Nature and a Sunset Cruise
It was our last full day and our 22nd anniversary. We ate breakfast downtown at Bagatelle on Duvall Street on the porch of the historic home. There was a side ramp that made access easy. I was impressed by the number of accessible signs around the city pointing out accessible entrances. We also enjoyed free parking on the streets downtown with my accessible parking hang tag.
Rain held us up from spending more time at the pool so we headed to the Key West Butterfly Museum & Nature Conservatory instead. Hundreds of butterflies and a few flamingos were fun to watch as we made our way through the enclosure. Butterflies surrounded us and a few landed on our shoulders. I loved it!
We booked a 2-hour sunset cruise that night with Barefoot Billy’s that included sushi, dessert and unlimited drinks. There was a step to get into the boat, but the deck hands lifted my chair with no problem. The boat did have a bathroom that was downstairs and not accessible, but I knew that before booking the trip so I planned accordingly and didn’t have much to drink. On board we got some great tips about the area from our captain. He said Latitudes is the best restaurant, located on an island so you must get there by boat. Maybe we’ll try that next time.
We also saw Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park from our boat and the beach looked perfect. I had been asking locals where to find a good wheelchair accessible beach and no one seemed to have any good suggestions. We tried several local beaches, but the sand was very thick with no beach mats and it just wasn’t worth the effort. We decided we had to check out the state park beach before we left and then watched the bright orange sun sink into the sea. It was a beautiful, relaxing night. I reminded myself of how blessed I am to have such a loving, supportive husband all these years.
Day 5: Beach Day
It was almost time to head back to reality. We slept in, packed up and headed to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. After exploring the old fort, we found the beach easy to access with accessible parking and paved walkway leading to the swimming and picnic area.
Beach wheelchairs were available, but I didn’t even need one to get around on the beach in my manual chair. I could easily wheel myself with no trouble or beach mat. I was bummed that we were about to fly home. I would have loved spending a day at this accessible beach, so we agreed we’d definitely make another trip.
Before heading to the airport, we stopped at mile 0 on Route 1 for a photo and Thirsty Mermaid Raw Bar & Restaurant for lunch. Fresh seafood caught by one of the owners and homemade potato salad made this one of the best restaurants we discovered on this trip. Of course, we had to try their key lime pie. My mouth puckers just thinking about it! Delicious, sweet and tart…and just like this trip, I was a little sad when it was gone.
As a wheelchair traveler, you never know what you’re going to face or discover in a new city. I usually try to research everything before I go, but for this trip I let my husband plan it and decided to go with the flow when we got there. After being together for so many years, he knew exactly what to look for and did an excellent job making sure everything was accessible and enjoyable for me.
Of course, there are ALWAYS things that don’t go as planned or that you can laugh about later. And I often find myself wanting to educate the general public about the things I encounter that get under my skin. If you’re a wheelchair user or travel with one, I’m sure you can appreciate the following “Handi Hints” from my Key West trip:
- Stop peeing on the seats! I encountered at least 4 toilets on this trip that had pee all over the seat. Of course, that was the ONLY accessible toilet available at each of these locations so it was either hold it or clean up the mess and line the seat with toilet paper as a barrier from all the nastiness. So gross. Please be aware that not all of us can squat over a toilet. I actually have to sit on those seats, so I beg you: please don’t squat! Or at least clean up after yourself. I am going to start traveling with gloves and disinfecting wipes in my backpack because of this.
- While we’re on the topic of toilets, let me just say that people LOVE the accessible stall. Hey, if it’s the only stall open – go for it! However, if all the other stalls are open and you “just need to change your clothes” or “really like the extra room” please think twice. Some of us need to use that extra room to actually go to the bathroom. I was apologized to numerous times on this trip after people realized I was waiting while they changed out of their swim clothes and talked on the phone in “the big stall.”
- Scooters, scooters & more scooters. Renting them on Key West seems to be a popular attraction. Have fun riding around all you want but when it comes to parking, don’t park them in the hash marks next to accessible parking spots. I know you’re on vacation, but use your head. It’s still illegal and a real problem for those of us trying to use that space to get in and out of our vehicle.
- One of the airport employees helping board me on our flight to Key West referred to my husband as my DAD. No, I’m not kidding. “We’ll get you on here and let Dad follow us in,” he said to me as he pulled me in the aisle chair onto the plane. What do you say to that one? Do you really think he’s my dad? Look at us. We’re the exact same age and we look it. Don’t ever assume someone with a disability can’t be married, have kids or be traveling with a significant other. It is possible folks.
- Parking in Key West – we didn’t realize it at first, but if you park on the street in public parking you do not have to pay if you have your hang tag or accessible license plate is displayed! We asked a parking attendant just to be sure. He said you are only supposed to park for 4 hours at a time, but as long as you have your proper permit displayed they don’t mess with you. We parked for many hours at a time with no problems. And saved a bundle on parking fees!
If you’re looking for a quick, tropical retreat in the United States, I highly recommend Key West. We can’t wait to return! Dry Tortugas National Park is officially on my bucket list for our next visit.
Wheel the World offers accessible things to do, places to stay, and multi-day trips, so that people with disabilities can explore without limits, just like Stacy did in Key West. Check out Wheel the World’s destinations here to start planning your next accessible adventure.