Recently, a colleague wrote asking for vacation advice. She and her husband badly needed a getaway, but her prematurely deteriorated hip joint made walking more than two blocks painful, and she would have to wait a year for surgery with her preferred doctor. With her limited mobility, she wondered: What were her options?
As it happens, she came to the right place for advice. Your klutzy correspondent has suffered a series of orthopedic mishaps over the past few years, a scenario that complicates the life of a professional globetrotter.
Note that I said complicates, not terminates. Traveling with limited mobility is not only possible, it can also be enjoyable — and if it isn’t always the way we would prefer to tour, it is almost always more fun than nursing that sore joint at home.
After offering my colleague detailed vacation advice for the mobility-impaired, I thought it worthwhile to share with my readers. Many of us will end up in this situation at some point — a frustrating limbo between the able and the officially, long-term disabled. The latter — and this is not to discount their considerable challenges — can plan travel with a degree of predictability, official accommodation, and investment in mobility-enhancing devices that are not practical for the temporarily sidelined.
Many travelers with limited mobility opt for cruises, letting the boat do the schlepping — and taking advantage of myriad entertainment options just steps from the bedroom. My friend didn’t think she was a cruise person, though, and I agreed; if you prefer to fill your days with as much sightseeing as possible, rather than relax and socialize in between ports of call, a cruise may not scratch that itch.
There are exceptions, such as sails through Alaskan glaciers, the fjords of Norway, or the canals of France — surrounded by scenery at all times, from the comfort of a boat deck. The most visually stimulating cruises take you places you would have a hard time seeing otherwise.
But as I advised my colleague, my personal recommendation for the hobbling-but-still-upright is a road trip. Regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of behind-the-wheel exploration, which allows a degree of freedom, spontaneity and individualized comfort impossible on an organized tour or city itinerary.
My personal strategy was to put my husband behind the wheel and spend all day seeing lots of interesting things by car: countrysides, mountains, pretty villages with compact plazas at their core, coastlines, even urban neighborhoods.
When I traveled last year on an injured ankle, I had him drop me off, park and come to meet me — at the restaurant, the boutique, or wherever else I wanted to get out and explore. Obviously, this strategy works best with a physically fit companion who is willing to do at least some of the driving. In a larger party, the less mobile can take a seat at a café, survey the passing crowd and wait while companions stroll and sightsee.
Coastal drives are particularly fun because you don’t feel you’re compromising by not walking. While you miss a lot in a city by not being able to walk its neighborhoods, the best low-impact vacations are the ones where you see things sitting down (like Big Sur on California’s Pacific Coast Highway) that you probably couldn’t see any other way.
Eating and drinking well is a big emphasis, taking the place of long walks. Atmospheric places to dine and imbibe allow the scenery to stroll by while you sit and watch. Concerts, live shows, sports events, and other seated entertainments can take the place of wearying museums.
On that note, rural areas with lots of natural scenery to explore are obviously ideal. Out in the countryside, you don’t have to feel guilty about not spending time in big, important, joint-wearying museums. Any sights you encounter are probably skippable — or small enough to do in less time than it takes for that hip to give out.
Europe is great for this because the castle-dotted landscapes are stunning, parking is easy in villages, roads are generally good, and weather is usually decent if you’re far enough south. (One drawback: if your driver is over a certain age, often 75, it can be impossible to rent a car abroad.)
Compensate for winter’s shorter days and limited sightseeing by getting an early start and planning memorable dinners. Southern Spain is a great choice, with mild weather and relatively long days even in midwinter.
The Western United States is another obvious spot: Much of this territory is stunningly scenic, visually diverse and rural enough that you don’t feel you’re missing out by not walking. From the spectacular shorelines and mountains of Southern California to the Arizona desert highways and the frontier towns of New Mexico, this region was designed for the car.
And if you fall in love with a walking-friendly town, take notes and plan to come back.