My partner and I love to travel. We met in Ecuador, and he described New Zealand to me as the most beautiful place on earth. He wasn't wrong. When we visited together, it was paradise and I immediately started working at getting my residency.
It wasn't long before we decided to start a family. We knew our days of freedom and spontaneity were about to change, but not in the way we'd imagined. Our journey took us unexpectedly into a whole new world.
Our first child, Finlay, was born with cerebral palsy, a brain disorder that affected him physically, leaving him fully dependent on a powerchair for his mobility.
Accessible travel and inclusive tourism were phrases I'd never come across before. Now, 15 years and two kids later, they have become paramount to our travels. Being in love with the outdoors and travel has meant educating others about our access needs. This led me to become a passionate travel blogger and advocate for barrier-free travel.
The biggest obstacles
One of our first challenges to getting away is finding wheelchair- and family-friendly accommodation. Finlay is unable to self-transfer or sit without a great deal of support, so as a family, we travel with a lot of assistive equipment. This includes a mobile hoist for transfers, a beach wheelchair, a suitcase ramp, a shower commode and a high-top van with a rear-entry hoist providing entry for Finlay and his powerchair.
There are many families just like ours in New Zealand, all wanting to travel and get around. The majority of us like to find ourselves a base, stay for longer and explore from there. Fully accessible holiday houses and two-bedroom apartments are in hot demand as they are hard to source. They rarely tick all our access needs so we have to learn to adapt.
Toilet stops on road trips
Unfortunately, accessible public toilets don't accommodate our son's needs - we need fully accessible bathrooms that cater to those who are unable to self-transfer on to a standard accessible toilet.
Changing Places are fully accessible public facilities, which cater to people with multiple or complex disabilities. They include hoists, privacy screens and room for caregivers. In the UK, there more than 1200 Changing Places, and dozens are found across Australia. Currently New Zealand has just two - one in Westfield Mall, Newmarket, and the other in Hamilton Gardens.
Planning is essential
Before our family travels, we need to plan meticulously before we leave home, as factoring in wheelchair access can limit your choices and family inclusion. After all, you wouldn't book a whale-watching cruise in Kaikoura before checking that you can wheel on to the boat.
We find there that in New Zealand, many activity providers have the good old Kiwi "can-do" attitude to wheelchair access. It might be they can lift you and your wheelchair onboard - that's okay for some, but not when your powerchair weighs a ton. How accessible is viewing those whales once you're onboard? These are all things to know before you fork out all that money and take that leap of faith.
An accessible family holiday to the Coromandel
Our family recently did a roadie to the stunning Coromandel. We stayed for three nights in an awesome three-bedroom wheelchair accessible chalet at Flaxmill Bay, a five-minute ferry ride from Whitianga.
The chalet was wheeling distance from the beach and accessible to a range of bush tracks. It boasted an extensive deck out front, and a gradual ramp leading to wide-opening ranch sliders. It had step-free access, a wet-floor shower and well-equipped kitchen. Parking was right out front so we didn't have far to wheel all our equipment in. The Eggsentric Cafe & Restaurant, is wheelchair accessible and was only a five-minute wheel away. Live music, wholesome food and good company.
In the area we checked out beach wheelchair accessibility at Hot Water Beach. Certainly, no easy feat, but we did discover a shorter route to access the hot water.
At Coromandel Town, we visited the quirky Waterworks Theme Park. We hadn't laughed so much as a family in ages. The grandparents took to the water hole, the cafe offered good wheelchair access, and there was lots to look at. Consider bringing your own picnic as there is so much to do and see you could easily spend the day.
Another must-do in the area is the Driving Creek Railway. It's an absolute treat navigating tunnels, native bush and track changes whilst listening to stories of how the railway came about.
Tips on booking accessible accommodation
1. Book direct as accessibility filters are generally unreliable on booking sites.
2. Ask lots of questions on your access needs.
3. Request photos as backup.
4. Know the width of your chair.
5. Check door widths.
Kimberly Graham is an accessible travel writer and advocate. To read more about her family trip to the Coromandel, and her family's other adventures around New Zealand, visit grabyourwheels.nz
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com