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Weekend Escape: Santa Barbara

Good Times Roll

Putting together a hassle-free birthday celebration in a city where wheelchairs are accommodated

September 07, 1997|JOANNA M. MILLER | Miller is a freelance writer based in Simi Valley

SANTA BARBARA — Perched in the blue nylon seat of the beach wheelchair with its bulbous plastic tires touching the surf, Penny braced for the coming wave. She held her young nephews close while her daughter gripped the chair's handles.

The wave crested and crashed, washing foam over their feet, momentarily setting the chair afloat and sending all four into peals of giggles and squeals.

Carpinteria State Beach, and the wonderful wheelchairs available here and at only half a dozen other California spots, were part of a terrific and mostly wheelchair-accessible weekend to celebrate my sister's 50th birthday.

Our Santa Barbara-area splurge included pampering at one of the city's most posh and stately 1920s-era hotels, retrofitted in the last 10 years to accommodate guests on wheels. We dined at a restaurant in a charming old downtown location that featured a wheelchair lift to overcome steps. Although we could not find a cab equipped with a lift that didn't require preregistration or cost a fortune, we did find handicapped parking in town. And there was the great day at the beach.

Pen, who has been in a wheelchair since she had polio as a 6-year-old in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has always been my hero, friend, supporter and even surrogate mom when we were growing up. For her birthday, I wanted to pay back a little. I first planned a trip to one of her favorite cities, San Francisco.

But despite remarkable improvements in public handicapped accessibility, we found, as we did when we were kids, that there still are obstacles for people navigating the world in wheelchairs.

They start with hotel reservations, which for wheelchair-accessible rooms can't be made through 800 numbers, but require a direct call to the property--and carry through to airlines requiring wheelchair disassembly, and a lack of ground shuttles or cabs with lifts. So we reset our sights on Santa Barbara, which required neither flights nor airport shuttles, and set off for a weekend that probably would have been off limits to us even 10 years ago.

Pen took a few days off from her job as a discharge interviewer at University Medical Center in Fresno, and she and her 10-year-old daughter Holly headed west in Penny's specially equipped van, leaving her husband and Holly's older brothers at home. They met me at my home in Simi Valley, where we left my husband, Mike, to take care of Holly and our two boys.

Pulling into the lushly landscaped grounds of the Four Seasons Biltmore, we declined the valet service and parked in a nearby handicap parking spot.

Built in 1927 on curving, ocean-front Channel Drive, the beautiful Spanish-style Biltmore has been the playground of stars (Michael Jordan was having breakfast in the hotel's Patio Restaurant the Saturday we were there), presidents and anyone who could afford the steep tab. In 1987, the hotel renovated and molded discrete, curving concrete ramps to circumvent steps to the main lobby and the patio dining room and lounge. In the early 1990s, it redesigned five of its 217 rooms to include wider doorways and special showers to accommodate wheelchairs.

Our ground-floor room, with shuttered windows and an extraordinarily comfortable bed at the right height for Pen to get into on her own, was spacious enough to move around in without bumping into furniture.

The bath had a lovely marble floor and two rich terry robes to wrap in. The tub slanted down at an angle, allowing for comfortable soaking as well as easy access for someone needing assistance getting in or out. The shower has no lip around the bottom so that one can roll right up to the fold-down seat; the shower head converts to hand-held.

We enjoyed a glass of champagne in our room, then headed over to the hotel's Expose Salon, where we had booked Penny for an hourlong facial. Thomas, a stylist in the salon, kindly lifted Penny onto the treatment table.

Completely relaxed and with skin "plumped," Pen and I returned to our room to dress for dinner. Santa Barbara's annual street festival known as Fiesta was in town, so we had thought about taking a cab to avoid traffic and parking problems. But when I checked ahead, I found that there were services available for the disadvantaged disabled, but nothing I could find for a person in a wheelchair who just wanted to pay for a cab. Santa Barbara's city buses have lifts, and that's wonderful. But we were looking for something a little more luxe, a little more appropriate for going to dinner.

After extensive phone calls, I found only two transportation companies with lifts. Both required preregistration, a doctor's certificate, and our word that we had no other means of transportation. Or, when the vans weren't otherwise in use, their nonprofit agencies chartered them at $50 per pick-up plus $2 per mile for one of the companies; $25 an hour for the other.

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