by Brenda Dillon

Have you ever wished that you could go on a really neat vacation? Have you grown tired of waiting around for family or friends to invite you along with them? I have, and after many frustrating years of waiting around and hearing about everybody else's fun travels, I decided to do something about it!!

I have little more than light perception and my husband, Dan, is totally blind. We both love to travel and in the past four years have done quite a bit! We took our first trip to a nice resort in Myrtle Beach. With restaurants, shops, the beach and a pool and a lazy river just beyond our door, it was pretty easy to access everything.

Our next challenge was a trip to an all-inclusive resort in Cancun. They treated us like royalty there and even had a staff person take us in the hotel van to the open market for some great bargains. We also went on a speedboat excursion, and aside from the language barrier between us and the guide, we thoroughly enjoyed that outing as well! He gave us a thrilling ride over the waves, but was a little lacking in describing the scenery. At the resort itself, the staff could not have been more accommodating. We were able to participate in casino night, enjoyed sampling the many and varied drinks at the swim-up bar and lounged on the beach along with all the other tourists. Our sombreros were definitely off to the staff there!

Our third venture was a four-day visit to Washington, D.C. I did a lot of research ahead of time and arranged for guides and docents at each stop along the way. We decided rather than fly both ways, it would be fun to take the train with a deluxe sleeper compartment. That was an experience we will never forget. The accommodations were compact but quite comfortable. The food was really good! There were several music and movie selections available in your room. Anyway, after an overnight trip from Birmingham, Ala., we arrived in D.C. rested and ready to tackle our jam-packed itinerary. We had a photo session with then-Rep. Bob Clement and Sen. Bill Frist. Their staffs were so friendly!

We had a guided tour of the Capitol with many hands-on opportunities. I was especially impressed with the huge tactile map of the whole area complete with streets, buildings, etc. We also visited the Supreme Court building and ended our first day by observing Congress in session.

We started out the second day at the Air and Space Museum, where our docent just happened to be a pilot herself and pointed out details others might have overlooked. She had gotten special permission to take us behind roped-off areas to get a quick touch of some rare items. We then visited the Renwick Gallery for a wood-turning exhibit. They had a tactile kit with various pieces to examine as the rough hunk of wood step by step evolved into a beautiful vase. This was particularly fascinating for Dan, who does woodworking himself. Our last stop that day was at the Museum of American History. Our docent there also allowed us to touch things behind roped-off areas. There was so much to see that we could have spent a few days there, rather than a few hours!

On our third day, we took a narrated riverboat ride up the Potomac to Mount Vernon, where a guide met us at the dock and took us on an extensive tour of the house and grounds. There were not as many opportunities for hands-on there as we would have liked, but it was interesting to hear of the personal experiences of our guide, who worked at the White House as a corresponding secretary. That night we had the privilege of seeing "Shear Madness," a long-running comedy at the Kennedy Center, complete with our own personal audio narrator. This was our first experience with this luxury, but definitely not our last!!

On our final day, we got an early start by visiting the White House Visitors' Center. Unfortunately, the White House was closed to tourists because of 9/11. Our guide did such a great job describing things behind glass, it was almost as good as getting to touch them. We met another volunteer at Arlington National Cemetery and stopped at many well-known sites there. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with the changing of the guard was a moving experience! We then visited the F.D.R. Memorial, which I found to be the most tactile stop of all. There is lots of braille and images embossed on the walls as well as many statues to examine. The thin figures in the bread line left a lasting impression on me!

We visited several other memorials, including the Korean and Vietnam walls. How awesome! The park ranger who accompanied us up in the Washington Monument did a wonderful job describing the scenery from all four sides, as well as many of the items in display cases. Our visit to D.C. was truly a history lesson we'll never forget!

Our next thrilling vacation was a Caribbean cruise aboard the Grande Princess. After a brief orientation, we were able to move about on the ship with confidence and only occasionally had to ask for assistance. Our cabin steward would read the list of daily activities onto our microcassette recorder so we could decide as the day progressed what fun thing we wanted to do next. We won numerous prizes at the trivia games, played bingo with our braille cards (although we never did win at that game), participated in karaoke and were invited to be in the talent show. It is true what you've heard about the food being absolutely incredible! We made arrangements ahead of time for our shore excursions and had a blast!

Our most recent travels took us to a place I had always dreamed of visiting: beautiful Hawaii! After much research, we chose to stay at the Hilton Hawaiian Village on Waikiki. Although it is a huge resort with 90 shops and boutiques, 22 restaurants, and numerous daily activities and nightly entertainment, we were assured by the director of guest services that we would be provided any assistance we needed. We were delighted to discover that we had been assigned to a corner room with two balconies overlooking the ocean. We were given a thorough orientation upon our arrival and were able to get to some destinations independently.

When we did need assistance, a phone call brought help. They have carts to transport people (not just disabled) around the resort. When we wanted to go on the beach we would get someone to walk us to a spot near the water to put our blanket along with our audible locator in our beach bag. We'd arrange for someone to come back in a couple of hours to assist us through the crowd of sunbathers back to the building. Let's face it, whether you touch an unsuspecting person with your foot or your cane it's a bit intrusive, so we opted to avoid this possibility by just tipping generously for assistance. We went speed-sailing and attended a luau at Paradise Cove, where a guide described costumes, explained traditions and arranged for us to hold the unique Hawaiian instruments used in the dances. It was a most enlightening evening, including the food, dancing, and other ceremonies. Dan especially enjoyed the visit to the USS Missouri. We were allowed to touch everything from guns, shells, bunks (I don't know how they ever slept stacked that close together!), and many other things. Our personal guide was a wealth of knowledge. We saw the Don Ho show!!

We participated in activities like fresh flower lei making, ukulele lessons, lau hala weaving, etc. I could go on and on about the many interesting things we did while in Hawaii and all the other places, but space is limited and the most important thing I want to share is the thrill of being able to go anywhere anytime you want to. With a little research ahead of time, some pre-planning, and a generous amount of courtesy and tip money, a blind person can have a fabulous vacation experience!! We have found people to be friendly and eager to assist; all you have to do is ask. Keep your expectations reasonable and you shouldn't be disappointed. Remember, a smile is the same in any language. Life is simply too short to sit around waiting. Go wherever your dreams may take you, and have fun! It's not as hard as you might think!

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