Let’s talk accessibility in Iceland with a Contiki fan
Peter McCarthy has been a Contiki traveller for years taking our world by storm with his love of adventure and his can-do attitude. Peter has a neurological condition which affects his walking, but this hasn’t stopped him from taking on each new journey with total enthusiasm.
On his recent travels, he was happily surprised by the accessibility in Iceland for people with disabilities like himself. For such a rugged and wild country that invites hikers and waterfall-chasers from all over, Peter had very little trouble with walking poles. I chatted to Peter about Iceland’s accessibility and his approach to travel and seeing the world and what accessibility means to him.
Hey Peter, what can you tell me about the accessibility in Iceland?
“I’ll start off by saying that when I booked my seat to Iceland on the Fire and Ice trip, I did wonder how my walking impairment would fare in such an outdoorsy country. It was something that was on my mind. But, when I landed in the beautiful capital of Reykjavik, I was surprised to see how accessible everything was.
“Most of the key attractions have step-free access and stuff, like the tower, Hallgrímskirkja, has a lift which takes you half-way up and while the rest are steps, they’re very wide with a lot of room to properly manoeuvre. The waterfalls (amazing!!) are fairly easy to reach as well, though expect to get your feet a little wet!”
What were you most looking forward to in Iceland?
“When I read the trip itinerary I saw that there was a glacier walk and I mean, how could I resist? I knew there would be a few challenges involved, but that actually fueled my ambition more.”
How did you overcome those challenges?
“Bringing the right equipment, first of all. I used crampons on my shoes so as not to slip on the ice, though we all did that. And hiking poles! I was anticipating the entire trip being a little demanding, so I used them a lot throughout. They’re like a super power, they give you great walking balance.
“Communicating and being honest with my Trip Manager, Mike, was really key as well. He was the same Trip Manager I had had on a Norway trip a few years back, so he was already aware and I was happy explaining my situation. Mike let the glacier walk guide team know beforehand and they put me in a smaller group, which meant that I could keep up at a slower, more comfortable pace.
“The guides were really brilliant, as well, I couldn’t fault them at all and they were really understanding of my limitations and wanted to give me the best experience anyway.”
Have you ever felt self-conscious using walking poles?
“With walking poles, I used to be a little embarrassed by them, yes. But my view of them has changed. If having hiking poles gives me the opportunity to have the experiences I want to have then why should I care what people think? That belief has only strengthened as I’ve gotten older as well.”
Image source:Peter McCarthy
What were you most relieved to find out about Iceland when you were there?
“Just the extent of the accessibility in Iceland. Like I said, most of the key tourist attractions were so easy to get to and I was happy that I got to see everything I wanted to see. The black sand beach was awesome and as long as you’re comfortable walking on sand it’s a really easy day trip. Same with the Blue Lagoon, which is a must-see, the accessibility there was fantastic.
“Generally, the itinerary stayed on the beaten track and if and when there were issues the group was really understanding. This has been the case in past Contikis as well. For example, on a Contiki to Amsterdam there was a free-time add on bike tour, and I can’t ride a bike, so I was honest with the Trip Manager and asked him what I could do in the meantime and he gave me some really good recommendations for cafes around the area. It’s about having that flexibility and being able to offer alternatives to people who can’t participate for whatever reason.”
We obviously love group and social travel at Contiki. Do you think travelling in a group is beneficial to you?
“I love social travel for a few reasons. I prefer to spend time in a group and I love the energy it creates, so the idea of meeting people really brings me joy. I’ve been on so many Contikis and made so many connections, I’ve met some of my best friends on trips.
“For me, being in a group is also quite helpful. On my trips there’s generally a few people who notice my condition and they’re always very quick to offer help and say ‘if you need a hand, let me know’ and I appreciate that a lot.”
Do people ever ask questions?
“Sure, people get curious and I don’t have a problem with that. For a lot of people I’m probably the first person with my condition that they’ve seen. As long as people ask respectfully then I’m happy to answer and sometimes it can be a bit of a learning experience as well. If I can spread knowledge and awareness that’s always a good thing. On all my Contiki trips I’ve never come across any hostility either, people have always been super supportive.”
When thinking about accessibility, what’s something you wish more locations would keep in mind?
“Just the fact that disabled people exist, you know? And just keeping our needs in mind when developing new buildings for example. The disabled community makes up 15% of the world’s population, so we’re one of the largest minority groups, but we’re the least represented. To actually be included in conversations would be a big step!
“But, it’s also about the little things. It’s amazing when Trip Manager’s take into account disabilities and go above and beyond to accommodate them. Like, on the Mini Balkan trip, in Croatia, one of the day trips was to a gorgeous lake, and the bus driver got as close to the shore as possible with the bus just so I could do that much less walking.
“Of course, I have to know my own limits as well, there is a sense of personal responsibility. You know, I would never book a seat on most of the Active trips or on the Inca Trail trip because the hike to Machu Picchu would just be too much. But just being kept in mind when projects are being developed, it seems like a small thing but it carries so much value.”
Image source:Peter McCarthy
Of all the things you go to do in Iceland, which was your favourite?
“Oh wow, that’s tricky. It would be hard for me to pick just one waterfall, we saw at least four, and there are more than 10,000 waterfalls in Iceland (according to Google, anyway). But definitely the waterfalls were one of the best views!
“Of course, the glacier was amazing. There’s just something about walking on ice and the experience is up there with one of the best ones I’ve done. I’m very happy to have been able to participate in that.
“Another highlight was the amazing accommodation in Midgard which has a sauna on the roof. Soaking in hot water while watching the Northern Lights – absolute magic!”
You’re a very inspiring person, Peter, and I think there’s a lot to learn from you. But is there anything that you’ve learned through travelling?
“Definitely that travel enables you to push your own boundaries. I always come back from a Contiki being like ‘wow, I never thought I’d do half of that’, and I think one of my favourite memories was on the Ski Austria trip, which is one of my favourite trips. I was able to ski with the group, and I’ve been back on that trip several times because it’s nice to be able to go back somewhere and see the progression.
“In terms of accessibility, the accessibility in Iceland makes me hopeful that other countries and activities are the same. So, travel for me, is also about being able to educate myself and open my eyes to new things, as well as educating other people and opening their eyes as well.”