Tag Archives: beach

A Four-Day Vacation With My Former Self

There appears to be three primary reasons people fly to Florida: to visit an elderly relative, to attend the funeral of an elderly relative, or to party on the beach. On the flight home, I sat between two people returning from two different funerals. At age 42, I can proudly say I was the one who had partied on the beach.

I use the word “party” loosely. I couldn’t hold my drink then and I can’t hold it now. While sunbathing in my SPF-50 long-sleeved rashguard on Siesta Key, I barely drank my daiquiri, some ruby-colored concoction that melted the second it was made (I’m discovering I’m a high-end tequila gal, anyway). Everyone else looked leathery and was gulping down what looked like cheap beer or neon-colored drinks like mine. On the beach, I scuttled toward any bit of shade, like some frightened crab eager for protection. I’m not getting any younger, and have somehow remained wrinkle-free, like some freshly laundered white Oxford shirt. In fact, I received a few compliments on my clear complexion while visiting Florida last week and at first, I thought “What the hell? Are the labels on my overpriced skin care products actually true?” Then I looked around at all the raisins in the sun.

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So what brought me to Bradenton, Florida? Me and my mates from college try to meet up every few years to just hang and reconnect. Without planning for it, this trip fell almost exactly 20 years after our college graduation. Our last jaunt was to Savannah, Georgia, in 2012, so it was good to get everyone together again; our chemistry as a group is something I’d snort and sell because it’s so special. Come to think of it, we meet up in the Southeast frequently and I have no idea why. We’ve met up in Savannah twice and New Orleans twice. One year, they threw me a bridal shower in New Orleans’ delightfully spectral French Quarter, a fantastic time in which I received far too many skimpy pieces of lingerie, drank lemonade that could trigger diabetes, and danced with an eighty-something-year-old man who had some serious sweet moves.

Now we’re all a decade or more into marriages and mortgages, some of us have kids and menageries of pets, some of us are already talking early retirement, because, Holy Crap! the mid-fifties are closer than we care to acknowledge. We’re scattered across the United States, one in Los Angeles, one in Kansas City, one in Washington, DC, one in my hometown of Rochester, NY, and then me. This past winter we were all bitching about the cold, Florida came up in the conversation, and one of us mentioned her mom’s friend’s place in Bradenton where this friend’s mom’s friend snowbirds with her husband. My advice to you, at any age: when a friend’s mom’s friend says “Hey, I’ve got a house in Florida you can use!” you show up. No matter where it is. Just go.

For four days, we hung out in a house about twice as big as mine and purchased at less than half the price because everything is bigger and cheaper outside the New York City region. I was grateful the house wasn’t decorated in the aquamarine-seashell kitsch I expect of Florida. I sipped morning coffee on a lanai—a word I never get to use in the Northeast—while watching lizards dart everywhere. We affectionately referred to the area as “Del Boca Vista” (a Seinfeld reference for those of you who came of age after 1998). Next to the visiting grandchildren, we were indeed the youngest in the ‘hood. The best perk—besides being almost free—was that the house stood just feet away from a beautiful, inground pool—a Florida backyard staple—where the water temperature never dropped below 80. Every day, my friends and I sat in the pool until our skin pruned. The pool was where we chatted bluntly for hours about everything under that unforgiving Florida sun because that’s what you can do with friends who have known you since you were 18; you can say anything, anytime. That’s why we do these trips.

I’ve always been sensitive to my environment, and was worried Florida would get under my skin and make me feel old before my time. The exact opposite happened. If anything, hanging with my college friends made me feel 20 again. We blasted the Gin Blossoms in the car. We gossiped. We compared notes on sex. No one counted calories because no one cared.

Which made driving around Bradenton a little weird because the town, like the rest of Florida, had its fair share of funeral homes, and since I was the one skipping the second daiquiri to drive three forty-something women around town, I noticed these things.

But the area surprised me, too. We encountered Loggerhead turtle eggs on the beach. I ate fish tacos that were almost as good as the ones I ate in Mexico. We visited Bradenton’s quirky, thriving arts community where we bought the same kind of funky jewelry we used to buy 20 years ago. It wasn’t all Winn-Dixies and funeral homes; there was a heartbeat in Bradenton that was still going strong. The Del Boca Vistas in America may be cookie-cutter, but they haven’t flatlined. In fact, they’re oddly rejuvenating.

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By the time I boarded my flight home, I realized I’d had a Doctor Who moment. Yes, Florida is strange—the crazy aunt of the Continental 48, as someone once said—but I had enjoyed time travel. While in Bradenton with my college friends, I got to revisit the old me, which is still vocal, chugging along, and dropping a few too many f-bombs, but is also occasionally overshadowed by the forty-something stuff, which is to be expected. We can’t be 20 forever. Yet it was fun to fly alone. I wore artsy jewelry and bought a $12 dress at some secondhand shop (though I think the term is “upcycled” now). I didn’t feel like a suburban hausfrau. I went four days without talking to a neighbor about school districts, property taxes or who has what disease (their favorite topics, not mine; I’d rather talk about books, but no one in my zip code reads for pleasure). I was just Kate, the blonde woman blessed with good skin tone who always loved to travel but hated to fly, the girl who never could hold her liquor, the one working on a novel, listening to the Gin Blossoms.

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What the Whales Know

It was 10 o’clock in the morning on a stretch of beach long vacated by tourists. The tide hadn’t come in yet and there were spits of sand surrounded by water the kids called “islands” that they would chase after with their plastic toys, laughing while the waves gently pushed them back. The forecast was perfect for a last Saturday in September: upper 70s, abundant sunshine, barely any breeze. Just stillness.

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By lunch, the beach had filled up, but that was okay. By lunch, we were willing to share our slice of heaven with strangers. Mayflower Beach in Cape Cod is pristine, far from any boardwalk or ferris wheel or fried dough vendor. The sand felt powdery under my feet. I hadn’t felt sand like that in ages. I went walking on it and walked for so long I lost track of how far away I had gone from our little stakeout of blankets and chairs and our confetti-colored beach umbrella that had disappeared from my view.

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We enjoyed a picnic of lobster rolls and lemonade that afternoon and while slathering myself with SPF 50 for the umpteenth time, I decided that late September would be beach time going forward. Fewer people. Cheaper hotel rates. Quiet. Beaches as the calm respite they once were, not beaches the way Atlantic City had twisted them.

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Beyond the beach, Cape Cod had its tchotchke shops with too many Chinese-imported souvenirs praising the sea and the toothy Kennedys. Beyond the usual tourist trappings though are flickers of Old Cape Cod, the ones fishermen families probably enjoyed before being overrun by chunky pale people from Boston and New York. While sitting on the beach I began to think of Cape Cod’s mysteries and stories. I’d like to explore more of Cape Cod once the summer beachgoers are gone, when it’s quiet and lines for ordering a lobster roll aren’t long. I’d like to see what the Cape Cod old timers saw. They probably knew humpback whales had horrible halitosis or that the tide buried sandcastles in minutes not hours. They probably knew the lighthouse signatures–the sequence of light flashes that were specific to each lighthouse and that helped ships identify where they were. They probably knew that past the powdery sand were hundreds and hundreds of splintered ships, wrecked by rocks and bad weather and bad luck.

Cape Cod is a cemetery, though this part is hard to see amid all the colorful, charming seaside shops and restaurants. But it’s a beautiful cemetery like St. Bonaventure in Savannah, Georgia, or the bright, cheery cemeteries in Mexico. The area was once dubbed “the graveyard of the Atlantic,” for throughout colonial times and even well into the first half of the 20th century, ships plowed right into the Massachusetts coast. You see glimpses of these losses throughout the region, that despite the deceptive beauty of the Massachusetts’ shoreline, you see how the sea was a very dangerous place, a message romanticized in souvenir shops. Men just disappeared. And the whales could not help them. My guess is the whales, those coy humpbacks and minkes with the bad breath, waving their tails for the tourists’ cameras, know the Atlantic’s secrets. They know who lost what, who ended their days at sea, where the treasure is buried. But they’re not telling, for perhaps it’s a story we couldn’t bear to hear.

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The Right Stuff

Dominique Browning is right: “souvenir” is a beautiful word and purchases made while traveling are definitely souvenirs, not stuff. “Stuff” sounds exactly like what it is: bulky, awkward, unnecessary. Stuff is what you buy at Target and then pack off to Good Will the following year. Stuff is what you trip over. Souvenirs are stories.

The latest souvenir to enter our home is this decorative metal chicken I bought over the weekend in Provincetown, Massachusetts, that spunky speck of land and the fist in the bicep curl that is Cape Cod. I don’t even really eat chicken, but this chicken now guards our cookbooks, including pages explaining how to best prepare that middle American staple: the boring chicken breast.

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Does it have a story? Well, I’ll always look at this bird and think of that gloomy, cardigan day walking around Provincetown and I’ll remember two things: how delicious the lobster rolls were there and the ticket collector at the pirate museum who spoke so passionately about her own metal chicken collection back at her home in Key West, where living, wild chickens roam free. I’m not about to become a collector of anything, certainly not of metal chickens for I’m sure I paid too much for this stupid thing. I later learned it was made in either China or Indonesia so I was disappointed that I had been tricked into buying something I thought was “artisanal,” a word I’m growing tired of but still use probably more than I should. But there is a story in that too; I thought I was buying something artsy in charming Provincetown only to have been tricked into buying another mass-produced tchotchke from China. Yet I was smitten, plastic was swiped, and now there’s a metal chicken in the dining room that brings back seaside chill and nautical New England as well as naive shopping.

This chicken joins savvier travel purchases that have far more individuality: the antler art I bought in Colorado this summer–as artisanal as you can get with deer parts; my painting from Taos–my second-favorite vacation purchase; my metallic sunflower and pig also from Taos; my Buddha from Montreal; my teapot from Kyoto, Japan; and my favorite souvenir of all, the antique fish knife I bought in London fourteen years ago that later became the knife that sliced through our wedding cake and birthday cakes. And of course there’s a closet full of scarves that represent my globe-trotting.

Oddly, I don’t like it when people give me souvenirs from their trips. Sure, I’ll say “thanks” and do whatever it is I’m supposed to do with the souvenir that was given to me, but this trinket wasn’t my experience–it was theirs. I have no memory of a lovely family vacation with this object; there’s no story to share over that third glass of wine. When I travel, I want to collect stories. Every time I bring out the antique fish knife I purchased in Notting Hill in London, I remember the argument Mike and I had at the Churchill Hills Arm pub next door. We sat under a collection of chamber pots suspended from the ceiling and bickered. We had been engaged for just a few days. Mike, who had just dropped some serious coin on an engagement ring, didn’t want to blow $250 USD on some random fish knife serving set that dated from 1910. The antiques dealer wouldn’t sell me the knife separately, since I wanted that knife for our wedding cake, and Mike thought it was stupid to pay for a fork and knife set when we would only use the knife, which wasn’t even meant to cut cake in the first place. I loved his practicality even then. The more we argued, the more I fell in love with that fish knife. “Think of what a great story this would be for our kids!” I had said. And it was, retold countless times with my version, Mike’s version and the version told by both of us at the same time where our sentences overlapped. Had someone given us that fish knife as a wedding gift it would not have meant as much.

This past weekend, as I browsed shops along Provincetown, I texted Mike to let him know I was wrapping up and would meet up with him and our kid; they were several doors down the street perusing a game shop. I told him I had just bought a metal chicken. He texted back “Of course you did.” We don’t argue about such things anymore. Back in our hotel room, I shared this story with Mike. It’s about a wife who brought home a five-foot metal chicken and left it at the front door for her husband to find. So as I reminded Mike, it could be worse. And besides, Anna has already laid claim to the antlers and chicken to decorate her first apartment, so there will be opportunities to declutter. Sure, she’s in elementary school right now, but she’s already developing an eye for quirky art. One day, she’ll point to those antlers from Colorado or the metal chicken from Massachusetts by way of China, and tell her roommates stories about traveling with her parents. Her roommates will either roll their eyes or nod in agreement that Anna’s mother is indeed one of the coolest people on the planet. And the stories behind these souvenirs will live on.

Feeling Small in Big Sur

Big Sur is unforgiving. I could wax poetic and quote those before me about its striking coastline hand carved by the Creator, how it’s the most amazing place where land meets sea, how it’s the Earth as God intended. And all of those things are true. But after a few days on the Creator’s coastline I walked away humbled by Big Sur’s bigness. The Spanish called this stretch of wild “the big country in the south,” but as you drive and hike further in, you see how quickly the land overshadows its name.

The cliffs, the mountains, the redwoods, the stretch of blue that is sometimes sea and sometimes sky–it’s all big. This is a place that just got electricity en masse only about 60 years ago because the land is barely habitable–so much of the parks and attractions there are named after those resilient enough to stick around. This is a place relatively under-developed in our over-developed world because getting people, let alone materials, in and out of there is a feat. This is a place where signs read “Sensitive Habitat,” suggesting Big Sur is about to crumble into the Pacific at any moment from the simple mistake of a mountain lion or a tourist drunk on Chardonnay stepping somewhere slippery and suddenly there’s a mudslide sending everyone over.

It’s silly to say words can’t describe this landscape, but, um, words can’t describe this landscape (though I will try). Fly to California, rent a car from San Francisco (or if you feeling ambitious, Los Angeles), and drive the Pacific Coast Highway, fondly known by the locals as the PCH. Sometimes the PCH is lined with guard rails. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the road runs right along a curvy cliff with a thousand-foot drop to the ocean. Sometimes it’s straight. But this is California, so take it easy, and take advantage of the multiple turnouts where you can pull over, give the white knuckles a rest from the steering wheel, breathe deeply and soak in what all that Creator talk and fussin’ are about. Big Sur is 90 miles of coastline so there’s plenty of opportunity. There are plants that look like feather dusters. Pink lilies grow along the sides of cliffs. The ground looks lush and parched all at the same time. The beaches are jagged in some areas, smooth in others. Make sure you have enough battery power in your iPhones and cameras because every moment spent in Big Sur is photogenic.

Where to Stay:

We stayed at Glen Oaks Big Sur, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s now my go-to destination for lodging there. It’s not cheap. And it doesn’t serve breakfast (though you can walk next door to the River Inn Cafe for awesome French toast or huevos rancheros). So why do I like it? The vibe. Yep. I pay for good vibe. Glen Oaks offers bucolic serenity with rustic modern flair. This place just oozed California cool to me with its Eames plastic chairs and sustainable hardwood bathrooms (my daughter particularly enjoyed the bathroom floor warming option). Every room has a fireplace, and the nights are cold there, even in late August. Other perks include orange yoga mats tucked in closets and, for $15, you can grab a bucket of marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers and sit by their gas-powered fire and listen to the Big Sur night rise. Sun salutations in the morning, sticky gooey campfire snacks at night. And then gorgeous hiking and beach time in between. Definitely get plenty of rest wherever you stay because when you get back on the Pacific Coast Highway to navigate your way across Big Sur, you’re quickly reminded who’s in charge on this planet, and, hint, hint, it’s not us.

What to Do:

Hike. Swim. Hug a redwood. Sunbathe. Kite surf. Look at birds. Watch elephant seals. Take pictures of wildflowers. Need I say more? Traveling with an eight-year-old, we kept the hiking light (nothing too vertical) and pursued very accessible trails at Andrew Molera State Park or spent time at the lovely Pfeiffer Beach. Santa Monica is beautiful, but Pfeiffer Beach reminds you what Santa Monica might have looked like when the mission fathers were building their parishes centuries ago. State parks cost a $10 entrance fee and admission is valid at any state park for the day. Pfeiffer Beach cost $5 to enter.

The elephant seals nap on Point Piedras Blancas towards the southern end of the Big Sur stretch. There’s no admission charge, but donations are welcome. Pull over and stand behind the fence while the seals roll around in the sand, bark, swat at flies, and pose for the camera, all from their protected natural habitats.

The little colorful specks here are kite surfers riding the waves at Big Sur.

Where to Eat:

Nepenthe. This cliff side restaurant is handicap-accessible and you can also burn calories before dinner by schlepping up several flights of stairs to the restaurant for an amazing view and a cocktail. There’s also the Phoenix Gift Shop stocked with jewelry made by area artists, books, funky overpriced decorative objects, and a clawfoot bathtub filled with goldfish. (I bought some souvenir bling.) The shopping is downstairs, the dining is upstairs. Since we were dining on a cliff, our daughter’s crayons kept rolling off the table, but thankfully our food did not. Everything was phenomenally good so order whatever–it will be delicious. My favorite part was the detailed story about the goat cheese wedge on our cheese plate. Our waitress thoughtfully explained to us how the goat was milked once in the morning when the fog was rolling out and then that very same goat was milked again at night as the fog rolled in; the milk remained separated and made into cheese that was then separated by a layer of ash. I couldn’t taste the difference between cheese made with morning milk and cheese made with evening milk, but the story and the waitress’s earnestness made me love California even more.

The view at Nephenthe, a great place to enjoy goat cheese with locally made wine:

And the fish in the bathtub. Now I know what to do with our antique spare clawfoot bathtub (yes, we own two):

Beach Bumming–Jersey Style

I moved to New Jersey on January 10, 2004, one of the coldest days of that winter, and five and a half years later, I still feel like a stranger in a strange land, especially when summer circles around. That’s the time of year when people go to the “shore” to enjoy some “pie,” a thought that conjures up an image of shipwrecked sailors breathlessly reaching land to enjoy crusted tarts filled with fruit.

Not so in New Jersey. The “shore” is the beach and “pie” is pizza–usually pretty good pizza too (Garden State pizza rocks from Fort Lee to Camden!). Since Anna was born here and I’m raising a Jersey girl, I felt it was important to give her the Jersey Shore experience we had heard and read so much about. I approached the trip with an anthropological curiosity–exactly what was the Jersey Shore experience and what kept people coming back summer after summer? To answer my own question, we spent three days in Point Pleasant and now I can officially say to my kid “Remember that summer we took you to the Shore?” and she’ll immediately know what I’m talking about and won’t confuse it with the other “shores” that we have visited, which include Jamaica’s, Galapagos Islands’, Maine’s, and Santa Monica’s.

The White Sands oceanfront hotel is the classic Jersey Shore family getaway. I would have readily booked a room at anyplace called Clean Sands Hotel, but no such facility was to be found. White Sands had a private beach and a pool and quite frankly, when it is 90 degrees out everyday, that’s really all you need.

One look at the swimming pool at 2 pm and you knew this is where people came to forget about their angst and agony for it was far more packed than the Garden State Parkway on a Sunday night. Competition for the perfect poolside lounging spot was ferocious–people staked their claims early and remained very territorial throughout the day. I questioned the strength of the chlorine used in this pool, but that’s another blog for another day. It might simply have been that there were too many people bobbing around this pool for the chlorine to have been effective.

The pool was also filled with more Anthonys and AJs than I cared to count–rambunctious boys who constantly swam into me and were frequently yelled at from beneath a cabana umbrella by irate-looking women with fierce French manicures. Mike and I concluded after this trip that Anna is not allowed to date anyone named Anthony or AJ (Anthony Junior for you out-of-towners) if he is born in New Jersey. I have a feeling boys named Anthony or AJ who come from say, Ohio, or perhaps Nebraska, are far more low-key.

I’m sure the Boardwalk in Point Pleasant is full of Anthonys and AJs, too, but they weren’t plowing into us, which made the Boardwalk a much more charming experience. Jenkinson’s Boardwalk is where it’s at every Tuesday because it’s all the rides your stomach can handle between noon and 6 pm for only $15. My stomach can’t handle much of anything, so Mike boarded every tugboat, swing, tilt-a-whirl, and rollercoaster that made our kid’s eyes light up. I watched from the sidelines and worked on my tan, which is now a burn. I loved that Anna referred to the Boardwalk as “the carnival” and pie as “pizza.” I pointed to the sand and surf and asked her what it was. She replied, “the beach” and I knew she was mine.

When the sun gets to be too much–and it will–the best place to enjoy air-conditioning is inside Jenkinson’s Aquarium, which for $26 for the three of us, was exceptionally delightful. I’ll admit there’s something unusual about admiring the beauty and grace of creatures you enjoy fried with a side of french fries, but that’s the luxury of sitting at the top of the food chain–you get to look down.

On the subject of food, Boardwalk food is good when you’re in the mood for it, but after two days of chili dogs, cotton candy, pizza slices, and lemonade, I desperately needed a salad and some fresh fish not coated in yesterday’s lard. So we ventured beyond the Boardwalk’s borders to Belmar, Spring Lake, and Neptune to see what else the Jersey Shore had to offer. Mike was disappointed by the local cuisine, but this isn’t gastronomy country. This is where people work up an appetite boogie boarding by day so they can nosh on pie by night. I have never seen so many pizzerias in my life and I’ve been to Italy. Unlike Mike, I enjoyed the lack of surprise in my food. I wanted to unwind and didn’t want to bite into anything experimental. Point Pleasant’s Red’s Lobster Pot served up fantastic plates of fish -n- chips and coconut shrimp. Yes, it’s been done, but it was done well at Red’s and I inhaled every morsel and managed to not dribble any tartar sauce on my favorite orange dress.

All in all, the Jersey Shore was a colorful family vacation. I may not be as tatooed as everyone else on the beach, but I can still wear a bikini without shame–and, really, that’s all the motivation I need to stop me from gorging on Oreos through the winter until the next bathing suit season. Mike enjoyed Boardwalk food without getting an upset stomach. Anna collected seashells, rode rides, and consumed a vacation’s worth of junk food and also managed to avoid an upset stomach.

So what exactly is the Jersey Shore experience? I’m still not entirely sure and may need to return to do more research. I do know it involves a lot of sugar, sunscreen with an SPF of 50, French manicures, tatoos, and kids named Anthony causing trouble. Will we come back someday? Absolutely.

Epilogue: Anna developed gastritis from what we suspect was the hotel pool water. It did feel, um, unclean. I blame Anthony and AJ. She threw up all night and then managed to start the first day of the kindergarten hours later without issue. We think she’ll do fine in college.