The Shell Seekers

I like shells. I have a bowl of shells on a table in my office, and whenever I take a beach vacation, I try to bring home a shell or three from my trip to add to the collection. Looking at the bowl reminds me of happy hours walking on beaches.

The beach on Sanibel Island facing the Gulf of Mexico is a haven for shell seekers. You see dozens as you walk past. They’re always moving slowly, staring intently at the sand, bending and stooping to get a closer look at the shells deposited by the surf, always searching for that one, perfect shell that other shell seekers may not have noticed.

For the shell seekers, the pickings are good on this beach. As the photo below reflects, the volume of shells is extraordinary; in some places it’s like somebody dumped a truckload of shells, and you’d need a shovel to sift through them all. But the shell seekers don’t mind volume. In fact, they welcome it. They’re on a kind of mission, and they’ve got nothing but time.

Uncommon Grace

This lovely snowy egret, white feathers ablaze in the bright sunshine, walks the beach with a stately, deliberate grace and a commanding gaze — its attention all the while directed at the surf, and detecting fish that might be caught unawares.

It’s a beautiful bird. The fact that it’s a ruthless hunter, too, just makes it all the more interesting.

The Pelican, Briefly

On our trip to the beach yesterday we sat next to a tree where a pelican nested briefly. He used his long bill to engage in some personal grooming and then peered out over the bay, surveying his domain. A few seconds and several flaps of his wings later and the pelican was off, skimming a few inches above the water and on the lookout for prey.

The O.B.P.

The Obligatory Beach Photograph (O.B.P. for short) first became part of Americana in the mid-50s.

With the Baby Boom underway, the American economy growing rapidly during the Eisenhower years, and airlines and superhighways making travel easier than ever before, American families were vacationing in record numbers. Often the vacations were beach vacations, and the father of the family, equipped with his Kodak, took the first crude examples of the O.B.P. When the brood returned home, the neighbors were invited over for a slide show after dinner and drinks, and the O.B.P. was displayed to bored viewers to prove that the beach vacation had in fact occurred.

The O.B.P. quickly became ubiquitous. Camera-wielding travelers tried every conceivable angle, technique, and gimmick, even as camera technology advanced, but the O.B.P. endured without material change. It always featured sun, water, palm trees, and sand, without any significant distinguishing characteristics. After all, tropical beaches look pretty much the same, wherever they are found, whether you see them pictured in a slide show, in home movies, or in family photo albums — but by then, the overwhelming expectation that the O.B.P. would be taken left travelers unable to resist.

With the advent of the internet, blogs, and social media, the audience that was required to endure exposure to the O.B.P. widened, and the first creative variation on the O.B.P. in decades was discovered, when photographers decided to position a beer bottle or rum drink in the frame, or took the OB.P. from a chaise lounge so that their crossed feet would be visible at the bottom of the frame. Usually the post included the expression “aah!”

The O.B.P. is here to stay. Long live the O.B.P.!

Beachwalking

I’m a big fan of walking in all of its many forms, but I think I may like beachwalking best of all.

Beachwalking has all of the positive attributes of walking generally — fresh air, exercise, feeling your body get into an almost mechanical rhythm while your mind has the freedom to roam wherever it wants to go. But beachwalking has a number of plus factors, too. It’s pleasantly hot, for one thing. There are soothing surf sounds and seagull cries in the background, rather than traffic noises. You’re barefoot, and you feel warm sand between your toes. And if you’re on the right kind of beach, you can walk for miles, uninterrupted by crossing streets or cars or traffic lights or other reminders of civilization. It’s an opportunity to work yourself into an almost trance-like, zen state.

Yesterday I walked for miles on a basically empty beach, plodding along until I came up to a stone jetty and had to turn around and trod back again. I thought about nothing but sand and sea and the distant goal. It was a wonderful journey.

The Perils Of Plastic

We’re staying at a terrific little beachside resort on Ambergris Caye in Belize.  It offers snug, thatch-roofed cottages, excellent food, a beautiful beach, and an infinity pool, among many other amenities.  Every day, resort workers rake the sand, cart away excess sea grass that has washed ashore, and leave the beach in the pristine, white sand state that resort-goers demand.

Just down the Caye, however, is an unattended section of beach, and here we get a glimpse of the impact of our plastic, disposable, consumer culture.  Belize lies at the western end on the Caribbean, where the prevailing winds blow.  On this section of beach every imaginable bit of disposable debris — a huge range of differently sized bottles, jugs, tubs, bits of strofoam, storage containers, and even soccer balls — have collected on the sand, mingled with the sea grass.  It’s disgusting, and unsightly, but mostly it’s sad.  Whether through thoughtlessness or inadvertence, the human plastic culture has left its ugly mark on an otherwise pretty beach on a fine, sunny morning.  If one small section of beach is bears this gross collection of crap, we can’t really begin to imagine the impact of the junk on the sea as a whole.

Toes In The Sand

IMG_2279Every few years, I want to take a warm weather vacation after the weather turns cold in Ohio.  I want to put toes in the sand, hear the crash and thrum of waves on sand, feel the radiating sunshine pulsing on my bleached white brow, and drink a cold beer while the condensation beads up on the bottle.

I want to see turquoise water against yellow brown sand, sit under a brightly colored beach umbrella or covering made of palm fronds, and read a book in bright sunshine.  I want to walk on the gritty sand, look for an interesting sea shell or two, and watch a sailboat scudding across the waves and framed against the far horizon.

In short, I want to get as far away from my normal day-to-day existence as I possibly can.  This year, the destination is a few stops in the Windward Islands.  We’re on our way.

Vacation Time: Ti Kaye

The beach and bar at Ti Kaye

Kish is very good at spotting interesting places to visit, and she struck gold with Ti Kaye — but at first, it sure didn’t seem that way!

Ti Kaye is a resort on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. St. Lucia is located far to the south, almost to the coast of South America. The island itself is rugged, volcanic, mountainous, and breathtakingly poor. We flew in to the airport at Vieux Fort, at one end of the island, rented a car, and set off to find Ti Kaye. The island, however, has extraordinarily poor roads, featuring bone-jarring potholes and blind turns and lacking any meaningful signs. We drove and drove on twisting roads, past decrepit shacks with corrugated iron roofs, trying to follow complicated directions. At one point, we drove through a tiny hamlet of silent, staring people and apparently starving dogs running through the streets.

The beach at Ti Kaye

The beach at Ti Kaye

Twilight began to fall, and our spirits sank along with the sun. Finally, after it seemed we would never find the right turn, we saw a Ti Kaye sign and turned off the “main” road into a rutted, stony, mostly unpaved driveway. After heading downhill through a narrow tunnel of vegetation — as I wondered what I would do if I saw a car coming in the opposite direction — we came to an apparent dead end. At that point, I felt the red surge of rage that only an exhausted, put-upon, bitterly disappointed traveler can experience. We realized, however, that we apparently were supposed to take a hairpin left turn and drive up a hill, and after we did so we found a slice of nirvana in the form of Ti Kaye Village.

The dining area at Ti Kaye

The dining area at Ti Kaye

Ti Kaye consists of a main building with a bar and dining room and a long, rickety staircase leading down to a small beach that has its own restaurant and bar. The grounds are filled to overflowing with gaily colored tropical plants and rich, deep, almost velvety shade. The guests stay in white wooden cabanas sprinkled throughout the Ti Kaye property. Each cabana has high interior ceilings and slow-moving fans, large beds with white mosquito netting, and fantastic outdoor showers. Our cabana had a long wooden porch with rockers and hammocks, and sitting on that porch first thing in the morning, reading a book and drinking a strong cup of coffee, was a glorious experience.

The front porch of a Ti Kaye cabana

The front porch of a Ti Kaye cabana

The food at Ti Kaye was fabulous and the staff were wonderful. We stayed there over Christmas and New Year, and they worked very hard to impart holiday cheer and good humor. Our days were long and languid, as we were content to stay on the grounds reading, sunning, and enjoying the excellent Ti Kaye hospitality. Like any good Caribbean island, St. Lucia has its own local beer, called Piton, and it was very fine indeed to sit on the Ti Kaye beach in the blazing sunshine, nursing a Piton and enjoying a good beach book. We also did some snorkeling in the little harbor and watched as cruise ships and large white-masted vessels sailed majestically past.

Our only bad experiences on the trip, in fact, came when we left the Ti Kaye grounds. We went to Soufriere, where one of the locals named Simon volunteered to be our guide, stuck to us like glue while we went to the ho-hum hot springs and volcano basin, and then angrily expected us to pay him an arm and a leg for the experience. We also went to Castries, the largest city on the island, where there was a pretty standard Caribbean market and lots of people trying to sell us trinkets. So we gladly beat a retreat to the friendly confines of Ti Kaye, cracked open a cold Piton, and had one of the wait staff smile widely, shake her head slightly and say: “Daddy be drinking!” And, magically, all was well once more.

Vacation Time

President Obama and his family have left Washington, D.C. for a 10-day vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. From the descriptions in the press, it sounds like he will have a pretty good vacation, where he will play a lot of golf and spend time with his family. In fact, it appears that President Obama will comply with most of my five rules of thumb for a good vacation:

1. Leave your immediate area for somewhere new — There is no such thing as a really relaxing “staycation.” You don’t get out of your normal schedule, people at work don’t feel like it is that big of a deal to give you a call, and it is much too easy to slip back into the office for a quick phone call.

A scene from Marthas Vineyard

A scene from Martha's Vineyard

2. Go somewhere near water — Don’t ask me exactly why, but for most of us landlocked Midwesterners being near water immediately puts us into a more relaxed vacation frame of mind. (Of course, the fact that water also tends to go along with sun, beaches, waterfront bars, and cold adult beverages may help.)

3. Plan to do things on your vacation that are out of the norm distractions — President Obama plans to play golf, which is a good idea. It is impossible to play golf — or, at least, play it with any tiny degree of success — when you are thinking about anything other than your next shot. I like going somewhere where there are antiquities to see or interesting museums to visit for the same reason, because I tend to get immersed in the new things I am seeing.

4. Eat things you don’t normally eat — It might be pancakes for breakfast, or fresh seafood, or some kind of regional cuisine, but if you change your eating patterns and try something different, it helps to put you in that relaxed frame of mind.

5. Leave lots of time for family meals and talks — We’ve taken some great vacations as a family, and all of them featured relaxed time where we get a chance to talk more than we do normally. Often it is over a meal, or as we are driving to the next stop on the itinerary. Many of my most treasured vacation memories just involve being with Kish and the boys at some specific location, like eating shaved flavored ice in the town square of Assisi as the sun sets, or having a loose meat cheeseburger at a Maid-Rite restaurant in a small Iowa town.

Have a great vacation, Mr. President! You deserve a break.