by Janice Nigro
We can probably all agree that there are different types of vacations. For me, there are dive vacations, work related vacations, weekend vacations, European vacations, and family reunion types of vacations. Some require a lot of planning and suitcases filled with ridiculous amounts of stuff to get me there (or sometimes to get me back).
But if you can put the words comfort and vacation together, then I have a new one-the comfort vacation. A comfort vacation is the kind that brings us back psychologically to those safe moments from our childhoods, like comfort food after a bad day at work.
My comfort vacation is Florida. I can’t help it. My parents used to take all four of us there every year at Christmas. Usually to the east coast of Florida, Ft. Lauderdale or somewhere just to the north. I don’t know how it was for my parents, but those holidays were something I never forgot.
One of my earliest memories of any vacation was being set free on Miami Beach to run and meet the ocean for the first time in my life. I was in clothes that should have stayed dry, but no one was going to stop me or had any intention to do so.
Comfort vacation doesn’t mean that nothing happened on those trips. It’s true, they were conceptually the easiest of the trips that we took. Rent an apartment for two weeks and go to the beach every day. That was the extent of planning required. That and dinner which for my mom, even though she still had to cook, was probably easier than dragging us out to a restaurant every night.
On that kind of schedule, there was no end to the hours we could spend on the beach.
We had Dad with us 100% of the day. He wasn’t a swimming kind of swimmer, but he could float forever like a dead man out there. Or body surf just as well as any teenager. He taught me to do the same. Floating he said you could do for hours in the ocean without much effort, if you had to. There in Florida had to be the birth of my comfort in the ocean and probably my obsession with it.
He had a lot of crazy ideas about how to keep us entertained. At the end of the day, he took us to the movie theater not for the movies, but to buy popcorn. Although I don’t think he actually paid for it. The owner of the theater just gave it to us, a big bucket of movie popped popcorn. As a kid, I loved it. No tickets and sneaking in through the exit. It felt as if we were illegally entering the movie theater like trespassers.
My mother still goes back every year to avoid winter in Chicago in February. For a whole month, she and her sister stay together on Anna Maria Island, a little south and west of Tampa. They drive down to the island from Tampa International Airport which takes a little over an hour. Then they kind of just hang out there for the next 28 days cruising up and down the island.
Usually she is back in Chicago by March to celebrate her birthday. This year was different. January was a bit late to begin to plan to spend her birthday there with her, but that’s what we did. Through Airbnb, we managed to secure a three bedroom two bathroom apartment with a swimming pool near my mother’s place and just two blocks from the beach.
The trip from the West coast is a long one. Not so many non-stop flights from LAX to Tampa, so I spent the day flying with a stopover in St. Louis. And eating the junk food diet on Southwest. I landed in Tampa at night, helped by the three hour time difference. No previews of the Gulf and the beach from the sky. Any oo-ing and ah-ing would be deferred until the morning.
My sister who had arrived before me, was waiting at the airport and with food in the car. GPS woman navigated our way across to Anna Maria Island. The route is not complicated, but it was very dark even for a freeway and two modern bridges. That made the low hanging sliver of a crescent moon impossible to miss however.
The last person to the party was my brother. He arrived at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport via a red eye from the West coast to Atlanta and a short connecting flight. This airport is closer to Anna Maria Island, but fewer flights go there.
The thing about comfort vacations is you are nostalgic for even the most mundane of things, like grocery stores and maybe potato chips. Publix is not the greatest of grocery stores, but it’s only in Florida and still in Florida after so many years. And it has Wise potato chips, the chips we used to eat at the beach. To get the full nostalgic effect, my sister claimed they needed to have sand in them. The bag had changed though which turned out to be an ominous sign. It used to be translucent, sort of like the potato chips themselves. Unfortunately, the chips were nothing like they were so many years ago.
That was a disappointment. Anna Maria Island was not. Technically I was there for 4 days, but we barely had 48 hours all together. Sort of a fly in and fly out, but it was enough time to realize that I might want to go back.
On the west side of Florida, the sand is so creamy white and fine, the water a pastel Caribbean color of aqua. Sea shells are scattered everywhere. In the the mornings, people are scouring the beach for small treasures (sand dollars…) like toddlers on no certain path. Each new wave shifts everything around presenting a new moment of hope or awe at what comes from the sea.
You also want to watch for what is digging in when the sea rolls in and out. Certain areas of the beach are riddled with live conch buried in the sand. You will know where they are if you watch where the birds congregate.
Anna Maria Island is a bit of a throwback to another era-my mom stays in the Bali Hai Beach Resort, total 70s camp-one that hasn’t yet been built up or invaded by franchises of any sort. No McDonalds, no Starbucks, no fancy shops-real local run businesses and eateries. It is no surprise then that the locals are an eclectic mix from around the Americas and even Europe. I asked a couple of times where people were from and got answers such as Bavaria and Toulouse, France.
The beaches are impressive, but so is the local small business culture. Coming from the LA area where there is plenty of imagination, but high rents disappointingly preclude small business development, I had to wonder what the secret was. On the way back from the Sarasota Airport, my sister stopped for a tea at Mama G’s Coffee and Bakery, humbly located in a strip mall on Highway 41. Tea is tea I suppose, but fresh pastries baked from family recipes?
Shortly after my sister entered the cafe, she sent a text to me in the car. “The pastries in here are beautiful.” I had to choose something. Calories don’t count on birthdays (even if it’s someone else’s) so I left with a pain au chocolate. People know Mama G’s. It was pretzel Thursday, and by 11 AM they were already sold out.
That was enough until the birthday dinner at a small restaurant, the Beach Bistro, two blocks from the Bali Hai hidden in another apartment motel right on the beach. Reservations are tough to get in this spot, although I suspect dinner on the late side does not require them. The restaurant is a small space but with a view of the ocean and ocean inspired art on the remaining walls.
I am not supposed to eat seafood (conflict of interest), but it was hard not to choose something fishy so close to the sea. I couldn’t decide so I went with a dish, scallop pan roast in Bouillabaisse broth, that was different than my sister’s to the left, toasted coconut and cashew crusted grouper (Floribbean Grouper), and my brother’s to the right, grouper with a lobster tail (Grouper Cooper). One good thing about traveling with siblings, you can steal from each other’s plates, mostly because you have similar tastes in food.
Dessert was a fabulous birthday cake, one that had been baked locally at Hometown Desserts, on the north end of the island. A flavor you could only get in Florida, key lime cake with coconut frosting.
We did more damage the next day with gigantic eggplant sandwiches on fresh baked bread at Vinny and Cheryl’s Italian Kitchen for lunch at the north end of the island. Everything is cooked over a fire; Vinny boasts of having no microwave. And a French meal by real French chefs, the last night at The Island Creperie in Bradenton Beach, at the south end of the island. When I asked one of the French owners how did you get here, she answered, “It was destiny.”
So there it was, a lesson from a French woman on Anna Maria Island on how to answer when people ask me about Norway. I couldn’t fake a French accent well enough though to deliver that line with the intrigue of a French woman.
There is just something about Florida. It’s the humidity, the fragrance of the air-smells like the sea-and the sound of the leaves of the palm trees flapping against each other in the breeze. It doesn’t happen like that anywhere else. And no matter where you are coming from, it’s so easy to be there.
Time went fast, and memories from trips in the past did not seem as distant as they really were. If you ever wonder about traveling with your young children, I can tell you with certainty, they will remember it…
Where is your comfort vacation spot?
©Janice Marie Nigro/www.janikiInk.com