Our nearly-annual trip to the beach will soon be upon us, and I can’t wait! Our visits and the cast of characters have morphed through the years, and we have started to come pretty close to what we consider the perfect beach vacation. For us, we have distilled the 7 days into sand, wine, and food.

I’ve  learned a lot of lessons along the way. Living with other people for a week really taught me about what I like and what I can learn from how others do things. Years ago we went with my husband’s extended family and they wanted everyone to cook at once, and then the families would just heat up a plate of the various main dishes and sides. Very efficient and you did not have to coordinate dinner time, but I like the camaraderie of everyone visiting in the kitchen while I cook and sitting around a table with nothing but time begets the best stories. I also learned that there is a secret circle of hell that resides at any oceanside grocery store on a Saturday, the traditional day of east coast rental turnover. On our first visit to Hilton Head Island, I froze a baked ziti and brought it and enough groceries to get through the weekend. When we arrived at our rental house, I popped it into the oven and by the time we unpacked and had taken the kids to dip their toes, it was ready. Bringing the groceries requires a lot of forethought and planning, but it was so worth it to stroll into the Publix on Monday afternoon and not have stand in a checkout line that stretched to the back of the store.

I’ve also learned to bring my own spices. Even if I plan to buy the meat for a main meal at the beach, I bring a Ziploc bag with the various spices for that dish with me. Again, a few minutes of planning at home saves a lot of money at the grocery and your cupboards are not full of barely used jars of thyme. My favorite homemade mixes to bring are Mexican seasoning for ground beef, thyme and salt for oven-roasted skin-on chicken breast halves, and ingredients for the brine for skinless, boneless chicken breast. I also bring my own salt and pepper grinders and my good knife. I hate using a dull knife and sometimes the cutlery at a beach house is dull or missing altogether. Also, bring a Sharpie. With so many people running around, it’s imperative to label bottles of water, and my kids would tell you, the last packages of snacks that you are claiming.

We also bring our own wine. We might pick up a few bottles at Publix, especially of Rose´, but we bring the good stuff from home. For us, it is worth the hassle because we get to choose what we’d like to drink and not settle for some overpriced mediocre bottle. Hilton Head Island is a 10-hour drive down the most congested, spirit-testing stretch of I 95. To keep our wine cool, if not our heads in the traffic, we use gel-filled freezer packs between the bottles and keep them covered, away from direct sunlight. And drive like hell.

All the stress of the drive melts away at the sight of the bridge to the Island—except I’m still pissed at the guy who was tailgating me so closely that I couldn’t see his headlights while I’ve got a string of cars barely a car-length in front of me and we’re driving, well, let’s just say I’m keeping up with traffic. Dude, there is nowhere to go, the traffic is bumper-to-bumper to the Keys! Sorry, I had to get that off my chest.

The march of time has changed our group—expanding families and conflicting schedules caused the trips with my husband’s extended family to peter out and our family became the locus for a new group. Our first visit to Hilton Head was  just my family of six and my mother-in-law. My mother-in-law has gotten remarried and her husband now joins us, my nephew started joining us with his wife and daughter, had two more children and then has gotten divorced and remarried with the addition of a step-son, my dad has passed away, but my mother still comes, and we worried that my oldest would be unable to join us this summer after college graduation because of work, but she can! I think that is a hidden beauty of annual vacations. Because they are discrete points of time in a whirlwind life, I can look back at each vacation and remember what my family was like with crystal-clear clarity because it wasn’t muddled by errands, appointments, practices and the muck of life.

Mornings are spent walking on the beach, drinking coffee by the pool, and giving warnings about putting on enough sunscreen. Depending on the day’s tide, we might boogie board on the incoming surf or start the sandcastle of the day. Since we tend to get up with the sun at the beach, it doesn’t seem odd to crack a beer before lunch and then eat lunch with a rose´ to fuel a full afternoon of swimming and chasing the badminton birdie down the beach since we never seem to be able to return it to the server. As evening approaches, I head back to the house to shower and begin dinner prep. I love to have theme nights for dinner and a lot of times there’s a specialty cocktail to match our upcoming meal. Margaritas, of course, for Mexican night and Aperol Spritzes for Italian night. For the kids, we make slushies out of the sour mix and bring  San Pellegrino flavored sodas for some Italian flair.  Dinners are long and leisurely, when they were small the kids watched a video after dinner while the adults lingered and now most of the kids are old enough to drift in and out to catch a story and then go back to their phones. Like the wine, the reminiscences flow and a great counterpoint is that my parents and mother-in-law did not see each other (except for our wedding day) until we started going to the beach together and obviously, we didn’t know her husband until about 10 years ago, so the older generation is sharing backstories with each other that we had never heard before.

And so the days repeat. We rent bikes and we will bike to lunch one afternoon and then at least one other time, we will bike to get ice cream. We’ll take a few leisurely bike rides down the beach or around the lagoons looking for alligators (we always find them!), and there is always one misadventure, like the time a rainstorm caught us unawares. But no mini golf or arcades, no eating out every night, and definitely no shopping at outlets—in all seriousness, why is outlet shopping on vacation a thing? We play games at night, Tripoli, Hearts, Spades, and the kids’ favorite—the fishbowl game. Sometimes I plan crafts, like everyone gets a small canvas and paints a beach scene or one year we collected our corks and made pirate faces with Sharpies on some and tied others with kitchen twine to float them as a pirate raft in a little pool left during low tide.

At the end of the week, we finish packing and get ready to return to Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Alabama, (and now New York), but we are connected, both my nuclear family and our extended family. Shared stories and experiences will carry us through until the next time, and as our parents age and my kids start their own lives, there is always the bittersweet feeling that things will never be the same.  But I hope that these weeks at the beach with nothing more than sand and family time will be the mortar that builds the foundation for the kind of tradition that keeps our family, however it changes, together throughout the years.

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