Posted by: cctracker | September 5, 2012

Summer Reverie: Vacation at the Upscale, Seaside, Eco-Swamp Resort

Though school seems to start back earlier every year, Labor Day is still the practical end of summer. Maybe that’s part of the reason I’m melancholy today.

The house is quiet. Our two younger boys are back at college and didn’t come home for the long weekend. The oldest has been gone many months now with his first job. “Why don’t they call more often?” my wife asks, but we both know the emptiness is more about us than them.

Overcast skies crowd into these hollow spaces with autumnal feelings. It’s too soon. The drenching rains we waited for all summer came too late to do any good for midwest gardens and farms. Instead they just slapped down the desiccated leaves already dotting lawns and lying in damp piles in gutters.

Fall is an emotional landscape that feels natural to me–I welcome the meditative, fading ripeness of it each year– but I’m not in the mood to cooperate. Yet. I’m going back to savor the summer while it’s still closer than the first frost.

We got back to the beach this summer. I hadn’t actually had to plan a vacation for years. The kindness of friends extended us a nearly free mountain vacation at a Colorado ski condo in the previous five summers.

We hiked through sprawling wildflower meadows tucked below the peaks of Summit County.

Photo James Burton

Gaped at snow-shrouded cascading waterfalls in the middle of summer.

Photo James Burton

Clambered through scree fields to get the terrible, unprotected summit-beauty of fourteeners Mts. Lincoln, Bross and Democrat.

Photo James Burton

And ended many nights with pie, ice cream and a magazine at our favorite cozy corner: the Crown Cafe on main street, Breckenridge.

I was grateful every summer to get back up into mountain air.

But we were still dreaming of the sea in those years. Not condo-canyon walls crowded against the white sands of the Gulf, mind you, I mean the Ocean.

Lonelywind-sculpted dunes and tufts of Sea Oats.

Public Domain Photo

A wide, gray strand, strewn with the strange discard of man and nature: clumps of seaweed, a pink comb, speckled shells, sand-polished bits of colored glass, skate egg-cases.

Photo at

And most of all, the ocean itself.

Photo James Burton

Breakers, surf, and a horizon of endless breadth and depth, that while it may be bound by another shore somewhere in theory, says in the real and immediate voice we hear,especially just before nightfall: ” for ever and ever.”

That’s what I was dreaming of, but I didn’t have much free time in February to plan an ocean vacation. We’d been twice to the Outer Banks and loved it, but I thought we ought to try something new. North Carolina was great, why not try South Carolina? I figured the surf would be just as good.

The mention of “South Carolina” brought Hilton Head to mind. I had only the vaguest of notions of the sort of place it was. I called a guy in the neighborhood, got a glowing recommendation on a resort called Sea Pines, made a phone call and within a few minutes had the four of us–my oldest son, the employed one, couldn’t get loose–booked into a condo in the “Plantation” section of the resort.

Though I looked at a few pictures and read some stuff online about Hilton Head, we arrived flying pretty blind. I knew this was pine forest rather the open dunes of Kitty Hawk. I’d been told there would be birds to watch and that everyone rode bikes.

I was so ready for a vacation that going anywhere might have worked, but we had a great week. Being on the road was full of familiar family pleasures: music old and new, jokes about local signage, customs and accents, memories of catastrophes in the cross-country drives of yesteryear.

Our week at the ocean more than satisfied the minimum expectations for an ocean vacation: We went to the beach every day, went out for dinner, cooked a couple of great meals, lounged, swam, sauntered and snacked. We were four adults remembering and enjoying that we used to be Mom, Dad and boys.

Photo James Burton

But Hilton Head the place, the island, was a revelation.

It is–or was at one point–part pine savannah, part palmetto swamp.

Photo James Burton

Early in its history as a settled place it was a rice plantation. Wealthy conservationists set aside a patch of the swamp and the old rice fields to create a preserve. You can walk through it now and get a sense of just how hostile this country is.

Photo James Burton

It’s hot, so humid that epiphytes, the great streamers of hanging moss one associates with the deep south, thrive on the moisture they suck from a wet blanket of air. Biting insects are fierce. Alligators lurk in every other creek and slough.

Photo James Burton

And yet 60 or so years ago or so they built a resort here.

It’s an upscale development, at least by my standards, that alternately knocked me out for its “natural” beauty and gave me the creeps for being an altered version of the Truman Show. Wherever the Live Oaks and Pines give way, manicured lobes of fairways and greens swoop into view.

Alligators float motionless in water hazards. Anhingas, Egrets, and Herons,  exotic birds I’d only hoped to glimpse from a distance, stretched and preened at water’s edge like movie stars.

Photos James Burton

Anhinga Close Up
Photo James Burton

By the end of the week I almost regarded them as extras on a faded backlot.

Clumps of condos and rental homes are tucked into groves of towering palms and oaks; you’re never completely out of the trees unless you’re hitting a golf ball. Driving around you get lost looking for stores because one clearing in the pines looks like  every other.

And curving in and out of every corner of Sea Pines are the looping, asphalt bike paths. The advance billing was accurate: everyone rides them on fat-tired, single-geared rental bikes parked by the hundreds at every condo complex, shopping venue or beach access.

Photo at Travel Reader Blog

If you go, though, don’t park your bike when you pedal from your condo to the beach. You’ll miss our greatest, most unexpected pleasure of the week: riding the wide, flat strand at the edge of the breakers on sand so firm we hardly needed to pedal.

Photo James Burton


The first time we rode at dusk was magical. Gliding along on the thin sheen of water reflecting evening sky and clouds was like flying. Like being in one of those huge bicycle-powered airplanes you’ve seen in documentaries but without the wingspan. Or the effort. I followed the water down to the tumble-line as it receded by leaning left and swooping down, then banked back to the right and pushed the pedals a time or two to climb back up ahead of the next line of surf.


I shot this i-phone video of another ride a few days later at an earlier hour of the evening. Though it doesn’t nearly capture the experience, when I took a look at it later I was caught by the quality and mood of what I’d recorded.

We spent conventional time at the beach too, of course: body-surfing, swimming, reading, tossing the frisbee.

Most of Hilton Head’s beaches are long, shallow shelves, the surf not nearly so wild as what we’d enjoyed on the Outer Banks.

That was a little disappointing at first. I think the boys and I thought that would take most of the adrenaline out of the experience. But when this land-locked mid-westerner got out 50 yards with swells coming in and felt himself immersed in something incredibly vast and powerful, my pulse was racing. I found I couldn’t suppress a kind of laughter that came so often in childhood: glee mixed with fear, the thrill of real danger inseparably connected with the joy of intensely pleasurable physical and emotional sensation.

Photo James Burton

We were surprised by the dramatic change in the beach from morning to night.  At low tide, the edge of the surf could be a quarter-mile from the trees. At high-tide, there might be  hardly enough space between the  last dune and the surf to put up a beach umbrella.

The view from the ocean back to the beach was unexpected, too. Seeing a forest growing to the edge of the dunes was an aesthetic pleasure I never tired of taking in. Brown pelicans patrolled the strand in long, undulating lines.

Brown Pelicans
Photo James Burton

On our next-to-last day, we spent a few hours in Kayaks on the bay side of the island.

Photo James Burton

Our sunset encounter with shimmering flat water, islands of marsh grass, nesting terns and gulls, piled-up reefs of oyster shells and even a few dolphins was as satisfying a feast for the senses as the ocean side, even if the inexperienced tour group and cautious guide we drew meant we couldn’t wander much on our own.

Photo James Burton

The last night we returned to the beach for another evening ride, hoping to catch the magic of that first ride again. The sand was softer and it wasn’t quite as easy to glide along.

Photo James Burton

We did find a few huge Horseshoe crab husks washed up in the shallows looking remarkably like the Devonian Trilobites I remember from  the illustrations in grade school science text books.

Photo James Burton

Perhaps no two nights can ever be the same except in southern California.

Turning my back on the Ocean that night was a deliberate leave-taking for me. It always feels that way when I take a last look at the open sea. I’m aware that I might not see it again.

Photo James Burton

On that night, I was wondering, too, if I would ever feel like a father on vacation with my boys and their mom again. This might have been the last one, the last of the summer vacations that belong to the string of them connected back to our very first real family vacation: a week in one of those canyon condos on the white sugar sands of Destin.

By the time we got back to our condo and began packing, those thoughts were almost gone.  I’d already turned–mostly–inland, toward the school year.

Now that I’ve taken time to return to the gifts of  this summer’s vacation one last time, I feel ready to complete the turn. Perhaps tomorrow will be that first crisp, September morning that inclines the soul toward the melancholy, meditative joys of autumn.


  1. “We were four adults remembering and enjoying that we used to be Mom, Dad and boys.” This line got to me.

    Another lovely post. Thanks.

    • Thanks for taking a look, Frank. It’s funny, when our boys were like your girls we knew these days were coming. We savored them all the more. We miss them as they were but knowing that we really appreciated them then is a comfort.

      Sent from my iPhone

  2. Yes. I always find it a little frustrating, though, when people tell me to enjoy every moment and savor every day with my kids—because inevitably there are moments when I just can’t.

    But then I read this piece. The author has the same anxiety, but she takes comfort in the difference between chronos and kairos, and learns to be okay with appreciating the kairos moments, and accepting that not every moment will be such.

    • Right, Frank. I can call a lot of dark, tedious, and confusing chronos time from those years to mind without any trouble. I think kairos moments are the fruit of meditations on those times. The peace on a face in sleep moves you in part because of all the struggle and grief of the day. Folks who tell you to appreciate today shouldn’t do it without somehow letting you know they were exhausted and at their wits end plenty themselves. We sure were. But certainly not you guys! Your girls are angels.

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