VACATION REVIEWS

Magazines and websites frequently tout lists of “Five Best Vacation Experiences” or “Ten Great Getaways” or “Seven Sights You Have to See.”  Under-represented in the literature are “Worst Vacations” or “Most Horrific Weekends.”  I aim to address this deficiency.  Sadly, the five tales recounted below were pulled from an Olympic-sized pool; if it does not make me too depressed, this post may be the first in a series!

1.  CAPE COD

If my children were asked to blurt their first thought upon hearing the words “bad vacation,” I am confident they would say “the nasty house.”  Unlike today, when one selects a vacation home from the internet after slavishly examining hundreds of photos and reviews (or, preferably, having one’s spouse do so) in the early 1990’s we relied upon an unknown realtor to find us a rental in Cape Cod.

We dutifully loaded up the mini-van and drove the nation’s most horrendous traffic corridor from New Jersey to alight upon a dwelling developed by Edgar Allen Poe.  A gravel driveway disappeared among untamed shrubs and led to a large white house with peeling paint.  Several dark window shutters were missing and those that remained swayed and banged against the side of the house as a result of constant wind.  Clouds skittered above hinting of the churning sea just a few hundred yards away.

Our hopes for a Normal Rockwell interior were dashed immediately when our footsteps left prints on the dusty floors.  Several of the light-bulbs in the kitchen were burned out.  The furniture was stained and mismatched (what a realtor might call “eclectic”) and the window panes were smeared.  Chill belied the mid-August date on the calendar.   My wife’s first call was to the realtor to demand a change, but he insisted the entire island was full.   He unapologetically offered neither a cleaner nor a refund.

As a confirmed believer in the philosophy of “If at first you do not succeed, quit,” I offered to drive back down to New Jersey immediately.  My wife, however, is admirably stout in the realm of persistence and took the “let’s make the best of it” track.  The children, too, were of a mind to enjoy a special week at the beach.

Unfortunately, after a night of fitful and highly allergic sleep, we awoke to discover that the house was actually the least of our worries.  If eskimoes have 240 words for snow, people who live on the Cape need a similar number to express rain.   It drizzled, it poured, it fell windblown and it fell straight.  For seven days and seven nights it never stopped.  Trying to find a positive in all the precipitation, I recall that it prevented several attempts at miniature golf that could only have led to family discord.  The trip to Cape Cod is remembered in family lore as the worst ever, until….

2.  THE POCONOS

Is it redundant to have a “worst vacation” story include the Poconos?  Only a few years after the Cape Cod calamity we chose to rent a house there; the theory was that it was close enough for me to work during the week and join the family for a long weekend.  Once again, however, the weather and an unseen realtor conspired against us.

Our first house in the Poconos was a typical cedar-shake A-frame.  In spite of my wife’s specific instruction to the realtor that several family members were allergic and could not stay in a rental that had harbored cats, the house featured a cheerful “Beware of Cat” sign in the driveway.  The front porch contained various cat-shaped carvings and the carpeting contained cat-created stains.   Sneezing started before we could finish unloading our luggage.

The immediate dress-down of the realtor resulted in movement to another house.  “It has never had a pet,” he guaranteed, but had also, apparently, never had a broom.  Once again, we were beset with dust and cobwebs, darkness and gloom.

The house was several unpaved streets from the nearest community pool.  On the one day that it did not rain, the children gathered up their toys and floats and headed over.  Though the pool area was nearly empty, the acne-pocked attendant refused access since our passes were for the community’s “other” pool.  He “helpfully” suggested a shortcut through the woods.  Besides mud, this walk also featured the mainstay of the Poconos, poison ivy.  I would like to say that the family grew closer as a result of shared suffering, but alas….

3.  SEA GIRT

With the earlier lack of success in mind, we thought hard about our summer vacation options.  We concluded that we had been too frugal.  Surely, if we threw more money at the problem, a fun and memorable (for the right reasons) vacation could be achieved.  This brought us to the part of the Jersey shore known as the Gold Coast.  The town of Sea Girt has stately mansions, beautiful gardens and a pristine beach.  Reality television had not yet been invented in the late 1990’s but, if it had, Snooki would not have been allowed in Sea Girt.  It was a town of paisley ties, dark green Bermuda shorts and dock-siders without socks.

We rented a week in a beautiful beach-block house for multiple thousands of dollars.  When we arrived, we were delighted to see that it was well-appointed and professionally decorated, clean and large, bright and airy.  You could hear the surf from the deck.  A couple waved at us from the carriage house at the end of the driveway as we finished unpacking the car.  Our realtor, named Babs or Mibs or Muffy, told us:  “Oh, that’s just Mr. and Mrs. McCormick.  They are the owners.  I’m sure you will not see them during the week.”

Less accurate words were never spoken.  Mr. and Mrs. McCormick apparently took shifts to monitor our every move.  At least one was watching each time we ventured outside.  We were certain that they entered the house when we were gone to see if we were misbehaving.  We also discovered, during week-days, that the State Police training center was only a block away, and that training camp for new recruits coincided with our week of vacation.  In addition to the surf, we could hear men counting calisthenics each afternoon, as well as the sound of constant target practice.  Their shooting would have been useful, perhaps, if it scared away the black flies that rendered the beautiful beach uninhabitable.  Apparently, when the wind is from a particular direction, the scourge of biting insects does not discriminate between the splendor of Sea Girt and the relative squalor of Seaside Heights.

What we really remember from Sea Girt, however, is that we learned that our youngest child is allergic to seafood.  Amidst great enthusiasm, we prepared a meal of local shrimp and then watched, horrified, as our five-year-old turned beet red from head to toe.  This started another family vacation tradition known as “the trip to the emergency room.”  The same child required such visits due to sand in the eye and stitches in the forehead on separate Florida vacations.  Menopause, a herniated disc and an injured elbow brought other family members to emergency rooms in such locales as South Carolina and Central America.

It was with relief that we left the McCormicks’ mansion.  Ironically, although their constant presence intimidated us into more cleaning than we did at home, they became the only lessors in our lives who withheld money from our security deposit, claiming that we had broken a mirror that we thought was already defective.

4.  CAMPING

It has always been my considered opinion that people are meant to sleep under something constructed of wood or cement.  The other members of my family, however, feel that canvas or nylon can also form a suitable cover.  For years, I curmudgeonly found excuses not to attend the semi-annual weekend in the woods of western New Jersey.  One year, however, I relented.  The children, not having their mother’s knowledge of my detestation of all things camping, thought it might be fun if I came.

They were wrong.  Within moments of my arrival I noticed a dark object in the creek adjacent to our tent.

“That’s a snake,” I said.

“No way,” everyone scoffed.  “We’ve never seen a snake in these woods.  That’s a stick.”

Moments later, as the “stick” slithered into a hole in the bank, I had the dubious thrill of vindication.  For dinner, everyone looked forward to cooking over a flame.  We heated baked beans as though we were in a John Wayne movie (or Blazing Saddles, I thought) and prepared burgers and hot dogs.  We skewered marshmallows for dessert.  But I did wish someone had told me to remove the plastic from my hot dog before I roasted it.  It still tasted surprisingly good, but I’m sure my error was not healthy.

At night, although I was assured that sleeping bags would be comfortable, that did not take into account their placement over tree roots.  Also, there was no stopping the drunken singing emanating from the occupants of the neighboring campsite.  Between the roots, the noise, the beans and plastic in my stomach, and the contemplation of our serpentine neighbor, sleep was impossible.  I withdrew to a Hotel 6 the next morning and the rest of the family was relieved.

5.  THE CRUISE

We were not doing very well on land so, in 2003, we tried our first cruise.  By then, the children ranged in age  from high school to post-college.  We flew to New Orleans, bringing a deluge with us, and slogged onto an impressively large boat.  We were to cruise for ten days with stops in Mexico, Guatamala, Belize and Honduras.

Moments after we were underway, the Norwegian Line advised that one of the four engines was not functioning properly.  Accordingly, the ship would be moving more slowly than usual and the Guatamala stop would be scrubbed.  They offered a $250 refund from the $10,000 total cost.

“How does $250 correspond to missing one fourth of the stops?  Aren’t you missing a digit?” asked my wife.  Though her campaign was waged throughout the cruise and through letter-writing upon return, no more equitable offer was ever made.

Within four or five hours, the novelty of unbridled gluttony had already worn off, and all three children were asking:  “What else is there to do?”  At that time, I was completing my thirtieth lap of the top deck walking path and wondering the same thing.  In our room that evening, which we instantly referred to as the “cubby-hole,” I could not help asking what crime I had committed to be sentenced to so small a space.

Cozumel, Mexico was the first stop.  Unfortunately, they had recently suffered an intense storm and there was no sand on the beach.  That allowed for an afternoon of browsing hundreds of shops with identical tee-shirts, shot glasses and mugs.

After two more days of tag-team eating and bingo and a ping pong tournament where my family members were the only participants, we alighted upon Roatan Island, Honduras.  We knew we were there because the local equivalent of a Mariachi band commenced playing music at seven in the morning.  One had to walk through the performers and their tip jar on the way to the town which turned out to be a terrifying place.

“Do not leave the main street,” warned the ship’s representatives.  “Do not lose track of your camera and wallet.  Do not get into a taxi.  Do not drink the water.  Do not eat anything sold on the street,” etc.

“Marijuana?  Viagara?” offered a group of young men stationed on each corner.  The children wanted to return to the boat immediately and we agreed.  I obtained a replica Honduras soccer jersey as a souvenir and was happy to return early to one more several-thousand-calorie buffet lunch.

Our last stop was Belize.  The day there was interesting in that it was totally un-commercial.  As our bus tour guide noted, there are only three working stop-lights in the entire country; not much is happening there.  I am aware that there are beautiful lodges and rain forests in Belize, but we were part of a one-day cruise visit and that only allowed time to visit an iguana zoo, a few Mayan ruins and the National Park.  There, we learned that the former British Honduras contributed thirteen unfortunate souls to the Second World War.  They are memorialized in a statue that had fallen over due to a foundation undermined by rodents.  We were assured that the statue would be repaired within the next decade.

Following our return to New Orleans, where it was raining just as it had been ten days earlier, we flew home and nearly kissed the ground at Newark Airport.  Through the most elaborate and expensive family vacation up to that point, we had gained a greater love of New Jersey.  Now that is an unintended consequence.

In sum, when literature includes tales like the above, after the initial disappointment, there is usually improvement and an eventual, if grudging, fondness for the experience.  In our case, endurance only confirmed initial bad impressions and, in each instance, things remained the same or became worse.  In any event, I have shared enough misery for one posting.  If another installment is desired, however, I will doubtless start with our visit to the Hasidic Dude Ranch.

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