Ah, the beach – the quintessential vacation spot. A place to relax, soak up the sun, and drink alcohol all day without judgment. For the twenty-something partygoer, a beach vacation takes very little planning. Pack a bikini, cut-offs, and flip-flops. Sizzle on the sand like a rotisserie chicken during the day, then hit the bars and clubs all night. Eat cheap street food and sleep in an overcrowded hotel room with ten friends. Repeat until money runs out. As I am now a responsible thirty-something with a husband and toddler, the packing is a little more complicated, the accommodation a small but spacious apartment (whew!), and the drinking consists of glasses of wine on the terrace once toddler bedtime has passed. Regardless, I still love the beach. Kids can play in the sand for hours. It really is amazing. Lily spent her first beach day of this trip happily digging a hole with a wooden spoon and plastic dish drainer cup from our apartment cupboards.
Beaches deserve their position at the top of the vacation locale list, because there is literally a beach for everyone, whether you are rich or poor, old or young, good-looking or not so. From the tourist-clogged Florida panhandle to the rocky solitude of the Maine coast, from the grit of the Jersey Shore to the stately quiet of the Outer Banks, I always felt the variation in the beaches of America were wide. Now that I have experienced beaches in other parts of the world, I feel that the variations stretch not just to atmosphere and landscape, but attitude as well. American beaches are American. Regardless of their latitude or sand quality, most share a few distinctly American characteristics – hotels and houses advertising seaside views along the shore, a plethora of shops ready to sell you a forgotten beach towel or flotation device, curfews keeping people off the sand after a certain hour, and of course, patronage mostly by Americans. Although I’ve seen surf schools in Australia and thermal pools in Iceland, I had yet to experience the one beach the world traveler of any age must not miss – the European beach. Although it is still sand with salt water along it, the Mediterranean is literally a world away from any beach I have been to before. Our first was Barcelona.
The beaches of Barcelona are definitely European, and receive five well-deserved stars in the people-watching department. People of all ages and body types bask in the sun in varying degrees of swimwear coverage. When we were at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, I remarked with a giggle at the lack of modesty of some German grandmothers in the locker room. Now I laugh at my own prudish American naïveté, as our first day on the beach, I noticed women of all ages and body types sunbathing topless, walking around topless, and swimming topless. 80 year old men in banana-hammocks with skin like sagging coffee-colored leather strolled along the waterfront. A pair of lovers (not 10 feet from where Lily was obliviously digging her hole with a wooden spoon) were making out like bandits – hands down the swimsuit and everything. Not that there was much of a swimsuit to go down as the girl was, obviously, topless. The scene was surprisingly uplifting from a body-image standpoint. Although Barcelona has more than its fair share of good-looking people, the regular-looking people dive right in and enjoy themselves alongside, small swimsuits and everything. Like I observed at the Blue Lagoon, minute body obsessions seem very silly when everyone around you exudes such confidence, whether they deserve to or not. Ironically, the only thing that made me somewhat self-conscious was the modesty of my own skirted tankini.
Unfortunately, Barcelona’s beaches, being popular and often the only beach destination for many nearby Europeans, have a tendency to get crowded and dirty. After a few days of people watching I started to notice other things; all these exhibitionists were also not afraid to drop a cigarette butt or a candy wrapper into the sand, and all this detritus would often end up in the water, so that on some days, there would be a thin layer of trash and dirt just about six feet offshore. Not nice. This was somewhat surprising due to the amazing availability of recycle bins and garbage cans on almost every corner, as well as the high number of early morning sanitation workers hosing off plazas and sidewalks. I wondered what height the urine smell underneath the boardwalk would climb to if these faithful workers weren’t doing their jobs.
So my conclusion is, any crowded beach in high season is bound to accumulate a certain amount of debris, and Barcelona is certainly cleaner than say, Atlantic City, where I wouldn’t even let Lily walk on the sand, let alone swim. But Europeans do smoke a lot, and the piling up of cigarette butts more than anything else (except for the smell of pee on the street) was starting to get to me. After Barcelona, we had a week sightseeing in Rome, and I was ready for the beach again. I was, however, unable to find sunblock anywhere in Rome. I found out too late that Italians don’t wear it. It’s amazing to me how Europeans can do so much smoking, drinking, and sunblock-free tanning and still remain amazingly good-looking, until one day, they wake up and they are an 80 year old grandma in a black scarf. I’ve rarely found an in-between. So off we go to Greece, to the unspoiled, pristine waters of the Aegean. Done with the crowds and ticket lines, we were ready to be on Island Time, filling our days with digging in the sand, swimming, and having a drink at one of the many waterfront ‘tavernas’.
On our little island of Antiparos in September, crowding on the beaches is definitely NOT a problem. Nor is cleanliness of the water. I’ve never swum in water so crystal clear. My experience in the Caribbean is limited, but although turquoise water meets white sand there, I may, like many college-age visitors, have imbibed too many Bahama Mamas to really remember it. Here, not only can you see your feet perfectly when you are neck deep in the sea, but there on most beaches there is very little wave action, so Lily can splash and play with confidence. Even the fishing boats in the main harbor are moored in water clear enough where you can see the bottom from atop the pier. We’re visiting in September, which most guidebooks will tell you, is the best time to come. The summer crowds are gone but the water is still warm enough for swimming and the sunny days are endless. Every island boasts several beaches of varying size and sand quality. Some are rocky and pebbly, good for exploring with older kids. Some are black, volcanic sand, interesting but hot on the feet. Some, like the one closest to us, are in secluded little inlets, with shallow waveless water and encircled by twisted shade trees. Like the rest of Europe, the topless swimming factor is in place as well. At this point I’m so used to it, I barely notice. Although, Antiparos even offers an actual nudist beach, which I must remind you prudish Westerners, is not the same as simply going topless. I have to say, I’m not sure I’m ready for the full-frontal man thing on the beach. Marcus and Lily took a ride on the quad yesterday and accidentally ended up there. It also seems that those who choose to go the nudist route are rarely the ones you want to see going that route, if you know what I mean.
Although some of the larger islands like Naxos are supposed to have some of the best beaches in the world, I’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to experience those. For now, our tiny island of 9km has about 12 different beaches, and so far, we’ve probably only experienced five, so we have a lot of work to do. So it’s off to another beach today. As Lily will tell you, the digging and castle-making is top quality, and thanks to the increased availability of sunblock on the islands, her redheaded self with have many more days at the beach to go, naked or not.