This story was published in the Travel and Indulgence section of The Australian in March, 2012
Like the hydra of Greek legend, the family beach holiday is a many headed monster, a creature of fluctuating moods and moments.
It begins with rapidly mounting excitement as the car is loaded with deck chairs, sun umbrellas, windbreaks, beach towels, buckets and spades, sheets by the dozen and food by the tonne.
We head along the freeway through the straggling suburbs, past a string of little country outposts to the coast. Wild screams signal the first glimpse of the sea. Following a faint grey map through the main street of Cowes, Philip Island, in search of the house rented, sight unseen, from the internet, we ponder the real distance of “close to the beach”. We find (hallelujah) that it’s one block from the water.
The house echoes. It smells of fresh paint. There’s a mad dash from room to room, jumping on beds, scaling and tumbling from bunks. Screams rise in pitch and volume as the second and third cars pull up, discharging people, boogie boards, the pram and the baby.
And it’s off to the beach. There are sulks from the sun hat and sunscreen refusers. They are threatened with exile to the wind shelter. But lotions and hats are soon forgotten in a melee in the surf. The first casualty is pulled from the waves and rushed away under a towel. The sun sets on the remaining chattering teeth and blue lips. Then it’s back to the house for a barbie.
The pre-dinner period is featured by kids behaving like kids and deaf-eared adults talking past one another. The uncoordinated appearances of fish and fowl leave the disgruntled vegetarian munching alone among the debris of half-finished plates and picked over salad while the main party heads off, with detailed commentary on how to have everything ready at once tomorrow.
An after-dinner drive fails to calm the kids and winds up the adults as they outwit one another on the ecology of the sand dunes. Back at the house the TV movie is punctuated by thumps and wails from the bunkroom, hissed threats from the hallway and verbal volleys on cinematography from the experts on the couch. At midnight the baby is the last man standing.
Despite the best laid plans for a team start at an early hour, only a bachelor uncle is out the door by nine o’clock, alone with his surfboard under his arm, destination unknown. Resentful eyes follow him up the drive.
It’s past eleven before the advance quartet of kids and parents hit a beach whipped by a wind chilled by white capped waves and whistling with flying sand. Ninja Turtle Donatello is lost to the surf on his first swimming lesson. His distraught instructor, followed by told-you-sos and shouldn’t-haves, is piggy-backed away, with tear-stained face and trembling chin, to cricket on another part of the beach.
Just when the burning lacerated bodies of the advance guard can take no more, the second contingent arrives with the beach shelter. The object of yesterday’s derision, it is set up and occupied today in a shower of profuse gratitude. The pram cohort turns up with a new and different shelter – a giant plastic leaf. Just like the real thing, it flaps wildly in the wind. We chase its elusive shadow across the sand, then pin our backs against it. The baby discovers the miracle of sand. He digs his hand in and runs it through his fingers. We all marvel at the miracle of babies.
A castle construction project is soon underway. Under combined adult direction, turrets, bridges, a moat emerge. It’s the envy of the beach. But still, soon, the Ninja nightmare resurfaces. Followed by sharp, critical eyes, the sobbing, bereft one is piggy-backed away to the toy shop.
Sadly Donatello cannot be replaced. There are more tears. But wait! There’s Sandman, built for the beach, drown-proof and with fists like paddles. Sandman can do anything. Sandman is the man. Sandman rocks. Soon, Sandman is his. He finds his feet again.
Back at the house, storms blow in over lunch. Sandman becomes an ugly bone of contention. Kids stare resentfully. Adults glare accusingly. Just in time another bachelor uncle turns up. He and distracts the adults with an espressos and the kids with rides on shoulders back to the beach. The wind has dropped. For a while great fun is had by all, with boogie boards and balls in the surf.
But back up the beach by the wind shelter, Sandman has vanished. There are cries of anguish. Panicked excavations begin. There are casualties from flying sand but it’s all to no avail. Sandman has gone, slipped away, it seems, through the shifting grains. The hysterical, twice bereft one is piggy-backed away again to the toy shop. There are no more sandmen. So it’s aliens all round in a last-ditch bid for peace. At home there are forced smiles from the kids – aliens don’t rock. There is muttered disapproval from the parents – it’s all plastic junk.
Soon it’s barbie time again. The kids bicker while the adults batter each other with the experience of yesterday. This time the vegetarian finishes his lentil burgers long before the carnivores attack the sausages and steaks.
Back home now, a click signals the finish of the washing machine’s tenth load of sheets. The parents have gone back to work and the kids are playing harmoniously with the rediscovered spoils of Christmas. Donatello is swimming somewhere far out in Bass Strait and Sandman is tunneling his way around Philip island below the sand. Was it worth it, this big family beach holiday? Of course it was. Every moment!