There are many great memories from my childhood that took place during the summer in the back of a station wagon. It was a time when my parents had thrown caution (and vegetables) to the wind as they loaded up the car with suitcases, pop tarts, juice boxes, black and white televisions hooked to cigarette lighters, and all of us kids to venture down to the endless amount of sunshine and sand the Florida coast had to offer. A blanket was thrown down in the back and we would pile in free of seat belts and carseats (Were those even invented prior to the 90’s?) to head out on an 8 hour trip filled with KFC and rest stops. My brother’s feet still remain to this very day a vivid memory as they were all-consuming of garlic and boy-sweat when he would remove his shoes much to the protest of everyone else in the car.
A special bond exists between Kentuckians, Tennesseans, and the Florida coast, and I’m pretty sure those back roads once you exit the interstate somewhere down in the middle of Nowhere, Alabama were mapped out by our ancestors. It is a place where rolling hills of nothingness are still to this day intermingled with small town squares full of greasy dives and antique stores popping up to offer nothing in the way of civilization nor bathrooms for a stretch of over two hours. We always had to make sure we ate dinner no later than Mobile; otherwise, we would have to eat my brother’s socks to stay alive until we reached the coast; the pop tarts having been inhaled somewhere around Chattanooga.
My dad was an avid golfer with the nickname “Mad Dog” because he was known to throw his clubs in a fit of rage; his frat-boy days never completely dying despite the loss of hair across the top of his scalp and his protruding abdomen testing the strength of the button on his trousers. Down in Florida, he had a slew of like-minded friends who had made something big of themselves in the hotel management industry, thus, we always seemed to have a hook up for really nice places to stay. My mom would carry along her ungodly huge binders that no one should ever have enough paperwork to fill…ever, so that she could get some necessary work done while “sorta” spending quality time with her kids.
It never failed–myself being the chubby, freckled kid who disagreed with the sun–that I would end up burnt after the first day on the beach from my mother’s neglect to apply sunscreen. Thus, the majority of my trip was always spent recovering on the sofa smeared in Aloe Vera while my mother did her bookwork; I would watch an endless amount of cartoons and pick at the peeling skin on my nose and shoulders. Never the less, we always had a good time, despite the fact that my dad was nowhere to be seen for the majority of each day, much like when we were back at home, as he ventured out to play golf with his buddies.
Until my later teen years when I ventured to places like Utah and California, I assumed that the entire world consisted of Kentucky and Florida, along with that path paved between the two. Other countries? What were those? Just places people talked about, but they were as fictional to me as the Land of Oz or the idea of traveling to the moon. They just weren’t in my realm of reality other than what I would find in multiple choice questions on my 3rd grade exams.
Considering my lack of being well-traveled as a kid, I never desired to take my own children to the ocean until a couple of years ago when all of that changed. I realized that, at the age of 10, that my oldest was being put at a great disadvantage by not seeing the beauty of the ocean, experiencing that feeling you get when you hear the waves crash onto the shore while peering out into the vast expansion of water seeming to disappear into nothingness off of the face of the earth. Thus, we decided to take a chance and drop by Cocoa Beach on our way to Disney back in 2014. For the two days we spent there, we realized EXACTLY why my parents vacationed on the coast, and how ridiculously idiotic we had been to never do the same.
The beach vacation is quite literally a do-nothing vacation, and being the parents of three children, it is by far the most glorious of any vacation you could ever take. You just load up your kids, throw in some shorts and t-shirts, which are easy to pack and require little in the way of space in a suitcase, and head down, spending your days lathered in sunscreen (I did change a few things with my own kids) and eating fresh seafood. We were sold. And so, every single vacation since 2014 has been spent traveling that path between our home in Nashville to the Gulf Coast along 30A, and I haven’t regretted a single moment of it since. In fact, the Executive and I have taken it upon ourselves a couple of times to drop the kids off with grandma to venture down there all by ourselves, the latest expedition of that sort being this past weekend.
Considering the past 12 years of my life have been spent catering to the needs of my children and the Executive with little time left for myself, I am freaking out a bit with the possibility of what to do with my time once all of the girls enter school this upcoming year. I mean, I didn’t really prepare for this. Having ditched my degree program back when my oldest was born to be a stay-at-home trophy wife (Why was that appealing in my 20’s?), I feel like I’m adrift with nowhere to go. Other than being a caregiver for these four human beings, our dog, our cat, and our sassy hamster, I have no talent other than writing, and thus, here I am, writing into the void, hoping that someone, somewhere will read it and give a tired old lady two years away from forty a job, or at least an advance to write a book. It’s a shot in the dark, which seems a ton better than being the non-traditional homemaker baking brownies for 20-somethings in a college-level writing course…at least for the time being. There’s just so much to consider here and I’m literally fighting to get ahead, somehow…someway…without having to put on a Rolling Stones t-shirt to blend in with the youth at the community college down the street. It’s exciting to think of where I can go, but not without the scary thought of what I could possibly turn out to be.
To say that I’m freaking out a bit facing a transition to part-time empty nesting from creaming over diaper rashes and watching the Play-Doh dry on the hardwoods full-time, is an understatement. I’m freaking out A LOT! The way I see it, I can either use this sudden rush of anxious energy to propel myself forward while taking a chance, or I can wither away organizing cabinets and cleaning my car twice a week. I would rather stick sharp pencils in my eyes than submit to a lack of adventure and the repetitive mundanity of life. I need to go places and see things, meeting interesting people and gaining new experiences. This past weekend, I REALLY took that notion to the extreme.
The Executive and I had been at odds with each other for the past few weeks; his work has him overloaded with demands, which leaves little time to worry about a wife trying not to fail miserably at life, and why should he? Seriously, I am a grown woman and mature enough to realize that backing myself out of the corner of dependent housewife is 100% up to me. For weeks I had been walking around threatening to be…
“DONE WITH IT ALL THIS TIME…AND I MEAN IT…
REALLY, REALLY, REALLY MEAN IT THIS TIME!”
In fact, I meant it so much that this past Thursday I called my mom and my mother-in-law to tell them my marriage was doomed because I was “really, really, really done this time”. I rented a house on 30A, dropped the kids off in Kentucky, and headed down that familiar paved road I had traveled in the back of a station wagon year after year during my youth crowded by a smelly teenage brother and junk food.
As the adult now, times have changed, as has my desire to not be the chubby kid on the beach with my freckles sunburnt to a crispy well-done. Armed with sunscreen, I ditched my dad’s favorite oldies stations for Elvis Costello and My Morning Jacket. The open road belonged to me, and by the grace of God, I was going to have it…ALL OF IT...for myself. Well, slightly.
At the last minute, my fit of rage, possibly fueled by those “Mad Dog” genes, was tampered by the ring on my finger. I asked the Executive to join me for a working weekend in which he could get his project done and I could write my article for the New York Times Modern Love column, which I had sworn my entire future hinged upon. He accepted my gracious invitation, and for three days I spent my mid-life crisis on 30A with the Executive by my side.
The house I rented through VRBO was pet-friendly with a well-stocked kitchen, modern, clean furniture and linens, and was located off of a small, quiet semi-circular residential street about a 5 minute walk to Santa Rosa Beach, just down from the Gulf Place Shopping Center. Considering it was off-season, the price we paid for a three night stay wasn’t any different than what we would have paid for a hotel. We always opt for renting houses instead of hotel rooms for the flexibility of having things like a washer and dryer, different bedrooms for the kids, and a kitchen to stock from Publix so that we can economize breakfast and lunch, usually picking only a couple of nights to eat out during our stay. We never get lucky enough in our price range to stay right on the beach, but that never bothers us much. I would rather be a five minute walk from the coast, thus leaving much of the sand between the water and the house before we enter the doorway.
The first morning we spent at Sunrise Coffee Co. where they serve a variety of bagels and muffins, along with a few hot meal options. We ordered their simple, yet tasty and healthy breakfast of an egg and bacon wrap, and were surprised by their decent latte. In fact, we enjoyed the atmosphere and food so much that we decided to have that same meal every morning throughout our entire stay, taking advantage of their free wifi and outdoor seating with a view of the ocean while taking the opportunity to get a little work out of the way.
Since our first day spanned the length of the morning and into the early afternoon, we decided to walk over to The Perfect Pig to grab a bite for lunch. Eating brunch accompanied by a guitarist singing covers of songs from artists like Ed Sheridan and Steve Miller Band, we enjoyed a mimosa and great conversation in the perfect afternoon atmosphere you can find in a local cafe. I ordered the quiche, which was full of flavor with caramelized onions and bacon. The Executive ordered a BBQ Sandwich with a side of blue cheese coleslaw he still mentions nearly a week later. This isn’t the first time we have eaten at the Perfect Pig; the last time was with our girls where we enjoyed sandwiches outside on the sidewalk on a quiet afternoon.
The first night we ate at The Great Southern Cafe which is an AMAZING restaurant located just a few miles down from Santa Rosa in Seaside. A quaint, picturesque town with inflated prices to match, Seaside is where The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey was filmed, and the million dollar houses lining brick streets look just as inviting in person as they do on screen. There is a decent amount of shopping for high-end clothing, jewelry, and gifts with bike rentals and Modica Market, which sells prepared food items, sandwiches, and coffee from their deli, along with a great selection of beer and wine. Various other restaurants line 30A along with food trucks in front of an amphitheater we have yet to see used, and at the center of town is a small post office reminiscent of simpler times. A must while visiting the area is to stop by Sundog Books for some beachside reading before heading upstairs to visit with the guys at Central Square Records where they sell music, as well as a unique variety of posters and gifts to take back home.
The locals at Seaside are always friendly, and you can tell them apart from the residents visiting their vacation homes by the t-shirts and flip flops amongst the penny loafers and polo shirts with the collars turned up. Sitting by the sidewalk at The Great Southern Cafe, margaritas are a must because they never fail to make a fun time even a little better, especially when consumed with a heaping plate of some of the BEST calamari we have ever eaten. There is something about fresh seafood that can’t be matched by what you would find at an Italian restaurant in Tennessee. In fact, I just realized how Italian restaurants are the only place you can order calamari in Tennessee, which is a bit odd considering that calamari is fried squid, and what better place to order it than right off the coast in the small town of Seaside!
The Great Southern Cafe also makes a mean bowl of smoked gouda cheese grits, one of their signature side dishes that one simply can’t not try. I typically settle for a side of the grits and a small house salad, which is always filling with the calamari and drinks. The Executive usually orders a meal; this time he chose Grits À Ya Ya, a plate of blackened shrimp, applewood-smoked bacon, spinach, portobello mushrooms, and cream on a bed of smoked gouda cheese grits topped with sweet potato hay. No complaints were served to the gentleman a table over who recommended the Executive give it a try, claiming it was the only thing he ever ordered when visiting The Great Southern Cafe where the service is friendly, the food spot-on, and the livelihood never a disappointment.
We consumed our nights during our stay walking down to the beach while noticing the clarity of the sky above the ocean, the stars twinkling like fireworks above our heads and the moon at a glowing standstill seemingly larger and brighter than what we see back home. The highlight of our nights in the sand was when we watched a group of three older women vacationing together attempt to light floating lanterns off of the boardwalk, knowing all of the while that they were doing something completely insane. Sure enough, one of their lanterns didn’t take full flight and landed amongst the brush next to the stairs, immediately sparking slow moving, but ever-growing flames, which, left unattended, threatened to burn the entire boardwalk to the ground. The Executive, smart in his ways, ran over to throw sand on the flames as I dialed 911. Seeming to not care whether or not a fire actually existed, or perhaps being used to getting such calls in the wee hours of the morning, the fire department seemed as indifferent about the situation as the tipsy party of women who had nearly set the place ablaze. Thankfully, and with the help of one of the ladies, the Executive was able to put it out by smothering the flames with sand. At the very least, we should have scored some free beach chair and umbrella rentals during our stay.
Our final day we spent at Grayton Beach, visiting a rustic area right off of the ocean with a couple of restaurants, gorgeous beach houses, and The Zoo Gallery, a unique art and gift shop with a history dating back to 1979. I found a great pair of earrings there for only $12 which I will always cherish to remind me of my stay.
We ate at a new place that had just opened called Chiringo, which my husband had touted as a Spanish-style cuisine. I ordered a margarita (because it’s the beach and why the heck not during a mid-life crisis on a Monday), and we decided to share an entree. Although pricy at around $20-$30 a meal, the plates are a decent enough size to fill two. We ordered the Slow-Roasted Mojo Pork Bomba Rice Bowl, which came in a beautiful presentation with carrots, broccoli, asparagus, rice, and plantains. Hands down, this was probably some of the best food I have ever eaten in my life.
The meat was tender and full of flavor, melting in my mouth with an outpouring of flavor of garlic and herbed juices. The vegetables were on-point, cooked to a perfect crisp-tender, and the plantains (a first for me) were amazing! I can definitely say that out of all of the restaurants I have visited along 30A–probably out of all of the places I have been, ever–Chiringo is by far the best! The service was incredible, the waitress a local of Panama Beach who knew the food and exactly what we should order based on what we were in the mood for. The manager, Dallas, was a great character, friendly and helping his staff as he walked around chatting with the clientele. The bartender they call “Yak” because he claims to talk too much, but he was full of smiles with the kind of personality you expect when dining next to the ocean for a good time. Before leaving we walked up the winding staircase to the second floor where there is more seating with an even better view of the water with open windows and an area off to the side sporting astroturf and another set of tables for a bit of privacy.
After a walk down the street a bit to visit the white sand of the beach along 30A one last time, the Executive, as always, was needing a cup of coffee before hitting the road; myself, the writer, needing much the same. We decided to head a little down the road in Grayton Beach to Bad Ass Coffee Store where an artistic-looking barista with a short haircut, piercings and tattoos served us frozen drinks and an organic cookie made and packaged by a local bakery. We also decided to visit Lululemon a few doors down where I was able to pick up the coveted yoga mat I had been wanting for quite some time.
Although we started our short-lived trip off on a bad note, we definitely ended up telling the story of exactly how a Nashvillian rocks a mid-life crisis on 30A. I always take note of exactly how I feel the last time I see the ocean as it disappears into the horizon yet again as we drive away, never knowing when exactly we will return, and never fully ready to leave. The more we visit 30A and learn of the little local places off of the beaten path, the more I can’t wait to go back and adventure a little more often, perhaps next time with our kids in tow and a mid-life crisis which has sailed far off into the sea.