tips + how-tos
While a family gathering at home can feel stressful, somehow at the beach everything just flows more effortlessly; the prep and get togethers happen easily. Maybe it's the ocean breeze. Maybe it's the calming effect of having gone barefoot for days on end. Maybe it’s that it isn't our house. Whatever the reason, our end-of-trip dinners have become the highlight of my family's year -- and so can yours. For me, it starts at that lovely hour when the afternoon is hurrying to meet the night...
4 p.m. You deserve a beer. Ahhh. Take one last, relaxing moment to sit on the porch, looking out over the waves and sipping an IPA -- then it's time to get this party going!
4:30 p.m. Game time. No, literally! Set up bocce and horseshoes on the lawn to occupy folks while the grill heats up. Let the day's farmers' market fruits dictate what cocktail you'll make. Mix a virgin pitcher, too, using seltzer instead of alcohol.
5 p.m. As soon as the little ones get back to the house and get the sand hosed off, send them back out to collect flowers, sea grass and whatever pretty plants they can find for decoration. Plastic beach buckets become vases, and tables get adorned with the results of the botanical treasure hunt.
5:30 p.m. Set up chairs, tents, lights and torches. To add to the festive feeling, string Japanese paper lanterns around the outside of the tents. A few tiki torches will fend off mosquitoes, too.
6 p.m. As you and your cooking comrades chop and prep for dinner, place plates of cheese (the stinkier the better!) and fresh fruit on the kitchen counter. Then just fire up the grill and turn up the stereo.
7 p.m. As folks drift in and out of the kitchen, give them a task. At home you may be a "get out of my kitchen!" cook, but at the beach, let control issues sail away. Even the kids can pitch in. What's more fun than a corn-shucking contest?
8 p.m. Dinnertime! Encourage everyone to load up a plate and eat under the bobbing lanterns as the sun sets. Pop a bottle of wine -- little ones can clink glasses of sparkling juice -- and make a toast! This might become your favorite moment right here, sitting in the lamplight looking around the table at the people you love.
9 p.m. Time to clean up -- ha! That's what husbands are for! Those who didn't cook can do the washing, while the kids brush their teeth and head off to bed. Now is a good time for some friendly competition; may we suggest a Scrabble battle royale? Faint of heart need not apply. For the next hour, the porch is one wordy war zone.
10 p.m. Laughter and dancing are slowly replaced with sleepy yawns and long stretches. The cozy bed may beckon, but treat yourself to a relaxing bubble bath before finally saying goodnight.
OTHER IDEAS FOR YOUR BEACH GETAWAY
Set up a jewelry-making station at the beginning of the week with beading thread, tools, chains and earring hooks bought from the craft store. When people bring back shells from the beach, donate them to the jewelry efforts, and everyone goes home with something pretty.
Designate one night in the middle of the week as "no bedtime" night, when the kids can try their best to make it till dawn. Throw sleeping bags and pillows in the living room, rent a ton of movies, buy snacks from a fruit stand, and let the kids loose. You might think it will ruin their sleeping habits forever, but you'd be surprised. Most of them don’t make it past midnight.
Give every kid a journal to fill as he or she wishes. If your kids are partial to bird-watching, include a field guide and send them off to note their findings. They can also fill their journals with a cloud diary ("This one looked liked a T. rex!"), a log of funny quotes from the trip or a traditional travel journal in which they record their favorite memories. At day's end, they can compare notes.
Kiddie Cooking Class
Let young chefs help pick their favorite produce at the market -- and then prep it at home. (Pick up a few paper chef hats while you're shopping.) Jobs like washing veggies, shelling edamame, peeling grilled eggplant and cutting (or tearing) pita into wedges are all kid-satisfying duties -- and will get dinner on the table even faster.
Vacation-rental kitchens may come with the basics, but there are some things better brought from home.
Nothing will make you crazier than using dull knives. Not many beach houses will have good ones, and you're likely to spend the week cursing while trying to chop with steak knives. When in doubt, bring at least a chef's knife and paring knife.
Liquor stores often have a great selection, but if you're new to a vacation area, bring a couple of bottles of your favorite. Cheap beer is great for the beach, but you'll want something nice at least once during the week.
Olive Oil and Pepper
Olive oil will probably be marked way up at the nearest store. Pepper is something that's easy to forget, but you'll be glad you brought a pepper mill so you don't have to use the powdered stuff all week.
Coffee Filters -- and Coffee
All houses will have a coffeemaker, but typically not filters. If you like particularly strong coffee, go ahead and bring your own. (Serious javaphiles should consider toting beans and a grinder, too.)
Simplify Your Stay
Beat the Traffic
Look for a Sunday-to-Sunday rental instead of the common Saturday-to-Saturday. The traffic coming and going will be much lighter, and your last full day at the beach will be a Saturday. You wouldn't expect it, but no one is on the sand on Saturdays -- people are either leaving or haven't yet arrived.
Check the policies
Many beach houses have a "no house party" rule. This shouldn't be a problem for low-key family reunions, but if you want to invite more than a few friends over, check to make sure it's okay.
Pay for Cleaning
Most beach houses offer a cleaning service when you leave, for around $50. It seems like an unnecessary expense, but it's worth it. Leaving the scrubbing to someone else makes departing less stressful.
Leave a Memento
Most of these houses belong to real people. It makes a difference for them to know that happy memories are being created in their home. Leave a note thanking the owners: You may create lasting friendships over the years by doing so, and feel more connected to the houses you rent as a result. You can also leave a recipe you prepared in their kitchen or a souvenir from your hometown, like a local candy or jam.