I have written before about the family vacations of my childhood. Like most folks from the mountains of Southwest Virginia (or at least the ones in my life back then), our car knew only one direction to go when my parents decided it was time for my Dad’s few days off from work: south to Myrtle Beach.
Back then, I thought only two states existed: Virginia and South Carolina. I now assume we passed through North Carolina, but I don’t remember much about that part of the trip. One summer we went to some place called New Jersey to visit one of my Dad’s brothers, but that was the exception that proved the rule. Myrtle Beach was what you did when you left Christiansburg.
Our vacations were very simple, usually just three or four days, but planned for months in advance and greatly anticipated. My mother would always buy me a couple of new pairs of Bermuda shorts and tee shirts, among other preparations. I learned many years later that my Dad didn’t much care for the sand or the sun, so like much of his life, he did this trip for others: my Mom and me.
My first memories of Myrtle Beach were when it was still quaint and slow-paced, not at all resembling the D.C. beltway on steroids it became. We stayed in an old oceanfront boarding house, called the “Cheerio,” smack dab between other clapboard siding inns called the “Wee Blew Inn” and the “Murphys.” We took breakfast and dinner in the dining room, along with the six or seven other families staying there, served by “Mrs. Jeffries,” owner and proprietor and proud Charlestonian, in her 80’s.
Eventually, Mrs. Jeffries passed and her family apparently succumbed to market pressure and realized they only make so much oceanfront property. The beautiful old yellow frame house with green shutters and a huge porch 50 or so yards from the Atlantic was sold, razed, and replaced by an eight-story motel called the Boardwalk. We moved down the street three lots to a “fancy motor hotel” named the Cadillac Court. I remember my father complaining that the rate was $18 per night (compared to $12 at the Cheerio) and saying we “don’t get our meals either.”
My beach days consisted of riding a rented rubber raft under my mother’s watchful eye, rubbing my stomach raw while blistering my back (pre-sun screen days of course), while my Dad napped under a beach umbrella. Our nights were either spent sitting on the porch of the Cheerio on or the deck of the Cadillac Court and listening to the waves hit the shore, or riding rides and laughing at our reflections in the “funny mirrors” at the Pavilion (I heard it is no more, probably another victim of “higher and better use.”). In a word, our vacations in those long-ago days were “wholesome.” Apple pie and Chevrolets.
This column was prompted by my return from one of my favorite vacation spots of recent years, Key West, the southernmost city, the end of the world, not known for wholesomeness. That is not the word to describe it. Lots of other words fit Key West, but I’ll just say it isn’t my Dad’s beach vacation. I do highly recommend it for fun and laughs and good times, though.
This makes the second year in a row that my friend Jo and I decided that the Keys are a better place to be in February than north central West Virginia or western Pennsylvania. Two days before we left it was eight degrees here. Regrettably, it was not as cold at home the week we were gone as you wish on your friends left behind. But 73 to 77 degrees every day with no clouds was hard to beat and even harder to leave.
We did several of the historical things Key West has to offer: the Hemingway House (replete with 57 6-toed cats), the Butterfly Conservatory (better than it sounds), the Shipwreck Museum (We learned that much of Key West’s early wealth was accumulated by latter-day pirates plundering transport ships run aground on the surrounding reefs), and the Conch Train Tour. Read about the origins of the “Conch Republic” if you get the chance.
And we also did many of the hysterical things Key West offers: hanging out in “dive bars“ (That’s how Google Maps describes most of them. I’m told there are 86 on Duval Street, which runs 1.8 miles from the Atlantic to the Gulf.), having drinks with lots of snowbirds like us and some of the eclectic locals, going to Mallory Square at sunset with everyone else in town and seeing some of the most bizarre forms of entertainment imaginable, listening to struggling musicians in almost every bar (Nashville it is not, with a few exceptions).
I will not list all the watering spots Joanne and I visited, but if you’re there for the first time, you should sit on a stool in Sloppy Joe’s (1937), Captain Tony’s (the location of the original Sloppy Joe’s from 1933 – 1937 and Hemingway’s favorite spot), the Green Parrot (opened in 1890 and seems to never close), First Flight (original home of Pan-American Airlines, so named because of the flights it made from Key West to Havana “in the day”). And I have to mention Irish Kevin’s, but don’t go there if you’re from New Jersey. You get treated rudely if you admit it (why would you?)
We topped off the week this year with a bucket list item: a live Jimmy Buffett concert in a small amphitheater on the water. Nothing like spending a few hours with aging Parrot Heads in paradise. There will not be many more opportunities like that I fear.
I suspect Key West isn’t for everyone. Anything goes and no one judges anyone. Different strokes for different folks. But I heartily recommend it for people watching and people meeting (I didn’t realize Iowa had so many folks.) and for a temporary escape from the real world. And remember, Key West isn’t your Daddy’s Myrtle Beach.