Two If By Sea

It’s hard not to love the beach. It’s everybody’s favorite destination. As soon as schools let out, families load up the station wagon until the shocks start to creak and the kids complain about leg room. They flock to the beach like their ass is on fire and the only extinguisher is beautiful blue seawater. They block up the highways and drive like it’s their first time operating a vehicle in the civilized world. After all, when you’re on vacation, you ‘re also on vacation from traffic laws and common roadway courtesy. I am no exception to that stereotype. The flocking to the beach thing, not the driving like an asshole thing.

Having spent a good deal of my life in Greece, the beach was commonplace. Mundane, even. I don’t think I appreciated it enough when I had it because when I moved back to the mainland southeastern United States, I felt like a very important part of me was suddenly missing. No amount of Lake Lanier or Tennessee River could fill that gaping void. The ocean isn’t just a body of water, it’s a lifestyle. That sounds like a cheesy bumper sticker or something you find painted on a seafoam green rustic-style wooden plank decoration you might find at Bed Bath & Beyond for $19.99. (You see? I was pretty close.) It’s true though. I don’t blame people for loving that sweet beachy lifestyle. I don’t judge the coastal artwork or the cutesie rhymes because my bedroom (which can be found in remarkably mainland Madison, Alabama) is basically a sacred shrine to all things oceanic. Everything from my quilt to the artwork is sky blue and belongs in a Tommy Bahama magazine advertisement.

Still, it’s funny to come out to Orange Beach every year and marvel at the tourism. I know the oceanfront isn’t my home anymore but somehow tourists are still tourists in my eyes. Somehow they’re different from me, even though I myself am no more than tourist to Orange Beach. Maybe it’s all the men and women wearing brightly colored hibiscus-patterned clothing and seashell necklaces, even though they would never wear something that flamboyant at home. Wearing something out of character is oddly common in popular vacation destinations. People like to dress the part, especially since they may never see their fellow vacationers again. When in Vegas, you wear the sequined mini dress and the costume jewelry. When at Coachella, you wear the flower crown and the high-rise denim cutoffs. When on the beach, you wear anything with flowers and palm trees. Maybe it’s the strong smell of Banana Boat SPF 75 sunscreen every time I pass someone on the street. Maybe it’s the massive coolers and canopy setups they insist on dragging through the sand because it’s impossible to enjoy a day at the beach without setting up your own personal cabana. I’ll add here that I’ve seen more than my fair share of canopies get utterly leveled by improper setup and unforeseen wind conditions. A little schadenfreude is part of the fun. I’m a pretty simple beachcomber, though. When I was living in Greece, a day at the beach meant throwing on a swimsuit, slinging a towel over my shoulder, and hoofing it in my flip flops. Sure, it was a little more complicated in Athens. The beach was not within walking distance from the suburbs so I would have to take the train. That may have required a better pair of shoes and a small shoulder bag for my essentials (phone, wallet, keys). Naturally, it was a little strange to finally visit a beach in the U.S. and see that people pack for a day at the beach as though they were packing for a weekend camping trip. It’s fun to watch actually. Adorable, even.

This year, though, we did something less traditional for our beach trip. Over the last few years, we’ve gone with a large group and rented a small house on the beach with lots of bedrooms, a gated community lot, and a walkable path to the ocean. It was beautiful, convenient, and a little chaotic at times. Last year, though, we were exploring the inland region of Orange Beach, also known as uncharted territory for most vacationers here, and found a whole new microcosm of fun things to do. The inland region of Orange beach is home to the Perdido Bay, a small inlet that leads straight into the Gulf of Mexico. Incidentally, it’s home to a lot of fishing docks, yacht clubs, and less expensive living arrangements for people who like the ocean but don’t need to be within walking distance from it. We were mainly on the lookout for a fun shopping district and came across just that when we found The Wharf. This place was fantastic! An outdoor shopping mall filled with small businesses (you won’t find an Alvin’s Island or a Surf Style anywhere near here) where I could shop for unique art, jewelry, and other such useless trinkets that I love. It has a ferris wheel, a great little coffee shop, and an adorable yacht club and marina where I could sit around and watch boats from the restaurants. It was an absolute dream and it reminded me of being back in Greece even more than the house on Perdido Beach Boulevard did. At the end of the shopping center, we spotted a grand building that looked like either a resort or an apartment building, many stories high. We wondered if the rooms were available for rental and decided to think about it for next year. The Wharf may not be on the beach, but it’s something different, you know? I’m all about trying something different. We took the plunge, did some research, and rented a modest little one-bedroom apartment for next year. It was less than half the cost of renting a house on the beach and twice as interesting. By the beard of Poseidon, it was the best decision we ever made.

As soon as we took the elevator to the seventh floor and I saw the view just from our front door, I knew we couldn’t have gone wrong. The entire shopping center sprawled beneath us and I could see all the way to the familiar resorts along the beach. They decorated the horizon like a small cityscape. It was delightfully eerie. Like being there and not being there all at the same time. When we got inside the apartment, I was even more delighted. The apartment is modest but so beautifully laid out and decorated. It’s actually pretty cozy! It has everything you need. Stainless steel appliances, a washer and dryer, a balcony with a view…oh, that balcony. I could live just on the balcony. When I walked outside, it as obvious to me where the money went. The balcony overlooks the marina filled with yachts below, the waterway passes right in front so I could watch boats come and go to my heart’s satisfaction, and it features a damn near perfect view of the sunset. The beach house did not feature a view of the sunset. It didn’t even feature a view of the ocean. It featured a view of the rest of the housing complex. You could see the ocean if you leaned far enough, but it was only a glimpse of the blue water. This little resort out in the middle of the inlet is like our buried treasure. It’s just far enough from the Gulf to avoid the beach resort chaos and vacation traffic but close enough that the beach is only a short drive away. Nobody bothers to come out here but they have no idea what they’re missing. In fact, they can stay right where they are. This place is freaking great and I need it every year.

We’ve spent several days here and I’ve already decided that I need to buy an apartment in this building and a boat. Obviously. I mean the marina is right there. Everybody else has a boat. They are surprisingly inexpensive but completely intangible to someone who cannot find work in Orange Beach, Alabama (i.e. Terryn and myself). With graduate school coming up and Terryn already balls-deep in a software engineering career, it’s unlikely that we can drop everything and move to the beach to open a bakery or fish for a living. Still, I reserve the right to occasionally put my head up my own ass and browse Zillow for affordable apartments in Orange Beach.

We did take a day trip to Pensacola for a slight change of scenery. Pensacola surprised me. It’s a much older city, so the overall atmosphere was wildly different from that in Orange Beach. Everything was more historical, the city was a little less well-maintained (owed in part to the fact that it’s older in general), and oddly enough we ran out of things to do after we decided not to spend the whole day on the beach and explore the inner city instead. That may have worked in Orange Beach, but it didn’t work so well in Pensacola. The main attraction in Pensacola is the beach. We had made a reservation at the Grand Marlin, a well-loved seafood restaurant that sits right on the water, but it was for 5:00pm. We had brunch at Another Broken Egg so that I could buy a mug—I collect them in every city—and made for Gulf Breeze. Gulf Breeze isn’t quite Pensacola, but strangely it is where Pensacola Beach is located (also alien abductions, but I cannot confirm that). We spent a lot of time walking up and down the piers, watching people fish, and spotting sea life down in the water below. We didn’t bring swimming attire so we couldn’t take advantage of the wonderfully shallow and warm water. We figured we would have plenty else to do in the city. When we made our way inland, we found that Pensacola proper had a lot of construction going on, which made navigation difficult. The city itself had surprisingly few attractions. The Seville Quarter featured some historical buildings and small businesses. We savored a crepe at a truly quaint bakery and coffee shop. We explored a few shops and walked several blocks just to take in the environment. Soon, though, we decided to return to the beach in Gulf Breeze as there was little else to do in the city that we knew of. Maybe we hadn’t done enough research or maybe there just isn’t that much to do in a city where the main attraction is the beach. We had a lot of fun, regardless. You won’t always find gold when you go prospecting, but you can still enjoy the scenery. The Grand Marlin was everything we hoped it would be. Our table was right on the railing, so we had an immediate view of the ocean below. The menu at the Grand Marlin changes daily, as it often corresponds to what kind of fresh fish the restaurant manages to source on that day and its market price. I ordered the market snapper with whipped potatoes and a buttery caper sauce. Terryn ordered the seared yellowfin tuna with wasabi potatoes and bok choy. We both sampled one another’s dishes and collectively decided that both were positively delicious but we were also both glad we ordered the one that we ordered and not vice versa. I love a good ruby red tuna, but I don’t get enough snapper and grouper at home. When I’m on the Gulf I go nuts with ordering fish that I don’t have easy and fresh access to at home.

Speaking of fish, did I mention that we actually did not visit many seafood restaurants while we were here? It’s amazing what can be accomplished if you have a room with gas grill and an excellent view of the water and the sunset. It was obvious. Why go to a restaurant with a view half as good and fish twice as expensive when we could go down to Blalock Seafood, buy a pound of fresh market fish for $15 to $20 a pound, and cook it on the grill at the apartment with a $4.00 bottle of Beringer Chardonnay while we watch boats? That we did, and it was just perfect. On one night, we grilled a filet of grouper, a filet of mahi-mahi, zucchini, and corn on the cob. I opted to use as few herbs and spices as possible because the last thing I want to do is cover up the flavor of a fresh fish with aromatics and spices. I used only olive oil, salt, and a little bit of cracked black pepper. Just enough to enhance the flavor, without masking it. The fish cooked really nicely on the grill so I supplemented the cooked fish with a drizzle made with onion, fresh dill, and olive oil. This is the same recipe my parents always used when they cooked fish on the grill and it is absolutely foolproof no matter what kind of fish you have. The finished product was so delicious, we returned to Blalock for more. The second time, they had red snapper. I jumped on it right away because snapper always sells out the fastest. We cooked it the same way and once again it turned out perfectly. Flaky, flavorful, and fresh. It was truly some of the best grilled fish I’ve ever had and I quickly decided that going to a restaurant for the same product wouldn’t have been worth it. It was a good decision.

The rest of the time I spent at the beach was mostly spent watching the boats with my chair pulled all the way up to the railing and a cup of coffee/beer/sparkling water in my hand. There is something about watching boats that’s ridiculously therapeutic to me. Everything from one-man paddleboats to huge fuel barges will float by on the waterway and I can’t help but watch them float along until they disappear on the other end of the canal. I love listening to the low rumble of the larger engines and the startling sound of the horn. I love watching the wake of a massive barge gently rock the comparatively tiny yachts in the marina. I never expected our “alternative” plan to be soo much more satisfying than the “traditional” plan, but it just goes to show how important it is to try new things and explore new areas. You could go somewhere every year and still not fully realize what’s really there. I can already tell you that when we come back to Orange Beach for vacation again, we’re coming right the hell back to The Wharf. I’ve decided the beauty of the beach isn’t necessarily the sea or the sand. Damn it, it’s the boats. 

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