Beach House Diaries: A Shore Thing

Beach House Diaries logo
Beach House Diaries logo

By Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb

Each week writer Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb will report on summer beach house life from her vacation home on Pictou Island, Nova Scotia. Follow along for a glimpse of the shore, plus tips on what to pack, how to entertain guests and how to relax at your own beach house.

Say "beach house" and a mental Instagram -- all warm tones and soft corners -- pops into most minds. Imbued with nostalgia, the phrase conjures up an appealingly retro brand of relaxation. Yet choosing to retreat to one can also resolve a decidedly modern dilemma -- or at least it did in my case.

curly haired dog sitting is a yellow kayak on the water
curly haired dog sitting is a yellow kayak on the water

You see, I started out as an English professor and, much as I loved teaching, it meant I spent more time with other people's grown children than my two young ones. Reinventing myself as an at-home freelance writer solved that problem but posed a question: specifically, how do you kick back in your own house when it doubles as your office? Because I typically focus on travel, even family vacations offered little respite. Trips morphed into assignments, with me secretly taking notes or sneaking off to review hotels like a word-addled addict.

So a beach house -- a hybrid of home and away, at once refreshingly different and reassuringly familiar -- provided the answer to my A-type prayers. Realizing that took longer than finding an actual property. The perfect one had been waiting for me all along at Pictou Island, a sliver of land halfway between Prince Edward Island and the Nova Scotia mainland on Canada's east coast. In my father's family for generations, it had been unused since the last of his lot traded lobster-fishing gear for a law degree decades before.

Their old salt-bleached homestead was beyond repair. So 10 years ago, my husband and I decided to replace it with a bare-bones cottage just large enough to sustain our party of four through summer weekends and the occasional stolen week. Needless to say, on an island where you can't so much as buy a stick of gum, let alone the requisite stacks of wood, building even a small place is a big commitment. All materials had to be barged in. The dilapidated pickup we use to navigate the island's single dirt road arrived the same way.

Some people might wonder why we bothered, considering that the result is basically a 20-by-30-foot, off-the-grid box bordered by a broad strip of sand. Clearly such extreme cottaging isn't everyone's cup of tea. Snooki's crew would not be impressed; ditto for the Cape-Codding Kennedys. The thing about any beach abode, though, is that, whether it's an MTV-style mansion, an upper-crust compound, Grandma's timeshare condo or my Walden-esque cabin, it holds the same promise: the chance to escape life's usual demands.

For my family, that translates into quiet and quality togetherness time. On Pictou Island we can (in theory, at least) lay aside the smart phones, the laptops, the iPads and all those gadgets now deemed mandatory almost everywhere else. If we let ourselves go with the proverbial flow, we can even remove our watches and relearn how to tell time by the tides. Like those tides, however, every beach vacation has its ups and downs. And I'm not only talking about sand flies, sunburns and jellyfish.

Striking the right balance so that relaxation doesn't give way to restlessness can be an ongoing challenge. Eager to subdue my workaholic impulses, I make my annual shore pilgrimage intending to "simplify," and, when all goes well, I do. Some days I'll spend soulful hours collecting sea glass with my son or stopping to smell the roses with my daughter (literally, as beautiful banks of wild ones grow here). But some days, when my mood or the weather clouds over, I'll listlessly wish the liquor store weren't so far away.

Anyone who has ever owned, rented or borrowed a holiday home knows that trying to protect your hard-won private time when faced with an influx of company -- and there will be company -- is another issue. Certain overnighters are welcomed with open arms; others not so much. (If my own guests don't know which category they fall into, then I'm a better hostess than I thought!) Even without visitors, prepping to take this kind of summer sojourn can require a level of planning usually reserved for military operations.

I know how lucky I am to have this chance. And I'll count my blessings. Well, I will as soon as I've packed the cooler, found that missing flipflop, loaded the car, dodged the outbound traffic, and finally made my ferry.

Traveling to a beach house this summer? Tell us where you're going in the comments below, and be sure to read Susan's tips on what to pack when staying at a vacation home.

See more about summer vacation on AOL Travel:
10 Summer Beach House Packing Tips
Summer Travel Odds: We Know What You'll Be Doing this Year
Road Trip: Driving the Prairie

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Inside Look: The Beach Box
Inside Look: The Beach Box