American Journeys

A Town for All Seasons

By Natalie Wexler
Sunday, September 22, 2002

Planning a family vacation has never, to put it mildly, been one of my favorite activities. It was bad enough when the kids were toddlers, but now that they--and my husband--are able to articulate their desires, pet peeves and nonnegotiable demands, trying to please all parties is a task worthy of Colin Powell. I start each seasonal bout of planning with upturned brow and shining eyes, certain that this time I'll come up with the Platonic ideal of a vacation spot: a pleasant and somewhat exotic setting where the four of us are able to achieve a communal harmony that generally eludes us in more familiar surroundings, such as our house. But usually I end up with my head on my desk, surrounded by guidebooks I have hurled to the floor in frustration.

Take last winter. My 11-year-old daughter, Sophie, was determined to go skiing. All of her friends already knew how to ski, she complained, with a fifth-grader's acute consciousness of the privileges accorded her peers and denied her, and it just wasn't fair that her family never went skiing. Of course, there was always a chance that Sophie would take one look at a snow-covered mountain and get--so to speak--cold feet (I'm not even going to go into what happened at the Eiffel Tower the previous summer). And my husband and I basically view skiing as an invitation to suicide.

Besides, temperatures were well into the sixties all over the East Coast in November, meaning that the only sure way of encountering snow was to fly somewhere. And in the wake of September 11 my husband, Jim, had announced that he had no intention of getting on a plane. Plus, we don't celebrate Christmas, and Jim--although in other respects far from curmudgeonly--has an aversion to holiday hoopla: He declared that he wasn't going anyplace where Christmas was going to be a big deal. This, of course, rendered most of the Western Hemisphere off-limits.

But then Jim remarked that he wouldn't mind driving south somewhere. Suddenly I knew where I wanted to go: Charleston, S.C., a city I had been yearning to visit for years, ever since a job involving historical research had plunged me into the late 18th century, when Charleston was in its heyday. It could work: I couldn't guarantee Jim an absence of Christmas paraphernalia, but at least we could avoid most of it by spending Christmas Day on the road. Obviously, skiing wouldn't be on the agenda, but temperatures in Charleston were hitting 80: If there was one thing that would distract Sophie from her skiing idee fixe, it was swimming. And the exoticism requirement of my Platonic ideal could be more than satisfied: The South is

arguably the most culturally distinctive region of the country, and I was the only member of the family who'd ever been there. Surely it was time the others got a taste of the place's unique charm. I began to imagine, dreamily, walking the same cobblestones that had been trod by the great names of Charleston's rich history--Rutledges, Moultries, Pinckneys, Izards--and exploring those grand old 18th-century houses, still lovingly preserved.

Then my 14-year-old son, Sam--whose existence occasionally slips my mind--emerged briefly from his techno-lair in the basement. "I don't care where we go," he said with a shrug, "but I really don't like looking at old houses."

Okay. Fine. It could still work. Wasn't Charleston close to a string of beach-and-golf resorts? Couldn't we stay in one of those, appeasing Sam with tennis and Sophie with swimming (none of us plays golf), and then coaxing them out for brief forays into Charleston, where we could expose them to old houses in manageable doses?

I settled on a resort called Wild Dunes--largely because it was on the northern side of Charleston and would be a few minutes closer to D.C. With a nine-hour road trip ahead of us, every mile would count. And the reservation clerk assured me that swimming was more than possible: While none of the resort's 22 pools was indoors, two of them were heated. Even if the temperature reverted to its usual high of 60 in December, we (or Sophie, at least) could still take a dip.

The trip down was drearier than I'd expected, thanks to the monotony of I-95 and the apparent seriousness with which the South celebrates Christmas. Far from being bombarded with holiday cheer, we couldn't even find an open McDonald's. By dinnertime we had long since exhausted our emergency supply of peanut butter and jelly and were in need of some serious nourishment. We drove hopefully into South of the Border, an imitation-Mexican extravaganza just inside the South Carolina line that attempts to whip travelers into a frenzy of anticipation with a series of increasingly hysterical road signs. Whatever its attractions on a normal day, on Christmas night it was grim: a few dazed and unsavory-looking customers waiting without enthusiasm for fast-food burritos. What kind of people come to a place like this on Christmas, I found myself wondering? Of course, there we were, but we had an excuse: Judaism. The rest of the crowd looked like they'd been booted from the family table and had the door triple-locked behind them.

Sophie, charmed by the kitschy gift shops, was in favor of staying, but we decided to venture back across the state line to see what North Carolina might have to offer. There, glowing with good cheer and holiday tinsel, stood a Waffle House--as familiar a sight as kudzu in the South. The customers appeared actually to have chosen to spend their holiday watching a short-order cook sling waffles (I later discovered that going to the Waffle House on Christmas is something of a Southern tradition). Even Jim's aversion to yuletide merriment seemed to waver in the face of the waitress's unexpected warmth. Ah, the power of Southern hospitality.

Wild Dunes itself--a vast domain of beach houses, townhouses and mid-rise apartment buildings on the Isle of Palms, across the harbor from Charleston--was freezing and largely deserted when at last we got there. The unseasonable warmth had just given way to record-breaking cold, with highs around 50. Construction workers seemed to outnumber guests by 3 to 1, and much of the building that housed our condo was covered in scaffolding. If it wasn't exactly a ghost town, it was close. (Some of the few other people we encountered looked strangely familiar; they turned out to be Sam's former Little League coach and his family--neighbors of ours in D.C.--who happened to be staying in the condo next door.)

It soon became clear, though, that there were advantages to a beach resort off-season. Our brochure informed us that we were entitled to two hours of tennis court time per day, but when we stopped by the tennis shop to make a reservation, the young man behind the counter, wearing a Citadel sweat shirt, merely shrugged. "I'd be very surprised if we were full today," he said, surveying the 17 pristine Har-Tru courts, all of them empty. If we'd had any interest in golf, I imagine a tee time would have been ours for the asking. And the two steaming heated pools, which Sophie was eyeing longingly, were also deserted. Of course, there was a reason for that: When I asked a desk clerk at the resort's hotel whether people actually swam in this weather, she deadpanned, "Sure--crazy people."

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