I think somebody had too many egg cups. That must be how it started. They were silver-plated egg cups, maybe, with rosettes stamped in and a little fluting around the edges. An elderly aunt had bequeathed them, passing them to her least offensive nephew, and then expired.
Now, a normal person, upon being confronted with 18 silver fluted egg cups, is going to smile politely and put them on a very high shelf. But the egg cups, I am sorry to say, fell into the wrong hands. The egg cups fell into the hands of an abnormal person, a person who found in them a great and compelling inspiration, and that is why the national landscape is littered today with lodgings that look like your elderly aunt's dining room.
I am speaking, of course, of the contemporary North American bed-and-breakfast inn. In England these were a swell idea. English bed-and-breakfasts are usually frumpish little places where you can get up in the morning and shuffle downstairs to eat greasy fried eggs in somebody's rumpus room.
They like children. They don't cost very much. They are not what we have here. What we have here are 17-room Victorians furnished in the kind of chairs that history museums rope off with little gold braids. We have hand-polished silver brush and comb sets here, and sherry decanters made out of cut crystal, and leather-bound copies of "David Copperfield" for your reading pleasure.
I ask you. You want to read "David Copperfield" on your vacation? You want to sign over your weekly paycheck so you can tiptoe around a bedroom full of spindly things that look like they're going to smash to smithereens if you're the type who can't see too well in the morning? The last bed-and-breakfast my husband and I stayed in actually had price tags hanging off every item in the room. The bedside lamps were $185 each. I think the idea was to promote the excellent craftsmanship of the artisans who had made them, but neither of us could shake the feeling that we had lodged for the night in the preview salon at Sotheby's.
Bed-and-breakfasts like to serve you little glasses of wine at 5 o'clock in the afternoon while you "socialize" with the other guests. This is not, in my view, a vacation. This is a cocktail party. A vacation involves Mexican beer and old gym shorts and a T-shirt that still has barbecue sauce on the sleeve. A vacation also involves children, a lot of the time, and at most of the California bed-and-breakfasts you might as well be asking permission to berth your pet Brahman bull.
In our family there are four of us -- one of whom is 15 months old and in fact bears certain motor similarities to smallish Brahman bulls -- and as far as we can see, a proper vacation requires only one kind of lodgings. We need what the guidebooks call "cottages." This is a little misleading, since it calls up visions of nice gingerbread trim and overhanging vines; we have had some terrific times in what look like the kind of living quarters muckrakers used to get indignant about during the Depression.
But that's the point. When you're unloading the van with someone who has a hard time conceiving of a sofa as anything but major gymnastic equipment, gingerbread is not on the checklist. Here's what is:
Refrigerator and working stove. Bent checkerboard in cupboard. Floor suitable for shuffling over with sand between all toes. Chair suitable for slouching into with Travis McGee mystery in one hand and Dos Equis Dark in the other. Direct access to outside, such that small person can nap while large person reclines in warm breezes; as correlate, so that large person may focus gaze, view toward something green (e.g. tree), something blue (e.g. water) or, in felicitous circumstances, both.
I am grieved to report that the single best North American rendition of this theme got wiped out five years ago in Hurricane Iwa. The cottages were called the Garden Isle, and they sat at the borders of a small coastal lagoon on the sunny side of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Garden Isle still rents cottages, I am told, and I expect they are exemplary, but they have never rebuilt the lagoonside places with the batik bedspreads and pretty bark paintings on the walls. You could shlump from the beach to the shade of your front room without ever lifting your eyes from the pages of your mystery novel, and nobody ever tapped on your door to tell you wine was being served in the gazebo.
The second best cottages, I would have to say, are on San Juan Island, off the coast of Washington State. The name of the place is Lonesome Cove, which is accurate in a pleasant sort of way; from the main island road, which is certainly no superhighway, a gravelly path leads you down toward the water and the duck pond and a small curved line of haplessly lovely little log cabins, each one just over the water and set amidst great pine trees. The waters of Puget Sound are approximately the temperature of the Bering Straits, but all you want to do at Lonesome Cove is wander around the beach, or read books in the little library the owners have stocked, or sit on the deck grilling enormous Pacific shrimp that the sunburned blond lady sells off her boat in town.
We found Lonesome Cove on the rebound, which is largely to say that scoping cottages out long-distance is a bit of a crapshoot. Nobody puts together big four-color paperbacks entitled, "Homely Rental Cottages of the West." I thought Lonesome Cove's predecessor sounded sort of charming -- fishing boats nearby, that kind of thing -- until we pulled up at sundown and discovered that the fishing boats were sort of leaking oil onto the front stoop, and the kitchen curtains were drawn to keep the outdoor spotlight from throwing the indoor crawling things into excessive relief.
"Win some, lose some," I said to my husband, but he was laughing too hard to hear me. We had an interesting time that night. The man in the fishing store did not refund our three-day deposit; nobody else had come to rent the cottage, he said, and in truth it was hard not to believe him. He probably hadn't seen marks like us in months.
I don't remember the precise advertising description of Seeping Grotto, or whatever our cozy fishing village was called, but it probably used the word "rustic." In the cottage-hunting business, you want to watch out for "rustic." Rustic might mean knotty pine on the headboards, which is what you would like to think it means, but more often it means, "No extra charge for flush toilets."
"Charming" is a pretty good buzzword. In my experience people rarely have the nerve to call a place "charming" when it is perfectly plain that the county health department is about to move in; they might call it "cozy," which as any first-time homebuyer knows is a euphemism for you-know-what, but they will not venture to remark upon its charm. Frommer guides are full of references to variously charming places, and should you happen on a Frommer guide to a cottagey sort of locale, the readers' selections tend to point you to the kind of lodgings we're after here. Readers notice the right details. "Plumeria tree drops petals on the front porch."
It was a Frommer's that steered us to the Nona Lani cottages on Maui, which is an island rich with characterless second-story condominiums; we considered it a major coup to be lounging about on an old front porch where plumeria trees did in fact drop petals into our dinner plates. Our son trotted around the cabins chasing exotic-looking pigeony birds, the beach lay just across the road, and when the mood seized us we grilled fresh tuna at the barbecue and felt a small wave of sympathy for the unfortunates down at the Sheraton.
Places that used to be fashionable, as long as they were never fashionable with the really rich, have great cottages. You want to stay away from the newly trendy; anybody sets up lodgings now, they're going to go with the $185 bedside lamps. The Florida coast is a good bet -- we found a place in St. Petersburg that opened out onto a vast swath of beach and a children's playground, both of which had been neatly incorporated into the cottage's front yard.
The Russian River in northern California is excellent cottage territory too. Not much cachet to the Russian River; Italians used to take their families there for the summer and then didn't any more, so that now the river banks are loaded up with places like Southside Resort, which is 85 years old and has a bunch of yellow cabins with chipped linoleum floors and folding tables in the kitchen.
I like the Southside Resort. If you sit at the kitchen folding table in No. 10 and push back the curtains, you can see the river and the thick tops of trees. In the summer there are children yelling outside, and bathing suits drying on the front porch railings. The Southside Resort people don't serve breakfast, but if they did, it would be a bowl of corn flakes. Nobody would expect you to look presentable before you showed up to eat it, either.