I have faithfully maintained that couples ought to take a vacation together every 20 years or so, whether they need one or not. So this summer, my husband and I decided to “carpe diem,” as they say in Yiddish. Three of our kids were away, and the fourth could fend for himself, although the houseplants and the dog would end up paying the ultimate penalty. We set out for a week-long second honeymoon, giddy with excitement to claim such a heady stretch of time by ourselves, for ourselves, to celebrate our anniversary.
We were a seriously vacation-deprived couple. For years, we had only ventured on weekend jaunts with the kids in nearby mountain enclaves, staying in joints named "Casa D'Pine Cone," decorated with antlers and lampshades etched with names of cheap American beers. The lamps were slung so low that even short people like me were liable to bang their heads frequently. Sometimes I wondered if the lamps were strategically placed this way to induce amnesia in guests who would forget about the flimsy, child-sized towels, cheap soap the shape and size of quarters, and unspeakably bad coffee.
We felt fully deserving of staying in a classy place on this trip.
Naturally, we felt fully deserving of staying in a classy place on this trip. We rhapsodized about our trip, and I imagined wrapping myself in a plush, hotel-issued cushy robe and after showering with perfumed soap with French labels. (So what if the soap really just came from Hoboken, New Jersey?) But our destination was a long drive, so for the first two nights my husband and I parked ourselves in a cabin in a state park along the fabled California coastline. After our stint savoring the wonders of nature, we'd upgrade to our 4-star hotel, whose web site featured photos of smiling guests clad in those alluringly opulent robes, sipping wine by their Jacuzzis. They looked happy and affluent. They looked the way we hoped to look, at least for a few days.
The cabins offered us déjà vu all over again. Almost immediately, we started hitting our heads against the fake Tiffany-style lamp in the kitchen as we unloaded our food. The mattress was unforgiving, as if determined to stiffen our spines, though it also sloped in the middle, ensuring unintended collisions that tested the peace of even the strongest marriage.
Despite these vexations, we were utterly and completely captivated by the surrounding natural beauty. As city-dwelling Jews, our systems were shocked by exposure to the foreign substance called “fresh air.” All this breathing of pine-scented freshness wore us out, and we required frequent naps.
During our wakeful moments, we took pictures of each other in front of redwoods so massive we looked no bigger than toys standing in front of them. We hiked, and enthusiastically pointed out scrub jays, woodpeckers and other wildlife whose names we learned by looking at posters in the nature center. Thank God the kids weren't with us. They'd have laughed their heads off that we were getting cheap thrills by identifying monarch butterflies. We also loved the novel sensation of having total strangers smile at us for no reason along the trails. In the city, people who smile at you for no reason are usually lunatics. In the mountains, people smile at you because, unlike you, they have ditched their BlackBerrys and have learned to calm down.
Alas, no sooner had we adjusted to the fresh air and camaraderie of our fellow nature lovers then it was time to head north to our oasis of European sophistication and grand marble bathrooms. The hotel bellman was dressed in a stuffy suit with epaulets worthy of a 19th-century grandee, and he majestically flung open the door of our room, revealing the elegance we had anticipated: mile-high carpeting, complicated entertainment center that we didn't know how to turn on, and a bed so high I’d need a running start to jump up and into it. No more waiting for Dirk, the maintenance guy at the cabins, who made almost hourly visits to fix our oven, give us working light bulbs, and coax the shower head to provide hot water.
Inexplicably, no sooner had the bellman pocketed his tip and left the room then my husband and I looked at each other and knew, in the way of long-married couples, that we were thinking the same thing. Marble bathroom or no marble bathroom, we wanted to hightail it back to our humble cabin. Sure, the hotel spa dangled the lure of sea mineral exfoliation treatments, but as prisoners of a traffic-choked, stressed-out city life the rest of the year, nothing said "vacation" more than our strolls in the woods, laboring over nothing more arduous than staying alert for a possible woodpecker sighting. Heck, we even missed Dirk, who had become almost like family. Besides, it’s endearing to meet a man secure enough to wear a hairstyle that could only have been fashioned using a blunt instrument and a bowl.
We had complete conversations uninterrupted by kids, dogs, phones, or text messages.
After two nights in our luxury digs, we returned to our folksy bunk in the woods. “What’s wrong with us?” I asked my husband as we drove back. “We’re Jewish. We’re supposed to like quality, and here we are, choosing to go back to the set of Deliverance.”
“True," my husband agreed. “But life’s too short not to hike to gorgeous waterfalls as often as possible.”
That evening, as we ate dinner on the porch, we saw a skunk ambling toward us. We were riveted by the sight of him, but suddenly, he turned and scrambled away. I wonder: did he find the aroma of my dinner offensive? For the rest of our vacation, we reveled in having complete conversations with each other, uninterrupted by kids, the dog, the phone, and text message alerts. We tried to stock up on that feeling of utter blissed-out relaxation that might not be ours again for another 20 years.
We didn't go on vacation to learn anything in particular, but by the end, we did learn that sometimes, true luxury is simply in the air.