It’s been over a year since I left my home of 30 years, San Francisco, and I have yet to put down any permanent roots. Officially, home is in Tennessee, but I’ve been spending lots of time in New England, took a summer road trip out to Utah for a few weeks, and have found myself repeatedly drawn to Florida. I’ve always been drawn to the ocean, and the easy access to beautiful swimming beaches, warm waters, and soft sand has made Florida a serious contender for a place I think I’d like to live.
And so, toward the end of summer, I rented an AirBnB apartment in Ormond-by-the-Sea, a somewhat more exclusive enclave of Ormond Beach, just north of Daytona. I was a little worried about renting a place for a month sight unseen, but the photos on AirBnB looked great and the reviews were stellar, so I took the leap and found my way to the Aquarius Apartments in mid-August. There was a reserved parking space in the underground lot, and I used a conveniently provided luggage trolley to empty my entire car in one fell swoop, rolling it all onto the elevator and up to the 5th floor of this 10 story high-rise.
I’d rented a 2 bedroom, beachfront apartment and my biggest regret was that none of my friends could come and make use of the second bedroom. The problem with being retired is that I have all this time on my hands, but no one to play with, since virtually everyone I know is still working. From my balcony I had an amazing view of the ocean and the pool and I could of course hear the sound of the ocean 24/7.
The building itself was very quiet and I was told by the manager that since schools were starting up again soon, occupancy was very low. Indeed, I almost always had the pool entirely to myself late in the afternoon and at sunset, and though the beach got a little busy on the weekends, the weekdays were serene. I made a psychological observation on the crowded weekends when families set up camp on the sands below my balcony. Children seemingly have to scream every time a wave touches them, whether they are standing on the shore and one touches their feet, or whether they are floating in 2 feet of water on a boogie board. And as is the nature of the ocean, there is a wave about every 10 seconds, which resulted in blood-curdling screams from every child within a one-mile radius. Children’s vocal cords never seem to tire, and my fervent prayers that these kids would eventually become hoarse after three hours of screaming went unanswered. I lived for Sunday evenings!
Some of my friends questioned my judgement regarding the timing and destination of this trip. Who in their right mind goes to Florida in mid-August to swelter in the the tropical sun and risk being in the path of a huge storm, as this is of course the heart of hurricane season? I found it amusing that as I basked in temperatures that seldom even reached 90 degrees, and actually found the evening breezes a little chilly when I got out of the pool, New England was experiencing temperatures in the mid 90s with copious humidity. And then there were two back to back hurricanes, Henri and Ida, that gave Florida a wide berth, instead speeding northward, wreaking havoc in the northeast. Mother Nature seems to have quite a sense of humor.
I’ve always said that if I ever lived near the beach or had a swimming pool, I’d make use of them every day, and I proved myself right during the four weeks I spent in Ormond. The beach itself is gorgeous, with sand that I would describe as “calico”: there are hues of brick red, tan, and gray, especially at low tide, and the beach seems to change color as the sun shifts position or clouds pass overhead. There are many sandbars here that provide a barrier and allow for swimming in the shallows when the waves are too rough. And there are virtually no rocks, just seemingly endless stretches of warm, soft sand.
I’ve always loved storms, and I certainly got my fill of them. Many afternoons, with little warning, jet-black clouds would move in and the sea would turn green, while thunder rumbled in the distance and dramatic lightning bolts were hurled from the skies. Sometimes this was followed by the appearance of an amazing rainbow. At night there was often heat lightning, and I loved to sit out on my balcony and watch the show. At this time of year, local ordinances require that beaches be totally unlit to allow turtles to nest on the shore. One wonderful benefit of this is that on clear nights, the stars were glorious, twinkling brightly above the Atlantic. The planet Venus made her appearance in the western skies for a while after sunset each night, while later, in the east, the planets Jupiter and Saturn vied with the brilliant constellation Orion and the brightest star in the sky, Sirius for my attention. There were nights when the moon was full and there was lightning at the same time. It was all entertaining enough to tear me away from my TV and recliner every night; I’d turn out out all the lights in my apartment and sit on the balcony in the dark listening to the ever-pounding surf and taking in the celestial show.
Some of the celestial shows I marveled at…
But perhaps my favorite passtime at Ormond was bird-watching. I have never been a member of the Audubon Society, but after my time in Florida, I may well join. Seagulls, it seemed, were fairly uncommon here. Instead there were of course the tiny sandpipers that run up and down the shoreline at breakneck speed, making me wonder whether they ever just stop and take a breather. There were also a lot of white cranes, whose oversized bright yellow feet reminded me of clown shoes. They are seemingly fearless birds, and will not really budge even as you pass close to them while walking along the beach. But my heroes, the birds I absolutely fell in love with, were the brown pelicans.
Evidently the brown pelican was endangered in the 1970s, but thanks to conservation efforts, they have been removed from the endangered species list. They certainly seemed to be thriving in Ormond Beach. Every few minutes these huge, majestic birds, with a typical wingspan of 6 feet flew overhead. Occasionally there was just one of them, but usually there was a “squadron” of anywhere from 10 to 30 of them, flying in precise formations that reminded me of a quiet version of the Blue Angels. I began to think of them as the Brown Angels. As I floated in the pool, they’d appear overhead, looking like a cross between extinct prehistoric pterydactyls and a fleet of Romulan warbird spaceships from old Star Trek episodes.
Their behavior facinated me. They’d quietly glide past and then the leader would begin flapping its wings, followed by the next, and then the third and so on, all perfectly choreographed. From my 5th floor balcony they sometimes seemed to be coming straight at me, and at other times I could look down and see them skimming the ocean, gliding effortlessly only inches above the surface, only breaking formation to dive in and grab a fish. I also noted that 90% of the time, they flew from north to south, making me wonder whether once out of sight, they simply caught a northbound bus for a few miles, hopped off and made their way south again. Yes, I loved these guys and if I were a bird, they would be my “peeps”!
A crane with clown shoes; various images of the Brown Angels
Meanwhile, on one absolutely stunning day, when the ocean was almost completely without waves, I spent a couple hours happily floating in the 85 degree waters. I got really close-up views of my Brown Angels as they skimmed the surface looking for fish. Evidently one of the fish took advantge of the fact that I was floating nearby, and hid underneath me as though I was a giant coral reef. Occasionaly I’d catch a glimpse of him, and he was about 6 or 7 inches long. Periodically he’d nibble at my leg hairs, always startling me, even though I’d begun to get used to the routine. Once in awhile he’d simply poke me in the back or in the butt with considerable force, again causing me to jump and then chuckle. I nicknamed him “Jaws”, and he stayed with me, playing this game of tag for a good 45 minutes. Interestingly, on two evenings as I was looking out at the ocean from the pool at sunset I spied a very large object in the water very close to the shore, and the fin and tail configuration appeared to be that of a shark. Perhaps my little friend Jaws was trying to warn me about the presence of the real one!
One of the perks of staying at an AirBnB is having use of a fully stocked kitchen, and in the month I was there, I only ate out a handful of times. For breakfast, I visited a local establishment called Peach Valley Café, a Florida chain that has some awesome pancakes. But I also had a couple of noteworthy dinners: an outstanding Thai feast at Zen Bistro in Daytona Beach, and a decadent three course dinner at the Third Wave Café in New Smyrna Beach, which featured a healthy kale, beet and apple salad, a delicious fish and shrimp entrée, and the ultimate comfort food dessert: dark chocolate gelato and a warm chocolate chip cookie. I also made a short day trip over to DeLand to sample a delicious Key Lime pie from Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe.
Some culinary treats: Kermit’s Key Lime Pie, Thai curry with coconut soup and green papaya salad, and my delicious meal at Third Wave Cafe.
I’m always astounded by how quickly time flies, and all too soon, my month of beach living came to an end and in a strange reverse-migration pattern, I prepared to head north bck to Tennessee and ultimately, to New England for the fall. When I was a boy and my mom would bring me to the beach after she’d gotten off work in the late afternoon, I’d stay in the water for as long as I possibly could, begging my mom for “just a few more minutes” when she indicated it was time to head home and get some supper. I haven’t changed all that much. I dragged my feet when it was time to get out of the water for the last time at Ormond Beach, and it didn’t help that the ocean that day was as warm and calm as I’d seen it the entire time I’d been there.
I then stubbornly decided that I had to fit a few more beach days into my itinerary before heading inland, so I spent a few days in the Florida Panhandle at Panama City Beach and Pensacola Beach. As beautiful as my time at Ormond-by-the-Sea had been, the blindingly white sands and azure waters of the Panhandle stole my heart again, and I think you will understand why when you see the photos I took on those last few days.
On my last morning in Florida, I showered and dressed, packed up the car and started driving, bound for northern Alabama that day. I made it about 10 miles down the coast, then pulled off to take one last look at that stunning aqua blue water, as calm and welcoming as an infinity swimming pool. Though the road was calling, I couldn’t resit the pull of the sea, and so I changed back into my bathing suit and ran back into the water, where for another hour or so I felt that I didn’t have a single care in the world. Yes, Florida is calling to me and I don’t think I’ll be able to resist that call for much longer.