In the good old days, people had summer cottages at the beach or bungalows by the lake. Mom and the kids headed there in June; Dad showed up on weekends; at the end of August, after the last clam was baked and the last poker pot paid, the badminton net was rolled up, the furniture sheeted, and the place closed for another year.
Such summers were great when we were kids, but seem impossible for today's dual-career, two-weeks-vacation-a-year families. For busy people barely able to keep the grass mowed and the painting done for one house, much less two, there is a 21st-century version of the summer house: a short-term rental in a scenic vacation spot. A week or two is long enough to experience the highlights, short enough to leave before the good times wear thin, and anyway, it's all most of us can manage.
A week in a beach house is not a trip to Europe or even the battlefields at Gettysburg. You're looking for relaxation, not stimulation, and you know going in that you're going to be doing lots of laundry. But the opportunity to slow the pace of life enough to play a board game with your kids, to spend a lazy morning by the pool with your spouse, to live by the rhythms of sun and moon and tide rather than those of school bus, commuter traffic, and alarm clock - this re-centers a family in a way few other experiences can.
I became a convert to the beach house tradition - at least in its modern, condensed format - last year, thanks to my sister. Lifelong best friends, we live far apart and rarely get to spend more than a few hours together, but we both want our children to have time to forge their cousinly bonds. At Christmas, she suggested we get our families together that coming summer for a week of sand and sea. Her proposed destination was the Outer Banks, a string of barrier islands stretching nearly 300 miles along the coast of North Carolina that, even in high season, is nowhere near as crowded as East Coast beaches like Cape Cod; The Wildwoods, New Jersey; or Ocean City, Maryland.