Brighton, in December, although still a fairly bustling city, bore little relation to Brighton in June or August. Jury often felt there were few things bleaker than a seaside town in winter.
– Martha Grimes 2002, A Richard Jury Novel, The Blue Last
I usually agree with Scotland Yard Superintendent Richard Jury on everything, but not this one. You could call summer resort towns bleak in winter, but it’s a beautiful bleakness. I like summer resort towns much better in their off-season. They can also be lovely in their season. Sun, sand, fun – that’s why we go. But, for me, too many of us go.
I went to Brighton once, in April. It wasn’t as wind-swept and, yes, bleak as it would be in December. It was cold; there was no bathing in the sea. But there were the arcades, the beach walks – and, best of all, there were no crowds.
I live near a lakeside resort town. Port Stanley on Lake Erie is beautiful in summer. Wide expanse of sand beach, wide expanse of fresh water warm for swimming. Small downtown streets with interesting shops. A pier with fishing boats tied up or chugging into port. Teeny cottages cheek by jowl in a rabbit warren of lanes near the beach. Mansions on the beach and up the hill, built as summer homes for wealthy merchants of a century and more ago.
I rarely go to Port Stanley in summer. But I love going in winter. The beach is empty. The wind howls in off the lake. On a good cold day, when your ears are ringing and your eyes streaming from the wind, you can run into Mackies on the beach and warm up with a hot drink or a cheeseburger or hotdog with the famous Mackies sauce. Walk another block or so and go in the shops, most still open in winter. Go into a bar and it’s local people, fishermen and schoolteachers, talking about next year’s fishing quotas or whether there’s going to be a ferry or not. They’re drinking ordinary beer from bottles, not asking for fancy stuff on tap.
Get a take-out pizza or go to a fancy dining room. There are a lot of good restaurants in Port Stanley, more than in the average small town. That’s because it’s a resort town, I guess. The volume of business is there in the summer to support a year-round operation. That’s nice for the winter visitor – excellent food and no one waiting for your table, wishing you’d hurry up with your crème brûlée and get out of there.
I’ve been in a lot of summer resort towns, more often in their off season. It’s not that they’re better then; they’re just different. They’re sleepier, cozier, nicer. They’re hibernating, getting their strength back to deal with the hordes of sun worshippers, wannabe models, families with overexcited children, slow-walking pensioners. The off-season is when a town is what, and who, it really is. And the added bonus, of those in cold climes, is the wind whipping at you, making you feel alive.
(winter photos by Jim Stewart, beach in summer from Environmental Defence.)