I’m stretched out in my own private little cabana on a white sand beach, listening to the chirp of gulls and the banter of the ever-cheerful cabana attendants. These guys are as sunny as their bright Hawaiian shirts, and at this moment they’re also impressed, because the hulking man in the cabana next door was a football player (so he says) for the Dallas Cowboys, back in the ‘80s.
“Yeah, I had some knee injuries, a couple of surgeries, and then I retired,” the man says, stretching muscled arms behind his head. “Now I’m 42, and I just do stuff like this.”
“Stuff like this” apparently means relaxing on the immaculate Gulf beach at the Tradewinds Island Grand Resort. This is Florida’s St. Pete Beach, and I’m impressed. I grew up going “down the shore” to Jersey for beach getaways, but this is a whole new ball game. So the cabana workers are impressed with the ex-Cowboy; I’m much more in awe of the sprawling expanse of sugary sand and the shimmer of water so blue-green that one can actually see fish in it. Imagine that.
It’s September and the resort isn’t crowded. This is obviously the best time of the year to be here, in Paradise. The weather is perfect, and there are lots of empty cabanas, rows of vacant lounge chairs, two unused hammocks swaying in the breeze by the creek. There’s a lineup of water buggies, and an enormous inflatable slide called The Hippo. I’m wishing that I had a kid or two with me, because this place is the ultimate in family-friendly resorts. My waterfront suite has two TVs, a kitchen, a balcony with bars that no kid could fall between, and enough room to sleep six people. The catch phrase here is “Just Let Go.” I’m trying.
I’m here for just two days, and there are a myriad of choices: a lounge chair by the pool or a cabana on the beach, a hammock or the comfy tropical sofa in my living room? It’s cool; I keep the sliding balcony doors open and I hear the squawking of gulls and the whooshing of water against shore. Below my balcony there’s a little creek, with a bubbly spring and two swans that always swim together. Sometimes they stop to nibble at daisy-shaped yellow flowers growing among the sea oats. There’s a heron who hangs out near the hammock and huge bullfrogs that croak at night. There are goldfish as big as a grandkid and palm trees that dance. There’s the view: the everything and nothing that makes up the sparkling Gulf of Mexico laid out before the resort. I wonder if anybody ever gets to live here forever?
I’m on the beach, sipping something frozen with a little green umbrella, a cherry, and a chunk of fresh pineapple. I’ve just been in the water, which is almost bathwater-like. Green pods from some kind of seaweed float, and signs advise beachgoers to do the “Stingray Shuffle.” I didn’t see any stingrays, but I shuffled anyway. At my age, I’ve learned not to take chances with things that sting.
The soundtrack to my days here consists of a loop of Bob Marley and Jimmy Buffet. The Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy philosophy is beginning to sink in. Last night there was a Sunset Celebration at Salty’s, and I watched the sky turn purple and pink and orange and other colors with no names. An entertainer named Sam Stone played a blue guitar and a harmonica that could put Dylan to shame. The stars sparkled overhead, and a sliver of moon grinned over the water. A little girl in an orange sundress danced, and people laughed. Two middle-aged women, here for a teachers’ conference, looked at each other and intoned “Just Let Go,” then burst into giggles. The bullfrogs croaked, and all was right with the world . . . Or at least with this spot, deep in the heart of Florida.
There’s a paper in my room that says “You know you’re a Floridian if you can actually pronounce Kissimmee, Okeechobee, Withlacoochee, and Loxahatchee.” I can’t correctly say all those names, but I can pronounce one with certainty: Paradise. I’m in it.
I really like a lot of things about TradeWinds Island Grand. I like that there are amber-colored lights facing the beach, keeping sea turtles safe. TradeWinds was the first in the state to do a major retro-fit to meet wildlife lighting requirements that balance sea turtle survival with human safety and security. Those amber lights ensure that sea turtle hatchlings make their way to the safety of the Gulf waters.
I like that sea oats are planted around the beach, protecting the dunes. I like that pet-friendly suites are available in a select number of suites. I like that there are lots of restaurants from which to pick. I like the paddleboats and the tennis courts and the fitness centers and the pools. I like the kid-friendly stuff like the RedBeard the Pirate Show and the KONK Club. (Kids Only, No Kidding.) I like that there’s stuff for the hard-to-please teen, like the new beach bungee trampoline and a mini-golf course. I like the daily newspaper by my door and the cheeriness of the staff. I like that I have wireless internet access, so that I can work. I like that I keep repeating to myself: Just Let Go.
I’m in the Bodyworks salon, being pampered among flickering candles with the “Beach Treat” package. This is heavenly and decadent: a facial by Mary, a massage by Kim, and a shiny purple manicure by Alla of the steadiest hands I’ve ever seen. It must be all the beach air and sunshine.
Bodyworks has luscious treats like the Chocolate Wasabi Facial and the Hydra Dew Express Lift. It’s the perfect gift for any grandmother, or the younger woman. For those with a little more time to spend at the salon, there’s the full day package “Just Let Go,” which includes a massage, manicure, pedisage, facial, and lunch. There it is again: Just Let Go. I close my eyes as massage therapist Kim works her magic, and I let go.
It’s midnight and a storm is brewing on the horizon. The palm trees are dancing hard; the hammocks are swinging fast; my hair lifts in the wind as I lean over my balcony railing. Lightning flashes and it’s beautiful. My next-door neighbors are out, too. They’re from Holland, and we chat about tulips and windmills as the sky darkens. There’s a rumble of thunder, and the swan couple climb from the creek. They nestle together, tucking heads into feathers like a matched set of salt and pepper shakers. The heron joins them, the bullfrogs croak, and the storm arrives.
I go inside and turn on the television. Even when one is Letting Go, it’s difficult not to watch the news of this crazy world from which I’ve escaped for the past two days. There’s bad news: cops have been shot and troops injured and a hurricane has hit. I say a little prayer and then I turn off the TV and go off to dream of a sea of green.
This morning, I peddled a water bike around the Gulf, after signing a waiver that the happy attendance said proclaimed that “we won’t come get you if you end up in Mexico.“ Schools of fish scurried away from my bike. I zoomed down the three-story-high slide, and it was a blast, even for a grandmother whose black one-piece swimsuit twisted into a very bad position during the slide. I didn’t do the Bungee Jump. Maybe next time: with a grandkid or two. We’ll also do the NASCRAB Race and the Pirate Show and the Sand Dollar Art. We’ll check out the Red Belly Belly Flop Contest and the Wacky Water Relays. We’ll meet Beaker, the pelican mascot, and maybe we’ll even make a shark tooth necklace with RedBeard. We’ll do the Hula Hoop Contest, and maybe I’ll win. I grew up in the ‘70s, you know. I know how to Just Let Go. I’ve learned, here at the Island Grand Resort, and I’ll be back.