The Surin Phuket. Phuket, Thailand.

When Happiness Is Squinting Up At The Sun Through Palm Trees

I was a beach baby. And according to my mum I was a happy beach baby. I was building sandcastles with a smile on my face and squinting up at the sun through palm trees with a silly grin long before I could walk. Some of my earliest memories are of perfect days spent in happiness with my family at the beach. They were the very definition of bliss.

They’re impressionistic memories at best – brief moments and hazy sensations of having sand in my pants, feeling tepid water tickling the soles of my feet with each ebb and flow of the sea, and of my tiny pudgy pale hands working beside my dad’s tanned fingers, patting wet sand into bucket-shaped towers around which we’d carve moats that quickly filled with water.

I remember the sharp sound the water made as I gently clapped it with my hands (I loved its soft touch), its soothing warmth (it must have always been mid-summer or maybe we were in the tropical north), and its salty taste (which I recall liking; and to this day I still prefer savoury to sweet).

I remember patiently waiting as my mother rubbed thick pink zinc on my face and shoulders – unlike my little sister, years later, who always resisted the sun cream rubs, give piercing screams that would cause our ears to ring. Although I know I didn’t like the cotton bonnet that mum pulled down onto my white blonde curls (whatever happened to that hair?); I distinctly remember it being too tight for my toddler’s growing head.

But I remember loving everything else about our days on the beach in Sydney, and in Perth, and our summer holidays on the northern New South Wales coast, and in tropical Queensland – building sandcastles, playing Frisbee with dad and our Labrador called Kahn, and collecting seashells (for my collection), oysters (for us all to eat), and crabs (as pets; yes, you heard correct.).

If we weren’t lazing around in the sun, we were casting a line in the late afternoon from the sand, taking a boat out onto a still estuary, eating freshly cooked prawns which we peeled from their shells, eating crispy fish and vinegar-laden chips and salty potato scallops from sheets of greasy newspaper, or grilling our own sizzling steaks and sausages at a smoky beachside barbecue.

Then there’d be the sticky drive back home at the end of the day, and if it was a Sunday, me dreading the thought of school the next day, as I tugged at my bikini bottoms to release the sand from my pants. Or if it was summer holiday, we’d make our way back to the caravan for showers and a quiet night in doing jigsaw puzzles or playing monopoly. Or hanging out with the adults if my parents had friends over for card games until it was time for me to go to bed.

But most of all I remember squinting up at the sky, often between tree-tops, suggesting most likely that my day-dreaming took place in the idle minutes of resting after we’d eaten our lunch in the semi-shade of a seaside park. I don’t know what it was that I was looking for when I squinted up at the sky. Was my young mind already becoming intrigued by jet vapour trails? Was it the start of what would be a lifelong obsession with travel?

Or was it just the beginnings of a love of clear cobalt blue skies that would pull Terence and I year after year to the Mediterranean for summers and draw us to the Arabian Peninsula to live in a state of perpetually fine weather? I’m not sure. All I remember are my parents’ and grandparent’s warnings not to look at the sun – unless, of course, I wanted to go blind. I had no idea what ‘blind’ was, but I knew that’s why I wore the big purple heart-shaped sunglasses my mum’s friend gave me that were way too big for my head. But I loved them anyway, especially when worn with my yellow bikini.

I know I continued to look up at the sun despite the warnings, because all these years later, I can still recall and sort those fragments of images of skies that I spied through treetops – not only of palm trees, but also towering Norfolk Island pines, and Australian flames with their red bell-shaped flowers, and wispy windswept Casuarinas.

I can still run the images through my head like one of the old super-8 home movies and sequences of scratched slides my parents and their friends would occasionally project at each other’s homes, generally on a Saturday night. There are two such nights I remember vividly: one, when a friend of my parents’ returned with a deep dark tan from months spent on then-deserted Lizard Island, where he and some others had been living Survivor-style and made a movie about the experience.

The other night was when my 20-something uncle Sandy, my godfather and my mum’s brother, returned from a grand tour of Europe with slides of all the iconic monuments they’d visited, from Big Ben to the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum to the Acropolis. There were also images of beaches, from the Greek Islands I think, though I’m not 100% certain. Although one thing I know is that those faded images helped plant within me the desire to see the world and lie on faraway foreign stretches of sand.

All these years later, when I occasionally find myself lying on a beach or by a pool, I will put down my book or magazine and squint up to the sky. Whatever I might have been searching for as a child I’ve long forgotten. These days, as an adult, I’m simply looking for a screen upon which to project those memories of all those happy summer days with my family on all those sunny beaches.

For all my talk about experiential travel and seeking out moments in travel that transform us, sometimes all I want to do is go on holidays, spread my towel out on the sand, and lie on a pretty beach somewhere. And that’s perfectly fine too.

This story was commissioned as part of a series on the perfect holiday for the recently launched ‘Happiness Included’ project. More details here

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  1. Lydia

    I grew up in Puerto Rico, where the beach and palm trees were an integral part of our lives. Now I live in the desert – all sand and no water! – and yes, sometimes I squint up at the sun through the local palms and remember those endless days doing the same by the seashore. Your post got me reminiscing in the best way possible – thank you!

  2. Lara Dunston

    Hi Lydia – know that feeling of being surrounded by sandy desert – we were based in Abu Dhabi and then Dubai from 1998 until a few years ago! Although the beaches are actually gorgeous there. Glad you relate. Thanks for dropping by!

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