After the Bargain Hunt: 10 Things I Learned at My Friends' Beachfront Bungalow
What happens after those "congratulations on moving to paradise!" toasts at the end of TV shows? My husband and I finally found out.
I’ve always longed to be a cocktail-party guest at the end of a tropical property-hunt show. You know these parties: family and friends get together in strappy sundresses and pastel shirts to toast the new homeowners who have just plated their own slice of paradise. Not only did I figure I would never find myself in that position, I couldn’t even imagine knowing people who did.
Then my husband Joe and I received a “birth” announcement from our dear friends Sarah and Judd. After suffering through lousy winter after lousy winter in New York and wishing their vacations in warmer climes never had to end, they decided to put their money where their hearts were: they downsized to a much smaller apartment in the city and built themselves a sun-drenched retreat in the Dominican Republic. (It turns out that really, really hating freezing temperatures is excellent inspiration for the kind of aggressive financial planning you have to do to become half-time expats.)
We congratulated our super-motivated friends on realizing their dream, oohed and ahhed at photos of their new "baby" — and, at their invitation, booked a flight to congratulate them in person. Here’s what we learned about beachfront life after that housewarming toast.
1: An indoor-outdoor living room is the best thing ever.
This seems like a fairly obvious point, but it wasn’t until I was able to engage in two of my favorite activities (that is, floating in a pool and sipping my morning coffee) simultaneously that I truly appreciated how boss it is when one space flows into another. I am now considering both a chaise with durable outdoor fabric and an illegal hot tub for our small balcony here in the city.
2: A pineapple corer will change your life.
At our friends’ request, we hunted down and brought a pineapple corer with us to the DR. To me it sounded like a half-baked late-night infomercial gadget — who needs mechanical assistance to butcher a plant? — but the elegant spiral Judd produced with that thing was a work of art (and it took no time, and it wasted much less fruit than my serrated knife and I usually do). Well played, pineapple corer.
3: Choose your beach read wisely.
I thought I’d be cute and try to read Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s historical novel about Cromwell’s rise to power in King Henry VIII’s court, on the beach. For reasons known only to him, Joe brought Philip Roth’s American Pastoral with his towel and flip flops. He ended up reading nothing at all, and I found myself tearing through Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night, which opens with a famous opera singer letting two noblemen cut her ball gown apart with swords. Bottom line: If you’re going to read in paradise, read something delicious.
4: Food tastes better when you meet the person who harvested it.
Whether you’re interested in the freshest tropical fruit or the best of the day’s catch, it’s well worth your time to find a local farmer’s market or hike down the beach until you find the fishermen and their coolers. (I took this picture as inconspicuously as possible, to avoid complicating Judd’s shrimp-price negotiations with my touristy photography.)
5: Home-infused booze is all you need to get fancy.
Dominican supermarkets aren’t known for their wide variety of adult beverages, but they do have the base ingredients for spectacular infusions; we bought an inexpensive bottle of tequila, tucked a few slivers of julienned Scotch bonnet peppers inside before going to bed one night, and made extremely tasty spicy margaritas by the pool the next day.
6: Embrace scaly neighbors.
I found a conga line of tiny ants on my laptop’s keyboard one morning, and a little spring-green lizard doing his best to eat said conga line the next. Sarah and Judd know their reptile pals so well that they’ve named them, and they’re grateful for their help with pest control—which strikes me as an exceedingly healthy way to think about nonhuman locals. (No word yet on what they call their giant spiders.)
7: Being a good guest isn’t hard — nor is being a good host.
Our friends showed us where and how to make coffee in the morning, where they kept clean beach towels and a variety of sunscreens, and encouraged us to make ourselves at home in the fridge. When we followed their instructions, they thanked us for making it easy for them. Huh.
8: Even chores are better when you can do them outside.
After years of either hauling dirty clothes to a laundromat or paying strangers to wash and squash them into baked-cloth cubes, Sarah was ready to have her own washer and dryer at the house in the DR. Surprise: When you get to fold your own clothes in the sunshine in your bikini, it’s not only not unpleasant—it’s actually kind of nice.
9: You know you’ve made the right life choices when you find a firefly in the WC.
On our last night in the DR, a little beetle landed on my foot; when I bent down to pick him up and set him outside, he rose into the air and winked on like a fairy light. A peak bathroom experience, that.
10: Sometimes the best thing to do in paradise is a...puzzle.
I grew up in southern California, and the beach is my happy place. That said, I think the high point of our trip to the DR was the in-between time we spent in the living room, working on a jigsaw puzzle and singing along with the stereo. That’s what makes those end-of-the-show housewarming toasts glow with happiness: There’s nothing like watching the people you care about make themselves at home in their dreams.
Nothing beats local eats.
Trendy farm-to-table restaurants and newcomers to the “slow food” movement are getting on board with what chefs in the tropics have always known — that is, that fresh grub harvested and produced nearby is far tastier than packaged-and-preserved imports. (Bring on the coconut and tropical fruit, please.)
A signature cocktail is a must.
It’s probably possible to lean back in a deck chair and watch the sun set over the ocean without a beachy drink in hand, but who wants to find out? Whether you’re clinking glasses at a casita on the Gulf of Mexico or at a condo in Miami, a good host has a house specialty (and can whip up a pitcher of it in no time flat).
Make This: Sol de Flare Cocktail
Scenery is all the artwork you need.
In a home with a priceless view, that view can take center stage — no embellishment necessary. (If you just happen to have a big vintage surf poster collection, of course, it’d be pretty odd to leave it out of your beachfront home. Otherwise, don’t worry about a gallery wall.)
Home doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to be welcoming.
Large and luxurious spaces are nice, but cheery and humble ones are just as fun. If you’ve got a well-stocked fridge, you’ll be fine without granite countertops — promise.
The ocean really does lull you to sleep.
The whooshing sound of waves registers as a non-threat that tells our brains “don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry,” according to a sleep researcher from Penn State. No wonder white noise machines with “ocean” settings — and bedrooms that face the sea — are so popular.
Think outside the “hot spots.”
The easiest way to sidestep the inflation, overcrowding, and tackiness of popular destinations is, well, to sidestep those destinations. Prices and the odds of having to fight for a spot on the beach often drop when you’re willing to look past resort towns and keep going a few miles down the road.
Life is full of compromises.
In some cases that means a five-minute walk to the shore instead of a budget-busting vacation home right on the water; in other cases it means agreeing to a move-in-ready property because your spouse has subtly indicated that too-ambitious DIY projects will land you in marriage counseling. Happily, the beach is worth it.
Put your home to work.
An occasionally unoccupied home can help pay for itself if local authorities are comfortable with you renting it out when you’re not in town (and you’re comfortable with sharing your stuff with strangers). Given what that revenue could add to your budget, sharing your stuff sounds pretty good, no?
Simplify, simplify, simplify.
Buyers with an eye on the beach are willing to forgo details that some of us hold dear in order to realize their dreams: who cares about a private bathroom or a washer-dryer when the ocean is right outside? “Nothing is better than simplicity,” Walt Whitman once said. He also said, “to me the sea is a continual miracle.” Coincidence?
Details should be fun.
Beachfront homes are all play and no work, hopefully; shouldn’t they be full of things that make you smile? Come to think of it, shouldn’t all living spaces function that way?