I see her as I step out from among the sea grape trees and onto the golden sands: tanned, blond and bikini-clad, she is walking toward me. And she possesses the one characteristic I’m yearning to see in a woman on the beach: a little kid.
I’m in Rincon, on the west coast of Puerto Rico, with my 3-year-old son, Kai — just the two of us, for six days — and my best hope for doing anything besides parenting lies in other people’s children. If I can find playmates for Kai, I might sneak in a surf session, a jog or more than a paragraph of uninterrupted reading.
Hey, I’m all for parenting. But does every vacation with a kid need to be defined by the antecedent “family”? My hope is to balance some of what I want to do with some of Kai’s demands, just as I would with any friend with an unnatural affection for rubber dinosaurs and sand-castle construction. I’m traveling without my wife, who couldn’t break away from work for this trip. My main rule: no resort day care (too easy).
After a three-hour drive from San Juan, we pull into Rincon, which tumbles from a blunt, hilly peninsula into the sea. The town’s beaches are renowned for surfing, although those on the sheltered southern side are often glassily calm even when swell is pumping just around the bend.
The main plaza is a few blocks from the coast, and many beaches are separated by winding roads that snake uphill. But most eventually merge with Route 413, which runs along a ridge smattered with surf-themed shops, inns and restaurants.
Along one crooked road we find our lodging, the Boarding House, a pleasant guesthouse in an otherwise residential neighborhood. It’s also a surf school, with boards piled in the driveway. Before even finding our room, we ascend to the rooftop deck for a view of lush forest cascading to the sea, which looks to be a long walk away.
But we set out along a narrow road that ends at bikini-girl-and-her-son beach, known properly as Pools.
“This is Robert,” the blonde says, patting her 6-year-old son’s head. “We’ve met another family with a boy named Kai! He’s 5.”
Her name is Michelle, she’s from Ventura, Calif., and she’s renting a stately pink house right on the beach. The cove is idyllic in appearance, but it isn’t Rincon’s best surf break, plus the rocky waters discourage kid swimming.
Then, as if reading a script from the vacation gods, Michelle says, “We’ve been taking turns surfing and watching the kids. If you want to join us, we usually head out around 9.”
Kai and I walk across a street overhung with tropical vegetation and dine at a thatch-roofed cafe and hotel (also called Pools), where the portions are small but the rum punch is redemptive. The bonus is the adjacent swimming pool, which occupies Kai and a few other kids while I have my second uninterrupted adult conversation of the afternoon with an entrepreneur from San Juan and his wife. Not bad for Day 1.
I carry Kai most of the way back up the steep road to our guesthouse, but it’s happy work. The yodels of coqui frogs ride on a dusk breeze, the smell of nectar drips from the trees and my weary boy lays his head on my shoulder. We are both dead asleep by 7:30 p.m.
In the sparkling morning sunshine, we open the door to our efficiency to find a cat, possibly stray, which Kai immediately befriends. As I pack for our day — stegosaurus, triceratops, T. rex (and maybe sunscreen?) — boy pulls tail, cat bites boy, crying ensues, prompting soothing laced with genuine worry (bleeding wound!) and the eventual evaporation of 45 precious vacation minutes. All this, mind you, before coffee.