How I Spent My May Vacation


I write this, having just come home less than 4 hours ago from a long weekend out of state -- more specifically, my first visit to Oregon (not counting driving through to get to Washington), and more specifically still, my first visit to the Sylvia Beach Hotel; and oh my friends, I have so many thoughts and feelings about this trip.

First of all, let me say: this trip was wonderful. Just in case I meander a little here, I want to get that out there. I have a criticism or two, but they are little enough they can go at the end and are more a list of "what not to do to myself next time."

So, what is the Sylvia Beach Hotel? Well, as that link will tell you, the Sylvia Beach Hotel is a hotel in Newport, Oregon, specifically styled around book lovers. I became aware of it in 2014, when Sonya was putting in a yeoman's effort to find us somewhere nice and "us" to go for our honeymoon; Sylvia Beach was up there, but at the time, our wedding budget was spent up to the bleeding edge as it was, and we decided we couldn't justify the extra vacation time or the expenditure. This year, my parents decided they'd like to take a vacation with us, and offered to help us pay for the trip to the Hotel; and we, seeing a chance that might not come around again, gratefully took it.

So there was a trip up to Eugene on Amtrak's Coast Starliner, then a quick drive with my folks over to Newport, and into the hotel we went. Newport is a beautiful little seaside city that charmed me just driving through it, and my feelings about the hotel can be best summed up as: everything you want it to be, and probably a little bit more.

The basics are as they are advertised: This is a cozy little bed-and-breakfast style establishment, with each of the rooms for rent styled and decorated in an aesthetic associated with the author after whom it’s named: nautical themes for Herman Melville, Chinese cultural accents for Amy Tan, the illustrations of Dr. Seuss for same, and so on. They offer complimentary breakfast for guests and prix fixe dinners at their in-house restaurant, Tables of Content. And there is, in fact, a library and living room up on the third floor where you can sit and read while looking out at the ocean.

But my friends, it’s not just those trappings. The Sylvia Beach Hotel lives the ideas embodied in each of those. My stay at Sylvia Beach was by far the quietest, coziest, friendliest, most bookish stay I have ever had at a hotel — it even rivaled Sonya and my third-anniversary library date for literary comfort.

The hotel’s staff were among the friendliest and most enthusiastic hotel staffs I have ever interacted with. When I spoke with the front desk, they seemed actually invested in people having a good stay there; they made conversation, but never more than they actually seemed interested in making, and they were quick and happy to answer all your questions as necessary. In addition to the staff, the hotel is also home to Shelley, the hotel cat, a beautiful old tabby who is clearly used to guests coming and going, happily accepting pets from strangers and even deciding to come and curl up in guests’ bedrooms (we were so blessed briefly, though another guest told us at dinner that Shelley had actually slept in their room with them, which sadly did not happen for us).

The main attraction for me, though, was the third floor library. That place became my home away from home within an easy ten minutes of me deciding to go up there. People take very seriously that it is a room for reading; you go in, you find a seat, you put up your feet or curl up on your side or whatever feels right to you, and you read. Everyone reads. Just turning pages and clearing throats to keep you company. Right next to the library, the hotel keeps a shared kitchen stocked with all-you-can-drink coffee and tea (they even had a near-boiling water tap added to the kitchen sink), and at night, they put out carafes of hot spiced wine (all-you-can-drink for as long as the supply holds out). As the photo at the head of this post suggests, I went in on Saturday, brewed a cup of English breakfast, and sat down with my book in front of a beachfront view of the Pacific Ocean, and was literally struck speechless by how happy I was. Not just content, not just relaxed: happy.

I’m going to come back to that, but I want to pause and say the things about this trip that I learned I need to not do next time I travel.

One: I need to not book sleeper cars on Amtrak. I simply do not sleep well in the environment available in a sleeper car: the closed off walls combined with the efficiency-based dimensions combined with the constant shifts in the room due to the room literally being in motion made it almost impossible for me to sleep comfortably. Even knowing that the safety harness was in place in case they had serious turbulence (as it were), every shift in momentum in the room clicked my anxiety back on and woke me straight the heck up. Combine that with the discovery that the complimentary wi-fi on the train is actually focused on business class cars, in which you sleep in big, soft reclining chairs with plenty of leg room and a full and proper wi-fi signal all for half the price of the sleeper car, and even when you take into account the complimentary food sleeper car passengers get, it is simply not the right deal for me. Next time, Business Class. Luckily the sleep in the hotel was good enough that I am ending my vacation relaxed and well-rested.

Sub-clause to one: I need to have access to wi-fi, or I need to install all my social media accounts on my phone during trips where wi-fi access is not predetermined to be solid. Most of my emotional support network is accessed via instant messaging these days, and the lack of wi-fi access made the rough parts much rougher than they needed to be.

Two: If doing a thing with Sonya or any other person in my vacation group is important to me, I need to identify that, make that clear, and make sure that we have a plan that allows for that to be executed in a way that’s comfortable for everyone. I got stressed out over breakfast on Sunday and while I did not behave badly, me being restless didn’t contribute to anyone’s overall calm.

Three: Make vacations three nights, not two, whenever I can. (Or rather, make sure all three-to-four nights of it will be restful and enjoyable — see Clause One.) That’s what takes the whole thing to sublime levels of enjoyment.

Four: Travel affects my routine, and routine affects my mental health. I need to be ready for the trip home to be more fraught and difficult for me and try to plan in advance, as best I can, to dilute that tension in any way I am capable of doing. If nothing else, carry fresh or dried fruit in my bag so I have light healthy snacks available when needed.

Those four things aside, I want to go back to that sense of happiness. Because the thing is, it wasn’t just Sylvia Beach; it wasn’t even just Newport, as I determined when we had a lunchtime layover in Eugene. Something about Oregon was just more relaxing for me, and it went beyond the typical “I am on vacation with no responsibility” feelings. Something about the place felt…welcoming, is the word I want to use. Friendly. Like people wanted me to be there, or at least were going to be honest when my being there was an inconvenience. My anxiety was not constantly getting sandpapered the way it feels like it does in the crowded, frankly artificially nice Bay Area. On the last day of the trip, I didn’t just not want to leave the hotel — I didn’t want to go back to the Bay.

I learned things about myself on this trip, and about the things that bring me happiness. Some of them I kind of knew already: Books are obvious, for one thing, and quiet, unstructured time to read them logically runs close on its heels. But also, the ocean calms me; foggy weather feels like home; mugs of warm, lightly milked and stevia-sweetened tea are a hug for my insides; and I thrive better in a less densely populated area than I currently live in.

I’m not saying Oregon is absolutely the place for me to go next in life, nor am I saying Oregon is perfect; it was obvious from looking at it that the diversity of the demographics is lacking, the white supremacy problems in parts of the state are well-known, and I am not 100% sure that I would thrive in an area where every adult is allowed to open-carry pistols. But I am saying that I see the things I need more clearly, and I feel better about making a plan to get them — in whatever way life allows me to get them.

I highly recommend a trip to the Sylvia Beach Hotel if you love books; but more than the books, more than the writing, I learned about myself this weekend — and that, right there, is the best thing a vacation can do.