A mecca of sun, surf ... and spam (National Post, March 03, 2003)

Hollywood Beach, where my husband and I spend our annual 10-day reprieve from snowbound Montreal, is the winter mecca of low-to-middlebrow Quebec francophones (les Snowbirds Canadiens). And a stroll down the famous Hollywood Broadwalk is a trip back in time to the Land That Irony, the Surgeon-General and Sunblock Forgot.

This year, we arrived on the last day of the annual Snowbirds Canadiens festival. The Broadwalk was thronged with minimally clothed, merrily unself-conscious middle-aged bodies, many of them -- in current PC parlance -- "differently-contoured." Their baked skin glowed like shellacked pecans. All were intent on the diverse entertainment and eating opportunities offered up by the festival's sponsors, a brochette of booths strung out along the shoulder of the Broadwalk.

Bilingual sales reps vigorously hawked their wares. Some kiosks were promoting health-insurance packages designed for Canadians desperate to eke out more than their allotted medicare-covered time away from home. Others promoted weekend cruises, floating casino nights, time-share rental opportunities and further blandishments associated with this Nirvana of the retired fonctionnaire. If you weren't up for a condo, you could buy discontinued designer sunglasses, tapes, CDs, cheap jewellery, lava lamps and lurid "décor" items of compelling tackiness, such as striated rainbow candles (your choice of colours, assembled on the spot) tortured into shapes apparently inspired by the DNA double helix.

On the beach itself, from a huge temporary stage, Québécois singers belted out golden oldies in French and English to what seemed like thousands of spectators, leaning back in their beach chairs, so that even in their listening pleasure, their faces still tipped blissfully skyward in cultic obeisance to the Sun God.

Snack food booths enjoyed a brisk turnover. Fat meat treats on skewers and buns sizzled with garlicky seduction. Café hostesses brashly cajoled passersby with competing specials. You heard little English, but you saw a lot on T-shirts ("We divorced because of religion. He thought he was God and I didn't" seemed to be this season's favourite.).

But the pièce de résistance of our excursion was the gaily painted blue and yellow Spammobile, topped by a gigantic plastic blow-up, an authentically replicated can of Spam with a banner urging "Free Samples." The front of the bus smiled at us with two cartoon eyes and a happy painted grin, sporting the vanity licence plate, SPAM4U. Through a window at the side, a company representative handed out tiny little sandwiches of fried Spam. The queue was long and nobody in the line looked embarrassed. I had my husband take a picture of me receiving my lilliputian sandwich. It was surprisingly good, and I queued for another.

Following the excitement of our Spam adventure, it was time for a daily ritual, the Canadian newspaper harvest, a pleasure available only in Hollywood Beach and a few other Canadian colonies in Eastern Florida. At "our" dépanneur we chose the just-arrived National Post and Montreal's Gazette from the plethora of French and English papers (The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times can be had elsewhere in the morning), and went back to our motel to read. A perfect day.

From childhood, and well into maturity until my parents died, I spent winter vacations in glitzy high rise Miami hotels and condos on "the strip." Since it was the only Florida I knew, I took an uncritical delight in the pastel kitsch and wretched excess that gave such pleasure to the newly rich of that generation. But at some point I lost my taste for crystal chandeliers and high-security lobbies and the dinnertime Best in Show parade of buffed, Ralph Lauren-ized children waiting for the car jockey underneath the entrance canopy.

It turns out that what I really wanted in Florida was to feel at home. It turns out that what makes me feel at home is being in a real neighbourhood -- Hollywood Beach -- where the Spammobile is a welcome sight, and not the abominable blot on the landscape it would have been among the Cadillacs of Bal Harbour.

If you live long enough, and you're lucky, you pare down to the essential pleasures of a good holiday. For us, it's the ocean, sunshine, the Broadwalk for entertainment, the Canadian newspapers -- even early-bird-special dinners.

I see what's happening here. We're becoming Jerry Seinfeld's parents. Don't pity us. We're considering a time-share.

© Copyright  2003 National Post