Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Happy Highways Where I Went and Never Can Go Again

My father recently celebrated his 96th birthday. I decided that taking a trip together would be a nice way to spend my Spring Break. But where to go? We had considered a train trip to Florida. Airport travel is arduous and inhumane for individuals of any age, and especially 96 years old. But my daughter, a Florida resident, was attending a wedding in Panama. After discussing various options, father suggested The Tides Inn in Irvington Virginia, about a three-hour drive from Washington at the mouth of the Rappahannock River.

This was a sentimental journey. The Tides was one of several resorts that were family favorites for decades. Others included the Lantana Colony Club in Bermuda and the Cloisters in Sea Island, Georgia. All were members of a dying breed, family owned resorts, and offered the special quality of warmth that is absent from most establishments.

The Tides Inn, owned by the Stephens Family may have been the very best. From the moment one was greeted at the entrance, to check in, to the cocktail hour where the hostess was often a family member, to dinner where the server might remember you from previous experiences, a visit to the Tides was an eagerly awaited and long remembered experience. There was even a special category of visitors, “Old Friends” who received a regular newsletter and special attention. Periodic “Old Friends” newsletters were always read and drew us back to the Tides. Some years ago when another favorite family resort, Bermuda’s Lantana, closed, I wrote to the Stevens family and told them how grateful we were that they still preserved old traditions and how much our visits meant.

About five years ago, the Tides and what it represented also succumbed to the pressures of America’s bottom-line driven, winner take all economy. The Stevens family were forced to sell to a “Resort Corporation.” The Old Friends newsletters stopped appearing in our mailboxes.

What would the Tides experience be like?, we wondered. Now, as I look out over the same beautiful, tranquil setting as in past years, I know. The physical facilities have not changed, but, for the most part, the spirit is gone. The staff are professional and, for the most part, competent, but they are (with one or two exceptions) simply doing their jobs; earning a living. The Tides Inn is simply a place to go to work, not a calling, with distinctive multigenerational traditions, welcoming Old Friends. Interestingly, not a single staff member even asked us if we had visited the Tides before. When we mentioned this, the response was polite but disinterested. It didn’t make a difference.

A favorite A.E. Houseman poem comes to mind.

Into my heart and air that kills
From yon far country blows
What are those oft remembered hills
What spires, what farms are those.

That is the land of lost content.
I see it shining plain.
The happy highways where I went
And never can go again.

I know that things must change and I wish the new management of the Tides Inn well. But I doubt that we shall ever return. This will be our last visit and memories of it will quickly fade. But the Tides of past visits will remain real, at least in our memories.


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