Outside magazine, June 1995
If you don't already have a hand-held compass, get one. String it onto a lanyard, hang it around your neck, and wear it each and every time you go perusing summer rentals. You'll look dorky, but who are you trying to impress? The point is that, in the quest for a transcendent summer place, the compass is of paramount importance.
There are two main reasons for this, and their profound interrelatedness is, to me, one of the very few arguments in favor of the premise that the universe makes any sense at all. Everyone knows that the sun sets in the west; but more specifically, in mainland American latitudes, it sets in the west-northwest. Clearly, for a summer cottage to be perfect, it must be situated not only so that it has good light all times of day (which means that, if possible, you should make both morning and afternoon visits before you commit), but also so that it affords a sunset view. Now here's the beauty part: To be perfect, a summer cottage must also be cool, breezy, and relatively free of bugs. Which is to say, it must be advantageously placed in regard to the prevailing winds. Whence come those summer zephyrs? You got it: WNW.
Ergo, if you didn't bring your compass and you took a place that faces in some less favored direction, it may still have charm, quietude, and serenity, but as far as perfection is concerned, you're a dead duck before you even light the grill.
So let's say you've got the exposure right. What other elements should you be searching for? Preeminently, water.
I have heard that some people find the desert very soothing, while certain others feel most cradled and happy in the giant wrinkles between mountains. I would not go so far as to call these people perverts, but their tastes are clearly deviant from the norm. From the dawn of time, human beings, by vast statistical majorities, have chosen to live next to water. No doubt the reasons for this are mysteriously encoded in our very chromosomes. No mystery at all, however, attaches to the practical result of this nearly universal preference: You'll pay through the nose for waterfront. If the waterfront faces the sunset, you'll pay through both nostrils.
Generally, you'll be better off if you can make an advance visit to the place you've settled on. Drive around a little and decide what part of town you like best. Stop in at a bustling café, asking the patrons for recommendations on brokers, as well as the location of the town's best bulletin board. If you must choose a place from long-distance, start as early as possible, picking up copies of the local paper, and maybe the Sunday edition of the nearest big-city paper, to get a sense of what's available and how much you can expect to pay. Call the chamber of commerce--or, in smaller locales, the town hall--for a list of agents, and then plan to spend a lot of time on the phone, not just with the brokers themselves, but also with the references they provide. Even then, you're looking at something of a crapshoot, so if you do have to rent sight unseen, it's probably best to follow in a trusted friend's footsteps--forgo originality and pick the same town, same broker, maybe even the same rental that a person of similar tastes had success with before.
When you do find perfection, you'll undoubtedly feel it, because there's nothing more perfect than, say, strolling down the slatted length of your very own dock (even if it's yours for only a couple of weeks or so), glass of wine in hand, loved one at your side, while a weightless orange sun hangs pulsing under wisps of lavender cloud and rippled darts of light dance across the breeze-ruffled swells. The coals are lit; the tuna steaks are marinating; fresh corn is soaking in the husk, ready to be steamed; slices of red-all-the-way-through tomatoes are soaking up olive oil and the essence of just-picked basil. A hurricane lamp sits on a wooden table on the deck, its placid flame growing brighter as the bug-free dusk grows deeper. No philistine neighbor mows the lawn or blasts the television. No phones ring; no dogs bark.
The tuna is perfectly rare, the wine is even better than the first sip promised. And after it's gone, there is not a thing to do but read in bed behind cotton eyelet curtains and fall asleep near an east-facing window with a blackout shade.
Laurence Shames is the author of Sunburn (Hyperion), a novel set in the beach-rental haven of Key West, Florida.