I grew up in a small town on California’s central coast, five miles from a beach called Surf. Many an unsuspecting tourist, lacking adequate skills in cartography and without a second sense for the absurdly ironic, eyed the AAA map while driving down from Big Sur, detoured off Highway 101, and ended up on this freezing patch of coastal earth. My little town, with the less-than-sonorous name of Lompoc, had no bikini-clad young women in frolic, no surf Nazis flicking their sun-bleached hair in unison, and no swimming in the warm California sun. To my young mind, the Beach Boys had lied through their teeth.
Mark Twain’s quip about San Francisco having the coldest winters of any summer is correct only because he never went to the beach in Lompoc. My small slice of the Pacific Ocean was not only cold, it was home to a monotonous fog and a bully wind that kicked sand in my face and then whistled in derision as I retreated behind the nearest inhospitable hillock.
If I tried to befriend the wind and fly a kite, I needed earmuffs and snow gloves. Surf was a mockery of a California beach, except to those odd ones with their metal detectors, downcast eyes and clotted hopes. Searching for Spanish doubloons? The Cartier watch slipped from the wrist of that lost French tourist? A wedding band tossed away in despair? Well, maybe you came to the right place, because this was the place where ships came to wreck: On Sept. 8, 1923, seven naval destroyers ran aground not far from Surf. What chance did a kid in swim trunks stand? Surf Beach was a cosmic joke in the great book of misnomers.
Surf lies just north of Point Conception. South of the Point lie tranquility, warmth, wealth, movie stars and general well-being for all. To the north, one finds what are euphemistically known as “the elements”: colder water, miserablism in everyday existence (Lompoc is the kind of blue-collar town that takes its lumps whether the economy is up or down), and large gangs of Great White Sharks, or so I’ve been told.
Maybe that’s why I can’t relax at the beach, but only at a well-designed pool, especially with all the accouterments of a Vegas resort. But there must be explanations less grounded in my early beach trauma. After all, once I’d discovered the impossibility of the Lompoc beach, I began slouching toward Santa Barbara and the southland sands, playing, surfing, swimming. But never, it seems, relaxing.
“Relax” comes from the Latin root laxus, lax or loose. It’s a physical phenomenon: to become less anxious, less tense. Perhaps I’ve inherited or cultivated some strange synaptic responses, but I cannot be lax and loose on the California shores. I can be in awe and wonder next to the great Pacific Ocean, but I must always be moving, walking, body flexed, occasionally standing to watch the sun meet its maker, and disappear. I can’t be made to simply sit at the shoreline. I can’t read there. I don’t enjoy lunch on sand. I go to the beach in long-sleeve shirts, and with large hats that refuse the sun. Tanning is a peasant’s pastime. Lying in the sun is not relaxing; it’s rotting. If you’re lucky, it’s sleeping.
When I travel to Las Vegas, though, I think not of slots or craps or poker but of pools. It’s not money that I want, but rather legitimate and louche relaxation. Las Vegas pools attract because they are everything a California beach is not. First and foremost, they are fake. And that’s not a bad thing. Where in the world, except at Mandalay Bay, can one find 11 acres of “beach environment,” including a “lazy river,” a 1.6 million-gallon wave pool, a topless pool (“Mom, are we in southern France? No sweetie, that’s across the street”), and other pools with only a short dog paddle to a cocktail bar parked in its center?
Los Angeles area city councils, on the other hand, banned beach-towel liquor consumption in the 1990s. Now going to the shore is like crossing the Mexican border: I feel guilty even if my obligatory, ecologically correct steel thermos contains only “smart” water or kombucha tea. The beach police drop by at regular intervals looking for the Bud Light. Sometimes they’re assertive about sniffing the container, and I start to sweat. Heat is unnecessarily multiplied.
Meanwhile, at my Flamingo cabana I can get a drink with a little umbrella in it delivered direct to my lounge chair. I can read poolside under an overhead fan. And reading next to a pool is one of the most relaxing things in this life.
Postmodernist critics go on at length about Las Vegas as sterile, immobile, predictable, even inert despite the clanging chaos of the casino, where bets and the stage pieces that accompany them are always in flux but never really in doubt. But the predictable feels just right at a Las Vegas pool. Even the misting system at Bellagio doesn’t bother me, so long as I can keep my copy of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—appropriate for the sybaritic setting—out of harm’s way.
And here’s the critical difference between the California beach and the Las Vegas pool that gives the latter an edge. Sybaris was an ancient Greek colony in Italy known for its refined luxury, profitless consumption and excess. Pleasure for the sake of it seemed to be the point. And since there is a shortage of opulence in most of our lives—certainly in mine—these days, lounging on an oversize couch at the MGM Grand while eating a vodka-soaked snow cone is the kind of mobilization of resources I can support, at least for a few glorious moments.
Described another way, and mostly by my left-coast liberal friends, the difference between California beaches and Las Vegas pools constitutes a strict and pious bifurcation between the natural and the unnatural, the true and the false, the sacred and the profane, which conveniently elides the fact that our splendid shores have been built and shaped by human hands and exuberant machinery—the piers, the small resorts, even the constantly manicured sand itself.
So for momentary calm, wonder and awe I’ll stick with the Pacific Ocean. But for relaxation, that utopian dispensation from the often-dreary world of work, I’ll opt for the Las Vegas pool. I can’t go so far as to argue that these architectural wonders be added to the list of civilization’s greatest achievements, but for getting a straight shot to the loose and lax that all too often lie dormant within us, Google up the “Ten Best Pools in Las Vegas” and take your guiltless pick.