“Someday you must visit Egypt! Love, Bamma,” she wrote, sowing dreams — because if this gentle, shy, fine-boned old woman whom I adored could travel the world so boldly and often alone, maybe I could, too. So for my birthday, I asked for a trip on a train, because I’d never been on one and my curiosity had me yearning to move beyond the neatly trimmed privet hedge that surrounded the yard of our farmhouse in Westport, Conn. When the New York City-bound New Haven train pulled into the small, ox-blood-red clapboard station in Greens Farms, my father hoisted me up the perforated steel steps and we took our seats in the nicotine acridness of a smoking car, me squirming with excitement until he told me to sit still.
Viewed from the train, the familiar landscapes looked intriguingly different. During the 15-minute trip, we made metal-burring ear-cringing stops in Westport, East Norwalk and South Norwalk, and then my mother was waiting for us in the station parking lot in Rowayton. Her blonde hair shining in the sunlight made her easy to spot, and when she saw me, she started waving. “How was your trip?” she asked after giving me a hug. “Not long enough,” I said, and she laughed. “Doesn’t it feel wonderful to just go,” she said. It did.
My tiny trip to Le Grau-du-Roi was already better than the one to Rowayton for being 45 minutes longer, but they were similarly exhilarating. Heading south, the vast rolling vineyards of the famous Costieres de Nimes wine region gave way to rice fields, which rippled on either side of the train. Then we passengers had a teasing glimpse of the formidable medieval stone ramparts of Aigues-Mortes, and were shocked by the magenta hue of the salt pans of the Salins du Midi (the color is caused by microscopic shrimp), before finally pulling into the pretty little station in Le Grau-du-Roi, where there was laughter as people day-tripping to the beach gathered their folding chairs, umbrellas and coolers.
In the heat of the day, I was thrilled to once again be doing the fascinating work of puzzling out a place I didn’t know, and it was also a relief to be alone and unknown. The three-star Hotel Miramar overlooked a tidy scallop of sand, along a waterfront planted with stout shaggy palm trees and pink or white flowering oleander. It was simple but stylish, comfortable, fairly priced and impeccably clean — everything I want from a seaside hotel. After a long swim and a nap, I loved becoming part of the happy holiday crowds who were strolling the waterfront with dripping ice cream cones or sitting on cafe terraces with condensation-streaked carafes of rosé and dishes of olives.
Several French friends had warned me off Le Grau-du-Roi as being “populaire” or common, but that’s exactly why I liked it. From the Jersey Shore to Blackpool on the Irish Sea and Sopot in Poland, I’ve always loved affordable seaside places that make the locals happy, because the long-awaited pleasure of a vacation is usually contagious and often shared through smiles and casual conversation.
By the end of the day, when I sat down at a terrace table at Le Vivier, a very popular and reasonably priced restaurant specializing in local seafood, I was gently elated. For the first time in months, my curiosity was spry again, and I was learning so much about a place I’d never been before. A delicious meal of Camargue oysters, grilled squid with summer vegetables and a cold carafe of local white wine only underlined the pleasure of traveling.