The beach at Saint Raphael is like no other beach I have been to. To those who only see the pictures it might seem the same. It certainly has the same elements as other beaches. There is a creamy strip of sand which tapers off in the distance to a pebbly coastline. The Mediterranean ebbs and flows here as at other French Riviera resorts. The sun shines through a cloudless sky here as at many another destination. Still, the beach I sit on is unlike any other beach in the world. Here the sand hums a tune as it sifts through my fingers. There is a carousel at this seaside and its tinny melody imbues the shore with an innocent quality. The sea here is a particular shade of blue: neither aquamarine nor azure, but tinged with an ever-changing hue like the flitting feathers of a peacock’s tail. The nearby din of silverware and porcelain from the long line of restaurants adds a new note to the song. The beach at Saint Raphael is unique to it, not replicable anywhere else.
I wonder if my fellow beach goers feel the same way I do. Judging from their contented smiles and the squeals of their children they are enjoying the scenery, but do they realize how special it is? I have often heard it said that no two snowflakes are alike, and while I have never examined any under a microscope, I feel the same can certainly be said about beaches as well as destinations. No two destinations are exactly the same. They may share similar looking mountains, or an expansive lake, or have formed geologically during the same time period. Over time, however, history has carved out each location to be distinct and to have its own personality. Though the elements of this beach are the same as others, Saint Raphael gives it a distinct flavor, one that is spiced with the scent of olive oil, the jingle of a merry-go-round, and the allure of the Riviera life.
The more I gaze upon my surroundings the more I also realize that this spot is unique because of the perspective I bring to it. Others at this sandy playground will not see the sun playing upon the rippling water the way I do. They will perhaps associate this strip of shore with the aroma of fresh made crepes at the corner bistro, or with the gaudy blue-and-white striped umbrellas so deftly placed at useful intervals, or with the sight of a lone sailboat crossing the eternally blue horizon. They may contrast my sublime beach less favorably with others upon the golden shores of Saint Tropez. They may think of it romantically as the perfect nesting site for their honeymoon or they may regard it with envy as a place far removed from their own storm-tossed coastline. I look around at my lounging companions and know that there are as many different tales on this beach as there are grains of sand. Maybe this shoreline reminds the old gentleman gazing at the sky of fond childhood excursions. Maybe for the Parisian family of four this vacation is the long-awaited moment in which to spent time with their youngsters. For me, this is what makes travel so exciting: every place is unique unto itself and every individual has their own particular experience at a destination.
I am often tempted to see similarities between places I visit or describe them in comparison to others, but I think this does a disservice to the destination.
Can a place really be the “Paris of a country” simply because it possesses similar cobblestone pavements, old-world iron lampposts, and sidewalk cafés?
Should not each and every place deserve its individuality and celebrate it as such? After all, as humans we pride ourselves on being unlike anyone else. We are a planet of individuals whose worth is measured by our distinctive mental faculties, particular backgrounds, and the personal footprint we leave behind in this life. Though we enjoy shared interests with others, we never wish to give up our own tastes and opinions for those of someone else. Destinations are the same: they may retain analogous landscapes, architectural features, or epicurean flavors, but they have been shaped by history, often the history of people, to be singular.
When the two meet: my individuality and that of the destination, it always makes for a rare experience. Though others may visit this identical beach, eat at the identical restaurants, and walk the identical streets as I do in Saint Raphael, they will not encounter the town as I have. Their story of getting to know the place will be different from mine and that is the ultimate beauty of travel. This is why reading about a place or seeing it in pictures or watching it on screen will never be enough for me: I must go there so I can get acquainted personally and have my own story to tell.