Unlikely Affinity: The Beauty of Vacation Friends

There’s something about being on vacation that opens us up to friendships with people we’d never, ever befriend in real life. Why is that?

vacation friends

Vacation friends are here for a good time, not a long time. / Illustration by Madison Ketcham

Almost exactly one year ago, my husband took me on a surprise vacation for my 40th birthday: a four-day jaunt to Key West, Florida. We stayed at a boutique hotel — big enough to have two pools, small enough that you’d see the same people every day. The beaches were dolloped with giant smelly globs of seaweed, which was fine with us because we’re not really beach people anyway. We spent our time at the pools instead, lazily flicking through magazines, reading books, sipping slushy Key lime coladas and trying our best to talk about anything other than our son back home. We were on vacation together, just the two of us, trying to get back to how we’d been on our honeymoon 15 years ago, before we were consumed by parenthood.

“Did you know all that seaweed is part of something called the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt?” I asked my husband one morning, after spending an inordinate amount of time googling seaweed. He did not, so I told him all about it, this fascinating floating mass of slimy brown algae that spans 5,000 miles — all the way from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico!

He was less amazed than I’d been. “Let’s go get drinks,” he said, immediately changing the subject, so we did, because when you’re on vacation, 11 in the morning is a perfectly acceptable time to have a cocktail. It was at the poolside bar that we met Heather and her husband Kerry, a jolly couple from Arkansas also marooned at the pool on account of all the seaweed. I don’t remember why we started talking — either she wondered what I’d ordered to drink or I wondered what she’d ordered to eat — but before long, she was leading me on a guided tour of her phone’s camera roll (“And that’s my house … ”) and I was explaining to her how my pelvis had separated during pregnancy. (“It was excruciating pain right here,” I told her, pointing to my pubic bone as she sipped her cocktail sympathetically.)

By the end of the day, another couple — younger, inexplicably also from Arkansas — had joined our foursome, all of us united by our disdain for the other guests in the pool, a New York couple who were loud, obnoxiously drunk and, we were convinced, swingers. We avoided them, the six of us taking up residence at the far end of the deck, where we could sit in judgment of the couple from behind our sunglasses. We constructed elaborate conversations between them and the other guests, and we placed bets on who would leave with them. 

The six of us didn’t have much in common other than hating the New York swingers. We’d spent our 20s doing very different things. The younger couple, Nicole and Grant, were married with three kids by age 23 (they were now just 30, with another baby), and Kerry and Heather, not even in their mid-40s, were about to be grandparents. They also had a kid in college, meaning they were on track to be empty nesters by the time they turned 45. Forty-five! My husband and I spent our 20s fumbling, very slowly, into adulthood. I still smoked clove cigarettes, for God’s sake. We won’t be empty nesters until we’re almost retirement age.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we were also on completely different political sides from our Arkansas friends, but we all quickly glossed over that. Who wants to debate social issues on vacation? We’ll never see each other again, we figured, so let’s set our differences aside, have a few drinks, show each other videos of our kids and talk about our pelvic floors! 

We were in a hazy, sun-dappled bubble divorced from reality, an alternate universe where nobody works and men walk around shirtless and people ride Segways. We were thrust together by fate and seaweed, which kept all of us hotel guests clustered poolside instead of scattered about on the beach. We were bonded, in the singular way that sunshine and Key lime coladas and hating the same people bonds you.

We were, in other words, vacation friends.

The magic of a vacation is that it opens you up to new experiences and new people, if you let it. Sometimes it works out nicely, shaping your trip into something new and wholly unexpected.

Sometimes it doesn’t.

A few months after we returned from Florida, my parents went on a vacation, too — an eight-day Viking cruise along the Mediterranean. In terms of cruise ships, theirs was small — less than a thousand guests spread out over nine decks. That meant there were plenty of places to meet people — and plenty of places to avoid them. Or so you’d think.

“Hi, honey,” my mom said when I called one evening. She sounded distracted, and she was. She was hiding out with my dad on the upper deck of the ship, on the lookout for Bob and Vera, a 50-­something couple from Nevada. They’d all had a drink together on the second evening of the cruise, which was perfectly fine until it wasn’t: Bob talked endlessly about their grown daughter, Vera talked endlessly about her singing, and my parents didn’t get a chance to talk about much of anything. An hour in, when the conversation lulled, Vera broke into operatic song. It was mortifying.

“And then they said, ‘How about we all go to dinner?’ And we couldn’t say no, and then they found us at breakfast the next morning!” Mom explained, rather frantically. What were they to do? My parents couldn’t very well tell their new friends to find somewhere else to sit. This was a $20,000 cruise, not the high-school cafeteria in Mean Girls. But then Bob and Vera turned up on their walking tour the next afternoon, and my parents had had enough. That’s how they ended up on the top deck of the cruise ship, hiding. My mom was in the middle of telling me about Barcelona when she suddenly went very quiet. 

“Oh God no,” she whispered. “They’re here. I have to go.”

She hung up. It reminded me of that scene in the movie Taken where Liam Neeson is on the phone with his daughter as she’s in France, hiding from Albanian sex traffickers under a bed. Bob and Vera might have been comparatively harmless, but my parents weren’t thrilled about being roped into another dinner with them. When you’re dealing with level-10 clingers, even a 745-foot-long ship isn’t big enough.

A few years ago, an acquaintance, Sarah, from Elkins Park, was also hiding out from a couple, in Spain. She and her husband, both in their 30s, were on a food-and-wine tour with a small group of strangers — a couple their age, and a pair of know-it-all retirees who brought up politics in the van and corrected people at restaurants and wineries. (Everyone knows food-and-wine know-it-alls are some of the worst people you can meet on vacation.)

“We were so sick of them that we asked the tour company if our guide could take just us young couples out for the night,” Sarah reports. “We snuck out of the hotel so the older duo wouldn’t see us, and we had the best night eating and chatting.” They’re still Facebook friends with the younger couple, bonded — just like us and the Arkansas contingent — by wine, sunshine and mutual dislike.

Sometimes this vacation magic can lead to great things, like relationships that continue after you’ve landed back in real life. It led us to Mike and Marisa, a couple from Florida that we met in Chicago while standing in a five-hour merch line before a Pearl Jam concert. We still meet up for shows. It led my friend Carly from Newtown to her lifelong best friend, Erin from Tennessee. They met on vacation when they were 10 years old, splashing in a pool on South Carolina’s Kiawah Island. “We’ve been friends for 24 years and counting. We reunite every year right after Christmas,” Carly says. 

And then there’s my friend Jessica, who met a new friend on vacation in Ocean City when she was 15. Today, they’re married, with three kids, a puppy, and a permanent Ocean City address.

Still, some relationships can, and should, exist only in the suspended reality of vacation. They’re like a summer fling, where part of the appeal is the fleeting romance of it. 

Or like the dinner we had in Paris with a couple from Texas back in 2014. We’d just met them while watching the French Open men’s final on TV at an open-air bar. They’d heard that whenever tennis legend Rafael Nadal won the French, he celebrated afterward at a certain restaurant. So when Nadal finally collapsed triumphantly to the ground in a plume of red clay dust, our quartet made a reservation there, strangers in a strange land, connected only by time, place and tennis. We ticked off at least four hours and as many bottles of wine before Nadal finally arrived, waving and glowing with victory. 

We never saw the couple (or Nadal, for that matter) again, and the picture my husband took with the tennis champ is a little bit blurry, but the night was, in fact, magical. It was kismet, this couple from Texas serving up for us an unlikely forever ­memory — even though we can’t for the life of us remember their names.

Something inside us changes when we’re removed from our everyday lives. There’s a shift in perspective, a shake-up of our very particles. It’s why we try things on vacation that we’d never consider doing otherwise, like bungee jumping, cave exploring, scuba diving, wearing Hawaiian shirts. In Philly, we cancel all beach plans when we hear that a 500-pound great white shark named Penny has been spotted off the coast of Ocean City; in the Bahamas, we pay money to swim with her and her friends. Same ocean, same sharks, but we’re different people, at least for a little while.

Maybe it’s the reprieve from the weight of our responsibilities, or maybe it’s just the sunshine, but on vacation we get to be the lighter, gentler, softer, more fun versions of ourselves. Things feel less serious, less permanent, so we’re willing to overlook factors and flaws we never would in real life. On vacation, for instance, I can be the type of person who doesn’t write someone off completely for liking Donald Trump, and Heather from Arkansas doesn’t write me off for hating his guts. My husband can be the type of person who drinks Key lime coladas at 11 a.m., and Kerry can be the type of person who accepts a pot gummy offered by a stranger. (“KERRY!” Heather said in shock. “You can’t DO that!”) It makes me wonder: Maybe we’re all a little bit better as people when we’re on vacation. 

Maybe all of America needs a vacation.

The day after my 40th birthday, my husband and I were again at the pool in Florida when we saw Nicole and Grant, the young couple we’d befriended earlier, walking by. Would we have to spend the day with them again, I wondered? Can you go backwards after you’ve had an enjoyable afternoon together? Was our romantic solo trip now a group affair?

It was not. The young couple must have felt the same way, so they said hello and sat a few loungers away. (Kerry was still sleeping off the gummy.) I was scrolling through Instagram, looking for more information about the Sargassum Belt — on vacation, I can be the type of person who cares deeply about seaweed — when a message from Nicole popped up. (Sometime around our fourth Key lime colada, we’d all followed one another on social media.)

“I need her to shut the hell up,” she wrote, referring to the woman sitting with her husband between us. “She’s narrating their week like they’re on a TV show.”

And suddenly we were right back to where we’d been the day before. I, too, hated the annoying woman between us! I sat up and leaned over, pushed my sunglasses down, and caught Nicole’s attention. We rolled our eyes and smiled.

We’ve all since moved on from where we were in Florida — well, except for the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt, which is back now and worse than ever. I see on Instagram that Nicole and Grant got matching tattoos, and Heather and Kerry are now grandparents to a little girl named Hayden, who was born with a full head of dark hair. (“Isn’t she beautiful?” Heather wrote, forwarding me a whole slew of pictures. And she is.) 

Other than social media, we haven’t really stayed in touch. But that wasn’t ever the point. We were each of us unmoored, away from home and all of the expectations and obligations that come with it, open to a wild and wonderful world and the people who live in it. What was special wasn’t the friendships themselves, which were never likely to last, but instead the moments of spontaneous connection. Another person to have fun with, another experience to file away, another good story to tell about swingers and pelvises and gummies, another bunch of strangers in a strange seaweed land, sharing a golden afternoon.


Published as “Strangers in Paradise” in the August 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.