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I first went to pick beach plums with my neighbor, Mr. Cook, two summers ago. I anticipated the experience through Martha-Vision: there would be a soft wind off the water on Sandy Hook, the early morning sun splashing across the landscape in shades of honey. The reality was a 10-minutes-after-crack-of-dawn trip that included rampant boot-level cacti and mosquitoes that swooped like bombadiers over 1945 Dresden. The picking was good, but those wretched creatures—their constant humming in my ears as they got me in their cross-hairs—stung me through jeans, a jacket, the bandanna on my head, and copious amounts of Deep Woods Off. Mr. Cook, an octogenarian and lifelong outdoorsman who shoots his Thanksgiving turkey every year, didn’t notice.

Sandy Hook is a narrow slice of sand between the Atlantic Ocean and the Shrewsbury River, just a few miles south of Manhattan. Mr. Cook has been picking beach plums there, from the same clearing, for as long as he can remember. The plums grow on bushes on a landscape that looks very much like the American Southwest, within scrubby vegetation that’s tough enough to grow in sand and endure both scalding sun and occasional flooding. They look just like regular plums, but are as small as cherries. Every year Mr. Cook picks a 1950s enamelware-potful and brings them to a woman in a nearby town, where she converts them into his all-time favorite jelly. Me, I like jam, so that’s what I made. It was tart and sweet, but quite unlike ordinary plums. Intriguing.

When Mr. Cook was growing up in the early part of the last century, only certain people were allowed to pick beach plums on Sandy Hook. When I asked how his family came to be among them, he said they had a friend who had a permit allowing her to go. I did a little research and learned that when the Lenni Lenape sold the parcel of land to the new settlers, a stipulation was added to the contract that allowed the native people to come back and pick beach plums every summer. So it could be that his family friend was among the few who could go.

The spot remains a popular if hush-hush place for picking beach plums. I’m not sure if the old permits stand, but I do know the state Parks System, which operates on the place, doesn’t like people picking there. Which is why Mr. Cook and I showed up with fishing poles in the back of the truck. He handed me an old cap like his to wear, and we smiled all pretty pretty at the rangers at the check-in gate. This year I went after 4pm, when the Park doesn’t charge admission, and bypassed the rangers entirely.

Before heading out I tried a folk recipe for keeping mosquitoes away. My sister found it online. You drink 2 teaspoons of cider vinegar in 8 ounces of water. It’s like slugging Hidden Valley house dressing straight from the bottle. But the critters laughed at Deep Woods Off, as you recall. This was my recourse.

Apparently there are beach plum bushes all over Sandy Hook, but I only know of one patch. It’s a right and a left, by car. In other words, not hard to get to. But I couldn’t find the street. I tried five times—yeah—and just when I started wondering if dementia or basic early senility was setting in, it dawned on me that maybe the government had decided to try to pull the old wool over my eyes and turn what was once a street into a bike path.

Ha. I am SO on to them.

The patch.

Sharp buggers.

It was slim pickins this year—I think I was maybe a week too late and someone else got to them first. (It wasn’t Mr. Cook. I checked.) But I picked a good amount, and I hit up one more really random place in Long Branch where I knew of a single bush, and picked enough to make a bit of jam.

I admit I don’t use a real recipe to make beach plum jam, or any other kind of jam, for that matter. Many years ago I read a woman’s account of her first time jamming, and I’ve followed her example ever since. She was amazed at how easy it was: You put fruit and sugar and water in a pot and boil the hell out of it, she said. With some fruit, you need to add pectin, which helps the jam to set. Don’t worry about it here. (Adding a good amount of sugar helps to set it, too. I don’t like too much sugar, though, so I tolerate jam that’s on the runny side. No worries.) Keep in mind that a ripening, pinkish-red beach plum contains more pectin than a fully-ripe, deep-purple one, so mix in about 25% ripening plums with the others. It’ll add a counter-tartness as well. Balance is good.

Here’s how I make beach plum jam. Play with my recipe if you’re an experienced jammer or if you’re feeling all devil-may-care. I always thought this jam would be great with a pinch of cardamom, or with brown sugar instead of white. Local honey is a great stand-in for sugar.

Wash the plums. They’re wild, so you don’t have to worry about pesticides. How nice is that? De-leaf them and de-stem them. Remove the pits with a cherry pitter, if you have one. If not, a sharp paring knife on a cutting board will work. It just takes longer.

Put them in a deep pot and add enough water to cover them. Add maybe 1 cup of sugar for every cup of plums. Add more if you want to have it on toast or stirred into yogurt; add less if you want to serve it as a sauce alongside poultry or game. Now boil (the hell out of it). Your goal is to let the water cook off and soften the fruit into yummy purple goo. Stir the mixture often with a wooden spoon and don’t let it cook down too much or the sugar will burn.

Ta dah. You just made jam. Take it off the heat and let it cool a bit, then store in your fridge. Eat it up within a week or so. Won’t be a problem.

P.S. I got one mosquito bite while picking. Revenge was mine, though—I probably tasted like vinegar.

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1) Neck pillows rock.

It was a red-eye flight across the Pacific, 8 hours and 20 minutes. Are you old enough to remember when coach seats let you tilt back? Well, it lives only in your sweet little memory, kids. Most of coach these days lets you tilt a couple of inches—no more. Using the pillow gives your head an almost-decent place to rest, letting you get some sleep.

2) So does sticking to carry-on luggage.

Especially on a trip like this. I opted to break up the flying to avoid sitting on one airplane for 14 hours, but that also meant travelling for a longer overall time. The trip from the train, to a shuttle, to an airport, to a plane, to another airport, to another plane, to a ferry, to a shuttle bus would have flattened me  were it not for the ease of taking nothing but one small LL Bean rolling suitcase and a bag of food. So you wash your t shirts each night—no biggie. You’ll grin like a village idiot when you walk past the bleary-eyed throngs of people at the luggage carousel. And you won’t have to pay to check anything.

3) The easygoing lifestyle on the islands permeates everything.

In two of my hotel rooms, I had no phone, no clock, and no 24/7 front desk. Remember hakuna matata (‘no worries’) from The Lion King? You’re about to live it. This is good–you are there to relax, after all. Ask questions politely, get your answers, then try to chill. The first couple of days are the hardest. Then you’ll get so used to it you’ll even feel a little smug.

4) Smoke gets in your eyes.

And (with apologies to The Platters) in your lungs. Polynesians like to burn things. Coconuts, tires, their dinner in a dug-out pit in their yards–lots of things. I had a couple of nights on Moorea that were relentlessly smoky. If you’re sensitive, have asthma or another respiratory problem, you have a few options: splurge for an over-the-water bungalow, where the constant breeze will keep the smoke away; splurge for a fancy hotel, which tends to be a ‘bubble’, away from the surrounding community; or if you’re a layperson like me, just check that your hotel room is well-sealed. Thatched bungalows aren’t. When driving, watch for billowing smoke up ahead and roll up your windows till you’re past it.

5) Stray animals are everywhere.

All of the animals I came across were friendly and tame. But when driving, keep a lookout for dogs, who are as hakuna matata as the locals, and either wander with abandon into your path or don’t move from where they and their pals are sprawled in the street. Cats commonly walk through the open airports, into restaurants (yup) and into your room if you leave the door open. You’ll often see geckos (okay, not exactly stray animals) in your room. Some are tiny and extremely cute. They are shy but very quick. Keep suitcases closed to ward off stowaways.

6) Beware of online travel info that implies you can do anything in Polynesia without an expensive guided tour.

I have always rented a car in my travels and mistakenly thought it would serve me 100% of the time on the Polynesian islands. On Moorea, it did, for the most part. The marae (stone temple) hike and the view on Belvedere were memorable and accessible by car. But the hidden waterfalls I had read about are not only dry in May, but the road up was atrocious. Same goes for the vanilla and pineapple plantations. Raiatea boasts the tiare apetahi, a flower that grows nowhere else on earth, and the online tourism sites welcome visitors to go see it. But when I got to the island, I learned it requires an 8-hour, crack-of-dawn, guided hike up a steep, rocky mountain. And that’s when it’s actually in bloom. Bora Bora has WWII cannons, but they are only accessible by paying for a tour to get you there.

I splurged on a Moorea shark/ray tour and a Taha’a vanilla tour. If you can afford a lot of tours, or if you’re perfectly happy beach-bumming each day, you’ll be fine. I needed more to do, and felt hamstrung a few times b/c the interior of the islands are pretty much impenetrable without a tour.

7) Along the same lines, water activities are king.

The islands have a little shopping, some nice beaches and a lot of great food, but their real ace-in-the-hole is the water—sailing, snorkeling, motu excursions, and diving. With a few exceptions, the surf offers far more possibilities for fun than the turf.

8) The cheaper rental cars are stick shift.

Juuuust a heads up.

9) Mosquitoes and no-see-ums.

I didn’t encounter many of ‘ums. The Internet gives varying reports of critters on Polynesia that would put Dracula out of business, but I never had a problem. The trip was in late May and early June ’08, the beginning of the dry season, so that might have been a factor, plus home for me is the beach/lake, so I’m used to swatting the odd bug. The only time I found them troublesome was after hiking the interior of Moorea, which was as jungle-like as the opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Some travelers might be more sensitive. If you’re one of them, pack bug spray.

10) Travel guides aren’t always on target.

The Frommer’s 2008 guide recommended the “ice cold coconut milk” at a store in downtown Raiatea and listed the hours of operation. It took me two tries to get into the place because the Frommer’s hours were inaccurate, and then I was disappointed when I saw coconut milk wasn’t even on the menu. It’s minor, but this type of things happened a lot while travelling through the islands.

11) The weather was more fickle than Liz Taylor (God rest her soul).

I know, Polynesia is paradise. But sometimes it rains in paradise. Pack lightweight, roll-up-able raincoats. It can also be very windy. Bora Bora was sunny, but the wind never let up, so the beach was chilly at times.

12) There are no sidewalks.

None of the islands I visited–Moorea, Raiatea, Taha’a and Bora Bora—have sidewalks, and some streets are very narrow. Watch out for locals speeding by on scooters. They even do wheelies and stand up on those things. No joke. Admittedly fun to watch…but from a distance 🙂

13) Learn a little français before you go.

The locals speak both French and Polynesian, and most speak at least some English. Having said that, it helps to have some French in your back pocket, especially the days of the week (for understanding weather reports and days of operation) and other basics. Remember, the more remote the island, the less likely locals will know much English. And here, what the heck–some Polynesian: “Hello” is Iaorana (yo-RAH-na, with a little roll on the ‘r’, as in ‘senorita’) and “thank you” is Mauruuru (ma-ROO-roo, and roll the ‘r’ again).

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