Cupcake Contests, Mermaid Floats, and Other Fourth of July Traditions

What says Independence Day more than sand in your toes, cold drinks in the cooler and burgers on the grill? For the Allen-Baackes family, not much. Yet last summer, I broke with my usual tradition of spending July 4th with my family on the beach in Martha’s Vineyard to go camping in the woods of Upstate New York, and it was such a blast I strongly considered going again.

But the call of sunshine, family and ocean tides called me back to convention.

Shell Float Martha's Vineyard

I’d already been on the island for a week with my momma and Miller when my sister and the rest of the crew rolled up. I was thrilled to be reunited with Ashlee — the third member of our blondetourage in Orlando — and her wonderful fiancé J, and welcome new, and also recently engaged, friends Lindsay and Alex.

The crew arrived on the Seastreak direct from New York City Friday night and by the time they arrived, dang, were they wiped. We stayed up late gossiping and giggling before turning in for a big day the next morning. When it arrived, I dragged Olivia out of bed for a sister bike ride to our local lighthouse before the weekend really got crazy.

Bicycling in Martha's Vineyard

East Chop Lighthouse Martha's Vineyard

Because it was in fact a pretty big day! I was honored when Ash and J asked me to take their engagement photos — if a bit nervous. I’d never been the first shooter on something quite so important, and I knew their very grand wedding coming up next summer deserved truly spectacular announcement photos.

After throwing around a couple shoot ideas and locations, we settled on heading Up Island to the Aquinnah Lighthouse, Menemsha Beach, and finally the Vineyard Haven harbor. While we ran into a little speedbump when the Aquinnah Lighthouse was closed for a private event (and I had such a vision for the shot I wanted!), otherwise we were blessed with great weather and an insanely good looking and in-love couple — every photographer’s dream!

While I shot hundreds of images that day, I asked for the couple’s permission to show just a few of my favorites. Aren’t they beautiful?

Engagement Shoot Martha's Vineyard

Engagement Shoot Martha's Vineyard

Engagement Shoot Martha's Vineyard

Engagement Shoot Martha's Vineyard

Engagement Shoot Martha's Vineyard

Engagement Shoot Martha's Vineyard

Engagement Shoot Martha's Vineyard

Engagement Shoot Martha's Vineyard

And that was a wrap! We closed our shoot in the classiest of ways, with fried food and cheap beer at The Bite in Menemsha.

Aquinnah Cliffs

The Bite Martha's Vineyard

The Bite Martha's Vineyard

Really though, the evening’s fun was just getting started. We’d had such a good time on our chartered sunset sail a few years prior that we decided to head back to the same captain again.

Private Sunset Sail Martha's Vineyard

Private Sunset Sail Martha's Vineyard

Private Sunset Sail Martha's Vineyard

Private Sunset Sail Martha's Vineyard

What we loved: gorgeous sweeping views of the island, the fabulous overflowing cheese and fruit board the captain provided, getting to laugh and swap stories and just enjoy each other’s company uninterrupted on the water for a few hours.

What we didn’t love: the grey clouds and chilly air that appeared out of nowhere, the occasionally-a-little-too-thrilling tilts of the boat, feeling like criminals when minuscule amounts of cheese or champagne fell on the deck during said tilting spells. To be fair, the captain did tell us how much work and funds he’d put into a recent renovation of the deck. But for what we paid, it seems like a thorough guilt-free clean up would be included.

Private Sunset Sail Martha's Vineyard

Private Sunset Sail Martha's Vineyard

Private Sunset Sail Martha's Vineyard

After my mom’s favorite part of the night, the giggle-streaked ride back to shore through the pitch blackness on the dinghy, my mom and Miller turned in and the kids hit the town for a late-night dinner and a few drinks in Oak Bluffs before calling it a night.

Martha's Vineyard Nightlife

Private Sunset Sail Martha's Vineyard

Martha's Vineyard Nightlife

The next morning, my mom and I headed off to zumba and the gym while the rest of the crew fired up a birthday brunch for Other Alex — ya know, the one that’s not me. After swooping in for some final bacon bites, we all headed for the beach.

Since parking is tight in the summer, we sent the advance team ahead with the jeep, filled with beach chairs and towels and coolers, while the rest follow by bike to nearby State Beach. We spent the entire day there, reading, chatting, and soaking up the sun — perhaps a bit too much sun, as all plans for making dinner were abandoned when half the group slept all the way through to morning from their evening “naps.” What else is vacation for?

Martha's Vineyard State Beach

Martha's Vineyard State Beach

Martha's Vineyard State Beach

Monday, we were at it again. This time, we were determined to be slightly more ambitious, kicking off the day with an hour long paddle around the State Beach Bay before heading over to the ocean side for more toes-in-sand time.

While I’m practically bursting to buy my own board to keep on The Vineyard, till that time comes, the rental team at Island Spirit Kayaks are always friendly and efficient as can be.

Stand Up Paddleboarding Martha's Vineyard

Stand Up Paddleboarding Martha's Vineyard

My biggest laugh of the weekend came from a not unusual source — seashell float ordered off the internet (along with, years earlier, my shark one-piece. I’d selected this one for its enormous size, and the fact that it seemed perfectly fit for a mermaid. What I didn’t quite take into account is that a float large enough to hoist a small floatilla of girls across the ocean isn’t exactly simple to blow up or to transport.

But with a little can-do attitude — and several quarters worth of gas station air — Olivia and I were off on a sister float right off the shore.

Shell Float Martha's Vineyard

So much fun was being had that we didn’t really keep great track of exactly how far we’d drifted.

To our great amusement, and probably future generations of Baackes girls’s amusement, the camera kept rolling for our entire journey, and I am now the proud owner of over five minutes of footage in which we realize we’ve drifted completely offshore, throw the GoPro aside, and audio continues to record while we alternatively laugh so hard we might crack ribs and shout desperately “MOOOOOOMMMMYYYYY” towards the shore — okay, the latter was mostly Olivia.

The laughter mostly arrived when we realized we were being pulled into the channel that would deliver us into the bay, where we could hop off the float safely. Whoops.

Shell Float Martha's VineyardThe moment of reckoning.

Shell Float Martha's VineyardRealizing we are going into the channel — phew!

Shell Float Martha's VineyardLa dee da we totally meant for this to happen and did not shout for bystanders to call 911.

Shell Float Martha's VineyardJust a couple of sisters floating casually from the ocean to the bay no big deal.

Shell Float Martha's VineyardListening to our mom accurately informing us we are stupid.

Yup, it was a pretty eventful — and hilarious — beach day after all.

Shell Float Martha's Vineyard

That evening, fighting the siren song of nap time, we toasted to our last night as a group over sunset drinks at Nancy’s, an Oak Bluffs institution.

It was already a pretty great night, but it got a lot better when one of the waitresses on the deck introduced herself as a long-time Alex in Wanderland reader. So nice to meet you, Kendall!

Nancy's Martha's Vineyard Oak Bluffs

Nancy's Martha's Vineyard Oak Bluffs

Nancy's Martha's Vineyard Oak Bluffs

Nancy's Martha's Vineyard Oak Bluffs

Sunset over Oak Bluffs Harbor Martha's Vineyard

Nancy's Martha's Vineyard Oak Bluffs

We lucked into a line of seats right at the bar, and watched as colors changed over the harbor and a nighttime paddleboarding tour took off — one that’s now firmly on my bucket list for next year.

SUP LED Night Tours Martha's Vineyard

Back at the house, we tucked into a longstanding family tradition — our annual Cupcake Decorating Contest. To ease the anxiety some of our new guests were feeling over this explosion of artistic talent, we decided to pair of into teams.

While I totally dropped the ball on documenting the results, I was blown away with what everyone came up with — especially, ahem, the loudly protesting male partners in the crew. “I often coerce houseguests into creative expression,” Olivia nodded proudly, as everyone took turns showing their creations to the group. “It always turns out well.”

Cupcake Decorating Contest

Cupcake Decorating Contest

Cupcake Decorating Contest

Afterwards, we took the leftover sparklers from Ash and J’s fireworks cupcakes and headed to the street for some impromptu sparkler photography experimentation. I couldn’t believe how well it went! Now that I know I can do it, brace yourself for excessive displays of destination names spelled out with sparklers here on Alex in Wanderland. You can’t say you weren’t warned.

Sparkler Writing Photography

Sparkler Writing Photography

Sparkler Writing Photography

And our heartfelt goodbyes the next morning really wrapped the week. While I stuck around a few more days, they were exclusively spent working and working out, so my summer Vineyard story really ends here.

While we didn’t have the most traditional July 4th — we skipped the fireworks and the parades and the excessive red, white and blue costumes — we focused on what felt good this year, which was focusing on family, friends, and traditions we hold dear.

Till next year, Martha’s Vineyard!

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