I RECEIVED A BEACH CABANA two or three years ago as a birthday present. I deliberately let it gather dust in the garage for an entire summer, convinced that it signalled the death knell of my youthful, carefree young adult life and my rapid ascension into the world of sensible Dadhood. Then, one particularly steamy January morning recently, I went down to my local swimming spot and saw the beach absolutely littered with them. Acquiescence seemed like the only option; one can hardly call it a battle when the enemy has already scoped out all of the best spots and set up camp.
I’ve written before about how newer generations have learned from the sins of their fathers (and mothers) when it comes to protecting themselves from the antipodean sun. But nothing has taken hold as quickly as this Abraham-style tent, which has leapfrogged swathes of UV ray-protectors to become the ultimate beach accessory du jour.
But there’s on particular brand of cabana that’s captured the collective imagination unlike any other. Dubbed the ‘CoolCabana’, it’s the brainchild of a Queensland architect Mark Fraser. What started as an idea to provide convenient access to portable shade has gone through five iterations and much hand-wringing to take complete sand supremacy with its unique design and relatively painless set-up. CoolCabanas boast double the amount of shade as your parents’ ‘90s beach umbrella and are also far less likely to fly across the sand and impale your neighbour on a windy day. Fraser started the brand on Kickstarter; he’s now a multi-millionaire with his invention taking off in Europe and the US.
To discuss beach cabanas in Sydney, or any reasonably populated area on the coast, is somewhat akin to having a conversation about property. When people exhort the values or denounce the obnoxiousness of a tent on public sand, it sounds remarkably similar to conversations we have around property values. It’s the feeling that certain people are afforded too much space while others are left out in the cold (or heat, as it were). Not content to talk about house prices on our afternoons and evenings off, we now also wonder aloud at the overpopulation of tents on our beaches and how it happened so fast.
The thing about CoolCabanas (which have reached the level of ubiquity whereby the brand name is now used as a generic term like ‘Speedos’) is that they’re brilliant for you and your young family but an absolute pain in the A for everyone else. They take up large amounts of space. Much like newly approved developments by the water, they also block views of the shoreline, which is why you go to the beach in the first place as opposed to a well-covered local pool, where shade is often hoisted far out of eye-line.
In fact, the more time you spend lugging a cabana to the beach where you will squat unceremoniously for much of the day, the more you are reminded that you don’t live close enough to the beach and, unless you win the lottery, you probably never will. My shoulders have only just recovered from the unique burn produced by carrying an unyieldingly rigid cabana case down to the beach. My wife and I have also missed the boat on its usefulness for at least the next few years. Our toddler’s new favourite game is to run directly into the waves despite not yet being able to swim, so relaxing under its shady cotton-poly with UV protection is (currently) kind of redundant.
This isn’t to say I don’t marvel at their ability to provide constant shade, extra storage and the requiring nothing but sand to assemble, short of an umbrella-like central pole that my wife always ends up securing because I am left-handed, which is code for hopeless. But despite their bright prints and sudden omnipresence on the Australian coastal landscape, there remains something undeniably daggy about the CoolCabana and its shade-adjacent neighbours. Think about it: you never really traipse past one of these temporary structures and see a supermodel underneath, reading a book or wearing a hat for fashion rather than sun protection. By their very nature, and in their very names, CoolCabanas exist to keep you cool rather than making you look so. To be schlepping one from the car, or in a wagon, or on an electric bike is to signal that you have entered a more responsible stage of life; a stage I begrudgingly joined far later than was socially acceptable.
But when you think about it, we were always destined to be people of the tent. Millennials were dubbed Generation Rent years ago and it’s stuck. We’re the lost souls that will be trapped in the rental market far longer than our parents, who nabbed all the freestanding houses with shade (and on occasion, pools) before it became an economic unreality. If we’re going to live cheek-by-jowl in small, overpriced apartments well into our forties and fifties, why should the beach be any different? So maybe we should lean into the inevitability of the cabana after all.
If you can’t beat them, join them. Right?