From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
On the surface it seemed like any other summer vacation. Kate Gosselin treated her daughters to ice cream, making sure her kids said "please" and "thank you." When it was Kate's turn to order, "she had a few bites but didn't eat an entire serving," says Jeff Pollock, the owner of the Scoop ice cream shop in Wilmington, N.C. "She was watching her diet."

Meanwhile everyone else was watching her. On May 26—a day after nearly 10 million viewers tuned in to Jon & Kate Plus 8, which chronicles Jon and Kate Gosselin's adventures raising sextuplets and twins, and more recently the couple's troubled marriage—Kate packed up her brood (Cara and Mady, 8, and Aaden, Alexis, Collin, Hannah, Joel and Leah, 5) and escaped to the beach. Kate was sure to be noticed, since she was accompanied by two bodyguards and a camera crew for the trip. But it was sightings of the family doing the most mundane vacation tasks—from building sand castles to eating cheeseburgers—that thrilled locals and tourists in the upscale resort towns of Bald Head Island and Wilmington, N.C. "Everyone's talking about Kate and the kids," says an owner of a Wilmington bed and breakfast. "It's been the prime topic in town."

As was the conspicuous absence of Jon, who stayed behind at the family's home in Wernersville, Pa.—further evidence of their growing divide. While the June 8 episode shot this past spring showed some of the banter the couple once engaged in lovingly (Kate asked Jon, "Do you know where the oven is?" To which Jon replied, "Yeah, I reheat a lot of things"), scenes shot more recently showed the spouses once again being interviewed separately. "It's called rolling with life," Kate said with a sigh while sitting alone in a chair.

On vacation, at least, Kate was rolling along just fine. Flaunting a taut bikini body, "she seemed to be in a good mood. She was making jokes with everyone," says local Brittani Reynolds. Writing about the trip on her blog, Kate noted that the kids' hermit crabs had been "safely and peacefully returned to the ocean," before cracking, "I wish I could say the same thing about the beyond-obnoxious paparazzi, but no such luck!"

Back at home Jon enjoyed the simple life, busying himself with chores. He stopped by UPS, oversaw the delivery of a new dishwasher and took out the trash. When Mady and Cara returned home earlier than the rest of the gang, Jon picked them up from school and took them to the movies and to lunch at Austin's restaurant in West Lawn, Pa.—a family favorite. "We like having them here," says a manager. "They're good people."

With Kate and the sextuplets arriving home on June 7, the parents must now return to living under one roof. Fans hope that absence will have made the heart grow fonder. Looking back on her summer getaway, Kate commented on her blog, "The beach is a place to refresh, regroup...." And perhaps make some very important life decisions.