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A Day at the Beach

Really. One day. Like, eight hours. In Florida.

By Robert Bassman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page C02

The winter has been warmer than average, but I still cracked during that 10-day siege of days in the teens and 20s last month. Three snowfalls in less than a week -- and too many times shoveling an annoying brick sidewalk -- took their toll.

I needed, really needed, to get to a warm, sunny place. I needed some beach time. But how? We were too busy at the office for me to get away. Except . . . maybe for a day.

In winters past, an escape to a warm beach for a frozen Washingtonian required lots of advance planning, hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars and at least several days off from work. But the combination of Internet fare shopping and low-price airlines have ushered in a new era -- the age of the day trip to South Florida.

6:50 a.m. I step off the moving sidewalk at Reagan National's Terminal A to the familiar strains of "the walkway is ending." Dressed in a hooded sweat shirt and slightly ragged khakis, I pass the suited businessmen at the Northwest counter on their way to Detroit and the ATA counter going to Chicago. Having been on both flights, I feel a twinge of sympathy. But I stroll by with my pre-printed boarding pass in hand (every second counts when you're squeezing a weekend holiday into a 12-hour dash) and glide through the still-empty security queue. Gate A6 is marked for ATA's 6:35 to Chicago. But a few minutes later, someone slaps up a magnetic Spirit sign over the ATA logo, to my relief and that of two dozen other Fort Lauderdale-bound travelers.

Picking the right flight is the key to a successful emergency beach day. Weather.com had told me the skies would be clear over Florida. My Web search (including airline sites, Orbitz.com and Hotwire.com) coughed up some promising nonstop options (ATA, Independence Air, Southwest, Spirit and US Airways) to several choice Florida beach venues (Fort Myers, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and West Palm Beach). My goal was maximum sun time at minimum cost. The clear winner was Spirit's 7:40 a.m. from Reagan National to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, $50 each way, plus fees, totaling $118 round trip. This flight, if on time, would give me a bit more than eight hours in sunny Florida before I headed back at 7:35 p.m.

7:50 a.m. "Paperwork" keeps us at the gate for an additional 10 minutes. A frequent flier, I am most aware of the slippery slope that often begins with such an announcement. Fears that much of the sand in my brief-trip hourglass might run immediately begin to grow. Once the plane backs from the gate, though, these vanish quickly. My only choice now is whether to read the paper or begin the beach novel, a Spenser mystery called "The Judas Goat" that I had checked out of the library the day before. I decide to save Spenser and Hawk for the beach and start in on the Comics section.

10:20 a.m. We land in Fort Lauderdale about 10 minutes late. Sitting in front of the plane and having no luggage, I am in a cab for the ride to the beach almost before the plane's turbines stop spinning.

10:30 a.m. Eager to begin my mini (micro?) vacation, I make the cabbie stop almost in the middle of South Atlantic Avenue the moment we are parallel to the beach. I hop out, take off my sneakers and place my first foot in the sand. I'm triumphant, having achieved tropicality in only an hour longer than a summer drive across the bay to Bethany Beach.

I happily walk the beach north, stepping in the slightly chilly (73 degree) surf. I go two blocks until I get to a chair rental stand. I spread my towel on my rented chaise, strip off my pants (I had flown with my bathing suit on under my khakis) and get down to the serious business at hand: doing nothing.

11:45a.m. Still nothing.

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