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.
11:45 a.m. Still nothing.
11:50 a.m. After an hour of sun-drenched immobility, I rouse myself for a short dip in the beautiful blue water. I let the sun dry me, turn over and eat the salami-and-cheese sandwich I had bought at Vace's in Cleveland Park the day before. (I couldn't afford to waste precious sun moments at a slow restaurant.) This sure beats sitting at my desk and hoping to finish a project on the chance that I might be able to get out for lunch.
12:45 p.m. More nothing.
12:50 p.m. After another hour of blissful stillness, I begin to debate my options. Scuba is out, because I won't have the requisite 24-hour post-dive time before I get back on the plane. But a myriad of other diversions are available. Just steps away, parasailing, Wave Runners or a Hobie Cat can be obtained. Bicycle, scooter and even Segway rentals are also offered. Weighing all of these options, I sagely choose a five-minute dip in the water before returning to my trusty chair.
3 p.m. I'm feeling a little guilty. I have to do more than just lie on the beach. Don't I? I need some additional accomplishments to relate to family and friends. I gather up all my strength and walk across the sand and street to Beach Bums, where I order not one but two $4 margaritas. Listening to the DJ while sitting at the outside bar, I soon become anxious over the quickly dwindling moments of remaining beach time. After tossing back the second margarita, I stop at a souvenir store next door and buy some mandatory T-shirts for those freezing back home.
3:45 p.m. Ahhhhh. Back on my trusty chaise. The next hour and 45 minutes bring two more short swims. This requires reapplication of sunscreen, as well as turning over twice. Weary from these exertions, I comfort myself with the knowledge that I will have two hours to recover on the plane home.
5:30 p.m. Uh-oh. The sun is getting low in the sky, calling an end to my recumbent adventure. I pack my belongings, rinse the sand off my feet at the public shower and jog up to Third and Las Olas in time for the 6 o'clock bus. The bus gets me to the airport at 6:25 p.m., which proves to be another light time for airport security. I'm at the gate more than an hour before departure time. I sit and feel calmed, and warm.
6:35 p.m. What's a slice of summer in January without a hot dog? I sate my hunger with a Nathan's hot dog and fries and board the plane, which has just come in from San Juan. We take off and I nap with, I'm sure, a huge smile on my face.
10:05 p.m. We land just in time for Spenser to dispatch the bad guys at the Montreal Olympic Games. I take my book and sandy carry-on and head through the terminal for my return to daily parking and winter.
10:30 p.m. Home. That smile grows even wider when I meet my wife in the kitchen and spend 15 minutes regaling her with the details of my very small adventure. She had been skeptical of the whole idea.
The good news is that my field trip to Florida cost me just $175, including airfare, parking and margaritas. I enjoyed every minute of it. And I was able to extract a moment of envy -- or at least bewilderment -- from friends and co-workers. (I even had a discernible tan to show off.) The bad news is that my 16-hour vacation didn't leave me with much of a residual vacation "mellow," as I learned within 20 minutes of getting back to the office the next morning. Maybe if I went for two days . . .
Flights to South Florida from Washington area airports take about 2 1/2 hours. My own Spirit Flight 507 leaves Reagan National at 7:40 a.m. and arrives in Fort Lauderdale at 10:10 a.m. US Airways has flights to Tampa and Fort Myers from Reagan National and Dulles, and Independence Air flies from Dulles to Fort Myers and West Palm Beach. Southwest is the carrier of choice from Baltimore. Most of them have return flights at or after sunset. Web fares go up and down throughout the week (even during the day). I have seen them as low as $44 and as high as $199 one way. Midweek (Tuesday and Wednesday) flights are usually the cheapest. My Spirit flight on this trip was $50 each way, plus taxes and fees, for a total of $118.
THE BEACH: Fort Lauderdale Beach is about seven miles from the airport. To the south, it runs seemingly forever from South Beach through Hollywood and then to Miami Beach, and to Pompano and beyond in the north. The 10-minute cab ride from the airport runs about $18 with tip. The usual beach diversions -- scuba, sailing, parasailing and even Segway rentals -- are offered at several rental stands along the beach. The one on the beach behind the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort was my favorite, but the prices are comparable at any of the stands.
EATING THERE: Atlantic Boulevard along the beach is lined with bars and restaurants. It's hard to pick a favorite along this strip. If you leave the beach and stroll Las Olas Boulevard, there is some great sushi at Sushi Rock (1515 E. Las Olas), and the venerable Floridian (1410 E. Las Olas) offers full breakfast, lunch and dinner in an in-town diner-like setting.
INFO: Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, 954-765-4466, www.sunny.org.