By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011; F01
Beep, beep, beep.
The cab honks while Washington sleeps.
The plane takes off into the dawning sky, flying southbound like a giant migratory bird. I close my eyes to the frozen tundra below.
Hurry, hurry, hurry.
The flight attendant unlatches the exit door and attaches the staircase. The passengers barrel out; I'm at the head of the line.
Move, move, move.
At immigration, visitors form two rows, fidgety as they wait to enter Grand Bahama Island and start their vacations. I'm next in my line, after a young woman in a flouncy skirt who's talking too much, taking too much time. A third counter opens; I break for it.
Go, go, go.
Racing to the rental car desk, I rush past a bathroom and a snack shop. I turn back for one of them.
Drive, drive, drive.
Cruising down unfamiliar roads, I keep to the left side, as the sticker on the windshield reminds Yankee drivers to do. I don't see a sign for the speed limit. Do I pass on the left or the right?
Stop. Exhale. Relax.
Standing ankle-deep in the warm ocean water, my winter boots and jacket heaped behind me in the sand, I lift my pale-as-the-moon face to the midday sun. I made it - the beach by high noon.
Winter 2011 has been exhausting and exasperating, a mean stunt by that heartless Jack Frost. Seemingly every other day, I raise my angry fist to the skies, cursing it for the latest delivery of snow or icy rain or leftover slushies from 7-Eleven. To add to the blues, spring is more than a month away, and as we know from experience, the arrival of the vernal equinox doesn't mean that it's time to mothball the Nordic wear.
To escape the misery, we have a plan: the beach. And a deadline: by noon.
Imagine: While your colleagues at home are pulling on their clunky boots and scratchy hats for the cold trudge to lunch, you're leaping in the waves as the sun's rays alight on your warm skin.
To arrive at a beach destination when the orb is at its pinnacle, however, you need to be flexible. For example, you might not get your full eight hours of beauty sleep.
From Washington, flights with morning arrivals in such tropical locations as Mexico, the Bahamas and the Caribbean depart before the sun has barely risen. And for international flights, you have to turn back the clock at least two hours. Also account for time in customs and immigration and for collecting your bags.
To make the challenge even stickier, airlines have cut many nonstops to island havens: Flights to the Bahamas stop over in Miami, and planes to Mexico's Cancun and Cozumel grab passengers in Atlanta or Philadelphia. The only nonstop flights are to Florida.
But after days on end of numb cheeks and mummylike attire, it's easy to dismiss the downsides for the prospect of dallying on the beach and feeling warm - even sweltering - again.
And so at 4 a.m. one recent Thursday, I piled into a cab to board a 6 a.m. flight that connected in Miami at 10:35 to arrive in Freeport, Bahamas, at 11:21.
What I neglected to calculate into the schedule: traffic roundabouts.
On Grand Bahama Island, you have about 60 miles of sandbox to play in. And all real estate up to the high-water mark is open to the public.
Despite being the fourth-largest of the 29 Bahamian islands, the 96-mile-long Grand Bahama is one of the shier members of the family, especially compared with noisy Nassau, the capital that has swallowed up New Providence and Paradise islands. Most of Grand Bahama's hotels, restaurants and shops are consolidated in two areas only minutes apart: downtown Newport/International Bazaar and Port Lucaya Marketplace, a candy-colored, Caribbean-style souk. Traditional fishing villages and settlements established by freed slaves claim the western and eastern ends of the island. Pine forests, dense in number and tall in stature, fill the otherwise blank spaces. From the water, the coastline retains its natural glow, with long threads of sand barely touched by developers.
And on some beaches, you will feel very alone - because you are.
"You're really going to try to get to the beach by noon?" asked a Virginia passenger as we took our seats on the 30-minute flight from Miami to Freeport. "All you have to do is grab a taxi and have the driver drop you off in someone's backyard."
"Can I place a bet on you?" asked his friend.
Why, of course, you may, and to increase my odds, I left the two pals in the third row and moved closer to the exit in the plane's tail. I figured that I could save several minutes by relocating 11 rows back.
With only 41 minutes to complete my mission, I knew that I couldn't afford any missteps. So I took precautions: I went carry-on only and filled out my immigration form before landing. Pre-departure, I had asked an expert at the Bahamas tourism office for the closest beach to the airport; she told me Taino, about 10 minutes away. I circled it on the map in my guidebook. I'd reserved a rental car, but if time was tight, I'd grab a cab. I didn't want to waste any seconds signing my initials in a half-dozen places.
Lucky me, the plane arrived a few minutes early. I shot straight for immigration, landing in line with just that one person ahead of me telling the official a story that seemed to be taking much longer than necessary. No one needs more than 60 seconds to say, "I am staying in Lucaya for two nights because it is so cold at home, I think my brain is suffering from hypothermia," I thought. And yet her lips continued to move, immobilizing our queue.
I decided to check the time on my cellphone, betraying my original oath not to peek until I was free of customs. My reason: I didn't want to start sweating or freaking out, thus incurring more questions and losing more ticks on the clock. But I succumbed, and I suffered for it. The phone flashed 12:19.
I was stunned. Had the islands suddenly switched to Atlantic Standard Time? Or did Verizon think I was in Puerto Rico, one hour ahead?
When the agent called me up, I was the one who started asking the questions: What time is it? Much to my relief, it was barely 11:30 a.m., same as Washington. (Not funny, Verizon.) Then, while I had the agent's full attention, I asked him for the closest beach. He confirmed Taino, southeast of the airport. At immigration, I asked again and received a split answer: vote three for Taino, one for William's Town. Uh-oh, dissension. On my way to ground transportation, a taxi driver trailed me, offering his services. I tested him: Closest beach or no fare. He threw out the Wyndham, adding that I could have a nice lunch there, too. But I didn't need the nearest BLT on wheat. I was on my own now.
I approached the Hertz counter and asked if the car could be ready in five minutes, so that I could make my noon "appointment." The obliging agent, Pearlette, agreed. She just needed my voucher. I had a reservation number, but no printout. She said that without written proof, I'd be double-charged. I asked if I could "take care of my errand first," then return with a printout. She looked unconvinced. I blurted out my reason, and her face turned soft, even amused. She told me that Xanadu Beach (a suggestion seconded by the agent at an adjacent car rental desk) was minutes away.
"It's a straight drive," she told me. "You'll be there way before noon."
Now we double-teamed. As I printed out the confirmation, she pulled the car around. I handed her the sheet; she passed over the key.
As I drove off, she reminded me to drive on the left side and to watch for the three roundabouts on the way. Yes, Grand Bahama has nearly as many traffic circles as it does beaches.
I messed up on the first roundabout, losing five minutes as I drove east, not south. I considered just driving straight, reasoning that the island had to dead-end eventually, but I decided to stick to my original plan. I didn't have the convenience of improvisation.
I turned back and found the correct road, traveling through downtown, a quick spurt of British empire-style government buildings, and then the International Bazaar, a colorful maze of ersatz world cultures. As I looked for a blue sign signifying my right turn, a driver in the next lane shouted to me through an open window, "Stay left!" I switched lanes, making it even more impossible to spot a small marker across four lanes of traffic plus a leafy median.
I missed the turn and paused at a stop sign to check the map. (The island's roads are very quiet, so you can feasibly study a map without causing a traffic jam.) A man in a car pulled up, asking whether I needed help. I threw out that now dog-eared query: "I'm looking for the nearest beach?"
"You're too pretty for those" non-resort beaches, he said, with princely charm. "Go to Xanadu."
He supplied directions that involved yet another circle. No surprise, I failed to go the proper fraction around it. I decided to just drive until I hit some semblance of a beach.
On a rutted, tree-shaded road, I spotted shimmering water through the windshield. I aimed for it, not stopping until the car's wheels sank slightly into soft white mounds.
I jumped out, having no idea where I was but not caring. I had sand under my feet and an endless spread of ocean tinged with the blue of the sky. I checked the time: 12:05.
But that wasn't quite right.
I'd forgotten to figure in the handicap for the roundabouts. After a quick adjustment, it turned out that I'd arrived at the correct hour: the stroke of noon.