A tropical weekend wave of sun and sand

With Bahamian hospitality in full swing, winter seemed a distant memory.

Icicles hung from my car's fender as I drove to the airport one Saturday morning, and the runway had to be de-iced before my plane could land the following Monday evening. But between flights, the only ice I encountered was in the tall glass of lemonade I sipped on a tropical beach.

Sure, I would have liked to linger longer on that beach and sip many more glasses of lemonade. But even a weekend trip to the Bahamas in the middle of winter isn't something to complain about - at least not to wind-chill-weary friends back home.

With only 48 hours in Nassau and the surrounding area, I wanted to experience it all - not only the sand and sea, but also the vibrant music and spicy food; historic and cultural sites; and the lovely, hospitable people. Fortunately, the group I was traveling with had the same agenda.

We got off to a good start. In just under three hours after takeoff, we exited the plane, our exposed ankles quickly warmed by balmy air. The live sounds of a steel drum band playing Jimmy Cliff tunes filled the airport. A customs agent even offered me a stick of chewing gum while stamping my passport.

Bahamian hospitality was in full swing, and winter weather already seemed like a distant memory.

After dropping off our bags at the nearby Radisson Cable Beach Resort, an all-inclusive hotel with ocean-view balconies on every one of its 700 rooms, we set off to see a few sights.

First among them was Atlantis, a $480 million mega-resort, which, since its opening a few years ago, has been the talk of the Bahamas. Its 3 million-gallon saltwater aquarium with more than 100 species of tropical fish is a must-see, but budget travelers or those who typically seek out intimate guesthouses will want to look elsewhere for a place to stay. Rates range from $400 for a single room to $25,000 for an ultra-luxury suite, which Michael Jordan booked one Christmas. And, with 1,200 rooms, five swimming pools, and 12 restaurants, intimacy is not its strong suit.

But there's much more to the island than that. For a local culinary experience, walk right past Dunkin' Donuts, Hooters, and Planet Hollywood, and head to the humble fish shacks under the bridge on Potter's Cay dock, where you can choose from a long line of Bahamian vendors who slice and dice conch salad or fry conch fritters while you wait.

This is where the locals hang out on the weekends - either at tables at the shacks or cruising by them in their cars, windows open and music blaring. Traffic slows to a crawl, but no one seems to mind. Even in bustling Nassau, "island time" rules.

After lunch, venture over to Bay Street, the main road, for at least a picture of, if not a purchase from, the colorful straw market. You can't miss it across the street from the Gucci, Cartier, and Fendi shops, which are popular with cruise-ship passengers, who love the duty-free shopping on the island.

One of the best routes to local life is via the People-to-People program, founded in 1975. Modeled after Jamaica's "Meet the People" program, People-to-People has been hugely successful matching tourists with Bahamian families. We had the pleasure of eating Sunday lunch with the Sands family, who served a spread of of crawfish salad, fried snapper, spicy coleslaw, Bahamian-style macaroni and cheese (in blocks), the island's signature peas and rice, and cherry cheesecake.

A visit to the Bahamas wouldn't be complete without some sort of encounter with its diverse sea life. Thrill seekers might choose to feed man-eating sharks with 12-foot poles. We opted for a tamer thrill: swimming with dolphins. In just 20 minutes, travelers can be motored over from Paradise Island to Blue Lagoon Island, where the outfit "Dolphin Encounters" sets them up with these brilliant and sensitive mammals.

For us first-timers, swimming solo wasn't an option. But dancing, hugging, and kissing were. With 20 trainers and umpteen buckets of smelt, these 16 friends of Flipper were pros at following the leader. Trainers guided them through a series of stunts with eight of us who were treading water in wet suits and life vests.

Then they treated us to the ultimate thrill: a 50-foot push by two dolphins, one nose on each flexed foot, though the water and up into the air. "It's like flying," one mother told her little girl, urging her to try it despite her trepidation. The rest of the group chimed in, but but she didn't budge.

With the glow of exhilaration and photos in hand to prove we had gotten close to these amazing creatures, we boarded the boat back to Nassau. "OK, I can go home now," said one beaming tourist to another as she took her seat on the top deck. We all nodded in agreement.

The morning departure loomed. But the night was still young, and there was still more conch to eat and island music to hear. Dinner on the patio at a lively local hangout, Cafe Johnny Canoe, fitted the bill just right.

A phone call home brought news of a winter storm watch. All the more reason to rise with the sun on our final day and savor those last few hours of warmth.

Tennis started the day off, followed by one last swim, and a little paddling by kayak in that clear, turquoise water. Then a quick dash under the waterfall in the pool for rinsing off that saltwater.

En route to the Bahamas airport, our warm and jovial taxi driver suggested that the next Bahamas visit include a tour of the "Out Islands," which are quieter and more remote. "There are 700 islands in the Bahamas, and only 30 of them are inhabited," he said, adding that his native Cat Island is the fairest of them all.

Midflight, as I dreamed of returning for a week, a month, or a year, my thoughts were interrupted by the pilot's announcement: "The only runway open at our destination is covered in ice and snow and high winds have knocked out power in the control tower."

Fortunately, the runway was cleared and power rapidly restored, but if it weren't for the sand between my toes and the smell of coconut oil on my hands, I might have thought I had been dreaming all weekend.

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