Some vacation

Posted: Nov 22, 2005 2:05 PM

Escaping Washington politics is becoming increasingly difficult these days.

I made one such attempt a decade ago when Newt Gingrich and his able assistant, Tony Blankley (now editorial-page editor of The Washington Times), ruled the roost on Capitol Hill.

Seeking seclusion, I traveled by fishing trawler to a tiny cay in the Aland archipelago, about 100 miles off the Finnish coast in the Gulf of Bothnia. Anxiously awaiting my arrival at the dock were the island's sole inhabitants: a fisherman and his family. Introductions made, the fisherman led me to a nearby net house, where amid the weathered tools of his trade, he produced a chilled bottle of schnapps.

"So," he said, offering a toast in surprisingly good English, "you're a newspaperman from Washington, D.C. Do you know Tony Blankley?"

As I struggled to close my jaw, he explained that his sister was nanny to Blankley's children. In fact, he and his family had been guests of the Blankleys the previous summer.

Similarly weary after writing about eight years of Bill Clinton's presidency, I decided there was no better place to retreat than to the end of the earth - more precisely the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. And who should be standing in line behind me, awaiting his turn to sign the guest book at the Cape Grace Hotel in Cape Town, but the former commander in chief himself, accompanied by a small Hollywood contingent.

Now, if you will, fast forward to this past pre-Thanksgiving weekend. In terms of proximity to the East Coast, there are few better places to slip away from reality - or so I'd hoped - than the sparsely populated "Out Islands" of the Bahamas. My itinerary took me to Great Abaco, and from there, Green Turtle Cay and Elbow Cay.

My first stop was deep in the marshland of Abaco and the home of 71-year-old Nettie Symonette, an extremely spiritual black woman well-known throughout the Bahamas. Nettie, who stands six feet tall, had sought me out, hoping I would make a delivery on her behalf to a particular person in Washington: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"All I want to do these days, when I should be dying, is painting and writing," she explains, serving up freshly baked johnnycake ("It's good for your soul," she insists.) and "Bush Tea," brewed with fever grass.

"Until recently, I couldn't paint a banana," she reveals. "Then, six months ago, a voice came to me in the night, whispered in my ear - 'It's in a name, it's in a name.' So, I began painting all of these names."

Colorful acrylic abstracts, several dozen of them, charting the lives of not only Rice, but President Bush, Barbara Bush, Bill Clinton ("Look, he's got all these women's clothes on his face, but I love the man," she says), Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela, Colin Powell, even Wolf Blitzer - her primary link, via satellite, to the outside world.

(Rather than me delivering Rice's abstract, I encourage Nettie to come to Washington and make a formal presentation at the State Department. She smiles and hugs me twice with her big arms.)

The trip by boat to secluded Green Turtle Cay lasts 20 minutes. There to welcome me is Bluff House Beach Hotel general manager Peter W. Curtis, the former Davis Cup tennis star from Britain.

If that comes as any surprise, imagine how I felt that night when, after we'd downed several "Tranquil Turtles," Curtis informed me that his ex-wife and the mother of his children, Emily Marks-Curtis, was President Bush's girlfriend when he supposedly reported for National Guard duty in Alabama in 1972.

"I couldn't believe this past campaign," he tells me. "I was in Barbados, where I previously managed a property, and a reporter for the London Times . . . actually tracked me down and began asking me questions about Bush and his National Guard service."

(Mrs. Marks-Curtis' most memorable line during the 2004 campaign: "Although I never actually drove him to Guard duty, he told me that he went.")

Next stop, Elbow Cay. Only a few hundred souls live on the island, so I stashed my reporter's notebook and climbed to the top of the Hope Town Lighthouse, built in 1863. (One of the few beacons in the world saved from automation, locals here go to great lengths to secure parts for the kerosene-burning beacon.)

And while in Hope Town, why not duck into the Wyannie Malone Museum to learn about the island's rich colonial history.

"Where are you from?" inquires Ray Brown, collecting my entrance fee from behind his small wooden desk.

"Washington - D.C.," I stress, so he doesn't confuse it with the state.

"Oh, my," he says. "I recently sold my place in Dupont Circle - sold two of them, actually. Until I retired here recently, I had a production company there - documentaries mostly. You might be interested to know that I videotaped Bill Clinton's (Monica Lewinsky) deposition."