- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 27, 2006

So, your favorite way to beat Washington’s infamous summer heat is to head to the beach. Well, good for you.

For those of us who are stuck in the city — which actually gets hotter than Atlanta and Raleigh, N.C., some neighbors to the south — where, when and how can we find relief?

“Go see a movie,” says meteorologist Jim Lee without skipping a beat. “If you have to be outside, wear loose-fitting clothes and avoid alcoholic beverages. … But stay inside if you can.”

Mr. Lee should know. He’s the meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service’s Baltimore-Washington forecast office in Sterling, Va., and a fifth-generation Washingtonian.

“I still think Washington is a great place to live [in terms of weather]. The springs and falls are fantastic, and the winters and summers aren’t extreme at either end,” he says.

Well, that’s only partly true. Washington has set some sizzling records, such as a high of 106 degrees Fahrenheit in 1918 and 1930.

Though 106 is atypical, Washington — particularly downtown, where the “urban heat island effect” rules — can get pretty unbearable in July and August. Think: The moisture left from your morning shower never completely dissipates.

The term urban heat island refers to the extra heat (between 2 degrees and 10 degrees hotter than in the suburbs) that’s generated by the lack of shade trees, waste heat from motorized vehicles and heat trapped by tall buildings.

During these steam-room-like summer months, the average highs are in the high 80s and the lows seldom reach into the 60s. It’s the 24/7-no-relief-whether-day-or-night conditions that make it so oppressive, Mr. Lee says.

By contrast, daytime temperatures in September stay high, but the nights are much cooler, with the average minimum for the month just shy of 62 degrees, which is conducive to overall comfort.

“We tell people today to stay inside when it gets oppressively hot, but can you imagine what it was like before air conditioning?” says Jane Freundel Levey, chief program officer and historian at Cultural Tourism DC, a nonprofit group that highlights culture in Washington.

“People slept in parks, on porches, wherever they could find relief,” Ms. Freundel Levey says.

During the day, she says, some, like today, would go to the movies, although the relief from the heat a movie theater provided was not quite what it is today.

“The movie theaters used something called the ‘air washed’ method,” Ms. Freundel Levey says. “What they did was they blew fans at tanks of water.”

Later, in the 1920s, the water was replaced by blocks of ice, she says.

Another popular beat-the-heat activity, just like today, was to go swimming. Local options in the early 20th century, however, included the Tidal Basin Beach, which was along the east bank of the Tidal Basin.

“Yes, Washington had its own beach. It was very popular in the 1910s and ‘20s,” Ms. Freundel Levey says.

The beach, which was segregated, was closed in 1924, she says, when politicians, under pressure to provide a beach for the area’s black population, couldn’t agree on the particulars.

Swimming pools — both segregated and desegregated — were to follow, until the 1950s when they all were desegregated, she says.

Today, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation runs more than a dozen outdoor public pools, which are free to District residents throughout the summer. Many of them opened this weekend.

A fancier alternative to the public pool is a minivacation at a local hotel equipped with a swimming pool, such as Foggy Bottom’s Doubletree Guest Suites Hotel, which has a rooftop pool overlooking the Kennedy Center and the Potomac River, and L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Southwest, also featuring a rooftop pool.

“A lot of people in the region take a mini summer break in the city, staying overnight at a hotel,” says Victoria Isley, spokeswoman for D.C. Convention and Tourism Corp. “Why not stay at a hotel with a rooftop pool?”

Other hotels with pools include the Hilton Washington Embassy Row in Dupont Circle and One Washington Circle Hotel in Foggy Bottom. Ms. Isley says the middle of the summer often features the lowest hotel rates.

“The other thing I like to do is go to museums,” Ms. Isley says. “We’ve got the best museums in the world, and it’s easy — especially since so many are free — to just duck in for a little while, see something beautiful or interesting and beat the heat at the same time.”

Museum lovers will be pleased to know the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery will reopen July 1 after extensive renovations.

Another nearby summer favorite is dipping one’s feet in the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden pool while listening to free live jazz on Friday nights.

Angie Fox, executive director at Cultural Tourism D.C., says she’s a big fan of museum visits during August, when many have fled to the coast.

“It’s so still, and it’s so easy to get around the city, which makes it a great time to go to museums and restaurants,” she says.

AAA Mid-Atlantic estimates that during any given time in July and August, about 10 percent to 15 percent of the city’s population is out of town.

“It starts with Memorial Day weekend, when about 500,000 people in the Washington metro area will travel 50 miles or more,” says Dawn Van Dyke, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “The beach is the most popular destination.”

By contrast, people from other areas of the country list Washington as a premier destination. They might benefit from Ms. Fox’s top dining picks, which include the Sake Club, Japanese chic in Woodley Park; and Zaytinya, Mediterranean mezzes and outdoor seating in Penn Quarter.

Also on the alfresco scene are the Clarendon Ballroom rooftop restaurant, a hip-‘til-2-a.m. hangout with views of the city; Sequoia, the always-crowded old standby in Georgetown; Hotel Washington’s classy rooftop restaurant downtown; and Cantina Marina, a margarita-and-frozen-daiquiris type of place on the Southwest waterfront.

Ms. Fox’s group also hopes to do its share in helping Washingtonians and visitors stay cool during the summer with a program called Cultural Cool, which will feature indoor sightseeing programs in August, including a tour of Metro station art and shark feedings at the National Aquarium. (For information, visit www.cultural tourismdc.org).

Speaking of water, the Washington area has several marinas that offer sailing lessons as well as boat and kayak rentals.

“We stay very busy during the summer months,” says George Stevens, president of the Belle Haven Marina just south of Alexandria.

There’s a reason. On super-hot days, when temperatures soar into the high 90s, it will feel much cooler on the water as long as there’s a breeze, Mr. Stevens says.

“A lot of people are amazed at how good it feels out there,” he says. “It can be as much as 20 to 25 degrees cooler, as long as there’s a breeze.”

We’ll take that on any 90-plus day.

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