Riding in luxury to Florida

Instead of airliner or Auto Train, a couple goes with luxurious - and pricey - motor-coach service for their annual trip south.

Florida-bound passengers reboard the Hampton Jitney after a stop for lunch in Kingsland, Ga.

'Champagne, or would you prefer red or white wine?" asked the smiling blond attendant in beige slacks, a white T-shirt and sneakers.

It was an easy choice. Ensconced in wide, reclining, leatherlike seats, my wife and I opted for the champagne.

We were en route to Florida with a collegial group of passengers, mostly senior-citizen snowbirds from the Northeast. Not in the first-class section of an airplane, mind you, but on a carpeted, 31-passenger bus with large, tinted windows, a galley kitchen, TV monitors, a bathroom, Wi-fi Internet access, and a three-member crew, two of whom alternated as drivers.

My wife, Dorothy, and I were getting Hampton Jitney's luxury Ambassador Class service - drinks, snacks, buffet dinner and breakfast, and a room in the Fayetteville, N.C., Holiday Inn. And most important, our 2007 Cadillac DTS was making the trip on a car carrier, and we'd be reunited in West Palm Beach the next night.

"We've gone to Florida every which way - plane, Auto Train, and drove the 1,800 miles to Boca [Raton]," says Sol Handwerker, of Lenox, Mass. "Having the car waiting where we get off in West Palm Beach is a big plus, and the drivers help us put our suitcases in the car. We like it."

Like Sol and his wife, Minnie, my wife and I have flown, driven, and taken Amtrak's Auto Train for our annual trek to Florida. And, like them, we boarded the Hampton Jitney last fall at the Holiday Inn in East Windsor, N.J., just off Exit 8 of the turnpike.

We drove 45 minutes to get there and had a 20-minute drive to our condo after the drop-off in West Palm Beach - that was it. Forget about 19 hours behind the wheel, competing with monster 18-wheelers on nerve-wracking Interstate 95.

Instead, on the bus we could snack on chips and yogurt, sip champagne, watch a movie, and swap stories with fellow travelers. At the overnight stop, we'd get a couple of hot meals, sleep eight hours in a comfortable double bed, and take a shower in the morning.

Of course, I could do most of those things on the Auto Train, but then I'd have to drive 51/2 hours to the Lorton, Va., terminal, and four hours after getting dropped off in Sanford, Fla.

And sleeping in a low-ceilinged, narrow, upper berth with the train's jerking motion was always an impossible challenge for me. So Hampton Jitney's smooth-riding motor coach was a comfortable and convenient alternative, although an expensive one: $1,973 for the two of us and our Caddy, compared with about $539 for the Auto Train.

The company has been making the weekly run from September to mid-June for 18 years. "Last season, we carried about 2,000 passengers round trip," says Geoffrey R. Lynch, president of the Long Island-based company. "This season, our Florida runs started a little slow but are picking up, and our late November, December and early January trips are already sold out.

"Because of the high-priced-fuel situation, I believe we'll continue to increase our ridership," Lynch says. "Seems people have been waiting to see whether, if by some miracle, the fuel prices will go down."

There's the Ambassador Service, with 31-seat motor coaches (this season's price is $3,946 round trip for two people and a car), and regular service on 54-seat buses ($3,064). Passengers board on Long Island and in East Windsor - then it's clear sailing to Florida, and drop-off points on both coasts.

Along the way, we could watch five movies shown on four monitors hanging from the ceiling. We also passed the time listening to music, talk radio and news channels on complimentary headsets; reading newspapers and books; chatting with neighbors; dozing; and watching the scenery.

Every few hours, the bus pulled into a rest stop for about 15 minutes "so you can stretch your legs," as one of the drivers put it. And that's exactly what my wife did, striding up, down and around the parking lot like a race walker while I tarried.

We also stopped for lunch (not included), and for the night around 7 o'clock - after about 10 hours on the road. The buffet dinner of salad, fried chicken, pot roast, fish, potatoes, cake, fresh fruit, coffee and tea hit the spot. The hotel had a pool, but we chose instead to watch television in our room before turning out the lights for a good night's sleep.

The next day, we had a buffet breakfast, then hit the road for almost 12 hours. The motor coach dropped off riders at Kingsland, Ga., near the Florida state line, and Titusville before pulling into West Palm Beach.

By the time the Hampton Jitney made its last stop in Fort Lauderdale, Dorothy and I were cozy in our condo - with our Cadillac parked right outside.