Bewitching blue waters ... Bermuda has the right to be a little smug. Photo: Getty Images
Bermuda isn't hip, nor does it need to be. It secured its paradise status in the 17th century, says Nigel Tisdall.
For a nation born out of shipwrecks, Bermuda has done rather well for itself. Arriving at this enigmatic dot in the North Atlantic after a seven-hour flight from London - having thankfully failed to disappear into its notorious Triangle - you half expect to find a tattered landscape of broken masts and groaning castaways.
The island's story began in 1609, when a storm-tossed English ship bound for Virginia found sanctuary on its reef-ringed shores. Three years later it was permanently settled, paving the way for what is now Britain's oldest and most prosperous overseas territory.
Paradise status was almost instant. The poet Edmund Waller suggested this was a "spot of earth uncurst to shew how all things were created first". Shakespeare made use of its discovery in The Tempest - which prompts speculation that the sons of Caliban are now working as caddies on its seven golf courses while the daughters of Ariel administer magical therapies in its 14 spas.
Shaped like a hook, Bermuda is slightly smaller than Guernsey off Britain and has the feel of a misplaced Channel Island. It offers a similar mix of excellent beaches and a coastline dotted with forts, with a sunny, sporty atmosphere tinged with that gentle smugness that is a hallmark of tax havens. The houses sport triumphant names like "Sans Souci" (without care), "Happy Days" and "Mine all Mine", and the standard of living is high - Bermuda's financial industry administers assets worth more than $A600 billion.
Links with the mother country are obvious but not overdone. The Queen smiles out from the Bermudian dollar, red postboxes adorn the village lanes, football teams have nostalgic names like Wolves, Robin Hood and Southampton Rangers. Most visitors, though, come from North America - New York, Boston and Philadelphia are all just a two-hour flight away. Every summer the hotels and beaches are filled with east-coast escapees, while cruise ships, some carrying more than 3000 passengers, call almost daily during July and August.
Looking out at the bewitching blue waters of Elbow Beach, a fabulous mile-long stretch of well-kept pinkish sand, it is easy to see why power brokers like Michael Bloomberg and Silvio Berlusconi have homes here. It's not just the tax breaks. Bermuda is also safe, spotless and well-mannered, and its 64,000 residents offer a friendly cook-up of Caribbean, British and Portuguese cultures.
It's not hip, though. Bermuda has been totally bypassed by the boutique hotel revolution, although it does have many fine, if conservative, places to stay and dine. A holiday here is expensive, but in exchange you gain admission to a restful, orderly island where the shops close on Sunday, neon lights and advertising billboards are banned, and the restaurants still bother to serve fresh, locally caught fish. Families with young children will appreciate its beaches, parks and high-class resorts, and the island also appeals to travellers who like golf, sailing, diving, sports fishing and maritime history.
Best of all, this is a true holiday place. If all you want is sunshine and a hotel with decent service where you can sit in peace reading Stieg Larsson, Bermuda provides this - and without a smidgen of guilt that you really ought to be off seeing Some Great Sight. Equally, there is plenty to do, from climbing to the top of Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, erected in 1846, to admiring the Bermuda-inspired work of Winslow Homer and Georgia O'Keeffe in the splendid Masterworks art gallery. The 34-kilometre route of an old railway line offers interesting walking and cycling, although I found its plethora of anti-joyrider barriers frustrating.
At the western tip of the island, the massive Royal Naval Dockyard, dating from 1814, houses absorbing historic museums. At the opposite end, St George's is a brightly coloured town and World Heritage Site centred on the 400-year-old St Peter's Church, complete with a segregated graveyard. In the middle, Hamilton, the capital, is where the money gets made.
Don't miss the Friday night happy hour at The Fairmont Princess hotel, which is like some waterfront wedding reception with guests standing on the lawn drinking swizzles (a fruity punch) or the formidable "dark and stormy", made with ginger beer and local black rum. And yes, there are men here in brightly coloured Bermuda shorts, with good-looking knees and a promising career in reinsurance.
I'd also recommend seeking out the very switched-on Bermuda National Gallery in City Hall, and the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute, where you can learn about the treasure reaped from the 400-odd wrecks strewn around these shores. One of the greatest finds was an emerald-studded gold cross from the Spanish galleon San Pedro, sunk in 1595. Discovered in 1955, it mysteriously disappeared shortly before it was due to be presented to Queen Elizabeth II 20 years later. Lost? Stolen? That Triangle again? Tell you what, let's chat it over as we enjoy a fine lobster lunch looking out at that super-blue sea...
DID YOU KNOW?
John Lennon named his final album, Double Fantasy, after a flower he saw in the Bermuda Botanical Gardens
Visitors cannot rent cars, but you can hire a scooter ($A45 a day, no licence required) or bicycle ($30) from outlets such as Elbow Beach Cycles (001 441 296 2300; www.elbowbeachcycles.com). You can also explore using local buses, ferries and taxis.
WHEN TO GO
Bermuda's calendar is punctuated by major sporting events including the Newport to Bermuda sailing race (June 15), Cup Match Cricket Festival (August 2-3) and PGA Grand Slam of Golf (October 22-24). The sea is warm enough for swimming from May to September.
Rosedon Hotel Genteel
44-room hotel in Hamilton set in a handsome 1906 mansion with a pool and gardens (001 441 295 1640; www.rosedon.com; doubles from $A421 per night including breakfast and afternoon tea).
The Fairmont Southampton
One-stop, family-friendly hillside resort with its own golf course, beach, marina, spa, nightclub and eight restaurants. The 593 rooms are set in a six-storey block with balconies (238 8000; www.fairmont.com; doubles from $A502 per night).
Spacious and central beachside resort run by Mandarin Oriental with landscaped gardens, excellent food, a top class spa and 98 calmly furnished rooms (236 3535; mandarinoriental.com; doubles from $766 per night).
Relaxed, waterside bistro in St George's majoring in locally caught wahoo (36 Water St; 297 1307; wahoosbistro.bm).
Modern waterfront favourite in Hamilton, specialising in fresh fish, seafood and sushi (40 Crow Lane; 295 4207; harbourfront.bm).
Popular with locals, this fine-dining restaurant in the Royal Palms Hotel offers international dishes served with a flourish (24 Rosemount Avenue; 292 1854; royalpalms.bm).
THE INSIDE TRACK
- For the best deal, book a package - possibly with half-board, as some hotels offer attractive "dine around" programmes with local restaurants.
- US dollars and credit cards are widely accepted, so it is not crucial to get Bermuda dollars ($BD1 = $US1).
- Dress codes have relaxed in recent years but some restaurants "recommend" men wear a jacket for dinner.
- To buy some Bermuda shorts, seek out The English Sports Shop (49 Front Street; 295 2672) in Hamilton.
- Buy rum in the airport duty-free - it's almost half the price.
WHAT TO AVOID
- Avoid long journeys to the sights and expensive taxi rides at night by staying in the centre of the island.
- It's better to avoid visiting the Royal Naval Dockyard when there are cruise ships in port - for a schedule visit bermudachamber.bm.
- Hurricanes are possible from June to November. It's best to avoid travelling then but note that most hotels offer a money-back guarantee should one come near.
- If you snorkel, avoid hefty hire charges (in excess of $A18 at some hotels) by taking your kit with you.
Call the Bermuda Department of Tourism (0800 883 0857) or visit gotobermuda.co.uk, where you can download a free travel app. Frommer's Bermuda 2012 (Wiley, $22.99) is a comprehensive guide.
- The Telegraph, London