A portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth II gazes over all who pass through security at Bermuda’s LF Wade International airport, a royal welcome for visitors to Britain’s oldest overseas territory in a room that would not look out of place in an English stately manor.
The airport’s runway sits seemingly inches above the waves on reclaimed land on the north-east point of the volcanic archipelago, providing a spectacular ocean landing that puts you in mind of how earlier nautical travellers once reached these pristine shores.
Arriving on the Bermuda Islands or ‘Somers Isles’ is an experience all of its own: passing through a time-warped gateway echoing colonial days past, built with cutting-edge engineering, into an enormous clubhouse where a few of the wealthiest people on the planet live and play…
It is an easy choice, if you possibly can afford it. The common cost of a house on any of the eight main islands is around 1,000,000 dollars, and patches of coastline without an adjoining jetty cram-filled with luxury yachts are few, though unspoilt beaches are still to be found.
While closer to Canada than the Caribbean (and only a 90-minute hop from New York’s JFK), Bermuda’s winter-busting climate is kept warm by the Gulf Stream. So, while the US east coast was being lashed by Superstorm Sandy, New Yorkers with money to burn were golfing or paddling about in a pool here, taking care to avoid sunstroke.
Jobson’s Cove is perfect for swimmers seeking secluded paradise
Perched on limestone cliffs overlooking its own secluded beach, the family-run Reefs spa hotel provides a relaxed island welcome at the other end of the ‘mainland’ from the airport (Bermuda actually comprises more than 300 islands), though the transfer is brief: your complete landmass being just 21 square miles.
The Reefs offers privacy and outstanding views over the pink-sand coastline below, formed of pulverised corals and mollusc shells. Bermudians take great pride in their unique rose-tinted beaches, even defying royal protocol to pay tribute to the sands in the type of a pink welcome carpet laid out for the Queen on her last visit.
My arrival on the Reefs, while minus the pink carpet, was capped off with a deftly prepared Dark ‘n’ Stormy highball, the national drink of choice mixed with ginger beer, rum and lime, accompanied by a warm sea breeze and ocean views, and home feeling an eternity away.
Serving the local catch and imported steaks, the hotel’s Royston’s restaurant (one among three) is a European-style grill house with an open kitchen, allowing diners to look at the chefs do their thing from the comfort of tables by … the fireplace.
For a sub-tropical island, these are a typical quirk in restaurants and hotel lobbies, just for the look. But it is hard to imagine Bermudians huddling around one, rubbing their hands together for warmth on any day of the year…
Pampering features highly on the Reefs, and when you are not letting your afternoons drift by in the cliff-edge Infinity pool (a sweet spot at sundown), or swimming in the sea, you may be in and out of the hotel’s spa centre taking advantage of some seriously relaxing holistic treatments.
Take in the south shore, with a gallop on horseback!
I opted first for a lime and ginger salt glow rubdown from a smorgasbord of head-to-toe elixirs. A men’s facial at the Mandarin-operated Elbow Beach hotel down the road in Paget parish, also proved invigorating and expertly-administered in five-star surroundings.
The island is a cinch to explore on two wheels by hiring a scooter from a shop by the hotel. Soon you are careering along coastal roads, bathed in a golden glow with the blue expanse of sea and sky at your side: a truly life-affirming experience… even when everyone else seems to have the identical idea.
There look like more mopeds on the island than bicycles in Amsterdam. But driving on the left, along narrow roads originally built for horse carts, may not be suited to all visitors, especially if travelling from the US and used to plentiful space.
Thankfully though, strict island rules on engine sizes mean you may never see a Humvee barrelling towards you, guzzling the island’s precious fuel supplies and hogging both lanes of the road.
Though the island nation remains British, proximity to the US means there are strong connections to both sides of the pond, and a substantial variety of Bermuda’s visitors are stateside residents and guests coming to benefit from the sub-tropical climate.
Local currency is pegged to the US dollar, which can be utilized interchangeably, and many Bermudians even speak with American accents, perhaps gained during periods of study there, as Bermuda has no universities.
Famous US residents you might see strolling along The Front in Hamilton could include the billionaire New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg or actor Michael Douglas with his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones.
But most of the island’s wealthiest people are largely anonymous, profiting from its status as a number one global business centre for insurance and offshore financial services – which supports Bermuda’s soaring per capita income, among the very best on this planet.
A tight network of exclusive private members’ clubs exists across the islands allowing the high rollers of this sector to interact out of sight and earshot of the common tourist.
One such venue, undoubtedly essentially the most beautiful… and sprawling, is the Bermuda Run Country Club with its 36-hole international championship golf course. The club represents to the island what the Wentworth estate is to Virginia Water in Surrey; a personal oasis within another, supposedly public, island of power-wielding masters of the universe.
The capital of Bermuda since 1815, Hamilton is home to lots of the island’s shops, restaurants and almost all of its night-life (except on Sunday nights, where it is the Cellar at the Fairmont hotel), with its seafront promenade offering views across the new harbour, and the perfect method to walk off a heavy lunch. Across the centre, the 350-year old Waterlot Inn steak house is a jewel, with its steak tasting trio of Prime RibEye, Niman Ranch Filet Mignon and Wagyu Striploin coming highly recommended.
Once you’ve got had your fill of scooter excursions, there are a lot of other ways to explore the island’s scenic interior. For a more secluded stroll, the island’s disused ‘railway tracks’ offer silent, shady trails where the rails have long been pulled up to go away lush bridleways and footpaths.
A mile-long path in Paget resembles a veritable herbal garden, through which you will be guided by a former Miss Bermuda, Dr Kuni Frith-Black, who will explain how the vast array of flora that surrounds you is used to cook all manner of dishes, in addition to to cure common ailments.
For horse-lovers seeking al fresco action, Spicelands Riding Centre in Warwick provides a scenic hack across the tranquil south shore, including the image-postcard Jobson’s Cove and Chaplin Bay, where sparkling waters crash against circles of rocks to form sandy secret gardens.
Experienced riders should you’ll want to book a private ride in the event that they need to gallop along the sandbanks though, or else risk an hour-long plod with newbies.
Swapping the surface of Bermuda for the world beneath, the stunning Crystal Cave — found by chance 100 years ago by boys searching bushes for a cricket ball — is a must.
Descending into the depths, a floating pontoon pathway carries you over deep azure pools to inspect its 30-million-year-old chandelier clusters of pristine white stalactites and delicate crystallized soda straws, hanging majestically at every turn.
Back within the built environment, at the northern tip of the tongue-twisting Ireland Island, the Royal Naval Dockyard within the 500-year-old Keep citadel is worth a visit, although seeing large parts of this former flagship port’s magnificent stone yards and warehouses in a state of disrepair was a bit sad.
The redevelopment of this former colonial trading outpost is a priority for the island authorities however, and a number of companies are already organising shop, there including craft shops and an arts centre. Lovers of the life aquatic may even enjoy the hands-on Dolphin Quest, offering dolphin swimming and training.
However the nearby Commissioner’s House in Casemate Barracks is the true success story of this neglected area’s painstaking renovation. Fully-restored to its former splendour, the building now houses an elaborate museum allowing visitors to take within the island’s rich history.
A must-see inside is Bermudian artist Graham Foster’s grand mural of the nation, Hall of History, which covers 1,000 square feet of the basement walls. Having taken the artist three years to finish, the mural truly puts you in the image of what these unique islands are about, which once led Mark Twain to quip, somewhat more concisely: “You go to heaven… I’d rather stay here.”
Prestige Holidays offer seven nights on the Reefs for £1817 pp based on 2 adults staying in a poolside room on bed and breakfast departing on 9 April 2013 including: return flights with British Airways from Gatwick to Bermuda and private transfers. For reservations visit Prestige Holidays.