UFOs and European charm - there's more to Bermuda than the Triangle
First - what is Bermuda not? It is not a Caribbean island; it is not in the tropics; it doesn't have the 'feel' of the jungly Caribbean but neither does it have the downside of the pervasive Caribbean 'attitude' towards tourists; it is not a winter vacation resort; there are hardly any exotic birds; and visitors are not allowed to hire cars.
So what does it have? It has a warm, subtropical Atlantic climate roughly the same as the Carolinas on the East Coast of the US (700 miles to the west). This means the high season is from May to October. It has a rich mixture of people, friendly, business-like and Western-orientated. It has golf courses to die for and beaches to rival the Caribbean. It has long, windy roads, like Cornwall, quite cute but bad for cycling, and for tourists a mandatory taxi system for getting around. If you object to paying for taxis and prefer to drive yourself, do not visit Bermuda. It is also a very expensive island for shopping, so don't shop Bermuda unless you feel flush. Indeed, a coded message in a popular Bermudian vacation guide states: 'In many cases shopping in Bermuda is about quality and not quantity.' Quite so.
That said, having arrived with all sorts of prejudices, I now love the place.
I went to investigate aspects of the legendary Bermuda Triangle. The trip took me off-track to meet real locals, which is how my romance started, visiting places and seeing folk the tourists usually omit.
The island is a mere 21 square miles and lean, looking rather like a fish-hook. This means that wherever you are, you will invariably see the sea - which is the exact colour you see in the luxury brochures. Bermuda, being ever so slightly snobby, is not over-festooned with corny tourist attractions or T-shirt hell-holes and the island has its own quiet rhythms and pace which I found squared nicely with my comfort zone.
I went to interview Denis Rowe, 39, chief radio officer at the impressive old Fort George Signal Station on Rick's Mount overlooking the attractive St George's Harbour. Mr Rowe, from Belfast, has the immensely pleasurable job of keeping a radio eye on all shipping traffic coming to and leaving the island. His base was built in 1788, and one of the old 24 lb guns still glares out at the Atlantic. This is not generally a tourist location but if you make an appointment through the Bermuda Tourist Authority (0800 883 0857), providing Denis is having a quiet watch, he'll let you in.
The biggest name on the island is Tucker. The Tuckers came to Britain with William the Conqueror, and a direct descendant was Bermuda's first governor. Today, Teddy Tucker runs the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute, an innovative and clever attraction celebrating the island's symbiotic relationship with the sea.
Teddy, 80, is still a hugely active part of Bermuda, a former treasure-hunter and a man with a thousand sea yarns. The Institute has a shark cage, a beautiful shell collection, a shipwreck gallery with real artefacts and several interactive exhibits. Teddy knows the island back to front, doesn't believe in the Bermuda Triangle myth but, surprisingly for a serious and sober expert, insists he has seen UFOs while out treasure-hunting.
I don't believe in the tooth fairy and I don't believe in the power of the Bermuda Triangle to gobble up ships and planes without leaving a trace, but meeting Bermudian fishermen does re-focus the mind. They tend to live in the island's splendidly-coloured waterfront cottages, and these guys and their wives are hospitable to a fault.
I met one, Frank, just back from a day's lobster-fishing. We sat down and he held me spellbound with his fisherman's tales. He told me that on one particular Bible-black night he was fishing in calm waters, a mile or so from the island, when suddenly, without warning, the entire sky lit up, brighter than daylight. He could see the coast, companion ships, everything. There was no noise, no focal point or obvious reason for the light. Then after about one minute, the sky reverted to darkness. Please don't ask me for an explanation, but if you bump into some of these friendly Bermudians in a pub, trust me, you'll be made very welcome and won't be bored by their stories.
I did tourist stuff too. Bermuda's Crystal and Fantasy caves are two natural jewel boxes deep underground, with hypnotic collections of 'soda straw' stalactites and calcite mineral deposits that look like frozen waterfalls. Floating pontoon pathways cross a 50ft-deep, azureblue underground lake with new growths below the water and curtains of pristine white stalactites pointing down from the cave top. A unique display cleverly lit, it's worth an hour of your time.
A sightseeing cruise takes in the homes of A-list celebs including Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. There's an erudite commentary and a glass of something cold and sparkling.
Bermuda's Maritime Museum has a thoughtful exhibition on slavery and some fascinating artefacts recovered from shipwrecks, such as cowry shells, glass beads, body restraints and weapons.
On the road I seemed to see a church at every junction. I recommend a stop at Cobbs Hill Methodist Church, the oldest existing Methodist building in Bermuda. Today's congregation includes descendants of the slaves who built the church, block by sweaty block, two centuries ago.
As you might expect, summers are quite hot, so make sure your hotel has a quality, air-conditioned room and good swimming facilities. There will be days when the trip from the bedroom to the deckchair is as much as you can manage. The Fairmont chain of hotels has two excellent places on Bermuda, quite different in character. The downtown-Hamilton Princess is a large, luxurious combination of British elegance and Bermudian charm, just out of a £20million restoration.
It has a long and thrilling history of being a spy HQ during the war, and was much visited by royalty. The Second World War British Intelligence chief Sir William Stephenson, known by the codename Intrepid, ran a massive spy operation from the hotel and it became the headquarters for an extensive signals operation that included opening most of the letters the Nazis sent to their friends in America.
Earlier, Mark Twain was a regular guest, smoking on the hotel veranda and reciting Kipling to adoring audiences. He wrote to a friend in March 1910: 'Bermuda - you ought to be here now. The weather is divine, and you know what it is to drive along the North Shore in such weather and watch the sun paint the water. We had that happiness today. The joy of it never stales. There are no newspapers, no telegrams, no trolleys, no trains, no tramps, no railways, no theatres, no noise, no lectures, no riots, no murders, no fires, no burglaries, no politics, no offences of any kind, no follies but church, and I don't go there. I think I could live here always and be contented. You go to Heaven if you want to - I'd rather stay here.'
Now that's what I'd call a 24-carat testimonial.
The Fairmont Southampton at the other end of the island is a very large beach hotel, overlooking some of the finest sands I've ever walked on. If you have kids, take them here. I inspected the rooms and the numerous facilities and the place works for me. The two hotels are connected by a private ferry.
Expensive? It doesn't have to be. The recession has affected Bermuda tourism and business was down by about 18 per cent when I visited. This means that if you tailor-make your holiday (I do), you can haggle with hotels to bring down room prices, especially if you are booking when occupancy rates are low. Bermuda may be very English, but it is nicely American when it comes to hard-headed haggling.
Alternatively, the island has scores of pleasant little guest houses. Some are old listed properties, some have pools and Jacuzzis, some have private docks, nearly all of them are within a lungful of ozone from the sea. I ate, consistently, at a Hamilton restaurant called The Lobster Pot. My policy is, when you find a good fish restaurant with ambience, well-selected wine and fresh fish, go as often as you can.
And the famous Bermuda Triangle? Does it exist? Well, why not go and see for yourself this lovely little island with its good manners and European charm. But do mind the time-warp, the little green men, the sea monsters, the dark ships' graveyards in the deep-sea trenches and the space kidnappings. Don't say you weren't warned.
American Airlines (020 7365 0777, www.aa.com) offers flights from Heathrow to Bermuda via New York or Miami from £591 return.
The Fairmont Hamilton Princess and The Fairmont Southampton are managed by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts (0845 071 0153, www.fairmont.com). Room rates start at £182.