On a scale of 1 to 10, Bermuda is an 11. As romantic as a single rose, charming as blue and white chintz, it is as sophisticated as caviar and champagne, and often uncrowded as a wind-swept beach at dawn.
Located 508 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., it is a remarkably accessible destination for a long-standing or even spur of the moment getaway for two. But, besides being easy to reach, there are many reasons the island chain magnetizes more than 20,000 hand-holding romantics every year.
We discovered Bermuda for the first time when our now teen-age daughter was 7 months old. Our two little boys were preschoolers and life was clocked in on the wrong speed: Overdrive.
It all began on a brisk September morning, when I discovered a mysterious note tied to the steering wheel of my car. It read: "Pack a bathing suit and meet me at the airport on Saturday. Grandparents are taking the kids for a week. Everything else is a surprise."
Titillation of the delicious invitation continued well after we were aloft and the outline of the series of 140 coral, lava and limestone bits of land strung over 16 square miles began to appear in the distance. From the air, Bermuda resembles a lazing family of seals, or even a nubby necklace, surrealistically floating in the azure Atlantic.
Upon scrutiny, Bermuda's personality emerges as a distinct composite that could be nowhere else. Glistening white rooftops, stepped, to collect precious rainfall, punctuate the horizon above sherbet-colored cottages and great estate houses. Delicate pink sand beaches languish below limestone cliffs, tracing the folded coastline along emerald green golf courses. A winding perimeter road connects nine parishes with straight-from-England names: St. George's, Warwick, Paget, Southampton, Hamilton, Devonshire, Pembroke, Smith's and Sandys.
Airport service, impressive enough to remember, was synonymous with efficiency and politeness. Officials routinely deal with passports, luggage and such, within an orchestrated system that couches irksome details in overtones of unabashed welcome and concern.
We quickly learned that Bermuda is more than a sticky, sandy resort. Although kissed by the Gulf Stream, which causes warmest August days to hover in the high 80s and cool February weather not to dip below 60, it personifies dignity and old-fashioned reserve. From neat colonial architecture often hung with lacy ironwork to an endearing tidiness, it is easy to identify contrasts between the roots of its Spanish discovery in 1503 by Juan de Bermudez and its subsequent mantle of Britishness, in place since the early 17th century.
That dual legacy is immediately apparent in your first encounter with the smartly turned-out bobbies who direct traffic (and do not tolerate jaywalking), as well as in the cheery accent of taxi drivers -- who politely ask everyone if this is their first trip to Bermuda, and if they are honeymooners.
During that first visit, we stayed in a small guest house near the sea and explored every nook and cranny, zipping from the
bustling harbor capital of Hamilton to sleepy St. George's on a moped-for-two. We picnicked on deserted beaches framed by swatches of gauzy sea grass strewn with wild oleander, tucking into the protection of gentle dunes carpeted in orange nasturtium. We scooted past white picket fences hung with purple morning glories and sampled pub fare in local haunts.
We played golf, shopped for bargains and even hired a horse-drawn surrey. We were photographed under one of Bermuda's moon gates, the round arches of coral that symbolize peace, unity and happiness. According to ancient legends, lovers who walk through the gates are assured everlasting luck. Our combined wish was that we would return someday.
Years and subsequent trips later, Bermuda continues to be alluring. But within its enchantment, it presents a recurring problem -- where to stay? Its famed cottage colonies that front on the sand or cling to seaside cliffs enjoy armies of devotees.
But, for those who like activity, Hamilton's guest houses offer charming options, within strolling distance of everything. Large hotels like the Southampton Princess or grandly restored Elbow Beach Hotel are self-contained giants, with services galore, but my personal favorite is Horizons, a small antiques-filled inn set on a rise of land amid 25 acres of lawns, pool, nine-hole mashie golf course, putting green and tennis courts. It features verrry British, chintzy public rooms, fine dining, exquisite service, airy (some with fireplace) bedrooms in 39 "cottages" with private terraces. Although not directly on the sea, it shares guest dining and beach privileges at Coral Beach and Tennis Club across the road.