Bermuda: A flying visit to the home of the shorts

If you can go to New York for a quick trip, why not Bermuda? Helen Pickles enjoys tea and scones on the beach

It was a crazy idea: Bermuda for the weekend. Cost issues aside, would there be time to do much more than slap on the sunscreen, get lost on the way to the beach, and open a book, before packing and heading back to the airport?

It was a crazy idea: Bermuda for the weekend. Cost issues aside, would there be time to do much more than slap on the sunscreen, get lost on the way to the beach, and open a book, before packing and heading back to the airport?

As it happens, yes. Bermuda is so trim and compact - 21 miles long, two miles at its widest - and so easy to negotiate (smile a lot, drive on the left, speak English) that the only thing that can hold you back is the time that you get up in the morning. Flying for seven hours to find a sun-washed bar in which to enjoy a late-afternoon rum swizzle - an inflammatory mixture of rums and fruit juices - became a perfectly sensible plan. And anyway, so much about Bermuda is ridiculous: the swimming-pool-blue seas, those shorts and brogues combinations worn by the locals, the Hansel and Gretel sugar-topped houses. If people can go for a weekend to New York, I reasoned, why not here?

I arrived in a splendid thunderstorm which rumbled through the night and into the morning. The whistling tree- frogs, shy, nocturnal creatures which adore warmth and wet, pulled out all the stops to sing me to sleep. When I awoke, beach plans were hastily converted into a trip to the aquarium to gasp and shudder at Bermuda's underwater life. Surrounded by coral reefs, the island is a snorkeller's paradise: fluorescent parrot-fish, luminous-eyed triggerfish and the ghastly, slimy moray eel.

By midday the sun was out and I caught one of the jolly pink and blue buses to St George, a sleepy town at the north-eastern tip of the island. It was here that the first British settlers landed after a shipwreck in 1609. Bermuda is still a British dependency, and a colonial languor drifts around the place, from the street-names - Featherbed Alley, Old Maid's Lane - to the State House (the island's oldest building), the fake town crier resplendent in royal blue breeches and frock coat, and the cool, cedarwood interior of St Peter's Church, still lit by candle chandeliers. With its sugar-almond coloured buildings and squeaky-clean pavements, I couldn't shake off the feeling that I was on a Hollywood film set.

Much of Bermuda feels like that. My hotel, like most others, offered afternoon tea - Earl Grey, crustless sandwiches and marble cake. Hamilton, the capital, is even more stagy, with its colonnades and shutters, stately court buildings and flush of old-fashioned department stores: Trimingham, AS Cooper and Sons, Archie Brown and Son. If you can face shopping, tax-free Bermuda is an excellent place to stock up on china, crystal and cashmere.

The next day, much to the horror of Frankie, my breakfast waiter, I hired a moped. Island roads are narrow with no verges, and cars sit hotly on your tail. Instruction at the rental shop was sketchy, my helmet far too big, and the speedometer broken. But weekends are short, and as cars are restricted to one per household there are none for hire.

I spent the day exploring the south-coast beaches, the island's best. Stonehole Bay, Hidden Beach, Peel Rock Cove, Horseshoe Bay were as enchanting as their names - soft, sandy bays alternated with rocky coves. The only other people were the occasional purposeful power-walker or lonely jogger. Tired of sunbathing, I walked the limestone cliffs, weathered into fantastic sculptural forms, and marvelled at the powder-blue ocean floors below.

On the way back to Hamilton I climbed Gibb's Hill Lighthouse, the world's tallest, cast-iron lighthouse (built in 1846 in the shadow of Waterloo Bridge and shipped across) for the island-long view from the top. As the light is automated, the former lighthouse-keeper's cottage is now a tearoom serving up pure, chocolate-box Britain: all oak tables and Welsh dressers. It's a disorientating feeling, eating tea and scones at a table awash with hibiscus blooms.

Eating out is the island's main evening activity. Competition between restaurants is fierce, so standards are high, - but so are prices. I was taken aback on my first night to find myself paying around $60 (£40) for two courses and a couple of drinks. Friends later steered me to Le Figaro, a darkly atmospheric French bistro, and to Portofino, which serves some of the freshest pasta I've ever eaten. Fish is universally excellent. I had to try the cheerful-sounding wahoo fish - a cunning fellow who can swipe the bait off a hook without getting caught - and the chowder, a stew-like fish soup spiced with rum and sherry peppers. Arguably the best fish is served at Coconuts, a restaurant halfway down the cliffs above Christian Bay. Unquestionably romantic, for an extra £20, you get champagne and a table on the beach.

On my last day, I took a ferry from Hamilton across the Great Sound to Somerset Bridge at the western end of the island,which is a great way to snoop on the private islands and their exclusive houses. Locals call this "up the country", as if were still uncolonised. Somerset Bridge is the smallest drawbridge in the world (Bermudians are fond of superlatives, as if making up for their lack of size). I walked part of the railway trail (the world's most expensive railway, abandoned after 17 years in 1948 when cars proved more practical) and met scarcely a soul as I plunged off-route into cedar-wood thickets or banks of bright purple morning glory.

At the end of the trail, I caught the bus to the Royal Naval Dockyard, the Victorian fort and dockyard that sprawls over the north-western tip of the island. Built by 10,000 British convicts, it was dubbed Britain's Gibraltar of the west. The fort is a scholarly maritime museum but, above all, I enjoyed wandering the ramparts, where huge cannons and shells lie in careless abandon.

Back in Hamilton, I hopped on the moped for one last swim at Coral Beach, a brochure-perfect curve of pink coral sand. But my abiding memory of Bermuda is of that late afternoon rum swizzle, as I sprawled across two chairs, half in, half out of the sun, a reggae version of "Killing Me Softly" pulsing in the air. Had the bartender offered me a job, I'd be there still.

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