Not even the overblown prose of a travel brochure prepares you for what makes Bermuda special.
Seemingly misplaced in the North Atlantic 500 miles east of Cape Hatteras, N.C., this subtropical island playground is speckled with golf courses that have the patina of Old England and seascape views that could make you blow an easy shot: coral pink houses with white roofs and pastel-pink resort hotels on pink-sand beaches.
It's neat. Along Hamilton's Front Street stretches a row of immaculate shops featuring good buys in imported merchandise. Their managers are impeccably dressed in Bermuda shorts, blazers and narrow ties.
On the streets you'll see no long legs in short shorts or bathing suits, or bare feet or bare male chests. That's a no-no, except at pool or beach. Even cruise passengers are cautioned about this before they go ashore.
It's balmy in this self-governing British colony and there is no "winter" as such, but in the cooler off-season months before spring breaks through again, the temperature can sometimes drop into the 50s and Bermudians don't go near the water. The climate is ideal for growing flowers and the island is a major source for Easter lilies.
It's fun. A life style all its own has charmed visitors from 19th-century poet Tom Moore and island-hopper Mark Twain to "sailors" like James Thurber and cruising American collegians who hit the beaches every spring break. Not to mention thousands of visitors aboard cruise ships, a few of whom manage to lose control of their rented motorbikes while driving on the left (autos are restricted) and wind up in the hospital or worse.
Pay attention and you'll run across startling bits of American history in Bermuda. The stories are almost incredible.
For instance, the one about barber Joseph Rainey. He was a freed slave who fled South Carolina on a blockade-runner early in the Civil War and found haven in St. George's. He plied his trade in the converted kitchen of a historic house, educating himself by conversing with his patrons.
In 1866, Rainey returned to South Carolina and was elected to Congress -- its first black member.
The room in which Rainey barbered has been restored and you can learn about him when you visit the President Henry Tucker House, now a museum of Bermuda's early times.
Another local anomaly is the Confederate Museum in St. George's Old Globe Hotel (1700). It tells the story of blockade-running to the southern states during the Civil War. This was a neutral haven for shipment of contraband from Europe aboard small, fast ships able to evade the Union blockade. Crewmen spent money like sailors and brought temporary prosperity to St. George's.
Civil War buffs will appreciate a large museum wall map that depicts major events of the Civil War and the routes of blockade-runners.
Moored in St. George's Harbor, you can see the Deliverance, a handsome replica of the original, which commemorates a historic episode. The story concerns another ship, the Sea Venture, and its misadventures while on its way to the relief of Jamestown, America's first English colony.
The Sea Venture was wrecked in a violent storm (immortalized in Shakespeare's "The Tempest") off St. George's in 1609. But the wreck became lodged between two rocks, and the 150 men and women aboard got safely ashore. Undaunted, they built the original Deliverance, using materials salvaged from the wrecked ship. Nine months later they sailed to Virginia to succor the colonists, by then down to 60 survivors. The Deliverance replica is a museum whose artifacts show that period's primitive life afloat.
Since then, through good times and bad, Bermuda has thrived because of its loyal tourist following.
The newest luxury hotel is the Stonington Beach at Paget. Planted in the middle of a sea grape forest, Stonington owes some of its ideas and innovations to support from managements of such other top island hotels as Southampton Princess, Elbow Beach and Castle Harbour. They have a stake in the enterprise because Stonington Beach is owned and operated by the government's Bermuda College, and its purpose is to train top-notch hotel workers.
We feel pampered at the Stonington with its one-to-one ratio of guests to employes and student trainees. They provide enthusiastic service under the supervision of professionals. Food and service in the dining room are exceptional. The hotel's 64 balconied rooms and suites overlook the sea and a fine beach.
For its first winter season ending March 15 (daytime high winter temperatures average 68 degrees), the Stonington Beach offered "Rendez-Vous" special rates of $50-$70 for a single room, $60-$80 for a double. All rates included full English breakfast. From now through Nov. 30, the rates (with breakfast) range from $80 to $120.
Best restaurant on the island -- and it's very good -- is the Waterlot Inn at Southampton. My favorite for seafood is the Lobster Pot at Hamilton.
You can soak up local flavor by swizzling with the Bermudians in any of the island pubs. Very British with an island twang are the Hog Penny (good food as well as spirits), Tom Moore's Tavern (he wrote odes there before it was a pub) and the Ram's Head (where patrons relax at darts and a game called shut-the-box).
A favorite pub is the 200-year-old Swizzle Inn, where the house specialty, naturally, is the Bermuda Rum Swizzle. If you'd like to try it at home, here's one version -- you can vary it to suit your taste. BERMUDA RUM SWIZZLE 6 ounces Jamaica or other light brown rum 2 ounces black rum (any dark rum will do) 1 ounce apricot brandy (optional, but it improves the flavor) Juice of 4 limes or lemons 1 1/2 ounces honey or sugar syrup 4 dashes bitters Whites of four eggs
Pour all ingredients into a pitcher and add crushed ice. Churn vigorously with a swizzle-stick or by other means until a frothing head appears. Strain into cocktail glasses. Serve to two or more imbibers at your discretion.