There we were on the generlly sun-swept Bermuda Islands. But the skies glowered, and wind-driven rains emptied the beaches that day and sent golfers and tennis buffs scurrying for the clubhouse.
For my wife, Sandy, and me, perversely, the weather seemed just fine. We had flown to Bermuda for seven days of relaxation, and nothing sets you down with a book better than a day-long downpour.
Pity the poor tourist in tennis whites looking forlornly out the hotel door, but we had packed a half-dozen books between us for the trip and settled ourselves comfortably for the day in a gazebo facing the turquoise sea.
(To have complained about the rain would have aroused little sympathy from our hosts, who collect the runoff from the roof for drinking water -- a standard practice in Bermuda. That two-day storm ended a weeks-long drought that, according to the local newspaper, had seriously threatened crops. It also dropped the temperature and humidity, which in our first two days there rivaled Washington's worst.)
Bermuda, as we had anticipated -- and found -- is an ideal spot to wind down. Even without the rain, the tranquil pace of this tiny (21 square miles) British crown colony 600 miles off the South Carolina coast seduces even the most fanatic of sightseers, among whom I list myself.
The speed limit, after all, is only 20 miles per hour. It slows down not only the traffic, but the tourist's whole perspective.
Not that we kept our faces buried between the pages -- two of the books we toted home unread. Rather, we found ourselves drifting unhurriedly through our days, beginning mornings with a swim and a leisurely breakfast, and topping the night off with a 20-minute ferry ride ($1 each) across the bay to Hamilton, the capital, for dinner.
If any one thing was the highlight of our trip, it was the Bermuda ferries we often took several times a day. The Paget Parish line docked every half-hour or so just down the hillside from the Newstead Hotel, where we stayed. After an evening in Hamilton, we stepped aboard the "Georgia" or the "Coralita," found a secluded seat on the deck and sailed home under the stars.
Now that's what makes an island holiday romantic.
Bermuda's tourist industry, which represents about 70 percent of the island's economy, suffered a blow this spring when thousands of blue-collar workers went out on sporadic strikes for a month in April and early May, forcing several major hotels to shut down for 10 days. The number of tourists arriving in May dropped by 22,000 compared to the same month a year ago, and Bermuda tourism officials attribute that to the labor unrest.
On May 7, the strikers reached a settlement giving them a 20-percent pay increase. Since then, tourism officials say they have boosted their advertising efforts along the East Coast and in the South, where most of the visitors come from. If there are any lingering aftereffects of the dispute, we didn't encounter any in our week at the end of June.
True, the staff at our small hotel -- a lovely group of antique-filled former mansions set in a splendid terraced garden reaching down the cliffside to the bay -- seemed less affable than we would have wished. (Especially at a rate of $125 a day for two, including breakfast, taxes and a 10-percent service charge.) But we blamed that on traditional British reserve. They did their jobs efficiently and kept the hotel spotless.
I'll admit right here that Sandy and I spent very little time -- about 20 minutes, actually -- on Bermuda's famed beaches. We are sunburners, not worshippers, and so shy away from sand and surf. About 7 one morning, though, we hiked the width of the island -- or as we put it, "from coast-to-coast," a distance of about a mile and a half -- to Coral Beach on the south shore.
Before the sun could redden our lily-white skin (it stayed that way throughout the trip with the help of a No. 15 sun screen, floppy straw hats and long sleeves), we splashed in the mild surf. Unlike our nearby beaches here, the water was marvelously clear, the smooth sea bottom easily visible many feet below, and the water gloriously warm.
To our amazement, we vowed to make another morning visit since the first turned out to be so enjoyable. But we were lured by other activities and never returned.
One day we signed on as two of 14 passengers ($30 per person) on the 40-foot cruising ketch "Alibi" for a six-hour sail in Hamilton Harbor and the adjacent Great Sound. Once aboard, most of our companions stripped to swimsuits. We were the pair under the outlandish hats with a beach towel draped across our still-virgin legs.
Captain Bill of Bermuda Water Tours pointed out sights, like the one-time home of writer Eugene O'Neill, while keeping our plastic cups filled with rum swizzles (apple juice, pineapple juice and rum are the principal ingredients). At noon he anchored off a secluded cove, where we could snorkel and swim before a lunch of salad and cold meats.
On another day, we boarded a motor launch ($14 per person, Bermuda Water Tours) for a three-hour sightseeing trip out to the government-protected coral reefs, where we transferred to a glass-bottomed boat.
At times, the boat almost scraped the coral. Tropical fish by the hundreds came into view as we hovered over a sunken ship, its bow protruding from the water. A couple of big ones peered up through the glass as intently as we stared down.
When we weren't on the water, we got around the island mostly by bus. These handsome pink vehicles provide frequent, friendly and convenient service throughout Bermuda's 22-mile length. The fare is not cheap -- 60 cents for three short zones, $1 for anything beyond -- but they got us from the historic village of St. George's at the eastern tip to the Maritime Museum on the west.
On these excursions, we had no trouble spotting inviting outdoor cafes overlooking the sea for a pleasant lunch (about $20, usually with a bowl of rum-seasoned Bermuda fish chowder). On the trip to the museum, we combined a bus ride with a return voyage by Somerset ferry ($2 each) to Hamilton.
Most of our fellow tourists appeared to have rented mopeds (about $13 each a day, less on a weekly rate), but on Bermuda's narrow, twisting, drive-on-the-left roadways, these two-wheeled cycles seemed potentially dangerous -- especially to a pair of rubbernecks like us who probably would have our eyes focused on a blooming poinciana or oleander rather than the truck rounding the curve.
We were, I must report here, disappointed by the surprising amount of traffic which made even walking on Bermuda's limited number of roadways a hazard. We like to sightsee on foot, and had expected the geography to be in our favor. But many of the roads have no shoulders, and fences and walls rise right up from the edge. Repeatedly -- until we gave up hiking -- we found ourselves pressed against a wall to avoid being hit.
One other disappointment: Though tending toward the expensive ($50 to $90 for a moderate dinner for two), the food lacked, for want of a better word, pizzazz, relying heavily on the basic steaks and chops. We've been spoiled by Washington's wide array of ethnic restaurants and look for a little adventure in our dining.
The best bet, which we found at places like the recommended Lobster Pot and the Waterfront in Hamilton and the elegant 18th-century Fourways Inn on a hilltop in Paget Parish, appeared on the menu as "Bermuda fish," stuffed, sauteed and deliciously fresh.
That we achieved our goal of relaxation in Bermuda is evident in my reaction on arriving at Baltimore-Washington Airport after the hour and 40-minute Eastern flight ($255 each round trip, weekday excursion fare). The car I had left with the valet parking service ($25 for seven days) was returned with a crushed left fender.
No anger. No recriminations. No threats. Just smiles. Nothing was going to bug me so soon after our Bermuda week. I think I even tipped the attendant.