Civilized, elegant, lovely -- and expensive -- Bermuda

AS a rule, island vacations tend to drive visitors into one of two camps: those lured on by the romance of the remote vs. those put off by excessive insularity. I am cheerfully of the former faith and make it a rule never to be bored when holidaying on the snouts of extinct volcanoes. Of course, I also count a halfway decent beach and a turquoise-colored sea as high culture. Bermuda, I knew, was going to be heaven.

I had done, as tourists are wont to say, the Greek isles, the Virgin Islands, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, and two sand spits off the west coast of Florida known as Sanibel and Captiva Islands. (For the purposes of scientific purity, I do not count a year spent in Great Britain as an ``island vacation.'') But, for reasons not fully examined, I had never ventured to Bermuda.

Perhaps the island's accessibility (a direct, two-hour flight from Boston) and reputation as a honeymooners' haven tempered its exotica. This flower-sprigged volcanic cap (six islands in all) had so long been part of America's collective vacation consciousness -- right up there with the golden oldies of Miami Beach, Disneyland, and the Grand Canyon -- that I undoubtedly took it for granted. Only when spurred by a misguided sense of intrepidness (pegged to the United States dollar -- Bermuda tourist rat es are flagging) did I venture to belie Andrew Marvell's 17th-century verse: ``Where the remote Bermudas ride, in th' ocean's bosom unespied.''

As it turned out, millions of honeymooners were not wrong. (I encountered the first of these adorable duos entwined in seats 9D and 9E as I stumbled into 9F. Everyone comes to Bermuda en deux, en famille, or at the least en golfing foursome. My temporarily solo status -- I later rendezvoused with an old school friend -- elicited a polite ``Madame is here on business?'' from a deeply suntanned waiter.) Less historically significant than the Greek islands but more so than Floridian isles (Ber muda was settled by Britian in 1612), more formal than Nantucket but friendlier than the Caribbean, Bermuda is decidedly its own animal.

A happy blend of English seaside village, Italy's Amalfi coast, Portugal's Algarve, and a touch of the Caribbean, Bermuda remains topographically unique. Beyond the pastel cottages with lime-washed ziggurat roofs (for catching and purifying water), the lush subtropical vegetation (oleander, hibiscus, morning glory, bougainvillea) and signature hordes of buzzing moped riders (no rental cars available), Bermuda is civilization in short pants. It is English antiques and cool tile floors; jackets and ties and Bermuda shorts; the clatter of teacups under the tropical sun. If Britain had a Costa del Sol, this would be it.

For the frequent or first-time visitor -- beyond honeymooners, Bermuda remains a favorite with golfers and yachtsmen -- there are many advantages to a Bermuda vacation. There is no language problem; a voter's registration card will float you by immigration; and everyone accepts the US dollar. The famed pink beaches (microscopic bits of coral) not only live up to, but surpass expectation. Warwick Long Bay, a series of rock-studded azure coves on the island's south shore is a must for every beachcomber. A nd as overused as the word ``charming'' is, it is the perfect way to sum up the island and its inhabitants -- residents of Britain's oldest colony. Cab drivers fall all over themselves to ask you if you're enjoying their island.

Additional pluses include local cuisine that puts most other tropical and subtropical locales to shame. (Bermuda's proximity to the US allows for good mainland provisioning, and the island's numerous if Lilliputian farms take up the slack.) The coastline is studded with bays, coves, and beaches, unspoiled by high-rise development (Florida take note) and generally uncrowded even in high season (Horseshoe Bay was the one exception). Sports, water and otherwise, abound. Snorkling, sailing, and deep-s ea fishing trips can be arranged, and nearly every hotel complex has at least one all-weather tennis court. As for golf, Bermuda is justifiably famous for having more courses per mile than any other country.

Of course, even paradise has its downside, and Bermuda's big drawback is the hefty price tag attached to all this sybaritic luxury. Even during the off season (a cool and occasionally rainy winter in which prices are discounted 15 to 25 percent) Bermuda is simply not for pikers. Hence the preponderance of well-heeled executives, retirees, and honeymooners taking their once-in-a-lifetime trip. The retired couple I met on the return flight estimated their two-week Bermuda stay at $4,000 total, which

just about matched my $1,000 for one week tally, including a $240 roundtrip airfare from Boston. Such prices tend to make many tourists treat Bermuda like some exquisite sugar rose -- suitable for special occasions only.

Aside from vacationing during the off season (and I would add midsummer to that category due to excessive humidity), Nelson Hay's ``Guide to the Alternative Bermuda'' -- ``How to have a wonderful time in Bermuda at a price you can afford'' -- suggests shaving a few dollars by selecting tiny guest houses over the big, and big-name, hotels, such as the Southampton Princess, Bermudiana, and Sonesta Beach. (Ironically, the Rosedon Hotel, a recommended reasonably priced small hotel, turned out to be much l ess a bargain than the mid-range Newstead.) Most hotels prefer their guests to take advantage of the ``modified American plan'' (breakfast and dinner included), which locks in your biggest expense. The alternatives, frequenting local eateries or staying in small housekeeping cottages with do-it-yourself cooking, usually entail island shopping and cab rides, both of which are expensive. (Taxi fares here rival, if not exceed, those in Manhattan, which is roughly the same size as Bermuda.)

The best way seems to simply pre-select your accommodations carefully, factoring in size, expense, proximity to beaches, golf courses and, of course, Hamilton, Bermuda's main metropolis. With the buildings on renowned Front Street done up in Easter-egg colors, Hamilton is famous for shopping -- china, crystal, perfume, and English woolens -- and little else. There is no night life to speak of on the island, unless you count local discos, pub crawling, and the occasional hotel show. And when the cruise s hips are docked in town (no more than four allowed at one time) Hamilton streets resemble almost any urban environment.

Quiet, intimate suppers are the rule when it comes to Bermuda's evening activities. Our hotel dining room and the two restaurants we visited (FourWays and the recently reopened Tom Moore's Tavern) provided excellent, imaginative, reasonably priced (by New York standards) cuisine that was more moderne than nouvelle and only faintly reminiscent of English cooking -- three or four vegetables, fortunately cooked al dente. Locally caught snapper, swordfish, and grouper (served almondine, wrapped in cornhusk s and grilled, and deep fried for fish and chips) were not to be missed. Smoked kippers appeared on many a (full, English) breakfast menu.

Buoyed by relatives' recommendations (fine-tuned by a travel agent), two of us bypassed the popular bigger hotels and shared a suite complete with open-air terrace, breakfast, and dinner, for $90 per person per night at one of Bermuda's better-known small hotels. The Newstead is a former Bermuda mansion, updated with deluxe guest cottages, situated in Paget Parish on a hill overlooking Hamilton Harbor. The hotel's 60-year-old main building retains the original beam ceilings and hardwood floors. Faded O riental carpets, a library of leather-bound volumes and a hushed client`ele contribute to an aura reminiscent of a family summer home. Dining on the hotel terrace, with Hamilton's lights glittering beyond and the lightning bugs flickering overhead, was simply a delight.

Ideally situated midway on the island, the Newstead is a convenient $1 ferry ride from Hamilton, but sufficiently removed from its frequently hectic pace. Like several non-seaside hotels, it provides beach privileges for its guests at a nearby cottage colony. The afternoon we spent at the Coral Beach and Tennis Club (snorkel equipment, lounge chairs, and afternoon libations within arm's reach) was one of the most pleasant of the week. For a return visit, I would be inclined to book an entire week at jus t such a beachside hotel.

Another advantage to Paget Parish hostelries (the island is divided into nine parishes) is their proximity to the superb public beaches next door in Warwick Parish. Guests are also equidistant from the island's better golf courses. Port Royal in Somerset Parish is a $16 cab ride from Hamilton, while Castle Harbor Golf Club and the Mid Ocean Club, the latter considered the island's top course but also a private club, are roughly the same distance in the opposite direction.

With no rental cars available, transportation options are limited on this island that is barely two miles across at its widest point but more than 22 miles long. (Speed limit is 20 m.p.h.) If one has the time and inclination, Bermuda's pink and blue buses are an inexpensive and feasible alternative to the plentiful but high-priced taxis. A recommended exception to the taxi rule is the three-hour guided island tour available from any cab driver. Not only will you have a chance to chat with a local resid ent (our guide, Teddy Brangman, gave us a wealth of historical facts about the island), but your trip will include, among other spots, a visit to historic St. George, Bermuda's other, and much more palatable, city. Nearly every shop in Hamilton has a branch in St. George, and street names there run to ``Needle and Thread Alley'' and ``Aunt Peggy's Lane.''

A more alfresco alternative is to rent mopeds, which everyone and his brother seems blithely to do. (Mopeds rent for $18 a day or roughly $100 a week.) However, we found them noisy, hot transportaton -- not to mention downright intimidating during rush hour -- and appropriate only when clad in shorts and T-shirts. There is also the minor hassle of driving on the left.

Beyond these quirks, a Bermuda vacation -- first time or repeat trip -- is worth the expense if your taste in vacations runs to the quiet and civilized. This is no uninhibited island. The entire place has the feel of a swanky, if slightly faded, country club. Mornings on the golf course or tennis court and afternoons reading on the beach followed by dinner in jacket, tie, and suntan are generally the rule.

Unless you elect the slightly more free-for-all atmosphere of the newly opened Club Med (at the old Loews Bermuda Beach Hotel in St. George) you should just go with the flow and enjoy this island. In fact, vacationing on Bermuda is very much like visiting a favorite, if slightly starchy aunt, who after serving you tea and polite conversation sends you out to beaches that offer some of the planet's most perfect pleasures. Practical information:

With more than 100 tourist accommodation options available on Bermuda, selecting the right hotel is fundamental to a successful vacation. The New York branch of the Bermuda Tourist Authority (212-397-7700) can supply a nicely illustrated booklet, ``Where to Stay in Bermuda.'' Fielding's ``Bermuda and the Bahamas'' will help you sort out some of the housing clutter. Otherwise, work closely with a travel agent who can advise according to personal preferences. An additional plus: If you book through an age nt you may prepay for some of the accommodations by credit card. Many small hotels on Bermuda accept only cash, travelers checks, and personal checks.

Eastern, Delta, American, and Pan Am airlines fly several times daily to Bermuda with direct flights originating from Boston, New York, Atlanta, and Baltimore. British Airways provides departures to and from London. Several cruise ships, including the Bermuda Star and the Nordic Prince, among others, call on Bermuda with visits to Hamilton lasting from one to four days.

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