WHITHER, BERMUDA? CRUISING TO PARADISE IN THE ATLANTIC

Of all the destinations available on a week long summer cruise, few are more easily accessible or as compelling as Bermuda. Small, beautifully formed and awash with fabulous hospitality, it is often casually lumped in with the islands of the Caribbean cruise circuit.

This is a million miles from true. Bermuda is a full thousand miles north of the Caribbean. And where many of those rum-and-reggae idylls are almost within shouting distance of each other, Bermuda sits alone. Some six hundred-odd miles off the coast of the Carolinas, Bermuda is a surreal, emerald and blush pink fish hook, twenty one miles long and two wide, somehow implausibly adrift in the Atlantic.

The changes go much deeper than geography. Bermuda is so different from the Caribbean that it might appear to be on another planet. There are no private hire cars; no neon, and no franchise fast food chains. The speed limit is a sedate twenty miles an hour. Crime is incredibly rare. After all, where could a criminal go?

The result is a calmer, more mellow place- and, indeed, pace- than the islands to the south. Nightlife is nothing like as ‘full on’ as down in the Caribbean, but the main towns- especially Hamilton and, to a lesser extent, St. Georges’- have enough bar hopping and nightlife to keep you going through into the wee hours.

And, God knows, it is drop-dead gorgeous. The island is fringed by blush pink beaches kissed by warm, gently rolling surf. Rock formations shroud pools of water so clear that you can see the bottom, over a hundred feet down. Walk in the water- it’s warm enough to- and parrot fish will swim calmly in front of you. Broad, swaggering palms dot the sands, while lush, immaculately manicured golf courses tumble almost right down to the edge of the Atlantic itself.

A decade or so ago, a typical Bermuda traffic jam consisted of two mopeds and a golf cart. It’s busier than that now, and yet it is still remarkably easy to get away from it all. Just beware of the scooters for hire; they seem to emerge from all sorts of places like small swarms of maddened wasps. If you’re a scuba diver, you’ll find some of the clearest snorkelling anywhere in the world. The underwater world is so colourful, diverse and expansive that it could be a natural museum in its own right.

It goes on and on. There are eerily magnificent subterranean grottoes, and lush, rich expanses of gently rolling greenery. Houses in a riot of pastel shades peep out from among the stuff everywhere like fabulous exclamation marks. Ancient forts stand like craggy sentinels against the sunset Atlantic rollers. Fleets of yachts bob at anchor like idle, contented swans in secluded anchorages as the setting sun flits across the water, and locals and tourists alike congregate over drinks at a waterfront bar. The scent of oleander and hibiscus hangs in the air like fine perfume.

It is, of course, famously expensive, and Bermuda values its exclusivity. Hotel prices can potentially induce a coronary. And that, my friends, is where a cruise ship can come in as such a good deal.

Most Bermuda cruises sail from April through October, mainly from New York and Boston. The ships typically leave on a Sunday afternoon, and arrive at King’s Wharf around noon on Wednesday. The return trip leaves around lunchtime on Friday.

This gives you an unusual amount of time to see what this fabled island has to offer. But, truth be told, the cruises of a decade ago stayed for even longer. They would arrive on a Tuesday morning, allowing for a full three nights in either Hamilton and/or the original, chocolate box pretty capital of St. Georges’.

So what changed? In a nutshell, ships got bigger. Much bigger. In the old days, a quintet of summer  ‘Bermuda boats’ used to arrive in the two ports, week in and out, for six months each year. And, while it gave you a lot of time ashore, it also cost the cruise lines a huge wedge in terms of revenue.

Firstly, they had to pay three nights’ docking fees. Secondly, the on board shops and casinos were not allowed to open in port-another obvious revenue drain. Plus, getting even ships of this size- around 50,000 tons-into St. Georges’ could be tricky. That magnificent approach through a bottleneck of a channel left only around nine feet of clearance room on either side for any ship. The potential for damage, both to the ships and the delicate coral that throngs the area, was always all too real.

The response was to develop the old Naval Dockyard site at KIng’s Wharf into a new cruise ship complex. Now, four huge resort style ships at a time can be accommodated here. More people means more traffic. For this up and coming area, the arrival of the mega ships has been a real money spinner.

Make no mistake; the cruise lines are quids in, too. Now the ships spend one night less in port, they can sail at a slower pace to get there. Fuel bills and docking fees drop, while on board spend goes up.

Are there losers? For sure. Since the smaller ships were pensioned off, both Hamilton and St. Georges have seen their cruise trade implode. Either is lucky to get a handful of even one off visitors now. They are simply too small to take the new breed of maritime theme parks sailing the sea these days.

Yes, the entrance to St. Georges’ could be enlarged, but the inevitable destruction of local coral could be on a disastrous scale indeed. But that is the stark choice. Cut, or be cut out of the loop.

Ships could tender, but here Bermuda does not help itself. The law mandates that only large, local tenders- some of them holding upwards of 500- can be used for this role. The faster, far more nimble on board launches stay shackled to the mother ship. Again, this is down to understandable local concern for the coral. Unfortunately, the ‘big tender’ solution is not time effective, and works in no-one’s interest.

And, while the current breed of ships are unquestionably bigger, more commodious, and much more awash with things to do than their forebears, I can’t help but feel that something warm, precious and special has been lost. Those smaller ships were more intimate; friendships formed quicker, and more spontaneous stuff just happened, like something conjured out of a magician’s hat. Mind you, I’m also well aware that things often look better in hindsight. But those smaller ships truly were special little gems; magical little palazzi on the briny that still make me smile even now.

None of this should deter you from going to Bermuda. King’s Wharf has been beautifully developed-tastefully, even. A two day, $28 dollar pass gets you free bus and ferry access anywhere- take the ferry round to wherever you want to go. And there are now enough shore side restaurants, bars and clubs in the King’s Wharf area for a really special evening ashore.

Who goes? Both Celebrity and sister company, Royal Caribbean, sail from New Jersey to Bermuda. But for the best views of what is still the world’s most spellbinding skyline, take the Norwegian Gem and sail down past Manhattan in real style. Next year sees the addition of the brand new Norwegian Breakaway- the biggest ship ever to sail year round from New York- to the Bermuda run.

But however and whenever you go, just kick back and savour it. Don’t knock yourself out trying to see everything at once. Let the island come to you and, make no bones, you will want to return.

You’ll love Bermuda and, as you’ll find, this shimmering, sun splashed little island of dreams and legends will love you right back. Enjoy!

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