ST. GEORGE, Bermuda -- Admiral George Somers stands with arms beckoning to the sky, as if to guide visitors back to this spot.
Somers -- whose statue isn't far from the airport's flight path -- arrived quite by accident via a hurricane in 1609 while en route from England to Virginia. He thus gained first-hand knowledge of Bermuda's proximity to North America's East Coast, 400 years before tourism and foreign investment became the island's lifeblood and made St. George a UNESCO world heritage site.
The recession took its time washing up on the pink-flecked beaches as people gradually cut back on overseas travel. Unless you had the means to ride it out, such as celebrity residents Ross Perot, Michael Douglas and Michael Bloomberg, this wasn't a budget-friendly destination.
But business and tourists are returning, taking advantage of both hotel deals and the 1-to-1 exchange on the Canada-U.S. dollar. And while Somers crashed ashore on the Sea Venture, today it's an easy 2.5-hour flight from Toronto, with Bermuda sitting closer to Nova Scotia than any of its Carribean island neighbours. Barely is the Manhattan skyline left behind when you're touching down in the sub-tropical British colony.
As such, mind the drivers on the left, among other quaint customs while exploring this 53 sq-km fish hook. As non-residents aren't allowed to operate cars on the narrow roads, we split tours of the beaches and towns between the plentiful taxis and the famous pink buses. Buses are cheaper and not at all the cold-shoulder commute of the big city. Everyone exchanges greetings, amid stops to remote spots such as roadside loquat fruit patches, where feral roosters and chickens scramble out of the way.
A bus/ferry day pass costs about $12 and -- depending on traffic -- the entire island can be covered in about an hour, with boat passage between the Royal Naval Dockyard and Hamilton cutting the return trip in half. Those unperturbed by traffic also get around by scooter, but the most popular leisure mode is biking some or all of the paths that trace the former Bermuda Railway.
Surprises await at every turn, an interactive dolphin show beneath the Dockyard's fort, world's smallest (56 cm) drawbridge, rustic 400-year-old Heydon Chapel and the winding cobblestones of St. George. Key points of Western history have Bermudian connections -- the opening of the New World, British sea power, piracy, the American Revolution, Civil War and World War II.
But Bermuda's star attraction is much, much older. The east end of the island has 1.6 million year-old limestone caves, nicknamed "Nature's Jewelry Box." The Crystal Caves -- discovered in 1905 by two boys looking for their cricket ball -- were first explored with just a bike lamp, but modern lighting and pontoon walkways now reveal each stalagmite, helectite and chandelier stalactite. Underneath a clear 17-metre lake, the cave floor glows turqouise. Our cave guide Eunico pointed out formations that resemble animals, mythological beasts, Bob Marley's face and New York skyscrapers.
Grotto Bay Resort, Bermuda's only all-inclusive, kid-friendly hotel, has a cavern on site, one of its three options for bathers after the ocean and the hotel's swim-up bar. Five minutes from the airport, Grotto Bay also has a spa, tennis, kayaking, scuba and wreck diving. A rooster is among the permanent residents -- a natural alarm clock for early risers.
Bermuda has out-grown its reputation for serving bland old-school British fry-ups. Chefs in Grotto Bay's two restaurants prepare the local wahoo game fish in many variations and have championed international fare as well. The Palm Court also serves afternoon tea.
Island host Tim showed off his favourite places in Bermuda's nine parishes, starting with a walk on Elbow Beach, 1.5-km of pristine pink sand. Because of the surrounding coral reef, Bermuda has few concerns about sharks, but reefs create ideal offshore fishing with little ocean swell. Charters do go out further in pursuit of marlin, blackfin tuna, sailfish and barracuda.
The ideal panorama of the island is from the 185-step cast iron Gibbs' Hill Lighthouse, down to the giant natural harbour of Great Sound. On either side are the bustling capital of Hamilton, the popular Dockyard development and golf courses sprinkled about. An imposing symbol of Britannia's sea-faring muscle to this day, the Dockyard is where many cruise ships berth for dining, shopping, crafts and shipwreck museums.
Hamilton and St. George offer completely different vibes, a modern city for North American comforts and a step back in time to Featherbed Alley. Located in St. George near the public garden where Somers' heart was buried (the rest of him was interred in England), the alley is handy to historical highlights in the town centre, including a replica of the ship Somers' men built to resume their jouney to Virginia.
But he never forgot the way back to Bermuda.
Air Canada and WestJet have a daily flight from Toronto. Grotto Bay Beach Resort can be contacted toll free at 1-800-582-3190. For tourism information, contact gotobermuda.com or call 1-800-237-6832.