Hamilton, Bermuda (CNN) — What's so surprising about the island of Bermuda is its proximity to the eastern seaboard of the United States (flights from New York City clock in at a bit over two hours), but what's so astounding is the vision visitors see upon approach.
The water is nearly navy blue, and as you get closer, you can see right to the bottom. It's stunning and gorgeous.
One step on this island, and it's impossible not to be moved by its beauty, history, simplicity and charm.
The 20.6 square miles of Bermuda, which is shaped like a fish hook, enjoy a subtropical climate despite being in the middle of the North Atlantic, about 700 miles east of New York City and 1,000 miles north of the Caribbean.
Bermuda's infamous coral reefs are responsible for pink sand beaches as well as more than 300 shipwrecks. And because of its isolated geographical position, Bermuda's mix of turquoise and deep blue waters boggles the mind.
A controversial ban on same-sex marriage instituted in February 2018 was overturned on June 6, clearing the way for LGBTQ marriages in Bermuda and on cruise ships registered on the island.
A quick history lesson
Years after a Spanish captain first discovered Bermuda in the early 1500s, a fleet of British ships departed Plymouth to sail to the then-colony of Virginia in 1602.
Several weeks into the crossing, a storm felled one of the ships, Sea Venture, separating it from the rest of the fleet. The ship ran aground on one of the reefs near Bermuda's eastern coast.
All 150 passengers survived and made it to land, and thus Bermuda became inhabited. (Fun note: this shipwreck is believed to be the inspiration for William Shakespeare's play "The Tempest," and there's even a cave at Grotto Bay named for Prospero.)
Wet and wild
The arresting, blush-pink shores of Horseshoe Bay are a dazzling sight, especially coupled with the crystal clear waters lapping at the shore. This Bermuda beach is an unforgettable experience, complete with hidden caves and spectacular views.
The best way to experience Bermuda is to play on or near the water. Whether you sunbathe and swim, there's a beach for everyone -- from the famous pink sand beach at Horseshoe Bay to the tiny snorkeler's haven, Tobacco Bay. If you wish to avoid crowds when you travel here, you have so many options, sometimes only found on foot or by asking a local. Or seek out Jobson's Cove or any of the beaches around the border between Southampton and Warwick Parish. Get on a boat (we recommend Rising Son catamaran for a snorkel day trip); and if you're feeling super spendy, opt for a private charter. Bermudian captains know their stuff and expertly navigate the treacherous waters to take swimmers, snorkelers, scuba divers and stand-up paddle boarders to the loveliest and glassiest, clearest spots.
Bermudians love cliff diving from Admiralty House Park (you can access via Deep Bay Beach), and wandering through the manmade tunnels and caves in the cove. It's also a favorite for rock climbing.
There's no better way to cap off a day of sun and surf than sipping a Dark 'n' Stormy, Bermuda's unofficial drink made with Gosling's Black Seal rum, ginger beer and lime.
As Bermuda was a British military stronghold for centuries, there are several forts to explore on the island that offer historic context, as well as breathtaking views.
Fort St. Catherine, located in St. George (itself a UNESCO World Heritage site worth a deep wander), has a proper exhibit, offers tours and displays artifacts such as crown jewels and artillery, but you can easily wander around yourself.
Other forts worth visiting are Fort Scaur in Sandy's Parish with its disappearing cannon, Gunpoint and Fort Hamilton.
The Dark 'n' Stormy has a rich history rooted in Bermuda. This is the refreshing cocktail's origin story.
The Bermuda Railway was only in use for a few years (1931-1948), but is now one of the best ways to see hidden parts of the island. The railway trail covers about 22 miles, from St. George in the east, all the way to Somerset in the west.
Whether you are a walker, hiker or cyclist, any section of the trail provides adventures, scenic vistas and occasionally, total solitude.
If you like to do the classic sightseeing stuff (which we do), make sure to stop by the Unfinished Church as well as St. Peter's, which at over 400 years old is the oldest Anglican church outside the British Isles.
Another must-visit in St. George is Lili Bermuda, a perfumery that has operated since 1928.
Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone purchased the perfumery in 2004 and moved the operation to one of the parish's historic 18th-century homes, Stewart House, and she is both custodian and creator.
Ramsay-Brackstone describes her perfumes as "the beautiful sensory experience of Bermuda." All the fragrances sold at Lili Bermuda are made on the island and only available on the island (or via their website). Visitors can also arrange to attend a perfumery workshop or enjoy afternoon tea in the garden.
Isle of sandwich
The fish sandwich at Tribe Road Kitchen is a tasty version of the island staple.
The signature dish of Bermuda is the fish sandwich, and if you want to start an argument, then declare one better than the other.
The recipe varies from place to place, but it is fairly straightforward: fried fish (sometimes fresh, sometimes not -- if you care, just ask) served on raisin bread with coleslaw, tartar sauce and sometimes cheese.
After a very scientific survey (we just kept asking any Bermudian we met), Art Mel's was the one mentioned most often -- perhaps because it's one of the most substantial (OK, it's huge).
Marcus Samuelsson is a fan, and the famed chef's restaurant Marcus' at the Hamilton Princess has a tasty version on its lunch menu. Wahoo's Bistro & Patio in St. George serves up another great one, and bonus points for its harbor-front outdoor dining area.
Woody's in Somerset, while not quite as picturesque, serves up an incredibly yummy albeit smaller fish sandwich, made yummier with Grace hot sauce and Barritt's Ginger Beer.
Finally, Tribe Road Kitchen has another knock-out sammy, served with sweet potato fries, and perhaps a quick visit with Bocuse, the French bulldog who was tromping around the restaurant's backyard.
Rosewood Bermuda recently unveiled a comprehensive $25 million renovation.
Trite, but true, there is something for everyone as far as Bermuda accommodations are concerned.
Bermuda's most luxurious resort is Rosewood Bermuda, which recently unveiled a comprehensive $25 million renovation.
The 92 rooms and suites have all been redesigned to evoke a residential feel, and the property also has its own private pink sand beach, Bermuda's largest. The new Conservatory Bar and Lounge overlooks Castle Bay, and the revamped spa is a haven for relaxation. With tennis, golf and a children's program, there isn't a more chic and dynamic option on the island.
The Hamilton Princess & Beach Club is the island's grande dame, situated near the harbor. This pink palace is one of the biggest hotels and has the benefit of being in a town where revelers walk and dance on the streets. Its interior rivals most contemporary art museums with its owners' estimated half a billion dollar collection, including a mammoth outdoor Kaws sculpture facing the harbor, works by Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Alexander Calder.
A half-hourly shuttle takes guests to their beach club, about 20 minutes from the property.
Grotto Bay Beach Resort and Spa is another solid option, the island's only all-inclusive. And whether or not you stay, book a massage in their spa, in a cave that's about 500,000 years old. The newest property is The Loren at Pink Beach, which has a more modern feel and some of the best seasonal dining on the island. In Southampton Parish, all of the homey rooms at The Reefs Resort and Club face the Atlantic ocean, and Elbow Beach balances a family-friendly atmosphere with bustling nightlife -- it's got a Dirty Dancing-esque feel, but with a private beach.
Sometimes the passport control line at BDA can be long, so do a little recon before you choose your flight. Also, there are no rental cars on the island, just taxis, and it's wise to prearrange your airport pickup, because who likes to wait?
You'll see a lot of tourists riding around on rental scooters along Bermuda's winding and steep roads -- and as a British territory they drive on the left side of the road. And while they (and likely you) look fabulous whizzing around in bare legs sans helmet, Bermudians are wont to refer to these mopeds as "organ donors." So take care and safety first!
Bermuda doesn't get cold, but it is not hot year-round, so if you want fun in the sun, go from May through October. Note that Bermudians don't jump in the water until late May, but it can warm up earlier than that.
Finally, Bermudian dollars are basically equivalent to American dollars, and most folks accept both, as well as most credit cards.