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The Taste of Tea and Empire in Bermuda for a Day or a Week

Tea, anyone?

The iconic pink Fairmont Hamilton Princess with spectacular gardens that overlook the water and well-stocked Koi ponds is the place for a traditional English tea in the oh-so-British-feeling Bermuda.

The hotel—celebrating its 125th anniversary with special events and packages—has long been a fixture here. It is, in fact, the oldest hotel on the island. In the 1840s, England’s Anna Russell, the Seventh Duchess of Bedford, requested a snack with her tea, thinly sliced bread and butter. Her butler brought it to her in secret, but when she realized no one cared whether she had a snack or not, she began to include it with her tea when she entertained her friends—thus afternoon tea, typically served between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. with small sandwiches, pastries, and scones with preserves and clotted cream, became an English tradition, one that quickly spread throughout the English Empire.

Enjoying an afternoon tea was the one desire of our 85-year-old birthday girl, Rita Marcus, so when our Royal Caribbean ship arrived in Bermuda—it is easy to get between Hamilton and the Dockyard where our ship is docked (just 25 minutes on a ferry)—we headed to the Fairmont.

Most people there—including several families with well-scrubbed kids—lounged on couches and overstuffed chairs that overlooked the gardens, but we were a party of 11 and gathered instead at a long table where pots of various teas (BerryBerry, Earl Grey, Peppermint, Chamomile, and other delectable brews) sat waiting to be served in dainty porcelain cups. But that was the least of it.

A 3-foot-high tiered stands filled with sandwiches (minted, cucumber and chevre, asparagus and smoked salmon, grilled chicken and avocado, ham, roast beef, baby shrimp salad) and bite-sized pastries (pear-almondine tart, mint squares, spiced rum chocolate tarts, white rum chocolate mousse cups, vanilla cream, some with rum, some just sweet) were amazing. The best part? The apricot and fig scones with raspberry jam and clotted cream. We could barely push ourselves away from the table. Did I mention the grapefruit sorbet in a dark chocolate cup—all for just $34 per person!

There is a special children’s tea menu with homemade peanut butter and jelly, tuna salad, and cheese sandwiches. It all makes me wish for the time when people had two hours to linger and talk, laugh and gossip over tea. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that—at least once in a while? That’s what vacations are for, after all, to slow down, relax, and remind ourselves what is important.

But whether you visit Bermuda aboard a ship (look for deep discounts on Royal Caribbean‘s Explorer of the Seas sailing from Cape Liberty at Bayonne, New Jersey), or stay at the fabulous Fairmont (visit for your anniversary and get a complimentary night’s stay and additional nights at $125 per person. You’ll need your marriage certificate. This package is available through December 30, 2010), there’s plenty to do.

Just 66,000 people inhabit pristine Bermuda, which is not just a single island, but actually a territory made up of about 138 small coral islands, all part of the British Commonwealth. Yes, we see businessmen on their way to work wearing Bermuda shorts, knee-high socks, and shirts and ties. Hedges are manicured and lawns are mowed. Houses are painted rainbow colors—bright orange, green and blue, pastel pinks, and yellows. It makes you happy just to look at them.

The main island is just 21 miles long and two-and-a-half miles wide, but because of narrow winding roads, it seems to take a long time to get anywhere. We’re just 570 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, which is why Bermuda has always been a popular getaway for Northeasterners interested in water sports and, of course, golf.

The English accidentally discovered Bermuda in 1609 when Admiral George Somers, on his way to the Virginia colony, was shipwrecked in a storm. He immediately claimed the land for England. Bermuda was settled in 1612, its capital became St. George’s and it remains today the oldest continually inhabited English town in the New World.

We stop to feed the fish at historic Somerset Bridge and urge the 20-somethings in our group to steer clear of the mopeds that seem an accident magnet to visiting tourists. My friend the golfer learns there are nine courses here and some 12,000 boats—sailboats, fishing boats, rowboats, and even shipwrecked vessels (about 400 of them), some dating back to the 15th century. I was looking forward to diving on one of the wrecks until an eye infection changed those plans. We stop at Gibbs Hill Lighthouse and explore the quaint town of St. George’s, a tourist haven with its narrow streets and colorful buildings.

Our mission is to investigate two different types of Bermuda resorts. First stop: The Reefs, a tiny resort, just 65 rooms and suites, which has been a Bermuda tradition since 1947. Because all meals are part of the deal, this is the kind of place where you come to kick back, snooze on the beach, sit at the pool with a book in your lap, or build sandcastles with your kids.

After lunch, overlooking the white-capped waves, we move on to 9 Beaches, yes, it really does have nine, albeit small, beaches. All you need here are flip-flops, a bathing suit, and a pair of shorts. And don’t forget the snorkeling gear. (Nine Beaches boasts the largest watersports shop on the island.)

You stay here in one of 84 private cabanas—some on stilts in the water—that are simply furnished with canvas walls and solar panels, though there are air-conditioning and heating units. Mix your own drink on the deck, grab a snack from the fridge, or use the resort-provided cell phone to order a pizza. Kayak to a wreck or snorkel all afternoon, take out a Hobie Cat or a paddleboat. The resort is located on the farthest western point of Bermuda (think Bermuda triangle). Also know that you are the closest to the sunsets here.

Nine Beaches offers a Children’s Cabana Special in which you receive $150 off regular rates for each night on a second cabana booked for the children (under 18). The special is available on the Coco Coral, Ocean Point, and Top Banana cabana categories. Daily rates include breakfast. Meal plans and value-added packages are also available. Blackout dates apply.

“People shouldn’t come here just to get a cheap room,” says the manager Robin Gilbert. “This appeals to those who have a bohemian streak, to people who are adventuresome.” He adds that September and October are perfect times for this place, too, because the weather is cooler (and the rates are lower, of course). There is bicycling, tennis, bocce ball, foosball, table tennis, croquet, and beach volleyball.

There are no organized children’s clubs here, but kids have the run of the place, and there is a playground.

“It’s been great for all of us,” reported Helena Gates, who was vacationing with her husband Peter and nearly 5-year-old twins, Louis and Lucia. “I don’t think I could go back to a traditional hotel after this. It’s quaint and comfortable and everyone has been very nice with the children.”

That’s exactly what you want here. We wait out a rain shower at the Dark and Stormy bar drinking—what else—but Bermuda’s signature drink, a Dark and Stormy, which is ginger beer topped with dark Bermudan rum. Yum!

We linger over dinner on the veranda eating seafood chowder, grouper, snapper, and the best sundae I’ve ever had with flambeed banana, dark rum, and chocolate sauce.

Listen to those frogs and crickets! Perfect dinner music.

What are your favorite spots in Bermuda? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

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