FOR SIR Steve Redgrave and Gary McAllister the race was on. Two tall men on tiny bikes ripping up the byways that pass for highways in Bermuda.
The tropical island lives partly off tourists but they’re forbidden to hire cars so self drive is strictly moped. In the morning cool, we gathered in the garden of Cambridge Beaches for a test ride. The guest who drove his machine head-first into the hotel’s prized bougainvillea was humiliatingly grounded, but the rest of us set out on a mission to see as much of the colonial outpost as quickly as we could.
In the course of a hectic day, that turned out to be most of it, starting with a ferry from Royal Docklands, at the eastern end, to Hamilton, the capital, in the centre. In a singular role reversal, the ladies drank ale in the sun outside the venerable Royal Bermuda Yacht Club while the gents went shopping. Bermuda shorts, worn with blazer and knee-high stockings, are the dress code of choice for any formal occasion on the island – and there are plenty of those. Sadly, I never saw Sir Steve in his, but he did buy them. Likewise the other members of the biker gang.
Onwards and upwards involved a white-knuckle ride to Hamilton’s hilltop fort for the daily Skirling Ceremony, a lively display of men in kilts playing the bagpipes while lasses in cross-laced pumps danced reels at high noon. As we headed west, I stole surreptitious glances at sun-soaked sands or crashing surf but, as part of a pack chasing a football star and Britain’s greatest Olympian, my view was restricted to broad backs disappearing round tight bends. It goes without saying that men who make a living out of sport have no interest in coming second.
Bermuda resembles a giant prawn lying on its back, its curved tail pointed towards Cape Hatteras on America’s eastern seaboard 640 miles away. It comprises eight main islands connected by bridges surrounded by hostile coral reefs. Since 1505, when it was discovered and claimed for Spain by Juan de Bermudez, many ships have fallen foul of them. The island now claims 365 wrecks, a formula for a different dive site every day of the year.
Tourism has its roots in the Victorian era, when wealthy colonisers used slaves to grow poor-quality tobacco for high profit. Isolated in mid Atlantic, they spent freely on soirees and balls. For plantation owners from the southern United States with daughters of marriageable age, buying into this lifestyle was an easier option than travelling to Europe.
If they were reborn today, they’d find the spirit of Bermuda remarkably unchanged. With just 67,000 permanent residents, it claims a per capita income of £48,000, the second highest in the world after Lichtenstein, though it rather depends how the figures are interpreted. This is generated firstly by financial services, led by insurance and underpinned by favourable tax rates, and secondly by time warp tourism. Guest houses in converted Victorian villas host cocktail parties, serving lashings of the signature dark ‘n’ stormy rum cocktails to well-heeled repeaters, many of them wearing – yes, you guessed it – Bermuda shorts.
Of course, they play lots of golf.
As is customary in British colonies, the game was introduced in the late 1800s by Scottish soldiers homesick for the links. Nowadays the island is famous for having the most courses – nine – on the smallest landmass – 21 square miles – the highest density in the world. The flagship is Mid Ocean, a spectacular seaview layout created by Charles Blair Macdonald in 1921, redesigned by Robert Trent Jones in the 1950s and patronised by Churchill and Eisenhower. More recently it hosted Clint Eastwood, not nearly as slick with a pitching wedge as he is with a gun. If Dirty Harry had taken as long over his shot as Clint did while I waited for him to complete the seventh, the indestructible rogue cop would have been dead meat before the end of reel one.
The Trent Jones connection persists at Port Royal, an equally dramatic layout at the western end of the island dating back to 1965. Unlike Mid Ocean, which requires an introduction from a member, it is a public course with a friendly clubhouse. After it was comprehensively revamped in 2009, the PGA recognised its quality by awarding it the Grand Slam of Golf, an annual reward for victory in the majors.
In October 2011, USPGA champion Keegan Bradley snatched the £370,000 prize from Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, winners respectively of the Masters, the US Open and the British Open.
If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us which, is how we came to play there in the inaugural Hackers Cup a month later. Hosted by Cambridge Beaches, a luxury hotel down the road, the three-day competition featured celebs, captained by Sir Steve, versus journalists, captained by Peter Corrigan. As you would expect, Redgrave is a solid 14 handicapper with a dedicated professional approach.
The celebs had McAllister, a cold-eyed assassin playing off four, Michael Lynagh, Austrlia’s Rugby World Cup-winnng captain, and Gethin Jones, placed third in Strictly Come Dancing.
OK, so we lost, but that’s no reason not to play this magnificent golf course or, indeed, to stay nearby at Cambridge Beaches, a historic hotel with four private sandy coves. In the public areas, the theme is cottage-style traditional with gleaming antiques, deep sofas and gourmet meals in three restaurants. Pegem, a cottage with a private garden built for a sea captain 375 years ago, is the oldest property in the complex. The newest, three pool suites with their own patios and plunge pools, represent contemporary fashion in vibrant tropical colours. Chilling can mean holistic treatments and yoga sessions, a stroll round the labyrinthine garden, tennis or – inevitably in such Brit chic surroundings – a game of croquet.
Seven nights’ B&B at Cambridge Beaches Resort & Spa wtih British Airways Holidays (www.ba.com), in a Standard Waterview room, costs from £1,319 per person (based on two people sharing) and includes flights.
Cambridge Beaches (01753 684810, www.cambridgebaches.com)
Port Royal Golf (01 441 234 0974, www.portroyalgolf.bm), 18 holes, £111 with buggy.