There's a surefire way to determine the true value of any golf destination. Tell some friends where you're going and wait for the response. If you say "Florida," it may get you an "Oh, nice." Pinehurst and Pebble Beach spark an "I've always wanted to go there...." Scotland? Ireland? Perhaps a jealousy-tinged "Wow." But bring up the magic word "Bermuda," and brace yourself for a flood of snapshot memories and "must-do" advice. You'll hear of the local taxi driver who has become a yearly Christmas-card correspondent, the beach where the sand's the pinkest, the pub where the Dark and Stormies (ginger beer and black rum over ice in a tall glass) are, well, the darkest and stormiest.
It's not for nothing that Bermuda has always been a honeymooners' paradise. Its memorability quotient is off the charts, and it's more than love at first sight. The island boasts one of the highest rates of return visitors in the travel world. So what is it about this tiny Atlantic atoll that elicits such devotion? Try these lures: Convenient. Bermuda is less than two hours by air from most Eastern cities. Planning the trip may be even quicker, thanks to the well-oiled Bermuda tourism machine (phone 800-BERMUDA or visit www.bermudatourism.com).
Exotic. So close, yet so...out there. There's no chance of forgetting you've landed on a vaguely tropical, quaintly foreign island, where the traffic is on the wrong side of the road and the locals dress funny. Where else do you see men driving a moped to work dressed in jacket and tie and Bermuda shorts with kneehigh socks?
Familiar. Bermuda may be distant enough to require a passport, but not so strange as to demand a pocket dictionary or filtered water. It's easy to get your bearings when you're on an island that's only 21 miles long and hardly a mile wide. And while you may never blend in, visitors are treated like welcomed (albeit wellpaying) guests.
The Golf. With one golf course for every 2.5 square miles, Bermuda is the most golf-rich place on earth. But the true appeal is the diversity of its eight courses. Want a world-class test of golf? Try Mid Ocean. Like a little looky-looing with your links? There's the waterfront real estate at Riddell's Bay or the newly reborn Tucker's Point Club. Want to tee it up with knowing locals? Port Royal has few rivals among public courses. Short on time? St. George's and Ocean View golf courses are fine for experts and beginners alike. Like the island itself, golf on Bermuda is everything you want, with a view to match.
The Bermuda Slam
1/2 Mid Ocean Club ($190, 293-0330, Bermuda's area code is 441)
Quite simply, the ritziest round of golf many will ever play. A private course perennially ranked among the world's best, Mid Ocean is open to outside play via an introduction from a member or by staying at a hotel with playing privileges. This 1922 C.B. Macdonald design offers stunning views of the ocean, lagoons awash with megayachts and jungly hillsides dotted with pastel-colored estates.
Tucker's Point Club
(not rated, $75-$200, 298-6900)
Architect Roger Rulewich has reinvented the former Castle Harbour Golf Club, creating five new holes, building 10 new tees and recontouring all 18 greens. He even had sprigs of a new variety of Bermuda grass flown in from the United States, because the existing Bermuda grass on Bermuda lacked the consistency in green speed and color that Rulewich sought. The results should put this private course on par with its neighbor Mid Ocean when it opens for play in April as the centerpiece of a posh resort community (the waterfront homesites between Nos. 1 and 18 will cost you $4 million an acre). The new course's 13th and 17th holes are two for your golf scrapbook.
Riddell's Bay G. & C.C.
(not rated, $110, 238-3225)
Another private course that's easy to get on via your hotel or member introduction. At 5,713 yards, it's more a selfguided real-estate tour than an arduous test of golf. And that's just fine. Check out the views of the bayside homes from one of the many elevated tees. But if the wind's blowing, better keep your eye on the ball.
Port Royal G. Cse.
Of the three government- run courses, this Robert Trent Jones design is the flagship. There's history here: Visit the Whale Bay Battery site by the 15th tee. The 16th, an oceanside par 3, is one of the most photographed holes in the world. Tired of the beach?
Ocean View G. Cse.
St. George's G. Cse.
1/2 ($50-$55, 297-8353)
Fairmont Southampton Princess G.C.
These four courses may not catch your eye if you just look at the scorecard -- Belmont is only 5,800 yards, and St. George's 18 holes come in at just more than 4,000 yards -- but their settings and challenges should satisfy any desire for golf. They're not pushovers, whether it's the blind shots and elevated greens at Belmont, the tee-box views at the Princess, the sidehill lies at Ocean View or the exposed targets at St. George's.
Getting tee times: You can make 60-day advance tee times at five Bermuda courses (including Port Royal), but at Mid Ocean and Riddell's Bay, reservations can be made only up to 24 hours in advance. Public play at Mid Ocean is limited to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (take a caddie and tip at least $10 over the $35 rate). Unless your circle of friends includes members of either club (half of Mid Ocean's members are from the U.S.), stay at a place that can book a tee time for you.
Nongolf distractions: After the pink beaches (Horseshoe Beach is startling) and ultrablue waters (great for scuba diving and resting place of perhaps 2,000 shipwrecks), the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo with its 145,000-gallon coral-reef tank is the island's most popular attraction. The Bermuda Maritime Museum and Royal Navy Dockyard combine stunning views, vivid history, shopping and restaurants.
Where to stay: Among the large hotels, try the Fairmont Southampton Princess (800- 441-1414), the Elbow Beach Hotel (236-3535), and the Pink Beach Club (800-355- 6161). Smaller, cottage-style hotels include the Harmony Club (236-3500), the Pompano Beach Club (800- 343-4155), The Reefs (800- 742-2008), and the White Sands Hotel & Cottages (236-2023). Bermuda is also known for its many cottage colonies, rental houses, and apartments. All but the smallest hotels offer some form of golf package, with high-season rates starting around May 1 and continuing through October. (Note: Bermuda has what amounts to an island-wide dress code. Men should bring a sport jacket, particularly if they're staying in an upscale hotel and expect to be dining out or attending the traditional cocktails at sunset at the smaller hotels. In Bermuda, dress resort-casual.)
Getting around: With no rental cars, most tourist transport is handled by a motley fleet of 600 taxis (tip 10% if you want to use the same driver again). There are buses, too, and rental mopeds are another popular option for $30 to $40 a day. Rookie drivers: Oleander Cycles (236-BIKE) has a large off-road practice area that can be a lifesaver.
Oh, yeah, the weather: It's perfect. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, Bermuda is temperate, and there is no rainy season (or mosquitoes). Although it can be humid in midsummer and too cool for much swimming in the middle of winter, temperatures rarely rise above 90 degrees or fall below 55.
Key: Course ratings are derived from the exclusive 5-star Golf Digest Places to Play scale. A single star represents "basic golf"; five stars indicates "golf at its absolute best." Golf Digest's Places to Play guide, based upon the rating of 20,000 readers, is available for $25 (800-793-2665). By Scott Smith