Tourism gets hot, hot, hot!

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ELBOW BEACH, Bermuda — No croquet-and-crumpets Bermuda sojourn for Jarrett and Neil Anderson. Celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary, the fun-loving couple have left their two kids and cares back home in Wilmington, North Carolina and are partying around the island. Fruity rum swizzles on the way from the airport to their resort. Shots with locals at a roadside pub.Near midnight at the Elbow Beach Hotel, as a deejay at the newly-renovated The Deep night club spins that disco anthem about "feeling hot, hot, hot," they join a raucous conga line snaking under a fog machine.


ELBOW BEACH, Bermuda — No croquet-and-crumpets Bermuda sojourn for Jarrett and Neil Anderson. Celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary, the fun-loving couple have left their two kids and cares back home in Wilmington, North Carolina and are partying around the island. Fruity rum swizzles on the way from the airport to their resort. Shots with locals at a roadside pub.Near midnight at the Elbow Beach Hotel, as a deejay at the newly-renovated The Deep night club spins that disco anthem about "feeling hot, hot, hot," they join a raucous conga line snaking under a fog machine.

"This doesn't look like Bermuda," says Neil, 39, taking a swig of his French martini (vodka, Chambord raspberry liqueur, pineapple juice) and surveying the flashing multicoloured lights and nine-foot-long wall-mounted screen flashing abstract patterns. "It looks like big-city."

For most vacationers, this 23-mile-long island in the Atlantic evokes images of a tranquil and staid British outpost, a blue-bloods' retreat where playing golf, having afternoon tea or lolling on a pink-sand beach are prime pastimes. But the island — about 600 miles east of North Carolina and a two-hour hop by plane from major Eastern and Southern US cities — is working to broaden its appeal.

"We're trying to chip away at that (stuffy) image, which is well deserved," says Ewart Brown, Bermuda's Deputy Premier and Tourism Minister. Tourism officials are touting "Beach & Sizzle Season", which for the first time ever this summer offers live music nightly at rotating sites around the island, plus new beach parties and festivals. The USA is the No. 1 tourist market for this small British territory with about 65,000 residents. Americans made 463,299 visits last year, and visitation was down slightly in the first quarter of 2006. The average age of visitors is fortysomething, Brown says.

In a bid to attract younger vacationers, the island has launched a "Feel the Love" publicity campaign. One borderline-risqué radio ad depicts a pair of happy young vacationers whose female half left her top behind in Bermuda during a sail that took a sexy tack.

In May, budget airline JetBlue started daily flights from New York's JFK Airport, prompting other carriers to slice fares to the under-$400 level and making this notoriously expensive destination a bit more affordable. New bars and restaurants with modern décor and menus have sprung up to cater to the nightlife-loving set.

"We're in transition from boring to pop and sizzle," Brown says. "Breaking the image is like changing a culture, but we're getting there."

So is Bermuda indeed unbuttoning? Here's how a visit last weekend played out: In the airport arrivals hall, a formal portrait of a gowned Queen Elizabeth is offset by a band in bright shirts playing lilting calypso tunes. Businessmen in knee socks and Bermuda shorts (pink ones, even) still stride the litter-free streets of the capital of Hamilton. But some of the china and cashmere stores in tidy pastel-coloured buildings in this cruise-ship stop have given way to trendier shopping. You can buy makeup at an M.A.C store, Prada purses at the Lusso boutique.

Only locals are allowed cars, so visitors must rent motor scooters (the tourist accident rate is alarming), take a bus or hail a taxi. Bermudians are known for being smart, friendly and helpful, and cabbing proves a good way to go.

Friday night outside the Ariel Sands resort, owned by actor Michael Douglas' mother's family, Roderick Simons and his blue van await.SIMONS, a compact man in his early 40s, takes an immediate interest in his passenger's search for nightlife. (The small bar at the Ariel Sands — a traditional Bermuda cottage colony that is being updated with modern condo/villas and fractional-ownership townhouses — is definitely not hopping tonight.) Rain has washed out the packed TGIF parties on the terrace of The Fairmont Hamilton Princess, the pink-and-white grande dame hotel where Mark Twain used to stay.So Simons says to head for Hamilton's The Lemon Tree café, which is hosting a loud gathering of young Bermudians and Brits, many of whom work in the island's booming offshore insurance business.

Do Bermudians like to party? "Hell, yeah, there's a lot of money and boredom here," declares Miriam Shaya-Mitchell, 37, a sassy brunette clutching a bottle of Smirnoff Ice.

Next stop is dinner at a new waterside restaurant outside Hamilton called Blu, where Douglas and his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones (who have a house here), have been spotted. Bathed in the glow of contemporary wall sconces and blue battery-powered candles, diners fork up pasta, beef and local rockfish in front of a floor-to-ceiling picture window.

The Andersons savour their meals and share thoughts about their first Bermuda visit. They sought an easy warm-weather getaway, says Jarrett, 36, a blonde in a turquoise top and white pants. "I said, 'I want to go somewhere safe and not where you have to take a puddle jumper'." One of the trip's memorable moments was when locals at The Swizzle South Shore bought them shots of schnapps.

She was initially wary. "I thought, 'I don't want to be like that girl in Aruba,' but Neil said, 'Hush, honey, We're in Bermuda'."

"We've had a blast," Neil says, though Bermuda "is a long way from being a party scene." You just have to know where to go, says Simons, picking up his charges after the visit to The Deep. Bermudians like drinking, dancing, calypso, reggae and "old school" R&B, he says. "If you want, you could stay out till sunrise." Just ask a cab driver where the action is on any given night.

Partying, however, is not the only face of the New Bermuda.

Saturday, Simons points his cab towards the western tip of the island, driving past lushly landscaped white-roofed villas, near-deserted beaches with coral-flecked sand and secluded rocky coves.

At the year-old 9 Beaches resort, an hour's drive from Hamilton, resident manager David Dodwell, Jr., 30, conducts a tour of the 84 canvas-walled cabanas that rent for $170 a night, breakfast included, in the winter off-season. 9 Beaches markets itself as the "unexpected Bermuda" and attracts a sporty young crowd. "We're untraditional Bermuda," Dodwell says. "No jacket — flip-flops required." There have been hiccups in its first year, Dodwell concedes. Wafting odours from a dairy farm have bothered those in certain cabanas. Some guests have been put off by the simplicity of the small cabanas, which have no TVs and tiny bathrooms lacking tubs. "Folks wanting to have the Four Seasons experience won't like it here," he says.

In fact, vacationers seeking a Four Seasons experience, or the state-of-the-art luxury hotel rooms seen on Caribbean islands, will be hard-pressed to find many on Bermuda. The island for years had a moratorium on new hotel construction and fell behind on refurbishing, tourism chief Brown says. But hoteliers are laying down millions to catch up, and new brands are coming in.RESORTS including Elbow Beach, now in the Mandarin Oriental chain, and Cambridge Beaches, in an idyllic setting near 9 Beaches, have some new or renovated rooms that meet finicky standards. But at most resorts, you'll pay $250 and up for rooms that tend to be outdated, even frumpy, and in need of TLC."It's an expensive summer place," says travel agent Vicky McGlynn of New Jersey's Travelong of Summit, who specialises in Bermuda. "But it's charming . . . very safe, and people go there because it's like stepping back in time."

The island draws devoted repeat visitors, who don't mind the dearth of pillow-top mattresses, DVD players or flat-screen TVs, and who relish traditional or shabby-chic décor. It's not a hipster scene la St. Bart's: Visitors in preppie-style pressed khakis or pastel skirts and sundresses far outnumber those in designer jeans.

"If you're looking for a party town, (Hamilton) isn't South Beach," says visitor Ryan Quinn, 34, a lawyer who lives in Arlington, Virginia, enjoying a Bermuda weekend with his wife, Laura. Still, in the New Bermuda, a no-jacket-required surprise could lurk behind any door.

At 10 on Saturday night, the dance floor at Hamilton's Café Cairo is empty. But in an adjacent Bedouin-tent-themed dining room, an impromptu dance fest erupts when the '80s hit Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go blasts from the speakers.

"Join the party!" urges Brit Sarah Ashby, as chicly dressed dancers shimmy on banquettes and call for more wine.

Outside, the daytime mecca of Front Street is quiet. But inside, the revelry rages on.

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