The room sparkled with refracted light, creating colourful reflections from the elegant crystal perfume bottles that filled the antique cabinets and covered the polished mahogany tables. Beside me the shelves of an alcove were laden with cobalt blue bottles filled with essential oils and essences evocative of these island - cedar, jasmine, magnolia, Easter lily; even salty sea spray.
The Bermuda Perfumery, founded in the 1920s, is housed in a historic colonial building in the Unesco town of St George, one of the oldest settlements in the Americas. My curiosity drew me in, beyond the building's white-washed walls and pastel-coloured shutters, to its charming ground floor. I had entered the compelling world of fragrance.
Within a small cedar box, I saw a perfume bottle with the patina of age. Embossed in the glass were four words, one above the other: Piesse and Lubin London. As I examined the vintage bottle, a fresh scent was sprayed onto a brilliant white testing strip, and the air became filled with the scents of citrus, orange blossom, and the allure of musk. I am told this is the fragrance 'Mary Celestia'. The perfumer begins telling me a tale; I am about to be captivated by one of the island's most extraordinary stories.
St George is chockful of British colonial charm dating back to the 17th century: the narrow streets and lanes are lined with white-washed buildings, punctuated by a few pastel-coloured homes of peppermint green, warm peach and aquamarine. All have one thing in common - white terraced roofs, that I believe are unique to these islands. Glistening like icing on a wedding cake, they are more than just an architectural oddity, but an effective means for residents to capture valuable rain water for storage throughout the year.
A history lesson
This area is where Bermuda's history really began. The small group of islands are said to have been discovered by accident in 1505 by the Spanish explorer Juan de Bermúdez, who was sailing from the Andalusian port of Cadiz towards Mexico. Although he was to give his name to the islands, they were not to be settled for another century. It was the Brits that took the islands, when Admiral Sir George Somers in 1609 steered his trading vessel Sea Venture onto one of the islands reefs to prevent it being sunk during a storm. Once safely on land the crew were to build new ships from the island's abundant cedar trees. Yet some of the sailors stayed behind to make Bermuda their home. In 1612 the town of St George was established and the rest, as they say, is history.
Yet a holiday on Bermuda isn't just about the tales of shipwrecks, pirates, the infamous Bermuda Triangle or British colonial history. The chances are that the biggest draw for visitors remains the fine, coral pink sandy beaches of this cluster of beautiful Atlantic islands. Close to St George is Tobacco Bay, a truly stunning coastline of craggy limestone rocks sheltering tiny sandy coves. They are idyllic and even more so when enjoyed sitting on a romantically ramshackle wooden pier, your feet in the warm, clear water while you sip a signature Dark 'n Stormy Bermuda cocktail made from the island's famous Gosling's Black Seal Rum.
There's something so enchanting about an island holiday - the notion of escaping from reality, ensconced in a secluded private world. Yet modern day castaways demand more than just cocktails and sunsets for a perfect island holiday - a fact that Bermuda understands well.
Across the island are family-run businesses offering all manner of on- and off-shore adventure activities; opportunities to explore and to create your very own bucket list moments. The diversity of activities embraces jet skiing; stand-up paddle boarding among protected, sculptural mangroves; cliff jumping; catamaran snorkelling cruises; flyboarding; kayaking; and of course, diving among the vibrant reefs and fascinating shipwrecks.
What's more, exhilaration can be part of each day on Bermuda, as new for the 2018 season are the Twizy electric minicars now available for rent. Visitors are unable to hire cars, so in the past that left taxis and mopeds as the most popular way to get around. Yet that has all changed now with the introduction of these super-cool twin seaters that make navigating the island's winding lanes and highways one of the highlights of a trip.
Bermuda feels like a village. As you drive the highways expect to see residents waving at each other, and tooting their horns in recognition. It's a relaxed, laid-back vibe that is pure Bermudian, and all the more enthralling as part of a culture that is a fascinating mix of British and American, old and new, rich history and a modern economy.
Viewed on a map, Bermuda appears shaped like a fish hook; and although one might think of it as one island, the truth is that the archipelago is made up of more than 120. The handful of main islands are connected by road bridges and a causeway so, for the adventurous Twizy explorer, that means there's plenty to discover from Somerset Village and the Royal Naval Dockyard in the west, through the central parishes and the stunning South Shore, to historic St George in the East End.
It was in St George that I had parked up my Twizy electric car, and started wondering the historic lanes, falling upon the Perfumery where I was enthralled by the Mary Celestia scent.
As I inhaled the fresh fragrance of grapefruit and bergamot, I listened to the extraordinary story of this Bermuda perfume. The Mary Celestia was running the blockade of the US Civil War in the 1860s when it was hit by a Tempest-style storm and sank near South Shore, Bermuda. Despite a manifest stating a cargo of food, uniforms and munitions, the ship was in fact also carrying luxury items from Europe. These included wine, as well as fine perfume from Piesse and Lubin London - a luxury perfumery that was once found on Bond Street.
Fast forward some 150 years and divers have recovered cargo from the wreck. Although the wine brought back from the seabed was spoiled, the seal on a perfume bottle was intact - a small air bubble remained in the bottle as it would have been when it was packaged in the 1860s.
The perfume bottle was taken to the Bermuda Perfumery, and shared with the owner Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone, who is the head perfumer of Lili Bermuda. With the help of contemporary scientific equipment in the US, it was possible to ascertain the ingredients of the scent. Although some elements are no longer available, remarkably, the scent has been recreated, and christened the Mary Celestia eau de parfum.
It's an elegant metaphor for Bermuda - islands where life is irrevocably tied to the oceans, where the culture is mix of Europe and the Americas, and where colonial history blends with contemporary life. Like this beautiful scent, Bermuda is captivating.