IF YOU TOOK A PRIVATE ESTATES worth of detached villas from the Surrey stockbroker belt, painted them like Balamory in primary colours, then relocated them among the palm-fringed greens of a tropical golf course, youd have something closely approximating to the island of Bermuda.
But let me begin at the end.
I was joined in the check-in queue for the flight home by a man with a small shoulder-bag. I pointed to the mound of suitcases and diving gear that surrounded me: Youve obviously mastered the art of travelling light! I said. Whats your secret
Its quite simple, he replied. You just load all your earthly belongings onto an ocean-going yacht in Maryland, set a course for the Caribbean, get driven 500 miles offshore by a force 10 gale, then abandon ship.
He was extremely lucky to be alive - as was his four-year-old niece. They had needed to attach to a line and toss her into 15m waves so that the rescue helicopter could winch her to safety. But thats the Bermuda Triangle for you.
The chopper had flown 600 miles from the nearest mainland - the South Carolina coast. Because, as tax havens go, Bermuda is very offshore indeed.
In fact, its the second most remote populated island in the world.
Not a lot of people know that - and even I dont know which is the most remote island of all.
Had I been asked to place Bermuda (or to be accurate, the Bermuda Islands or Somers Isles), I would have drawn it as a sort of Caribbean afterthought.
In fact, its classified as sub-tropical, and is nearer to Nova Scotia than Miami. Which is why I arrived so hopelessly under-dressed for the weather above and below the water.
The conquistadors used to drop by to take on provisions as they plied between Spain and the Peruvian silver mines. But it fell to the crew of a wrecked English merchantman to colonise the island.
Its still a British territory: the old capital of St Georges, with its stunning 17th and 18th century architecture, is the oldest continuously inhabited English town in the Americas - and, deservedly, its a World Heritage Site.
Geologically, the archipelago is a limestone cap on the ruined summit of a vast volcano that exploded with enormous force back in prehistoric times.
From a diving perspective, this means a gradually sloping bottom, providing progressively and predictably deeper dives, and endless reefs riddled with a fascinating maze of tunnels and sumps.

I HAD THE FEELING THAT THE ALARMINGLY named Triangle Diving had put to sea only out of courtesy to a visiting journalist. The sea was troubled, a confused chop on the back of the swell that was the legacy of the previous days 35 knot winds.
The tide was high. We edged gingerly up to the bridge that spans the harbour, but wed have lost an inch off the cabin, so they had to swing it open for us.
As we bumped and juddered down the channel, the conversation revolved around victims of the recent hurricane season: What happened to that crappy yacht that was moored over there
The one that looked like the guy built it in his backyard They had to rescue him 80 miles off. Just after that other thing, where the crew mutinied 100 miles out in big seas and two of em died while they was tryin to save em.
And wheres the white one, the one that was moored up over there all summer after it hit the reef Et cetera.
Our first dive was a drift along the lee of a wicked reef a few hundred metres off shore. Given the susceptibility of the island to tropical storms, the corals were in fine condition. Indeed, the Reef Association has deemed Bermudas one of the best preserved reefs in the world.
This is all the more remarkable given the islands latitude: Bermuda more or less marks the northernmost extent of tropical hard corals.
We paddled amiably along between enormous parrotfish and indigenous black grouper. Suddenly, one of my guides waved for us to stop and began, in comic slow motion, to creep up on a big lionfish that was minding its own business under a coral shelf. A lightning lunge, and the fish was wriggling impotently on the end of a spear.
I was shocked. I hadnt seen a diver deliberately kill a fish since the innocent days of the early 80s, when your goody bag was as indispensable a bit of kit as your horse-collar ABLJ. On that dive my buddy did for a further two lions, until the spear looked like a surrealists kebab.
It turns out that not only are you allowed to kill lionfish in Bermuda, but they actually carry a bounty. They were originally a Pacific species, and probably got into the Atlantic when waterside aquariums in Florida were destroyed by hurricanes.
Graham, Triangles proprietor, bears a striking resemblance, visually and temperamentally, to Robin Williams.
He is a passionate defender of the Bermudan diving environment.
Lionfish are fine when theyre in home waters, he explained, but over here their behaviour changes completely. Theyll literally eat themselves to death.
Theyre completely undiscerning, too - theyve decimated the Carolinas and the Bahamas. Killed off dozens of native species that just arent programmed to avoid them.
Were trying to prevent the same thing happening here. Its only in the past few years that theyve been turning up in any numbers, presumably on the Gulf Stream from the Caribbean.
Bermudan diving is about quality rather than quantity. The reef is the only one anywhere that can cope with the huge annual temperature range of 17-28°C. And this has limited the number of coral varieties to just 20.
However, theyre pristine, and form the basis of an ecology that supports beautiful sponges, fans and soft corals.

OUR SECOND DIVE SITE was aptly named the Cathedral. We wriggled rather than swam through some worryingly tight tunnels. I could feel my pillar valve scraping the ceiling even when my chin was ploughing a furrow in the sandy floor.
Then we were clear, and through into a magnificent undersea cave where fingers of dusty light flickered on soaring limestone walls. We finned across a tumbling confusion of corals at the cave entrance and out once again onto the labyrinthine reef.
We outlawed fish pots in 92, says Graham. The fish have been recovering since then, but theyre still not back to the levels wed like.
On the other hand, weve got 280 square miles of reef, from 1000ft deep up to 50. And if youre bringing the family, this must be the only place in the world where you can explore 50 wrecks just with a snorkel.
The jagged reef systems and frequent hurricanes have allowed the island to boast 1000 wrecks. Understandably, the shallower ones tend to be broken up, but Graham is working to open up many of the deeper ones to technical diving -
and I see this becoming the islands long-term speciality.
That, and treasure-hunting. Bermudas position on the main route from South America to Europe means that the sea floor must be knee-deep in jewels and precious metals - if only you know where to look.
Teddy Tucker, the legendary Bermudan inventor of the underwater grid search system, found an emerald-studded cross of gold and casually left it hanging for years on a hook on his boat.
When the Queen popped over in 1975 to open the Maritime Museum, Teddy intended to present her with the treasure as a gift. But it turned out that, at some point, a thief had switched it with a replica. He gave it to her anyway.
One of the more intact wrecks is the Pelinaion, a 4291-tonne Glasgow-built freighter that hit the reef and sank in 1939. Today, it lies in 20m. Its triple-expansion steam engine stands upright within 3m of the surface, and its bow sits in only 6m.
But it was our method of approach that lent the dive its special character. We started on the reef, then wove down a tunnel-like cave that brought us out almost under the ships hull. Deck winches, propeller and anchor are all clearly identifiable.
It was our third dive, it was rough and I was cold - but all that was forgotten as we wove around this intriguing mixture of the natural and the man-made.
Whats more, for the first time in 15 years, my mask didnt leak. I had always been too lazy to change the one I bought in 1994, one designed for a Doberman Pinscher. Then Graham diplomatically pointed out that this was the behaviour of an idiot, and sold me a new one.
I was so childishly delighted with the result that I dumped my old, manually operated Phlogiston rebreather in his waste-bin and took a DV off him too.

WHILE ON THE ISLAND, I enjoyed the privilege of a car and driver provided by the tourist authority. Ronald seemed to be personally acquainted with all of Bermudas 66,000 inhabitants, and pipped his horn at each of them without exception. I dont really know them, he confided to me. Im just hoping that one day when Im old, theyll say: Lets help the poor guy out.
Ronald, a mine of information, told me that there was no mains water on the island. Each house is built over a deep tank, and its heavy, hurricane-proof roof of limestone has an integrated gutter that collects rainwater in the wet season.
If you run out in summer - and the tank holds around 75,000 litres - you must buy water at huge expense from the governments artesian wells.
He also knows how to recapture parrots. Grahams parrot had escaped, you see, and Ronald slapped the wheel in vexation. If only hed said! I couldve told him what to do!
And whats that, Ronald
First, you visit all the neighbouring gardens, working outwards from the point at which the parrot escaped. The first garden with corn growing in it is where the parrot will be.
Wait til dusk, and make a note of which branch he roosts on. Go back a second night and make sure hes roosting in exactly the same place.
Then next day, just before roosting time, put Superglue on the branch. Course, youll need to saw off the branch once the parrots stuck to it. But then you can work it free with solvent when you get home.

NORTH ROCK IS 10 MILES offshore, but well worth the trip. The site is dominated by a light marking the edge of the reef. We dived a shallow system gloriously infested with fans, sponges and whip corals, and played for a while with an enormous blue parrotfish.
Back on board, Graham remarked: They get pretty big if you dont kill them. Its amazing how killing a fish can stunt its growth.
Later, Ronald and I drove, on the left, along winding, narrow country lanes at the 22mph speed limit. The houses were immaculately maintained and brightly painted. In the fields, vivid green crops fairly leapt from rich red loam.
The people looked contented and friendly - as well they might. At the last count, Bermuda boasted the highest GDP per capita in the world.
There was a pervading sense of calm, order and prosperity. Absent were the mounds of trash and burnt-out cars that blight many an island paradise.
The beaches, many pink with the atomised shells of crustaceans, are almost embarrassingly perfect. There are historic dockyards and breathtaking limestone caves to visit - sophisticated shopping, fine restaurants and funky bars. So while youre treasure-hunting with Graham, the family will hardly miss you as they happily demolish your wad of Bermudan dollars.
I stayed at the 9 Beaches Resort, a handful of innovative steel and canvas cabins perched on the northern tip of the island around a dive centre and a first-class restaurant. The wind made the walls billow soporifically, and the restless tide sucked and slapped among the rocks directly beneath my bed.
Close your eyes and you were aboard a ship of the line, four days out of old Hispaniola with a following wind.
Camping for rich kids, a local described it to me - but it was far more atmospheric than any concrete-and-marble tourist hotel.
The weather window closed, and the wind lashed the lagoon to a white froth. No matter, I was heading home. As the 747 climbed away from the yachts, pools and sweeping, manicured lawns, safe within their protective encircling reef, I caught sight of the North Rock light, swamped by unimaginably gigantic seas.
I shivered. You wouldnt want to be out in that. And suddenly, from up there, Bermuda looked very much like the worlds second most remote populated island.

GETTING THERE: BA flies in several times a week, or connect through New York using a US airline.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Triangle Diving, www.trianglediving.com. 9 Beaches Resort, www.9beaches.com
WHEN TO GO: Summer is the best time. Diving in winter can also be good but the weather is unpredictable. Water temperature ranges from 19-26°C, so take a 3mm wetsuit in summer and a 7mm in winter.
MONEY: Bermudan dollar
PRICES: BA Holidays offers seven nights at the 3* 9 Beaches from £1481 (June departures, two sharing). This includes return BA flights from London Gatwick, transfers and accommodation with breakfast. Call BA Holidays on 0844 4930758 or visit ba.com.
FURTHER INFORMATION: 020 8410 8188, www.bermudatourism.com