Bermuda: The Country with a Small Town Feeling
By Karen Rubin
I had come to Bermuda expecting to find paradise, and I found it but not so much in the way I had expected. Certainly, Bermuda has magnificent beaches--the uniquely pink sand flecked with coral--exquisite sea of every shade of blue, waves that lap at rocky cliffs, pastel colored homes that dot lushly landscaped hillsides, and a heritage that is equally colorful, with wig-wearing Parliamentarians and scalawag pirates. While the pirates have presumably gone, you can still visit Parliament, and see Bobbies directing traffic in Hamilton, the Town Crier in St. George's, and the noon-time dunking (this is for the benefit of tourists).
But what really impressed me about Bermuda was how the combination of its remoteness, small size, small population, conservative style and sheer beauty have combined to create a society as close to Eldorado or Oz as exists-what else can you say about a place with no pollution, no illiteracy, no unemployment, where the average income is $31,000 (no income tax) and the average daily temperature is 70 degrees. Apart from being one of the most beautiful places on earth to enjoy beach and recreation (no wonder Bermuda is such a haven for honeymoons, weddings and romance), it is a supremely wonderful place for families to introduce children to a foreign culture and customs in a comfortable atmosphere. For example: how each home must collect its own water supply by capturing rainwater on the roof, which is purified as it drips down over the limestone tiers and into a drainpipe to an underground tank.
Situated 650 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Bermuda is actually a collection of some 181 named islands. The mainland consists of seven islands linked like a fish hook extending some 22 miles, but only 2 1/2 miles wide at its widest point. Yet somehow, though only about one-third the size of Cape Cod, Bermuda is both large and small in wonderful and wondrous ways.
It is the scale, most of all, that is the secret to why this place is more like Eldorado than Oz, a country with a small-town feeling. There are only about 60,000 people; everyone, we were told, knows everyone else and most are related in some way. Indeed, everybody knows everybody else "too well," as our driver, Vince Cann, quipped. "People know everybody's business." Bus drivers tap their horn in greeting; taxi drivers tip their hat; people you pass on the road say "good morning." Perhaps because the island and the population is so small, there is a real sense that individual people matter and are personally responsible-I noticed everything had a name attached to it: "Your bus operator is...;" Your chef is ....;" Even at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute, a new attraction that is a must for families, we were informed that who our 'dive captain' was. What is more, you don't feel like a tourist in Bermuda--you feel like a guest.
Another aspect of scale is that the speed limit is 20 mph; cars are required to be no bigger than a certain size (in fact, they couldn't go down some of the tight alleyways, that date back 350 years in St. George's), the roads are narrow and winding. As a result, though only 22 miles long, but with nooks and crannies and turns and twists, the island seems much larger.
The pleasantness of the island has a lot to do with rules such as those prohibiting rental cars and the fact that no family, not even the Governor (appointed by the Queen of England), may own more than one car. Most people get around on motor scooter (called "cycles" here), including tourists; otherwise, everyone gets around by bus and ferry, and in some cases, "push-pedal" bikes (that is, the traditional bicycle) or by taxi (there are 652 licensed cabs which can be hired by the hour or day; the tariff is regulated by the government). It is possible to see the whole country in a day, but there is so much to do and enjoy, it is easy to spend a week or a lifetime.
Pink Beach Club
Our abode was the Pink Beach Club, a luxurious cottage colony on 16.5 acres of the most prime real estate in the poshest neighborhood in Bermuda, Tucker's Town. Once a private home, Pink Beach, with a stunning setting on the south coast and two separate pink-sand beaches, dates back 50 years and has welcomed back three and four generations of guests from the same family. Pink Beach offers charm, character and refinement, yet is not stiff or stuffy, and manages to have appeal to a wide range of guests, young and old, couples and families. Honeymooners will enjoy the privacy of the cottages, and families will feel very comfortable to have plenty of space in the lodgings, as well as a welcoming attitude of the gracious staff.
There are 25 cottages affording 91 suites (from one to 10 rooms) which ring out from the "clubhouse" which has the dining room with its lovely picture windows overlooking the ocean, the sitting room (where there is a television), bar, and pool, are also elegant but upbeat and very comfortable. The bathroom is outfitted with plush, scented towels.
This summer, the hotel is introducing informal outside dining at the pool-side cafe as an alternative to the lavish dining room where proper attire (jacket and tie) is required. Dinner-a five-course affair with live entertainment for dancing, is elegantly served; the entree arrives with silver cover which the waiter removes with a flourish. The Modified American Plan is an excellent choice (menus are on a 14 day cycle so there is a lot of variety). Tea with cookies and cakes is served each day at 4 p.m.
There are no televisions in the rooms (guests apparently don't want them, but one can be provided upon request); a television is available in the lounge and in the bar. On the other hand, Pink Beach offers a high-level of personalized service: guests can choose to have their breakfast served en suite by a maid who hovers over; also, the masseuse can come to the room for facials, treatments and massages.
There are two tennis courts as well as a basketball hoop, a fitness center, and a cycle shop (for mopeds; push-pedal bikes have to be pre-arranged). Snorkeling equipment is available and the snorkeling around the reefs right off Pink Beach is among the best in Bermuda.
The hotel is only a short hop from the prestigious Mid Ocean Club, where Pink Beach guests have golfing privileges; guests can also play at the Castle Harbour Golf Club, just next door. In all, Bermuda, with eight courses, has more of its acreage devoted to golf than anywhere.
Pink Beach Club is a member of Small Luxury Hotels . Rates through Oct. 31 range from $345 to $450 per night, per room (third person or children's rates available on request); rates include Modified American Plan (breakfast and five-course dinner daily); a Bermuda Plan, which includes breakfast only, is $20 per person, per night, less. Special packages for golf, honeymoon and weddings are available upon request. Contact the Pink Beach Club, PO Box HM 1017, Tucker's Town, HM DX Bermuda, 809-293-1666 or Elite Hotels, 800-355-6161. Or call Small Luxury Hotels, 800-525-4800.
The location of Pink Beach Club is ideal: it is midway between St. George's and its stunning historic district, and Hamilton, just about 20 to 30 minutes ride. It is on the south shore where the best of Bermuda's 34 pink-sand beaches are located; Horseshoe Bay is the largest and one of the most beautiful but they are all picturesque in their own way; the beaches are public though hotels can charge fees for access to their facilities. Indeed, though the island-country is so small (just 22 square miles), there are 79 national parks, nature reserves and beaches, all easy to reach.
Pink Beach is within walking distance of Spittal Pond, Bermuda's largest bird sanctuary and nature preserve with a picturesque mile-long trail that takes you by the pond, through woods, and beside the cliffs (the pond is home to a pair of bright pink flamingos who escaped from the zoo) where you are guaranteed to see a variety of birds, including the graceful Longtail (in spring).
Families will love having to get around Bermuda by scooter or by bus and ferry (you can purchase an unlimited travel pass) since there are no rental cars in Bermuda. You can hire a taxi (the rates are fixed by the government), but public transportation is convenient and a delightful way to meet Bermudians and seeing neighborhoods. For those who choose to get around by scooter or "push-pedal" bike (as bicycles are called), learning to drive on the left is also interesting.
As our introduction to the island nation, we took a drive with taxi driver Vince Cann, who related the history and pointed out the key sights. We started off in St. George's, where Bermuda began. In 1503 Juan de Bermudas arrived on the uninhabited island, carved his name and date and left. Then, in 1609, the shipwreck of the British ship, Sea Venture, ultimately lead to the colonization of the island by the Virginia Company in 1612 by Governor Richard Moore and about 50 settlers (Pocohantas' husband, John Rolf, was one of the men shipwrecked here; the sailors went on to Virginia in a ship they built of local cedar). The Spanish protested the English occupation and Governor Moore immediately began to build forts to defend the new settlement. Threats from the French and the newly independent United States of America led to further fort construction at the end of the 18th century. Soon, Bermuda became the "Gibraltar of the West." Many forts can be visited: the Royal Naval Dockyard, Fort St. Catherine (where legend has it there is a ghost), Ferry Island Fort, Martellow Tower, Fort Hamilton, and Scaur Hill.
St. George's is a historic jewel where centuries old buildings, public squares and narrow streets come alive with reenactments of life in a 17th century English settlement. As we were strolling around the back streets (the buildings date back 350 years but seem so fresh and new) we happened upon the Town Crier on his way to King's Square where each noontime (but Sunday) he ceremoniously commits the town drunks to the stocks and dunks the town gossip. You can visit Town Hall, built in 1825; the State House, built in 1619 and one of Bermuda's oldest buildings; the Bermuda National Trust Museum, erected in 1698 as the governor's mansion, which features an exhibit, "Rogues & Runners, the Story of Bermuda and the American Civil War." St./ Peter's Church, dating from 1612, is the oldest continuously used Anglican church in the New World. You can also see a replica of the original Deliverance, built in 1609-10 by the shipwrecked crew of the Sea Venture.
Hamilton, the capital since 1815, sits in about the middle of Bermuda. Front Street looks about the same as it has for 100 years, and yet is fresh and new in appearance because everyone keeps their shops so tidy. In Hamilton, you can visit the Sessions House where the Supreme Court and the House of Assembly convene, with wigs, gowns and pageantry (open to visitors on Fridays about eight months a year; call 292-7408 or 292-1350 for times). A self-governing British Dependent Territory (the governor is appointed by the Queen of England), Bermuda, England's oldest colony, elected not to become independent; its Parliament is the second oldest in the world after Britain's.
One of the newest attractions in Hamilton is the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute which offers interactive exhibits to familiarize visitors with the mysteries of the ocean; the highlight is a simulated but very realistic "diving bell," enabling you to take an eight-minute ride to "submerge" to 12,000 feet to the bottom of the Bermuda Seamont and the "lightless zone" where when you exit, you find you are in a region of bioluminescence. The Institute also features films and offers a wonderful restaurant, La Coquille, on the water as well as an excellent gift shop (allocate a 11/2 hour to visit; $9.75/adult, $5/child 7-16, 6 and under free).
From Hamilton, you can hop a ferry to the Royal Naval Dockyard, where the Bermuda Maritime Museum is located, which houses relics from the Sea Venture and treasure from a 16th century Spanish wreck. The ferry itself, which takes about 20 minutes, is a delightful ride.
After touring the Royal Naval Dockyard, we took a bit of a hike to get to the start of the Bermuda Railway Trail, some 18 miles of scenic paths stretching almost from one end to another, built on what had been a railway line between Somerset and St. George's. The section we took, about two miles long, was truly magnificent, passing by a nature reserve, a bay, the Great Sound, Fort Scaur, coming just up to the Lantana resort and ending just at Somerset Bridge, the world's smallest drawbridge (22-inch wide, it is just big enough for a boat's mast to pass through and must be raised by hand). At Somerset, we hopped a bus for what proved to be a 40 minute ride into Hamilton.
Bermuda abounds with natural attractions. One of the most distinctive activities is helmet diving-where you walk underwater through coral reefs to depths of 10 to 12 feet for about three hours. Another is Dolphin Quest, a chance to swim with dolphins (at the Southhampton Princess beach). Scuba diving and snorkeling are superb-the world's northernmost coral reefs are teeming with life while the ocean floor is littered with hundreds of wrecks dating back to the 15th century and there is visibility to 200 ft. There are incredible underground limestone cave systems at Crystal Caves and Leamington Caves.
There is horseback riding, including a lovely breakfast trail ride along the South Shore's scenic trail (Spicelands Riding Centre); sport fishing, parasailing, waterskiing, glass-bottom boat tours, and a host of novel attractions to be discovered. Bicycles (push-bikes) can be rented hourly, daily or for days at a time (the only problem is getting the bike to where you want to start riding; buses are not equipped with racks). The Bermuda Department of Tourism makes it incredibly easy with an "Explore Bermuda" guide with eight special-interest itineraries which even direct you by bus stops.
You wouldn't necessarily go to Bermuda for nightlife, but there are delightful places. I loved the Swizzle Inn ("swizzle in, stagger out")-where the famous Rum Swizzle was invented. The way the Swizzle Inn offers it, with three types of brandy plus black rum, this is a much stronger drink here than the punch-like stuff it has become ($19.50 per pitcher; you can also get shepherd's pie, $12,75, a party platter for $14.75, a burger at $8.95). The place that just exudes character; guests are invited to graffitti their names, initials or what have you on the walls, window and door frames, ceilings, everywhere, and people, by the thousands, have been doing it for eons, it would appear. There's a great pool table, as well.
The Harborfront Restaurant in Hamilton, right across the street from the ferry terminal and just a few doors down from Trimmingham's (a shop which has been doing business since 1629), is where the Bermuda fish chowder originated (laced with Bermuda black rum and Outerbridge sherry peppers, $5.75).
Indeed, though Bermuda is considered upscale, there is a tremendous price range available for eateries and lodgings. We found pizza places and coffee shops that were priced on par with New York City. Also, Bermuda offers excellent value for money in terms of quality of lodgings and food, and there are many activities, such as the famous pink-sand beaches, nature reserves, biking on the Rail Trail, and attractions like the Botanical Gardens, which are available for free or at little cost, so your total vacation can actually wind up costing less than other popular beach destinations. Visiting Devil's Hole Aquarium, a collapsed cave now a natural aquarium filled with loggerhead turtles, sharks, and other fish, costs $5/adult, $3 for kids 5-12, 50c for under 5.
Visitors can also budget themselves by purchasing a hotel package with an inclusive meal plan (such as Pink Beach Club, which in high season, Apr 15-Oc.t 31, charges $345 per room (two people) a night for a plan which includes breakfast and dinner; 441-293-1666; or Elite Hotels, 800-355-6161). Some hotels offer a dine-around (the Stonington, for example, offers a dine-around with the other six members of Bermuda Collection, (441-236-5416, or 800-447-7462; and Elbow Beach offers a dine-around with restaurants in Hamilton).
Averaging 68 degrees year-round, Bermuda hits its high season from April through September, but would be lovely to visit at other times of the year, when the rates come down significantly (though air service is diminished). By April, the ocean is comfortable for swimming (and the snorkeling is incredible).
Bermuda is just two hours flying time from New York, and nonstop service is available from Atlanta, Baltimore, Newark, New York, Philadelphia, Halifax and Toronto, with direct service available from Boston and Chicago. Carriers include American Airlines, Continental, Delta, USAir, Air Canada and British Airways.
Prominent tour companies featuring Bermuda include Travel Impressions and its retail network, Empress Travel; American Airlines Vacations; Friendly Holidays; Gogo Worldwide Vacations, which has its Liberty Travel retail network and also sells through American Express Vacations; Apple Vacations. Also, Globetrotters, Kingdom Tours, and Certified Vacations. Call your travel agent.
Meanwhile, Apple Vacations, another major air-inclusive tour packager, is supplementing its program on scheduled airlines out of Newark, LaGuardia (USAirways) and JFK with a new charter series out of Philadelphia, on UPS 727-100 planes. This new charter features first-class treatment--spacious seating for 113 passengers, hot meal served by four flight attendants, and convenient Fridays and Monday morning departures (around 9 a.m.) so you arrive well before noon; returning 4 p.m. on Fridays for stays of three and seven nights, and Mondays, for stays of four and seven nights.
Another enjoyable way to visit Bermuda is by cruise ship. There are sailings from New York on Celebrity Cruises' Zenith and Horizon, plus the Norwegian Crown, Song of America, Regal Empress, and QE2. Some of the itineraries allow for the ship to dock at St. George's, then sail around to Hamilton. Call your travel agent for details.
A passport is best but original birth certificate (plus photo I.D.) will also get you in. You can be through customs in a shake (no need to exchange money; the U.S. dollar is on par with Bermuda's) and immediately immersed in the sheer beauty, tranquility, and ease about getting around.
For information, contact the Bermuda Dept. of Tourism, 310 Madison Ave., Ste. 201, New York, NY 10017 or call 800-223-6106 for packages and "specials."
This article was previously published on FTN in 1998.