By Lee Foster
After decades of emphasis on developing its island income from international business, especially re-insurance, the tiny island of Bermuda now puts attention into refurbishing its image as an upscale island destination for travel.
The Ministry of Tourism guides this effort, stressing that Bermuda, in the face of international competition, must deliver a higher quality travel product to maintain its position.
Bermuda is a special case destination and is unusual in a number of ways.
For example, it is not actually in the Caribbean, as many people think. Bermuda is about 570 miles east of the U.S. Carolinas, much farther north than the Caribbean. Bermuda is a volcanic mountain rising 15,000 feet in the Western Atlantic.
The major effect of this geographic reality is that summer is quite pleasant in Bermuda, while it may be torrid in the Caribbean. Winter can be quite chilly in Bermuda, meaning winter is the “off” season here, while it is the main travel time for the Caribbean. April to October is the prime travel season for Bermuda.
Travelers who go to Bermuda frequently (the repeater rate ranges around 40 percent, which is higher than most destinations) understand this weather and geography reality. Most Bermuda travelers come from the U.S. and Canada, and most of those come from the East Coast, since Bermuda is only a few hours by air from Boston, New York, Toronto, Montreal, and other East Coast cities. A popular and long-established weekly cruise ship sails from Boston to Bermuda during the summer season. The North East is the single biggest market for Bermuda.
Once you arrive in Bermuda, there are several impressions that may profoundly affect your trip here.
The island is wealthy, far above the poverty levels of many Caribbean islands. You won’t find many poor people here. Everyone seems to be benefiting from the tourism and international business economy. There are only 61,000 people on the tiny islands of Bermuda, which is actually 150 very small islands. The eight largest islands are linked by bridges and ferries. This island chain is only 23 miles long and no more than a mile or two wide.
The wealth comes partly from invisible white-collar international business investment. Many companies locate a token head office here to take advantage of favorable tax laws. When Hong Kong was transferred to the Chinese, for example, some Hong Kong companies set up token headquarters here to have an alternative base in this known, comfortable, British environment.
The white islanders are primarily of British descent, and the country is still linked to England in the commonwealth, though self-governing for internal purposes. The vestiges of uninterrupted British rule here are many, from the language to the fact that people drive on the left side of the street. There is a sense of civility.
Relative racial harmony is another reality in Bermuda. The population is 64 percent black, 32 percent white, and 4 percent Asian. The education level is high and is universal, with roughly 99 percent literacy. Your cab driver may have a good first job and be moonlighting because it is expensive to live here.
Expensive is a key word when thinking of Bermuda travel. Almost all food and drink is brought in to this distant island, so food costs are high. Wages are high. Expect that the cost of your hotel and meals will be high.
The ease of travel here is extraordinary. Standards of hygiene are high, so you can drink the water. The language is English. American dollars are interchangeable with Bermudian dollars, so you can use American currency. Crime is minimal.
Bermudans have decided on some major societal controls to preserve their island. Some of these controls have a subtle effect on the experience of the traveler. There are no billboards, no neon, and no fast food franchises, for example. The island has a manicured look, with the grass always mowed. There is no graffiti, no pollution, and no litter. The appearance of everything is tidy. There are no car rentals allowed, so visitors must use taxis or rent mopeds. Households are allowed only one car, so as not to congest the roads. Critics of Bermuda feel that some of these controls make the island relatively staid and unimaginative. Appreciators of Bermuda like the order and predictability.
Two things that Bermuda offers a traveler are especially engaging.
First, Bermuda has played an intriguing role in British and American history since the 1600s. Discovering these cultural connections can be a pleasant basis for excursions from your lodging in Bermuda.
Second, Bermuda has lovely pink sand beaches and quality resorts that make going to a destination resort the main activity here. Luxuriating at the resort, swimming and snorkeling, catching up on your poolside reading, relaxing–this is what Bermuda encourages.
Discovering Bermuda History
Three excursions from your hotel–to St. George’s, Hamilton, and The Royal Navy Dockyards–provide a fascinating glimpse at Bermuda’s complicated history, all revolving around its location in the Western Atlantic between Britain and the U.S., relatively close to the U.S., but under British control.
A Spanish explorer, Juan de Bermudez, first saw the islands in 1511 and gave his name to them, but didn’t remain or settle.
St. George’s is a preserved historic small town at the eastern tip of Bermuda. Its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site suggests the historic importance of the town. St. George’s is the oldest continuously inhabited town of English origin in the Western Hemisphere. Moreover, it remains in an authentic condition.
In 1609 the British ship Sea Venture, bound for the Jamestown colony, wrecked on the reefs off Bermuda. Those on board made it safely to shore. Incredibly, they built another ship, the Deliverance, from the cedar trees on the island and most of the party sailed on to Jamestown the following year. Today you can see a replica of the Deliverance in the St. George’s harbor. It’s amazing to think that 150 people scrambled aboard this small vessel and made the final voyage west to Jamestown.
Walk the streets of St. George’s to see the architecture and learn of the mores of the people, starting from the 17th century. A colorful Town Crier, dressed in period costume, occasionally does a public “ducking,” which was the humiliating chastisement of the time for social offenders. The ducked were perched on the end of a long cedar pole and unceremoniously dropped into the ocean.
The architecture of St. George’s has survived because most of the buildings are of stone and have withstood hurricanes. Be sure to see the Town Hall (from 1802) with its coat of arms above the front door. Town Hall is on the town square, called King’s Square. The Old State House (from 1620), a whitewashed building a couple of blocks away, served as the first parliament building and courthouse for Bermuda. St. Peter’s Church (from 1713) is another architectural gem, the oldest continuously used Anglican church in the Western Hemisphere.
The St. George’s Historical Society Museum is located in an 18th century house, filled with antiques, porcelain, silver, and lace. The home is typical of the sturdy and well proportioned Bermudian homes, built of limestone, coated with stucco, and colored with a pastel palette of pink, yellow, purple, lime, and blue. Each house has a roof catchment system for water.
Above the town is the formidable Fort St. Catherine (from 1614), which helped persuade unfriendly powers that it would be difficult to wrestle this island from the British. The fort has a large underground series of tunnels, now restored as a museum to illustrate the workings of the fort, such as the arming and firing of cannons. The fort museum shows the full range of English coastal fortification artillery from 1612 to 1956.
Somers Gardens, named after Sir George Somers, the captain of the Sea Venture, is a green oasis of Cuban royal palm trees and manicured lawns with flowerbeds a block from the town plaza.
Just a short walk down Blockade Alley are the magnificent ruins of an unfinished gothic cathedral, in the midst of a quiet palm tree forest, with the open sky as its ceiling and grass underfoot. Construction on the cathedral started in 1874 and it was intended to replace St. Peter’s Church, but the project was abandoned because of financial difficulties, and is now called The Folly of St. George’s.
Hamilton, located roughly in the center of the island, is the main town of Bermuda. Its Front Street has the island’s best shopping opportunities, especially for china and crystal. The architectural treasure to see in Hamilton is the Sessions House, with its clock tower. This is where Bermuda’s government meets. As you walk the streets near the waterfront, there are many small delights to locate. One is the Perot Post Office, a wood-paneled throwback to an earlier postal era.
The Royal Navy Dockyards, located at the west end of the island, is a military fortification built by the British to protect, repair, and resupply their fleet. The Dockyards is now handsomely restored as a museum to all eras of Bermudian life, everything from the slave trade to the growing of onions, for which the island was famous for some time. Many of the museum displays are in the restored Commissioner’s House, a masterwork of 1820s architecture using Bermuda limestone.
During the American Revolution, Bermuda exercised some independence from Britain. Bermuda needed to buy food from the colonies, so at least one transaction of food for gunpowder took place. During the War of 1812, the British used their Bermuda colony to launch the burning of the White House and the capture of Washington. In the American Civil War, smuggler sloops, the fastest ships of their day, ran weapons and finished goods to the Confederates, in exchange for cotton and tobacco. During Prohibition, Bermuda’s smugglers supplied liquor to the U.S. In World War II, Bermuda was a major allied base for monitoring German activity in the Atlantic. Aspects of all these layers of history come alive in the three suggested excursions.
Luxuriating at Bermuda’s Beaches and Resorts
Luxuriating at a beach resort, enjoying the beaches, is a major Bermuda activity, possibly capped off with a fine-dining evening.
Two examples of major resort hotels are the Fairmont Southhampton Princess and the Sonesta Beach Resort, both on the South Shore.
The Princess sits on a commanding hillside with views over the ocean and its golf course and swimming pools. A short ride on the hotel shuttle takes you to the most famous of all of Bermuda’s beaches, known as Horseshoe Beach.
The Sonesta Beach Resort is immediately at oceanside. You can stroll out from the Sonesta to a rocky promontory and commune with the sea. Small beaches on each side of the Sonesta are typical of the pink sand beaches that can be found around the island. The water is clear and swimming is pleasant. Don a snorkel mask to see the abundant fish life.
Many other cozy beaches can be enjoyed, and all are only a taxi ride away from any of these hotels. Jobson Beach, Elbow Beach, and Arches Beach would be recommended choices. The South Shore area has an extensive number of good beaches.
For fine dining options, some good restaurants can be found in the major resorts and others are independent.
At the Sonesta try Lillian’s, where the Northern Italian cuisine rises to enticing levels. You might start with an antipasta plate and then proceed to a Bermudian lobster entree.
Away from resorts, two good choices are Henry VIII and Waterloo House.
Henry VIII is a pub and restaurant with Tudor décor on the South Shore. Henry VIII is known for its steaks and prime rib, plus many other alternatives. You might start with the tuna sashimi and then try the local rockfish.
At Waterloo House in Hamilton consider the wild mushroom risotto, the Bermuda fish chowder with black rum and sherry peppers (for which Bermuda is famous, an offering in all restaurants), and then the seared lamb loin.
The special drink of Bermuda is a mix of black rum and ginger beer, known as a Dark and Stormy.
Bermuda is a mature tourism market, flourishing for the past hundred years. Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, paid a visit in 1883 and made it fashionable to vacation in Bermuda. For travelers who like a good beach in summer, with moderate temperatures, plus safe and orderly island life, with quality resorts and fine dining, plus an interesting history to explore, Bermuda has much to offer. And it’s only a couple of hours by jet from the East Coast.
Bermuda: If You Go
For further information, contact Bermuda Tourism at www.gotobermuda.com.