Bermuda, Done Differently
I first visited Bermuda when no passport was necessary to travel there, the “American Plan” was popular (which means the hotel rate included three meals a day) and dressing (up) for dinner was de rigueur. In fact, it was only in 2009 that a passport became mandatory to re-enter the United States from Bermuda.
I next returned to Bermuda in 2007, when our daughter began working on the island after graduating from college. We have had many trips since then and I’ve gained so much more appreciation for this tiny island from traversing it with someone who lives there. After my husband and I had honeymooned here I’d assumed we’d not return; we’d just scratched the surface! The last eight years have deepened my appreciation for Bermuda’s natural beauty and its unique style – it has a strong middle class culture and a safe environment for visitors. I’ve made friends with some of its residents who, as a whole, are a very gracious and friendly lot. As for the downside, to live or visit there is very expensive (whatever you think is reasonable, double it), there are droves of tourists spilling from cruise ships on a regular basis clogging popular spots and attractions, and there is the reputation that the food is of the old-school, dreary British type. I shall offer solutions: hence, Bermuda, done differently.
First, consider traveling to Bermuda on your own rather than on a cruise. It is a remarkably easy island to navigate, with many more interesting attractions to visit than those offered as tours from the ship; they are uncrowded, too! There is a reliable public bus and ferry system with, most of the time, air-conditioned, well-appointed equipment. The island is full of friendly, welcoming people. You can tour historic sites, hike its trails and walk and swim at its beaches with confidence that you will not be bothered; just use common sense. You would not linger in an unfamiliar, isolated spot, especially in the evening, home or away, I would hope!
Rather than staying at a hotel, look into a guest-house type of accommodation. One spot I can recommend in Hamilton, the city in the center of Bermuda, is The Robin’s Nest. Located in a residential area, it is a newer building with sparkling clean studio apartments, with sparsely, but adequately, outfitted kitchenettes. The property has gardens tended to by the indefatigable owner and matriarch, Renee Robinson, who is the fittest elder I know; amazingly she still serves as one of the chamber maids. She is the kind of person who could not keep herself from working. They also have a great pool.
It became our favorite place to stay when not with family, because the owners (a large extended family) provide a traveler’s oasis for a good value. We love the flexibility of having supplies for breakfast and picnic lunches (and cocktail hour!) on hand. After an acquaintance who owned property in the Caribbean clued me in to the ease of flying with food in a checked bag, we got creative, bringing in cryovac-ed cheese and meat, which, with locally purchased vegetables and fruit, allowed us to enjoy a few relaxing (and lighter) dinners poolside with friends. Restaurants abound in Hamilton, from Harry’s on Pitt’s Bay Road, where you go when you are feeling flush and/or to be “seen,” to La Trattoria, where Italian classics and decent pizza can be found accompanied by a pottery chicken of table wine. The delicious weekday lunch buffet at The House of India, 57 North Street, provides a cool respite overseen by their courtly staff. Miles Market, the gourmet store around the corner from Harry’s, is a wonderful, if pricey shop, with an extensive wine selection. Also, Anglophiles should check out the Supermart grocery store located at 125 Front Street, the main drag in Hamilton, for all the Waitrose products you could want and a good wine selection, too.
For a great meal that will make you feel virtuous as you enjoy every bite, try Devil’s Isle Café on Burnaby Street. They are new on the scene, offering great fresh salads and delicious, high-quality meat, fish and vegetarian options in a casual venue with a trendy vibe. It’s paleo-ish, and run with cheerful professionalism. I enjoyed the Harvest Bowl, a small portion of brown rice topped generously with veggies, kale salad and raw cashews, garnished with a butternut squash and roasted garlic sauce: no additional protein required, 100% delicious. The fact that there is a popular restaurant in downtown Hamilton with great paleo and vegan options signals groundbreaking change.
You can and should look beyond Hamilton for dining and entertainment. The peaceful atmosphere and historic authenticity of St. George’s, a town in the east end of the island, has great cultural interest and some of my favorite spots for delicious food. Visit this World Heritage Site’s museums and historic buildings. Once a strategic supply base for the Royal Navy, it is actually the oldest surviving English town in the New World, originally known as New London. The cobbled streets and quaint architecture provide for a unique atmosphere while you tour and shop.
Two very different restaurants, both worth a special trip, are in St. George’s. The Tempest Bistro, a contemporary, upscale spot, open for lunch and dinner, located in an historic building, known as The Carriage House, is made from Chicago yellow bricks and the only brick building in St. George’s, is located on the waterfront at 22 Water Street. Their food represents the new culinary wave in Bermuda, lighter but still with a nod to their island’s specialties. Their fresh-caught seafood is sublime, with house-made melt-in-your-mouth gravlax a stand-out.
Around the corner, on Water Street, is tiny and beloved Art Mels Spicy Dicy, serving up classic island fare. Its Bermuda fish sandwich, a (huge) meal in itself, is a sweet and savory fusion of raisin or wheat bread, coleslaw, and tartar sauce, anchored by a mountain of perfectly seasoned fried fish with a whisper of their own Scotch bonnet pepper sauce. Trust me, you want the sauce – it’s applied with restraint but it adds that special something! Add a sack of their seasoned French fries to your order and wash it down with local Barritt’s Ginger beer – perfect.
Now that you’re refreshed and refueled, the twenty minute walk to Tobacco Bay is just the thing to justify your indulgence while taking in incredible views and maybe to a dip a toe at this popular snorkeling spot. If you walk past the refreshment stand, with the ocean on your left, there are more snorkeling areas and thinner crowds. Keep walking, for a mile or so, to reach Fort St. Catherine. It’s fun to explore the massive granite structure — keep an eye out for the sea turtles and rays that inhabit the waters below the bluffs.
Everyone knows about Horseshoe Bay, the spectacularly beautiful pink sand beach on Bermuda’s south shore. Instead, try St David’s Clearwater Beach and the adjoining Cooper’s Island National Park in the east end. This hidden gem can be a challenge to get to, though. On my visit in May of 2015 the seasonal bus service with a stop at Clearwater Beach had not resumed yet. It was a 15-minute walk that was not well marked. Better to take a scooter or cab if the bus situation hasn’t changed. (Never hesitate to ask the helpful bus drivers for route information and if the bus station doesn’t have bus schedules, try the ferry terminal or internet.) The beach and nature reserve are parts of the former US military base in St. David’s, and now offer a tranquil, pristine and, usually, sparsely populated attraction for all to enjoy. It’s popular with local families, having a large grassy area with shade trees perfect for picnicking or enjoying the rum swizzles and jerk chicken from the patio grill at Gombey’s Restaurant and Bar located on the beach. Tip: get the restroom key at Gombey’s Bar for clean and secure bathroom and changing facilities.
Two walking trails that I highly recommend are just over the long bridge from St. David’s toward Hamilton. Just tell the bus driver you want to go to Tom Moore’s Jungle (first stop after the bridge). The well-maintained trail winds through heavy vegetation with mangrove beaches and blue grottoes with tropical fish to observe, up close, no snorkel needed. It was there that friendly park landscapers enthusiastically recommended an Art Mels visit after they helped me identify a red bird I’d seen flash by: a cardinal. When your walk is complete, just retrace your steps, it’s a longer; hotter walk if you take the busy road to circle back. Coincidently, the (in)famous Swizzle Inn at Bailey’s Bay is also situated near the trail head — their healthy grilled fish sandwich, The Sea Breeze, served with a side garden salad, is always excellent. Their pitchers of Rum Swizzle make for a very convivial experience if you are so inclined*, though I’d encourage moderation so you have the energy for one more must-see slice of the island.
Ask your bus driver to drop you off at the newly built Railroad Trail Bridge area (or walk against traffic for approximately 15 minutes). This project renovated the over-water bridges of the old narrow gauge railroad that once spanned the island. (I’m sad the railroad is defunct every time I pony up $20 — and usually more — for cab fares.) The design of the pedestrian bridge is beautiful, though surpassed by the glory of sweeping ocean views graced by White Tailed Tropicbirds, also known as Longtails. The end of that part of the trail (the Railroad Trail spans the island end to end) has a convenience store with clean rest rooms close to bus stops and Shelley Bay Park, another grassy, shaded, calm ocean park.
One of Bermuda’s iconic images is that of the businessman in suit coat and tie, despite the stifling heat and soupy air. Of course, the ensemble’s accompanying pastel linen shorts and knee socks complete the look in a way that is practical and oddly appealing. Be aware that it’s a frequent misconception that Bermuda is located in the Caribbean. It is actually about 700 miles due-east of North Carolina — sub-tropical, as opposed to tropical — therefore May to October is its high (and reliably warm) season. Be brave. Make your own customized tour, and enjoy the best that this unique and lovely island has to offer.
* Two Bermuda specialties, Rum Swizzle cocktails — a potent punch concoction — and Bermuda fish chowder are both classics worth seeking at The Hamilton Princess Hotel (check out the Queen Elizabeth art by Andy Warhol in the lobby); their recipes and presentations are top notch.
First published August 2015