FEATURE

Bermuda: Third Time's a Charm?

With sun, sand as soft as sifted flour, and blue-green water, the island is pretty appealing--despite what I'd been saying for years.

By Erik Torkells, Tuesday, Apr 17, 2007, 12:00 AM

(Buff Strickland)

Late in the day, my friend Jim and I walk down the stairs that lead to Elbow Beach, where the sand is so soft it's like sifted flour. Waist-deep in the blue-green water, we throw a Frisbee wide on purpose, forcing each other to dive awkwardly. Afterward, we sit on the beach, watching the waves glitter in the lateral light. I admit to Jim that Bermuda is pretty appealing--despite what I'd been telling him for years.

NINE YEARS AGO, I went to Bermuda on assignment for another magazine and had a miserable time. Actually, I had two miserable times, as I had spread the reporting over two trips.

I was new to travel writing, and my first two trips to the island were when I learned that travel writing is a vocation, not a vacation--though we're fortunate that our business trips tend not to involve conference rooms. The fact is, most travel writers don't simply wander the world jotting our observations in leather-bound journals. Most of us do what's called service journalism: We spend our days and nights looking for things to write about, always worried that we're missing some great spot.

So while everyone else goes to Bermuda to relax, I was buzzing around on a moped (you can't rent a car), searching for shops and restaurants that felt authentic and not aimed squarely at tourists. Moreover, at that time the island was a poor value: I was spending well over $300--at a different hotel each night--for rooms that should've cost far less.

The low point occurred when I got caught in a thunderstorm on the far end of the island and stupidly chose not to wait it out. Three hours later, it was dark, I was soaked (from the rain and from the cars' backwash) and lost (my map had totally disintegrated), and I might have been crying, but who could tell? I was that wet. When I paused at a bus stop, a kind soul saw me and led me to the turnoff to my hotel, where I ordered two gin and tonics from room service and took an hour-long bath. I have a T-shirt that says I SURVIVED THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE, and I don't wear it ironically.

Worst of all, I was alone. The days were fine, but the nights were rough. Like most resort islands, Bermuda appeals mostly to couples and families. At dinner, they looked at me with pity, like I'd been jilted at the altar but decided to go on the honeymoon anyway. Soldier on, brave chap.

When the island's minister of transport and tourism, Ewart Brown, persuaded JetBlue to fly to Bermuda, driving airfare costs down all around, I grew curious. Then came word that Brown (who has since been elected premier) was telling hoteliers they need to deliver more for the high cost of lodging. I thought Budget Travel should send a writer to find out if Bermuda was really a better value. The more the editors here talked about it, the clearer it became who that writer should be.

I vowed to see Bermuda the way any normal person would--like someone actually on vacation. I invited Jim, who had never been to Bermuda, and who's far less critical than I am. I figured I'd avoid the high end--all the fussy-and-fusty hotels, the mediocre beef Wellington--and I'd absolutely skip the mopeds. I'd give Bermuda not just a third chance, but a fair chance.

WHEN JIM AND I ARRIVE AT SALT KETTLE HOUSE, the first thing out of innkeeper Hazel Lowe's mouth (after a rather blunt "Do you want a king bed or twins? Just tell me!") is a litany of exactly what we should do on the island. She's lived on Bermuda for 37 years, and she knows what she likes: in particular, the chicken salad at Mickey's Bistro & Bar ("But only for lunch--dinner is too expensive"); Bistro J; a new Thai restaurant called Silk ("But you don't have to have Thai food"); the Lemon Tree Café ("Take your lunch and go sit in the park"); and the souvenirs at The Island Shop.

After Jim asks about jewelry shops--he and his wife just learned they're having a baby--I tease him that he did so because he wanted to make sure Hazel understands that we aren't a couple. Not so, he says; he simply doesn't want to buy something at the wrong shop and then have to hear about it later. (Hazel has a forceful personality.)

Personally, I find it a relief to take advice rather than worry about giving it. Hazel encourages us to walk over to the liquor store, so we can make our own happy hour; discourages us from renting mopeds--no worries there; and warns us that the ferries often leave early.

Salt Kettle House is on a harbor peninsula, just down the street from a ferry landing, and when we miss the boat to Hamilton--it left early--Hazel offers a ride into town if we'll pick up some ferry schedules for her. Jim and I grab a bite at the Lemon Tree Café, and Hazel was right again. The sandwiches and salads are fresh and filling, and the back patio is so pleasant we don't even feel the need to go through the gate and into Par-la-Ville Park.

We walk around a bit, and while there's charm here and there--the wind compass on city hall's tower, the single-room post office, the vaguely countercultural Rock Island Coffee--I start to get a familiar sinking feeling. Hamilton is where most of Bermuda does its business, and it's where cruise passengers and other tourists buy souvenirs, but I don't like shopping at home in New York City, so what on earth am I doing looking at shops here? I feel like I have to, even though I don't want to. We get back on the ferry and then go play that idyllic round of Frisbee at Elbow Beach.

DESPITE ITS NAME, which has that Bahama-Aruba lilt to it, Bermuda is not in or even near the Caribbean, but out in the Atlantic, along the same latitude as South Carolina. As every guidebook notes, it's closer to Nova Scotia than it is to Miami. The high season is summer, not winter. And it's not one island, but about 300--it feels like one island, though, because eight principal islands are linked by bridges.

Bermuda was discovered by Spanish sailor Juan Bermúdez in the early 1500s but was settled by the British a century later, after a shipwreck on the treacherous reefs. Bermuda is now a self-governing dependency of the U.K., and the British influence runs deep. Judges preside in wigs, everyone is mad for cricket, and the men really do walk around in shorts with socks pulled up to their knees. (Jim freaks out a businessman in Hamilton by stalking him for a photo.) The people can be polite to the point of stiff. Many of the supposedly finer restaurants ask that patrons wear coats and collared shirts--something I find hard to reconcile with a semitropical climate. In fact, I find it hard to reconcile the idea of wearing a coat on vacation at all.

Regardless of the recent increase in airlift, a lot of visitors come by sea. The cruise ships used to dock only in Hamilton and at St. George, a town at the northeast end of the island. But in recent years, ships have grown so large that Bermuda created another port in the west, at Royal Naval Dockyard.

St. George is the original settlement, with narrow streets and old buildings. Not much has changed since I was here 10 years ago, including the Bermuda National Trust Museum. It has a fascinating exhibit on the island's role in the U.S. Civil War. The Union was blockading Confederate ports, so big ships from Europe would sail to Bermuda, where the goods would be put on smaller, nimbler "runners" that tried to speed past the Union navy.

Outside downtown St. George is the Unfinished Cathedral, the skeleton of a Gothic church that never got built because of a lack of funds; it makes for fabulous photo ops. And 10 minutes away by taxi--"You're going for some local food, eh?" asks the driver--is Black Horse Tavern, which still has the best fried fish sandwich I've ever tasted.

As its name implies, the Royal Naval Dockyard is a former British naval base. The Brits started building it in 1809 and relinquished it only in 1951. The stonework--much of it done by slaves and convicts--is something to see. The Dockyard is now a full-on cruise ship port, with stalls selling souvenirs and the occasional band playing the dreaded "Kokomo."

Both the Dockyard and St. George feel, at least to me, like Boston's Faneuil Hall or New York's South Street Seaport--impressive reclamations more than living, breathing places. While Jim and I are walking around Dockyard, growing kind of bored, we notice a playground. "That's what I want!" I tell Jim, who looks at me like I've just declared a desire to hop like a bunny. I want to have fun, I explain. I want to have an adventure, I want to clamber around, I want to do anything but look at shops. We turn a corner or two, and come upon a yellow bus parked on the grass: It's the "office" for Segway Tours of Bermuda. I sign us up for two days later.

I try to keep that playground in my mind. It symbolizes what I crave in an island holiday. Nowadays, I spend most of my workweek behind my desk or in meetings. When I go away, I want fresh air and sunshine.

We also sign up for a snorkeling and kayaking tour off Elbow Beach, with Blue Water Divers & Water Sports. We're supposed to be interested in the shipwreck--and it's cool enough--but what I'll never forget are the thousands of jellyfish, 99 percent of which are harmless. They're hovering everywhere, at different depths, as far as we can see. Some are a foot wide; some are so tiny you're sure they're floating into your ears. It's indescribably beautiful, even if Jim gets stung in the lip by the other 1 percent.

That afternoon, we take a mammoth walk on the 22-mile-long Railway Trail. Once site of the island's train tracks, it's been turned into a path for joggers and bicyclists. For an hour or two, we walk and talk, looking at houses and the foliage and even a huge spider in its web; we laugh at a curious sign that says caution pee bump. (Someone vandalized away the s and the d, I guess.) Nine years ago, I didn't walk anywhere unless I had to, and I didn't admire much of anything. When you're 28, maybe you expect that you'll get to see every plant at some point in your life. I'm no longer so inclined to take such things for granted.

After the Railway Trail, we continue walking, now along the South Shore beaches--all the way from half-mile-long Warwick Long Bay (with six people on it) to the island's most famous beach, Horseshoe Bay. In between are coves with waves crashing against the rocks and small beaches that are insanely romantic, if you're with the right person.

Jim will be the first to admit that he can be a geek--he's a scientist--so he's not quite as mortified as I am by the helmets we have to wear on our Segway tour. Segways are those electric scooter-like contraptions that you move by shifting your weight.

The guide, Rob Territo, makes me go first. I immediately get heckled by a teenager in an AC/DC shirt. "Yeah, rock it, man!" he says. I ponder running the twerp over, but he'd have to be impaired somehow for me to do any damage at 2 mph. Even then, the odds favor him, as I'm not exactly adept at maneuvering my "personal transporter."

We have earpieces through which we hear Rob's spiel. The tour of the Dockyard, which includes admission to the Bermuda Maritime Museum, is surprisingly interesting. I say "surprisingly" because I hate being talked at, and I get frustrated when I have to listen without being given a chance to talk. Rob keeps apologizing for being so informal, even though we insist that we prefer it. Once he really loosens up, he fiddles with the Segways so we can access the faster speed--up to 8 mph.

ON PREVIOUS VISITS, I was always rushing. This time, if we don't walk places, we take the ferry, or maybe the bus. Riding the ferry is so much more pleasant than driving a moped. We sit on the deck, savoring the air and the sun and views. Bermuda is shaped like a fish hook, so much of its landmass is shore line, either on the Atlantic or the harbor.

Salt Kettle House has several nice places to chill out, including a front lawn with turquoise Adirondack chairs and a back lawn where a pair of ducks flirt with us, literally shaking their tail feathers. But we tend to hang out in our room, or rather, outside it. The only upstairs room, the Tower Room has windows on all four sides and a balcony overlooking the front yard and the harbor beyond. Each evening, we sit and watch the sailboats bobbing in the dusk, drinking Hatuey beer or gin and tonics.

At $120 a night, the room is a steal, especially when we factor in the breakfast--the French toast is a revelation--and Hazel's wise advice. She knows when to ignore guests, and she knows when to engage them.

I understand that on an island where pretty much everything is imported, food is going to be expensive; I just want it to be better than disappointing. Hazel's restaurant recommendations pan out nicely. At Silk, despite what Hazel says, the food is entirely Thai, and it's a treat to eat food with spice in it. (The only spice I recall from my first visits was found on curly fries.) We also eat at Bistro J, because we can see the blackboard menu from the window and I'm a sucker for sticky toffee pudding. I even recommend a lunch place to Hazel: Coconuts, a pretty outdoor restaurant at The Reefs, an upscale resort, where the lobster and mango salad is served in half a conch shell. I ate there in 1999 and loved it; Jim and I have lunch there, and the waitstaff is as chipper as I remember.

A FEW MONTHS after Jim and I return to New York, we go to dinner with Laura (his wife) and Adam (my partner). Jim and Laura are thinking about a last child-free trip. They're talking about the Hamptons, the Adirondacks, Philadelphia.

"Are you nuts?" I ask. "It's November! Go someplace warm! Go to Bermuda!" Jim nods his head--he's tried this already--but Laura is wary. I rave about how it's only a 90-minute flight from New York, how safe it is, how you can use U.S. dollars. I rhapsodize about the beaches, the sound of the rain on the roof at night, and the tree frogs chiming in their bell-like tones. I tell Adam and Laura about Mickey's, right on Elbow Beach, where the waiters look like Hare Krishnas with their shaved heads and loose white uniforms. I even explain how on the way home you pass through U.S. immigration at the Bermuda airport, getting the bureaucratic red tape out of the way early.

In other words, I rave about Bermuda like a man who genuinely likes it.

Getting There
Airfares have dropped since JetBlue started flying to Bermuda (from New York JFK airport) last May. We paid $370, including taxes, to fly American from JFK, down from what I remember being more like $600 a decade ago. USA3000 also flies to Bermuda from Baltimore. Visitors arriving by air now need a passport; passengers arriving by cruise ship will need passports as of January 1, 2008.

Exploring
Taxis are expensive, with a $3.75 drop (initial charge). And they don't always come when you call, despite what dispatchers promise, so call early and often. Mopeds are easy to rent, but risky to drive (especially if you've never driven on the left). Keep your eyes on where you want to go, not on what you want to avoid--or you'll drive right into it. Transport passes, which cover buses and ferries, are a wonderful value and are sold at the Visitors' Service Bureau on Hamilton's Front Street (four-day pass, $35).

Lodging and Restaurants
Bermuda has many B&Bs and small inns; below are a few recommended ones. Another hotel worth a look is the relatively new 9 Beaches, a compound of tented cabins, some of which are overwater. Note: Many hotels and restaurants put a service charge on the bill automatically, so make sure you're not tipping twice.

Lodging

  • Salt Kettle House 441/236-0407, from $120
  • Greenbank Guesthouse & Cottages 441/236-3615, greenbankbermuda.com, from $125
  • Robin's Nest Guest Apartments 441/292-4347, robinsnestbda.com, from $150
  • 9 Beaches 866/841-9009, 9beaches.com, from $185
  • Food

  • Mickey's Bistro & Bar Elbow Beach, 60 South Shore Rd., 441/236-9107, chicken and mango salad at lunch $19
  • Bistro J Chancery Lane, Hamilton, 441/296-8546, entrées from $20
  • Silk 55 Front St., Hamilton, 441/295-0449, entrées from $22
  • Lemon Tree Café Queen St., Hamilton, 441/292-0235, sandwiches from $5
  • Rock Island Coffee 48 Reid St., Hamilton, 441/296-5241
  • Black Horse Tavern 101 St. David's Rd., St. David's Island, 441/297-1991, fish sandwich $9.25
  • Coconuts The Reefs, 56 South Shore Rd., Southampton, 441/238-0222, thereefs.com, small lobster salad at lunch $15
  • Activities

  • Bermuda National Trust Museum 32 York St., St. George, 441/297-1423, $5
  • Segway Tours of Bermuda Royal Naval Dockyard, 441/504-2581, segwayofbermuda@yahoo.com, 90-minute tour $75
  • Blue Water Divers & Water Sports Elbow Beach, Bermuda resort, 441/232-2909, divebermuda.com, kayak-snorkel trip $50
  • Bermuda Maritime Museum Royal Navy Dockyard, 441/234-1333, bmm.bm, $10
  • Shopping

  • The Island Shop 3 Queen St., Hamilton, 441/292-5292, islandexports.com