Bermuda’s Laid-Back Allure

The host to this summer’s America’s Cup, Bermuda is gearing up for a new generation of travelers

Photo: Tara Donne

My first impression of Bermuda, pleasantly confounding, is that it is neither this nor that. This small archipelago, lying some six hundred miles off the North Carolina coast, bears passing resemblances to the islands of the Caribbean, with which it’s often though incorrectly lumped in the popular imagination, but just as easily evokes Madeira, its fusty latitudinal neighbor four time zones to the east. It’s a thoroughly British territory yet occasionally feels—particularly in the temperament and habits of its locals—like a tiny chunk of the Carolinas that happened to float away, iceberg-style. It is a financial power station, hosting a disproportionate share of the global reinsurance industry, yet its businessmen go about wearing shorts. One of its trademark cocktails, the rum swizzle is served exclusively, at the Swizzle Inn, in pitchers, yet no one seems to take this as an invitation to overdo it; a cool breeze of moderation tames the licentious swelters of more tropical locales. (Hence a recent slogan from the Bermuda Tourism Authority: PROPER FUN.) It is either sedately funky or funkily sedate, a singularly ideal place, as Mark Twain once summed it up, for “rest, British humor, and an opportunity to appear logical in March in a white suit.”

Photo: Tara Donne

Rum swizzles, the potent national drink of Bermuda, are served by the pitcher at the Swizzle Inn.

It’s also, travel insiders say, beginning to awaken from a decades-long slumber during which Bermuda more or less coasted on its status as a cruise-ship port of call and on visits from, as a pungent old saying goes, “the newly wed and the nearly dead.” Visitor numbers are rising. New hotels are opening or under development—the Loren at Pink Beach, a luxury boutique hotel, debuted in February—and older ones, like the stately pink Hamilton Princess, where Twain used to stay, have undergone massive restorations. One reason for this rally is the America’s Cup, the famed series of yachting races that’s running for the first time in Bermuda this summer (May 26–June 27) and that’s expected to draw thousands of Top-Sider-shod spectators. (A cabdriver clues me in to one other possible reason: Thus far, Bermuda has not produced any cases of the Zika virus that’s frightened pregnant or wanting-to-be-pregnant women away from more tropical destinations.) Balmy rest might’ve been one of Twain’s attractions, as for generations of visitors that followed, but Bermuda is retooling itself for another sort of tourist: more active, more adrenalized, and with a more freewheeling, less formal definition of luxury and style that may or may not involve a white suit. In its understated, unruffled way, Bermuda is positioning itself as a place to wind up as well as wind down.

This is supremely evident at the aforementioned Hamilton Princess, my first stop after landing and my home base for the next few days. The Princess, as locals call it, opened in 1885, back when ocean liners started depositing wealthy Americans for season-long visits, and the hotel’s history is rich and filigreed—its former fish-tank-lined bar was James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s inspiration for Dr. No’s more menacingly aquarium’ed lair. A flamingo-pink four-hundred-room property overlooking Hamilton Harbour, the Princess emerged last year from a $100 million renovation. Some of those funds went toward a sixty-six-berth marina out back, some went toward a new spa and infinity pool, but a significant bit also went toward artwork. As with the 21c hotels in Louisville and other Southern cities, the Princess doubles as an art museum. Works by modern icons such as Robert Rauschenberg, Damien Hirst, David Hockney, Jeff Koons, and Banksy turn up, sometimes startlingly, in odd spots and corridors. Overseeing the hotel’s grand ballroom is a Santiago Montoya portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, a cheeky contemporary wink in an otherwise ornately antique setting. 

The Princess’s renovation also included three new restaurants, one of them under the direction of the New York City chef and Top Chef Masters winner Marcus Samuelsson—but eating will come later, after I’ve wound up an appetite.

You can’t rent a car in Bermuda; about twenty miles long and two miles wide at its fattest, it deems itself too small for surplus traffic. Many visitors therefore rent motorized scooters to zip around, but I choose a quieter and more nimble mountain bike. Influencing this choice is the allure of the Railway Trail, an eighteen-mile hiking and cycling path—once the route of a short-lived rail service—that runs almost the length of Bermuda’s eight connected main islands. I rent my bike from Elbow Beach Cycles, where one of the owners, Dolores Thomas, known to everyone as Mrs. T (“T for trouble,” she notes), dictates, with great harrumphs of authority, where she wants me to ride. She runs her fingertip along a map she’s unfolded onto the counter, tracing the islands’ fishhook shape until reaching the end of the hook, home to the old Naval Dockyard. There’s a homespun shopping center there, she tells me, and the National Museum of Bermuda; the area is also currently home to the nine-acre America’s Cup Village, which includes the yachting teams’ bases and various spectator attractions. “Now, don’t just look around,” Mrs. T instructs me, in a pre-irritated tone, as if too damn many of her customers just look around. “No, no,” she insists. “You explore.”

Photo: Tara Donne

The view from Gibbs Hill Lighthouse.

Disobeying Mrs. T feels unwise, so I don’t. The Railway Trail threads in and out of parish roads. Sometimes it’s a wide-ish ribbon rolling through heaps of flowering bushes and through cut limestone channels; occasionally it’s a single-track lane, enjoyably rutted; and at other times it skirts so close to the beaches that you can pause to submerge yourself in the turquoise Atlantic, shake off like a dog, and then resume your ride. Bermuda’s beaches are justly famed for their pink sands, colored by the pulverized shells of single-celled organisms called foraminifera. When occupied by bikini-clad sunbathers, the beaches, with Victorian primness, appear to be blushing. From certain beaches in the spring, you can see humpback whales breaching.

Cycling, rather than scootering, has other upsides: While cruising through Somerset Village, on this Sunday morning, the sound of singing causes my legs to stop and my hands to squeeze the brakes. Transfixed, I stand astride my bike outside the aquamarine Touch Through Me Ministries church as the music inside seeps outside—whoops, hollers, an ecstatic gospel choir. It’s familiar—paint the church white, and I could be paused in Wake County, North Carolina, or Leflore County, Mississippi—yet exotic, too, suffused with a peculiar island lilt. It’s a holy groove at its holiest, and I stand frozen until it ends.

Bermuda was settled accidentally, I learn at the National Museum, which is housed in a nineteenth-century fort and the restored Commissioner’s House and, as Mrs. T advised, rewards exploration. A hurricane knocked an English ship headed to Jamestown, Virginia, into Bermuda’s hostile coral reefs in 1609, and some of the castaways remained. Owing to those hull-busting reefs, its remoteness, and its vulnerability to storms, Bermuda had a reputation that was far from idyllic back then—even Shakespeare weighed in, calling it a “fearful country”—but it isn’t until the next day that I catch a glimpse of the islands’ innate ferocity, their older and wilder core.

Photo: Tara Donne

Wandering the grounds at Fort Hamilton.

It begins with a paddleboard. Paddleboarding is what happens when you want to kayak on a surfboard or surf a kayak: You stand atop a board paddling yourself around. It’s a leisurely good time. I head out from Grotto Bay resort paddling southeast, ducking below a narrow causeway, until a tranquil-looking lagoon lures me to beach the paddleboard and start wandering barefoot. Various paths and offshoots take me into the lush green heart of Blue Hole Park and the adjacent Walsingham Nature Reserve, known locally as Tom Moore’s Jungle. The blue hole, giving the park its name, is just that: a deep turquoise mangrove pool, ringed with sprouting cliffs, that’s about as psychedelic as nature gets. You can cliff jump here, or, like me, just ogle it all, feeling God stoned and wonder struck. Following other trail offshoots leads you to smaller pools—one of them teeming with jumbo rainbow parrot fish, for bonus psychedelia—as well as to various caves. These caverns are charmingly unmarked so that each one provokes a gasp of happy discovery—or eerie discovery, depending on your view of caves. With their gurgly drips and the wet fresh chitlins coloring of limestone, they’ve
always struck me as earth’s digestive tract, its weird innards. Wide but low-ceilinged, these caves are reportedly swimmable, though—exploring solo and gear-free, and without having seen a single other soul on my ramble—I opt to stay dry, and within the range of sunlight. But this Bermuda, viny and tangly and clamorous with strange birdsongs, feels unexpectedly delicious. Anticipating endless manicured golf greens, I’ve instead stumbled into cave-riddled jungle. Scouting for the “new” Bermuda, I’ve found the ancient.

Photo: Tara Donne

St. George’s historic streetscape.

There are similarly happy stumbles to be found wandering Front Street in the capital city of Hamilton, Bermuda’s pastel version of Fifth Avenue. You can outfit yourself like a local at the English Sports Shop, with shorts in every shade of sherbet and the British territory’s ubiquitous needlepoint belts. The Irish Linen Shop has been an elegant institution for more than a half century, selling kitchen and bedroom linens and home furnishings that mix British refinement with the colors of Bermuda sunshine. For a rangier, more eclectic browse, a shop called Urban Cottage beckons. It’s filled with funky local fashion, vintage and reclaimed gewgaws, kicky barware, snarky greeting cards—a hodgepodge of island coolness. 

These happy stumbles continue when eating and drinking one’s way through Bermuda. A fried fish sandwich served on raisin bread? It’s a Bermudan quirk, and shouldn’t be resisted. The high-end dining scene here has long focused on cruise-ship cuisine, or what we might call anniversary-dinner fare—unsoulfully fancy. The Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson is tweaking that focus with Marcus’, which opened in 2015 in the high-ceilinged, many-windowed space of the Princess’s former Gazebo Room. Portions of the menu—chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits—are imported from Red Rooster, Samuelsson’s haute soul-food spot in Harlem, but he bears down on local flavors with dishes like his Fish Chowder Bites, deep-fried croquettes imbued with the hallmark flavors of Bermuda’s national dish.

Photo: Tara Donne

Roasted beets and pickled mushrooms at Marcus’.

That dish—a deep, dark, and ultrasavory gruel of fish, tomatoes, and spices—would be worth seeking out if it wasn’t served everywhere. It’s almost always good, especially after you master balancing the two condiments that accompany it, Outerbridge’s sherry pepper sauce and Gosling’s Black Seal rum. “Peppers to give you spice,” explains my server at the Lobster Pot, a casual seafood joint in Hamilton, “and rum to get you drunk.” As to that rum, it and I have had a long and warm acquaintance, Gosling’s being one of Bermuda’s few exports. It’s a convivial pleasure, then, to find new dimensions to it in its homeplace—stirred with Maker’s Mark and peach bitters, for example, in the Crown & Anchor’s Bermuda old-fashioned. 

I will not go so far as to say a Dark ’n Stormy (the classic combo of Gosling’s Black Seal and ginger beer) tastes better here—it is exquisite anywhere—but I can testify that the salutary effects of one are amplified tenfold when consumed while idly monitoring the sun slipping below Bermuda’s white limestone roofs, with the colors of the landscape and sky softening into the very shades that watercolors were invented to depict. Sailboats bob gently in the harbor, the water riffled by the same sweet cool breeze that distinguishes Bermuda from its very distant Caribbean cousins. This is the “deep peace and quiet” of Bermuda that Twain wrote about, sinking into a man’s body and bones and keeping at bay the “invisible small devils that are always trying to whitewash his hair.” As such, this feeling is neither old Bermuda nor new Bermuda, neither this nor that; it’s the timeless effect, rather, of this small and agreeable speck of land in the Atlantic, this placid way station in life’s squally crossings.