Barry Manilow warned us not to go to Bermuda with his terrifying tune Bermuda Triangle. Good job I ignored him. I’ve come to this very British island famed for its shorts – and disappearing ships – to find out what Bermuda has to offer the holidaymaker who hasn’t rocked up on their own yacht. It’s not a cheap destination when travelling from the UK but I’ve got tips on how to trim your ticket price later.
Bermuda is a collection of small islands joined to make a 22-mile land mass, the shape of a fishhook. It’s out on its own in the North Atlantic, just less than 3,500 miles from London and 750 miles from New York. Bermuda offers an interesting mix of British and American influences. It isn’t independent and still belongs to Britain – the Queen is on the stamps, you’ll see red phone boxes, police wearing British bobby helmets and the default pub beer is Boddingtons. It’s 6.30pm, I’m walking through the capital, Hamilton, and there are guys practicing bagpipes!
Bermudan’s use British pronunciation – it’s ‘zed’ not ‘zee’ – but the accent has a hint of American, almost like Madonna’s when she became Brit obsessed. There are posh resorts, particularly in the south where the hotels fringe beautiful, sandy beaches that appear to be a shimmering pink colour. And the sun loungers will get used. Bermuda is warm but not too hot, with average temperatures ranging between 18°C and 28°C. The place is perfect for golf and that’s why there are eight places to play, although it can become humid in August and September.
Bermuda is one of a kind. It really doesn’t feel like any of the Caribbean islands that lie around 1,000 miles to the south. For a start, unlike many Caribbean countries, Bermuda is immaculate. Most homes, roads and public spaces are neat and tidy and I didn’t see any of the sketchy areas or feel uneasy as I have done in some parts of the Caribbean. Artist Jill Rain has operated her St George gallery since 1975. She says Bermuda feels safe, adding she would never think twice about setting up her easel in the remotest parts of the island.
Most of Bermuda’s wealth comes from financial services, not the tourism market. The 60,000 residents pay no income tax. Unfortunately for us, the government adds duty to many items that tourists buy so that they can balance the books. It means you won’t find bargains or cheap food here. A three-course meal for two in a midrange restaurant will cost around £80 and a burger and fries is around £8. But you won’t have to eat at the usual fast food chains – it’s all local. And the big American retailers like Walmart aren’t here either.
Bermuda’s capital Hamilton is pretty with English style churches and narrow streets lined with stone, colonial-period buildings. The most distinctive feature of Bermudan homes is their white-painted concrete or stone roofs with deep grooves, resembling odd-shaped pyramids. They’re designed to capture water, which doesn’t occur naturally on the islands, and which is stored in tanks underneath the houses. It’s an eco-friendly solution that’s been in operation for centuries.
So how do you get around? Well, as a visitor, you can’t hire a car. The water provides the main thoroughfare and boat services criss-cross the island. I walked down to Hamilton’s Harbour to catch the 20-minute ferry to Dockyard, which is three times as fast as taking the bus.
Dockyard is an 18th century naval base that has been redeveloped as a cruise ship terminal with some impressive buildings dominated by two towers. There are some nice craft shops and cafes inside the old buildings too. It’s very well done. Because of the cruise visitors, this is also a good place for booking all sorts of activities, from Segway tours to jet skis and reef fishing. I boarded the boat Excellence for their ‘Famous House and Hideaways’ sightseeing tour.
Mark Roberts from Winsome co-owns the company and he’s been running the tours for the past seven years. He’s local, clearly loves Bermuda and knows his stuff. Tom gave us a fantastic insight into island life and pointed out the luxury homes of the rich and famous along the way. Noel Coward, David Niven, former presidential runner Ross Perot, Michael Bloomberg and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi were all regular visitors. But the biggest surprise was Michael Douglas, whose mother was Bermudan and who regularly returns to his island home with wife Catherine Zeta Jones. Mark said they’re often seen at local charity events. We got to see their impressive house on the waterfront. The view is almost a nice as the one she had in Swansea!
I heard more about the islands’ celebrity connections after the cruise, when I headed to the Masterworks Museum, a short stroll outside Hamilton. Curator Tom Butterfield told me how John Lennon spent six weeks in Bermuda in 1980, naming his last album after a flower he saw on the island. The ‘double fantasy’ is a type of fuchsia. A local artist has sculpted a tribute depicting the Beatles star wearing his distinctive specs, which sits outside the museum.
Tom and his team have tracked down many Bermudan art works for display. It’s not a stuffy old museum and it’s one of the few seven-day attractions with a great café. There are lots of interesting pop culture pieces, from shop signs to posters advertising trashy ‘Bermuda Triangle’ movies that were filmed there.
Locals won’t be upset if you talk about the Triangle. Tom dismisses the mystery as “nothing to worry about” adding that most of the disappearances were “down to human error.” And he joked that if you’ve got here, “you’re 50% of the way anyway.” But there is a triangle that locals are proud of – the creation of the triangular sail. Tom says this gave Bermudan sailors an advantage because three-point sails made boats faster than the old-fashioned square type.
Art and music in Bermuda isn’t just about the rich and famous. There are plenty of enthusiastic locals. And on Wednesday evenings from May to September a festival is held on Front Street, alongside Hamilton’s waterfront. The road is closed for an hour of loud and lively ‘Gombey Dancing’. It’s a fusion of local, African and South American cultures and it’s totally frenetic. I’m surprised they don’t pass out. The dancers wear brightly coloured clothing of red, gold and green and their faces are obscured by scary-looking masks with headgear about three feet high, made of vertically stacked sticks and peacock feathers.
But now to a different kind of singing – the music of whales. And it’s thanks to local naturalist Frank Watlington. He was monitoring Russian subs during the cold war when he recorded a humpback singing, and you can hear it at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute. It’s one of the most interesting and engaging ‘sciencey’ centres I’ve seen. As you walk in, a life-size replica of a 500-pound, 27-foot long giant squid hangs from the atrium ceiling.
Belinda Barbieri showed me around. It’s a very immersive experience, excuse the pun. You can pretend you’re shark diving – step inside a cage and the surrounding video screens give the impression that you’re underwater and being rammed by a great white. You can also enter a big, mocked-up submersible, which simulates a deep dive. The lights go out, the seats jolt and shake and strange and wonderful sealife appears at the forward portal window the deeper you go.
At the Google Earth ‘Living With The Ocean’ exhibit you step into a semicircle, surrounded by seven high resolution video screens and use a joystick to fly around the globe and zoom in on undersea trenches. There are areas devoted to shipwrecks and treasure hunting too. Archaeologist Teddy Tucker uncovered a fabulous gold and emerald cross from a wreck in 1955. It subsequently vanished and the glass-cased replica also magically disappears as you walk past.
Some of the area’s native fish are vanishing because of the predatory lionfish. There’s a live display of the fish and you can get a chance to see them being fed. They look pretty – with black and white zebra markings – but don’t be fooled. As the food is dropped into the tank, they become very aggressive and devour it before it even hits the bottom. Belinda took me to video screens showing before and after pictures of reefs that have been infested with the fish. But Bermudans are fighting back. Belinda says local restaurants are being encouraged to serve lionfish, caught off the coast, and which she describes as “delicious!”
If you’re interested in fish and sea life, I’d also recommend the Bermuda Aquarium Museum and Zoo in a village called Flatts, about 15 minutes bus ride from Hamilton. Since 1926 they’ve given visitors a chance to see what’s in the sea around the island. Curator Ian Walker says Bermuda has some of the most amazing reefs in the world and many of the fish you’ll see are kept in the aquarium. He says it’s a great chance to get to know the species before you go diving.
Ian says you’re unlikely to see sharks off Bermuda and if you do it would probably be at night. They have a 5-foot Galapagos shark at the centre. I’m not keen on sharks, but I got to meet a fish that was altogether friendlier – an 80 pound black grouper called Darth Vader, who comes to the surface to have his belly tickled. It was an amazing sight!
At the opposite end of the island to Dockyard is the historic, UNESCO-listed town of St George’s. It’s been recognised as the oldest continuously inhabited town of English origin in the New World and there’s a small museum where you can learn about that. But you don’t really need to go. Wandering around the 17th century white and terracotta-painted cottages and churches, you forget where you are. You could be in Devon or Dorset.
St George’s is unique because it is a ‘living’ heritage experience, where history comes to life. And tour guides wearing three-cornered hats walk you around the historic site. Putting your partner or children in the town square’s stocks provides a popular photo opportunity! St Catherine’s Fort is worth a visit – there have been defences here since 1612 and Debbie Jones says that’s because of the threat of invasion first by the Spanish and then by the Americans, who wanted to take over the island after the War of Independence.
I took a tour on the Olde Town Street Train that, for $20, completes a 5-mile circuit of the town with owner and driver Clarence Mynors. We set off on 45-minute meander through the narrow lanes and out past three of the stunning beaches. And it stopped for driver Eugene to grab a handful of green leaves growing in the hedgerow. “This,” he said, “is Bermuda spice.” It tastes of cloves and is used for cooking and to make tea.
Bermudan food does have a kick, both from the range of spices used and, in a lot of recipes, a liberal amount of booze. The famous Bermudan fish chowder is dark, not like the creamy American version, and a liberal glug of rum is added. The theme continues with the local spiced rum cake. It’s probably just as well visitors can’t hire a car here! The signature local drink is a ‘Dark and Stormy’ – a strong (and dangerously moreish) mix of ginger beer and local Gosling rum.
I made sure I avoided those before setting off in a six-oared, 32-foot gig boat. Throughout western Britain, and particularly in Cornwall, these wooden ‘gigs’ were once used as pilot vessels and to reach wrecked ships. Now Steve Lock, who hails from Devon, has brought a fibreglass version of the boats to Bermuda, and he’s training locals for competitive rowing events. Visitors can have a go and row across the beautiful harbour. If you’re going to St George’s and fancy giving it a go, message Bermuda Pilot Gig Club on Facebook.
The sun was setting and it was the perfect time to meet Christine White of St George’s Haunted History Ghost Tours, who was getting ready to bring this historic town’s dead back to life. Christine says she’s fascinated by some of the real lives she’s uncovered, including a couple of freed black slaves who ran a tavern and accommodation on Old Gun Lane. They had slaves themselves. He eventually went mad and they lost everything.
Some people get scared in caves, but the guide at the nearby Crystal Caves was full of life as we walked down into the depths, although he did turn the lights out for us to appreciate the darkness. The caverns were discovered by chance after a cricketer went to retrieve a lost ball in 1907. They feature an underground lake, which you cross on a wobbly pontoon bridge. The stalactites and oddly shaped limestone formations in the shape of the New York skyline are impressive. And it’s lovely and cool too.
Bermuda isn’t cheap, but it’s very pretty and the people are genuinely welcoming, friendly and chatty. The water’s blue, the beaches are beautiful, it’s clean and comfortably familiar if you’re a Brit, but different enough to feel like you’re abroad.
How To Get To Bermuda
Only British Airways flies direct to Bermuda and they’re expensive. A return in March would cost £730 for the seven-hour flight.
Instead, I’d recommend taking in the Big Apple first. Grab a cheap seat to New York on Norwegian Air from Gatwick for just £300 return. Stay for a few days then get a flight from New York to Bermuda for £197 return. You clear US immigration at Bermuda Airport when you fly back to the USA, so you avoid the infamously long immigration queues at JFK.