A portrait of a youthful but stern-looking Queen Elizabeth looks down on proceedings in the arrivals area of the LF Wade International Airport in Bermuda. A couple of counters can easily handle the daily arrivals and departures, which total just 11 each way. The complete absence of any high-tech hustle has the effect of turning back time – before you even get outside you feel like you’ve lost a couple of decades. The sensation gets more pronounced once you hit the road, as the speed limit here is just 35km per hour. Slow down, you’re now officially on Bermuda time.
I came to Bermuda to help raise awareness around the issue of lionfish, a species that poses a serious threat to marine habitats in Bermuda and, increasingly, around the world. I was proud to represent New Zealand as one of six celebrity chefs from the host nations of each America’s Cup team, in this sustainability initiative established by the 11th Hour Racing Foundation. Along the way I made some fabulous new friends and got to enjoy the fabulous hospitality of Bermudian locals.
The archipelago that makes up Bermuda comprises 181 islands, eight of which are joined by bridges and causeways forming a connected fishhook of land about 35km long, which at its widest is just 3.2km wide. From almost any point you can see the sea. Not just any sea, but a sea of such extraordinary blue it’s like a dream – cerulean, azure, periwinkle, aquamarine, bluebird – the blue of a perfect gemstone. I asked a local if she ever stopped noticing the blue of the sea. She looked at me, almost astonished by my question. “No, never, it always takes your breath away,” she replied, shaking her head fervently. If you could bottle that colour you would make a lot of people happy.
Driving along the south coast, this magnificent sea connects with a ruffle of white and pink sand beaches in long stretches of pure eye-aching beauty. In other parts of the island you could think you are on a Venetian canal – multi-storied, bright-coloured houses hang cheek-to-cheek over the water – while out in the high-end digs on the constellation of islands to the east end of the Great Sound, the huge estates take you to the billionaire mile of the Hamptons beachfront.
There are riddles of roads everywhere, almost 500km of them in fact, private and public, packed into a landmass of just 53 square kilometres, which is home to 64,000 Bermudians. Cars were only allowed here after 1946, and today there is a limit of one per household. There is no private rental car hire, but you can readily hire bikes and mopeds, and there are plenty of taxis, buses and ferries to get you around.
Driving to my hotel in the western end of Bermuda on my second day on the island, my taxi driver, an elderly woman Alexander McCall Smith would describe as ‘traditionally built’, let out a deep rich guffaw. “Yew kneow”, she said, her accent throwing a pronounced posh twang on the ‘o’ vowel, “ahh remember it waz always the newlyweds I waz bringing here, newadays it’s the nearly deads. The same people they coembing back here their whoele lives.” Sure enough, a glance in the visitor book when I arrive reveals a glowing commentary of visitors returning time and again through the span of decades.
Bermudian English is a particular blend of British, West Indian and American English, without the patois that can make navigating language difficult in the rest of the Caribbean. Azorean Portuguese is still spoken and preserved in some Portuguese homes. In itself, the way people talk here serves as a reminder of the history and democratisation of Bermudian society. And what a history.
The discovery of Bermuda by the Spanish in the early 1500s put the island on the global map, but for over a century its reputation was tainted by fear and superstition. Wild storms, wicked reefs, the frightening echoing of the caves, and the unfamiliar screeches of native birds and wild pigs landed the island a reputation of malevolence and it became known in western folklore as the ‘Isle of Devils’. With over 30 confirmed shipwrecks in and around Bermuda’s waters before the year 1600, sailors and explorers alike avoided the island at all costs.
Things changed in 1609, when a fleet of nine ships set out from Plymouth, England to travel to the newly founded colony of Jamestown in Virginia. A storm off the Azores separated the ship Sea Venture from the rest of the fleet. Hundreds of miles from scheduled course, the ship’s captain, Admiral Sir George Somers, made the call to steer onto a visible reef off the dreaded Isle of Devils rather than sink. By sheer good luck the boat lodged between two reefs, and the 150 passengers were able to get ashore on the island now known as St George's, along with all the cargo and crew. Incredibly, not one life was lost.
It took 10 months to build two new vessels using the salvaged Sea Venture and local cedar wood cut from the island. During this time, Sir George, ever the adventurous sailor, explored and mapped the islands of Bermuda creating the first charts.
In May 1610, after 42 weeks in Bermuda, the newly built boats Deliverance and Patience sailed from Bermuda to Jamestown with their castaways, an easy passage that took just 10 days.
But their arrival in Virginia was not to the utopia they imagined. A bitter winter, disease, famine and constant attacks from native Indians had left only 60 survivors from the original 500 settlers (seven boats from the original fleet made it through the hurricane, one was lost to the sea with all on board). Most of the 60 survivors were sick or dying, and the colony was declared unviable. A decision had been made to abandon it, and to return everyone to England. But the arrival of the newcomers brought fresh hope and Virginia's first Thanksgiving (before the later New England version) was held in celebration, spirited by the food the castaways had brought with them – a stash of wild hogs (likely left on the island by earlier Spanish sailors), along with the potatoes and onions that had originally been destined for Virginia, that the shipwrecked survivors had grown over their 10 months in Bermuda.
The easy passage to and from Bermuda saw the Patience return to the island for more food supplies. Somers died there a little later, and his body was taken back to England pickled in a barrel but without the heart, which he had requested be buried in Bermuda. In such a way, and through the tales regaled by the crew, the English came to realise that this supposedly formidiable island offered great prospects for colonisation without the bitter winter or hostile natives that plagued the Jamestown settlement.
Piracy runs deep in the veins of Bermuda. On a bicycle tour along the old railway line, guide Spencer Wood from Fantasea Diving and Watersports pointed out Wreck Hill, a small knob out on the coast. Here, he explained, wily pirates would light fires on the beach to indicate safe passage for incoming vessels. In fact the landing spot was a morass of reefs on which the vessels would be guaranteed to founder. The pirates would bide their time, then row out and offer rescue in exchange for a 50 percent share in the cargo. This was generally refused, so they would wait a week and go back with a new offer – rescue was possible but the terms had changed, the demand now stood at 100 percent of the cargo. Things hotted up when the Engish Crown did a deal with the pirates making them privateers, with legal papers empowering them to seize and loot any boat as long as it wasn’t English. Plundering ships from Boston to the Turks Islands and Bahamas, the privateers ruled the waves with their speedy sloops. Privateering died out in the early 1800s, by which time the 40 theives, as they became known, had amassed vast fortunes.
The slave trade also played a large part in Bermuda’s history with the first slaves brought to Bermuda soon after the colony was established. Many slaves also arrived as part of the cargoes seized by Bermudian privateers. Throughout the 17th century, slaves were traded and at the time of emancipation on 1 August 1834 there were 4,200 slaves in Bermuda, nearly half of the population. The impact of slavery on Bermudian life is the subject of one of the key exhibits at the Commissioner’s House, part of the National Museum of Bermuda on the western end of the island. This permanent exhibition is a key site on the African Diaspora Heritage Trail. There are also interesting exhbits on the influence of the Portguese here, early settler life and an impressive mural of Bermudian life by local artist Graham Foster, which took more than three years to paint.
St George’s is one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the New World, as people have been living here since its establishment in 1612. It’s now a Unesco World Heritage site. St George’s is a great place to spend a morning exploring the cobbled streets and taking in some of its history. In the local perfumery, Lili Bermuda, a 153-year-old bottle of perfume stands on display. Salvaged in 2011 from the shipwreck of the Mary Celestia, a civil war blockade runner that sank off the south shore of Bermuda 1864, the bottle, one of two found intact, is embossed ‘Piesse & Lubin London’. This company was one of the prominent perfume houses in London at that time and Piesse wrote the first book on modern perfumery in 1857, The Art of Perfumery. Perfumer Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone at Lili Bermuda has recreated this perfume in a limited edition of 1857 bottles. It's an amazing scent with notes of grapefruit, rosewood, amber, rose and orange flower. It was such a special story that I just had to buy one!
The cream buns made by Kamilah at the Sweet SAAK Bakery are alone worth the trip to St George’s. Grab a bun and take a walk up to the Unfinished Church, a ruin of gothic architecture abandoned in the 19th century due to lack of funding. On Saturday evenings you can explore the haunted houses of Bermuda on a Haunted Histories Tour. Notorious pirate Hezekiah Frith’s house is one of the most famous, supposedly still haunted by two serving girls and a wench he locked in a room.
In this tiny seafaring nation, rum reigns king and the local brand, Gosling’s, is famous the world over. In the Jasmine Lounge of the grand old dame Fairmont Southampton hotel, the spectacular dark rich fish chowder is offered with a good dousing of local black rum and sherry pepper. It’s a dining experience not to be missed.
Most of the food served in Bermuda comes in by sea each Sunday on a container ship. With no natural water source and a shortage of farmland, most food is imported and as a result finding great food experiences isn’t always easy. Small roadside market tables abound, selling the famous Bermuda onions, equally gigantic carrots, potatoes, cabbage and other seasonal vegetable staples, and there is a farmers’ market at the Botanical Gardens on Saturday mornings. Wadson’s Home Farm Market is a great place to buy local fresh vegetables, specialty microgreens and herbs as well as the gourmet ice cream that is now being produced on the island.
Fried chicken and fish sandwiches are two national obsessions, and both are executed well. You won’t find any fast food chains on Bermuda with the exception of a single KFC store, which was set up before the 'Prohibited Restaurants Act' came into effect in 1977, preventing any international fast food chain setting up in the island. So local fried chicken joints abound, supplying the locals with their meal of choice after a night on the town. The famous Bermudian fish sandwiches are made with the freshest local fish and usually a sweet fruit bread not unlike a hot cross bun, an idea and flavour which, surprisingly for me, I couldn’t get my head around. But not to worry, white or wholegrain bread are also on offer.
Woody’s, a simple beachside bar in Sandys, is a great choice for the freshest sandwich of crisp fried wahoo with slaw and tartare sauce finished with a jolt of hot sauce. It’s an uber-delicious experience, especially when washed down with a rum swizzle cocktail. Sticks of fragrant allspice, which grows wild all over the island, are traditionally used to swizzle this cocktail, infusing it with a luscious tropical flavour.
Swedish-raised Ethiopian-born chef Marcus Samuelsson, of Harlem’s Red Rooster fame, is behind Marcus’ restaurant in the perennially stylish Hamilton Princess hotel, offering a tasty menu that leans to the American South. Grits and shrimp, slow-cooked beef ribs, devilled eggs and a rissole-style take on the famous fish chowder are signature dishes to enjoy here.
Known locally as the ‘pink palace’ and the official hotel of the America’s Cup, the Hamilton Princess went through a full makeover last year and is very much the ritzy heart of Bermuda. More than US$50 million has been spent upgrading the hotel since the local Green family purchased it in 2012. It’s a glamorous space to find killer-heeled blondes and slick-haired men in expensive deal-making suits. The hotel boasts an impressive pop and modern art collection, which is on show throughout its lobby and public spaces – head there for breakfast and check it out. You'll find works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Nelson Mandela, Bansky, Ai Wei Wei, Jeff Koons and Philippe Decrauzat. Guided walking art tours are offered every Saturday at 10am and by special appointment.
On Thursday nights local reggae band DIA dishes up the vibe in Marcus’ with some great music. Right next door to the hotel, Harry’s is the local’s stylish hangout bar offering its very own brew of rum. Miles Market is a few steps away with a great selection of gourmet food and wines, which can otherwise be hard to find in Bermuda. See below for some other restaurants recommended by the locals.
Perched elegantly on a rise across the road from the Princess, the Rosedon Hotel is a family-run operation that completed a major renovation earlier this year including the introduction of a new restaurant called, in a nod to Mark Twain, Huckleberry. Twain visited Bermuda frequently, spending the last three years of his life here, and is famously quoted as saying, “You go to heaven if you want to, I’d rather stay right here in Bermuda”.
This new restaurant, under the direction of executive chef Lucy Collins, was in the process of opening when I visited but I enjoyed an excellent rendition of huevos racncheros for my breakfast. The Rosedon has taken the smart step towards a more sustainable operation, including installing solar hot water panels and providing recycyling bins and bulk dispensers of high-end ‘green’ toiletries in rooms. The gardens are beautifully established and there’s a heated swimming pool.
Thanks to the wam Gulf Stream current and the large area of protected marine reserve around the island, snorkelling and diving in Bermuda is excellent. The coral reefs of Bermuda are the northernmost in the Atlantic and while the water is cooler than in the tropics, they abound with tropical sea life. There are lots of places you can snorkel directly off the beach, including Tobacco Bay Beach, Church Bay, Daniel’s Head Beaches, Warwick Long Bay, Jobson’s Cove, Elbow Beach, Snorkel Park and John Smith’s Bay Beach. Hire a guide to head offshore to explore a shipwreck or a reef, and expect to pay $65 for around 2-3 hours with all equipment supplied.
The water is exceptionally clear, especially in the cooler months, and it’s not uncommon to see shoals of colourful parrotfish whilst walking around the shoreline. The locals say that if you spot a Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish it means there’s a storm somewhere out at sea and bad weather is on the way. When I visited, the turtles has just arrived and the whales had just left.
In its heyday, the wealthy would come to Bermuda via seaplane or cruise ship, escaping the bitter winters of the Eastern seaboard of America and England, often for months at a time. The vibe today isn’t jet-set by any stretch, but the sense of lush escape that’s just a one hour 45 minute flight from New York is a drawcard the world is again starting to discover. If you are into golf there are three world-class golf courses. Bermuda is also famous for bird-watching and the Bermuda Audubon Society has a great list of good sites to check out around the island. For the rose lover, Bermuda is a living museum of roses, and the Bermuda Rose Society holds an annual exhibition each April. And of course there is the sailing, with the America’s Cup about to begin.
They say the thing that makes us happy is how we manage our expectations. Out here on this far-away rock, there is a simplicity to life still ruled by the whims of sea and weather, a brightness not dulled by the visible hustle of commerce. Looking at all the investment going into hotels, infrastructure and a new airport, things will change – and fast – but for now Bermuda can hold onto its billing as ‘the semi-tropical isles of rest and enchantment’.
Thanks to Bermuda Tourism for on-the-ground support.
Eating and drinking:
Harry’s Bar for great cocktails and a local vibe
Hamilton Princess: Marcus’, Crown & Anchor Bar, 1609 Bar & Restaurant, Princess Beach Club
Barracuda Grill for seafood and chops
Pearl for sushi
Devil’s Isle – a popular America’s Cup hangout with good coffee
Café Lido for Italian at Elbow Beach
Coral Beach & Tennis Club for a seafood buffet every Thursday (formal dress code)
Fairmont Southampton Jasmine Lounge for amazing fish chowder
Woody’s Sport Bar – a local hangout with the best fish sandwiches on the island served from a rough little shack
The Hamilton Princess for reggae nights on Thursdays
Uber Vida for Friday mini-cruises
Cheap things to do:
Front Street stays open late every Wednesday night, 7pm-10pm, during the summer for the Harbour Nights Street Party. Shops and bars offer deals, restaurants serve up special dishes and local artists and craftspeople show and sell their wares. There's also live entertainment, including music and the brightly costumed Gombey dancers.
Mondays and Thursday, 9pm-10pm, head to the Heritage Wharf at Dockyards for Calico Jack’s free Pirate Fire Show, where tricorn-hat wearing rascals sword fight, joke and create a fire-dance display. After the 30-minute pirate performance, you can pose for selfies with the cast.