HAMILTON PARISH, Bermuda - This has to be one of the most pleasant hazards to navigation in the world. Spanish seamen warned one another of Bermuda's reef-filled waters after Spanish captain Juan de Bermudez discovered the island group in about 1505.
His name stuck to these volcanic specks so tiny that it’s a wonder anyone ever discovered them in this otherwise empty area of the western Atlantic. A smidge over 21 square miles, the whole of Bermuda fits easily into an airplane window on approach.
About a century after Bermudez found it, 150 America-bound English settlers from the Sea Venture shipwreck discovered that once you get ashore, these 180 or so subtropical islands make for a lush, exotic getaway. Now it’s just a 90-minute hop from New York or Boston.
It’s the oldest of the British Overseas Territories; you still hear London’s English spoken.
And as you stroll beaches whose spongy pink sand resembles grains of couscous – or as you wrap your arms around your romantic interest in one of the countless rocky coves – you wonder how anybody could have feared this jewel in a sea of electric turquoise.
Though a frequent hurricane target, Bermuda was the perfect getaway for my wife and me the day after Hurricane Igor struck in September. Cruise ships had steered clear for days, letting us have the place practically to ourselves, along with a bunch of natives who emerged from their bunker-hardy homes, wondering what all the fuss was about.
Spending time here among these aggressively polite people softens a person. Strangers insist on welcoming you to each new day, and at one point a passing motorist in a sports car stopped because my wife and I looked just lost enough to worry her. There is no pressurized street-hawking like you find in parts of the Caribbean. In three days on Bermuda, I encountered one panhandler. (I do think a grocery clerk’s $20 shortchanging was intentional, however.) The place is such a treasure, it’s easy to understand why British cannons still jealously point in every direction from old stone forts – lots of them – dotting the coasts. Those iron barrels are mere relics now, though even in the years after the American Civil War, the Brits still feared that the Americans might want to pocket this sunny vestige of British colonial power.
Now knitted together by bridged roadways that make Bermuda seem like one big island, this fishhook-shaped archipelago makes a luscious, historically fascinating respite often mistaken as a Caribbean isle. But this is strictly a lonely child of the Atlantic.
It’s also an expensive one. For maybe half a grand a night, you could stay at one of the two stunning resorts that Conde Naste Traveler readers put on the magazine’s Gold List for 2011 as two of the best places in the world to stay: The Reefs Hotel & Club and Tucker’s Point Hotel & Spa. Plus, many other mostly costly options are available. Or you could do what I did and rent somebody’s nicely appointed, self-contained pool house for about that same amount – for three nights.
I wouldn’t fault people for dropping big bucks on a resort if they have big bucks, but enjoying the privacy of our own place and having a large pool to ourselves made the experience much more intimate. Either way, if I wanted to dress up the place setting at a romantic dinner, I can’t think of anything better than a couple of tickets to go lie on this cushion of sand.
GREAT SCOOTER CHALLENGE
Nonresidents are not allowed to drive cars in Bermuda, so you will be limited to a bicycle, a bus, a ferry, a taxi, a private driver or – my choice – a motor scooter, despite a stern U.S. State Department warning. Scooters can be dangerous in Bermuda, where the 22 mph speed limit is ignored by native drivers and where traffic runs on the left.
I admit, driving on the left took an hour or so of acclimation. And driving a scooter took practice, because unlike a motorcycle, which feels a lot more like an extension of the body, a scooter is more like sitting in a chair that can go 50 mph. My suggestion: If you have any doubt about your abilities, don’t rent a scooter. But if you practice on a scooter before heading for Bermuda, I think left-side driving is easily overcome.
A scooter gave my wife and me total freedom. We drove all of Bermuda’s 23-mile length, able to stop where whim demanded. Plus, my wife had to hug me the whole time she was riding on the back.
A word of caution: Be ready to stop for crosswalk pedestrians, and don’t drink alcohol before scootering.
As for the other modes of transport, cabs and private drivers can get expensive (cabs $6.40 for the first mile, $2 for each after that), but the public bus was comfy, cheap and very clean. Bus hours on the island’s south side are limited to daytime, so staying in St. George, Hamilton or Somerset Village offers more bus options.
I wouldn’t dream of riding a bike – or walking – between towns in Bermuda, with all the walled blind corners and narrow roads.
BERMUDA IN A NUTSHELL
Hit one of the gorgeous beaches, snorkel a private cove, and putter around the far ends: the Royal Naval Dockyard and St. George (“the oldest continuously inhabited English town in the New World,” called St. George’s by residents.) Then shop Hamilton in the middle, and you’ve got your snapshot of Bermuda.
Hamilton is the only urban area I would call a city, though laid back despite a business buzz. The variety of shopping options is stellar, with prices to match. Celeb alert: This reportedly is where you’re most likely to see part-time residents Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas.
The Dockyard was the most enticing to me for its Bermuda Maritime Museum (www.bmm.bm), in an expansive old fort, and the nearby Frog & Onion Pub (brew pub, frogandonion.bm).
St. George is cute as can be with a tidy town square, lots of shops and a big helping of historic sites. There also was more tourist tripe, apparently meant to amuse cruise passengers. Try to ignore it unless you like to see pretend witches dunked.
CHEAPER WAY TO STAY
I highly recommend the rental route. I used Fiona Campbell’s Bermuda Accommodations Inc. (1-877-730-1352, bermudarentals.com. The website is loaded with visitor information).
When Hurricane Igor interrupted our original pool-house booking, I called Campbell immediately after our flight was canceled.
Within half an hour she booked a different pool house for a few days later. Though we paid the same price, it definitely was an upgrade from the first rental, left powerless by the storm. The homeowners even shared dinner with us one night.
Having a kitchen kept costs down.
Though groceries are pricier than in the States, they are still cheaper than taking every meal at a restaurant. We had breakfast and dinner in our rental and ate lunch out. Grocery-store alcohol didn’t seem terribly out of line. American currency is accepted everywhere.
If using a taxi from the airport, get groceries before going to your rental.