Once known to superstitious sailors as “The Isle of Devils,” Bermuda has always harbored a reputation for treacherous seas and mysterious disappearances. There’s nothing remotely sinister about this postcard-perfect spot these days, however - unless you’re a ship’s captain whose GPS is down - but the mystique surrounding the island is alive and well.
Marooned in the mid-Atlantic 640 miles southeast of North Carolina, Bermuda was an important strategic territory for Great Britain during the 19th and early 20th centuries, providing a crucial base between North America and Europe. A certain charming Britishness remains in the form of red post boxes emblazoned with the Royal coat of arms, cozy English-style pubs and those shorts (traditionally worn with suit jackets and long socks) but the prevailing vibe is more breezy Caribbean than stiff upper lip.
Well-heeled visitors flock to the island in the summer months to take advantage of the pristine pink-sand beaches, impeccably groomed golf courses and world-class wreck diving - while less outdoorsy types pull up bar stools to sample Bermuda’s other great attractions, the Dark ‘n’ Stormy and the Rum Swizzle. Cheers!
5…Channel Jacques Cousteau for the day
Orient yourself in the capital city of Hamilton, set on a bustling harbor in Great Sound. The main boulevard - Front Street - is lined with pastel-colored Victorian houses and shop fronts, while the waterfront is a parking lot for shiny yachts with jaunty names like “Blind Date.” Stroll east along Front Street until the commerce peters out and you’ll find the fascinating Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute (BUEI), an interactive museum showcasing all things oceanographic (40 Crow Lane, Pembroke, 441-292-7219, www.buei.org, $12:50 admission). Stops on the tour include a simulated submersible ride on a gizmo called Nautilus-X2, a reasonably realistic cage shark attack and a huge shell collection. Another highlight is a replica of the priceless “Tucker Cross,” salvaged in 1955 by native-born living legend Teddy Tucker that might give you flashbacks to Titanic (The original cross was stolen and never recovered). There are hokey moments, sure, but the exhibits are incredibly well done and the staff passionate about the oceans. Look out for Teddy’s friendly daughter, Wendy, the Institute’s director and a font of knowledge about everything Bermuda. Considering the importance the sea plays in both Bermuda’s past and present - over 300 wrecks lie just offshore in the deadly reefs - it’s instructive to get an overview of this mysterious world before heading off into the Deep.
4…Swim with the fishes
It’s not for nothing that Scuba Diving Magazine awarded Bermuda its highest honor for wreck diving in the 2010 Reader’s Choice awards: experienced divers can explore everything from 19th century French warships to luxury cruise liners (the 500 foot-long Cristobal Colon) in the crystal-clear waters of the fringing reef system. Along with incredible shipwrecks - including popular dives like the Hermes, a freighter that was deliberately scuttled in 1984 in around 80 foot of water, hatches removed to allow exploration of all her rooms - there are caves, dramatic ocean ledges and miles of living coral.
Even without your PADI license the waters are teeming with opportunities. From May to September, when the chilly Atlantic waters warm up, snorkelers can kit up and hit any of the sheltered harbors, sounds and bays. Church Bay, near Southampton, is a favorite with locals thanks to its inshore reef and lots of nooks and crannies to explore. Most hotels will rent snorkeling equipment: the Fairmont Southampton’s Dive Shop (Dive Bermuda, 441-238-2332, bermudascuba.com) is staffed by super-friendly folk who are passionate about diving and love to dispense advice.
If soaking up rays is more your speed, Bermuda’s beaches are top-notch, with their fine-grained sand, craggy limestone dunes and water so blue it looks as though it’s been Photoshopped. The south shore beaches are generally considered superior to the north shore - try swanky Elbow Beach or popular Horseshoe Bay Beach in Southampton.
3…Go on a real English pub crawl
Whether you’re into swilling craft brews, sipping sweet and lethal cocktails or sampling vintage wines in cozy surrounds, Bermuda has a drinking establishment tailor made for your needs. The pubs tend to be in the authentic English country mode, all dimly lit interiors, wood paneling and walls filled with bric-a-brac, but some also have sundecks to take advantage of the balmy weather. To get around, buy an all-day bus pass at the depot in Hamilton: $12 gets you access to any bus or ferry island-wide.
On weekends, join the crowds at the island’s most famous watering hole, The Swizzle Inn. The original location, in Bailey’s Bay, Hamilton Parish (not to be confused with the capital) is a non-stop funfest, in part thanks to never-ending jugs of the national drink, the Rum Swizzle – a heady concoction of rum, triple sec, fruit juice and bitters. The walls are covered with business cards from all over the world and the place attracts a young and lively crowd. (Swizzle Inn, 3 Blue Hole Hill, 441-293-1854, www.swizzleinn.com) The second location in Warwick is slightly more sedate: take a perch outside on the deck, order some old fashioned fish and chips ($18.75 gets you beer battered Atlantic cod, coleslaw, chips and tartar sauce) and watch the world go by. (Swizzle Inn South Shore, 87 South Road, Warwick, 441-236-74590).
Beer aficionados will be in their element at the North Rock Brewing Company microbrewery, the only company on the island to produce locally brewed ale (10 South Road, Smiths Parish, 441-236-6633, www.northrockbrewing.com).The atmosphere harks back to the Old Country, with stained glass windows, dark wood paneling and antique light fixtures, and the food - Sunday roasts ($22.50 with all the trimmings), steak and ale pie - continues the theme. Choose from seven draught beers ranging from a German-style wheat to a Guinness-like dark ale.
If you’re after a slightly tonier experience, book a table at the Waterlot Inn, a swanky restaurant housed in a 340-year-old two-story manor house, where you can sample the island’s other legendary drink, the Dark ‘n’ Stormy, a cocktail made from rum and ginger beer, while you choose from a seafood and steak-heavy menu. (101 South Shore Road, Southampton, 441-238-8000)
The Hog Penny, on a steep street not far from Hamilton’s waterfront, was reputedly the inspiration for the bar in Cheers, and it’s not hard to see why: the cozy interior is low-lit and convivial, with a menu chock-full of comfort food favorites like shepherd’s pie and bangers and mash. (5 Burnaby Hill, Hamilton, 441-292-2534, www.hogpennypub.com)
2…Get off the Beaten Track
To get a lofty perspective on your surroundings, devote an afternoon to the Bermuda Railway Trail, an 18-mile-long abandoned railroad track that meanders from Sandy’s Parish at the western tip of the island all the way to St. George’s in the northeast. For much of its length the trail affords stunning coastal views, the startlingly blue water dotted with leafy islets and unfurled white sails. Some sections are secluded and hushed, while others cross through the yards of brightly colored Bermudian homes, with their distinctive whitewashed tiered roofs resembling pyramids.
Tackle portions of the track on foot or hire bicycles (known as “push bikes” here to distinguish them from the ubiquitous motor scooters) if you’d rather have the miles whizz by. Wheels Cycles (117 Front Street, Hamilton, 441-292 2245) offers a free island-wide pickup and delivery service and has concessions at many of the major resorts.
If you’re game after all that walking to burn some more calories, head for Gibb’s Hill Lighthouse, perched above Southampton Parish: founded in 1846, it’s the oldest cast-iron lighthouse in the world and offers a panoramic view of the island…185 steps from the ground.
1…Join the Navy
To get a sense of how crucial sea power was to the British in the early 19th century, make a visit to The Royal Naval Dockyard in West End, a misty ferry ride from Hamilton to the island’s extreme western tip. Once known as “The Gibraltar of the West,” this imposing fort and former shipyard is one of Bermuda’s best-loved attractions. As a result, it’s not exactly peaceful - for a start, huge cruise ships that look like floating cities all dock here - so expect to be part of a mob scene when you disembark. Still, the location is stunning and the stately limestone buildings - especially the hilltop abandoned fort itself - are an imposing sight. Explore the Clocktower and Cooperage buildings, now housing an old-timey pharmacy, museum, and restaurants, which have all been thoughtfully restored without losing their historic appeal. Skip the double-decker bus renting out Segways and the crowded Dolphin Quest (unless you like seeing these amazing creatures in captivity) and instead head to the Frog and Onion pub (Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda, 441-234-2900, www.frogandonion.bm) for fortification of the intoxicating kind. This quaint English-style pub is housed in the old cooperage: foot-thick limestone walls draped with flags and maritime artifacts, low ceilings with exposed iron beams and a pleasantly beery aroma conspire to make this watering hole feel like the real deal. To complete the fantasy that you really did visit London, pose in front of one of the classic red phone booths outside the cooperage before you get back on the ferry.