Bermuda's locals like to describe their island homeland with a joke: "It's 68,000 alcoholics clinging to a rock."
But that description isn't at all accurate. Most of them are also clinging to their golf clubs.
This outcropping of coral and sand of finely ground seashells 650 miles east of the Outer Banks certainly has a preoccupation with rum (which is tasty enough to warrant the attention), golf (there are more courses per square mile than anywhere else), and genteel pursuits like sailing. Its pink beaches are the site of countless romantic declarations; its crystal caves are a day trip for hordes of cruise ship passengers.
As one Bermuda native describes the visitors, "It's the overfed, the newly wed, and the nearly dead."
But lately Bermuda has been set upon by a more adventurous people who exploit the natural riches sometimes overlooked between the marquee golf courses and the honeymoon coves. They're bounding along jungle trails by bike, rock climbing, and doing backflips off cliffs into the turquoise coves below.
The real beauty of Bermuda is its manageability — not only is it a two-hour flight from New York, but you can see it all in three days' time.
The island is only 21 miles end to end, so a day of unstructured exploration on a rented moped (which are ubiquitous because of the country's one-car-per-household limit) or a mountain bike is an obvious and easy first step.
Pick a point, east or west; no matter the route, you'll be awash in Bermuda's photogenic appeal: colorful stucco outcrops, amazing harbor views, and a string of postcard beaches (nearly all public) you can ramble through. Make your way from Horseshoe Bay up to Warwick Long Bay, one stunning beach after another, following a path in some spots and scrambling over rocks to get to others. And when you settle on your favorite, take a swim.
You can be back at the hotel by midday for a nap or a gear change or lunch, which, if you're smart, will include some fish chowder. This deeply flavored, auburn-colored soup is everywhere on the island, and everyone has an opinion about who makes it best or which of its roughly 28 ingredients (from the head of a fresh grouper to three shots of Gosling's rum) are most essential.
Billy Phillips, a former firefighter whose recipe won the Outerbridge Cup a few years ago, says the key to the soup's rich broth is "the slimy jelly that comes from boiling down the grouper's head. That's what gives it body." Never mind. It's delicious whether you get it at one of the larger hotels or at a backstreet gem called the Lobster Pot.
No one will confuse Bermuda with a mountain-biking mecca like Moab: Space is limited, and the island's elevation tops out at about 350 feet. But that hasn't stopped Hans Hirschi and James Holloway. They channel Bermuda's growing sense of stoke into a 10-race bike series called the Fat Tire Massive, which stages mile-lap courses out of whatever terrain they find, including a creepy overgrown estate property that's lain dormant since the Thirties.
Hirschi and Holloway take me across the island a slightly gentler way, on the Railway Trail, which was once the site of the island's end-to-end railroad. Now it's mostly a wide fire road that cuts through thick vegetation and rock and winds past destination golf courses and through canopied jungle and residential areas. Hirschi assures me that it's the best way to cross the island. It's certainly the most fun.
We take plenty of detours — to beaches and secret lobstering spots, as well as a tiny church that dates from the 1600s — and wind up at the Royal Naval Dockyard, at the island's tip. Nearby are a few rowdy bars, a boulangerie, and boathouses, like Oracle's, whose team is prepping for the America's Cup, which will take place here in 2017.
From there I take a 20-minute ferry ride back to the Hamilton Princess Hotel, where New York chef Marcus Samuelsson recently opened a soul food–island mash-up called Marcus'. The place makes its own ginger beer, elevating the Dark 'n' Stormy to a slightly less sweet refresher well worth a stop. I still have time to cruise out to Clarence Cove (in Admiralty House Park) to meet Grant Farquhar, a Scottish psychiatrist who moved to the island eight years ago and almost instantly became the godfather of Bermuda rock climbing.
"There was no recorded climbing when I got here," he explains. "They thought I was going to kill myself." As it turns out, Bermuda's low, accessible overhangs are ideally suited for deepwater solo climbing, which lets you act out your Alex Honnold fantasies by busting a few moves you'd never try if you weren't hanging 25 feet above a turquoise cove.
"The worst that can happen," he tells me, "is you fall into 77-degree water and you have to try again." I suffer this fate time and again, and have to restart myself by climbing through a cave or swimming over to a humiliating rope ladder, while Farquhar remains dry.
Neither of us is complaining.
How do you end the best Bermuda getaway? Check out Day Three.