Bermuda's Rail Trail: Serenity on Wheels
Sunday, September 28, 2008
There are lots of reasons why the ultra-rich and famous -- from Michael Bloomberg to Michael Douglas -- play or live in Bermuda. With its dazzling pink sand beaches, spectacular villas, lush gardens and British sophistication, there is a distinct aura of Eden. And the island's location, 650 miles off the coast of North Carolina in open Atlantic waters, gives this self-governing U.K. territory an alluring, away-from-the-world charm.
On my first visit, 16 years ago, I thought I took in all there was to experience, at least on a quick trip. Like many tourists, I rented a motorbike and buzzed along the winding, narrow and often dangerous roads, saw the major tourist sites and nursed a Dark 'N' Stormy cocktail (dark rum and ginger ale) while relaxing on the fine sands of fashionable Elbow Beach.
Somehow, nothing drew me back for an encore. (The steep prices for just about everything certainly had something to do with it.)
Then I read about the possibility of renting a bicycle and riding the Bermuda Railway Trail, an 18-mile stretch of national park that, like the Washington area's Capital Crescent Trail, follows an abandoned rail bed. Away from the crowds and the busy roads, this was a chance, I thought, to discover the real Bermuda, which can get lost in all the pink sand even though it's only the size of Manhattan.
I found a serene side to the island as I rode slowly through the back country, the trail often overgrown by tropical vegetation, stopping frequently, smelling the allspice trees and talking to the people who use the trail as their place of contentment. For three days, I was a 10-year-old again, out on his bike without a care in the world, and I didn't have to be home before dark.
My original plan was to cover the entire trail where the "Old Rattle and Shake," as the train is known, operated from 1931 to 1948, from nearly one tip of the island to the other, from St. George's Station in the east to Somerset Station in the west.
That was not to be. I didn't anticipate the high humidity that made it feel like 110 degrees in the shade. The trail is noncontinuous, crossing busy roads, stopping and starting where bridges have given way and completely disappearing in the capital, Hamilton. Some parts are paved. Some are dirt. Way too often there are metal barriers to keep motorbikes out, requiring another stop and heave-ho with the bicycle. (Note: In Bermuda bicycles are called push bikes; mopeds or scooters are bikes.)
Regardless, the 10-mile western section from Rural Hill to Somerset Station was all the adventure I needed. One minute I was peeking through a thicket of towering oleander and mounding morning glory into an impressive estate to admire the gardens. Take a bend and I was on a hill above a school playground with little kids in uniforms running every which way. There is plenty of Bermudian rail history along the way, delivered on national park signage, for those who are interested. Best of all, there are awesome views and access to the sea.
And thanks to a swimsuit-clad jogger whom I spotted on my first morning out, I found beaches that beat fancy Elbow any day.
I spotted her near the trail-side entrance to the Scaur Hill Fort, begun during the American Civil War as a precaution against Union reprisals for British support of the Confederacy. She was trotting along, then suddenly disappeared. I finally saw a break in the shrubbery. Down a flight of 50 narrow concrete stairs she was running, and then she arrived at a rustic dock and plunged into the clear water. I parked my bike and ran down the steps after her.
"Look! Look! The mackerel are jumping, feeding on the fry," she said in greeting, flailing an arm with a splash, pretty yellow-striped fish circling at her feet. We were alone in a magic spot, two strangers suddenly isolated together, she in the water, I on the dock a few feet away, reveling in the natural beauty.
She was Victoria Fiddick, 43, a personal trainer and a top local runner. This was her favorite spot for a dip and a bit of water training. And she had more to share. "Everybody knows Elbow Beach and the main attractions," she said, warming my heart. "But I like to pretend that I'm the first to a place, beaches where you won't see a soul."