When you grow up in Bermuda, the flowers mean nothing to you. The narrow, winding roads, the pink beaches and the glare of a semitropical sun are second nature by the time you are 5 years old. A few years later, the island has become "The Rock," and "Rock Fever" -- the urge to escape from 20 square miles of coral island -- often sets in.
The rest of the world, of course, wants to escape to Bermuda. The island basks in the middle of the warm Gulf Stream, more than 3,000 miles from its colonial masters in Britain and 600 miles from the nearest landfall in the United States. But it's just a two-hour flight from Baltimore, or a two-day cruise out of New York City.
I escaped "The Rock" five years ago, after more than 20 years on the island. Now I escape to "The Rock" as often as I can. And so I offer a few thoughts on what to do when, wearied of the flowers and the tour boats, of the hotel entertainment and moped rides, you want to escape without going back home.
The important thing to remember is this simple law of physics: If the tourists head like lemmings to point A, there are fewer of them at point B. The flocking of tourists can and should be used to your advantage.
Take Horseshoe Bay, for example. This lovely curved beach on the South Shore of Southampton Parish is one of the finest stretches of sand in Bermuda, and you wouldn't catch me or any other sane Bermudan there except in an emergency -- though it's an A-one spot for people-watching. That's where all the tourists go. There's even a big concession stand where you can buy overpriced food and rent umbrellas, chairs and other beach equipment. So the only reason to go to Horseshoe Bay is to rent snorkels and masks and take them elsewhere. Bermudans are more likely to abandon the pleasures of Horseshoe Bay and go to the little coves at the west end of Long Bay, just a half-mile down South Shore Road opposite the Bermuda Regiment barracks, or to the less crowded Elbow Beach in Paget Parish. Or they will forget about a beach altogether, and swim off the rocks along the North Shore (you don't get sand in your bathing suit) or in shallow beachless coves like Devonshire Bay off South Shore Road in Devonshire Parish. (The island of Bermuda is divided into nine parishes.)
You can rent sailboats and motorboats at a number of places, but the main rental center these days seems to be a couple of places at Salt Kettle, a little peninsula on the south side of Hamilton Harbour. If you go to the ferry terminal on Front Street in Hamilton -- Bermuda's capital -- you can get a ferry boat to Salt Kettle. You can rent little sailboats and motorboats there, or you can charter a big sailing yacht for a day, or you can take wind-surfing lessons at the small hotel called Glencoe, which is also at Salt Kettle.
If you have any ability with boats, rent one and explore Hamilton Harbour and the little islands that dot the Great Sound beyond the harbor. These are virtually untrampled by tourists and, during the weekdays, untouched by locals, too.
Many of the islands in Hamilton Harbour were used by the British for prisoner-of-war camps during the Boer War. The South Africans were sent back to the veld after the war ended in 1902 -- and after they swore eternal allegiance to the British crown -- but you can see the remains of their camps, and in local museums you can see the cedar carvings with which they busied themselves while imprisoned.
On Long Island, one of the biggest islands in the sound (it's still pretty small), there is a cemetery with monuments to prisoners of war killed by yellow fever. The south side of this island is protected by clusters of other islands, providing clear, still water for swimming. The north side of the island gives an excellent view of the Great Sound, and its low cliffs are nesting grounds for longtails, Bermuda's dazzling white sea birds. (You can swim off the rocks on the north side of Long Island, too, but watch that you don't step on a sea urchin. As a boy I spent hours crying as a nurse cut dozens of broken-off sea urchin spines from the soles of my feet.)
I wandered around Long Island a few months ago for the first time in a number of years, and little had changed. A sign had been erected at the cemetery inviting visitors to step inside and mind the gravestones, and announced a curator had been appointed to care for it. But the sign was knocked down and, judging by the overgrown grass, something had happened to the curator as well.
Change has come, however, to one of my favorite restaurants, called Dennis' Hideaway, on St. David's Island at the eastern tip of Bermuda. It's a little unsophisticated fish restaurant on the water that serves "Fish Dinners" of seven or so courses ranging from shark on toast to conch fritters -- fare for the hardy stomach.
Things are different now because, first of all, the anecdote-filled proprietor Dennis Lamb got married and lost a lot of weight: He isn't the beach ball of a man that everybody knew and loved, although I'm sure his stories are as good as ever. (Ask him to tell you about his relative who guided ships through Bermuda's reef-strewn channels using his bright red hair as a beacon.)
A bigger change resulted from a little dispute with a restaurant down the street, which led to the health department ending the practice of bringing your own booze to Dennis'. The place is now dry, and that's dried up some of the conviviality as well.
Bermudans -- a sometimes frighteningly hard-drinking crew -- find it hard to accept any restaurant that doesn't allow liquor. But they have happily resigned themselves to restaurants with high prices and slow service. The high prices are partly because things are generally more expensive in Bermuda and partly because people like to make as much money as they can. The slow service is just the way it is, and you must accept it as a way of life.
A couple of years ago I sailed into Bermuda and we tied up near the White Horse Tavern in St. George's, the original capital, on the eastern end of the island. I traipsed across the street anxiously looking for some food, and waited at least an hour for my burger and fries. The same happened again this year when I headed into the same establishment after a round of golf up the hill. It's not laziness particularly, or a slight, and after a day or two you'll begin to accept such service as simply another example of the pace of island life. And the sooner you unwind enough to do it, the better you'll feel.
One of my favorite places for fish is the Lobster Pot on Bermudiana Road in Hamilton, but bear in mind that it's not cheap. The bartender, "Chicken" Robinson, is one of the best on the island and one of the most talkative when the subject turns to the game of cricket.
Do not try to understand cricket. You're too old to learn now, and you'll just get the teams confused because the players all wear the same white uniform. But it is essential to go to a cricket game and treat it simply as a spectacle. The best time is this weekend -- the last weekend of July -- when there's a two-day holiday to celebrate the big Cup Match between Somerset and St. George's parishes -- the west end of the island versus the east end. But there are matches every weekend during the summer.
After watching the cricket and the crowds for a while -- during the Cup Match, the crowds are normally wild and fond of outrageous clothing and hats -- turn your attention to the Crown and Anchor games that are played on the sidelines at many matches. Game operators set up boards under canvas canopies, spin dice and take your money. You can bet as little as a dollar on "the stock market," as it is affectionately dubbed, and it takes about one minute to figure out how the game works.
Crown and Anchor is described in some books on gambling, usually with strong warnings against participating, because of the odds. I have tried the old desperation technique of doubling my bet after each loss, on the theory that you will eventually win back your losses and a bit more. This sometimes works, but I have doubled my bets all the way from $1 to $64 in the process. And the liquor the Crown and Anchor dealers hide under their boards for the benefit of serious customers usually makes you the loser in the end.
At night the place to go for locals has been, for many years, Disco 40, which is a slick discothe que on Front Street in Hamilton. An equally slick disco, called Cocabamba, opened nearby a few months ago and seems busy, but it is too early to tell if it will make much of a dent in the disco market. There is also the Bambu, a "jazz lounge" attached to the Cocabamba, which, when I was there in June, featured an electric piano and a bass and somebody -- I think it was a nurse from the hospital -- who got up to sing.
If you venture outside your hotel for nightlife, the only other options really are the bars and pubs. Often these have guitarists, or "pub musicians," who are usually of pretty good quality and, better still, seldom expect you to sing along. The Longtail, the Ram's Head, the Robin Hood Pub and the Rum Runner are all Hamilton bars that feature musicians -- the Rum Runner often has a full band playing more popular music.
Warning: The Bermuda Police Force is, at last, the proud owner of a breath-alcohol meter that is making severe inroads into a long tradition of drunk moped riding. Under British law, as practiced in Bermuda at least, police need little probable cause to stop people on the streets and smell for alcohol -- which is probable cause enough to take you in to the station for a little testing.
The result of all this is another attraction worth seeing, especially if you're a lawyer: Magistrate's Court. With or without a summons, I still like to pop in to the court on Court Street from time to time, to get outraged at the stupidity of criminals and magistrates alike -- especially during "Plea Court" at 2 p.m., when they empty out the police cells across the street.
Just up the hill is the Parliament building, whose tan clock-tower overlooks the city. The Supreme Court (equivalent to a Circuit Court in this country) sits on the ground floor, and it is there that you see the bewigged judges and lawyers try their cases. The General Assembly meets upstairs, usually just one day a week and that, too, is worth inspecting for its pompous ceremony.
In the end, though the people speak English and look like you and I, never forget that you are in a foreign and friendly country. Almost anywhere you care to go on the island, you'll find something a little new and different. And, odds are, there will be a friendly Bermudan standing by to tell you all about it, and suggest another sight worth seeing a little farther down the road.