An article on Bermuda in Sunday's Travel section incorrectly said visitors can use only mopeds or taxis to get around. A public transportation system of buses and ferries can also be used. (Published 11/23/99)
A postcard-ready idyll of tropical fish and pink sand, Tobacco Bay Beach was both startlingly beautiful and very empty one September morning. A pair of snorkelers stirred the lagoon's only ripples and the temperature seemed climate controlled by God's own thermostat.
No crowds, no problem.
At least not for a traveler in search of quiet and a souvenir sunburn. The low turnout could be blamed, in part, on Gert, a hurricane that only two days before this Kodak moment was barreling straight for Bermuda. Thousands of tourists canceled their visits here rather than risk a rendezvous with this outsize party-pooper, leaving plenty of stretching room for anyone who ignored the forecasts and arrived before the airport was closed. But the thin crowds weren't just the work of a natural near-disaster. To put it bluntly, Bermuda lacks buzz. Once a preferred destination for well-heeled sunseekers and honeymooners, this 21-square-mile stretch of coral reef and pastel-colored homes is struggling as never before to lure the tourist dollars that fire its tiny economy.
Price is part of the problem--Bermuda costs about one third more than its Caribbean rivals during the summer. Weather's another; Bermuda's cool and pleasant climate is appealing in summer but not much to brag about in winter. And it has a reputation for stuffiness. All those locals with British-sounding accents, mopeding around in formal wear. Other islands want you to drink Jell-O shots. Bermuda would like you to sit up straight and put on a tie. Plus it suffers a relative lack of "soft adventures," such as jeep trekking and horseback riding, which flush young travelers and baby boomers increasingly crave. Since 1980, annual air visits have declined 21 percent.
Bermudans for years watched this slow drop with a calm the queen would envy. Not any more. By popular demand, the island is getting a makeover. Last year, voters tossed out the government that had ruled for decades and elected the Progressive Labor party. The platform: a wide-ranging effort to resuscitate tourism.
"You've got to have new product in this industry," says the new minister of tourism, David H. Allen, a former travel writer and now the island's leading pitchman. "For years, we rested on our laurels."
Well, here's hoping Bermuda doesn't drop its shorts or do anything foolish to draw new crowds. As I discovered during a week there, despite its lackluster reputation, the island is an untrammeled charmer. To be sure, it's expensive, a little precious and the weather can be, um, erratic. Also, stellar restaurants are rare.
But to their everlasting credit, Bermuda's elders never embraced swarm-the-joint tourism. There are sharp limits on the number of cruise ships that can dock at any one time. (One rock-and-roll-themed cruise was instructed to just keep sailing.) Hotel building has been curtailed, and the whole place is gloriously free of Franchise America. Neon signs, fast food chains and billboards are banned by law.
So Bermuda looks terrific, as lush and kempt as a well-groomed golf course. The tacky quotient, always a danger wherever hordes congregate, is wonderfully low. Yes, there is a store in Hamilton proclaiming the "World's Largest Collection of Monkey Hand Puppets," but you at least get the sense the locals find such displays mortifying. There is no hustle or hard sell. It boasts not just beauty but that most elusive of qualities: a sense of place.
All that character will cost you. During the summer, a room near a beach starts at about $190; ask for something cheaper and travel agents snicker like French waiters. For about $150 a night, taxes included, I found a bed-and-breakfast in St. George's, the oldest and easternmost part of the island. Meals are about $40 a head and sometimes much more. Cabs cost about a dollar a minute, and it takes about 25 minutes to traverse half the island, which you'll want to do often. That all can add up fast.
Bermuda boosters point out that prices drop by 20 percent in the winter months, when the temperature hovers at 68. Not exactly beach weather, but perfect for golf or tennis. (You'd need a wet suit to swim.) And they note that comparing Bermuda in the summer with say, St. John's in the summer, is unfair since most of the Caribbean is in full swelter from August to September and discounted accordingly.
Bermuda is parked on the same latitude as Savannah and stays about 10 degrees warmer than Georgia thanks to the Gulf Stream. That's relatively a northern setting for a sun spot, and it explains why the island can't promise strings of cloudless days. To complicate matters, in August and September the island is routinely strafed by hurricanes.
"There are going to be seven to nine hurricanes this season, three of them major," my travel agent warned as I booked my flight, sounding a bit like she was trying to talk me out of it. Granted, September is the height of "hurricane season," but tangling with a widow-making weather system didn't seem "very likely" when I made the reservation.
I was "wrong." On the flight there, a pilot deadpanned that we'd beat Gert to Bermuda by just 24 hours. As I walked through the front door of Aunt Nea's, a very recommendable B&B, a television newscaster was talking ominously about a history-making evacuation. Everyone was hammering wooden boards onto windows, and shoppers were scooping up candles at the local drugstore.
You're never more than a half-mile from the ocean in Bermuda. To where, pray tell, would we evacuate?
A self-governed British colony, Bermuda was known before World War II primarily as a playground for the elite of Gilded Age travelers. Mark Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt came (though not together), as did Woodrow Wilson, who kicked back here after winning the presidency. In the 1950s and onward, the place became a popular tourist destination, particularly with honeymooners, but by 1980 competition from Caribbean islands had begun nibbling at Bermuda's bottom line.
Meanwhile, the super-rich moved in. Ross Perot and David Bowie both own homes in Bermuda, and it became the preferred tanning station of royalty like Prince Albert and Fergie, the former Duchess of York. That's charming company, certainly, but it sent the unmistakable message that the likes of you, pal, can't afford Bermuda. The island fell out of fashion. A few years ago, the Club Med closed.
"What they've done is cultivate an upscale image," said Phil Davidoff, who owns Belair/Empress Travel & Cruises in Bowie. "At the same time, they've been more caring than other islands in keeping the place fresh and in really good shape."
The trick now is for Bermuda to update its country-clubby image without draining the island of its distinctive appeal. Tourism minister Allen promises dramatic overhaul isn't coming. Instead, the island will sell itself as a year-round vacation spot, refurbish facilities and offer more kayaking and ecology-oriented day trips. Elbow Beach recently completed a $42 million upgrade to a four-star property, and the Grotto Bay Beach Hotel is in the final stage of a $6 million face-lift and expansion, which will add 79 rooms. The Hamilton and Southhampton Princess hotels are getting top-of-the-line spa facilities. An $11 million eco-resort called Daniel's Head is being built in Sandy's Parish.
Some specials are planned, too, though nothing that will compete for the bottom-dwelling package deals headed to Cancun, Cozumel or the Bahamas. Through March 31, a promotion called "Fall Into Spring" will offer travelers five days and four nights for a price that starts at $690 per person and goes up, depending on the hotel. From January to March, golfers will be able to reserve tee times at a variety of courses weeks in advance by calling 1-800-BERMUDA (1-800-237-6832). And for $35, visitors can buy a "Heritage Passport," a four-day ticket to eight local museums. Money to finance these turn-around plans won't be hard to find. Bermuda is among the richest countries on Earth on a per-capita basis, thanks to tourists and the tax revenue generated by the nearly 1,000 corporations headquartered here. (They come for the low, low taxes and stay for the beach.)
The constant flow of dollars has allowed Bermuda to retain its own culture, a hybrid that looks like the child that England would bear if it married Jamaica and hired Martha Stewart as a nanny. The houses are tidily kept and salmon-toned, the streets narrow in that distinctive European way. Hibiscus grows everywhere. On still days, the water is magically, bath-tub clear.
To get around, you either hand over a fortune in cab fare or rent a moped. Tourists can't rent cars; even the locals are allowed just one vehicle per family, an effort to keep the streets uncluttered. Mopeds are surprisingly expensive at about $40 a day--hey, you can get a Taurus for that stateside!--and a little terrifying. Visitors wipe out constantly on these little devils, failing to navigate the island's hairpin turns or, worse, forgetting to drive on the left hand side of the road. My co-pilot/girlfriend helpfully whispered, "Stay left," in my ear every minute, which helped.
The fear is worth it. With a moped, you're free to scoot to Bermuda's most storied beaches, clustered on its southern coast. Elbow and Horseshoe beaches are the headliners, but smaller and more private alcoves are scattered throughout. My favorites were Chaplin and Stonehole Bay, which don't have chair rentals or snack bars and hence are more sparsely attended.
A moped is a must if you're staying in St. George's. Settled in 1609 and a good 20 minutes from everything else, the town resembles a French seaside hamlet, with lots of cobblestone streets, tiny shops and plenty of life that is blissfully unconnected to the tourist trade.
The people are friendly, though they make it clear that the standard tourist-slob look won't cut it. A woman muttered something snarky when she spotted me walking a side street without a shirt. It's less harried than Hamilton, which is often overrun by trinket hunters and snarled by traffic.
"You're staying in the Queen's Conch cottage," our hostess at Aunt Nea's told us when we arrived. "It's for friends, lovers and others."
The cottage turned out to be a lovely place to be barricaded while a Category 2 hurricane caterwauled 120 miles off the coast. Gert shut down the electricity for hours, churned up the water and washed some kind of military explosive device onto a beach. (It was detonated without incident after a curious tourist picked it up.) On the plus side, Gert inspired a few cruise ships to cancel their arrival and thinned the already meager crowds considerably.
Counter-intuitive travel tip: Fly to Bermuda the day before a hurricane, then enjoy the run of the place.
For about $45 you can take a three-hour cruise on a glass-bottom boat, most of which leave from Hamilton. After a half-hour jaunt, the boat parks near a coral reef and everyone jumps out with snorkels to ogle the dazzling variety of local fish. That rascal Gert had muddied the water, reducing visibility. I'm told that when the ocean is calm, it's like swimming in an over-lit aquarium.
For a place surrounded by fish, Bermuda offers surprisingly little tasty seafood. Apparently nobody clued in local eateries about the whole light-cooking thing. Chefs are constantly broiling meat, stuffing it with something heavy, wrapping it with something heavier, then pouring on sauce. At Freddie's Pub in St. George's, for instance, you can sample chicken stuffed with avocado and cream cheese, wrapped in bacon and smothered with a garlic cream mushroom sauce. Elsewhere, you can tempt cardiac infarction with the steak and Stilton cheese combination, a ubiquitous dish.
Blame the culinary influence of Britain, which crops up in faves like shepherd's pie, which I'm told is not a shepherd in a pie but sure tastes like it. Bermuda simply doesn't have much in the way of native cuisine. Aside from a wahoo sauteed with bananas, few restaurants I sampled even pitched their fare as home-grown creations.
As in England, the best bets are ethnic restaurants, in particular the Italian joints, which serve up some inventive pasta dishes and plenty of sublime tiramisu. San Giorgio's in St. George's and Ristorante Primavera in Hamilton were standouts. Service is uniformly excellent, though non-smoking sections are maddeningly hard to find, and the island's many European tourists have few compunctions about lighting up nearby.
In the pubs and bars, the unofficial national beverage is the rum swizzle, a potent concoction. Visitors can enjoy the smoke of a lifetime and defy U.S. foreign policy at the same time by buying a Cuban cigar, on sale everywhere, though not exactly at bargain prices. One salesman helpfully suggested sneaking a few past Customs by stuffing them in my laundry.
There are plenty of blatantly touristy things to do in Bermuda. Hamilton is home to a few streets' worth of ritzy shops selling big-ticketed knickknacks, Louis Vuitton luggage and everything else you'd expect in a well-stocked Saks Fifth Avenue. We spent an hour walking through the Crystal Caves, an illuminated collection of jutting rocks, which turned out to be a dreadful way to spend an hour. Our guide bellowed like she was trying out for "Hamlet."
The real fun is just vegetating on a beach and savoring the Bermuda-ness of the place, an improbable blend of sparkle, mopeds and good manners. Rare is the country these days that cares enough about preservation to ban McDonald's, especially a resort destination that earns nearly half of its money from an annual influx of visitors that outnumber the populace by 10 to 1.
So as Bermuda muddles through its midlife crisis and tries to swing with a younger crowd, let's pray nobody tries to solve the problem with the vacationland equivalent of a red sports car and a bad toupee. For Bermuda, that just wouldn't be cricket.
US Airways offers nonstop flights from BWI to Bermuda; round-trip fares generally start at about $361, with restrictions. For more information on Bermuda, contact the Bermuda Department of Tourism, 1-800-223-6106, www.bermudatourism.com. Another useful Web site, complete with local news and a plethora of tourist information, is www.bermuda.com.