Bermuda is justifiably famous for pink-sand beaches, impossibly blue water, and kelly-green golf courses. But that’s only the beginning. Thanks to its colorful past, this small sliver of land also has a surprising number of historic sites. In addition to countless quaint old cottages, it’s said to have the oldest continually inhabited town of English origin in the Western Hemisphere and—because of its strategic Atlantic location—more forts per square mile than any other place on earth.

Bermuda has a distinctive culture, too: one that combines a reverence for British traditions dating back to colonial days with a more relaxed attitude befitting a subtropical island. In court, for instance, local lawyers may still wear formal flowing robes—yet there’s a good chance that they’re sporting Bermuda shorts beneath them. So while you’re here, take time to look beyond the obvious and savor all that Bermuda has to offer.

There is certainly no shortage of things to see. The town of St. George’s, at the island’s East End, is the original 1600s settlement and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city of Hamilton (not to be confused with the parish of the same name farther northeast) is home to Bermuda’s principal harbor and most of its shops. It’s also the main departure point for sightseeing boats, ferries, and the pink-and-blue buses that ramble all over the island. The Royal Naval Dockyard, at the West End, is a former British shipyard that has been transformed into a stunning tourist attraction.

All three of these destinations can be explored easily on foot. The rest of the island, however, is best discovered by taxi, motor scooter, or even bicycle—but only if you’re fit, because Bermuda is hilly! The main roads connecting the parishes are North Shore Road, Middle Road, South Road (also known as South Shore Road), and Harbour Road. Their names make it easy for you to get your bearings and almost all the traffic traversing the island’s 21-mi length is concentrated on them, although some 1,200 smaller roads also crisscross it.

Bermuda has long been thought of as a pricey vacation destination, but since the Bermudian dollar is on par with the American one, visitors from the States don’t have to fret over the declining value of the greenback. Since U.S. bills are so widely accepted, vacationers don’t have to bother with currency exchanges, either.

Need another reason to come in 2009? While visitors celebrate their buying power, locals are celebrating their island’s quadricentennial—and everyone is invited to the party. (If you think a 40th birthday is big, you can imagine how much excitement builds for a 400th!) Keep an eye open for special festivities. A tall ships race, international military tattoo, themed museum exhibits, and an arts-oriented “Best of Bermuda” gala are among the many events planned.

Elsewhere in the Parishes

Bermuda’s other points of interest—and there are many—are scattered throughout the nine parishes. This section, covering the length and breadth of the island, focuses on the major ones. Yet half the fun of exploring Bermuda is wandering down forgotten lanes or discovering little-known coves and beaches. A motor scooter, or bicycle if you don’t mind hills, is ideal for this kind of travel. You can also take public transportation, which, aside from being cheap and efficient, offers a great way to meet the locals. (Route maps and schedules for ferries and buses can be picked up at any visitor information center.) A guided taxi tour, costing about $110 for three hours, is the quickest way to see the sights in all the parishes. Many taxi-tour drivers are experienced, knowledgeable guides who will lead you along the roads less traveled for a look at real Bermudian life.

St. George’s and Hamilton are about 10 mi and 200 years apart. The latter wasn’t even incorporated as a town until 1792; and by the time Hamilton became capital in 1815, St. George’s had already celebrated its bicentennial. The age difference is apparent. The charmingly gnarled lanes of the island’s first town straighten out here into proper streets, and topsy-turvy colonial cottages give way to more formal Victorian facades. As Bermuda’s economic and social hub, Hamilton has a different vibe, too.

With a permanent resident population of 1,500 households, this city in Pembroke Parish still doesn’t qualify as a major metropolis. Yet it has enough stores, restaurants, and offices to amp up the energy level. Moreover, it has a thriving international business community (centered on financial and investment services, insurance, telecommunications, global management of intellectual property, shipping, and aircraft and ship registration), which lends it a degree of sophistication seldom found in so small a center.
St. George’s

The settlement of Bermuda began in what is now the town of St. George’s when the Sea Venture—flagship of an English fleet carrying supplies to Jamestown, Virginia—was wrecked on Bermuda’s treacherous reefs in 1609. Four hundred years later, no visit to the island would be complete without a stop in this picturesque and remarkably preserved example of an early New World outpost.

Although St. George’s is a living community—not a living-history museum—it retains the patina of authenticity. In fact, in 2000 it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That designation puts it on a par with spots like the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal in India. But don’t expect awe-inspiring edifices here. On the contrary, St. George’s chief charm lies in tiny walled cottages, simple colonial churches, and labyrinthine alleys that beg to be explored.

The West End and Dockyard

Bermuda is denser than you might imagine. But in contrast to Hamilton and St. George’s, the island’s West End seems positively pastoral. Many of the top sites here are natural ones: namely the wildlife reserves, wooded areas, and beautiful waterways of Sandys Parish. The notable exception is Bermuda’s single largest tourist attraction—the Royal Naval Dockyard.

Its story begins in the aftermath of the American Revolution, when Britain suddenly found itself with neither an anchorage nor a major ship-repair yard in the western Atlantic. Around 1809, just as Napoléon was surfacing as a serious threat and the empire’s ships were becoming increasingly vulnerable to pirate attack, Britain decided to construct a stronghold in Bermuda. Dubbed the “Gibraltar of the West,” the Dockyard operated as a shipyard for nearly 150 years. The facility was closed in 1951, although the Royal Navy maintained a small presence here until 1976 and held title to the land until 1995.

The Bermudian government and development groups began to plan for civilian use of the Dockyard in 1980. Since then, $21 million in public funds and $42 million in private money has been spent to make the area blossom. Now trees and shrubs grow where there used to be vast stretches of concrete. Private yachts calmly float where naval vessels once anchored, and cruise ships dock at the terminal. Historic structures—like the Clocktower and Cooperage buildings—house restaurants, galleries, shops, even a movie theater. A strip of beach has been turned into a snorkel park. And, at the center of it all, are the Maritime Museum & Dolphin Quest: two popular facilities that share a fortified 6-acre site.

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