By: Jordan Simon
Little did the British passengers of the Sea Venture, shipwrecked en route to Jamestown, Virginia in 1609, imagine that the series of rocky reef-encircled Atlantic islets they washed up on would, nearly four centuries later, be synonymous with posh retreats and serenity. Resembling a vast botanical garden – or golf course, of which there are more per square mile here than anywhere else on the planet – as impeccably manicured as its celebrity regulars and residents (Noel Coward, Mark Twain, John Lennon, Eleanor Roosevelt, Prince Albert of Monaco, and Michael Douglas among them), Bermuda is not just Britain's oldest colony, it's also that rare destination that has managed to commercialize itself without losing its charm. And this, despite being just 650 miles east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina – or under three hours by plane – from the bustling cities of the eastern United States.
Indeed, the genteel place seems little changed in the century since Winslow Homer exuberantly committed its primary colors – pastel cottages, green palmettos, pink oleanders, azure ocean – to canvas. Uniquely Bermudian architecture is still a delight to behold: whitewashed stepped limestone roofs, designed to catch precious rainwater, and – fitting on this friendly island – welcome-arm staircases. The surrounding waters ripple improbably from sapphire to turquoise. The loudest sounds you hear are the thwock of a cricket bat or golf club striking a ball, the clink of tea cups, the susurrus of crashing surf. There are no neon signs, limited car traffic (only one is allowed per household, and visitors can't rent one at all), and strict environmental laws, many of them dating back to the 17th century – among the first of their kind.
Even so, 400 years of recorded history and comparative isolation have also produced a vibrant culture, the patchwork quilt of inhabitants descended from West Indian and African slaves, Irish adventurers, exiled North American prisoners, English settlers, and Portuguese immigrants. This cosmopolitan heritage is reflected in the surprisingly varied dining and shopping scenes. And, despite its small size (just 21 square miles), Bermuda has wielded a disproportionately iconic influence, contributing Bermuda shorts and Bermuda grass to the resort lexicon, not to mention rum swizzles and dark ’n' stormies, all of which bespeak the good life on bountiful display.
Three days would permit hunkering down at a beach resort with forays into the delightful capital, Hamilton. If you have five days, you can easily explore each part of the island, deciding upon your favorite beach, as well as taking in the splendidly restored Royal Naval Dockyard and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the town of St. George. A week permits plentiful activities from golf to sailing, as well as popping into various museums and mansions.
Bermuda, actually an archipelago of small islands connected by minuscule bridges, has a legion of sightseeing attractions (old forts, museums, aquariums, botanical gardens, limestone caves), but is also the place to savor the good life, from drinking rose champagne on pink-sand beaches to putting on Bermuda-grass greens. With excellent roads and signage, not to mention its compact size (22 miles long and never more than 2 miles wide), Bermuda is easy to navigate and, depending on your form of transportation, always just half-an-hour to an hour from one tip to the other. Fortunately, you can easily grasp the lay of the land in one day (stopping for a leisurely seaside lunch), then decide where you'd prefer to concentrate your activities.
Though part of Bermuda's charm is discovering it at your own pace (especially via the 21-mile scenic Bermuda Railway Trail designed for walkers, bikers and birders), specialty orientation tours are available. Bermuda Lectures & Tours (6 Leacraft Rd., Southampton; 441/234-4082; $15) runs 1.5-hour interpretive tours (both walking and cycling) on architecture, history, and ecology. Byways Bermuda (Mon–Sat 2-3hrs; $30-$50; www.bywaysbermuda.com) wanders along Bermuda's back roads and trails, with knowledgeable guides explaining architecture, history, natural history, and island life; lengthier morning and afternoon tours, with refreshments, are also available via minivan (roughly double the price). Sea-Trek Island Tours (441/295-8670) offers a nautical perspective, cruising tiny coves and bays as the captain describes historic homes best appreciated from the water; hotel pickup and drop-off is included. The Bermuda Department of Community and Cultural Affairs (441/292-9447; no reservations required; free) organizes regular hour-long heritage walks (in season) covering Hamilton landmarks, the twisting alleys of St. George's, or the Royal Naval Dockyard.
Stop by any Visitors Centre (Front St., Hamilton; Royal Naval Dockyard, Somerset Rd., Sandys; King's Square, St. George's; Bermuda International Airport) or check the Bermuda Department of Tourism's thorough website (www.bermudatourism.com), for maps, events, updates, lodging, dining, shopping, and nightlife listings. The free, pocket-sized magazines This Week in Bermuda and Preview! are excellent (re)sources for events and comprehensive listings of attractions, restaurants, and shops. The Bermuda Shorts website (www.bermudashorts.bm) offers a webcam, thorough listings, and terrific forums where resident and regulars post their favorites.
Avid sightseers will find the Heritage Bermuda Passport ($35; $17.50 children 14 and under) – available at Visitors' Service Centres in Hamilton, St. George's, Royal Naval Dockyard, and the airport – an indispensable investment. It offers unlimited admission to eight cultural attractions within a seven-day period: Bermuda Aquarium Museum & Zoo; Bermuda Maritime Museum; the three Bermuda National Trust museums (Verdmont, Tucker House, Globe Hotel); Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute; Fort St. Catherine; and the Bermuda National Gallery. Note that many attractions close or curtail hours of operation during winter months.
MAIN ISLAND SIGHTS
Bermuda itself is divided into nine parishes (which can be confusing: the capital Hamilton lies not in Hamilton but rather Pembroke parish), but many regulars simply refer to the East End, West End, North Shore and South Shore. The three primary tourist areas – Hamilton, St. George's, and the Royal Naval Dockyard – are made for walking and are linked by buses and ferries. The other attractions, both natural and man-made, require a scooter, moped, or bicycle.
A compact and charmingly old-fashioned commercial and government center, centrally located Hamilton is ideal for walking, its compact downtown measuring roughly five by five city blocks with most attractions lining three east-west thoroughfares: Front, Reid and Church streets. Running parallel to the harbor, Front Street's pastel-hued buildings house upscale department stores and elegant boutiques (we've covered our favorites in Shopping), as well as trendy restaurants. The Ferry Terminal and Visitor's Bureau is also on Front Street (at Queen Street) as is a cenotaph commemorating those who perished in both world wars; look for it before the graceful colonnaded 1841 Cabinet Building & Senate Chamber (at Parliament Street).
Other noteworthy landmarks include the elegantly simple Georgian Sessions House (Church and Parliament Sts.; 441/292-7408; Fridays 10am, Nov-May; free), where the Supreme Court convenes on the ground floor, while the House of Assembly sits upstairs; visitors can observe the occasionally raucous parliamentary proceedings from a gallery. The more contemporary and monumental City Hall & Arts Centre (17 Church St.; Mon–Fri 9am–5pm, Sat 9am–4pm; 441/292-1234; free) holds an excellent performing arts venue (check local publications for occasional Champagne and Jazz evenings) and the estimable Bermuda National Gallery (Mon–Sat 10am–4pm; free; www.bng.bm), whose cornerstone is the Watlington Collection of European masters (Rembrandt to Reynolds to Rodin); rotating exhibitions have showcased regional artists and explorations of African heritage.
If you're driving into town from other island points, keep an eye out for local character Johnny Barnes: from 5-10am daily, he directs traffic and welcomes visitors from a roundabout leading into Hamilton (where you'll also spot a commemorative statue that captures his infectious high spirits, exemplifying the island's friendliness and eccentricity).
Royal Naval Dockyard
Three minuscule bridges lead to Bermuda's furthest islet, Ireland, site of the exquisitely restored Royal Naval Dockyard, built in the early 1800s; today this uncommonly handsome answer to Williamsburg, Virginia houses galleries, shops, restaurants, and a maritime museum with snorkel park. The main draw here is the Maritime Museum (daily 9.30am–5pm; $10; www.bmm.bm), a magnificent 6-acre spread occupying a 1837 keep. Past the moats, 50-foot-thick ramparts, and batteries and magazines carved out from the cliff, a splendid interior courtyard accesses eight 19th-century buildings, the most noteworthy of which is the imposing Commissioner's House (the world's first prefabricated wrought- and cast-iron residential structure, dating from 1823), where displays focus on the island's African-American and Portuguese communities and maritime heritage. Other on-site collections, not surprisingly, commemorate oceanic commerce and shipwrecks – and include ravishingly restored racing yachts and pilot gigs. The complex is also, incongruously, home to Dolphin Quest (same hours; www.dolphinquest.org) whose inhabitants' antics can be viewed as part of admission; programs allowing you to frolic with the frisky bottlenoses cost more. The adjacent Snorkel Park includes waterslides, paddle boats, volleyball, and more (and rents equipment for a fee).
The Dockyard is also Bermuda's major shopping area for local products. The charming 1856 Clocktower Mall, notable for its stately 100-foot-high spires, contains numerous stores (including branches of Front Street boutiques and galleries). Our top picks are covered in our Shopping section, below.
Set in the East End, and best explored on foot, Bermuda's original capital (for over 200 years) is one of those places where you can get happily lost – though never for long. It's a remarkably picturesque place of cotton-candy-colored houses topped by gleaming white tiered roofs, black cast-iron gas lamps, miniature gardens on seemingly every side street, and narrow, winding alleys with evocative names like Featherbed, Old Maid's, and Needle & Thread. The main square, King's Square, fronts the glorious harbor, with classic colonial structures including the stately town hall and the circa 1700 Globe Hotel, built by then-governor Samuel Day. The hotel now hosts the Bermuda National Trust Museum (Mon–Sat 10am–4pm; $5; www.bnt.bm), with videos on Bermudian history and fascinating exhibits such as "Rogues and Runners: Bermuda and the American Civil War"; aim to visit around noon, when a mock town crier and a tribunal send petty offenders, including "dunking wenches" (for gossip or nagging according to sexist 17th-century tradition) to the authentic stocks and pillory (Apr–Oct Wed, Thurs, & Sat; Nov–March Wed & Sat). There's also a replica of Deliverance (Ordnance Island off King's Square; April-Nov daily 9am–5pm; 441/297-1459; $3), the original 1610 rescue ship; you can board and view the cramped below-deck living quarters as they would have appeared four centuries ago.
Several other worthy historic structures all lie within a few blocks, starting with St. Peter's (Duke of York St.; Wed & Sun services; 441/297-8359; www.anglican.bm), the Western Hemisphere's oldest continually used Anglican church; its magnificent interior boasts open timber beams and an impressive collection of 17th-century communion silver, while its graveyard finds weathered 300-year-old tombstones which eloquently attest to first-settler hardships. Two nearby museums are housed in converted 18th-century homesteads: Tucker House Museum (Water St.; Mon–Sat 10am–4pm; 441/297-0545; $5), a former merchant's residence, is crammed with period crystal chandeliers, silver, antique English mahogany and Bermuda cedar furnishings, exquisite hand-sewn quilts, and family portraits, while the Historical Society Museum, Printery & Garden (Duke of Kent St.; Apr-Nov 15 Mon–Fri 10am–4pm, Nov 16-Mar Mon–Fri 11am–3pm; 441/297-0423; $5) showcases period cedar furnishings, portraits, kitchen appliances, as well as a working 1783 replica of the Gutenberg press. In contrast, the Bermudian Heritage Museum (Water & Duke of York Sts.; Tues–Sat 10-3; 441/297-4126; $3), a late-19th-century lodge, now houses a comprehensive account of the African experience in Bermuda. Just outside of town is the most visited of many strongholds on Bermuda, Fort St. Catherine (15 Coot Pond Rd.; daily 10am-4pm; 441/297-1920; $5), whose construction dates to 1614; the best reason to visit may be the splendid views, but you'll also find dioramas of island history, and pistols and muskets displayed in the original magazine.
OTHER ISLAND ATTRACTIONS
Bermuda abounds in natural and historic sights that are well worth a detour – if you have time. The best of these are concentrated in the East and West ends.
One of Bermuda's finest natural attractions, the aptly-named Crystal & Fantasy Caves (8 Crystal Caves Rd., Wilkinson Ave., Hamilton Parish; daily 9.30am–4.30pm; $15 for one cave, $21 for both; www.caves.bm) are loaded with fanciful formations, chandelier-like clusters of soda straw, mineral tapestries resembling frozen waterfalls, and underground lakes spanned by pontoon paths.
The equally enchanting Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo (40 North Shore Rd., Flatts Village, Hamilton Parish; daily 9am–5pm, guided tours at 1.10pm; $10; www.bamz.org) allows kids of all ages to admire various critters in carefully replicated natural ecosystems; highlights include North Reef (a 145,000-gallon replica of a living local coral reef), "Caribbean" and "Australasia" wildlife exhibits, and interactive touch pools and discovery centers. Those wishing to get off the beaten path should head about a mile due east to Devil's Hole (Smith's Parish; Mar–Nov daily 9.30am–4.30am; $10), a natural aquarium where you can feed turtles and swarms of fish. Closer to Hamilton, the two-level Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute in Pembroke Hall (42 Crow Lane, Pembroke; Mon–Fri 9am–5pm, Sat–Sun 10am–5pm; $10.50; www.buei.org) features one of the world's most impressive shell collections, a treasure trove of salvaged shipwreck artifacts, and interactive exhibits including a simulated 12,000-feet dive.
It's approximately one mile further southwest to Verdmont (Collector's Hill, Smith's; Tues-Sat 10am–4pm; 441/236-7369; $5), a splendidly preserved 18th-century mansion; its nursery, with its traditional toys and dolls, is particularly disarming. More botanical fare headlines the nearby Botanical Gardens and Camden (169 South Rd., Paget; daily dawn-dusk; garden tours Tue, Wed, and Fri 10:30am; 441/236-4201; free), sure to beguile history and horticulture buffs alike. The gardens feature impeccably manicured displays of indigenous flora, while stately Camden (tours Tues & Fri noon-2pm), which dates from 1714, is the official residence of Bermuda's premier (and today only used for official functions).
Fitness freaks like to climb the 185-step interior spiral staircase of Southampton's 1846 cast-iron Gibbs' Hill Lighthouse (66 St. Anne's Rd.; Jan & Mar–Dec daily 9am–5pm; 441/238-2069; $2.50; www.gibbshilllighthouse.com), whose walls are lined with displays recording the history of Bermuda's treacherous reefs; the 362-foot aerie at the top features jaw-dropping panoramas while a quaint tea room at the bottom offers a quiet break.
Over the world's smallest drawbridge (opening just wide enough to permit an 18-inch sail mast), on Somerset Island, in Sandys Parish, lies Heydon Trust Estate (daily dawn-dusk; free), whose grounds feature 43 acres of trails with breathtaking views and a gorgeous chapel housed in a converted 17th-century farmhouse. We strongly recommend timing your visit to attend one of the daily Latin masses (Mar–Dec daily 9am–5pm; $2.50), which include Gregorian chants.
BEACHES & WATERSPORTS
If you're not staying at beachfront property, most top town hotels offer some kind of shuttle and/or reciprocal privileges; the prime strands rim the South Shore between Paget and Southampton parishes. Note that topless sunbathing is forbidden and that public facilities (restaurants, changing rooms, toilets, chair rental concessions) are generally limited to resorts, which will rent necessities if you buy lunch or drinks. Most hotels offer folding chaises or chairs for guests to take to other beaches; otherwise just bring a towel. Obviously, most recreation revolves around the water, and when you're not lying on the beach, numerous watersport outfitters offer snorkel and/or scuba trips, boat rentals, deep sea fishing charters, whale-watching excursions in spring, windsurfing and other water sports.
If you're going it alone, you'll find turnoffs to some of the island's most breathtaking pink-sand beaches west of Hamilton, along South Road. Several beaches connect at low tide, allowing for a perfect stroll: Warwick Long Bay, Chaplin's Bay, and Stonehole Beach culminate in Horseshoe Bay, rated by National Geographic as one of the world's ten best strands. Horseshoe's idyllic scene – boulders resembling abstract sculptures, sand dunes as curvaceous as Rubens nudes, and astonishing turquoise water surrounding offshore shoals – has inspired countless artists. There's a small restaurant and full-service beach house right off the beach, or you can walk on to Princess Beach, home to the chic Fairmont Southampton. Note to budding oceanographers: the beach's famed pink hue results from the blending of the white sand, crushed shells, and skeletons of one-celled Red Formas that teem under the coral reef.
Offshore diving and snorkeling are particularly celebrated in Bermuda, with more than 400 wrecks along the treacherous reefs (prompting the early Spaniards visitors to dub Bermuda "Isle of Devils," and explain the origin of the Bermuda Triangle tales). You can book outings with Fantasea (three locations; www.fantasea.bm), which offers everything from glass-bottom boat tours (evenings as well) to snorkel adventures on a 55-foot catamaran; their fabled Eco-Tour begins with a boat cruise, segues into a choice of bike or kayak tour, and ends with a swim in a private cove. Dive Bermuda (Fairmont Southampton & Fairmont Hamilton Princess; www.bermudascuba.com) is another reputable, fully accredited outfit with a wide variety of excursions, guided dives, night snorkeling, and a plethora of kid-friendly activities.
Renting a boat (Boston Whaler, kayak, laser, etc) is also incredibly popular; locals favor cruising the west coast of Castle Harbour on the East End, around Tucker's Town Bay and Castle Island (with the remains of a 17th-century fort), where the sight of swells crashing against the rocky coast is utterly dramatic, and Ely's Harbour, on the West End (best for experienced sailors; be sure to obtain nautical maps). Remember that most of the islands, though deserted (especially midweek), are private property; few post "No Trespassing" signs, but these should be observed. Basic rule of thumb: Throw the anchor over the side just before the waves break on the beach (about 4- to 5-feet deep), tie the boat off, wade in the water, swim and, if appropriate, lie on the beach at your discretion. Windjammer Water Sports (Royal Naval Dockyard, Sandy’s; 441/234-0250; Cambridge Beaches, Sandy’s; 441/234-3073), is the leading boat-rental option; they also rent windsurfers, fishing and snorkeling gear, and offer excellent sailing and windsurfing lessons.
Bermuda manages to cram eight golf courses into its 21 square miles; they're scattered throughout the island chain, with the greatest concentration on the East End and in Warwick and Southampton parishes to the west and the East End. All are well above par, but any duffers doff their caps to the following.
Sir Winston Churchill, the Duke of Windsor, Babe Ruth, and Dwight Eisenhower all played the glorious 6512-yard par-71 Mid Ocean Club (Tucker's Town; www.themidoceanclubbermuda.com) built in 1921 and modified by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in the 1950s. The huge pink clubhouse quivers with history and class and many holes scenically overlook the water; it's private but open to members' guests (hotel concierges can arrange it) Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Nearby Tucker's Point Golf Club (www.tuckerspoint.com) has an equally challenging, picturesque design of wide but hilly fairways with lots of sudden drops and pitches and a new canary-yellow and powder-blue clubhouse. The Robert Trent Jones Sr. beauty, the 6561-yard par-71 Port Royal Golf Course (Southampton; 441/234-0974) boasts several memorable cliffside holes, including the signature par-3 16th, leading Jack Nicklaus to rank it among the world's leading courses. The comparatively inexpensive 6017-yard par-70 Belmont Hills Golf Club (Warwick; www.belmonthills.com) recently underwent a complete redesign; we particularly love the fine clubhouse and new Blu restaurant, with its sparkling contemporary decor and artworks.
Bermuda is known for its quietly luxurious enclaves; expect to pay a pretty penny in high season (note that several properties close December to February). Fortunately, you can get anywhere on the island in half an hour; most Hamilton hostelries are less expensive; some offer beach shuttles and all are within walking distance of ferries, restaurants, shops, and bars. Choose from reliable chains, intimate inns and B&Bs, gracious cottage colonies (usually requiring a meal plan of some type), oceanfront apartment complexes, and stylish boutique properties with spas and gourmet restaurants. High-end options predictably predominate, though fairly moderate options abound; acceptable budget accommodations are few (and still pricier than their counterparts elsewhere). To help you choose the right overnight address convenient to most attractions, we've outlined our central Bermuda favorites in each category.
For ultimate luxury, we recommend lavish yet relaxed Elbow Beach (60 South Shore Rd., Paget; 441/236-3535 or 800/223-7434; www.mandarinoriental.com/bermuda), a Mandarin Oriental property with truly splendiferous beach and grounds; its regular (deluxe) hotel rooms and more isolated sybaritic cottages offer Old World style and newfangled amenities, ideally combining small hotel ambience and service with big resort amenities, including a superlative new spa and marvelous eateries. Pink Beach (South Rd., Smith's; 441/293-1666 or 800/355-6161; www.pinkbeach.com), member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, opened in 1947 as one of first cottage colonies and still retains that dowdy-chic-summer-retreat-for-wealthy-Northeast-families look and ambience; the classic vernacular cottages (each holding several suites though, darling, you can rent an entire building, like John Travolta, LeAnn Rimes, or The Boss) are bracketed by two stunning beaches, and its ultra-comfy rooms, upmarket facilities, supremely secluded location, and excellent eateries lure honeymooners and families alike. Fairmont Southampton (101 South Shore Rd., Southampton; 441/238-8000 or 800/441-1414; www.fairmont.com/southampton) fulfills anyone's fantasies of a large resort hotel: hilltop location with magnificent views, gorgeous grounds and beach, executive par-3 golf course, tennis courts, scintillating restaurants, marina, lively lounge, sterling shops, top-notch business facilities, kids' club and arcade. The term "cottage colony" was supposedly coined at Cambridge Beaches (30 King's Point Rd., Sandys; 441/234-0331 or 800/468-7300; www.cambridgebeaches.com); aside from its unmatched romantic beach setting, the deluxe enclave never rests on its laurels, having spectacularly redone its pool (now a multi-tiered Infinity wonder) and added a Pacific Rim-inspired bistro to its already-inspired culinary clutch. Waterloo House (Pitts Bay Rd., Hamilton; 441/295-4480; www.bermudasbest.com) is an elegant group of 19th-century buildings fronting miniature courtyards that spill down a hill right to the edge of Hamilton Harbour; the look and style are sun-never-sets British (period burnished and inlaid hardwood furnishings, brass sconces, mahogany crown moldings and wainscoting, and more) with state-of-the-art necessities like WiFi access.
For moderate choices, we love Rosedon (off Pitts Bay Rd., Hamilton; 441/295-1640 or 800/742-5008; www.rosedonbermuda.com), a country estate in the city, thanks to its tranquil setting just minutes from Front Street's activity; the individually decorated rooms (usually combining contemporary touches like plasma screen TV/DVDs with classic carved inlaid armoires or four-poster beds) are either in the charming former turn-of-the-century mansion or in buildings surrounding the pool and luxuriantly landscaped interior courtyard. Surf Side Beach Club (South Shore, Warwick; 441/236-7100 or 800/553-9990; www.surfside.bm) is a cluster of self-contained apartments on a cliff overlooking the water; while its beach is tiny, the complex does have a small spa and restaurant and its fully-equipped units are comfy with astonishing ocean views at an affordable rate. Grotto Bay Beach Resort (11 Blue Hole Hill, Hamilton Parish; 441/293-8333 or 800/582-3190; www.grottobay.com) strikes a pleasing balance between colonial and contemporary, contrasting bold abstract artworks with beamed ceilings and hardwood floors; its location is utterly stunning, with several caves forming natural pools, and features all the resort trappings you'd want without the trap (high prices).
Central budget accommodations are harder to find, but you can't go wrong with Salt Kettle Guest House (10 Salt Kettle Rd., Paget; 441/236-0407), where several airy whitewashed cottages front the marina (Winslow Homer painted his famed Salt Kettle scenes from the 200-year-old dining room where a hearty English breakfast is served). Clairfont Apartments (6 Warwickshire Rd., Warwick Parish; 441/238-3577 or 800/334-8649; www.clairfontapartments.com) enjoys a supreme hillside location, just five minutes' walk to Warwick Long Bay beach; the sizeable studio and one-bedroom units, all with fully equipped kitchens, are fresh, clean, and rigorously maintained.
Dining is frightfully expensive but often worth it on this exclusive island. It's one of the few destinations where the top hotel dining rooms truly excel, serving creative Continental cuisine, as well as worthy ethnic fare from Italian to Indian – as befits the island's nautical crossroads. While some restaurants remain formal (jacket, tie and Bermuda shorts), many trendy spots in Hamilton are more casual. Don't pass up traditional local specialties such as fish chowder (spiked with Outerbridge hot pepper sauce), shark or cod cakes. Wash it down with Gosling's (base of the justly famous rum swizzle – a lethal knockout punch – and dark 'n' stormy), and finish your meal with Bermuda Gold liqueur, distilled from the wild loquats growing everywhere on island. Here's just a small taste of centrally located eateries; reservations are strongly recommended.
On the expensive end, we adore the three top restaurants at the Fairmont Southampton, especially the Newport Room (101 South Shore Rd., Southampton; 441/238-8000; www.fairmont.com/southampton), the first-ever 5-diamond AAA restaurant in Bermuda – and all of the Caribbean for that matter. The clever design replicates a luxury yacht right down to portholes, with lots of brass and mahogany, and, although you can order a la carte, we highly recommend splurging on the seven-course tasting menu (paired with wines from the extensive list) from chef de cuisine Michael Scott; even the amuses bouches are delectable, setting the stage for beautifully presented, architectural dishes. The Fairmont's romantic Waterlot Inn (same address and phone) occupies a historic beamed waterfront room with brass sconces, hardwood wainscoting and flickering candles, and glorious outdoor garden terrace – the place to enjoy sunset cocktails as the sun fireballs across Jew's Bay. Start with the fabulous Bermuda Onion and braised short rib soup, segue to oysters Rockefeller, buffalo carpaccio, or wild mushroom risotto, then tuck into perfectly prepared dry-aged steaks – this is not a place for the calorie- and cholesterol-conscious.
Pink Beach's Bermudiana Restaurant (South Rd., Smith's; 441/293-1666; www.pinkbeach.com) offers another admirable hotel dining experience. Start with cocktails in the clubby lounge, then savor rising young British chef Joanne Bainbridge's innovative, artfully presented fare: tea-smoked mahi mahi with spicy seaweed salad and mango-corn salsa; foie gras with apple-fig-cilantro compote; velvety cod with saffron beurre blanc and pesto. If you're lucky, one of the invariably excellent winetasting dinners might be on tap during your stay. Fourways Inn (Middle Rd., Paget; 441/236-6517;www.fourwaysinn.com), occupying a 1727 cottage of coral stone and Bermuda cedar, with tables set with the finest crystal, silver, china and linens, is the ideal spot to propose; you can also dine al fresco by a rock pond in the Rock Garden. Fare ranges from expertly prepared, Eisenhower-era Continental cuisine (caviar, escargots, filet mignon with three pestos, chateaubriand with bearnaise sauce, lobster thermidor) to more creative variations (pan-roasted duck breast and foie gras set on braised bok choy with aged balsamic drizzle and gingered citrus) to traditional Bermudian fare (superlative fish chowder and dark-and-stormy souffle). Waterloo House (Pitts Bay Rd., Hamilton; 441/295-4480; www.bermudasbest.com) is one of our favorite places to stay (see hotel review below), but even non-guests can savor the creative fare and bracing harbor views in the Wellington Dining Room. The decor may seem stuffy (white columns, brilliant pink walls, brass railings and chandeliers, gilt mirrors, and old portraits of stern-looking ancestor-types), but the food and service most assuredly aren't; in fine weather, grab a patio seat on the Poinciana Terrace and revel in the likes of grilled tuna with roasted shallot puree and orange reduction, halibut with saffron froth and sherry pepper, or sweet corn/fontina ravioli in almond butter.
On the moderate side, we adore Mediterraneo Bistro (39 Church St., Hamilton; 441/296-9047), the preferred lunch spot for the premier and other politicos (the House of Assembly is just across the street). The cool, contemporary space (ocher sponge-painted walls, blue banquettes and tablecloths, polished wood floors, et al.) is a wonderful setting for signature items like snapper with trilogy of tapenades (artichoke, sundried tomato basil, black olive) and osso buco with basil-orange risotto. Cafe Cairo (93 Front St., Hamilton; 441/295-5155) transforms the second floor of an old Front Street edifice into an exotic souk with antique Arabic shutters as wall hangings, hammered copper tables, Moroccan brass incense shakers converted into lamps, and earthenware pots dangling from the ceiling. Dine on the terrace overlooking the harbor, where tables and benches are fashioned from found household accoutrements like old sewing machines and even brass beds; afterwards, puff on a pear or apple hookah pipe while admiring the jiggles and gyrations of belly dancers. Hog Penny (5 Burnaby Hill, Hamilton; 441/292-2534; www.hogpennypub.com), Hamilton's oldest licensed watering hole, claims to be the inspiration for the Cheers bar. Expect a rollicking bar scene and classic pub grub (conch fritters, Cajun drumettes, proper fish 'n' chips, and shepherds' pie), as well as superb steaks and Asian-influenced specialties as Szechuan shrimp spring rolls and chicken bhuna masala.
For budget bets, you can't beat the harborfront setting of the White Horse Tavern (8 King's Square, St. George's; 441/297-1838; www.whitehorsebermuda.com), with its interior (beamed ceilings, brick floors and fireplace) that's as Bermudian as it gets; try the excellent traditional dishes such as fish 'n' chips or bangers 'n' mash. Frog & Onion (Royal Naval Dockyard, Sandy's; 441/234-2917; www.frogandonion.bm) is another classic pub with typical nautical decor, located in the original Dockyard cooperage. At The Pickled Onion (53 Front St., Hamilton, 441/295-2263; www.thepickledonion.com), Derek Myers elevates pub grub to an art form with lobster-scallion wontons, cider-braised dry ribs, spiced mango drumettes, chipotle-stuffed chicken breast, rockfish marinated in peach schnapps and Bacardi rum topped with glazed pears, Louisiana gumbo pizza (replete with crayfish tails and andouille sausage); Deletta Gillespie's live music is a bonus. The deliciously historic Swizzle Inn (3 Blue Hole Hill, Hamilton; 441/293-1854; www.swizzleinn.com) is a Bermuda "must" with proper steak-and-Guinness pie and beer-battered cod (if it's open, get your Bermuda welcome on the way from the airport in the form of the original rum swizzle); nightly entertainment, from music to trivia contests, lassos locals and visitors alike.
Despite its genteel rep, Bermuda has begun courting a more urban, urbane, youthful crowd. While it's not quite Spring Break redux, several happening pubs and clubs now complement the traditional cocktail venues where slinky chanteuses or pianists hold sway for the Fox Trot set. During high season, you'll find slinky live music, sultry beach parties, and sprawling street fairs nightly. Every Sunday, the Dockyard hosts Sunset Musicfest, a live jazz jam and bouncing barbecue, while Tuesday nights the Dockyard shops remain open late and more live music is on tap, as well as folkloric performances by Bermuda's Gombey dancers. On Wednesdays, Hamilton hosts the Harbour Nights street festival, closing Front Street (between Parliament and Queen Stets) for local crafts vendors and eateries to set up stands under twinkling lights, culminating in the Culture Fest Street Party on Court Street later. Flatts Village throws it own bash Thursdays, with more live entertainment and a smorgasbord of finger foods. Otherwise, we've covered the coolest hotspots, below, where an occasional famous face might swirl by, martini elegantly in hand.
Fairmont Southampton (101 South Shore Rd., Southampton; 441/238-8000; www.fairmont.com/southampton) has a lovely throwback lounge with coffered ceilings, plush leather sofas, art glass and seascapes; a trio plays nightly. Elbow Beach (60 South Shore Rd., Paget; 441/236-3535) counters with the Veranda, a clubby, library cum rum-and-cigar bar (dig the old posters of spirits and aperitifs); a pianist plays nightly, jazz vocalists often chime in, and there's free salsa instruction Wednesdays and $2 happy-hour tapas on Fridays (followed by a sizzling DJ). Mediterraneo (39 Church St., Hamilton; 441/296-9047) gets going at 10.30pm on weekends with tapas at the wine bar, local and international jazz singers, and writhing on a tiny but crowded dance floor. Mondays mean Martini Madness, with mixologists sending little samplers to lucky diners. Splash (Bermudiana Rd., Hamilton; 441/296-3849) calls itself a wine bar, lounge, and night club and attracts well-heeled loafers, both locals and visitors, to the closest thing Bermuda has to a sizzling singles scene. Deep at Elbow Beach (same address as above) replicates the look of Art Deco luxury liner with lots of blue walls, gauzy curtains, freestanding neoclassical columns, sparkle countertops, and even leather floors. The Beach (103 Front St., Hamilton; 441/292-0219; www.thebeachbermuda.com) bills itself as "The Shame of Front Street," but it's (mostly) good clean fun with a frat party atmosphere: DJs spinning nightly, slot machines, big-screen sports (with happy hours during major events).
While shopping in Bermuda isn't technically duty-free, the no sales tax policy allows you to net bargains (up to 30%) on English tweeds, Irish linens, Italian leather, French china, Swedish crystal, and more. Elegant small department stores and boutiques line Front Street, itself truly an eye-popping display of conspicuous consumption. Look for Crisson Jewelers (with two Front Street addresses), a gem for designer bijoux and premium timepieces from Tissot to Tag Heuer.
Outside of Hamilton, it's hard to beat the Royal Naval Dockyard's Clocktower Mall, where you'll find branches of Hamilton's top boutiques and galleries and first-rate local crafts. Dockyard Glassworks (www.dockglass.com) and Bermuda Rum Cake Company (www.bermudarumcakes.com) share a building; the former offers cool glassblowing and flame-working demonstrations, while the latter offers scrumptious crumbs to sample. The Bermuda Craft Market (441/234-3208), occupying the Dockyard's original cooperage, has some schlocky logo items (mostly of Bermuda cedar) but compensates with genuinely intriguing items (eg., seaglass, decoupage carnival figures, palmetto-and-banana-leaf dolls). Next door, Bermuda Arts Centre (441/234-2809; www.artbermuda.bm) is a marvelous source for quilts, ceramics, African-inspired masks, abstract ceramic sculptures and triptych bas-reliefs; you can sometimes watch artists at work in the atelier in back. Bermuda Clayworks (441/234-5116; www.bermudaclayworks.com) presents various lines of functional pottery and a paint-your-own studio. Check the Bermuda Department of Tourism website or Preview! and This Week in Bermuda for artists' ateliers open to the public.
When To Go
Bermuda merits its exclusive, expensive reputation during high season (mid April—October), dubbed "Beach & Sizzle Season." Shoulder season and best bang for buck is late March-early April or early November (ironically, the tail end of hurricane season when the island slowly begins slumbering); the climate is usually temperate. Rates plummet in low season, November 15-March 31, now promoted as Golf & Spa Season. Even in the dead of winter, temperatures rarely dip below 50F.
Mini-festivals, beach parties, and street fairs animate nearly every night in season. May is Heritage Month, with numerous cultural and sporting events culminating in parades. In spring, many private homes and gardens open for tours on Wednesday afternoons. Summer sees various major cricket test matches, sailing regattas, golf and tennis tournaments; August's top-notch Bermuda Music Festival (www.bermudamusicfestival.com) attracts such performers as Seal, Natalie Cole, and Al Green while the Bermuda Culinary Arts Festival (www.bermudaculinaryarts.com) lures such top toques as Todd English, Tom Colicchio, and Anthony Bourdain. Festivals galore liven the rest of the year, including the month-long early-winter Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts (www.bermudafestival.org), February's annual International Love Festival, and March's Bermuda International Film Festival (www.bermudafilmfest.com). Check the tourism website (www.bermudatourism.com) for additional international golf and tennis tournaments.
Mid-April to October.
November 1 to March 31
Best bang for your buck:
Late March to early April & early November
Bermuda is easily accessible, just over two hours from the east coast; several carriers offer nonstop flights into Bermuda International Airport from most major Eastern and Midwestern US gateways (eg., Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, New York/Newark, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC). Jet Blue (www.jetblue.com) is launching new service; other airlines such as American (www.aa.com) and Continental (www.continental.com) offer low fares to match. Delta (www.delta.com) recently added a late-afternoon flight from Atlanta to open up West Coast business. Other major players include Northwest (www.nwa.com), United (www.united.com), Air Canada (www.aircanada.ca), and British Airways (www.ba.com).
Package Providers The best bet for air/land deals is via such discounters as Orbitz (www.orbitz.com), Expedia (www.expedia.com), and Travelocity (www.travelocity.com). The Bermuda Department of Tourism website (www.bermudatourism.com) offers occasional seasonal promotions; past examples have included "Compliments of Bermuda" ($300 off a companion's airfare) and, in tandem with TNT Vacations (www.tntvacations.com) a "Spectacular Sunday" long-weekend hotel package with $98 roundtrip charter flight from Boston and New York.
GETTING AROUND BERMUDA In keeping with Bermuda's strict environmental regulations, there are no rental cars. But there's no shortage of transportation options, from horse-drawn carriage rides to water taxis. Bikes, scooters and mopeds are most traditional. You must be at least 16 to rent the latter two; remember to scoot on the left-side of the road. Ferries and buses provide excellent public transportation to every corner.
Oleander Cycles (441/234-2764 main office; Valley Rd., Paget, 441/236-BIKE; Gorham Rd., Hamilton, 441/295-0919; Middle Rd., Southampton, 441/234-0629; York St., St. George's, 441/297-0478; www.oleandercycles.bm) offers convenient locations, competitive rates, instruction and a private practice area for novices, as well as complimentary transportation to and from hotels. Prices run $50-55/day (helmets, locks, and first tank of gas included), with multi-day discounts; helmets are mandatory.
Taxis are metered; the fare starts at $5.75 for the first mile, $2 each additional mile. Rates increase 25% after midnight and on Sundays and public holidays. Cabbies -- most of them many-generation Bermudian -- are friendly fonts of information, happily dispensing advice and recommendations. A blue flag on the front indicates that the driver is an accredited tour guide. Reliable dispatchers include Radio Cabs (441/295-4141), Bermuda Taxi Operators (441/292-4175), and Sandys Taxi Company (441/234-2344).
The Sea Express Ferry leaves Hamilton's Ferry Terminal (Front St; $4; www.seaexpress.bm) several times daily according to season, plying the windy Great Sound on four routes: Blue (Hamilton-West End-Dockyard), Pink (Hamilton-Paget-Warwick), Green (Hamilton-Rockaway-Somerset bridge), and the seasonal (mid-April to November) Orange (Hamilton-Dockyard-St. George's). You can also purchase a Transportation Pass good for unlimited bus and ferry rides ($12/day; $28/three-day; $35/four-day; $45/week; kids are half-price).
Buses (441/292-3851; www.bermudabuses.com; $3–$4.50) are pink or blue (to reflect the beaches and sky) and run mostly every half hour. Roughly a dozen routes crisscross the island, divided into 14 zones, each of which is roughly 2 miles long. You must have exact change or tokens (no bills accepted) to board the bus; stops are marked by striped poles – a pink top indicates buses headed toward Hamilton, a blue one is out of Hamilton.