Stepping off the cruise ship in St. George, Bermuda's eastern end (on its own island) we immediately got hit with a torrential thunderstorm, so we started by shopping right near the dock. Our best find was a nice gourmet store with several samples of local jams, mustards, and rum cake.
But then the weather cleared, and off we went to explore.
For local transportation, the best values are one-, two, or three-day unlimited bus passes—but St. George is so compact that we simply walked: out to "the cut," the passage into the harbor from the ocean, with a ruined fort—and past the unfinished church to one of the most magnificent swimming spots I've ever experienced: Tobacco Bay. Natural limestone formations create breakwaters almost all the way around. The water is shallow, transparent, and a lovely shade of green. At the far edge, near the rocks, you can get over your head and experience a current, if not real waves. The water seems to have an unusually high salt content, and thus amazing buoyancy.
St. George itself is a fairly small hamlet, with many well-preserved 18th-century buildings painted assorted pastels: pink, brown, blue, yellow—as well as whitewash. It manages to feel like Burano, Italy…Edgartown, Massachusetts…Niagara-on-theLake, Ontario…and Portmerion, Wales. It's very much a tourist town, with little evidence of local industries. It's all about shopping, dining, drinking, and playing golf. Quite pleasant and pretty, but lacking in substance. It does boast St. Peter's, the oldest active Anglican church in the Western Hemisphere—a cute little place full of memorial slabs and ancient pews, founded by the settlers who were blown off course en route to Jamestown (how did they ever find this 22-mile spit in the ocean?). At the Town Square, there's also a replica of the Deliverance, the ship they built to get themselves back after theirs was the first casualty among the many Bermuda shipwrecks. It's possible to spend a lot of time in various small local history museums, but the church was the only one we toured.
Traffic is refreshingly light, even on the main streets—and much of town consists of narrow lanes with almost no cars (though plenty of noisy mopeds and motorcycles, unfortunately). On these streets at least, many drivers go right up the middle unless another vehicle is approaching. as part of Britain, then they move to the left.
Local shopkeepers seem to be about evenly divided between black and white. So far, I haven't identified a distinctive Bermudan accent; some people sound vaguely Canadian, others sound like they're from the Northeast United States, others sound English, and others seem to have spent time in the American South.
Pricing is odd. A U.S. dollar is worth one Bermudan dollar at this writing, and some things are very inexpensive—for instance a street fair in the Town Square offered choices of small souvenir art prints from multiple vendors, all starting at $10 and many including a free gift even at that level. An iced coffee, however, is $4.95.
St. George has only a handful of restaurants, and most of the prices seem pretty high. The choices include a sushi bar, a British pub, and a multi-ethnic place offering curries and Italian pastas among other things, as well as a few places to buy sandwiches and snacks (including a quite decent grocery store).
Hamilton: A much busier city, the capital of Bermuda, Hamilton is architecturally similar to St. George, but the vibe is completely different. A steady stream of vans and scooters honks its way down Front Street, past a mix of local shops (both high-end and discount) and branded boutiques like Gucci and Vuitton.
Our favorite find was a museum-quality collection of Zimbabwean stone sculpture at Crisson & Hind Fine Art, 71 Front Street, on the second floor of Crisson Jewlers. www.crisonandhind.com.
For some reason, food is astonishingly expensive. Moderate lunches could be found in divey cafes for $8-$12, but any place that looked decent was charging $18-$25 for a single entree at lunch.
As cruise passengers, we were able to choose one deep-discount meal at one of a select few local restaurants, and we chose the Tuscany. As it turned out, the staff was actually Italian, the food was excellent, and the atmosphere quite pleasant.
Summers, Hamilton has a street fair every Wednesday evening, quite a bit bigger than the Tuesday one in St. George. Artists worked mostly either in paint or with jewelry at very reasonable prices.
But the highlight of our Wednesday was much earlier: a ride out to the coral reefs on a glass-bottom boat, with close-ups of several reefs and numerous fish and a stop for snorkeling. One of the reefs sprang up out of a ship that was abandoned and deliberately sunk in the 1890s, and is now a thriving habitat. According to the Fantasea Tour operators (excellent guides), Bermuda has some of the best-preserved reefs in the world, and other countries send experts to study its success.
Thursday, we were ready to see the non-tourist Bermuda. We got a transit map for free, bought all-day transit passes covering all the buses and ferries ($12 for adults, $6 for children) and headed out of Hamillton on the #1 bus along the south shore to Spittal Pond Nature Reserve. This turned out to be a stunning mix of ocean and cliff scenery (including a few spots where we could enjoy some serious spray from the larger waves), forest hiking, and pond ecology. Chameleons were abundant in the sea-grape forests, and at one point we watched while a blue chameleon turned black, five feet away from a black one that was turning blue. We also saw a brown one climb the trunk of a tree, reach the leafy parts, and turn green. The transformation is about as quick as it could be without making itself too obvious—very cool.
The bus stop is next to Harrington Hundreds Road—featuring a small but well-stocked grocery offering many organic, gourmet, and health food items along with the usual sundries. We bought cheese, crackers, and coconut yogurt for a picnic lunch, which we ate about a mile up the road at a lovely and almost deserted beach, John Smith's Bay. We had our picnic under a large palm and then enjoyed the perfect water and strong but not dangerous waves. We concluded our excursion by walking a few hundred yards to Devil's Hole—a view point on the south shore of Harrington Sound, which carves a big chunk out of the island, taking the #3 farther east along the large bay, and then the #11 back toward Hamilton along the scenic North Shore. This bus seems to go through more "real people" sections than much of what we've seen. The houses were small, there were corner convenience stores, and though we passed several sparkling beaches, they did not seem to attract tourists.
On our last morning before the ship sailed, we walked a short distance to the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute, a fascinating museum of undersea life. The 10-minute walk, during Hamilton's rush hour, was a smog-chocked, traffic-dodging worry—but once we arrived at the modern and well-designed facility, it was easy to relax into the interactive activities, films including a long and incredibly realistic and detailed simulation of life in Jurassic times, as well as short narratives about William Beebe(first ma to dive below 3000 feet) and the finding of the prehistoric-but-still-surviving coelacanth. There were also numerous traditional-style museum exhibits about the history of exploration, and the amazing discoveries of underwater life.
The simulated dive (an elevator to the lower floor) was campy, even cheesy, and the lights were a bit dim for extended reading of the display cards, but what a wealth of information! Allow at least two hours.
Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review, is the author of the 280-page e-book The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook available exclusively at http://www.frugalfun.com
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