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Bermuda reborn

Sarah Gilbert
01 June 2009

Once the destination of choice for 'newlyweds and nearly deads’, Bermuda is again a magnet for the in crowd as it celebrates its 400th anniversary. Sarah Gilbert reports

The back seat of Ronald Scraders’ taxi was crawling with giant crustaceans. Three Bermudian spiny lobsters, to be exact. It was the end of the season and he had spotted a fisherman selling them by the roadside, he explained. As we drove, he gave me a recipe for boiled lobster, his lilting accent a relaxed hybrid of British, American and West Indian, with its own distinct inflections. Rather like Bermuda itself, in fact.

At first sight, it does seem peculiarly British, with red postboxes, afternoon teasand parishes named Devonshire, Warwick and Southampton. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that it’s very much its own country. Bermudians are at pains to point out that it is not in the Caribbean, as many people believe.

Indeed Bermuda’s seasons follow Britain’s, although with higher temperatures, thanks to the passing Gulf Stream. Nor is it a single island, but a 21-mile string of 138 coral islands and islets less than two miles wide, resting on the exposed tips of an extinct volcano like a fish hook in the startling azure of the Atlantic Ocean.

Britain’s oldest colony was settled by accident in 1609, when Admiral Sir George Somers and his crew on the Sea Venture were shipwrecked en route to Virginia and washed up on the uninhabited shores of an island already known as Bermuda, after Spanish seafarer Juan de Bermudez. This year a whole host of anniversary celebrations are planned, from a re-enactment of the shipwreck to exhibitions and concerts.

The eastern tip of Bermuda, where Somers first landed, became the picturesque town of St George’s. It was the capital until 1815 and has been preserved in a delightful time warp of winding cobbled streets and sugared almond-coloured houses, all topped with brilliant white, lime-washed roofs, designed to collect the unpolluted rainwater.

The first settlers found lush primeval forests of sweet-scented cedar, towering palmetto palms and twisting olive trees. There was a plentiful supply of fruit, including giant guavas, Chinese gooseberries and Surinam cherries.

E Michael Jones, the former mayor of St George’s, is as knowledgeable about botany as he is about history and, as we explored the evocatively named streets – Needle and Thread, Blockade and Featherbed Alley – we plucked tart orange loquats from the trees, tasted peppery red nasturtiums, rubbed indigo leaves between our fingers and smelt wild, white oleander. I lost count of the number of people who greeted us but, as he said, on an island of just over 60,000 people, you’re going to bump into most of them sooner or later.

St Peter’s Church is painted a sea-mist grey, with green shutters and a magnificent cedar door bleached by the sun. The cedar-scented interior is filled with old wooden box pews, one per family, and is still lit by candle chandeliers. In the graveyard, the separate section for slaves and free blacks is a poignant reminder of Bermuda’s segregated past and part of the new African Diaspora Heritage Trail that crisscrosses the island.

Slavery was abolished in Bermuda in 1834, 30 years ahead of the United States. In 1835, a ship carrying 78 slaves from Virginia to South Carolina was driven off course by a storm. The ship docked in Bermuda for provisions but local customs officials refused to let it sail again until the governor ruled on the fate of the slaves. They were given the choice of staying in Bermuda as free individuals or continuing to the US as slaves. Unsurprisingly, all but six chose to remain.

 

One of the vestiges of slavery are the Gombey dance troupes, dating back to the mid-18th century, when masked African and Native American slaves covertly practised a unique form of dancing, re-enacting the injustices meted out by their owners. Carrying sticks and tomahawks, they dance in colourful costumes with mesh face masks, tall headdresses decorated with glitter and peacock feathers and embroidered black velvet capes.

Beyond St George’s, I dipped into the Bermuda Railway Trail. The former railway, the Old Rattle and Shake, took four years to build and had cost an estimated £1m by the time it opened in 1931. Seventeen years later it was dismantled, soon after cars were allowed in the country. Now the track has been replaced by a walking and cycling trail that meanders the length of the island through the lush, semi-tropical vegetation, past limestone shoulders and hedgerows with flamboyant hibiscus flowers.

I walked the trail along an implausibly blue coastline to Ferry Reach Junction, where the line meets American tycoon Vincent Astor’s old private railway, which would carry his guests (including Winston Churchill during WWII) in comfort to his sprawling white mansion on the waterfront. Then it was on past Lover’s Lake, fringed with tangled mangroves, to Ferry Point Park, where the stark concrete remains of the railway bridge stretch to Coney Island.

With virtually no natural resources or industry, Bermuda has traded for generations on its ingenuity – from blockade running during the American Civil War and rum-running during Prohibition to intelligence-gathering during WWII to offshore business – and beauty.

Tourism began with the arrival of Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, in January 1883. Socialites, celebrities, artists and writers soon followed. By the start of the 20th century the country was being marketed as ‘the isles of rest’ and it became a playground for the beau monde, the Vanderbilts, the Roosevelts and the Rockefellers among them.

In the 1920s, the development of Tucker’s Town in St George’s Parish led to a peninsula of millionaires’ homes, the Castle Harbour Hotel and the Mid Ocean Golf Club. Today, the millionaires’ homes have been rebuilt, the revamped golf club is hosting the PGA Grand Slam in October 2009 and the hotel has been replaced by the new Tucker’s Point Hotel and Spa.

If post-war Bermuda targeted ‘newlyweds and the nearly deads’, Bermuda’s first five-star hotel in 35 years suits a more eclectic crowd. Its poolside is lined with enormous four-poster day beds, and you can do t’ai chi on the terrace or take afternoon tea.

 

New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and Italy’s Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, both have homes nearby. Ronald told me that what they, and Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas, like about living on the island is that ‘no one pays them any mind’.

Save for a lone jogger, there was no one to pay me any mind as I explored Scaur Hill Fort, perched on Somerset parish’s highest hill. As I walked under trees dripping in Spanish moss, interspersed with breathtaking views of the Great Sound, conflict seemed impossibly distant, until I reached Royal Naval Dockyard. Its ramparts are littered with cannons that have never been fired in anger but at the Commissioner’s House, the display on the slave trade was heartrending.

From Dockyard, I hopped aboard the high-speed ferry crossing the Great Sound tothe island’s capital, Hamilton, basking in the glow of late afternoon. Advertising and neon signs are banned, and the peaches-and-cream buildings lining the harbour make it look more like a sleepy backwater than a financial powerhouse.

Across the harbour another new addition to the hotel scene is Newstead Belmont Hills. Opened last July, the balconies of its chintz-free suites look out over an infinity pool and the harbour beyond. On Front Street, Louis Vuitton rubs shoulders with AS Cooper & Sons Ltd (est 1897). All the shops are housed in freshly painted, sherbet-coloured Victorian confections. Port O’Call has reinvented itself as a sleek, modern dining room, with an interesting take on local seafood: Bermuda fish chowder, fired up with sherry peppers and dark rum, and succulent lobster, served with buttery tagliatelle and pungent rocket leaves.

A Friday night out is a long-standing tradition in Hamilton and I begin at Opus Bar, a glossy new favourite on the expat scene, before moving to Harry’s, a new and contemporary bar-cum-restaurant on the waterfront, where yachts and speedboats bob on the inky water.

The menu is a delicious fusion of traditional and modern and I opt for the oven-roasted wild salmon tournade, with yuzu butter sauce and fingerling potatoes, washed down with a potent Dark ’n’ Stormy, a moreish concoction of Gosling’s Black Seal rum, ginger beer and fresh lime.

I followed a night on the town with a morning stroll along the South Shore beaches, across the elegant curve of Horseshoe Bay, to the secluded niche of Jobson’s Cove, encircled by a natural arc of rock. While spoilt Bermudians won’t venture into the sea before Bermuda Day on 24 May, I found the pellucid, slightly chilly water irresistible.

In 1883, the American author Julia Dorr wrote that Bermuda was ‘perfect for the overworked and weary, those in need of rest and recreation and quiet amusement, for those who love the beauty of sea and sky better than noisy crowds’. It’s a description that still holds true.

On the powder-soft, rose-tinted sweep of Warwick Long Bay, with barely another soul in sight, the sky’s cobalt blues and the sea’s aquamarines were invigorating. Bermuda may be changing but, as Mark Twain said, it’s still a perfect country for a jaded man – or woman – to loaf in.