Ariel Sands Resort, Bermuda
Published: June 2009
By Padgett Powell
BERMUDA, BARRING FUSSY QUALIFICATION, IS PARADISE. It was a scene of happy accidents from the beginning. Folk headed for the hell of Jamestown, Virginia, fetched up in Bermuda and prospered in its comparative ease. The 300 or so shipwrecks on its prodigious coral shoals are now enriching sites for discovery and research, recreational and serious. The cedar blight of the 1930's provided perfectly cured gorgeous wood for the construction of perfectly gorgeous houses up to 30 years later. A fly was imported to eat the cedar scale and got out of hand, as they tend to; a lizard was imported to eat the fly and got out of hand, as they tend to; a bird was imported to eat the lizard and got out of hand, as they tend to; the importation of mongoose was proposed to eat the bird, but the Bermudians had the wits to say, "No, the mongoose is a rat; we don't want rats." And that was that. The birds, Jamaican kiskadees, which partook too much of the Jamaican character for the taste of Bermudians ("Noisy, a little feisty"), eventually settled down and learned to behave ("They stopped busting up the other birds"). It's been like this all along on this island. What veers wrong heels into the wind and rights itself. There is today not a bug on Bermuda. If there is, it is not going to bite you. In four days I found a fly and a roach, civilly going their ways. There is no unemployment. There are no guns. There is no income tax. There are no slums. Taken through an area I was later told was a poor one, I had thought it reminiscent of Martha's Vineyard. There is no higher standard of living in the egalitarian world, by which I mean that Kuwait technically ranks higher. Public enemy number one, according to a guide at the Bermuda Botanical Gardens, may well be a plant. Alas, the harmless-in-a-pot ficus (Indian laurel) is not so genteel, and not so small, outdoors--it spreads for acres, live-oak size, in search of Bermuda's most precious commodity, water. Civil discord in Bermuda is a neighbor snatching up a baby ficus sprouting in your yard.
In my experience with tropical islands, which is not vast, I have learned to expect their beauty--the aquamarine this, the cobalt that, the tangerine these--to be alloyed tightly with certain signs of human desperation. There is the gentle slapping away of hands that would pick your pocket in St. Vincent, say; the noise and swirling hot litter of Castries on St. Lucia; the fecal smells lurking in the great drafts of exotic food cooking; urchins begging; sudden goats; religions which fatally molest chickens in the name of the gods. And there is that infernal third-world staccato rubber-stamping of the tedious immigration gauntlet which you feel is designed solely to mess with you. On Bermuda none of this obtains.
First, it is not a tropical island, but temperate, and it is British--you might say temperately British. The British leave order in their wake, whatever else. That which is too stiff has been tempered to accommodate the tourist who wants to relax, who wants some of that jump-up looseness of the islands but not the full human spectrum that comes with it. Jacket and tie at dinner, for example, is degraded to what is called Smart Casual, which is uncodified but seems to lie precisely between Black Tie and No Shirt No Shoes No Service.
Bermuda's first business is tourism, and its second business is money. The result is a lot of people go there, and they spend a lot of money. To the untrained eye, and to the trained eye, what spreads before you in great scootering vigor is 21 square miles of J. Crew catalog and Modern Maturity magazine sprung to life, folk who have poured out of 13 large planes a day and six gargantuan cruise ships a week. They roll down-island with cash, landing where they land, pinballs in a well-lit, well-oiled machine.
In Hamilton, the capital, the ship passengers walk across the street to Gucci; in St. George's, the original capital, they shop at Bluck's Jewelers for Spode china and at Trimingham's department store for the eponymous shorts, and they stroll streets reminiscent of those in Charleston, South Carolina, some distance west on virtually the same latitude.
If there are signs of human desperation here, they are of the high-end sort, involving not the poor but the rich. On the news one night the main story features a spokesman for the Board of Tourism speaking about the competitively sought permit for a seventh cruise ship; the next night the Minister of Transportation is shown christening the new "arriving" wing at the airport by pouring champagne down its bright facade. The hotel business, which once accounted for 80 percent of the island's GNP, is down to a mere 48 percent, owing to income from "offshore" (alternatively, "exempt") companies--firms using Bermuda as a name-only tax base. A sense obtains that hotels are attempting to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, get with it. A sense obtains that Bermuda is seeking ways to appeal perhaps to a younger tourist--the smart and the casual.
Two years ago actor Michael Douglas's family decided to fix rather than sell its Bermuda resort Ariel Sands, and already when Jack Nicholson shows up, by private jet and late to avoid crowds, wearing a lime-green suit and purple shirt and black shoes with white fur on their tops ("Would look like hell on anybody else," general manager Jason Powell says, "but it looked pretty cool on Jack"), and asks, "Where's Mikey?" (Douglas), and wakes him up and when he finally retires asks, of the loud and seeming electronic chirping of the ubiquitous tree frogs, "What's that noise?", and is told, "It's little green frogs calling each other, Jack," Jack says, "Ain't that sweet."
Of the frogs and of the hotel, he is correct. By walking out your door you can snorkel a reef full of parrotfish and a beautiful cobalt-trimmed angelfish-shaped fish I'm too icthyologically stupid to identify. My companion, an appellation I find so cloyingly coy I'll herewith call her Compania, signed up for Yon-Ka Seaweed Body at the state-of-the-art spa and got herself packed in seaweed and rolled up in a space blanket to stew in there like, she says, a hot dog, and came out so much softer than she went in that I said, "Sei piu pelligrossa," which means You are more dangerous, when I meant "La sua pelle e piu morbida," which means Your skin is softer. And it was--is. Yon-Ka Seaweed Body works.
There is a half-serious joke about town that a facelift clinic that was planned for the hospital is actually going to be secretly operated by Ariel Sands' new beauty spa for Douglas's Hollywood friends to come down and get a quickie on the sly.
There is an "old Bermuda" that is not happy with the prospect of things Hollywood, which are probably kindred to things jump-up, and Powell has taken actual heat about impending celebrity. He's staying the course: he threatens a star-hosted golf tournament, with Nicholson and Douglas of course, and Sharon Stone and Demi Moore and Danny DeVito. He laughs--he's not serious; nor is he altogether joking. Don't count it out: Nicholson dressed as the Joker, a natural for Bermuda shorts, disturbing the halcyon fairway morning: "It's tee time!"
A year and a half ago Powell at Ariel Sands and friend Stephen Jones at Newstead Hotel were plucked from their parallel positions as food &beverage directors at the two huge Princess Hotels and made general managers at their respective smaller establishments that had over time gone moribund. Jones's Newstead was landscape green and invisible on its hillside overlooking Hamilton Bay; it got yellow paint on the outside and became thereby a suddenly much larger property than even locals had thought it. Ariel Sands put yellow paint and plexiglas and sail cloth on the inside, a bright coral on the outside, and things are more abuzz about seeming small changes like this than you'd think they'd be.
Powell, who likes to spearfish, and Jones, a former SCUBA instructor and boxing enthusiast, slightly bull-necked and with a hint of a split lip to show for it, are what might be called Bermuda's Young Hotel Turks. They are looking to the smart and the casual. They have installed excellent restaurants at their hotels in efforts to escape what Powell calls the hotel dining room syndrome wherein "you shovel food to the guests of the hotel. We wanted a restaurant." At his Caliban's he has got that: locals eat there. At Newstead, Compania had the finest Bermudian fish cakes--a ubiquitous island dish of fish and potato and banana and chutney in a croquette--in the egalitarian world, by which I mean it was good, and the fish chowder, also pandemic, matched it. Their friend and third Young Hotel Turk at Newstead's sister property Horizon Hotel, Allen Paris, who bears edgy resemblance to John Cleese, serves a buffet of grilled local fish--wahoo and grouper (called rockfish) and tuna--that makes you wonder how the buffet ever got its bad name. The food on this island is exquisite, and free of the sun-dried tomato and anchiote-pepper-seed-confit salsa.
At Mr. Paris's buffet, Compania and I met a couple of Older Young Hotel Turks, June and Giff Stanton, who run Tranquility House and Marley Beach Cottages, which offers perhaps the most private beach on the island (they have trouble with guests going nude). It also offers an almost tame heron who feeds on land crabs poolside and patiently observes you clean up his mess.
Perhaps because I'd watched Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?on TV the night before (except for the two local stations and BBC World, Bermuda TV is American TV), or perhaps because June Stanton really does suggest her, I got the loveliest waft of Elizabeth Taylor when June Stanton says things like, "On Bermuda if something isn't critical, we don't do it. We just have a long lunch and a nap. We call this being oleandered." Once June Stanton took a long lunch and a nap while a ficus oleandered in her yard and she woke up and had to pay $10,000 to have it evacuated.
Bermuda, then, is a paradisiacal paradox: the civilized beach town (with a tree of knowledge on it). You cannot be more than half a mile from a beach, and no biker has tattoos, no bike has more than five horsepower, and no one, government or private, is messing with you. You rent your scooter and wring hard the handlebar, wild, as the late poet James Dickey put it, to be wreckage forever. Stop, eat, golf, serve and volley, spend some money, wring the handlebar home to your hotel.
It is hard to be wreckage forever at 20 miles an hour, even if you forget, as you will, to drive on the left and have to be gently coaxed over by the understanding opposing stream of traffic, and you wind up ultimately resting at your hotel, which is what it is for. Back at Ariel Sands, envious of Compania's more dangerous softness, I hire Caroline in the spa to lay hands on me (Sports Massage), wisely skipping Body Fat Testing.
Caroline tells me there are bad areas on Bermuda--"Well, not bad but . . . dodgy."
"Yes, dodgy. But I'm a girl from a small village in Yorkshire, and everything must be just so."
As Caroline discovers and reduces crunchy things in me, I too begin to embrace the Just So. Bermuda is the Just So. And the Just So stops just short of the Fastidious. It is time this hotel knew Compania's real name.
I go in to the office and tell them that Mr. Douglas starred in The American President opposite Annette Benning playing a character named Sidney Ellen Wade, and Compania's real name is Sidney Ellen Wade, and she's from New Rochelle, New York, where the director of that movie, Carl Reiner, is from (where his father's Dick Van Dyke Show was fictively set, by the way, I keep on), and the writer of that movie, Aaron Sorkin, is from Scarsdale, about two minutes away, and they won't acknowledge that they used her name, probably because they are scared, when we are not even mad, and while we've come to expect quivery behavior of Hollyweirdos (I take this term from Lynyrd Skynyrd, with whom I went to school, I explain) we don't expect it of Mr. Douglas, so call him and ask him down to meet the real Sidney Ellen Wade, more soft and dangerous than the movie Sidney Ellen Wade. "Just so you know," I conclude, and repair to my room and sit out on my terrace in the cool, Atlantic moonlight, and then scuff around the property looking for horse teeth, because a cab driver told me 500 horses are buried here, who had to be slaughtered because the automobile had rendered them obsolete and the war had rendered them hungry, and management lives in fear of a child unearthing remains and terrifying itself, and not finding any teeth I admire all things cobalt and aquamarine and tangerine, and have a very good time awaiting Mr. Douglas or Jack, whoever shows up first.
Ariel Sands, 34 South Shore Rd., Devonshire, Bermuda; 800/468-6610 or 441/236-0087; doubles from $290.