Bermuda Busts Out! | T+L Family
Published: April 2009
By Meg Lukens Noonan
It’s not only honeymooners and golfers who are reveling in the island’s clear waters. The bastion of politesse is now more casual and kid-friendly—and you can get there via JetBlue. Bermuda shorts optional.
Lunchtime at Cambridge Beaches, one of Bermuda’s poshest old-line resorts: an easy May breeze creases the aqua shallows out on Long Bay. At a table on the terrace of the beachfront café, a young couple, he with the fresh haircut and she with the gleaming French manicure that mark them as probable newlyweds, lunch on crab-claw and caper-berry salad. Four sun-flushed men in pastel trousers, apparently just back from the links, are being seated. On the other side of the patio, a large extended family—including several young children who have bounded up from the beach—is ordering, and the waiter is acknowledging the kids’ requests with all the gravity and polish one would expect from this venerable establishment. “Hot dog, no roll; nachos, no cheese...”
Say hello to the new Bermuda, where children—even the sandy, boisterous, and finicky variety—are welcome at the most grown-up resorts. It’s just one sign of change on an island that is bouncing back as a vacation destination. Despite all that Bermuda has going for it—proximity to the East Coast (just two hours by plane from New York), a winning semitropical climate (the temperature tops out in the low 80s from June to October and rarely dips below 65 degrees in winter and spring), incomparable pink beaches, and genuinely hospitable locals—visitor numbers had been on a decline since the 1980’s. The staid 21-square-mile British dependency 650 miles off the North Carolina coast paled, it seemed, next to splashy and often less expensive isles in the Caribbean. Several of Bermuda’s mainstay resorts closed in the 1990’s. Then, in 2003, the island was further battered by Hurricane Fabian, one of the worst storms in recent memory. In the past two years, however, arrivals have climbed steadily, thanks to newly affordable air service (JetBlue’s appearance in 2006 spurred other carriers to cut rates), attractive package deals, and a record number of cruise ships. Many grand but dated hotels and cottage colonies have been renovated, and several lavish new resorts are in the works. And in the historic city of Hamilton, which dealt with the wane in tourism by reinventing itself as a booming offshore reinsurance capital and tax haven, old-time purveyors of Shetland sweaters and linen doilies now have new neighbors selling Jimmy Choos and board shorts.
Which is not to say that Bermuda is entirely turning its back on tradition. To be sure, afternoon tea is served promptly at 4 p.m.; businessmen go to work in jacket, necktie, shorts, and kneesocks; and the island takes a two-day holiday in early August for the biggest cricket match of the year. Still, families will find a new sense of ease here—proof that good times and good breeding can go hand in hand.
Lay of the Land
Formed by a volcano, Bermuda is actually made up of 180 islands and islets. The main inhabited isles, linked by causeways and bridges, are divided into nine parishes, among them:
The hilly, lush farming and residential community on the west coast, whose outermost tip is occupied by the Royal Naval Dockyard.
Southampton, Warwick, and Paget
A swath of famed pink beaches that run along the south shore, where many resorts and cottage colonies have staked their claim. Reef-protected Paget is the parish with the calmest waters.
Dominated by Bermuda’s sherbet-colored harborside capital, Hamilton (not to be confused with Hamilton Parish, four miles up the coast).
A mosaic of east-end islets that includes a 1612 fishing settlement, parks, a cruise landing, and the airport.
Where To Stay
Secluded on a west-end peninsula, this clubby hillside cottage colony—one of Bermuda’s oldest and starchiest—has roomy suites in freshly remodeled pink-and-white bungalows. A new multi-tiered (and rather glam) infinity pool complex overlooks one of five private beaches and the main house, a former sea captain’s residence done up in chintz. On the waterfront, boats and snorkeling gear are available for rent, and a resort ferry makes the run to Hamilton several days a week in spring and summer. Since 2001, children over age five have been welcome—just make it clear that croquet mallets are not to be used for jousting. 30 Kings Point Rd., Sandys; 800/468-7300 or 441/234-0331; cambridgebeaches.com; doubles from $355.
On a promontory just across Long Bay from Cambridge Beaches, this collection of 84 cloth-sided tent-cabins on stilts is radically different from any other island digs—think tropical summer camp, sans reveille. Adventurous families will love the nine pocket beaches, lively water-sports center, mountain bikes for the taking, and superb, close-to-shore snorkeling. Guest quarters are furnished with tropical prints and wicker; each has, in addition to a queen-size bed, a fold-out futon suitable for one or two small children, and a tiny but serviceable bathroom. Cabin location is key; on the resort’s northern tip, the breeze-cooled overwater Paradise Pier cabanas—with Plexiglas panels in the floor for viewing sea life—are definitely worth the splurge. They’ll likely prompt you to get out your resort-issued cell phone and dial up room service, so that you can just stay put. 4 Daniel’s Head Lane, Sandys; 9beaches.com; 441/239-2999; doubles from $195.
From its beach, dotted with blue umbrellas, to its 1911 daffodil-yellow hilltop hotel and low-slung cottages, this century-old resort exudes a Riviera-like allure. Located 10 minutes from Hamilton, it’s a perennial favorite with honeymooners and families who seem to have been born in tennis whites. Shuttles buzz up and down the winding driveway all day, whisking guests from the pool to the ocean and back again. Suites in freestanding garden bungalows close to the water have just been refurbished by new owner Mandarin Oriental in soothing neutrals and clean-lined furniture; all have enormous marble bathrooms and flat-screen TV’s. Tennis courts, sea kayaks, a heated pool that’s swimmable even on cooler spring days, and Elbow Beach itself—one of Bermuda’s most beautiful and safest, with its sheltering reefs—will keep kids happy. (Organized children’s activities are offered June 1 to September 2, and during major holidays.) Still haven’t had enough of that blush-colored sand?Mickey’s restaurant, which is directly on the beach, is perfect for a family dinner, with or without shoes. 60 South Shore Rd., Paget; 800/223-7434; mandarinoriental.com; doubles from $295.
This mammoth hotel on 100 landscaped acres high above Bermuda Sound is popular with conventioneers and golfers, but kids and parents also love it for its free-form pool (big enough to handle two simultaneous games of Marco Polo) and private-cove beach a quick trolley ride away. An indoor pool is open from 6:30 p.m. until midnight (after the spa’s customers have cleared out). Informal cricket instruction, excursions to caves, treasure hunts, and movies are on the docket at the free, year-round Explorers Club for children five and up. Sunny guest rooms and suites are spacious, and most have views of the water. A free ferry goes from the resort to Hamilton, where it docks at its sister property, the Fairmont Hamilton Princess; the boat ride is so pleasant, some make the round-trip without disembarking. 101 South Shore Rd., Southampton; fairmont.com; 800/441-1414; doubles from $259.
Where to Eat
Rock Island Gourmet
Here’s the place for killer raspberry scones, paintings by local artists, and north-shore gossip, a block from the waterfront. 48 Reid St., Hamilton, Pembroke; 441/296-5241; breakfast for four $18.
This diner-style hangout, within walking distance of the Elbow Beach hotel, has thick chocolate milk shakes, roast turkey sandwiches, and fish chowder delivered to lime-green Formica tables. 68 South Shore Rd., Paget; 441/236-9742; lunch for four $40.
The Frog & Onion Pub
The cavernous former barrel-making factory at the Dockyard attracts families who come for the very British fare (pasties, fish and chips, shepherd’s pie) and large game arcade—bloody brilliant! The Cooperage, Dockyard, Sandys; 441/234-2900; lunch for four $76.
The Waterlot Inn
Steak and chops are served in a cozy beamed room at this 17th-century dockside residence. Despite the grown-up setting, the waitstaff is amazingly attentive to children, cheerfully cutting meat, spreading napkins across laps, and suggesting, with a wink, that they polish off their vegetables. Fairmont Southampton, Middle Rd., Southampton; 441/238-8000; dinner for four $240.
This casual restaurant has been dishing up chicken cacciatore, cannelloni, and 18 kinds of pizza for more than a quarter century; get here early for a prime people-watching table on the terrace. 20 Bermudiana Rd., Hamilton, Pembroke; 441/292-2375; dinner for four $120.
Mrs. Tea’s Victorian Tearoom
Nibble scones with clotted cream under the gaze of British royals, whose portraits grace the walls of this storybook National Trust cottage. 126 Main Rd., Sandys; 441/234-1616; afternoon tea for four $56.
Fairmont Hamilton Princess
Named for one of Queen Victoria’s daughters, who visited the island in 1883, the hotel presents afternoon tea with the works—tiered stands, polished silver, and eggshell porcelain. There’s also a sweet version for little girls called “princess tea for princesses”; participants get a strand of plastic pearls and a fancy hat. 76 Pitts Bay Rd., Hamilton, Pembroke; 441/295-3000; afternoon tea for four $110, princess tea $25 per child; reservations suggested.
Gibbs Hill Lighthouse Tea Room
After a 185-step climb to the top of the cast-iron beacon, Bermuda’s highest point, repair to the keeper’s house for a cup of Earl Grey and baked beans on toast, or, later in the day, ice cream sundaes and frozen drinks. If you come between February and May, be on the lookout for migrating humpback whales. Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, 68 St. Anne’s Rd., Southampton; 441/238-8679; breakfast for four $50.
On the Horizon
Given the fact that Bermuda hasn’t seen a resort open in 35 years, the scope and pace of the island’s current building boom is astounding. Developments include golf-centric enclaves such as Tucker’s Point Club, on 200 east-end acres, which has fractional-ownership villas and is completing an 88-suite Georgian-style hotel with in-room fireplaces and soaking tubs. Also in the works: a very un-Bermuda-like complex being developed by Jumeirah, the audacious Dubai-based firm known for its architecturally arresting properties. Their 300-room Jumeirah Southlands Resort, on 37 acres of south-shore beachfront, will showcase glass-walled, two-story suites built into sea cliffs. Meanwhile, the former Club Med property, vacant since 1989 and since then the object of several failed schemes, may finally be resurrected in the form of a St. Regis hotel, giving sleepy St. George’s Parish a much-needed marquee property. Today Bermuda has about 6,000 hotel beds; its pro-tourism premier, Dr. Ewart Brown, has said his goal is to have 10,000 by the year 2010—which should give traveling clans plenty to choose from.
Meg Lukens Noonan, T+L Family’s expert on islands and ski resorts, is based in Hanover, New Hampshire.
When to Go
Ideal for tennis, biking, golf, and beachcombing, spring is usually a tad too cool for ocean swimming. Locals traditionally wait until May 24, Bermuda Day, before taking their first dip of the year. The most popular months to visit are April through October. Winters are lovely, if crisp.
How to Get Here
Airfares have plunged since discount carriers JetBlue (which flies daily from New York and Boston) and USA3000 Airlines (with several flights weekly from Baltimore) put the island on their schedules. Delta, American, Continental, and US Airways now have competitively priced daily flights. Note that American citizens must present passports to reenter the U.S. from Bermuda.
How to Get Around
The island has always placed limitations on cars; residents are allowed only one per family, and visitors are not permitted to rent them. Taxis are notoriously expensive. As for mopeds, proceed with caution—yes, they look like fun and do offer great photo ops, but no one under 16 is allowed to drive them, and accidents are common. Your best bet is to use the excellent public transportation:
Hop a ferry
Passenger boats (441/295-4506; seaexpress.bm) ply the waters around the island via four routes—and cost only a few dollars per trip; children under five travel free, as do “pedal cycles.”
Take a bus
Though they can get crowded during weekday rush hours, buses (441/292-3851; gov.bm) are $4.50 a ride, easy to figure out, and prompt.
First donned in the early 20th century by British military officers, they’re now considered the national dress for men (when worn with a blazer, tie, and kneesocks).
This sweet, bulb-shaped allium—first grown on the island in 1616 from English seeds—became so well like that Bermudians were referred to as "Onions."
Popularized by Lilly Pulitzer, the wood-handled purse with the buttoned-on cover is, to this day, the favorite clutch of the preppy set.
A sun-loving ground cover that originated in the African savanna, the plant now blankets golf courses and football fields the world over.
Yes, these shores are pink, courtesy of sand mixing with the eroded, bright-red skeletons of reef-dwelling protozoa. And many of Bermuda’s loveliest waterfront stretches are public—the buses will take you right to them.
South Shore Rd., Southampton
Close-to-shore reefs with lots of marine life make the south-coast bay one of the island’s top snorkeling spots. Plus, the sand here is among Bermuda’s rosiest.
Horseshoe Bay Beach
Off Horseshoe Rd., Southampton
When locals say they’re going to “the beach,” this gorgeous, rock-bordered crescent is what they mean. Be aware that riptides sometimes make the water challenging for all but strong swimmers. For a calmer dunk, walk west to the cove known as Baby Beach.
Shelly Bay Beach
North Shore Rd., Hamilton
Located near Flatts Village, the shallow-water north shore has tide pools to explore, an adjacent playground and soccer field, a snack stand, and—rare for Bermuda—shade trees, well positioned for picnics.
Saddle Up in the Sand
Experience the south-shore beaches at their most tranquil on an early-morning trot through the dunes with Spicelands Riding Centre (50 Middle Rd., Warwick; 441/238-8212; spicelandsriding.com; $80 per person, minimum age 10).
Visit the Dockyard
Once the British Navy’s key strategic defense post in the Atlantic, the Royal Naval Dockyard, at the island’s west end, has been transformed into a pedestrian village, with shops, restaurants, a glassworks, and the Bermuda Maritime Museum. The popular Dolphin Quest program (441/234-4464; dolphinquest.org; dolphin encounters from $100 for three people) operates in a lagoon within the six-acre fortress known as the Keep; kids five and up can use water scooters to whiz along next to dolphins.
See Under The Sea
At the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo (40 North Shore Rd., Flatts Village, Hamilton; bamz.org; 441/293-2727), zero in on the terrific North Rock Exhibit, where visitors can stand eye- to-eye with grouper, a moray eel, and sharks swimming in one of the world’s largest living-reef tanks.
Pedal The Bermuda Railway Trail
This mostly flat path runs along an old railroad bed from one end of the island to the other. Eve Cycles (441/236-6247; evecycles.com) delivers rentals to hotels. Note that a bike is called a “pedal cycle” here—bicycle is the Bermudan word for “moped.”
Go Diving Without Getting Wet
The Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute (40 Crow Lane, Pembroke; 441/297-7219; buei.bm), on the outskirts of Hamilton, has one of the world’s largest shell collections and a seven-minute simulated capsule dive to the bottom of the Atlantic.