Bermuda’s Hotel Revolution
Published: April 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
On Bermuda, hotels are opening, old favorites are upgrading, and those rosy sands are beckoning Grab a rum swizzle and let the good times roll.
It’s not easy being Bermuda. For years it has been snubbed in favor of the Bahamas (especially smug and clubby Harbour Island) and the Caribbean (rap-sodized St. Bart’s). But Bermuda is back, signaling a return to good old-fashioned warm-weather resort values, to an uncomplicated time when a rum swizzle was a rum swizzle, Lilly Pulitzer was worn without a wink, and an afternoon on a world-class pink-sand beach was its own reward.
The island’s hotels have dusted themselves off from the ravaging effects of 2003’s Hurricane Fabian, the worst storm to hit the island in 50 years, and are looking plenty buff. The other (amazing) news is that it costs less to fly to Bermuda than it did a decade ago, due to a gloves-off battle for market share between low-cost and traditional carriers. On the same day in May 2006 that JetBlue introduced service from New York, American Airlines slashed its fares to match. (Both companies now offer one-way tickets starting at $129.) Continental also joined the price wars, even if it has, so far, been unwilling to go as low as the competition. USA 3000 beats them all with one-way flights from Baltimore for $99.
The only thing I regret about the island as it enjoys its present star turn is the relaxed dress code. Most hotel restaurants, even the really hidebound ones, no longer require men to wear jackets and ties. But Bermuda is still a long way from bling.
Even if this resort didn’t have a vest-pocket beach bar named for Travel + Leisure, I would still find it easy to like. According to owner David Dodwell—who also happens to be a member of Bermuda’s parliament, a former minister of tourism, and that body’s actual, official “shadow” minister—the Reefs has the highest repeat-guest rate of any luxury hotel on the island. Guests are not only married to the resort, they're married to when they go: staffers joke that you can tell what week of the year it is just by who’s sitting around the pool. To maintain all that goodwill—and to silence critics who had been quietly insinuating that the place was looking, well, a bit dull, a tad tired—a complete redesign was undertaken last year. Complete, but subtle: “The Reefs customer is incredibly proprietary of its past,” Dodwell says. “You can use the word enhancement or improvement, but never change.” This tightrope is walked in the 65 guest rooms with soft-blue ceilings, muted green walls, prettily draped headboards, and specially commissioned artwork depicting local flora. Continuity is also provided by the personnel. A quite unbelievable 57 years with the hotel won the recently retired Sylvia Celeste Bean the Queen’s Certificate and Badge of Honour for service to the Bermudan hospitality industry. 56 S. Shore Rd., Southampton; 800/742-2008; www.thereefs.com; doubles from $512.
In 2010, when the last stroke of clotted cream–colored latex is lovingly applied to the grand dowager duchess of Bermuda resorts, when the last lacy fan of dried marine algae is mounted in a box frame and hung, the 235-room property will have been under nonstop renovation for a heroic four years, all with the end result of branding it a Mandarin Oriental Resort. (The company currently holds only the management contract.) Scuttled once and for always are the juicy pinks and greens and hothouse florals so beloved by that portion of Elbow Beach’s fan base who descended on the resort as college students on spring break in the 1950’s and 60’s and who returned on their honeymoons to sip the sweet champagne of nostalgia.
Today, in place of that endearing, but—let’s be honest—ultimately dippy look is something that might almost be called cool, or at least soothing and serene. If you shrink from bright hues, have a low clutter threshold, and like sharp tailored furniture in blond wood and natural wicker, you'll love the new guest rooms. The spa—all bamboo floors, hand-carved granite tubs, and river-rock showers—is a page from the same book.
In other ways, everything old is new again at Elbow Beach. It still offers two distinct experiences: one to those staying in the hulking five-story main building, the other to guests in the colony of intimate, classic Bermudan cottages posed here and there above the hotel’s private half-mile beach. Washed in the sugary blues and greens of cupcake icing, the cottages have stepped whitewashed roofs with urns at the corners, scalloped eaves, pie-crust gables, and, of course, lanais.
I have only three quibbles with Elbow Beach. One is the whistling tree frogs, which don’t so much whistle as shriek. According to a recent unscientific census, they number 1.23 trillion at the resort. My second objection is to the pictures of Princess Margaret enduring some social function, tumbler in hand. They are too wonderful to be so casually displayed. Lastly there’s the artwork. It looks like it was bought by the yard. 60 S. Shore Rd., Paget; 441/236-3535; www.mandarinoriental.com; doubles from $475.
Having flamed out as the Daniel’s Head Village eco-resort in 2001—Bermuda proved hostile to such a high level of crunchiness—this property is earnestly trying to reinvent itself as something simpler and more seductive: a funky, younger, “flip-flops required” alternative to the island’s classic big-gun hotels. But if that message is clear, the one about what to expect from the place still needs sharpening.
Many people arrive all juiced up, anticipating Tahitian-style bungalows- on-stilts with hard walls and roofs. The resort delivers the stilts, and the 84 accommodations (including overwater ones) do look like bungalows, but they are essentially tents—aluminum frames sandwiched between vinyl-laminated panels similar to sailcloth. Telephone-pole platforms are surfaced with a composite of plastic-and-hardwood sawdust. Each 225-square-foot unit has a tiny bathroom with a fully qualifying toilet and shower behind a solid door, a queen-size bed, a futon sofa, screened windows with roll-up/roll-down flaps, an air conditioner that takes up too much floor space, and a 25-square-foot porch. Snuggled on a ravishing 18-acre peninsula with nine swimming coves (whence the hotel’s name), and designed by John Gardner of local firm Cooper & Gardner Architects, the tents took a direct hit from Fabian’s eye wall—meaning gusts of up to 150 mph—and hardly sustained a blemish.
But are they comfortable, or at least amusing?I'm sure they could be if there weren’t such an agitating sound track, composed of rattling window frames and flapping fabric. (I can’t lay this on 9 Beaches, but I have officially become one of those tiresome people who can’t sleep with the sound of surf slapping the shore.) Perhaps this is obvious, but I also think it’s worth mentioning that the tents are damp. And the first time I stepped into the shower there was a wet washcloth in it. Still, my problems probably had more to do with me than with the resort. As we all know, one man’s damp and agitating is another man’s romantic: 9 Beaches is a place you have to be in the mood for. In the right one, and with the right person, I'm sure it can be magical. Sandys; 441/232-6655; www.9beaches.com; doubles from $225.
A Bermudan resort without a beach—who would go?As it turns out, quite a lot of you: last year, T+L readers did the Waterloo—which has 30 rooms—the honor of voting it Best Hotel in the Caribbean, Bermuda, and the Bahamas. The 19th-century manor house and its attendant cottages rule from a terraced, lushly planted roost directly on Hamilton Harbour—and are all the more prized for it. The atmosphere is VVB (Very Very British), which happily means lots of GEF (Good English Furniture). And if you hop a taxi or moped, you can even get wet: guests have full privileges, including dining, at Waterloo’s sister property, the Coral Beach & Tennis Club. 100 Pittsbay Rd., Hamilton; 800/468-4100; www.waterloohouse.com; doubles from $420.
This may be the preppiest, most conservative hotel on the island (you’d swear you were in a country club), but the 94-room Cambridge is capable of thinking outside the box: it’s the only resort that offers accommodations with dedicated pools. Each of the sexy, freestanding new suites is poised on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic and includes a bedroom, a sitting room, a dressing room, a whirlpool tub positioned before a picture window framing the ocean, a six-head shower stall with an independent sound system—plus an infinity-edge plunge pool. Tray ceilings, cutting-garden chintz, and gourd lamps on mahogany night tables assure the old guard that Cambridge hasn’t gone, er, off the deep end. The dirty secret is that these glamorous suites, of which Bay Grapes is the most sensational, can be booked by couples only, i.e., no singles traveling together, as if they were all noisy and on the prowl. This seems a little mean, not to mention exclusionary, though you and your best friend can always fake it. 30 Kings Point, Sandys; 800/468-7300; www.cambridgebeaches.com; doubles from $445.
The crowd-pleasing, family-friendly behemoth of Bermuda resorts, a.k.a. the Big Pink Lady on the Hill, never makes the mistake of trying too hard, or of tinkering too vigorously, with its wholesome, aren’t-we-all-happy-to-be-here image. (The downside of the Southampton’s size is that service can be robotic and unyieldingly unhelpful, with personnel refusing outright to perform the simplest tasks: one operator told me it was “impossible” for her to obtain the fax number of the hotel next door.) Just months away from coming off a total refurbishment, the Southampton is looking not just fresh and camera-ready but relevant, something that it may not even have been reaching for but that is certainly a welcome dividend. Sofas and wing chairs in overscaled, stylized, exaggerated shapes fill the lobby. Rugs patterned with shells, flowers, harps, and fish, and that put you in mind of Oliver Messel, are pretty swell, too.
One of the great things about all but a handful of the 593 guest rooms, which measure 450 square feet, has always been the twin sinks in an alcove outside the bathrooms rather than in them. The bad thing about this feature was how thin wall-to-wall carpeting continued directly from the hall under the vanity. Today, that carpet is history. Instead, there’s gleaming marble tile, which is better design and even better hygiene.
The civilizing refinements and decorative flourishes elsewhere in the rooms won’t make you faint, but at least someone thought to include them: armchairs with branch frames, sheer curtains in motifs borrowed from iron grillwork, crackle-glazed lamps. French doors are a great improvement on the old sliding-glass ones; if only the budget had allowed for real panes. The fake ones couldn’t fool a child of six. No one likes being treated like a philistine, especially on vacation. 101 S. Shore Rd., Southampton; 800/441-1414; www.fairmont.com; doubles from $439.
Christopher Petkanas is a Travel + Leisure special correspondent.