Words by Simon Hale
Up to 70 degrees of sunshine and a soothing breeze as you stroll along the harbour front with yachts dancing on the gentle glittering waves as you look out to sea. A holiday experience to savour at any time of the year, but here in Bermuda in winter, during a pandemic, it feels like a miracle.
This small British island territory in the mid-Atlantic Ocean with only 62,000 inhabitants has been open to the world since July last year and had recorded no coronavirus deaths in seven months when we arrived in late December.
Now, in late January, having suffered only 12 fatalities and with active cases down to the mid-50s – and while sad as that has been – Bermuda’s Covid-19 status has received a welcome upgrade from ‘clusters of cases’ to ‘sporadic cases’ from the Pan American Health Organisation.
Fly into the brand-new terminal at LF Wade International airport on the British Airways service from London Gatwick, with your travel authorisation from the Bermuda Government and a negative PCR Covid test result in hand, and you begin the compulsory procedure of being tested again along with having a wristband attached to remind you to check your temperature twice a day.
The Covid result arrives on your smartphone within 24 hours – after which you are free to leave your hotel room and await instructions to take further tests on the fourth, eighth and 14th day of your stay. We are lucky to have arrived just before a new directive for UK travellers to remain quarantined – albeit in their property, rather than just a single room – for their first four days.
There could be fewer hotels than the Hamilton Princess in which you might choose to be cooped up. This swanky landmark building, named after Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise, who visited Bermuda in 1883, underwent a complete refurbishment in advance of the 2017 America’s Cup.
Although two of its acclaimed restaurants, 1609 and Marcus’, were closed, its Crown and Anchor restaurant overlooking a luxury marina provided warm-enough Christmas evening dining outdoors. Meanwhile its revamped lobby and retail space offers a superb tour of modern art prints, sculptures, and video installation by the likes of Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Banksy.
The ‘Pink Palace’, as the Princess is affectionately known for its grandeur, luxury rooms and decor, also boasts a private beach club at Sinky Bay on the island’s south shore with free shuttles from the hotel. We had the beach almost to ourselves one beautiful afternoon, with the sea still warm enough in which to take a dip even though this is off-season for water sports.
Hamilton itself is a clean, affluent capital with pretty, pastel-coloured buildings incorporating a wealth of designer fashion and jewellery stores. Bars and restaurants range from traditional English pubs such as the Hog Penny to high-end fine diners like the Barracuda Grill.
Bermudian bar-room specialities include the fish sandwich, containing locally caught wahoo or rockfish, and the Dark n’ Stormy rum and ginger beer cocktail, Bermuda’s Caribbean-style unofficial drink. You’ll also find British-style fish and chips in an island where reminders of home range from the letter boxes and the police uniforms to traditional friendliness and good manners.
The fishhook-looking archipelago of more than 100 islands, only 20 or so of which are inhabited, have been British since the first arrivals were shipwrecked here in 1609. Its first capital at St George’s at the eastern tip holds UNESCO World Heritage Site status as the oldest continuously inhabited English settlement in the New World.
Stroll along the narrow, cobbled streets and you will find picturesque old stone buildings dating back 300 years still supporting homes and trades, although one landmark building has not fared so well. Overlooking the town, The Unfinished Church, begun in 1874, suffered financial difficulties compounded by a storm and dissent about its future which caused its construction to be abandoned.
You can walk around the grounds although you are barred on safety grounds from going inside. It is a fascinating stop on the way to some of Bermuda’s many fortifications and associated artillery that graphically illustrate the history of English military engineering up to the 20th century.
In playing pivotal and supporting roles in wars from the American Revolution and Civil War to the War of 1812 (when it was British redcoats that stormed the US Capitol rather than Trump supporters) and the First and Second World Wars and beyond, Bermuda remained an important military base.
The Royal Naval Dockyard at the far western edge of Bermuda was closed in 1957, with the last British naval presence leaving in 1995, but a thriving new use has been made for the base. Take the ferry service from Hamilton and within half an hour you can visit former warehouses that have been turned into artist shops and a clock tower building in which there is a pedestrian mall.
Other sites there that are well worth a visit include the Commissioner’s House, the first cast-iron house in the world when built in the 1820s. It is now home to the National Museum which includes exhibits and artefacts from shipwrecks (some 300 ships have come to grief on the island reefs) and from Britain’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in Bermuda.
More innocent attractions include an 18-hole mini golf course with probably the world’s most exotic sea views, and Dolphin Quest where you can swim with dolphins. The Frog and Onion Pub inside the old cooperage buildings is the place to go for an excellent homemade curry or burger accompanied by a pint of Dockyard beer brewed on the premises – all at reasonable prices (expect to pay top London prices at Bermuda’s high-end and hotel restaurants).
With rental cars outlawed in Bermuda (the narrow winding roads are just too dangerous for those unfamiliar with them), buses provide an affordable and reliable mode of transport to the many other attractions, especially for those with an interest in natural history.
The Crystal and Fantasy Caves – a half-hour’s drive from Hamilton – were first discovered in 1907 by two boys retrieving a cricket ball. This stunning and somewhat eerie underworld of lagoons and centuries-old stalactites and stalagmites – all well illuminated – are a must for those fit enough to negotiate the total of 180 steep steps to the bottom.
Much easier on the feet is the route of the old rail service that ran between the north and south of the main island from 1931 to 1948. This 18-mile walkway takes you from scenic coastline to lush forest with abundant and varied flora and fauna on either side. At some points all you can hear is the melodic ‘kis-kis-kiskadee’ of the attractive yellow-bellied kiskadee bird.
It is fun to branch off the line from time to time to visit the almost empty beaches at this time of year or the wildlife havens such Spittal Pond Nature Reserve where you can find migratory birds like great white egrets that have escaped the UK winter. Winter, however, is decidedly off season at the Botanical Gardens but worth the diversion for the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art within the grounds, and especially its shrine to the musician John Lennon.
An iconic sculpture by Bermudian Graham Foster symbolises the former Beatle with his Rickenbacker Guitar, ‘granny’ glasses and peace doves. It also features a freesia, Double Fantasy, a local flower after which he named his final album having found the inspiration to complete while staying in Bermuda.
The perfect escape from a worldwide pandemic, it’s not difficult to be inspired by this beautiful island nation. Fortunately, Bermuda is one of the few places in the world that is still open to us when we are permitted to travel.
Simon travelled from Gatwick by British Airways (£910 economy class including taxes).
The four-flights-a-week service is the only direct one from the UK. British Airways is to move the service from Gatwick to Heathrow, where it will operate daily from March 28, 2021. The wearing of facemasks on the service is compulsory – it is worth taking several for the 7hr 20min flight.
The nine-mile 25-minute taxi fare from LF Wade International Airport to Hamilton meters at around £25.
Bermuda Tourist Authority: gotobermuda.co.uk
Simon stayed at the Hamilton Princess (£250 per night for a double, room only).
Where to dine
Barracuda Grill, Hamilton for seafood and chops served in an upscale New York-style environment.
Bolero Restaurant and Bar, Hamilton for modern Spanish cuisine in a harbour front setting.
Tom Moore’s Tavern, Hamilton Parish, built in 1652 as private home and where Irish poet Thomas Moore came to live, serving continental cuisine in old-school fashion.
Where to shop
English Sports Shop, Hamilton for those famous knee-length Bermuda Shorts.
Jon Faulkner Gallery, Dockyard for beautiful ceramic Bermuda rockpools handmade and dispensed by the owner/potter on the premises.