Bermuda - Enchanted Isle
As daily life becomes more complicated the dream of running away to a tiny island with a warm climate, tidy towns, little traffic and friendly relaxed people seems better every day. However, a serious search of the globe finds a serpent in every paradise. Too hot, too cold, too crowded, too poor, too violent, too unstable or worse, quiet enough to be comotose - one destination after another is crossed off the list. On the short list of islands that remain is one that most Australians couldn't locate on a world map: Bermuda.
The Bermuda triangle . . . Bermuda shorts . . . ummm, British colony? And that's about where most of us would run out of knowledge about Bermuda. Location? Consensus is that it's in the Caribbean or at least the West Indies. In fact, Bermuda is 1000 km east of the USA and over 5000 km west of Europe. More surprising is the fact that Bermuda is 1500 km north of the Caribbean.
Yes, Bermuda is a dependent territory of the UK but most of its visitors are American, the unit of currency is the Bermuda dollar (at par with the US greenback), the voltage is 110 volts and the country telephone code is 1 (for the USA) followed by 441. To the wandering cynic Bermuda appears so cute it may as well be a Disney recreation of a slice of Cornwall on a perfect day. Those seeking a holiday island, on the other hand, will find it a near-perfect blend of history, climate, tradition, sport and duty-free shopping. The real downside is that it isn't cheap to reach, there's no budget accommodation and restaurants appear to have adopted London price lists.
More than most places, Bermuda perfectly mirrors its history - and that extends back long before the first ships were wrecked here on their way to the New World (for which the modern diving industry thanks them). As its isolation suggests, Bermuda is the top of a volcano rising more than 4000 metres from the ocean floor. Once Bermuda was much large but it has partially sunk to leave an archipelago of 150 islands in a delicate interwoven ribbon. No matter where you are in Bermuda, the impossibly turquoise sea contained within an extensive outer reef isn't far away. Just as Lord Howe Island at 31°28'S has the world's most southern coral reef, Bermuda at 32°18'N has the most northern ones.
Bermuda was first seen and claimed for Spain by Juan de Bermudez in 1511. A century later and following a familiar colonial pattern human habitation began with a British near-disaster: Admiral Sir George Somers was aboard his hurricane-damaged vessel the "Sea Venture" that had been slowly sinking for three days before he ran it aground on a Bermudan reef. Sir George and his men found a paradise much nicer than their destination of Jamestown Virginia. However, using the remains of their ship supplemented by local timber they built two ships and sailed onwards. Three years later in 1612, 60 British settlers arrived to become the islands first permanent residents employed by the Virginia Company. From then until 1951 when the Royal Dockyard closed, Bermuda was increasingly heavily fortified. The precaution was reasonable as Bermuda was regularly used as an advance base against America: for an attack on Washington DC in the War of Independence, to run the Union blockade of Confederate ports in the Civil War and as a handy neighbourhood bar during Prohibition.
Throughout it all, the residents built little English houses and villages and painted them all in whitewash and cheerful pastel shades of lilac and bluebell, primrose and lemon. It looks like Noddyland, a mood enhanced by a traffic control measure. The island roads are narrow and locals didn't want them clogged by tourists in rental cars so car hire was banned. Self drive on Bermuda is on automatic scooters with wire baskets off the handlebars for about $US25 per day. For many visitors it's the first time in decades that they have had to forsake the Cadillac for fresh air so many scooters can be observed weaving a very erratic course between ditches, golf courses and assorted front gardens. On the plus side, even in the main street of Hamilton parking is a delight.
Temperate seas give Bermuda a pleasantly mild climate. In summer the average high and low is 30°C and 24°C; in winter these are 21°C and 15°C. Annual rainfall is about 1500 mm distributed evenly across the year. Only occasionally does a dying summer hurricane hit the island and the principal protection is to stock up on beer and see what's on television. Water temperature ranges from 18°C to 30°C and visibility for diving is generally 25 metres or better. No wonder this was the place that gave the world Bermuda shorts as the British troops cut the legs off their uniforms to make them cooler - the island's main cultural export is still accepted business wear and are part of the police uniform.
There are about 65,000 Bermudans across these scraps of islands linked by bridges that total just 50 square kilometres. Few parts of the islands are uninhabited but there are two main towns: St George, the original settlement, and Hamilton, the capital, with a population of about 7,000. Some two thirds of the population is black and the language is purely English. Indeed, traffic drives on the left, there's BBC on television and afternoon tea is a widely practiced tradition. I've heard there are some tiny slums in Hamilton but could find no signs of them. I certainly saw no indication of street crime - with a typical house costing well over $US1 million, distribution of wealth would be better served if the tourists mugged the locals. The economy is based on tourism and international banking.
After just a few days in Bermuda the real world recedes. It seems perfectly normal to walk across a sun-drenched, whitewashed square decorated with stocks to take afternoon tea accompanied by a Cornish pasty served on a gingham tablecloth. Heading back to the hotel at the maximum island speed of 35 km/h (25 km/h in town) the island seemed a kaleidoscope of manicured lawns, bright wildflowers and impossibly tidy cottages (most with pools) interspersed with perfect beaches of either white or pink sand.
The Botanic Gardens is a profusion of flowers and trees so intense that it stands out in the island of abundance. I was admiring a fuchsia when one of the gardeners came over. "That flower is special," he stated "Its common name is Double Fantasy. The plant you're looking at gave John Lennon the title for his last album - he and Yoko had a house nearby and they used to come up here a lot."
Double Fantasy would be a good name for Bermuda, too. It seems close to a perfect society living in a perfect environment. And if the tranquillity becomes too much, all the excitement of New York is only two hours away. But I suspect that the more time you spent in Bermuda, the harder it would be to tear yourself away.
There are regular flights to Bermuda from London and the US East Coast with most major carriers - and the island is on some cruise itineraries. Australians don't need visas but you must have a return ticket and any requisite onward visas or you won't be allowed on the flight.
I stayed at the sprawling Marriott's Castle Harbour Resort which operated to Marriott International's usual impeccable standards. However, Castle Harbour Resort recently closed for lengthy renovations. Bermuda is well geared to tourism so the best advice is to obtain a hotel list from the Bermuda Department of Tourism.
There is a Lonely Planet general guide to Bermuda and another specifically on "Diving and Snorkeling Bermuda - top dives in the shipwreck capital of the Atlantic".
Bermuda Department of Tourism, Global House, 43 Church St, Hamilton HM12, tel. (1-441) 292-0023, fax (1-441) 292-7537.
David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd