Basking in Bermuda

Mild temperatures, sandy beaches, New World history and friendly residents offer a respite from winter's cold

December 24, 2006|By Robert Cross

HAMILTON, BERMUDA -- I'm skeptical about beaches with big reputations.

The ones billed as having pure white sand usually prove to be slightly beige.

And pink beaches, the advertised draw of Bermuda, typically appear, to my eye at least, just ... sandy.

"Some beaches along the South Shore are very pink," an employee of the 9 Beaches Bermuda resort insisted after I had pretty much given up the search. All nine beaches at 9 Beaches -- which is not on the South Shore -- were as pale and tan as cafe au lait.

"I believe there's a pink beach by the airport," 9 Beaches guest Frances Roby told my wife, Juju, and me as we ate breakfast on the terrace of the resort's main building. "There used to be more, but the coral that makes them pink has been fading away."

Roby, who lives in Oxnard, Calif., knows a lot about Bermuda because she grew up here. She returns periodically to visit relatives and relax.

We asked her about Bermuda's picturesque, pastel-painted homes.

"All the houses are made of concrete and stone," she said. "My father built his first house by hand. It had a white roof like all the others. The whitewash sterilizes the rainwater."

Nearly every house has a white slate roof, stepped so that the rain tumbles gently toward a gutter, which deposits it into a basement holding tank. The island would have precious little fresh water otherwise.

Bermuda onions? "Oh, there's still a few farms around."

Why do so many planes and ships mysteriously disappear in the Bermuda Triangle?

Like almost everyone else we asked, Roby shrugged.

I wondered why we hadn't seen any sea gulls out here some 650 miles east of Cape Hatteras, N.C. "We have a sort of sea gull," Roby replied. "It's called a longtail, and it's native to the islands." I had seen a few longtails gliding around, but they seemed quiet and passive compared with the average squawking, garbage-grubbing gull.

Despite the paucity of flamingo-hued beaches, pink does dominate Bermuda's color scheme. It's on lots of houses, hotels, polo shirts, trademark knee-length Bermuda shorts and all the transit-system buses that careen back and forth over winding roads.

The Atlantic Ocean adds a satisfying, pristine blue to the palette, something it does extremely well in the balmier climes. The water comes in several shades, contrasting nicely with the beaches and greenery of Bermuda's cluster of islands (seven with names and another 170 islets).

Bermuda spreads out in the shape of a fishhook, covering 24 miles from end to end and averaging only about a mile in width. Its compact size and relatively large population work against any notion of perfect solitude, but the pleasant tradeoff is an atmosphere of nonstop congeniality.

My wife never met a taxi driver who didn't call her "love," or darlin'," or "princess."

"Bermudians are just about the nicest people I've met anywhere," I heard one customer remark at a refreshment counter sponsored by the Bermuda Hotel Association and the Department of Tourism. Smiling residents handed out free beer, soft drinks and snacks to visitors.

With 65,000 citizens and guest workers more or less rooted here permanently, traffic often thickens. Hamilton, the capital city, tends to fill up with a mix of tourists and office workers on lunch break, regularly joined by seasonal throngs of cruise passengers.

First impressions

Juju and I spent our day of arrival -- a Sunday -- strolling around Hamilton, lulled by its apparently sleepy nature. Handsome blocks of pastel-tinted shops and restaurants lined Front Street. Most were closed.

Farther north, into the city's interior, we came upon blocks of offshore enterprises -- banks, investment firms, insurance companies, etc. Their no-nonsense, modern office buildings looked not only incongruous but empty, and we supposed the executives were off somewhere enjoying their untaxed profits.

We dined that night at our first hotel, the Waterloo House (9 Beaches came later). Its Wellington Room features the creations of chef Justin Leboe and -- in good weather -- serves them on the torch-lit terrace beside the town marina.

It was what one might expect in such a setting: foie gras in two forms, a carpaccio of yellowfin tuna, a liquefied Maine lobster "cocktail," summer corn risotto flavored with tarragon and summer truffles.

The breezes were balmy, as advertised. Palm trees swayed. Lights twinkled across Barr's Bay. A pianist managed to compete successfully against the incessant chirping of the tree frogs. At one point, he played "Isn't It Romantic?" And it was.

The next day, we thought we'd walk up Front Street again after breakfast, and when we reached the sidewalk, we couldn't believe our eyes. Overnight, two huge cruise ships had commandeered the skyline -- towering above the boutiques, the ferry terminal and everything else.

Bermuda was awake. Visitors and workers vied for space along the sidewalks, motor bikes and scooters buzzed on high, and traffic lights chirped their "walk" signal with a high-pitched tree-frog cadence.

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