A Spanish explorer by the name of Juan de Bermudez was the first known visitor to the islands that now reflect his name. That was about the year 1506 as near as the historians can tell. Four hundred and ninety years later it was time for the Bergs to make a visit. No doubt much has changed.
We left our mountain still blanketed by snow on the morning of 15 January 1996, drove to the vicinity of the airport in Atlanta, deposited our Suburban in the parking lot of Howard Johnson's motel, caught his shuttle to the Delta Air Lines terminal, then boarded a plane for the two hour flight to the islands, plural because there's 138 islands in the Bermuda chain large enough to be named. The island chain, located just less than 500 miles due east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, lays out like a fifteen mile long weedless fishhook with two eyes at the top. The shank of the fishhook lies generally on an east-west line with the eyes on the easterly end.
When we walked down the old style stairs to deplane, the temperature was a delightful 65 degrees. But Bermudians guarantee that their daily high never falls below 68 degrees. If it does, then all government services and attractions are free the next day. The high on the 15th was 65, and on the 16th it was 67. So we had two full days of free transportation and free admissions to things like lighthouses, zoos, aquariums, museums, forts, etc. We also got a 10 percent rebate on our hotel rooms because of the "cold" temperature. We had first thought to rent mopeds, but the free bus service was too easy. Also the roads were narrow and the traffic pretty heavy in places, so the moped idea didn't prove too appealing. The Bermudians really thought it was cold. They all had on sweaters and jackets. But having come directly from temperatures below 30, to us it was pleasant - short sleeve weather. The sun was out, the skies almost cloudless, and the water a beautiful green and clear.
Our hotel, the Grotto Bay Beach Hotel, was on a high bluff at the edge of a bay. It was just across a long bridge from the airport. We could see the airport across the bay from our balcony. The hotel was staffed with friendly people anxious to please. We found out quickly though that this was not the tourist season. The more popular season is in the summer months. It was very quiet at the hotel.
We started each day with a continental breakfast in the hotel dining room. We were seated at the same window table each of the three mornings we ate there. On Tuesday we walked down the pathway to the bus stop to start our explorations.
The first thing noticed were the white roofs of all the buildings. Without exception, every building roof was white tile. Inquiring into this, we learned that the roofs were made of blocks about two inches thick, cut from the limestone of which the island is composed. Most of the buildings' walls, until more recent times, were also made of this aeolian limestone. The material has the unique characteristic of being soft and easily cut (with a handsaw) when first uncovered. Then, after air exposure, it hardens into a viable building block. It is also very porous, so the practice is to seal it with a heavy whitewash. In the early days of the island's settlement (way back in 1613) they built houses out of native cedar with thatched roofs made from palmetto fronds. The first hurricane to come along took care of that. So a law was passed that houses had to be built of the native stone. That explains why the roofs are all alike and white. They get a little more individualistic in the outer walls, using paint in a variety of pastel colors. We saw a few new buildings being built. They were using ordinary concrete block and cement tiles for the roofs, but after stucco, the newer houses looked just like the old.
The land is hilly with shallow soil above the limestone. The roads cut through the rock and wind all over the islands. The roads were first cut to accommodate horse and carriage transportation. The limestone base made a good, unpaved surface. Now, they are black topped, but they have never been widened. There's barely room for two buses to pass. The cars that are in use are all compacts. Since the islands are still a British colony, they practice the British custom of driving on the left. Tourists are not allowed to rent cars, only mopeds. I guess that's to limit automobile traffic, and to save lives, since most tourists are Americans accustomed to driving on the right.
Our first stop was the town of St. George's. Some of the buildings there are nearly four hundred years old. On the town square, rimmed on three sides with these old buildings and on the fourth with open water, were the tools of punishment for the settlers. There were standing and sitting stocks, a whipping post, and a ducking pole. In fact, we saw a reenactment of the ducking. The town crier came out, rang his bell, and announced that a young woman. accused of gossiping, had been sentenced to seven dunks, and that the punishment would be carried out forthwith and witnessed by all present. They put her under eight times, once extra for good measure.
We took a walking tour of the town and received a thorough history lesson from our guide. St. George's was the capital of Bermuda for two hundred years beginning with the arrival of the first English settlers in 1613. The first Englishmen to set foot on the islands were the survivors of a shipwreck, the wreck of the Sea Venture. We remembered 1987 when we stood on the very spot in Plymouth, England where the Sea Venture left port in 1609. She was caught in a violent hurricane in the Atlantic and tossed about until all aboard thought they were lost. When the storm abated, they spotted land which turned out to be Bermuda. The little ship with 150 people aboard ran aground, wedged between two large rocks a half mile from shore. Using their longboats, all reached shore safely. They stayed for nine months, during which time they built two new vessels, called Deliverance and Patience, using native cedar and materials they salvaged from the Sea Venture. They fared well on the island, living off wild hogs, fish, birds, and native fruits and vegetables. But they had a mission, and when the new ships were finished, they loaded aboard and completed their trip to Jamestown, Virginia. Four years later, the leader of the group, Sir George Somers, brought another group to Bermuda and claimed it for the Crown. The town of St. George's derived its name from George Somers and claims to be the second oldest English settlement in the New World. We visited a church (St. Peters) that was established the first year of settlement and has never missed a Sunday worship service in its long history. St. Peters claims to be the oldest, continuous, Anglican church in the western hemisphere.
A replica of the Deliverance stands on Ordnance Island within walking distance of the town square of St. George's. How these little ships ever made it across the Atlantic Ocean with their cargos of a hundred or more people is amazing. Life back home must have been pretty tough for them to be motivated to set out in something like that to go to a unknown wilderness to start a new life.
Back on the bus, we headed westward, down the fishhook, stopping at the aquarium and zoo. Fish from the surrounding waters were on display in glass walled tanks, well labelled to identify the colorful species. The zoo contained birds and animals from other parts of the world, the most impressive being a flock of flamingoes. A half hour was enough to see it all, then we again boarded a bus, this time destined for Hamilton.
Hamilton is the largest city on the island, and its current capital. It was a busy place with much traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian. We stayed only long enough to transfer to another bus, and head toward the Gibbs Island Lighthouse. The brochures we had picked up at the hotel spoke of a quaint English tea room at the lighthouse, so we had envisioned a leisure lunch in the grand old English style. The lighthouse was an imposing structure on the top of the highest hill around. We hiked a half mile up that hill, only to find that the tea room was closed for remodeling. But the views from that vantage point were spectacular. We could see the entire lower end of the island chain. From the map we had, it appeared a short distance down the hill on the other side of the island where the map showed another road which continued around the lower end of the fishhook to its point. We had read about a large complex of buildings on the point that had once housed the Royal Navy dockyards. Our only means of getting to the other road was our feet, so we started walking.
There are some things notable by their absence in Bermuda. Among them are street signs. We soon found ourselves in a residential neighborhood, lost. We walked down two streets, only to find ourselves at a dead end. We re-climbed Gibbs Hill twice more before finally making our way out to the road where we could catch another bus. Checking the map later, we figured that our total walking that day came to about five miles, and most of it was on pretty steep roadways.
Eventually, we reached the dockyards at the point of the fishhook. The old navy buildings have been converted into marketplace. By now it was two o'clock and we were hungry, so, spotting a seafood restaurant, we decided to partake. We both ordered fish and chips. While tasty, the three little pieces of fish and handful of french fries were hardly worth the $26 price. Food prices in Bermuda are very, very high. Most of their food has to be imported.
We spent an hour or so at the markets in the dockyards, then took a boat back to Hamilton. That was an easy, delightful cruise across an almost mirror smooth body of water, a much easier means of travel than the method we had taken to get to the end of the "hook." After a stroll through part of the shopping area of Hamilton we again boarded a bus to return to the hotel. It had been a full day.
Also noteworthy because of their absence in Bermuda are things like McDonald's and Burger King food places. There are no billboards. Only in Hamilton did we see a few traffic lights. At this time of year, at least, there were no bugs. There were lots of wild chickens. We saw a number of vegetable gardens, all small. The soil was a deep red. Lots of onions are grown, the Bermuda onion. The only native trees are the red cedar and palmetto, but all sorts of tropical trees are now thriving. We saw papaya, mango trees, date palms, coconut palms, royal palms, hibiscus, Australian pines, kapok trees, and many more we couldn't identify.
Bermuda has a population of about 60,000 people, mostly black. The blacks were brought to the islands as slaves, but were freed in 1834, a generation before emancipation in the states. The people were all friendly, courteous, well dressed, and seemed confident, happy, and proud of their homeland. The school children all wore uniforms, dark blue skirts or pants with a white shirt and dark tie. Not all the ties were tightly tied, nor were all the shirts neatly tucked in, but the dress code seemed a touch of class and no doubt prevented clothes conscious envy.
The next morning we went back to St. George's for a better look around. We went out to St. Catherine's Fort, built on the spot where the people from the Sea Venture came ashore. It's impossible to describe the beauty of the clear water that extends to the horizon. I guess it's much like the water around the Bahamas and that around the Florida Keys, but it seemed to have a special beauty of its own too.
The north shore of the islands is guarded by a reef that circles around at a considerable distance offshore. So even on a windy day, there are no great waves.
The south shore is not protected by a reef, and it shows much sign of erosion from rough seas. There are long stretches of beach along the south shore that are set aside as public parks. These beaches run between huge rocks that extend out into the water.
We walked back to St. George's from the fort on an old road that wound through a golf course and the grounds of a resort hotel. Back in town, we found a restaurant called the White Horse, right at the water's edge. We ate our meal on an open porch, throwing scraps to ducks out on the water. This time we each had a turkey sandwich and french fries, and the tab was $28. I think we made up for the high food prices though with all the free transportation. A bus ride to the east end of the island was normally $2.50 each, and to the west end $4.00 each.
Ann did a little shopping around St. George's, and I went in some of the old buildings we had been shown on the walking tour earlier. Some of the local folks I talked to told how there was much resentment when the capital was moved to Hamilton, but that it turned out to be a blessing. Had the move not occurred, the old town, with its colonial charm, could not have been preserved.
The people I met on the street were easy to engage in conversation. One man showed me how rainwater was collected from the roofs into tanks at every house. This was thought to be the only water supply on the island until a few years ago when water was found under St. George's that could be tapped by wells. That source, however, was not thought to be sufficient for a public system, so most homes still use the rainwater system. They put freshwater fish in the tanks to eat mosquito larvae.
It's hard to be anywhere on the islands and not be in sight of open water. There are numerous little coves filled with pleasure boats. Not many of the boats were in use, however, this not being the tourist season.
The Mayor of St. George's was announced by the town crier at 11:00am. He drew us into the town hall and spoke for a few minutes on the history and politics of the island, and it's relationship to England. They were given an opportunity to vote on independence in 1995, but chose to remain a Crown colony. Apparently, the mother country gives them a great deal of leeway to be self governing. Their currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar which makes it easier to manage with an economy dependent on U.S. tourists. They do print local money, but we never saw anything other than U.S. bills. We did see some Bermudian quarters.
On Thursday morning, the 18th, we learned that the Delta flight we had planned to return home on had been cancelled. Scurrying around to make new plans, we found that U.S.Air had a flight to Philadelphia, so we hastily checked out of the hotel and caught a shuttle to the airport. Delta accommodatingly endorsed our tickets over to U.S.Air, and we got new tickets to Philly, then Atlanta. What would have been a two hour flight, turned out to be a seven hour ordeal. We changed airplanes in Philadelphia, then found ourselves in a holding pattern over Atlanta because of bad weather. There was a tornado watch in effect with a cold front going through, but we eventually landed safely and caught the Howard Johnson shuttle to the motel where we had planned to spend the night anyway. By morning the temperature had dropped to below freezing. The doors on the Suburban were frozen shut and had to be pried open. As we drove through Atlanta, it started snowing. So, we were crudely welcomed back to reality.
Our three day mini-vacation was a very pleasant interlude in the midst of a cold winter. More people should take advantage of a mid-winter vacation in Bermuda. It is a beautiful place with a pleasant climate and abundant, interesting history. The culture, language, and currency are so like our own that there's no intimidation about being in a foreign country. There's much more to see than we had time for, and we hope to return one day to see the rest.
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