Bermuda offers uncommon sophistication


This isn’t your all-inclusive, swim-up-pool-bar kind of Caribbean island, writes Robin Robinson.

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Bermuda is rightly famous for its pink sand beaches, legendary shipwrecks and coral reefs. But it’s the whitewashed, stepped roof atop almost every stone house that catches my eye while touring the back roads.

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Resembling icing on a pastel-colored cake, the stepped roof is not only an architectural feature, but also a clever system for collecting rainwater, says Larry Rogers, my knowledgeable driver-guide.

“Bermuda has no rivers, no streams, no lakes,” Rogers explains, and most houses outside of Hamilton, the capital, are not connected to a water supply.

Some homes have wells, but the water is brackish and unsuitable for drinking. So homeowners must supply their own fresh water — and conserve every drop! To that end, a traditional Bermudian house has a sizable tank below or besides it to catch rain water. The stepped roof slows run-off and the whitewashed limestone roof “slates” act as a filter. This system provides 50 to

70 per cent of the fresh water used by households. And because these homes are built of stone, they also weather hurricanes well.

It’s the second surprising thing I’ve learned since arriving the previous night to a mad chorus of “gleep, gleep, gleep.”

“Crickets?” I ask, when en route to my hotel.

“Whistling frogs,” is the answer. The tiny creatures — about the size of a penny — are often heard but seldom seen. They break out in song on warm evenings, after heavy rain and sometimes on dark days.

Before long I begin to see that Bermuda is not your all-inclusive, swim-up-pool-bar kind of Caribbean island. In fact, the self-governing British overseas territory is not in the Caribbean; it’s in the Atlantic, and less than three hours on the Air Canada Rouge flight from Toronto. And it’s not one island, although locals call it that: It’s an archipelago of 181 islands with the main ones knitted together by roads, bridges and ferries.

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People stroll along the brick-lined streets of St. George
People stroll along the brick-lined streets of St. George Photo by Robin Robinson

In addition, Bermuda has a sophistication not always seen in sun destinations, so there are great attractions, cultural activities and excellent dining. With more than 100 km of coastline and dozens of dreamy beaches — including Horseshoe Bay and Elbow Beach — swimming and water sports are prime pastimes. April to October is balmy, but winters are cooler. Average temperatures are 15 to 22 C from November to March, still warm enough to golf, play tennis or cycle.

The Royal Naval Dockyard is a historical gem. Originally built to maintain Britain’s maritime supremacy and service the fleet, today it’s a lively cruise port and public park with a beach, mini golf, Jet Ski rentals and more. The Dockyard’s stone buildings have been transformed into shops, an artisan market, restaurants and the National Museum, which includes the palatial mansion once home to the dockyard commissioner. The Dockyard is also the staging area for sightseeing tours such as the Famous Homes & Hideaways cruise, which sails past magnificent waterfront properties.

More history is on display in the twee town of St. George, where Bermuda began in the 1600s. Colorfully named alleys — Old Maid’s Lane, Featherbed Alley or Needle & Thread Alley — are lined with 17th- and 18th-century buildings. The Town Hall is still used for its original purpose and, should council meetings become rowdy, there are antique stocks, a pillory and a whipping post nearby.

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Canadians will want to drop by Stewart Hall, an elegant 18th-century building. It’s the headquarters of Lili Bermuda Perfumery, owned by Montreal native Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone. After moving to Bermuda in 2003, Ramsay-Brackstone trained at — and later bought — the perfumery, and reshaped it in her own vision of her.

Fragrance names include South Water, Bermudiana and Mary Celestia (named for a bottle of perfume found on the sunken ship).

“Our perfumes really tell the story of the island,” the master perfumer says. “It’s not just the botanicals, but also the lifestyle, the music, the beach and the ocean — the joie de vivre.”

Ramsay-Brackstone, who says she wears “many hats” in Bermuda, also serves as Canadian consul.

There are complimentary tours, and on Wednesdays and Saturdays local caterer Sweet P serves a traditional English tea in the garden (reservations required).

No story about Bermuda is complete without a wee mention of the Bermuda Triangle. A major exhibit at the Ocean Discovery Center at Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute (BUEI) does a bang up job of exploring this storied area of ​​the Atlantic. Kids will love the simulated submarine-ride-gone-wrong that takes visitors to that and other marine exhibits that showcase gold doubloons and other shipwreck artifacts, marine geology and organisms.

A different type of institution is my final stop before flying home. Bermuda’s oldest pub — the Swizzle Inn — has been called the “unofficial arrivals and departures lounge” for the nearby international airport. Festooned with dollar bills, the watering hole is also where Bermuda’s iconic Rum Swizzle was born.

Here, too, are Canadian connections. Owner Jay Correia’s mom was a Torontonian and his dad was Bermudian. So July 1 is Canada Day in this corner of Bermuda, complete with Canadian beer and poutine.

—Robin Robinson

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