Travels

Curriculum Vitae

Bermuda

Bermuda's career as a vacation spot began in 1883, when the Marchioness of Lorne, wife of the Governor General of Canada and also Queen Victoria's daughter Louise, spent the winter at a home of the Trimingham family in Paget Parish. As the British possession with a semitropical climate closest to Canada, the island's appeal was understandable, but the turn of the century that regular steamship service from New York would make Bermuda accessible to any but the most resolute travelers. Mark Twain, who visited three times, called it a paradise that was hell to get to. After World War II, the American airfield became a civilian airport, and when jets were introduced there was a lot of nonsense talked in New York about running down to Bermuda 'for lunch.' I went to Bermuda for the first time in 1955, flying (also for the first time) in a two-decker Pan Am plane that I think was called a Stratocruiser; its bar was downstairs. More than thirty years would pass before my next trip; I've just unpacked from my seventh. 

We usually stay at the Southampton Princess Hotel, on Bermuda's south shore just above Horseshoe Bay. It is undoubtedly the ugliest building on the island. It was built in the late Sixties, a bad time for traditional architecture (the only kind that looks good on Bermuda), and the one good thing about staying there is that you don't have to look at it. About a quarter of the rooms have grand ocean views, but we prefer the view from the back.  Looking West-North-West, this is an ocean view, too, in its way. The water in the middle distance is the Great Sound. The slice of land beyond that is Ireland Island, one extremity of this island nation. Beyond that stretches Grassy Bay, the shallow water that covers most of the top of the extinct volcano of which Bermuda itself is barely a quarter of the rim. Looking to the left, we can see Hamilton, although not very clearly; looking to the right is rendered impossible by the wall that separates our balcony from the one next door. In the foreground is the golf course of the Ridell's Bay Club. More on golf in a moment. 

Actually, staying at the Southampton Princess has lots of advantages. It's a full-service operation with hundreds of rooms, half a dozen restaurants and its own desalinization plant. It even runs the island's swim-with-the-dolphin outfit. This used to be down at the hotel's beach, but a hurricane destroyed the pens and the animals remained where they'd been moved for safety. The hotel runs a jitney, designed for some strange reason to resemble a San Francisco cable car, from Jews Bay, where its shuttle boat docks, up the hill to the hotel and down the other side, past the golf course, to the beach; there are outlying restaurants at each end. The Southampton Princess, tout court, is a resort. The characteristic Bermuda hostelry, however, is what's known as the cottage colony. The typical cottage colony has a sort of clubhouse-cum-restaurant rising next to a swimming pool that's ringed with half a dozen cottages or more. Structurally, this is not very different from the American motor court, but the similarity is far from apparent. The colonies are extremely quiet, except for the occasional children (children aren't allowed at all at Cambridge Beaches, the oldest and snootiest), and the prevailing note is one of white-shoe rusticity. 

There are always several conventions going on at the Southampton Princess, and this is generally held to be a good reason why not to stay there, but Kathleen and I, inveterate snoops and eavesdroppers that we are, rather like the bustling tide of conventioneers that changes about every three days. These are not people who have come to Bermuda to get away from it all. All they've come to get away from is life at home, usually including the spouse. After dinner, the huge bar fills up with large clumps of people on the verge of misbehaving. My guess is that the verge is where the vast majority of them remain. Bermuda does not encourage licentiousness. But its very primness gives the mildest indiscretions a frisson that they'd lack anywhere else. 

Here's a view of Hamilton, the capital of Bermuda, taken from a Princess shuttle that is about to tie up at the pier to the left. The tip of the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, completed in 1911, crowns the skyline. With the decline of tourism, it's probably a good thing that Hamilton has become a hub of the insurance industry. For more than you ever wanted to know about reinsurance, captive insurers, and alternative risk transfer, check out Bermuda Market Solutions.

Our mercantile encounters were limited to the Front Street shops, notably Trimingham's, Smith's, Cooper's, and Bluck's. With each visit, the drill gets a little more refined. Smith's for men's clothes; Trimingham's for ladies', as well as  for drop-shipped everyday china that avoids duty because it really comes from New Jersey; Bluck's for Herend porcelain from Hungary; Cooper's for scent, and for its balcony café. Trimingham's is said to have pioneered the use of Indian Madras plaids for casual summer wear, but I've picked up most of my shirts at the English Sports Shop. At last count, there were fifteen in the closet, all fairly new. When I was a teenager, Madras was used for jackets, not shirts; in those days, men were just beginning to dare to wear blue dress shirts. I still have a lovely collection of madras sportsjackets; unfortunately, I can't fit into any of them. 

In Bermuda, the water comes out of the sky, not the ground, so instead of wells there are roofs, of whitewashed limestone. On the complicated roof of this large house, several sloping gutters can be seen; these guide the water toward internal gutters that pipe the water to a holding tank. The average tank holds 20,0o0 gallons and a guppy or two: the guppies keep the surface clean.

The Gulf Stream flows several hundred miles to the West of Bermuda, so Bermudian winters can be chilly. The chimneypieces that give the houses so much of their charm are by no means decorative. Bermudian summers, however, can be sweltering. Frost may be unknown, but like most places on this side of the Atlantic, 'temperate' is only a matter of averaged extremes. 

Before tourists, Bermudians grew onions (which they sold for the most part to New Yorkers), and before that they built ships, and indulged in piracy on the side. There were no inhabitants at all until 1609, when the Sea Venture, bound for Virginia, went aground on the rocks near St George, the town that the survivors built soon afterward. Two years later, Shakespeare worked a reference to the 'still-vex'd Bermoothes' into 'The Tempest.' Well into the nineteenth century, Bermuda had a reputation as a hellhole, not a paradise. I wondered at this until I was awakened one night by a mid-Atlantic thunderstorm. Here on the mainland, weather is at least influenced by landmasses, but out in the middle of nowhere, an island the size of Manhattan (it's just three square miles smaller) is an insignificant speck, and the storm that raged surpassed the wildest special effects of Hollywood. Such thunder and lightning I had only experienced once before, during the catastrophic storm that hit Litchfield County in 1989. That was different, somehow, more a battle than a storm. In the middle of the night in Bermuda, nature just seemed to be having a blast.  

Because there are no rivers on Bermuda, there are no alluvial deposits offshore, and the water is extraordinarily clear. Snorkeling and scuba-diving in Grassy Bay are enormously popular, and so are glass-bottomed boats. The view to left, taken from Horseshoe Beach, looks out to the open sea. There are dozens, if not hundreds of wrecks out there, and the dropoff is excitingly steep. I've never been underwater myself - my neck more or less rules it out - but if 'The Deep' is any indication, it's lovely down there. Coral reefs break the surf somewhat on the South Shore, so that the Atlantic Ocean doesn't pound quite as insistently as it does off Long Island and New England, but in a light winds the water bursts into sprays of foam, not down some cliff but right there on the beach. The outcrops of basalt and limestone that make this possible shouldn't be as mysterious to me as they are, but then my geology is are more decayed than these odd volcanic remnants. 

There are of course lots of fish in the sea, too, but aside from sportsfishers they don't have much to worry about. It's cheaper to ship fish from the mainland. We couldn't believe this when we heard it, but the fact is that nobody in Bermuda is living the chancy, subsistence-level life of an artisanal fisherman. There are one or two fish places that do do their own fishing, but even they can supplement their catch with imports.  

The walls of  Bermuda's houses are usually painted in bright, pastel colors - most famously, Bermuda pink. It's hard to imagine Bermuda otherwise, but according to George Rushe's indispensable compendium of facts, Your Bermuda, the practice dates back only to the 1930's. But then, a lot of what seems quintessentially Bermudian turns out to be the work, stage-managed directly or indirectly, of the Trade Development Board, a self-appointed body of merchants and other worthies that effectively governed Bermuda by 'country- club democracy' between 1913 and 1968. Formed when a slump in the American economy dented  what had been a five-season boom in tourism, goading a few of the more enterprising merchants in Bermuda to proaction, the TDB is the most interesting quasi-governmental agency that I've ever run across, and I ran across it in the pages of Duncan Maxwell's Another World: Bermuda and the Rise of Modern Tourism (Macmillan Caribbean, 1999), a thoroughly engrossing book that I picked up at the bookstore-buried-in-a-drugstore on Reid Street. I expected 'Another World' to be an account of marketing campaigns, but it quickly showed itself to be much more. Boiled down to one sentence, the book's thesis would be that the oligopoly running the Board ran Bermuda with a Disney-like determination.

The new masters of Bermuda tourism instinctively knew that they could not forsake the aesthetic that had made their island attractive in North American eyes. Their thinking was conditioned by the reality of Bermuda's postage-stamp size - 21 square miles - and the realisation that large-scale tourism in the colony could never be cordoned off from the rest of its society. From the outset, therefore, the Trade Development Board determined to make the industry and the society that supported it conform to the aesthetic. Bermuda would not be like West Palm Beach; it would not be an artificially created community, cut out of virgin land and sealed from the society surrounding it. Nor would it be a Niagara Falls, an island of aesthetic aberration that bore no relation to the society around it. Instead, Bermuda would fuse genuine elements of its aesthetic into the living fabric of the society It would shape and preserve the colony's society and landscape to oblige the sensibilities of its most promising tourist market - wealthy, east coast North Americans. The goal was a reciprocity in which Bermudians groomed their island paradise to satisfy outsiders' expectations while outsiders played their part by comporting themselves according to the colony's aesthetic. Those who did not conform to this pattern - Woodrow Wilson's 'reckless' compatriots - were not welcome. Bermuda wanted 'visitors,' not 'tourists.' (page 66)

The source of the TDB's power was  its 1919 contract with the Furness-Withy steamship line. This obliged the government of Bermuda to pay Furness-Withy an annual subsidy in exchange for regularly scheduled sailings. The ink was hardly dry before the Furness-Withy decided that what Bermuda needed most - in order to attract the kind of passengers that the TDB wanted - was golf. The latest craze among people of leisure, golf required real-estate commitments that had to be assessed very carefully on tiny Bermuda, and it was only after a lot of research that the developers settled on Tucker's Town. Today, Tucker's Town is a city of the rich, or at least an enclave of billionaires, but in 1920 it was home to an established community of black farmers and seamen. The uprooting of a such a community today would be unthinkable at any price - perhaps more unthinkable the higher the price - but blacks were still second-class citizens eighty years ago, and eventually the original inhabitants were pried from their land (only one of the four hundred or so requiring actual bodily eviction, however). Just for fun, I'd like to hear how New York's current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, would respond to the hardly unimaginable attack that he owns a home on ethnically-cleansed land. The hotel that Furness-Withy built next to the golf course, by the way, the Castle Harbour, has been out of business for nearly ten years. A Marriott in its last days, it may yet become a condominium for the expats who run the reinsurance business. 

My favorite example of TDB-style fusing is the configuration of Bermuda's automobiles. Largely at the bidding of important American visitors such as Mark Twain and Woodrow Wilson ('Another World' has photographs of the two of them playing with putters at the same afternoon party), cars were banned before they'd even become popular, but by the end of World War II the islanders had tired of inconvenient alternatives. Despite the fact that almost everything that Bermuda imports comes from nearby North America, where cars are built for driving on the right side of the road, it was thought (by the TDB, of course, many of whose members launched the first dealerships) that Americans would appreciate the quaintness of the British way of doing things, so Bermudians drive on the left. Don't worry about trying to cope, because Bermuda's approach to cars is too enlightened to permit visitors to drive. Tourists can rent mopeds, secure in the knowledge that generations of recklessness have made King Edward VII Hospital into a premier provider of orthopedic care. (July 2002)

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