Like many who have survived into adulthood, I wince when I look back and recall some of the youthful antics I partook under the name of fun. Like a lad who graduates from cheap flavored whiskey to fine wine, I today prefer my fun with a dash of panache, a subtle aroma, and a delightfully delicate nose.
So, of course, it is a treat to discover Bermuda, the place that practically invented proper fun, and which now embodies it.
The demure 21-square-mile British dependency 650 miles off the North Carolina coast is less known than the more cheeky isles in the Caribbean, as it has always attracted a more sophisticated crowd, the cognoscenti tired of long septentrional winters, a cast that likes to keep its haunts semi-secret. It is known more as the northern point in the Bermuda Triangle than for its earthly satisfactions.
The original Pan Am Clippers used to call here. I ease over on a Delta flight from Atlanta, and as we approach, from my window the islands of Bermuda look like cracks in the ocean; the sea a Crème Brûlée after the first blow of the spoon.
I take a short cab ride to the Rosewood Tucker’s Point Hotel and Spa, a sprawling 200-plus acre cliff-side resort on Castle Harbor, where I find my free-spirited, properly-travelled friend Lisa Niver in the middle of a round of golf. She is here for the week with friends; I have but the weekend, and her beam telegraphs that she has the better deal.
When she sinks the ball into a hole, a waiter appears with a glass of champagne to celebrate. That’s proper fun.
We tuck in for afternoon tea, served promptly at 4 p.m., cucumber sandwiches, petits fours, and fresh baked apricot and fig scones served with kumquat jam and Devonshire clotted cream, all on a crisp white table cloth with silver service and fine china. Some fun traditions don’t change. It was here in Bermuda that 52 years ago Lisa’s parents took their honeymoon, and sipped tea in nuptial celebration.
But high-tea is just the prelude. We next head over to Tucker’s Bar, where Lisa’s parents once cheered, all dark-wood paneled looking more like The Explorers Club than a blue water watering hole. Here I try a dark ’n’ stormy, rum and Bermuda stone ginger beer, the signature drink of Bermuda. But Lisa cries foul, and holds up her rum swizzle, saying this is the national drink of Bermuda, and it packs a good punch to boot. But then the barkeep leans in and says, “No, no, no…the real drink here is the Yellow Bird,” and he pushes a glass filled with what looks like a Screwdriver, but instead of vodka , there are two types of rum. But then he winks and informs there are 60,000+ rum swizzle recipes, one for each resident of Bermuda, so actually, Lisa is right…the rum swizzle reigns.
It would be easy to sit and sip for hours, but it’s now dinner time. Adjacent to the bar is The Point Restaurant, wrapped in an 80-foot-long mural that looks hauntingly familiar. It turns out it is a work of art that for 45 years adorned the lobby of the Pan Am Sky Club in the Pan Am Building in New York City. Pan Am was a partner in the early days of Sobek, the adventure travel company I founded in the 70s, and I used to visit the Sky Club when passing through New York.
I walk around the room falling into memories. The mural depicts various ports-of-call of the early Pan Am Clippers, and I recognize most… Rio de Janeiro, Constantinople, Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor, the Port of London, and Lahaina, Maui are easily identified by their inimitable surroundings. But New York Harbor, Canton Harbor, the Gloucester Seaport in Massachusetts, and Beirut Harbor stump me. The real puzzler, however, is Bermuda’s Hamilton Harbor, which it turns out was added to the canvas a couple years ago, commissioned by the current owner, Ed Trippe, yes, the son of the man who commissioned the original piece, the legendary Juan Trippe, founder of Pan American World Airways.
Of course, I have to order the famous Bermuda fish chowder, a spicy seafood-and-vegetable stew spiced with a dash of Gosling’s Black Seal rum and Outerbridge’s Original Sherry Pepper sauce. Fish, to taste right, must swim three times — in water, in butter and in black rum, and it is swimming Olympic laps here. This is the national dish, and it is delectably textured and spicy. Yes, it is a well-seasoned soup, but more so, as it ignites Sherry Pepper Sauce’s leap into immortality.
After a couple of heavenly spoonfuls I am reminded that there are so many ways to cheat on food, and there are so many places that do.
But not here. Bermuda is a promise of authenticity and proper taste. Here is a fountain of food that is home-cooked and savory.
Hoppin’ John, Hash, Peas and Plenty, Mussel pie, sweet potato pudding, Paw Paw Casserole, Guinea Chick, Banana Meatloaf, Wahoo salad, tantalizing fare, wet with contour and risk. In my short visit I try them all, and smack lips with every bite.
This island may have more churches per square mile than any other country on earth, but a good Bermudan meal makes me feel more charitable toward the world than any sermon. After this meal I think I’ll sell my house and give all the money to Oxfam.
And for dessert? Bermuda honey is the mediator between heaven and earth.
So, at the end of the day, I would say that the food of Bermuda is so deliriously yummy that palates are not merely shattered but planets spin out of orbit, constellations unravel in starbursts, and the very fabric of space-time is shredded by the sheer euphoric energy of exquisite taste.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I would say the food of Bermuda…it is properly good.
I wash down the last of the meal with the proper English tropic drink, a Bombay Sapphire G&T, and then tell Lisa, who plans to head out in search of the famous Gombey dancers of Bermuda, that I have to call it a night.
A golf cart glides me to my villa, under a set of brilliant stars that bend to create bears and dippers. The room has a bathroom the size of Somerset, and a bed like a cloud. So, I awake late the next morning alive and unworn ready for what is to be a full day.
Lisa and friends are split between the Fairmont Southampton and the Elbow Beach Resort, both spectacular properties on the Southwestern part of the island. Under a glade of blue sky I sink into the backseat of the taxi, and regard in admiration the orderly English hedges and hand-stacked stone walls that line the road. If it weren’t for the wild tropical foliage that weaves through the cracks and crawls along the tops of the walls, this could be the Scottish countryside.
There is something romantic and quaint about a place that doesn’t allow visitors to rent cars. Instead, folks scoot. Lisa’s been zipping around the island for a few days on a rented scooter, scoping out jewelry, the various forts, cafes, and restaurants, and sampling the island culture. She shows me the heart earrings and bracelet she bought from Alexandra Mosher, famous for her Pink Sand jewelry. She shows off her Windows phone pics of cliff jumping, spelunking at Smuggler’s Cave, and her hula-hooping at Elbow Beach, where she also sampled the Rum Swizzle Specialty Spa Treatment. And, of course, she went to revel with the Gombey dancers , the men who perform the flamboyant masquerade dance that is a unique blend of African, Caribbean and British cultures.
Lisa wants to show me the nearby Warwick Long Bay beach, a magnificent half mile stretch of pink sands. Bermuda, she honeys, is so romantic even the beaches blush. It is here that couples come to discuss Ugandan affairs.
Against a backdrop of low grasses and grape and juniper trees sprawls a powdery stretch of sand festooned with little coves and black rocks (revealing Bermuda’s volcanic origins). The original seafarers here called this “Devil’s Island,” partially because of the imposing black rocks, but also the screeching and snorting they heard coming from the interior (birds and wild pigs respectively). But when, 400 years ago, an English sailing vessel was shipwrecked on this mid-Atlantic archipelago, and discovered it to be a piece of paradise, the island nation of Bermuda was born.
Lisa dances around the sand for spell, and then offers to show me the harbor side capital, Hamilton. The houses are sherbet-colored, with unique stepped limestone roofs that collect all-important rainwater, as in Bermuda there are no lakes, rivers or streams.
We pass shops selling Shetland sweaters and linen doilies, and businessmen milling about in smart casual jackets, neckties, shorts, and knee socks. Yes, the cliché is true….people really do wear Bermuda shorts here, and proudly.
Here we meet Ronald K. Maughan, director of operations for The English Sport Shop, which has been outfitting islanders since 1918. Ronald says the shorts were invented when British forces in India during WWI were suffering from the heat in their long pants. “It was too hot, so they cut their trousers into shorts.” They were baggy and without any defining style, but they were cool, and the improvised clothing followed British forces to Bermuda, where it was decided that, given the temperatures, shorts were a smart item for one’s wardrobe.
But it’s the socks that make the outfit, says Maughan. Knee socks must reach just below the knee, no more than an inch, and must be folded over. Socks should match the jackets, contrasting with the shorts. It’s all very proper, and of course, this is the attire for proper fun.
Next door is The Pickled Onion bar, one of many establishments graced with the word onion. Why the fascination with the tear-inducing vegetable? It turns out Bermuda was for many years a major supplier of onions, and these days the locals are sometimes called onions.
It’s lunch time, so we head down the road to one of the best kept local secrets in Bermuda, The Black Horse Tavern, hidden in a remote corner of St. David’s island. Many of the locals maintain this is the most authentic restaurant for original local cuisine in Bermuda.
The place has a dusty rose exterior with green shutters and a glass covered balcony in the rear that looks over Smith’s Sound. I order the wahoo fish sandwich on raisin bread (why don’t they offer this in the States?) with sweet homemade coleslaw and ginger beer. Like many so many things here, the food is just not subject to immutable destiny, but alive to wild grace.
Ashley Harris, a local guide, joins our table and offers to show us about. With bellies full we wind to the top of St. David’s lighthouse, and then down to Tom Moore’s Jungle, also called The Walsingham Nature Reserve, 12 acres of preserved, privately owned land. Tom Moore, of course, is the island-friendly shorthand for Thomas Moore, the 18th century Irish poet who, for a short time, called Bermuda home. He wrote some of his most celebrated works here while resting under Bermuda’s most famous tree, the calabash. Ashley recites some of his poetry, and we nod in reverence, and then take a proper trek through the jungle, snaking around vines and through shafts of light penetrating the canopy. Bermuda’s tropical karst is on pocked display here, with caves and grottos winking, blind eyes the color of wet coal. Some of the dark eyes are dry, others filled with water, even tropical fish. We linger at the largest grotto in the area, and relish in the tranquility. The only sound is the drip, drip, dripping of water from the stalactites.
Our final stop for the day is at The Southlands Estate, which hosts the largest grove of rubber trees in Bermuda. The original Tarzan movies were filmed on a lake in Culver City, not far down the road from my house. The producers should have come here. Ashley demonstrates by grabbing a thin vine and swinging out over a small cliff. Soon she has the rest of us gyring about like baboons, thumping chests and letting out throaty Johnny Weissmullers at the apex of a swing.
Now, it’s off to the airport to head home. On the final stretch of roadway we pass The Swizzle Inn, where Lisa spent an evening as an anthropologist, studying proper fun with the locals. It’s a place filled with fun, from the signage throughout (If you’re drinking to forget, please pay in advance), to their signature rum drinks, to their motto, “Swizzle Inn and Stagger Out.”
And that’s how I leave Bermuda…properly blissed, and ready to return for more.