Bermuda is very expensive and you aren’t even allowed to drive a car around the island unless you’re a resident, so why on earth would anyone go? Is it for the unique pink sand beaches, the sense of history, the snorkelling, the boating, the food, the marine parks and the manageability of a small crescent-shaped island that takes only an hour and a half to drive from tip to tip? Perhaps. But for me, it was the chance for a holiday with my 15-year-old daughter, far from the madding crowds. To mitigate the insanity of accommodation costs (think $700+ for a small room), we were fortunate enough to be able to stay with a friend of mine (take that, hotel and resort fees), and so could sleep for free (thank you, Sandra) and have a few meals at home, too.
I had been to Bermuda once before when my boys were five and two. It was now seventeen years later and my daughter’s turn. Covid had sort-of ended and so the American Airlines flight did not require masks. We boarded in Charlotte, North Carolina, and sat for about two hours on the plane in close proximity to a couple hundred other people. Then, as we walked into the spacious airport building in Bermuda, they made us all put on masks. The futility of this exercise was not lost on me, but since I had filled in the paperwork and got the digital entry pass in advance (not easy), we breezed through immigration and walked out into clichéd sunny blue skies, perfect for setting an instantaneous good mood and smile.
The airport is so small (yet impeccable) that my friend could drive up easily and whisked us to her place overlooking the ocean. As Sandra and I chatted, my kiddo took a nap and then it was time for dinner on the beach. Sandra had selected Coconuts at The Reefs Hotel. We sat eating from the buffet with our feet in the sand, right by the ocean, and I felt so relaxed that I thought I must have already been away a week. The cheesy music from the live musician of greatest hits from the 80s and 90s filled the air and as the sun set over the ocean and my kid chatted to Sandra’s, I was filled with a gentle happiness. The fruits and salads at the buffet were surprisingly fresh and tasty for an island that basically has no agriculture because it is too small and there’s no room left to grow anything. Basically, Bermuda became a haven for rich white people due to their friendly offshore tax laws for American and British insurance companies who put their fake headquarters there and thus avoid high domestic taxation rates. Everything in Bermuda costs a fortune. The buffet food was $55 a head. Kids cost $27.50 but only if under ten, and an automatic 17% tip is added in so watch out for “double dipping” when you get the bill and there is a tip line. I have no idea how they import such fresh fruit and vegetables but whatever they are doing certainly works. Equally, the barbecued meats and grilled fish were appreciated by our joint families, but the varied fluffy light mini sponge cakes were my favourite and I had to try all four selections. All yummy.
The next day, my daughter and I went to the Hamilton Princess Hotel where I had booked a Twizy for us to rent at a daily rate of $120 so we wouldn’t waste time at bus stops during a short trip and could see as much as possible. What is a Twizy, you may well ask? Answer – it is a tiny electric vehicle, fitting one passenger in the front and one behind. It has no glass in the windows, so basically just a door either side, and runs for a few hours before the battery needs recharging. If you are adventurous tourists like us and don’t want to wait for buses all the time, it is the only way to explore the island. While I drove, my daughter used my phone, plugged into the one electric socket in the car, the USB port, and read the map to give me directions while blaring out Taylor Swift at maximum iPhone volume. The perfect way to get around.
We had breakfast at the Duchess Café inside the hotel before picking up the “car”, if you can give that honorific to our little Twiz. For a smoothie, a coffee, a ham-and-cheese sandwich and an apple croissant, we found ourselves forty dollars worse off but I told myself we could eat breakfast in the house the rest of the trip. I told myself that each day we ate breakfast out, which was in fact every day. If you want to eat out in Bermuda every meal, bring wads of cash (yes, or a credit card or two). Again, very fresh food – melt-in-your-mouth croissants and juicy drinks.
We walked around the hotel, looking at the boats in the marina from tiddly rowboats to very nice yachts (not quite mega at this location) and took the obligatory touristy photos outside the pink-painted old-style British phone booth on the wharf. In the gardens, they have a bronze Yayoi Kusama pumpkin – one of my favourite artists so an extra bonus. Then we were off. I put the car into drive and we were racing at twenty miles an hour (this is the maximum speed they want you in a Twizy, though I admit that with time I could get it to over thirty miles before it made noises implying imminent explosion). We stopped at the fancy shmancy St. Regis Hotel to look around and pretend like we could afford it – and got our water bottles filled at the beach bar. More glorious ocean views. Next door is St. Catherine’s Fort, a coastal artillery fort located on the northernmost tip of the island, first used in the seventeenth century. It has an almost 360-degree ocean view (yes, obviously the full circle view would not be mathematically possible) and the structure is mostly from the 19th century with cannons, storage cellars, a dry moat, ramparts and towers. I am not sure why kids today want seventy-three pictures of themselves in front of a drawbridge posing slightly differently each time, including with back to the camera, but I was happy to go with the flow. In the cellars, we tried lifting cannon balls with and without the wheel barrow and learned about 17th century island life.
Then it was time for snorkelling. We headed to Tobacco Bay which is close by and rated as one of the top beaches on the island “for the calm and the snorkelling”. It wasn’t that calm because the beach was packed with tourists and I had to pay an outrageous $20 each for a deck chair (this is Bermuda, people) and squish them in a small gap between sunbathing lobsters. Bring your own snorkel or, again, there will be high charges for rental. The snorkelling wasn’t that good either but we saw a few fish and it was easy to follow my daughter around and not worry about swells or tidal pools. It’s a pretty beach with turquoise blue water just like in the photographs online – no need for photoshop or touching up. That was one of the most amazing things about Bermuda – the clarity and blueness of the ocean.
Time for lunch! We went to Wahoo’s in St George’s, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was the capital of Bermuda from 1609 to 1815, until Hamilton usurped that privilege. Fish and chips and mozzarella sticks set us back $70, I can only imagine what meals would cost if you drink alcohol. We sat at a table for two literally (sort of) on the water, with small fish swimming below us. Not that impressive until you drop a couple of cheese sticks in the water and twenty-five giant fish suddenly appear jostling for position, including a few rainbow-coloured varieties. Much more exciting than what we had seen snorkelling in Tobacco Bay.
We wandered around the town, popped into the Towne Hall in King’s Square, and then accosted a friendly passerby to take our photos in the stocks on the waterfront – this is not the kind of place where someone runs off with your iPhone. On the way out of town, we paused at the Unfinished Church – yes, it is really called that. Basically, building began in 1870 as a replacement for a church downtown, but after constructing the exterior high stone walls, they ran out of money and decided to stick with the old church. Possibly the worst example of urban planning on the island but now a nice photo stop. You can visit for free though they won’t let you inside the walls (dangerous). Many people choose to get married there – that’s not for free, though, but probably still dangerous.
B for Bermuda is also B for Beach and there are a million on the island coast. Where one ends, the next begins. So next we sampled Clearwater. This beach is long and has wide stretches of sand. The water is clear so true to its name, but, again, not a pink sand beach. Quiet and nice for swimming, either up and down the long ocean front or, at the side, there are rock pools where we looked fairly unsuccessfully for evidence of marine life.
On to Walsingham Nature Reserve, a 12-acre park, where we saw the mangrove ponds but could not find the famous caves, bar a couple of rock indentations that barely count under that description.
Another dinner out – Sea Breezes on Elbow Beach – this time in a restaurant above the beach rather than in the sand. So, no pink sand between our toes though this is one of the iconic pink sand beaches of Bermuda. We still scored a glorious sunset, a delicious a la carte meal costing $300 (without alcohol) for two adults and three kids, and, of course, party music. The band’s lead singer mistakenly asked the large dining crowd whose birthday it was that day, so we ended up with fifty-two “Happy Birthday” renditions, by the end of which we had finished eating and were ready to go. Watch out as the wait staff will take an order from anyone and my friend’s ten-year-old ordered multiple $15 smoothies from different attendants. When we complained, they said, “Well, he ordered it.” They would probably have brought a double shot of tequila if he had ordered that, too. Interesting story about Elbow Beach Hotel, located behind the restaurant: it has been closed (since covid, March 2020) as the Prince (of Arabia) who owns it wanted to make changes which the Bermuda government would not allow (so rumours say). So it is stuck in stalemate and decaying slowly. What a shame.
Bermuda is mostly about being on or next to the water. Not surprising for an island shaped like a thin crescent moon. Scuba diving is meant to be good but my kid wasn’t then certified (she is now) and I am not a fan of going so deep into water that I can’t resurface if I panic without risking an attack of the bends. Watersports in Bermuda are listed as: diving, snorkelling, boating, parasailing, jet skis (go on pollute the ocean pointlessly, a two-hour experience is the same exhaust pollution as driving across American and back thirteen times), paddle boarding, whale watching (if you’re lucky), surfing (what?) and kayaking. We decided on the latter as a good trip for a Saturday morning.
We rented kayaks from the dive shop on Grotto Bay Beach, on the northern part of the island. Compared to the other beaches, this one was relatively grotty so named appropriately. Small and uninteresting. The kayaking is brilliant though. My daughter and I shared a kayak and set off on what turned out to be a three-hour journey while our friends played in the water. Looking over the coastline are some of the most expensive houses in Bermuda, including the famous Tucker’s Town private community, where many international celebrities own properties. You can’t see the homes from the road, but, oh boy, you sure can from a kayak. Incredible. Eight million dollars asking price. And those are the cheaper ones. As we hugged the coast and marvelled at the palaces with their swimming pools and tiny secluded beaches, we slid into an inlet and saw several huge brightly-coloured and electric-striped fish lazily floating by the rocky shoreline. This was better than any of our snorkelling experiences would prove to be. The water was really calm and my only concern was that my kid would tire of kayaking and want a nap, and I’d be left to get us all the way back on single steam. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it. But I’d forgotten her commitment and strength and it was a two-way adventure in and out. On the way back, we met up with my friend and docked (right word?) the kayaks near Blue Hole Park. This is a small deep-water opening in Walsingham Reserve. You can jump right into the sparkling clear water from the wooden deck or other spots along the edge. You can swim into a small cave and see large scary red and black crabs staring at you from the nooks and crevices, waiting to pinch. You can jump into the water and cut your feet and make them bleed, as did mine, leaping from the highest spot which is actively encouraged in tourist brochures – not smart as there are a couple of sharp rocks at the bottom so when your feet touch ….Ouch. The head of the watersports company said he had never heard of anyone getting hurt before but lost credibility as he brought out an array of antiseptic creams and bandages which he applied with clearly experiential skill. Luckily, the deep scratches were not on the very bottom of her feet or it would have made walking adventures even more difficult. More luckily, my kid is brave.
We got the exhausted kids pizza for dinner – $30 for a large that was really a medium – and Sandra and I went to the posh 1609 restaurant in the Hamilton Princess for a girls’ night out. Avocado ceviche, mahi mahi tacos, cauliflower steak with wild rice and tomato salsa followed by banana pavlova with a couple of drinks set us back $150 jointly. I reminded myself that accommodation was free. Once again, the sunset views (as the restaurant overlooked the ocean, of course) were spectacular. For me, that never gets old. As the kids have known since birth, “Mummy loves a sunset,” and they were all amazing. I have to say something about cloud formations in Bermuda as I have never seen anything like it. The clouds start at sea level and go up just a little way into the sky, like a series of chimney stacks. In the UK, you would think there were factories emitting clean smoke. But these are actually natural clouds and at sunset and sunrise, they appear, tinted orange like a glowing fuzzy city.
The next morning, our friends wanted to chill at the house but we are not chill types. So we went to Spittal Pond Nature Reserve, round the corner from my buddy’s home on Williams Estate in Smith Parish, bordering Tucker’s Town. There’s a free trail that goes by the ocean, up the cliff, over some rocks and then round a pond. An easy mile and a half ramble. They call it the largest wildlife sanctuary in Bermuda but all we saw is a stray cat and a lizard or two– well, there isn’t exactly much wildlife when almost every square inch bar a few small parks is covered with posh houses or offices. We did see the national bird of Bermuda, the Great Kissadee, with its yellow breast and black-and-white head. The trail has spectacular views over the ocean as well as an unusual pattern of grooves in the ocean-side limestone that makes it look like a square grid, still a mystery if manmade or natural formation. On the top of the cliff stands a large replica bronze rock of the original Spanish Rock found in the same place, thought to be carved by Portuguese sailors shipwrecked on the shore in 1543. So why it is called Spanish Rock is a bigger mystery.
Later, we decided to do a boat trip and drive around the westernmost part of the island where Royal Dockyard is located. We rented a small speedboat from the Hamilton Princess, so easy that both the older kids could and did pilot it, and set off across the Great Sound Bay, turning what would have been an hour in a car to twenty minutes direct boat. My friend waited with the boat as we couldn’t work out where to dock it – it’s actually really easy, we just didn’t go far enough into the marina), and I got out with the kids to find lunch. A simple pizza takeaway from Bone Fish restaurant was the kids’ choice. The food was perfectly fine. We boated our pizza boxes to the tiny little-known Turtle Bay Beach, which has the same crystal clear iridescent turquoise water of the whole island but nobody is there. Nice. Calm water even though on the outer side of the crescent so theoretically not protected from waves but there weren’t any.
The next day, we decided to do a snorkelling trip in order to see the real fish in the travel brochures. We went with KS Sports from the Hamilton Princess on a trip advertised as “only twelve people, snorkel a shipwreck and two other places”. I thought alright then, it’s two hundred bucks but it will be fabulous. Fabulous it was not. This turned out to be “go to a shipwreck, see from the boat a rock and a tiny bit of ship sticking up but you aren’t allowed to get in and swim, and then go to only one place where there were really no fish bar a few tiny white ones and swim around with your snorkel” kind of trip. Skip this. The boat crew were perfectly nice but they surely knew what a con they were providing. The skipper was very handsome and charming – still not worth a couple hundred smackers. I could get an escort service for less than that. Note, I am guessing that cost, not speaking from actual experience.
We went into Hamilton for lunch and though the owner of the Devil’s Isle restaurant was very nice, his prices were not. Almost sixty bucks for a tuna sandwich and a burger. Without alcohol and only drinking tap water. The food was perfectly fine again, nothing special. We then had a nice walk around town including into the cathedral – which you can go up for a view over the town but we ran out of time as we wanted to make the zoo and aquarium (joint site) before they shut. Ten dollars each is a very cheap entry price so I this time generously didn’t make my 15-year-old pretend to be 10. The place is also tiny so ten bucks seems fair. What made the day were the two red-ruffed lemurs who were wandering freely about, so close you could have petted them, which I almost did. I am not sure if they escaped or were allowed out unrestricted but no one seemed phased so we didn’t report it. We also liked the large turtles and normal-sized seals. On the aquarium side, we saw many tanks with parrotfish, moray eels, crabs and small spiny lobsters. An hour is plenty for the whole visit.
I took my daughter out for a just-the-two-of-us dinner at The Pink Beach Club at The Loren Hotel, yet another beachside location (yes, pink) with lovely views from the terrace above the water. The food was, of course, expensive, the best items being the cheese and meat plate ($35) and the sea salt caramel chocolate tart ($15). We should probably have stuck with just those two things. Totalled $120 for that plus a couple of sides and no drinks, just water. A couple staying in a hotel and eating out every meal and drinking alcohol but without getting s***-faced every night should expect a week in Bermuda after airfare to cost somewhere around ten grand.
On our last full day, we went into Hamilton to do some shopping where my daughter inconveniently broke a flip-flop right as she got out the car. Conveniently, we were a short walking distance from the department store, Brown’s, where we were able to get her near-identical white flip-flops for $22 and also eat a simple continental breakfast on the tiny terrace that looked over the main drag and Hamilton Harbour.
Onwards to the pink sands of Horseshoe Bay and its cute inlets. A very crowded beach where making the effort to walk for two minutes away from the tourists brings you to a secluded spot between rocks where the sand appears even pinker. This was the first time we truly appreciated how pink the sand is. Very pink indeed. Not many fish between the rocks, though. Good snorkelling in Bermuda remains an unknown to me. We continued our drive to the Royal Naval Dockyard with just enough battery left on the Twizy (I think their mileage countdown to expiration is pretty accurate as some days I only got it to a docking station with four or five miles left).We ate yet another perfectly fine lunch ($60, no cheap sandwich shops on this island) in the Frog & Onion pub, named for its French and Bermudian co-founders, and housed in a restored 18th century Cooperage, with stone walls and large fireplaces. I didn’t much like pub food when I lived in Great Britain and went out drinking in the 1980s and this just brought back those memories though the food was – as always at lunch – perfectly fine.
We wandered around the dockyard, visiting the National Museum of Bermuda. This is in the former fort and contains also up on a small hill the Governor’s House where there are exhibitions of island life. We contented ourselves with exploring the fort area from where the British protected the island, and learning about Bermudan history including during the two World Wars. Luckily, we did not encounter a swarm of our least favourite people – cruise-line customers as there is always a giant cruise ship or two docked in that harbour and you can bet your bottom dollar that those tourists wander round the dockyards, go to the nearest beach, and think they know the island. Yuck. After the museum, we ourselves wandered around the dock complex and thought we knew the island. Much of the dockyard has not yet been restored. You can really imagine colonial life. Several of the buildings have been turned into shopping arcades, some with local artists (I recommend the Jon Faulkner Gallery as it is where I got my small pot) and some with t-shirts and sweaters saying “I love Bermuda” or whatever other bland crap a cruise ship customer likes to buy and take back to the safety of their cabin.
In the same complex, there is a very weird minigolf course where the holes do not have borders to keep the balls in the putting area. After constant hits that ended up in the water, we gave up by Hole 5. This gave us just enough time to get to Gibb’s Lighthouse five minutes before it closed, so that the grumpy lighthouse keeper could tell us we were too late and had to come back the next day. We politely explained that we were leaving the island the next day and so could not return, but he would hear none of our pleas – until he realized that by sending us up to lock the door at the top, he would save himself the journey. Up we went, enjoying the exhibition of the history of lighthouse-keeping in Bermuda since the beginning of time – well, lighthouse time, which started in 1844. Gibb’s is the first light-house in the world to be made of cast-iron. We enjoyed the views from the top, followed the strict instructions to look the little inner door, not the black outer door, taking photos to prove we had fulfilled our duty like any good-deed doer would do, and then climbed up the glass beacon for a better view, don’t tell Grumpy.
On our final morning, we returned our faithful Twizy to the Hamilton Princess, ate a last meal there of steak and wahoo. I paid my last hundred-dollar bill and we headed to the airport in a taxi, tanned, relaxed and thinking we had spent a week in blue-tinted glasses.
So, my advice is – Go. But first make a friend who lives on the island or win the lottery. You get the Caribbean without the Caribbean crowds, but you need to go between May to October or it will just be too cold as Bermuda stands alone in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, not the Gulf of Mexico nor is it sheltered by other islands like the Caribbean Sea. This is something many people apparently do not realise.
Right after the trip, my daughter said to me, “Mummy, Sydney is my best friend but you are my second-best friend.” Before I could interject, she added, “Yes, I know you say it is your job to be my parent not my best friend, I understand that, but you are still my second-best friend.” And with that, I knew I had given us both the best holiday ever.