As an island that’s become synonymous with honeymooners and pensioners, Estella Shardlow investigates whether Bermuda has anything new to offer the modern traveller.
My hands are slipping and my biceps are aching. Beneath me there’s a 10ft drop onto a rocky surface. Banyan hang all around in thick tendrils, enveloping the soaring trunks of their host trees. “You can make it,” come the encouraging cries of my group. It’s been a matter of seconds since I pushed off the edge of the walkway and swung towards the opposite tree, but it seems like eons as I hover halfway across the gap, the world’s slowest and most graceless pendulum.
Bermuda isn’t somewhere I thought I’d need a head for heights and serious upper body strength. Then again, there was a lot about this horseshoe-shaped island that took me by surprise. Vine swinging was just the beginning…
Unless you’re a retired American cruise-shipper or possibly a honeymooner, then Bermuda probably hasn’t been on your holiday radar. This is, after all, the destination branded as being for ‘newly-weds and nearly deads’, a lonely mid-Atlantic island known for shorts, aviation mysteries and not a huge amount else.
But that’s set to change. Thanks to the Bermudian government pumping $23.1m into tourism this year and a vigorous social media campaign (Bermuda Tourism’s Facebook followers have soared 91% in the past year), the island is finally casting off its tired old image.
At the vanguard of the New Bermuda is Ashley of Hidden Gems eco-tours; she who incited me to dangle Tarzan-style from the Banyan. We’ve come to Southlands, a rambling overgrown estate built by businessman James Morgan and now colonised by sunbathing lizards.
The daughter of a botanist, Ashley’s knowledge of the flora and fauna is unrivalled, and we follow her among the forest-smothered ruins like a troupe of eager Boy Scouts. I pocket a handful of Match Me If You Can leaves, which apparently cure everything from colds to muscle pain, and spy my first tequila plant.
Later, on the pink sands of Marley Bay and Warwick Long Bay – the colour is caused by tiny organisms that live on the coral reefs – we come across wild fennel and Jamaican pepper plants. The scent of spice and aniseed carries on the breeze.
What Lies Beneath
After my somewhat hair-raising vine swinging experience (I did manage to make it without falling off in the end), I’m feeling a little delicate. Yet soon the adrenalin is pumping again as we don hard hats and descend into the crystal caves beneath Tom Moore’s Jungle, where the eponymous Irish poet wrote many of his verses.
We scramble along the slippery, sloping passageways, ducking out of the way of stalactites the size of traffic cones. Eventually, the maze opens out into a vast cavern and lagoon. Swimming in the deep, glassy water beneath the canopy of crystal formations is an unforgettable experience with something a little mystical about it, while those who dare take a deep breath and swim through an underwater cavity into the sea on the other side.
Ah yes, the sea; it’s never far from your eye or ear in Bermuda and the breathtakingly clear, bright turquoise water incites many an envious Instagram comment. The barrier reef that encircles the island has been the undoing of countless ships through the centuries and you’ll find wrecks of everything from luxury liners to brigantines on the sea bed. While making exciting diving for us, it was the reef that effectively brought about Bermuda’s colonisation 400 years ago when the Sea Venture wrecked en route from England to Virginia, forcing its passengers and crew to come ashore where they built the town of St George.
Hearing that visibility is around 200ft and many smaller reefs can be found close to shore, I simply pushed off from Church’s Bay with a hired snorkel and found myself very soon face to face with a cobalt blue parrot fish and a few black and white striped butterfly fish.
Catch of the Day
Bermuda’s rich marine life naturally means there’s an abundance of excellent seafood to be enjoyed here, and following the eco-trek I’ve worked up a serious appetite. So, it’s time to try the local specialty: a fish sandwich. Every Bermudian I speak to agrees that Art Mel’s Spicy Dicy does the best on the island. A no-frills joint in a slightly dodgy part of Hamilton (the world’s smallest capital, apparently), what you get is a massive portion of fresh red snapper coated in spicy batter inside soft raisin bread smothered with homemade tartar sauce. Washed down with a Dark and Stormy, the island’s favourite cocktail combining rum and ginger beer, it doesn’t get much more satisfying than this.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, meanwhile, Bermuda has an impressive line-up of fine dining restaurants. One of the best waterfront views and most extensive menus is to be found at Blu, where I tucked into scallop, crispy salmon skin and caviar maki, followed by miso-glazed cod. As well as these Asian-fusion offerings, the restaurant serves delicious Italian fayre (try the white truffle and Taleggio gnocchi) and steaks or fish on the Grill.
Finishing up with a colossal wedge of Blu’s Key Lime Pie, I was set for the following day’s energetic itinerary: beach yoga, segwaying and horseriding, plus biking a portion of the old railway line-cum-cycle trail, an 18-mile route running nearly the whole length of the island. Now what was that about Bermuda being for ‘nearly-deads’?