Laid-Back But High-Powered

Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Travel Writer

Mayor Michael Bloomberg may be the most famous Jew currently spiriting away for Bermuda weekends. But he has plenty of company.

After all, this easy-to-reach island paradise — just 700 miles off the Carolina coast — mixes the pastel, palm-fringed prettiness of the Caribbean with the East Coast’s temperate seasons. Winter feels, and looks, springy; late spring and summer bring perfect 80-degree days, a bathtub-warm ocean and a convivial, but never crowded, feel in the city centers.

And while many Caribbean islands have little to no organized Jewish scene, Bermuda has a laid-back but high-powered community that welcomes the island’s many New York visitors.

Bermuda’s 21 square miles were all but designed for tourism. Nature lovers and romantics seeking seclusion will find it among the island’s turquoise coves, famous pink beaches and dozens of B&Bs. Golf fans like the mayor enjoy ample picturesque greens, as well as excellent tennis, scuba diving, and sailing. Nightlife sways to a gentle island rhythm in the chic towns of Hamilton, the capital, and historic St. George, where you’ll find a cosmopolitan if pricey selection of restaurants and bars.

And all of it comes with a distinctive local culture that’s equal parts genteel British, American summer resort and easygoing islander.

Upscale and tradition-minded, Bermuda is a place where time-is-money New Yorkers trade suits for the island’s signature shorts and trade taxis for scooters — the island’s preferred form of transport, given the ban on rental cars. (Be forewarned: As in Britain, Bermudians drive on the left.) With nary a skyscraper or a traffic jam in sight, Bermuda revolves around investment and tourism, so a vacation spirit prevails; at 4 on any given afternoon, tea and cocktails are taken on leisurely patios.

What about hurricanes, you might ask? Well, it’s true that hurricane season starts in June and theoretically can threaten Bermuda straight through the fall. But the island generally sees less damage than the Caribbean. Mindful of concerns, Bermuda tourism authorities lure summer travelers with a hurricane refund guarantee.

Really an archipelago, Bermuda looks from the air like a delicate seahorse. Its lacey topography boasts an inordinate profusion of unspoiled bays, coves and beaches, which are best reached by rented moped or bicycle (though there is a public transit system as well). The northern coast tends to be more craggy and windswept; the south has more beaches, while the west end is more remote and romantic.

Hamilton, a charmingly civilized town, is smack in the middle. Bermuda’s best shopping, watercolor galleries and wine bars are here amid pink and mint-green buildings.

On the north shore just outside Hamilton is the Jewish Community Center, nexus for the island’s 120 affiliated families. The community grew out of a handful of Jewish officers and their families affiliated with the World War II-era U.S. naval base, which closed in the 1990s. Today mostly civilians and a mix of Reform and Conservative, families take turns hosting monthly Shabbat services with a visiting rabbi.

Nature and recreation definitely take priority on Bermuda, where structured tourist sights are largely beside the point. But two years ago, the island got its first ambitious art museum: the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art, located near the capital.

As befits a resort collection, Masterworks focuses on art by and about Bermuda. There are some major names here: Georgia O’Keefe, Winslow Homer and Marsden Hartley were among the internationally known painters inspired by the island’s golden vistas. Rotating exhibits showcase paintings and photographs from the Masterworks collection, whose offerings are backed by deep-pocketed patrons.

Nearby is one of the island’s most popular attractions: the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo. Here you can see more than 500 species of fish, birds, mammals and reptiles typical of Atlantic diversity, along with an exhibit of living coral and a natural history museum focusing on Bermuda’s ecosystem. Children have their own hands-on playroom and can help feed the pet seals.

History is most tangible in St. George, on the eastern tip, where British sailors fortuitously landed after an early-1600s Atlantic crossing. The town still feels distinctly nautical: yachts and sailboats dot the scenic harbor, and white-pillared buildings give a Nantucket feel to the cobblestoned streets.

St. George was once Bermuda’s capital. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, renowned by history buffs for its walled harbor-side fortifications. Peaceful and proper, St. George is a romantic town for strolling and gazing at graceful 17th-century architecture and stunning ocean views.

Sit down at any of the British-style pubs and order a Dark ën Stormy, Bermuda’s national drink: a mix of ginger beer and dark rum. Lore has it that a similar brew kept seafarers healthy on long ocean voyages, but today’s Bermudians enjoy it for the same reason they cherish their homeland: it’s refined and traditional yet a little bit sweet, with a distinctive island kick.

 

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Paradise found: Two views of Bermuda. Photos by Hilary Larson

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