My last Tournament of Stars update is on ESPN.com. I still have some video to file as well.
I mentioned in my St. Kitts post that my wife and I decided against a return trip to Bermuda for our 15th anniversary after we went there on our honeymoon, our fifth anniversary, and our tenth anniversary. A few of you asked me to elaborate, so I’ll do so, but I have to emphasize up front that our last trip there was (if you’re too lazy to do the math) five years ago, and it may be out of date.
Let me start with what we liked about Bermuda. It’s a beautiful island, naturally pretty, but was also fairly prosperous and well-maintained. The capital city, Hamilton, is like something out of a dream, clean, bright, open, busy in a quiet way, walkable with shops and restaurants up and down its few main streets. There’s a second town, more of a village, called St. George, on the east end of the island, also worth at least one visit. The island is small and easily navigable by moped – tourists are not permitted to rent cars – and I have to say that sitting in a closed car would rob you of some of the experience. Locals would chat with us while we were stopped at red lights, and we got a restaurant recommendation or two that way. The beaches have sand flecked with pink, and the water is as blue and clear as anything we found in St. Kitts. One of my favorite rums in the world, Gosling’s Black Seal, is blended and bottled in Bermuda. Most of the people we met on our visits there were friendly. And it’s just a two-hour flight from the east coast of the U.S.
We had a few favorites for food across our trips. The best place that’s still operating is Bistro J, in downtown Hamilton, where the menu changes daily, with five entree options and I believe two or three desserts written each afternoon on a blackboard in the dining room. Everything we ate there was spectacular and I will always remember that as the place I first tried sticky toffee pudding. Monty’s was at one point a simple, slightly cheap spot for locals that served amazing breakfasts, although it had gone upscale by the time we visited in 2005. The Hog Penny is a British pub in Hamilton that we discovered on our first trip, and the Swizzle Inn does make a killer rum swizzle, a cocktail that masks its potency with fruit juice. Paraquet is a little place catering mostly to locals that makes an incredible fried fish sandwich; it’s located in an apartment complex in Paget Parish right on South Road.
We stayed somewhere different on each trip; our favorite was the Salt Kettle Inn, a very small but perfectly located B&B just across the bay from Hamilton and thus a short ferry ride or moped trip into town. (The benefit of taking the moped in the mornings is that you get to see Johnny Barnes, the friendliest man in the world, waving to you and all the other commuters into Hamilton each morning.) We also stayed at the Elbow Beach resort for our honeymoon in 1995; the beach is outstanding for swimming, but the hotel itself is just an average American hotel with shops and restaurants added, with the room no better than what you’d find at a standard Hilton or Marriott, but at twice the price.
Hotel beaches in Bermuda are largely private, but they do have some excellent public ones. Our favorite public beach was Church Bay, on the western side of the south shore. The snorkeling there was amazing with plenty to see even when the water is just a few feet deep, and the water is fairly calm because of outlying rocks. There’s another beach on the eastern half called Shelly Bay Beach that’s very long and shallow and would be great for kids or unconfident swimmers. We usually took an afternoon to visit the small zoo and aquarium, and just generally tooled around the island. Getting around the island was simple between the moped and taxis, and we could go from St. George to the Dockyard (one end of Bermuda to the other) in about an hour.
That’s the good, but when we went back in 2005 we found it didn’t measure up to our memories from the first two trips. The biggest issue was that the place was starting to look a little run down. They’d had a hurricane a year prior but by August of ’05 still hadn’t finished basic maintenance tasks, like fixing a broken walkway from the parking area to the sand at Church Bay. We saw drunk locals in the streets of Hamilton for the first time – completely harmless, but still a sign that the economy there wasn’t in such great shape. And Front Street in Hamilton had gone from three department stores in 1995 to none in 2005, and as far as I can tell none has been replaced. (I understand that those stores were critical to locals, but they offered plenty for tourists who were looking for non-touristy shopping.)
We also found that the quality of the food at several of our favorite places had fallen off. We ate at the Hog Penny at least twice on that last trip, and everything we had underwhelmed us, even though in probably a half-dozen or more meals there on the previous two trips we had always loved the food. The Swizzle Inn changed its menu completely between 2000 and 2005, and the food quality went south as well. The food at Monty’s didn’t change, but the price went up with the décor, although it’s still the best breakfast bet we found on the island.
I also noticed in 2005 that while locals were still on the whole very friendly, we encountered more rudeness than we had before, and my guess is that it was a little anti-Americanism at work. (For whatever it’s worth, and that may be nothing, the poor treatment we received never came from black Bermudians, only whites. I don’t know why that would be true, but it is.)
And the final straw for us was the price. It’s very expensive to stay and eat in Bermuda, and the lack of any major U.S. Chain on the island means that frequent-guest points are useless there. (There are two Fairmont hotels, if that’s how you roll.) Renting a moped for the week, while fun, isn’t cheap, and heading there now with a four-year-old would mean a lot of cab fares, and getting a cab from a public beach was not easy.
But Bermuda has a more fundamental price problem – they slap a tax of 25% or more on all imported goods, so the prices of even basic goods are jacked up, and it flows through to restaurant meals, hotel prices, and of course affects people who live on the island greatly. Add to that their unwillingness to wean themselves from the teat of cruise ship docking fees, even though cruise ship customers do nothing to help island businesses directly but are happy to come and consume public resources like beaches, making it less appealing for people who want to come and actually contribute directly to island hotels, restaurants, and shops.
Bermuda was a little less appealing for us than it might be to a first-time visitor because we will compare everything to our previous visits to the island; I imagine if we went there for the first time now, we’d find it charming, because we lacked any knowledge of what it was like ten or fifteen years ago. And, again, we haven’t been in five years, so it may have made a major turnaround in that time. I haven’t heard anything to that effect, and as far as I know the massive import tax is still in place and the cruise ships are still coming and throwing their weight around. I would love to have my old Bermuda back, but I’m afraid now it may be gone for good.