Situated off the Carolinas, about a two-hour plane ride from most East Coast cities, Bermuda is the easiest way for time-strapped tourists to get a quick sun fix with a Caribbean vibe. Which helps explain why, during its April-November high season, the 21 mile-long island can feel like one big Disney World during school break. Off-season however, Bermuda is a different place. Photographers can snap away without waiting for strangers to get out of the shot. There are always empty bus seats. Restaurant reservations are recommended instead of required. The choice hotel room you’d wrestle a charter group for is available for the asking. Spots at the pool or beach – take your pick. And most important, low season means lower prices for a destination that can be pricey. For all these reasons, off-season is my favorite time to visit Bermuda. But the best time, I think, is the last part of March, just before the seasonal prices change over. Daytime temperatures have started to climb into the 70s, ocean temperature is in the mid-60’s, flowers have started to bloom, creating that natural perfume that permeates the island.
Bermuda is British with distinctly American overtones. Driving is on the left-hand side of the road. Many hotels serve afternoon high tea. Bermuda shorts with stockings cut just below the knee are still worn, even with jacket and tie. The Bermuda dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar and, more often than not, your change will come in U.S. currency. Distances are quoted in miles and temperatures in degrees fahrenheit. Oh, and your taxi driver or waiter may be a millionaire. The average value of a single family house in Bermuda is $1.4 million.
Visitors cannot rent cars in Bermuda, only motorized scooters. Rentals average around $50 a day or $200 a week. Bicycles are cheaper, but the terrain in some parts of the island is very hilly. Taxis are expensive – a 12-mile ride from the airport to Southampton, which is about 2/3 of the way around the island, costs about $45. If you’re on a budget, Bermuda’s bus system is the way to go - $12 a day for unlimited rides. Plus, it’s more fun to sit back and concentrate on the scenery instead of negotiating the narrow roads. Island ferry service is also worth checking out.
Priceline offers the full gamut of Bermuda accommodations, from smaller bed-and-breakfast type hotels to the larger resorts. The smaller hotels can be booked for around $100 a night in low season, while the full-service resorts start around $280 a night. This year, we chose the Fairmont Southampton, mostly because we weren’t sure how much sightseeing we were going to do and the Fairmont was the kind of place where, if you wanted to, you could step out of the cab and never leave the property for the duration of your stay. The Fairmont sits atop the highest point on the island and, consequently, has every room equipped with a private balcony. At the bottom of the hill is a private beach with tennis, snorkeling and scuba available. Walk around a corner and you’re on the public Horseshoe Bay Beach, which connects to a string of pink-sand beaches that can be walked for miles. The Fairmont Southampton has its own executive golf course on site, with exclusive access rights to the nearby par-70 Riddell’s Bay course. Toward the end of March, The Fairmont had four of its on-site restaurants open (more come on-line once high season starts). In addition to the heated outdoor pool, the hotel has its own spa and indoor pool. The indoor pool is open to all guests at no charge in the evenings.
Since food and beverages grown or produced outside Bermuda have to be shipped or flown in, things are more expensive, although not as much as you might think. Over the years, Bermuda has added many gourmet quality restaurants. The food is spectacular and some of the prices can be, too. For example, one of our dinners in The Waterlot, an elegant Southampton steak house, ran $160 for two. Wine is imported (no surprise) and prices, even by the glass, will be noticeably higher than in the States. Families and travelers on tight budgets may want to look for everyday restaurants frequented by the locals. They’re easy to spot, with entrée prices often in the $15-$25 range and, often, an interesting assortment of local dishes. For a real budget-friendly alternative, find a grocery store. We found one in Hamilton that had a hot buffet section where you can line up alongside local businesspeople and purchase a hearty, affordable lunch. We tried the curried mussel and curried goat pot pies (popular fare for spectators at the cricket matches) for $4.50 each, and both were quite good.
One of the great things about Bermuda is that you can spend as much or as little as you like on attractions and still have a great time. The public beaches are free and are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Rent snorkel gear (or bring it with you) for hours of fish watching and even some shipwreck spotting. Many of the historic forts guarding Bermuda, like Fort Hamilton, are well-preserved and free to explore. Dockyard on the far end of the island charges a reasonable $10 fee to enter the Keep area and see the Commissioner’s House and Maritime Museum. The town of St. George's has replicas of stocks and dunking stools, with regularly scheduled free re-enactments that are sure to keep the kids entertained.
Golfers can expect to pay resort prices for greens fees and carts. Other attractions on the island include tennis, scuba diving, deep sea fishing, whale watching, natural caves, dolphin encounters and even a perfume factory.
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Photos copyright Lyle J. Ek