Cleaning up some files recently I chanced upon this little budget Bermuda piece I wrote in 2004 for a San Francisco publication; this explains the reference to the Richmond, a neighbourhood of San Francisco. That publication didn't take it – can't remember why – and I never managed to sell it, despite my best efforts. I also sent to Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel for consideration.
I like it, almost a decade after it was written. There are references to a shuttered airline, Outkast, and the oddness of US pre-clearance customs stations. I also note that I was projecting the territory's eventual independence from the UK. And that it was in Bermuda that I first ate McVitie's biscuits.
Pink Sands and Pedal Bikes: Bermuda on the Cheap
We came to Bermuda with very little money. Well, to hew more closely to precision, I came to Bermuda with very little money; my traveling partner Melissa is not quite so impoverished. But I set the budget and she became the co-guardian of it. We flew in on the third-ever commercial flight from Newark to Bermuda on USA3000, the airline that sounds like a potential title of an Outkast album. Advertised as a steal at $79 each way, the USA3000 flight cost just under $260 roundtrip once taxes and fees are taken into account. Still, $260 is a steal in comparison to the cost of an average roundtrip (around $800) from the east coast to Bermuda.
Bermuda is expensive, a state that befits a territory whose citizens enjoy high per capita incomes and whose approach to tourism has focused almost exclusively on luring rich Americans to its shores. Bermuda is synonymous with golf, sailing, and a kind of shorts celebrated in the pages of the Preppy Handbook. It’s not designed for the grubby, something Melissa and I discovered as we walked through customs only to be waved over to an inspection table for a series of perfunctory questions about the length of our stay and our touristic intentions.
It’s no surprise that wealthy Americans continue to be drawn to Bermuda. It has a genteel patina and in certain corners resembles an extremely well-heeled US suburb. Bermuda is attractive to those Americans who find antiquated fixtures of Britishness charming as opposed to forced or even embarrassing. Propriety is also highly valued on Bermuda, where strict laws and customs are somewhat behavioralist in intention. Driving a scooter while shirtless will incur police attention and there are regulations for things like appropriate dinner attire.
In actuality, Bermuda isn’t all that British. The proximity of the US and the ubiquity of American products on store shelves both make for an American feel. The Bermuda dollar is pegged one-to-one to the US dollar, and US customs even has a pre-clearance customs station at the airport, which means, oddly enough, that on your return you legally enter the US while still at the airport in Bermuda. Bermuda is only 600 miles from North Carolina, and is much closer to New York than it is to the Caribbean.
Further threatening its image as a subtropical outpost of England is the likelihood that Bermuda will become independent within the near future. You find references to independence in Bermuda’s business magazine and even in a natural history guidebook detailing Bermuda’s flora. It’s completely financially self-sustaining, with a per capita income far higher than that of the UK. The current government is led by the Progressive Labour Party, traditionally the party of black Bermudians (who make up 60% of the population) and which favors independence from Britain. There are some smaller and many much less financially secure nations; Bermuda will certainly thrive as an independent entity.
We stayed at Salt Kettle House, an informal guesthouse in Paget Parish run with doddering intensity by a woman named Hazel Lowe. Salt Kettle’s nightly per person rate, which includes breakfast, is $55. Taking tax and gratuity into account, this works out to about $65 per night per person, which in Bermuda is dirt cheap. Guests at Salt Kettle included a couple who prayed ostentatiously at the communal breakfast table and a woman from San Francisco who didn’t want to talk to us at all. But the rooms were comfy and air-conditioned, the breakfasts were ample, and the price was right. The solicitous Mrs. Lowe was full of advice and questions, clearly a good hostess.
Our problem was that we didn’t really want to be helped. We had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do and pretty much knew how to do it. We rented mountain bikes and set off on half-planned journeys, centered on but not confined to the Railway Trail. Running most of the length of Bermuda, the Railway Trail is open to non-motorized vehicles and pedestrians. It passes through jungley thickets of trees and bush as well as farmland, abutting from time to time enormous estates.
We biked through residential neighborhoods, alongside a cricket match, and up and down the coast. The beaches on the south side of Warwick and Southampton Parishes became our favorites. Bermuda’s beaches are pinkish and cool to the touch even at midday. And then there’s the water off Bermuda, just a few degrees cooler than the air temperature. Swimming in such water is delicious and strange. These beaches are idyllic.
We also relied on Bermuda’s bus and ferry network to get around. We used the bus network to check out the Bermuda Botanical Gardens, Bermuda’s largest public garden, with wooded areas, greenhouses, and horticultural collections. We took the long ferry from Hamilton to colonial St. George at the far eastern edge of Bermuda. Founded in 1612 and a UNESCO World Heritage site, St. George left us a bit cold. It felt candied in comparison with the modern hum of Hamilton and the lush foliage found further west. In St. George, St. Peter’s Church is worth a visit, as are the National Trust Museum and the Bermudian Heritage Museum.
We ate well. Twice we frequented the Jamaican Grill on Court Street in Hamilton, a friendly restaurant with spicy entrees. The jerk chicken was especially gorgeous and the zesty ginger-infused fruit drinks and sweet fritters sealed the deal. More than one Bermudian warned us that Court Street was a “bad” neighborhood, but it was about as rough as a quiet commercial street in the Richmond. On a supermarket run, we discovered the genius of the chocolate-caramel McVitie’s Biscuits and Barritts ginger beer, the local soft drink. Another cheap restaurant find was Mr. Chicken, a fried chicken joint on the edge of a supermarket complex in Southampton Parish. Between dinners, our guesthouse breakfasts and supermarket jaunts we spent less than $40 per person per day on food.
Bermuda on the cheap was, in the end, not difficult to orchestrate. Though it often felt as though we were in a parallel universe of our own design, that sensation was a part of the charm of our vacation. Done right and planned cautiously, Bermuda is more than worthwhile as a budget travel destination.