Nadja told us this would be a dinner to remember. The assistant manager at our Bermuda resort wasn't referring only to the meal, but to the setting, too, a secluded beachside restaurant that showcased Bermuda's alluring blend of sand, sea, and romance.
My husband, Bob, and I were celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary, spending five days last fall at Cambridge Beaches, a colony of pastel pink cottages perched on a private peninsula along Bermuda's western coastline.
We were particularly fortunate on this evening, snagging one of a handful of tables right on the torch-lit beach just in advance of sunset. Additional tables—set, like ours, with glinting crystal and starched linen napkins—were sheltered beneath the trees. A light breeze off Long Bay rustled the palm fronds. Although it was hard to believe on this balmy mid-October evening, 650 miles of the Gulf Stream-warmed Atlantic were all that separated us from the North Carolina coast.
Like afternoon tea and cocktail hour, sunsets are a Bermuda ritual not to be missed. And as the sun slid from sight, steeping the horizon a rum swizzly reddish-orange, this time we were able to relish the spectacle from the front row, as it were. I slipped off my sandals (illicitly, as it turned out; footwear is required at all times in restaurants) and let my toes explore the sugary soft sand. Later, while we dined on jerked tuna steak and rosemary-lemon chicken, not a dozen feet away a graceful heron noiselessly stalked the shallow cove in search of its own fresh-caught entrée.
As Nadja Talevi—the resort's assistant manager for guest relations and its resident romance concierge—had suggested, this beautiful natural setting made all the difference.
Named for the Spanish explorer who first sighted it, and colonized unintentionally in 1609 by the survivors of a British shipwreck, Bermuda has been a British colony since 1614, having rejected independence as recently as 1995. Thanks to a new campaign by the Department of Tourism, however, this prosperous, self-governed collection of still veddy English isles is trying to loosen its cravat (literally in one regard) without sacrificing the graciousness that has made it an oasis for the well-heeled since Queen Victoria's daughter, Princess Louise, visited here in 1883. Neckties and jackets are no longer de rigueur dinner attire at many resorts (although gentlemen would still be wise to pack a blazer). And in addition to a range of deluxe hotels, romantic cottage colonies, and family-run guesthouses, the islands now boast an ultra-casual resort—9 Beaches, a complex of sailcloth-sided, WiFi-connected cabanas built on pilings. Its tongue-in-cheeky dress code reads: "Flip flops required."
As an anniversary destination, Bermuda met our primary criteria: proximity (a mere two-hour flight), romantic appeal (pink sand beaches and cottages in shades of Valentine candy), first-class accommodations and dining (water views generally included), natural beauty (1,000 species of semitropical plants thrive here), and enough distractions (stress-melting massages, infinity-edge swimming pools, upscale shopping, centuries old architecture) to pass the time between beach-going, dining, and dallying. Cambridge Beaches in particular appealed because it offered the chance to experience a uniquely Bermudian type of accommodation in one of Bermuda's more pastoral settings, Sandys (pronounced san-dees) Parish. On this fish-hook-shaped string of islands, Sandys is the pointy end, somewhat distant from the centrally located capital city of Hamilton and even farther removed from Bermuda International Airport in St. George's Parish at the eastern end of the 21-mile-long archipelago.
From the airport, Cambridge Beaches proved a manageable 45-minute ride via Bermuda's narrow, twisting roads. These mainly east-west thoroughfares are lined with hibiscus and oleander and driven on the left, British-style, adding to the thrill for first-time visitors. As we zipped along in our resort-dispatched minivan taxi (tourists are prohibited from driving anything except rented motor scooters and bicycles), we took note of Bermuda's ingeniously built dwellings, with their thick, tempest-tested stone walls and white-washed, stepped roofs designed to collect the islands' prime source of drinking water—rain.
The journey took us past a succession of local landmarks: the 17th-century Swizzle Inn, Bermuda's oldest pub; the Botanical Gardens, whose grounds encompass the premier's official residence, Camden House; the luxury hotels—Elbow Beach, the Fairmont Southampton, The Reefs—lining the South Shore's famous pink sand beaches; and Somerset Bridge, a Lilliputian draw span whose opening at road level is barely wider than a sailboat mast. In half the time it takes my husband to commute from suburbs to city, we'd traversed eight of Bermuda's nine parishes and arrived at our resort.
Cottage colonies are small enclaves of luxury bungalows situated on spacious grounds to ensure privacy. A central house, often a historic structure, serves as a communal gathering place for meals and social activities. Opened as a guest house (The Beaches) in the 1920s, Cambridge Beaches was among the first cottage colonies. It has grown from its original single cottage—now referred to as the Main House—on five acres to include 94 individually decorated cottage-style rooms and suites, five private beaches, its own marina, and a European-style spa, all distributed over 30 well-groomed acres flanked on the west by Long Bay and on the east by Mangrove Bay.
It makes an agreeably restrained, unresort-like first impression thanks to what President and CEO Michael Winfield proudly describes as "a total lack of glitz." The much-frequented Main House is nearly hidden behind a profusion of begonias, greenery, and two weathered limestone pillars, one of which bears a small "Reception" sign. The lodgings evoke British empire with their tray ceilings, tasteful mix of woods, wicker, and fine fabrics, and sense of relaxed elegance. Ours were in Kiskadee Upper, the top half of a hillside cottage overlooking placid Mangrove Bay. (As with all the resort's buildings, it was named for a bit of endemic flora, fauna, or lore—in this case a sassy, black-capped bird.) Although not considered a suite, the room was exceptionally spacious, containing a generous bay window seating area with thick-cushioned wicker chairs; a private, sunny terrace where we watched the harbor's comings and goings over morning coffee; and a decadent marble bathroom with glass-enclosed shower, his-and-hers sinks, and deep whirlpool tub thoughtfully positioned for stargazing.
Our favorite retreat—a short stroll downhill from our cottage—was Long Bay Beach, a gentle crescent of sand lined with coconut palms and tamarisk trees where we lounged and read under thatch umbrellas. More actively inclined guests can use the resort's tennis courts, croquet pitch, and Ocean Spa's indoor swimming and current pools as well as its fitness center. A concierge can arrange for golf outings and water sports such as para-sailing, snorkeling, deep-sea fishing, and wreck-diving, a pursuit for which Bermuda is justly famous. The first colonists weren't alone in their nautical misfortune; hundreds of wrecked ships—abandoned now to schools of colorful fish—lie entombed on coral reefs that encircle the islands.
Curiosity eventually led us outside the walls of our private sanctuary, first via the Number 8 bus to the Royal Naval Dockyard and, the following day, by ferry across the Great Sound to Hamilton. Our reward? Intriguing lessons in Bermuda history and culture as well as an introduction to the islands' clean and efficient public transit systems.
When England lost its major Atlantic ports to a band of rebellious colonists in 1776, His Majesty's contractors (mostly British convicts) built a massive fortress nicknamed the "Gibraltar of the West" on Bermuda's rugged northwestern tip. Much of the Royal Naval Dockyard's sturdy infrastructure—the early 19th century limestone fortress and its impressive ramparts, a cast iron-framed commissioner's residence, warehouses, and other buildings used by the Royal Navy until 1951—have been transformed into a bustling tourist center and major cruise ship terminal. (On some nights, in fact, we could see the neonish blue glow of a particularly large ship's superstructure from our cottage. It looked like a giant diner.)
Opposite the harbor from the terminal, a pair of weathered nautical towers dominate a shopping plaza where visitors can dine and buy souvenirs, swimsuits, and other necessaries. We wandered into the nearby cooperage-turned-craft market and watched a glassblower perform his intricate, thermal art and admired a display of wildlife figures carved from honey-colored Bermuda cedar.
The Dockyard's most popular attraction is the splendid Bermuda Maritime Museum, which details the colony's seafaring past in numerous exhibit halls within the fort's inner compound. In one hall, a collection of 16th- and 17th-century shipwreck artifacts contains Exhibit A in an oft-told Bermuda mystery. The jewel of this sunken treasures collection, an emerald-encrusted Spanish gold cross recovered by legendary Bermudian diver Teddy Tucker, was infamously replaced with an inexpensive replica shortly before Queen Elizabeth II formally opened the museum in 1975. The original has yet to be located. (We later discovered that a more plebeian Tucker find—a cargo of 19th century grindstones bound for Baltimore—forms part of the bayfront terrace at Cambridge Beaches' clubhouse.)
The city of Hamilton, a 20-minute ferry ride from the Dockyard harbor, supplanted St. George as Bermuda's capital in 1815 and remains the colony's business and cultural center as well. It was here, in 1885, that tourism took off with the opening of what is now the Fairmont Hamilton Princess hotel. This Pepto-pink-colored palace spawned an empire of elegant resorts along the beaches to the south, including its sister hotel, The Fairmont Southampton. Bermuda's most luxurious accommodations, the Southampton offers a hilltop view of the ocean, a private cliff-lined beach, and a manmade Polynesian-style waterfall.
In Hamilton, we saw cruise ships bellied up to the city's wharves, discharging passengers in search of Swiss watches, English sportswear, Irish linen, Wedgwood china, and Bermuda rum from the merchants along Front Street. Bypassing these sorbet-colored shops in favor of the blander banking district, we cut west through lunchtime crowds enjoying shady Par-la-Ville Park and headed to a local favorite, the Lobster Pot & Boat House Bar, for pints of ale and bowls of spicy Bermuda fish chowder.
In the afternoon, we sight-saw and shopped, photographing the ornate Sessions House (the Italianate-style Parliament building) and stocking up on sherry peppers sauce. After awkwardly sharing Hamilton's sidewalks with shorts-wearing businessmen for several hours, it finally dawned on us that, duh, Bermudians walk, as well as drive, on the left. We also came to appreciate the importance placed on manners, even in a busy city. Don't be surprised should rather innocuous stateside behavior—like looking at the map rather than its provider while getting directions, or overly fretting to your taxi driver about reaching the airport—earn you a gentle lesson in Bermudian civility.
Universal courteousness is one of Bermuda's many charms, although some visitors find its hospitality too formal, even stuffy, at times. The country club atmosphere at the more exclusive resorts—Cambridge Beaches among them—is not for everyone, notably children under five and adults disinclined to shed their flip flops or don a collared shirt for dinner.
We detected no discontent, however, among guests dining at Tamarisk, the resort's acclaimed restaurant, and its idyllic terrace, which were filled nightly with a mix of couples—honeymooners to retirees—and families with well-behaved children. (Management is far too circumspect to divulge the names of Cambridge Beaches' famous guests, but word has it they've included everyone from knighted pop musicians to GOP politicians. Bermuda is no stranger to celebrities; Ariel Sands, a fashionable cottage colony in Devonshire Parish, is owned by the family of actor Michael Douglas.)
Returning to our cottage on the final night of our visit, we climbed several flights of stone steps up a hillside fragrant with flowers and loud with the whistling of tree frogs. As we watched the waxing moon rise over Mangrove Bay, suddenly it was outshone by a burst of distant fireworks launched from the Royal Naval Dockyard—a fitting send-off from a land that melds tropical sensuality and old world sensibilities.
Mark Twain was another Bermuda-smitten American who never tired of watching the light "paint the waters" here. On his last trip to the islands in 1910, the aged and ailing author wrote, "You go to heaven if you want to—I'd druther stay here."