FEATURE

Bermuda: Third Time's a Charm?

With sun, sand as soft as sifted flour, and blue-green water, the island is pretty appealing--despite what I'd been saying for years.

We walk around a bit, and while there's charm here and there--the wind compass on city hall's tower, the single-room post office, the vaguely countercultural Rock Island Coffee--I start to get a familiar sinking feeling. Hamilton is where most of Bermuda does its business, and it's where cruise passengers and other tourists buy souvenirs, but I don't like shopping at home in New York City, so what on earth am I doing looking at shops here? I feel like I have to, even though I don't want to. We get back on the ferry and then go play that idyllic round of Frisbee at Elbow Beach.

DESPITE ITS NAME, which has that Bahama-Aruba lilt to it, Bermuda is not in or even near the Caribbean, but out in the Atlantic, along the same latitude as South Carolina. As every guidebook notes, it's closer to Nova Scotia than it is to Miami. The high season is summer, not winter. And it's not one island, but about 300--it feels like one island, though, because eight principal islands are linked by bridges.

Bermuda was discovered by Spanish sailor Juan Bermúdez in the early 1500s but was settled by the British a century later, after a shipwreck on the treacherous reefs. Bermuda is now a self-governing dependency of the U.K., and the British influence runs deep. Judges preside in wigs, everyone is mad for cricket, and the men really do walk around in shorts with socks pulled up to their knees. (Jim freaks out a businessman in Hamilton by stalking him for a photo.) The people can be polite to the point of stiff. Many of the supposedly finer restaurants ask that patrons wear coats and collared shirts--something I find hard to reconcile with a semitropical climate. In fact, I find it hard to reconcile the idea of wearing a coat on vacation at all.

Regardless of the recent increase in airlift, a lot of visitors come by sea. The cruise ships used to dock only in Hamilton and at St. George, a town at the northeast end of the island. But in recent years, ships have grown so large that Bermuda created another port in the west, at Royal Naval Dockyard.

St. George is the original settlement, with narrow streets and old buildings. Not much has changed since I was here 10 years ago, including the Bermuda National Trust Museum. It has a fascinating exhibit on the island's role in the U.S. Civil War. The Union was blockading Confederate ports, so big ships from Europe would sail to Bermuda, where the goods would be put on smaller, nimbler "runners" that tried to speed past the Union navy.

Outside downtown St. George is the Unfinished Cathedral, the skeleton of a Gothic church that never got built because of a lack of funds; it makes for fabulous photo ops. And 10 minutes away by taxi--"You're going for some local food, eh?" asks the driver--is Black Horse Tavern, which still has the best fried fish sandwich I've ever tasted.

As its name implies, the Royal Naval Dockyard is a former British naval base. The Brits started building it in 1809 and relinquished it only in 1951. The stonework--much of it done by slaves and convicts--is something to see. The Dockyard is now a full-on cruise ship port, with stalls selling souvenirs and the occasional band playing the dreaded "Kokomo."

Both the Dockyard and St. George feel, at least to me, like Boston's Faneuil Hall or New York's South Street Seaport--impressive reclamations more than living, breathing places. While Jim and I are walking around Dockyard, growing kind of bored, we notice a playground. "That's what I want!" I tell Jim, who looks at me like I've just declared a desire to hop like a bunny. I want to have fun, I explain. I want to have an adventure, I want to clamber around, I want to do anything but look at shops. We turn a corner or two, and come upon a yellow bus parked on the grass: It's the "office" for Segway Tours of Bermuda. I sign us up for two days later.

I try to keep that playground in my mind. It symbolizes what I crave in an island holiday. Nowadays, I spend most of my workweek behind my desk or in meetings. When I go away, I want fresh air and sunshine.

We also sign up for a snorkeling and kayaking tour off Elbow Beach, with Blue Water Divers & Water Sports. We're supposed to be interested in the shipwreck--and it's cool enough--but what I'll never forget are the thousands of jellyfish, 99 percent of which are harmless. They're hovering everywhere, at different depths, as far as we can see. Some are a foot wide; some are so tiny you're sure they're floating into your ears. It's indescribably beautiful, even if Jim gets stung in the lip by the other 1 percent.

That afternoon, we take a mammoth walk on the 22-mile-long Railway Trail. Once site of the island's train tracks, it's been turned into a path for joggers and bicyclists. For an hour or two, we walk and talk, looking at houses and the foliage and even a huge spider in its web; we laugh at a curious sign that says caution pee bump. (Someone vandalized away the s and the d, I guess.) Nine years ago, I didn't walk anywhere unless I had to, and I didn't admire much of anything. When you're 28, maybe you expect that you'll get to see every plant at some point in your life. I'm no longer so inclined to take such things for granted.

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