Travels & Traditions: Bermuda - #112

The islands of Bermuda. They are the coral-covered peaks of a mountain that came up from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean seventy million years ago.  Today Bermuda is a fashionable resort with some of the world’s most beautiful beaches... a land with more golf courses per square mile than any other country... It has a functional architecture that is unlike any other in the world...  and an underground that is just as interesting.  It’s an island filled with sports -- and shorts!  Not bad for a twenty-one square mile rock sitting in the Atlantic, about six hundred miles off the east coast of the United States.  So join me, Burt Wolf, for TRAVELS & TRADITIONS  in Bermuda.

The first visitor to Bermuda was Juan de Bermudez, who stopped by in 1503, left his name on a rock and moved on. The Spanish knew about Bermuda because it was the spot where their treasure ships made a right turn to head back to Spain. The first settlers were a group of English colonists who arrived in 1609. They were on their way to Jamestown, Virginia when a storm took them off course and blew them into the rocks of Bermuda.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Eventually Bermuda became an English colony off the coast of North America.  But for four hundred years it has been trying to balance its British history with its American geography.  It’s only six hundred miles from North America, but it is 3,500 miles from England.  And from the very beginning, North America has been its biggest trading partner. Even today the U.S. dollar and the Bermudian dollar are on a par, and used interchangeably.  But that is not true for the English pound.

 This is the town of St. George’s. It was the first capital of Bermuda and has retained much of its historic English atmosphere. 

TOWN CRIER:  Oyez!  On behalf of the Mayor, the aldermen and common counselors, we welcome all of our visitors to St. George’s -- the oldest continually-inhabited English-speaking town in the Western Hemisphere!  Now:  the Mayor has instructed me of putting you in the chair and ducking you five times or until you repent!

WENCH:  For what?  I’ve done nothing wrong, I’m telling you.  You’re confused.  The Mayor’s confused, all of you guys.

TOWN CRIER:  I’m confused?  We’ll see who’s confused.  All those in favor of ducking this obviously non-repentant gossiping, nagging wench, say AYE!


TOWN CRIER:  Step aside, come on --

WENCH:  I’m not getting wet today!

TOWN CRIER:  You’re not getting wet?  We’ll see --

WENCH:  No, I don’t wanna go in the water -- 

TOWN CRIER:  Raise her up!

WENCH:  No!  No!  Wait!  Wait wait wait!!! No no no!!!!  You’ve got the wrong person, I’m telling you!

TOWN CRIER:  You’ve been found guilty by a jury of your peers!

WENCH:  Oh, and look at the way they dress, like they can judge anything!

TOWN CRIER:  Excuse me, madam, excuse me.  These are our visitors, these are our guests.

WENCH:  I still wanna be pulled in and go home!  

TOWN CRIER:  You will be soon.

WENCH:  You guys, pull me in and I’ll take you over, we’ll buy a beer over at the Whitehorse --   No!  Don’t put me --




WENCH:  AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!   Okay, all right -- I confess it’s my fault --!

BURT WOLF:   Good, ‘cause I’m exhausted!

WENCH:  I’m very sorry, sir --


WENCH:  -- and I promise I won’t gossip about... anything...

TOWN CRIER:  Bring her in!  That’s enough.  Be off with you, woman!

WENCH:  Off with me?  

TOWN CRIER:  You wretched woman!

WENCH:  I know where you live!

TOWN CRIER:  The next one -- push her out --

SECOND WENCH:  Okay -- I say I’m guilty!  I’M GUILTY!!!

On a small island in front of the town is a full-sized replica of Deliverance.  Deliverance was the ship built by some of the original shipwrecked colonists who wanted to continue their journey to Virginia.

St. George’s was the second English town established in the New World. The local church is St. Peter’s, which is the oldest Anglican church in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. The altar was made of local Bermuda cedar in 1624. The triple-decker pulpit also dates from the 1600s. The vestry contains some of the most precious sacred vessels and rare silver in the western world... a Charles I chalice sent to Bermuda in 1625, a complete William of Orange communion set... and an Adams-period christening bowl. The British flag flies on one side of the church, the American flag on the other. Many of the headstones in the churchyard date back over three hundred years.  And right next to the church is a sweetshop called Temptations.  Their sign offers Heavenly Pies, Divine Hot Dogs, and Sinfully Delicious Ice Cream... the ice cream got me.

At the top of King Street you will find the State House, which is the oldest building in Bermuda. It dates back to 1620. The building was also used to store gunpowder, which did not please the members of the Assembly. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The governor, disregarding his own safety, agreed to store the powder in his home.  But when he found out that the Tucker family had stolen most of the powder from his home and sold it to General George Washington right smack in the middle of the American Revolution, he reconsidered and returned the powder to the State House -- storing it in the attic directly above the seats occupied by the Tucker family.  Nice touch.

As you travel around Bermuda you may notice that many people travel by motorscooter or bus rather than by car.  Bermuda banned all motor vehicles until the end of World War II.  And they are still not thrilled with automobiles. Today each family is allowed only one car, that’s it. There are no rental cars for tourists, but lots of taxis and the Bermuda bus system, which is very effective.  Many tourists rent motorscooters, which are easy to handle and lots of fun. The national speed limit of twenty miles per hour keeps the roads relatively safe. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The reefs outside the harbor of St. George’s always made the approach rather treacherous.  And as ships got bigger the problem became more pronounced.  In 1815 the government of Bermuda decided to move its capitol from St. George’s to Hamilton, which had a better harbor.  As a result, things in St. George’s got a lot quieter, and that’s one of the reasons they’ve been able to hold on to so much of their historic architecture. 

Bermuda architecture is one of the most interesting aspects of the community. The buildings are constructed with a design system that is unique to these islands. It is a response to the climate and the building materials that are found here in the middle of the Atlantic.  Vince Caan is a Bermuda taxi guide with a special interest in the local architecture.

VINCE CAAN:  The architecture in Bermuda is very unique.  The homes are very solid; there are no frame homes.  They’re made out of Bermuda stone, or concrete block in the modern day.  And we need that sort of structure to support our roofs, which -- we depend on rainwater from our roofs.  The roofs are made of Bermuda stone.  It’s cut into a slate; it’s about sixteen inches long and about a foot square and about an inch thick.  And it’s laid similar to the way you lay your shingles in America.  The roofs are painted with a lime wash, which is a lime powder you mix with water and it forms like a latex paint.  That helps to keep the water purified.  There’s a gutter incorporated into the roof, and it’s on a ten-to-thirty degree angle.  And the rainwater is caught from the roofs and goes down into the tank, and a pressurized pump system pumps it back through the house.  Every tank has a trap door, and the trap door by law must be on the exterior of the house.  And of course the Fire Department reserves the right of putting their hose in any tank.  They will replenish the water they take out -- so you don’t need hydrants.

Bermuda is noted for its pastel colors.  In the old days, that I can remember, you had two colors.  You had brick dust, and you mixed the brick dust with lime, which was white, and you got a pink.  So you’ll see multitudes of different shades of pink.  And the blue came from the old days, they used to put bluing in your white clothes, to whiten your clothes, so they used to crush that.  There used to be a blue cube, they used to crush it and mix it with the lime wash, and you got blue, pale blues.  So here we are in the modern day with computerized paint mixing, you got a variety of other colors.

These days the functioning commercial center of Bermuda is the city of Hamilton. For most visitors the primary attraction is shopping along Front Street. The older stores have been here for at least a hundred years. There are dozens of good shops selling everything from old maps to new paintings. Your best buys will usually be goods of British or Bermudian origin -- local arts and crafts, English cashmeres, linens, and fine china. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): These days, with internet commerce and competitive pricing, it’s pretty hard to be sure whether you’re getting the best price, unless you make a list of the things you’re interested in at home, mark down the prices and do a comparison when you get here.  Personally, my travel-related shopping is not based on price, but on bringing things home that remind me of the good time I had on the trip.

If you’re going to drop someone a card or a letter, it’s interesting to do it from Perot’s Post Office.  Perot was Bermuda’s first postmaster, appointed in 1821. His post office has much of its original feeling. You can sit on one of the high stools and write your card on the old desk.

A few blocks away from the post office is the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity. It is a blend of Gothic and Middle English architecture and constructed of local limestone and imported English stones. The pews are made of American oak. The prayer cushions are all handmade.  It’s traditional to have kneeling cushions in an Anglican church, but the idea of having each cushion made by hand to commemorate some aspect of Bermudian culture is unique.  In front of the altar is a set depicting the flowers of the island.  Others are traditional Christian symbols.  And some represent family memories.

Down the road from the cathedral is the Sessions House. The Parliament of Bermuda first met in 1620, which makes it the oldest parliament in the British Commonwealth, and the third oldest in the world, after Iceland and Great Britain.

At the edge of Hamilton’s waterfront you will find the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, a reminder that Bermuda is one of the world’s most important yachting centers, and host to thousands of visiting boats, as well as some of the Atlantic’s great races. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Competitive sailing got started in Bermuda during the early 1800s, when work boats were refitted for racing and British naval officers took up the sport. The most famous class here is called a Bermuda Fitted Dinghy.  It’s fourteen feet long, it’s open, but it carries enough sail to move a boat four times its size... which is a little like putting a jet engine on a skateboard.

As you walk around Hamilton you will see gentlemen going about in jackets and ties and shorts. Bermuda shorts are an accepted form of dress. They were originally based on the shorts worn by British troops stationed in Bermuda during the early years of the twentieth century. They are considered a most dignified form of attire for men and completely acceptable at all business meetings.

Today tourism is responsible for over sixty percent of Bermuda’s income, which is essential for maintaining an economy that is based on imports. Accordingly, the government of Bermuda has taken a deep interest in managing tourism and, unlike many destinations, they are more interested in quality than quantity. Over forty percent of Bermuda’s tourists are repeat visitors. The government wants new visitors but they also want everyone to come back, a traditional British approach to quality and continuity.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The government of Bermuda has set up a number of programs to make your stay as enjoyable as possible.  Each day there’s some public event going on designed to give you an insight into the history and culture of Bermuda.  Example:  on Mondays from November to March at noon you can come up to Fort Hamilton and see the skirling ceremony.

Bermuda is the northernmost coral island group in the world and sits on a two hundred square mile coral plateau, an area that is ten times the size of Bermuda itself. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The clear waters are filled with marine life and over four hundred identified shipwrecks, ranging from a Spanish treasure galleon to a Civil War blockade-runner.  Over the years Bermuda has become one of the world’s top destinations for wreck-diving, both snorkel and scuba.

For the easiest insight to Bermuda’s sealife you can stop into the Bermuda Aquarium. Their tanks are filled with local sealife and there’s a fascinating exhibit on coral. You can pick up a sound stick and listen to a tank-to-tank commentary. 

COMMENTARY (over headphone):  “The unfiltered water which is pumped into our displays is teeming with tiny larvae...”

Not quite the experience of a hundred-foot dive, but not bad.  And very convenient if you are with children.

  Another adventure made easy would be a visit to the Crystal Caves, with Maurice Ming.

MAURICE MING:  The key word we have to remember when going through these caves, the word is “imagination.”  That is due to the fact that the formations you’ll see and notice down below, they have taken on different shapes.  That’s the key word, “Imagination.”  Now, using your imagination, just look at the reflection on the pool back down there.  It looks like the New York City skyline, or the island of Manhattan.

BURT WOLF:   That’s right!  There’s Central Park --

MAURICE MING:  -- Central Park --

BURT WOLF:   there’s my apartment, there’s the kids’ school -- fabulous!

MAURICE MING:  You’re right at home!  Now, this archway formation we’re going through right here, it looks like church organ pipes.

BURT WOLF:   Can I touch one?


BURT WOLF:   It’s like soap.  Wax.

MAURICE MING:  Limestone rock is the same rock that marble is made from.  You can see how smooth it is?  For marble, the limestone rock, they put it through a process to get it that smooth -- this is nature has done its own job.  The water that you see inside this cave, it is salt water, this is part of the Atlantic Ocean.  There is no kind of marine life living in these waters, there is no vegetation growing in here.  And the reason that is is because there’s no sunlight that comes through here.  And that is why the cave is named “Crystal Caves,” because of the clarity of the water.  Notice coming through, you’re gonna feel some water dripping on you, coming through here?

BURT WOLF:   Yes, I did, actually --

MAURICE MING:  Let me explain.  It’s rainwater.  We’re talking from five to six months ago.  The reason it takes that long to reach down inside of here, the rainwater has to come through rock.  That rock is limestone rock; it’s a porous rock.  Now, once the rainwater does come through, and it reaches down inside this cave, what it does, it leaves a deposit behind.  The shape of all these formations is calcium carbonate.  These formations take one hundred years for one cubic inch for them to grow.  That’s about five centimetres every hundred years.  Now, look at this formation right here in front of us, I’ll explain this to you.  From the top, they’re known as stalactites, from the base, stalagmites.  Once they connect, they form a column.

BURT WOLF:   That stalactite is just about to touch that stalagmite.  

MAURICE MING:  True.  There’s a few thousand years in between there.

BURT WOLF:   A few thousand.  So we come back in a couple of thousand years, they’ll be touched up?

MAURICE MING:  We’ll both be in good shape by that time.

BURT WOLF:   Exercise and diet, that’s it.

MAURICE MING:  That will do it.

Besides sailing, snorkeling, scuba diving and spelunking -- a word which means “exploring in caves” --  Bermuda is an excellent place for tennis, which was imported along with other English traditions. There are about a hundred tennis courts on the island and it’s not difficult to find a game. 

Bermuda is also a great spot for golfers. The island has more golf courses per square mile than any other nation in the world. The fact that they are all on a small island has resulted in some challenging terrain. And some magnificent views. 

Every year around Easter time, you can experience another of the great sports in Bermuda -- kite-flying.  Many of them are handmade.  Al Seymour, Jr. is an expert on Bermuda kites, and teaches a class at the Southhampton Glebe School.

BURT WOLF:   Okay... I’ve got this right, now?


BURT WOLF:   Good grip?

KIDS:  Yeah...

BURT WOLF:   And then I just push it up?

KIDS:  Yes.

BURT WOLF:   Okay, if I get it wrong, don’t laugh.  Too loudly.

AL SEYMOUR JR:  When I say “go,” you just push it up, okay?  Let it go!  Let it go now!

BURT WOLF:   Come on, let’s fly it!

AL SEYMOUR JR:  Well, the Chinese used to make hummers and stuff on their kites to frighten off people and -- I mean, it goes way back, thousands of years.  Put it right up to your ear, the string to your ear, you can hear it buzzing.  Press it a little bit, maybe --

BURT WOLF:   Oh, yeah!  I think it’s for you.  


BURT WOLF:   Boy, quite a pull, too.

If you’re in Bermuda on Good Friday you will see an amazing display of kite flying. Thousands of kites head up into the sky.

AL SEYMOUR JR:  I think it began here when -- well, legend has it that a Sunday school teacher was trying to explain to some children how Christ ascended in His resurrection.  So she took a kite on a Bermuda hill, flew it to demonstrate and then literally cut the string and watched it drift away to sort of symbolize the event.

BURT WOLF:   It’s a great piece of symbolism.


And of course, Bermuda has some of the world’s most beautiful beaches.  Along the south shore, Warwick Long Bay is the perfect spot for a stroll as the morning sun comes up over the horizon.  Jobson’s Cove is no more than thirty yards wide and protected from the open sea by a rock formation.  As beautiful and romantic a spot as you could wish for.  At the Mid-Ocean Club Beach you will find the Natural Arches, formed in limestone by the erosion of the sea.  At the moment these are the only significant arches on Bermuda, the government having legislated against the introduction of a McDonald’s franchise.  Elbow Beach runs along the southern side of the island and is considered to be the longest and one of the most picturesque. Elbow Beach is also the location and the name of one of the island’s most distinctive hotels.

The Elbow Beach Hotel was originally constructed in 1908 as a simple guest cottage. And there are still many guest cottages on the property. They’re spread out over fifty-five acres of landscaped grounds.  Sub-tropical flora... exotic plants... and manicured lawns, all of which  look out on a mile-long private pastel pink beach. And beyond the beach, a reef with a sunken ship that lies at a depth of sixty feet and can be accessed by Zodiac or from a shore dive.  Up on the hill is a 244-room deluxe hotel.  Six nights each week my old pal Erskine Phillips plays the piano. 

One of the things that makes Elbow Beach unusual is that it actually operates two properties at the same location. One is the group of traditional Bermudian cottages. The other is the main hotel. There’s a full-sized climate-controlled, fresh-water pool... tennis courts... water sports... and an arrangement with a local golf course that can confirm a guaranteed tee time up to one year in advance.  The Elbow Beach also has an excellent restaurant called the Seahorse Grill.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Let’s face it. England has not had an outstanding history when it comes to great food. Holding a large animal over a big fire was the basic recipe for hundreds of years. Fortunately British gastronomic tradition has not had a great influence in Bermuda. The cooking here is international techniques combined with local and imported ingredients.  And because it’s an island, fish is often the first choice. 

Traditional dishes include fish chowders seasoned with Outerbridge’s Sherry Pepper Sauce... mussel pie... Bermuda lobster... Sunday morning breakfast with codfish and potatoes... cassava pie at Christmas... and a glass of “dark and stormy”... dark rum and ginger beer.

Executive Chef  Neville King at the Elbow Beach has developed a contemporary Bermudian cuisine; he starts with a Bermuda fish chowder.  Pieces of grouper and whitefish have been simmered together to make a rich stock, to which tomato paste is added and brought to a boil. Onions, carrots, leeks, celery, tomatoes and potatoes go in and are cooked until tender. Herbs and Worcestershire sauce are added... a garnish of parsley and the chowder is ready to serve.

Dessert is a banana bread pudding.  Neville starts by cutting banana bread into slices... fanning the slices into a heat-proof bowl... and pouring on a vanilla pudding called a crème anglaise. The banana bread slices are pushed down so the pudding liquid soaks in.  That’s baked for about an hour in a 375-degree Fahrenheit oven.

The pudding is served with a loquat liqueur sauce. Loquat is a local plum with a fleshy skin.  A good substitute for the loquat liqueur would be Amaretto.  A culinary celebration of Bermuda.

And finally there is the Gombey celebration. The word “Gombey” comes from the Bantu dialect of Africa and refers to a particular type of drum.  But it also means “rhythm.” Gombey dancing is a traditional part of Bermudian culture, a blend of West African dance, British Mummers, and military music, with a touch of Native American Indian. The group usually consists of men from the same family who pass on their style from generation to generation. There are similar traditions in many parts of the New World, from New Orleans to Rio, but only the Bermudian Gombey utilizes sticks to play the drums. Throughout most of the winter you will be able to find at least one Gombey troop in action.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that’s a brief look at Bermuda:  British history, American geography... a vacation experience that you will not find anywhere else in the world.  No neon signs. No billboards. No fast food. No superhighways. Just super people. I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip and I hope you will join us next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS . I’m Burt Wolf.