Travels & Traditions: Islands of Bermuda - #902

BURT WOLF: On June 23rd 1609, an English ship carrying colonists to Virginia encountered a storm. A storm that sent it crashing into an ocean reef. The ship, named the Sea Venture was about 600 miles off the coast of North Carolina.

But the reefs that they hit were not just any reefs; they were the reefs surrounding Bermuda.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And the 150 people who made it to shore safely became Bermuda’s first settlers. Wasn’t where they intended to end up but in many ways it was better.

BURT WOLF: The islands of Bermuda are the result of a volcanic eruption that took place about 70 million years ago. It sent up a three mile high needle of rock that topped out just below the surface of the water. The rock was in the middle of the Gulf Stream which comes up from the Caribbean and keeps the waters warm throughout the year. The warm water attracted coral life and over the centuries the rock was covered with the compressed shells that formed the 250 foot thick limestone cap that is now Bermuda. The pinkness of the shells produced Bermuda’s famous pink beaches.

Bermuda is a member of the British Commonwealth, but England is 3,500 miles away. United States a mere 600. Bermuda looks to England for its culture but its biggest trading partner is the United States and even today its currency, the Bermuda dollar is on a par and used interchangeably with the U.S. dollar. Bermuda was founded by Europeans but 60 percent of its present population descended from African slaves. Diverse elements, but somehow Bermuda has been able to blend them together. And in many ways they have done a better job than most nations faced with similar histories. The net result is one of the most beautiful, interesting and hospitable resorts in the world.


BURT WOLF: The capital city of Bermuda is Hamilton.

Hamilton has plenty of taxis. And the amount of truck traffic you’d expect for a town with 2,000 inhabitants, but not many cars.

Bermuda actually has a long history of opposing automobiles. The government only allowed them in after the Second World War. Even today, each family is limited to one car per resident and the maximum speed is 20 miles per hour.

As a result, the primary mode of transportation is the motor scooter. And that’s true for many tourists as well as residents.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ah, it’s biker time.

BURT WOLF: Motor scooters are easy to rent.


JASON NESS ON CAMERA: Afternoon, how you doing?

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I’m doing fine, how are you?


BURT WOLF: Everyone gets an introductory lesson, and a helmet that must be worn.

JASON NESS ON CAMERA: Does it fit okay?

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Perfect. Alright.

JASON NESS ON CAMERA: First things first here, push the bike forward to take it off the kickstand.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Push the bike forward to take it off the kickstand, right.

JASON NESS ON CAMERA: Step down, lift back to put it back on.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: That’s it? I can do this.

JASON NESS ON CAMERA: That’s—yeah, there’s more to it though.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Oh, hold on, hold on, hold on.

JASON NESS ON CAMERA: To start the bike, key in the ignition, turn it to the right, squeeze both breaks. Headlights are over here, high and low beam, turn signals. And remember you do have to cancel them by pushing that in.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: You have to cancel by turning it off.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I like the horn.

JASON NESS ON CAMERA: That’s just the Bermuda greeting. If you hear anybody honking at you, they’re just saying hi.


JASON NESS ON CAMERA: We drive on the left here. That’s probably the most important thing for you to remember.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Okay. I’m ready.




BURT WOLF: And a reminder that Bermudian drivers are very polite and you are expected to follow suit. Hamilton contains the island’s major shopping area which is Front Street West. It runs along the harbor and consists of a series of three story buildings filled with shops and restaurants.

PHOTOGRAPHER ON CAMERA: Hey Mike, think honeymoon!

MIKE ON CAMERA: Honeymoon, you bet!


BURT WOLF: These are the Royal Naval Dockyards of Bermuda—a huge military fortress that was built by the British Navy in the late 1700s, and for good reason.

When the United States won the War of Independence against England, the British Navy lost its ports along the east coast of North America. The young American Navy was quite aggressive and England began to feel insecure about its position as ruler of the seas. This fort made them feel a little more confident about their situation.

ADMIRAL BRYAN DARBY ON CAMERA: My name is Bryan Darby, I am the Admiral of Dockyard and I represent a man called Admiral Richard Coburn. Basically you’re looking at a Victorian Dockyard; it’s only 200 years old. It was built by convicts. Sadly we had to bring 8000 convicts out from England, and they turned this fortress into what was called the Gibraltar of the West. And the reason for it was because Britain was losing control of the world to America. So if you’ll follow me, this a’ way.

This building here is a warehouse, but the top corner there is, in fact, the Dockyard church. They forgot to put a church in the plans when they built it, and found a very strong demand for a church around about 1850, so they gave them the top half of this building and they turned it into a Victorian church with about capacity for about 600 people. When 1938 came around, many years later, my father—my real father—was sent out from England to be the Chaplin of the Dockyard and run this church. And they turned this into the only interdenominational church in the history of the British navy. Sounds nice to us, doesn’t it? 

Unfortunately, it was against orders. So my dad was cashiered and sent back to England in disgrace, but he’d had the good sense to have me born before he did that. Many, many, years later the Queen of England gave him the OBE, which is the Order of the British Empire or Other Buggers Efforts I think they call it. Anyhow, he was quite pleased to get it, but he didn’t know why until they sent him his papers from his navy days and across the Bermuda page someone had written in ink, “When this chap retires give him a gong for what he did for the young men.” So thank you, Dad.

These buildings here were built by the navy for their offices. As you may see: small rooms, no ventilation, roofs made of lead. But the lead on the roof was dynamite. We drink the water off our roofs and that was dumb. But we never thought to ask. I don’t know what it is about the British.

This is called the four-face liar. I don’t have to tell you why, do I? It never tells the right time. Never.

And there’s my ship. Come and look at this beautiful boat. I give you The Spirit of Bermuda. What a lovely name for a ship. If you look at those masts, they had a rig called the Bermuda Rig. All the other ships of the day had square riggers, they were tall ships. We invented

the Bermuda rig, and that’s a sloop rig—and it goes much, much faster. So put 35 guns on a small boat like that and you’re quite a force to be reckoned with. This way please.

This is called a sheer leg crane. We had to have a crane in the dockyards. Out in the mail came these two sockets. And they said and now you get a 110-foot length of Canadian spruce, and you stick them in the holes, bring it up to the top, put a rope on top, with lovely winches and stays and what have you. When your ship comes in, you lower this enormous great structure over the ship and you pluck out the guns, and the cargo and the masts at will. Wonderful in theory. In practice, it weighed 43 tons. And sometimes the weight of the cargo overwhelmed the strength of the winch. It’s the only crane in history to have sunk three warships. Straight through the bottom. So they took it away. Isn’t that sad? Sad.

So you’re in a very interesting country, a very interesting island, and a most interesting spot in the world is Bermuda. Dockyard is the number one tourist attraction, and I am very pleased you are here today. Thank you very much indeed.


BURT WOLF: St. George’s was the original capital of Bermuda. And the second English town established in the New World. And much of its old English atmosphere survives.

The local church, St. Peter’s, is the oldest Anglican Church in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.

Across the road is the State House, which is the oldest building in Bermuda. Dates back to 1620.

The Bermuda Perfumery was founded in 1928, when the gardens were coming into their own and traditions were being established. To this day each bottle continues to be filled by the dedicated staff. They manufacture perfumes with the best ingredients from around the world.

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.

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

VINCE CAAN ON CAMERA: 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.


BURT WOLF: The Bermuda Natural History Society was founded in 1901 with specific instructions to find out what was happening in the waters around Bermuda. Since then it has expanded into the Bermuda Aquarium, Natural History Museum, and Zoo.

Today its home to over 100 species of fish, plus an interesting selection of golden lion tamarin monkeys, scarlet ivis, giant tortoises, and children fascinated by the exhibits.

Doctor Ian Walker is the curator of the Bermuda Aquarium and Zoo.

DR. IAN WALKER: That’s one of our golden lion tamarin monkeys. So we have three in this exhibit that run free.

DR. IAN WALKER ON CAMERA: And, they are very curious little monkeys, and they love to come up to visitors. But they’re absolutely beautiful. And I can say we have three in this exhibit, we have two males and one female.


DR. IAN WALKER: There we are. There we have Rosiette the spoonbill.

BURT WOLF: Spoonbill.

DR. IAN WALKER: Spoonbill. Named obviously from the shape of their beak. They’ll stick their bill in the water and…

BURT WOLF: Suck up everything they can?

DR. IAN WALKER: That’s right

DR. IAN WALKER ON CAMERA: This is our 148,000 gallon North Rock exhibit tank.

DR. IAN WALKER: And it’s uh designed to exhibit the most northerly coral reef system in the world—which is uh the North Rock—about eight miles North of here.

DR. IAN WALKER ON CAMERA: But we have a whole bunch of different fish in the tank and one of our favorites is Darth Vader, the black Grouper. He likes to come over and be petted.

Have you ever petted a grouper?


DR. IAN WALKER ON CAMERA: Would you like to?


DR. IAN WALKER: This is actually a natural behavior for them—not actually necessarily coming up to humans.

DR. IAN WALKER ON CAMERA: but posturing like this to be cleaned. So he’ll come up, and uh ordinarily in the reef fish like this would go into a sea frond or something like that. And they would just posture which would indicate that the other fish were safe to approach them and pick little bits of skin; you name it, off them. Give them a good cleaning. So--

BURT WOLF: It’s a spa treatment.

IAN WALKER: Exactly.

BURT WOLF: Darth, see ya around!


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The two great spectator sports in Bermuda are: Soccer and Cricket.

Ah, soccer is pretty easy to follow. You kick the ball or butt it with your head and try to get it into a netted area at the end of the field and the opposing team tries to stop you.

Cricket, on the other hand, is very British and a little complicated and—I’ll have to get back to you on that.

BURT WOLF: The four primary participatory sports are:

Golf, tennis, kite flying and sailing.

Bermuda has more golf courses per square mile than any other country. And the first time the PGA Grand Slam of Golf was held outside of the United States it was held at the Mid-Ocean Golf Club in Bermuda. The beauty of the Tucker Point Club is a perfect example of why golf is so popular.

Tennis is a big deal in Bermuda too. There are over 400 courts on the island.

Kites are made and flown throughout the year and there are experts available who will help you build a kite and teach you or reacquaint you with the proper techniques.

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 boat used to train the youngest sailors is called an Optimist. It was designed in 1947 for a men’s club called The Optimists. They wanted to start the sailing equivalent of a child’s soap box derby. Today, 150,000 young sailors train on Optimists and the training appears to work – 70% of the sailors who have won gold medals in the Olympics started out in an Optimist.

Every two years, in the middle of June, over 180 sail boats gather together in Newport Rhode Island to take part in the Newport Bermuda Race. For over 100 years sail boats have assembled here to begin a race that takes them across 635 miles of ocean --- ocean known for challenging weather, strong currents and the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream is a series a powerful currents that act almost like a separate river in the middle of the ocean. It has the power to decide where your boat will be going without prior consultation with your crew. The fleet is divided into five divisions to allow boats of various sizes and designs to compete fairly in what is one of the world’s most famous and aggressive ocean races. The race ends in Bermuda with the kind of celebration that is traditional for Bermudians.


BURT WOLF: During the 1600s, the primary source of great wealth to plantation owners in the Caribbean, was sugar. A bi-product of refining sugar was molasses and a bi-product of processing molasses was rum.

In Bermuda the Gosling family has been making rum since 1863. The first Gosling arrived in Bermuda in much the same way as the original settlers. He was headed to the United States and weather forced the ship into Bermuda. And like the first settlers, 200 years before, he decided to stay.

Today Gosling’s is the largest exporter of a Bermuda made product.


BURT WOLF: Bermuda has hundreds of restaurants catering to many different tastes.

One is the Sunday morning breakfast specialty of codfish and potatoes served with boiled egg, sautéed onions, tomato sauce with more onions, a Johnny Cake, a banana, a slice of avocado and a piece of cassava pie. It’s a specialty.

There are restaurants that are known for their local dishes like Bermuda Fish Chowder topped with Sherry Pepper Sauce and Black Rum.

There are chefs that prepare the classic recipes of France like the traditional onion soup.

There are bistros doing an excellent job with seafood, including spiny lobster.

There are restaurants that cater primarily to locals and can be fun to visit.

And finally, there are British-inspired pubs serving traditional pub grub of bangers and mash.

And of course you must stop in for high tea.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Afternoon tea got started in Britain during the 1840s when the 7th Duchess of Bedford, who also held the title of Lady of the Bed Chamber, decided that she was getting hungry between lunch and dinner and wanted to have a little snack—which she took secretly in her bed chamber, and consisted of tea and some little bread and butter sandwiches. Eventually her friends heard about it, and it turned into an afternoon tea party, which became common amongst the British all over the world.


BURT WOLF: In 1883, Princess Louise, who was the daughter of England’s Queen Victoria and the wife of the Governor General of Canada, spent her winter holiday in Bermuda. Putting aside the question of why a princess needs a holiday in the first place, her visit was covered by all the socially important magazines and newspapers in England, Canada and the United States. Suddenly, Bermuda was fashionable and local developers began developing a suitable hotel.

On January 1st, 1885, just two years after the visit by Princess Louise, The Fairmont Hamilton Princess welcomed its first guests. The idea was to have a hotel in Bermuda that was so luxurious that it would attract people who normally vacationed in Palm Beach.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The hotel was the place—flattering gas lights in each room, five-inch mirrors on the dressing tables so you could see how good you looked in the flattering gas lights, hot and cold running water in the bathrooms—amazing stuff for the time. Cruise ships began bringing in guests from the East Coast of the United States and the hotel became famous.

BURT WOLF: These days the Fairmont Hamilton Princess is in better shape than ever. It overlooks Hamilton Harbor and remains a center for social and business gatherings.

For a number of years, The Hamilton Princess has had a younger sibling, The Fairmont Southampton. The Southampton sits on top of one of the highest hills in Bermuda. Each guest room has its own private balcony and most have panoramic views of the island. It has its own 18-hole executive par-3 golf course.

Spas are a big deal in Bermuda and Southampton’s Willow Stream Spa is a perfect example. It has 31,000 square feet of facilities, including 15 private treatment rooms, three lounge areas, a private indoor pool and separate men’s and women’s saunas. There’s a heated indoor pool with a waterfall and gardens, and two outdoor Jacuzzis on a sundeck overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

The two hotels run as a team. All the facilities at each hotel are available to guests no matter which hotel they are staying at. And there’s a private ferry that takes you between the two properties. Princess Louise would have loved it.

Today, tourism is responsible for over half of Bermuda’s income, which makes it an essential part of an economy that imports almost everything. The government is constantly active in managing Bermuda tourism, and its primary interest is in quality rather than quantity. Over forty percent of Bermuda’s tourists are repeat visitors and the government wants to keep it that way.

That’s Travels & Traditions in Bermuda. I’m Burt Wolf.