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Unexpected Bermuda

Hamilton Princess and Beach Club

Hamilton Princess and Beach Club

A brilliantly white building, once a factory that processed starchy arrowroot, stands in the lush botanical garden just outside Hamilton, Bermuda’s pastel capital. Inside the 18th-century edifice, tableaux of majestic banyan trees by Georgia O’Keeffe await.

“Many visitors are pleasantly surprised,” says Tom Butterfield, the founder of the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art, who many credit for awakening an interest in the island’s artsy heritage. “The cultural life in Bermuda has become so vibrant.”

Of course, most travelers come to Bermuda in search of relaxation. Before O’Keeffe became celebrated for her floral paintings from the American Southwest, she, too, came here to recuperate from her devastating depression. On this island in the Atlantic, she made black-and-white drawings of Banyan trees and banana fruit—a stark departure from her brilliant floral paintings. Today, the 16,000-square-foot museum houses a unique collection of art about Bermuda that highlights the rich topography and lush fauna of the island as interpreted by artists such as Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth and Charles Demuth.

Indeed, Bermuda is no doubt scenic, just as these painters portrayed. But scratch the surface and you’ll see that there’s much more to the Atlantic isle than its beauty.

For one, despite its prim-and-proper reputation, this British overseas territory has a zany sense of humor. The annual Non-Mariners’ Race pits locals against one another as they build the shoddiest vessels to see who can sink the fastest, with proceeds going to charity. And if that’s not enough to convince you that the island doesn’t always take itself too seriously—well, just look at those iconic, colorful shorts that even the most earnest bankers wear with their ties and knee-high socks.

Conservation is another example of Bermuda’s depth. Not just eye candy, the 21-square-mile island’s cottages have practiced sustainable water use for centuries by catching rainwater on their grooved white roofs. As I traverse the island along a former railway repurposed as a bicycle path, it occurs to me that Bermudians, hundreds of miles away from their closest neighbors, have been self-reliant since the first human settlement in the early 17th century.

“We depend on immediate circumstances,” says Philippe Rouja, a maritime anthropologist who serves as Bermuda’s Custodian of Historic Wrecks. “If you’re actively involved in your environment, you know what’s needed.”

Rouja is proud to point out that Bermuda’s 1620 legislation against killing nesting turtles might be the world’s first written conservation law. Through nonprofit organizations such as the Sargasso Sea Commission promoting the importance of the wider region’s ecological health, Bermuda continues its tradition of pioneering environment protection.

What do these environmental efforts mean for visitors? For one, as you splash away from the island’s famed pink sand, curious parrotfish and angelfish will greet you in the translucent waters. You might glide by baby green turtles and hawksbills that graze on the island’s shimmering seagrass meadows. If Bermuda shines in the sun, it turns out to be even lovelier underwater.

Culture and nature intersect in the water. Take, for instance, Bermuda’s shipwrecks at reef breaks, where marine life thrives. Even if you can’t dive into a wreck yourself, you can visit the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute’s Ocean Discovery Center exhibits. Among the eclectic assortment of artifacts on view are a 1930s replica bathysphere (a metal vessel made for underwater exploration) and an 18th-century faience vase from France—which is to say, this place has been at the crossroads of commerce for a long time.

Of particular urgency is a more than 7,000-year-old cedar root recovered from a 30-foot-deep seabed. While the scum line at Bermuda’s Royal Naval Dockyard is evidence that the sea level has risen 16 inches over 130 years, the cedar root shows evidence of that trend over a longer period of time: more than 30 feet over about 7,300 years. Isolated yet thriving, Bermuda has proven how human survival depends on conservation—a skill more vital to the world than ever.

Where to Eat

Grab a fried-fish sandwich from Art Mel’s Spicy Dicy, an immensely popular takeout joint on St. Monica’s Road in Hamilton. Or head to Marcus Samuelsson’s upscale eatery, Marcus’, and enjoy the harbor views along with the standout jerk pork and fish chowder bites. At The Flame Restaurant, a family-run place with a seaside terrace, unpretentious home cooking such as pan-fried fresh catch is a sure-fire draw.

Where to Stay

A classic in the capital, the Hamilton Princess & Beach Club keeps things fresh with additions like Twizy, an electric car available for guests to use. Across the harbor from Hamilton, the Newstead Belmont Hills Golf Resort & Spa is a 45-suite getaway that offers an infinity pool and plenty of tropical tranquility.  

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