Saturday, October 13, 2007

Bermuda: vaguely cheesy rejected competition entry

Sitting alone in the western Atlantic, looking as remote and pristine as the pirate refuge they once were, the Bermudian islands shimmer unexpectedly outside my plane window. There are stereotypical pictures of lush Caribbean tropics, the colonial Eastern seaboard of the US, and maybe a cereal packet cartoon of an island appearing in my flight-dazed head, but I'm just guessing at what my destination is going to be like. Such are the times of the super-cheap airline traveller, arriving at a destination with only a friend's invitation and some token snippets of local lingo to go by.

In this glorious stupor, I step out into the beautiful sunshine and don my aviators as the two-piece airport reggae band stir some life back into my soul. Perhaps this was a mistake as my look seems sufficiently contraband-esque to get me ushered into the "search" queue. In a slightly unfamiliar lilting accent, the customs lady excuses herself with a raised eyebrow. When she doesn't return for a while nervous thoughts of hands snapping on rubber gloves begin to come to mind. However, after a cursory glance at my stuff and discussing the heat and the mosquitoes at this time of year, she waves me through saying "you should come back in June-July time when it's reaaaal HAT!" She's my first taste of the famously chilled out Bermudian people who very often bear out the the national slogan: "feel the love".

Without giving me time to change out of my jeans and shoes, my girlfriend drives me to Horseshoe Bay, situated in Southampton Parish on the South shore. We cross the bridge over to the main island, driving past bays lined with immaculate white-roofed houses, designed to capture water, with walls of bright pastel colours. I find myself surprised by how bustling the streets feel, particularly the dense population of Peugeot cars and kids pulling tricks on scooters, but what was I expecting - a handful of wayward seamen and a fishing boat? Our destination is a lengthy stretch of sand, tinged slightly pink from crushed shells, flanked by dark rocks and palm trees on either side. The water is the blue of Bombay Sapphire gin bottles, melting into darker shades out towards the reef which surrounds the whole island. In high season it can get packed out by both locals and tourists here, and it's easy to see why, but we have it almost to ourselves this week in early September. Looking out to sea one gets the impression of an unending expanse of ocean and cloud, perhaps the same as those first Spaniards did when they were marooned here in the mid 16th century.

It was the Spaniards who first nicknamed this place 'Islas Demonios' due to the frequency of wrecks occurring as they sailed from the Americas to the Azores and Spain. One unknown sailor carved the date 1543 into a rock, which is the earliest known habitation of Bermuda. Later on, in the early 17th Century, the British began to settle on the islands lead by Admiral Sir George Somers of the Virginia Company, and with them they brought African and Native American slaves. This colonial history is a strong presence around the island, particularly in spots like Fort St Catherine, standing guard against the east, and nowhere more than in St George's - a beautiful historic town with cobbled streets and the striking oddity of Unfinished Church at the north end of Kent St. There are equally unmistakable aspects to modern Bermudian culture also, one of which one can't help but notice on a first visit to Hamilton. This is the distinctive men's formal dress consisting of shorts - typically in the trademark pink, green, or blue colours - worn with socks pulled up to just below knee level. It may surprise Brits to see locals observing familiar customs such as afternoon tea following the cricket or calling one another mate. The epitome of Bermudian culture, however, can be found any weekday between 5am and 10am standing on Crow Lane roundabout, just outside Hamilton city limits. He is Johnny Barnes, an octogenarian retired bus-driver who greets commuters with open arms every morning calling out "I love you", he is sometimes called Bermuda's "goodwill ambassador". In this country where the Queen of England is minted onto the back of their quarter dollar, one feels closer to the US geographically and economically, there are some strong cultural hints of the commonwealth, yet its charm is truly all its own.

For recreation outside of lying on the beach - which could easily take up a whole holiday or more - there is a wealth of nautical activities available. The sailing is fantastic with winds often high and seas inside the reef remarkably calm. On the flip side, good surfing is rare although the odd swell may appear on the tail of hurricanes. The reef, which is the world's most northerly, is home to many species of fish, turtles, sharks, and of course an abundance of shipwrecks, which makes for some intriguing scuba diving and possibly even bounty hunting. At night, there is a great variety of bars, pubs and restaurants which should not be missed. I had excellent American, Japanese sushi, and Jamaican jerk food and the seafood in particular is often excellent. Try out local black rum cocktails with foreboding names like dark n' stormy, after a couple of which you may well find yourself "full hot". If you want to keep the party going till late, there is a thriving reggae, r'n'b and hip-hop scene, which has been boosted by the recent success of the homegrown artist Collie Buddz. I caught "Nuff Love" mini festival at Somerset Cricket Club where the crowd consisted of everyone from the elderly and well dressed, young hip-hop crews, rastas, and the very young falling asleep in their mothers' arms. Local artists C'Danger and Troy Anthony drew much applause, while big-time Jamaican acts Gyptian, Alaine, and the legendary Buju Banton had everyone skanking till 3am. Driving home from "Nuff Love" we stopped at a small bay for some night swimming. The water was very calm and as we jumped in the phosphorescent plankton lit up making an illuminated trail behind us. This is certainly one of the best sobering-up experiences available in the world.

As I leave Bermuda behind, a flare of colour in this vast blue backdrop, I wonder why I didn't book myself another week's stay.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

i let you get changed!! xxx

11:24 PM  

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