Bermuda is home to one of the strangest statues I’ve seen. On the shoulder of a busy roundabout stands a bronzed bearded man in a hat, six-and-a-half-feet tall, with a smile on his face and both arms raised, like he’s waving both hands or running to embrace one of the passing cars.
We passed the statue in a cab on the way to Front Street, the main nightlife and shopping area on the island (more on that in a minute). Our driver explained that he was a bus driver and about 25 years ago he retired, didn’t have anything to do with himself, so came out here and just started smiling and waving at cars all day. He became sort a local hero and the government had that statue made of him. But it wasn’t a memorial made to a beloved figure who has passed away—Barnes is still alive and waving, just a few feet from his statue on most days.
Johnny Barnes is a fitting hero for Bermuda, which has the laid-back feel of retirement, or at least a long vacation, but at the same time energizes anyone that has the pleasure of spending some time there. It also boasts some of the friendliest and most fun locals you’ll have the pleasure of partying with.
That’s true throughout the year. My girlfriend Jenn and I visited the island in January, right in the middle of its off-season. While the temperature wasn’t as high as it gets during the summer, the skies were clear, the water was supernaturally blue, and the pink sandy beaches were more beautiful and serene than they could possibly be during the busy season.
We stayed at the Mandarin Oriental Elbow Beach, which last year spent $5.5 million converting from a sprawling, 235-room resort to something closer to a luxury boutique hotel, with 98 guestrooms and cottage suites. The repositioning came in response to the tough tourism market, but the economic downturn was the last thing on my mind as I scoped out the revamped furnishings and bathroom in our room, its new entertainment system, and, my personal favorite, espresso machine.
And of course, there was the view. We got to stay in one of the “Bougainvillea” rooms just up from the hotel’s private beach—a great thing to rest your eyes on while enjoying breakfast on one of the private patio’s reclining chairs. After breakfast it was hard to resist walking the few yards down the hotel steps to actually feel the fine sand in our toes and consider a swim.
We just went as far as putting our toes in the water, due to the still chilly temperature of the ocean, but the hotel’s huge pool and Jacuzzi, which we had completely to ourselves, satisfied our swimming needs just fine. The renovated poolside area was also part of the 2010 refurbishments, along with an upgraded fitness room, “The Library,” a recreation lounge complete with refreshment area and pool table, and the new Desmond Fountain gallery, named for the sculptor who made that Johnny Barnes statue, a local hero in his own right.
Satisfied with our swim, we set off to tour the island. It was a perfect day to be outside, with the sun shining on Bermuda’s palm trees and patches of farmland, which made it perhaps a strange choice for us to immediately head underground. Our first stop was the Crystal Cave, a subterranean cavern of stalactites, stalagmites, and deep pools as clear as the name makes it sound. Ron, our guide, told us about how it had been discovered in 1905 by a pair of 12-year-old boys who lost their cricket ball down a hole in the ground and decided to see how far it went down.
Ron retold this story with the energy and hand gestures of someone telling it for the first time. Though he seemed to be having a little too much fun as he turned the lights off in the cavern, leaving us and the half dozen others on the tour in total darkness as he recreated what it must have been like to stumble on the cave a hundred years earlier. It was a genuinely thrilling moment, though I was glad when Ron turned the flashlight back on.
Back on the surface, we made our way to St. George’s, a kind of Bermudan version of Colonial Williamsburg, complete with period dress and historical reenactments if you go at the right times. To get a sense of the island’s history, it’s worth checking out the old State House, built in 1620, and Saint Peter’s Church, the oldest Anglican church on the Western Hemisphere. If you go to the Bermuda Historical Society Museum, you can even see a letter from General George Washington requesting Bermuda’s help in the American Revolution.
After all that history, we were feeling hungry and ready for a drink, so we caught a cab to where all the action was happening on the island: Front Street. To tide us over, we stopped into the Hog Penny Pub. One of the oldest bars on the island, our driver told us it was the inspiration for the Cheers bar. Though I think our driver may have been making that up, he was definitely right about how good their fish chowder is. Full of big chunks of the native rockfish, the tangy broth is perfected with a floater of rum and sherry.
Satieted, we wandered down Front Street, dropping into shops to check out their designer goods and local crafts. I picked up a jar of rum-infused raspberry jam for my mom while Jenn bought a locally made rum cake for her parents (Bermudan dollars and American dollars are used interchangeably here, so travelers don’t have to deal with exchange rates and currency exchanges). We stopped by Opus, a mellow lounge full of 9-to-5ers just off work, and kicked off the evening with some Dark ‘n’ Stormys—Bermuda’s signature cocktail of ginger beer, slice of lime, and, of course, rum.
Whether drizzling, infusing, mixing or baking in, if there is a way to get rum into something, Bermudans have figured out how. And not just any rum—it must be Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, a dark, brown sugary liquor that’s been produced on the island since around 1860. While pouring our second round, the bartender explained that the Gosling Brothers Co., which makes the rum, used to put it in champagne bottles, which were more plentiful than standard liquor bottles at the time, sealing them by dipping the top in black wax like you see on Maker’s Mark bottles, creating a “black seal.”
The company, which actually owns the U.S. trademark for the Dark ‘n’ Stormy, also sells a high-end version meant for sipping straight, sold in the original black-sealed champagne bottles. I recommend ordering a double, if not picking up a whole bottle to add to the liquor cabinet.
As my brain started feeling dark and stormy, we made our way up and down Front Street, stopping in at the many clubs, bars and restaurants on the way, meeting and dancing with the locals and those, like us, who were just passing through. The street was so energized, and the night so nice, it was easy to forget this was actually the dead season on the island.
We made our way back to the hotel, dropping into its newly refurbished lounge and nightclub, DEEP, for a final drink and to enjoy the weekly salsa night. Just a day in Bermuda and we already felt like locals.