Mark does Bermuda

What can you say about Bermuda? First, there is no getting around it: Bermuda is isolated and tiny. It’s about twenty miles across, only a mile wide at its widest point and shaped like a fishhook. We got conflicting accounts on its geological history. One account says it is volcanic in origin and it sits on the caldera of a long extinct volcano. The other account is that its land mass is essentially crushed coral reef, which over millions of years of pressure hardened into Bermuda limestone. This makes Bermuda fairly squat as islands go, with its highest point only a couple of hundred feet above sea level. Both of these scenarios sound plausible.

Aquamarine seas come at no extra charge in Bermuda
Aquamarine seas come at no extra charge in Bermuda

Second, they drive on the wrong side of the road, unless you live in that part of the world where left is the right side of the road. No superhighways here. If there is a four lane road on the island I must have missed it. The roads are uniformly narrow. It’s a good thing you cannot rent a car here. Those of us from the states would end up injured or dead from clipping cars coming the other way. Bermudans are limited to a single car by law, unless you happen to be a physician. The very idea would raise the hackles of any true blooded American but in truth one car is plenty. First, there are only so many places you can go in a car. Second, when you get there you may have trouble finding a place to park your car. Third, the public transportation here is ubiquitous and relatively cheap. Traffic is limited to 35 kph (about 20 mph) by law. For those who need to get around more quickly, there are water taxis that are also quite affordable.

Third, Bermuda is not for cheapskates. It is part of the British Commonwealth. Gas runs in excess of eight dollars a gallon, which explains why all the cars are compact and fuel efficient. Bermuda does have its own cows and dairy but there is not a whole lot of land for them to graze. With a population at about sixty thousand, every time a cruise ship like ours comes into port, its population grows by five percent. Given this reality and the regular arrival of mega cruise ships, you would think that tourism would be its primary industry. Instead, offshoring appears to be their principle industry. Bermuda specializes in hosting companies like HBC Financial that make most of their money on the mainland but don’t want to pay taxes in the United States. The only city on this island, Hamilton, is clustered with buildings hosting offices for companies like HBC.

Presidents and CEOs of these companies of course cannot live just anywhere in Bermuda, so they have pricey estates starting in the millions of dollars, often with private docks, personal chefs and housekeepers. A few grandfathered people have estates on some of the islands in the Great or Little Sound. So in some ways Bermuda resembles Hawaii, both for its high cost of living and its remoteness, but also because people of more modest means who keep the gas stations and food stores running are stretched. The cheapest houses in Bermuda start around $400,000.

Fourth, Bermuda is humid and warm. It may be at the same latitude as South Carolina, but the Gulf Stream runs right by it, pushing warm water and stifling humidity with it. This gives most of the water in and around Bermuda a delightful aquamarine color. Its isolation keeps the waters clear as well. Thankfully in August the temperature rarely gets into the nineties, but with the air almost always constantly saturated with water, you are likely to be sweating while outside. Fortunately, most of the time there are also steady tropical trade winds, which makes the humidity bearable, providing you are positioned so you can feel them. Officially Bermuda’s climate is subtropical, but it feels tropical. The vegetation is lush and everywhere. The palm trees are fewer and smaller than islands closer to the equator but there are flowers everywhere free for the picking. The aloe plant is native to the island, as its properties to reduce the pain from the sunburn were quickly discovered. Its beaches are famous for their pink sand, but to actually see it you have to dig a foot or so into the beach.

Fifth, Bermuda is a beautiful place. Of the places I have seen in the Caribbean, Bermuda is more beautiful than any of them and arguably more livable. There are no snakes in Bermuda and nothing in the way of mosquitoes either. It’s a wholly sensible island, doubtless due to its British influence. Bermuda became strategically important to Great Britain after Americans won the Revolutionary War. Convict labor and slaves were used to build its many forts, the most prominent of which sits next to the cruise terminal and now houses the National Maritime Museum. It is a multicultural country. Offshoring whites and celebrities own much of its prime real estate, but it offers a mixed palette of the species homo sapiens, with Blacks and Portuguese having the heaviest minority influence. For an American, it is tourist friendly. The U.S. dollar is accepted the same as the Bermuda dollar, and U.S. coins work in the vending machines. Getting back on your cruise ship is easy. You just need a photo ID and your room key. The natives are part of the British Commonwealth, but many speak with American accents. You can also hear a mixture of Caribbean accents from somewhat more southern latitudes.

I wonder what the natives do for amusement here. It helps if you like the sea because boating and boating related activities like scuba diving and parasailing are popular pastimes. Diving opportunities are plentiful with dozens of shipwrecks to explore among the coral reefs. You can see the island in a day, and take in all its tourist attractions in a leisurely manner within a week. There are a few cinemas, but I doubt an island of 60,000 has a symphonic orchestra, although band concerts in the park at Hamilton happen regularly. The local newspaper is widely read in a way not seen in the states these days. For those with the money there are pricey golf courses, but if you live in Bermuda it helps to like the simple life.

Hurricanes are a fact of life here. We dodged tropical storm Emily getting here. The good news is that practical Bermudans have decided to adapt to hurricanes rather than deal with their wreckage. Bermudan houses are practically indestructible, anchored into the island’s limestone, reinforced with cinder block walls and sport white cement roofs ingeniously created to also capture fresh water in a cistern below the ground. Cement roofs and cinder block walls ensure that the houses will still be around after the hurricane passes. Roads and bridges may get destroyed in a hurricane, but the country has otherwise adapted well to these facts of tropical life, proving that engineering can deal with almost any extreme weather situation. It’s a wonder that we don’t require the same sorts of building codes along our hurricane prone states.

During our three days in Bermuda we have sampled a fair amount of the island. The city of Hamilton is charming: neither too big nor too small but very compact with many pricey boutiques. There are no Walmarts in Bermuda. No McDonalds, and no franchises of any type except for one KFC in Hamilton. This makes Bermuda a decent place for entrepreneurs, and we encountered some, including a guy who ran an internet café near the cruise terminal. Hamilton, like most of the rest of the island, has houses largely in pastel colors. Apparently there are no restrictions on house colors, but pastel colors work so well here.

View from the National Maratime Museum in Bermuda
View from the National Maratime Museum in Bermuda

There are a few tourist attractions. There are caves you can explore. We took in Crystal Caves, which was neat but like the island’s stature compared to the rest of the world, it was modest compared to others we have seen. Their aquarium is respectable but nothing to write home about and their zoo is missing the lions, bears and elephants you sort of expect. The most impressive sites we saw were actually close to the Royal Navy Dockyard where our ship was berthed. The National Museum of Bermuda offers impressive views of the Great Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, along with lacquered over cannons, rusting ship anchors and a museum where, if you can endure the heat, you can learn much about the history of Bermuda, the slaves and convicts who built most of its forts, and the many sailing vessels used here over the years.

Bermuda makes an interesting tourist destination, as long as you keep your expectations modest. You are likely to feel charmed by the place. It’s not in the Caribbean per se, but it has all the best parts of the Caribbean without its frequent filth and poverty. The island is on Atlantic Time, so East Coasters like us must adjust your clocks one hour ahead.


Fine cruising aboard the M-S Norwegian Dawn

Saturday, August 6, 2011 somewhere in the Atlantic

Freestyle cruising, them marketers on Norwegian Cruise Lines call it. But as we waited in Boston Harbor to cast off for Bermuda aboard the M-S Norwegian Dawn, freestyle cruising apparently is mostly about being loud. Up on Deck 13 the bon voyage party was in full swing. The cruise director Johnny Cash Sanchez (yes, that’s his real name) and band have much of the teens, preteens and young adults aboard boogying to some frankly dreadful music, like “YMCA” by The Village People. Hamburgers and corn on the cob there are aplenty. Most of the people on the deck are dressed for weather ten degrees hotter. The weather in Boston is spectacular: blue skies, but with the weather in the mid seventies it is not quite bikini weather. Finally, about an hour later than scheduled, our thousand foot long behemoth cruise ship finally leaves its birth. Accompanied by the usual pilot boats but also state police boats, we slowly move out into Boston Harbor, our fourteen decks such an obstruction that we temporarily shut down a runway at nearby Logan airport lest an aircraft graze our mast on approach.

Bon Voyage Party aboard the Norwegian Dawn
Bon Voyage Party aboard the Norwegian Dawn

We last cruised fifteen years ago. We were overdue to reconnect with the cruising lifestyle. Fifteen years ago this size of cruise ship was more on the drawing board than at sea. Today it is a run of the mill cruise ship: supersized for the supersized Americans it carries. We are still astonished by the M-S Norwegian Dawn, built in 1998: its length, its girth, the number of decks, its opulence, and the attention to every detail. The cruising industry must be extremely competitive. This is good for customers. This seven day cruise was surprisingly affordable. Fifteen years ago a stateroom with a window was too expensive for us. Today with discounts we were able to book a stateroom with a view, roughly 200 square feet, for about $2300, about $600 of that just in port taxes.  It is clean, comfortable and with our window it offers a hypnotic view of the sea rushing past us.

Norwegian Cruise Lines wants us to know that everyone is at our service, and they sure are. It’s almost a fetish. As we pulled out of Boston Harbor Friday night, we enjoyed our first dinner in the Aqua Dining Room where we were obsessively fussed over. My wife’s sensitivity to pepper resulted in entrees that were made especially for her devoid of them. It was hard to take more than two sips from my water glass without a server trying to refill it. After finally deciding on chocolate cake for dessert, I made the mistake of telling the waitress I thought about of getting the apple pie instead. She brought both.

It’s no secret that food is plentiful on cruise ships. The most daunting task in this life of leisure is not to overeat. Judging by the girth of most passengers and their heaping plates of pizzas, burgers and fries, they will fail at this task. Twenty four hour buffets allow not just constant grazing, but constant gluttony. Having sampled the buffet for lunch, I found I preferred sit down restaurant instead with tastier entrees and smaller portions.

Top tier dining on the Norwegian Dawn comes at extra cost and requires reservations, but the main dining rooms Aqua and The Venetian won’t leave you feeling cheated. The Venetian restaurant offers a breathtaking view of the ship’s rear. We happened to get the table at the very back and center of the ship. Both the Venetian and the Aqua are classy places to dine; gorgeously arranged rooms and with linens replaced with each set of customers. The Venetian comes with its own pianist in a tuxedo with an appreciation for popular musicals. Yet I have had better dining on other cruise ships. The best dining I ever had on a cruise ship was on our first cruise in 1995 aboard the late Dolphin cruise line’s Seabreeze I, an ancient ship by cruising standards (built in 1958) but blessed with gourmet cuisine. True story: the S.S. Seabreeze I now rests on the ocean floor off the coast of Virginia, having succumbed to rough seas on its way north for a refitting.

Those older ships were missing stabilizers now common on cruise ships. The result was I spent a couple of days on that cruise seasick. Aboard the Norwegian Dawn, seasickness is not an issue. I get more turbulence on a gentle airline flight. It helps that the ship has stabilizers and that the Atlantic Ocean is relatively calm: four to six foot seas on our journey to Bermuda. There is a gentle swaying of the deck, but nothing that triggers any feelings of seasickness. Bonine is available in our stateroom just in case.

Everyone is at your service, but that doesn’t mean that they are not also looking for ways to get into your wallet. The principle method is to keep you plastered at one of the eight bars across the ship, but there is also the compulsory casino, bingo and duty-free shops where you can buy likely very nice but much overpriced jewelry. We won’t be adding much to their bottom line, as we tend toward being abstemious and gambling simply does not interest us. A massage does very much interest my wife, so this will be our one indulgence with this cruising vacation.

I wonder when a cruise company will take this “at your service” fetish to the next level. There are already cruises for swingers, so apparently cruise ship staff can work inured among naked clientele. Why not enhance the bottom line and offer prostitutes as well? After all, once you are in international waters the cruise line is free to decide what they will allow. I am sure there are plenty of undersexed people on these cruises who might want to get back in touch with their libidinous natures. Such a service would give room service a whole new meaning.

I did not need a prostitute but we did very much need a vacation. If we have a problem it is that we do not take more vacations. We live our lives generally stuck in the rut of working, paying bills, doing chores and when leisure allows surfing the Internet. Surfing the Internet here aboard the Norwegian Dawn is generally a privilege for those with deeper pockets than ours. Per minute rates range from forty to 75 cents a minute. So we will wait until we are in Bermuda and find an affordable Internet café.

For me, the most important aspect of cruising is simply communing with the sea again. By nature I am not a beach person, but there is something awesome and humbling about being a speck of a boat in an immense ocean. Cruise satisfaction for me simply comes from having a deck chair, a book and a nice view of the ocean. I treasure the gentle sound of the waves moving past the sides of the ship, the gentle slow sway of the deck beneath my feet and the meditative feeling that comes from standing while holding on to a handrail and gazing out at the immensity of the ocean.

Next: a report on Bermuda.

P.S. To Laura, from Terri: I am a medium well and having a wonderful time.