Bermuda: History, Culture and Things to See and Do

Kieran Meeke / 25 October 2016 ( 08 February 2017 )

Bermuda isn't only famous for its Triangle! Made up of 130 islands, Bermuda is rich in history and culture and makes the perfect holiday retreat.



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History

It’s hard to imagine what Spanish sea captain Juan de Bermudez made of “Las Bermudas” when he first saw – and named – them in 1503.

The pink sand and crystal clear waters may appeal to holidaymakers now, but he was homeward bound from Hispaniola (the island of Cuba and Haiti) and saw them as a useful refuge. 

They stand well out in the Atlantic, due east of South Carolina and too far north to be part of the Caribbean.

Indeed, several shipwrecked mariners made a temporary home during the next century but it was not until 1609 that the first colonisers appeared. 

They were English, bound for the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, but blown off-course by a hurricane. This was “The Tempest” that inspired the writing of Shakespeare’s play.

In 1611, the first child was born on Bermuda and named for the island. She was the daughter of John Rolfe, who is more famous for later marrying native American Princess Pocahontas in Virginia after his first wife and infant daughter died. 

Early settlers brought in the first slaves and today some 60 per cent of inhabitants claim African ancestry.

The land was unsuitable for agriculture, so shipbuilding became a major industry although this deforested the islands. Piracy was another revenue stream, with fast, heavily crewed privateers preying on ships from Spain and France, and from America during its War of Independence.

Slaves were also used to exploit the salt resources of the nearby Turks and Caicos Islands, much of it exported to Newfoundland for preserving cod. Saltfish is still a Sunday morning tradition.

The Royal Navy developed Bermuda into a major Atlantic base in the early 1800s, following the loss of the American colonies. 

The tourist trade began in the mid-1800s, with North Americans escaping winter and families looking to marry their daughters to one of the many sailors of all ranks.

Defence was a mainstay of the local economy until the early 20th century, by which time tourism had started to take over. World War II briefly revived the strategic importance of Bermuda and there was a US base from 1941 to 1995.

Bermuda remains under the rule of the British monarch to this day, represented by a Governor who appoints the locally-elected Premier. Independence was last rejected in a referendum in 1995 and Bermudians were granted full British citizenship in 2002.

Circled by a coral reef that attracts divers from all over the world, Bermuda truly deserves its title ‘Jewel of the Atlantic Find out more here.

Culture and traditions

The British influence is visible in Bermuda’s Police Service whose uniform – apart from the shorts – and equipment will be familiar to anyone from UK. The domed “Bobby” helmet, however, is now reserved for ceremonial occasions.

Bermuda’s most famous policeman may be Dwayne Leverocks who pulled off a spectacular one-handed catch during the Cricket World Cup in 2004, the first and only time local cricket reached the world stage. 

Baseball is as popular, a sign of the US influence that co-exists alongside the British one. The currency bears a portrait of the Queen but is on a par with the dollar.

Cars drive on the left and import duties mean cars cost twice as much as in UK. Only one private vehicle is allowed per household and there is no car rental, to prevent overcrowding on the roads and help the taxi trade, although visitors may rent four-stroke scooters.

Traditional “Gombey” music and dance is based on West African origins with influences from Christian missionaries, Hispanic culture and the British military, particularly the use of a snare drum and fife. 

It can be seen on holidays such as Boxing Day, New Year’s Day and Bermuda Day (May 24) and during Harbour Nights in Hamilton on Wednesdays.

Groups of dancers wear elaborate full-body costumes and it is customary for spectators to throw money. A festival has also been introduced in September to highlight Gombey culture.

Moon Gates are another unusual feature of the island. These circular arches are of Chinese design and were introduced in the late 1800s as ornamental features for gardens. 

They reflected the British fascination with Asia at the time but walking through them is now associated with good luck, particularly for newly-weds.

The Bermuda Triangle – facts and fiction

Local cuisine

Almost all of Bermuda’s food is imported, usually from the US, so eating out tends to be expensive – like most things on the island. One odd exception is carrots but it you can also enjoy local mussels, fresh fish and island-made honey.

For a taste of Bermuda, start with a black bean, Portuguese red bean (very spicy), or onion soup. An alternative would be fishcakes made from frozen salted codfish, potatoes and peas (or beans).

Mains include Stonehole stew, made with salt beef, sweet potatoes and pumpkins, and fish chowder, spicy with a dash of rum in the (meat) stock. Local fish to look out for are snapper, wahoo, rockfish (grouper), turbot and even shark. 

Also see if lionfish are on the menu: the colder waters around Bermuda make them less of a threat to reef life than in the Caribbean but they make delicious eating.

Sweet-potato pudding is a local favourite, as are pies or soufflés made from the loquat fruit. Bananas also make an appearance in crumbles and other desserts, such as a rum flambé.

Some top-end places do insist on jackets for men but informality normally rules when dining out, even at well-known venues such as the Ocean Club (Fairmont Southampton). 

It specialises in fresh local seafood, although many diners are also there for the wonderful sunset views.

Few visits to a bar or restaurant here would be complete without a tot of local rum, of which Gosling’s is the leading brand. The company also make Stormy’s Ginger Beer, the basis of the Dark’n’Stormy cocktail – Bermuda’s national drink.

How to relax in style in Bermuda

Shopping

With no sales tax, Bermuda differs from many US destinations but shopping bargains are harder to find than that might suggest. As an island, transport costs are high and an import tax adds to the price of imported goods.

British-made goods are exempt, but they are not usually the first choice for British visitors to take home again with them. Locally made items are therefore not only the best souvenirs, but also the best bargains.

Few visitors can resist the allure of a pair of Bermuda shorts. Based on the dress developed by the Royal Navy when stationed in Bermuda, they are available in both formal and informal styles. 

Formal ones are designed to be worn with a jacket and come in a more limited range of colours. They have belt loops and are normally pleated.  To carry off the formal look, you’ll also need a pair of knee-length socks and shoes – never sandals.

Given British weather, most visitors from UK will want to pick an informal pair, which are also available as swimming shorts. Irish or British linen is a good choice for quality and price, although the popular TABS (“The Authentic Bermuda Shorts”) brand uses prewashed cotton.

Another must-buy is rum cake, which is also thought to have naval origins from the custom of soaking hard ship biscuits in rum. Rum cake is found on many islands in the Caribbean but the authentic Bermuda one is made with Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, which has been made here since 1806.

Other unique souvenirs include items such as carvings and picture frames made from local cedarwood, Gombey Rag Dolls and charms of pink sand. Local jewellery might feature the Longtail bird, a national symbol, or Moongates (see above) in silver or other precious metals.

Places you should visit

Bermuda is made up of more than 130 islands, stretching about 22 miles long but only a mile in width. Bridges and causeways connect the eight largest islands. 

Hamilton, the capital, is on Main Island which is the largest as its name implies. Hamilton City is the shopping heart of Bermuda and shops are open 9-5, Mon-Sat. There is late night shopping to 9pm at Hamilton City’s “Harbour Nights”.

Bermuda is famed for its pink sand beaches and the best are between Horseshoe Bay and Warwick Long Bay on the south shore where most of the hotels are also found. 

The pink sand comes from the extensive coral reefs around the islands that are in relatively shallow waters. Excellent visibility is an extra draw for divers and snorkelers, with Church Bay being a popular destination for the latter.

Historic St George’s claims to be the oldest continuously-inhabited English town in the New World and it is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Its cobbled streets, enjoying names such as Needle and Thread Alley, evoke the earliest days of European settlement.

The Royal Naval Dockyard is another major attraction, worth a visit for the National Museum of Bermuda alone. Formerly the Maritime Museum, it tells a comprehensive history of the island, including exhibits of slavery and the capture of U-505 and its Enigma machine in 1944. 

This U-Boat (now in Chicago) was the first enemy warship captured by US forces at sea since 1812 and spent the rest of the war being studied in Bermuda.

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