Out Of Season

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Britain’s oldest colony, Bermuda, is a semitropical archipelago comprising several hundred small-to-tiny islands about six hundred miles off the coast of North Carolina. Despite its relative closeness to North America and its four centuries of entanglement with American history, it is also the second most isolated of inhabited islands in the world (after St. Helena) and with some sixty thousand residents occupying a space twenty-two miles long and a mile or two wide, among the most densely populated. From the moment I first visited it, I have found the place fascinating: for its beauty and civility and for its rich history, whose evidence lies everywhere.

Although known to Spanish and English voyagers as far back as the early 1500s, Bermuda didn’t receive its first inhabitants until 1609, when the Sea Venture , a ship carrying English men and women en route to the Jamestown colony was wrecked on the treacherous coral reefs that surround the Bermudas, as they were then called. After building new vessels, the Deliverance and the Patience , partly from the remains of the old, some sailed off to their uncertain destiny in Virginia. Others stayed on, and still more joined them. When the story of Bermuda’s storm-tossed founding drifted back to England, William Shakespeare seized on it for The Tempest .

St. George’s, the island’s first capital, played a key role in the American Revolution when a group of Bermudians stole gunpowder from a stash in nearby Tobacco Bay and shipped it to General Washington, in exchange for food from the colonies. During the Civil War a profitable trade between Britain and the cotton-growing states persuaded most Bermudians to favor the Confederate cause. St. George’s rough-and-ready harbor was the seat of action, prowled by agents from both sides, by spies and seafarers, and crammed with blockade-running vessels. St. George’s 1699 Globe Hotel, which housed the Confederate agent during the Civil War, is now a museum run by Bermuda’s National Trust that tells the story of the clamorous years when this lush island was Dixie’s farthest outpost.

Tourism got under way late in the nineteenth century as fast steamers brought visitors from New York to the docks of Hamilton, the capital after 1815. Most of these travelers were American, among them William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, and Woodrow Wilson, all eager to escape the Northeast’s bitter winters and, as one travel writer of the time put it, “in forty-eight hours find [yourself] in a pure and balmy atmosphere; a silent restful land.” The image-makers were revving up.

Early posters and ads touted the place as the “Isles of Rest,” an implicit promise of unshakable social calm that had a surprising consequence. “The white elite did such a brilliant job with this that the society inculcated its own tourist message; it became a form of social control,” Duncan McDowell, a Canadian professor writing a history of Bermuda tourism, told me.

Winter was the season of choice; some hotels and guesthouses closed down for the summer until after the Second World War. Now summer is more popular, so it’s from November through March that Bermuda’s tourism department makes a special effort to lure visitors. “It’s not your typical sun-and-sand vacation,” I read in last year’s brochure. “It’s an altogether different and far more interesting kind of holiday.” That was enough to lure me down there last March, when what had been a desultory winter suddenly tightened its grip.

Bermuda is not a Caribbean destination. Its ocean is the Atlantic, and its winter climate is balmy only because the Gulf Stream flows past it.

And when the thermometer dips a bit, the temperature guarantee kicks in; for every day that doesn’t reach sixty-eight, the room rate at twenty participating hotels and guesthouses goes down by 10 percent. These establishments also give out free bus and ferry passes for the following day, and they provide free admission to various museums and other attractions. There are even discounts at shops during those below-sixty-eight days. Moreover, a wide-ranging program of weekly events free to everyone is offered only in the off-season. I went to as many of these as I could cram in and found all of them rewarding.

I started out early one morning on what was billed as a Heritage and Cultural Trail guided walk through a part of Hamilton I hadn’t seen before. Bermuda’s capital is filled with shops and restaurants, it’s the busy center of a highly profitable commerce in banking and re-insurance, and there’s always a ship or two tied up at the harbor, not to mention a brisk traffic of ferries, yachts, and sightseeing and fishing vessels. On past visits Hamilton’s street life, its harbor scene, and its historical sights were enough to keep me on a four-block leash, but with Juliet Duncan, our guide, I and the other participants went farther afield, encountering a local history we hadn’t known before.