NEWS

Getaway: Off-season Bermuda delights

David L. Harris

Editor's note: For Jan. 9 publication.

A large, smiling pirate looked down at me as I lounged by the sun-splashed pool of The Fairmont Hamilton Princess hotel. The 20-foot lighted buccaneer, posted on the side of a nearby docked boat, was part of Bermuda's holiday boat parade, an annual display of highly decorated boats and fireworks around Hamilton's harbor.

Fortunately for me, the pirate was one of the only presences at the pool.

Winter is not high tourist season in Bermuda and that's just fine for those of us who enjoy peace and quiet. There are no tourist crowds; no cruise ship passengers walking through the streets or in the shops.

In Hamilton, the police officer who normally puts on a show for tourists by directing traffic in a little kiosk takes time off. And you don't need to maneuver yourself space on the beach.

Winter visitors don't quite have the small, sunny, wealthy island all to themselves. But it just might feel that way at times.

I'd come here for a relaxing four-day weekend. When I arrived at the airport, it was raining, but, as any Bermudian will tell you, all you have to do is wait a bit. A half-hour later the sun was shining.

Bermuda in winter isn't hot, but it is warm enough - often in the 60s - to sit in the sun. And if lounging is not your thing, there's plenty else to do.

In Southampton, for $2.50, you can trek up all 185 steps to the top of the lighthouse at Gibb's Hill, home to one of the most magnificent views of Bermuda. Built in 1846, the lighthouse is noteworthy for the fact it's built of cast iron. Or you can take a leisurely walk on the nearly 22-mile scenic railway trail, carved out of Bermuda's old railroad - the tracks were torn up in 1948 after Bermuda officials decided passenger rail service was just too expensive to maintain.

Hamilton, Bermuda's capital, is also its center for shopping and the arts. Check out the City Hall Arts Centre on Church Street, which houses the Bermuda National Gallery of Art (www.bermudanationalgallery.com). The museum, smack dab in City Hall, is small but vibrant and features a large collection of Bermudian, African and African American art. Admission is free, and every Thursday at 10:30 a.m., you can get a free, guided tour.

Just around the corner are shops: from U.K. department store Marks and Spencer to Bermuda's well known A.S. Cooper and Son apparel store. There's no sales tax in this British territory, so whatever price you see is what you pay.

With the tourists sparse, Bermudans rule the streets. On my visit, parents and kids frolicked from shop to shop and teenage boys tried to impress the girls with their scooter skills.

About an hour's drive from Hamilton - at the other end of the island (closer to Southampton) - sits the Royal Naval Dockyard, which contrary to its name is not a functioning military base. A taxi will get you there efficiently, although the convenient public bus is a lot less expensive.

The Dockyard is a popular tourist spot, with attractions including the Bermuda Rum Cake Factory, where I bought a rum swizzle-flavored cake to take back home. There's also Dockyard Glassworks, which features a variety of beautiful handmade glass, and the Clayworks, where you can buy island-made pottery.

On the ride from Hamilton there are sights to see, including Fort Scaur, a 19th century fort that serves up a superb view of Hamilton and most of the island. On the way from the fort to the Dockyard, you can also stop at Haydn Trust, the smallest church on the island.

But all this touring will inevitably make you hungry. For an elegant Old World dinner, try the Waterlot Inn (101 South Shore Road), the oldest restaurant on the island - it dates back to 1670. The Waterlot is now part of the Fairmont Southampton resort, and features a menu of mostly steak, but you have to try the rich sherried onion soup, too - made with delicious locally grown onions.

And don't forget to indulge in the island's specialty drink, the ``dark and stormy,'' a sinful mix of dark rum and ginger beer.

For a more casual meal, try the nearby Henry VIII restaurant (52 South Shore Road), where you can order Bermuda specialties such as a savory codfish sandwich with mango chutney or pan-fried rockfish. The restaurant also has a great view of the ocean if you sit outside on the deck.

In Hamilton, Little Venice (32 Bermudiana Road) is a cozy Italian restaurant with good food including veal marsala, an extensive wine selection and impeccable service. Don't forget dessert, including a delectable bread and butter pudding.

A must-do is high tea, complete with little sandwiches, pastries and scones with clotted cream, all expertly served at The Fairmont Hamilton Princess, the elegant harbor-front hotel in Hamilton.

They say this British territory has more golf courses per square mile than any other country in the world. Whether the statistic is accurate or not, there are plenty of places on Bermuda to keep duffers entertained including the exclusive championship Mid Ocean Club (www.themidoceanclubbermuda.com), site last year of the PGA Grand Slam.

The boat parade isn't the only festivity on the island in the winter months. Other events, such as the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts (Jan. 15-Feb. 23; www.bermudafestival.org), with its dance, theater and music offerings; International Race Weekend (Jan. 18-20; www.bermudaraceweekend.com), featuring a half and full marathon; and the Bermuda Film Festival (March 28-April 5; www.biff.bm), attract a fair mix of tourists and locals.

But avoiding crowds altogether is also an enticing possibility.