Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bermuda Notes - March 2011

Ally and I met in Bermuda and lived here together for almost two years, but we left in 1994 and haven’t been back since. In the subsequent seventeen years, we’ve barely even talked about coming back, except in the abstract way you cover just about every subject at one point or another. But Ally had been working incredibly hard and was talking about getting away for a few days at the end of it; off the top of my head I said it could be time to revisit Bermuda. The idea stuck – I booked the trip on Monday and we flew out on Friday. As so often though, we didn’t fly out as early on Friday as we expected – an 8.30 departure turned into a ten minute maintenance delay, then another ten minutes, until they eventually announced they were bringing in another plane, and we ended up flying out two hours late. But it was a smooth flight, and we were in downtown Hamilton by mid-afternoon, which didn’t really undermine our plan for the first day.

This was simply to walk aimlessly around Hamilton and to assess how it matched up against our memories. We stayed in the Hamilton Princess, just on the edge of downtown; it’s a handsome hotel, although you can tell it hasn’t been refurbished in a while (in a year or two this might constitute an alert, but for now you can put it in the “charm” category). We had a nice bright room, with a balcony, overlooking the grounds at the back of the hotel (which at night are lit up like Christmas) and the water behind it. What we’d been wearing on the plane was also perfect for Bermuda today (obviously that wouldn’t always be the case, but it was pretty mild); we both had on black jackets and jeans, and it struck us later that we might have seemed like oddly uniformed investigators dropped into the island on some quirky mission, especially since we might also have seemed to be approaching the city in a rather idiosyncratic way. By which I mean that we were very methodically walking – we realized today how little we actually did that when we lived here (this turned into a theme of the trip).

The city hadn’t changed much, although in seventeen years a few handsome new office buildings did fight their way through the development process. Downtown Hamilton is really only a few blocks deep, so we covered it fairly thoroughly even in an hour or so. It didn’t feel like there were many tourists around (the plane was much less than half-full, and the hotel felt largely deserted); it was a sleepy Friday afternoon, just people doing the stuff they needed to do. It’s scenic in that it consists of small-scale streets with brightly painted buildings and lots of “old-world” indicators; they’ve done a great job of suppressing the chains and brand names that hit your eyes everywhere else (KFC seems to be the only fast-food joint with a foothold, just as it was seventeen years ago). But the waterfront is largely blocked by industry, and our sense of the city today was largely shaped by virtually bumper to bumper traffic (or to better reflect the local mix, bumper to scooter to bumper to scooter) – hard to say if the volume’s of cars is higher than it used to be, but why would Bermuda be different from anywhere else in the world?

The island moves on like everywhere else – there are now not one but two Apple stores (although they’re the emptiest Apple stores I’ve seen anywhere, in terms of both inventory and customers) but a lot of other stores might plausibly be pushing the same stuff as twenty years ago (the island has always positioned itself as a high-end offshore shopping destination, but it’s a self-characterization that’s become less plausible over time). Likewise, the restaurants – most of these also familiar from seventeen years ago – are still pushing distinctly old-fashioned concepts of fine dining. We enjoyed taking it all in again, but also it didn’t take long to remind us why we left – it’s hard to imagine we might have spent all that intervening time navigating this same space. But of course, people do.

We walked out of town, along the route we commuted into work every day for a while - although again, I’m not sure we’d ever actually walked it before (the humidity makes Bermuda unsuitable for extended walking for much of the year, but even if it didn’t, there’s not much in the way of sidewalks or other encouragement). We went past the traffic circle where local legend Johnny Barnes used to stand and wave at the cars and bikes every morning – there’s a statue in his memory now. We just kept walking, and we came to a little turn-off called Appleby Lane, which I suddenly remembered I’d lived on for a while, when I was first on the island (it’s one of those flukes – if I’d been looking for it, I would never have succeeded). It was in a very small one-room apartment up a flight of stairs, although it did have a big balcony. Anyway, it’s still there, looking much the same. We wandered back, and it started to rain just as we entered the final stretch – a standard Bermudian hazard – so that all worked out pretty well. The hotel has a pleasant space called the “Heritage Court,” which looks like it might have some regular afternoon-tea action; we drank some wine and had a snack. Then we went back to the room and rapidly fell asleep. Well, it had already been a long day.

It was only around 7 when we woke up, but it was dark – we’d forgotten how that strikes you here, without the big city network of artificial lights (later in the trip, we even saw a crescent moon…wow). We went out again, heading for a place called Portofino’s, which was a fairly common destination for us in the old days – it’s on the so-called “restaurant row” along with maybe five other restaurants. But it was closed for renovations, so we went to the adjacent Little Venice, another familiar destination. It wasn’t very busy – we definitely weren’t here at boom time. Anyway, the food was fine, although unremarkable (and it arrived too quickly to maintain the illusion of any great culinary magic). We only deviated slightly on our way back to the hotel. The TV was showing the NAACP Image awards, featuring Halle Berry, which is just coincidence of course, but also is exactly the kind of thing that always seemed to be on Bermudian TV in the old days.

Bermuda has always been a privileged enclave, with the mixture of foreign business and tourism maintaining an impossibly high average living standard (and, at the top end, absurdly excessive rewards for mundane economic contributions, as embodied by several people we know….not that we hold anything against them!) But reading the local Royal Gazette newspaper on the second day, it seemed the island has all the mundane modern problems too: within the first few pages it covered educated people resorting to crime to make ends meet, general economic challenges, the stretched health care budget and various burglaries and other disruptions. On the other hand, the newspaper devoted about 20% of its pages to religious coverage of one kind or another - not a ratio ever likely to crop up in the Toronto papers – so it must still be relatively serene.

It certainly often seemed that way today. It was a much crisper day, with the light making everything look strong and pristine; along with the lower volume of Saturday morning activity, it made Hamilton more welcoming than the previous day (certainly the tourists, low as their number still seemed to be, were easier to spot today). We walked further back into the city, through some less familiar blocks, eventually heading off somewhat randomly to the north, just walking on with no particular plan in mind. The neighborhoods we walked through were very scenic by any normal standards- pink and yellow and orange houses all arranged in a pleasant jumble – but by Bermudian standards it’s just nondescript…maybe it even counts as a slum. Anyway, that took us to Spanish Point park; we vaguely thought we might execute some sort of circle, but in Bermuda you can’t count on roads joining up as they do in bigger cities, so we ended up having to retrace our steps, which was fine.

Not for the first time, we’d set out with nothing to drink, and it was pretty warm, so when we got back to Hamilton we were definitely flagging. We had a snack at a cafĂ© in the centre, and then set out again, this time to the high-end location of Fairylands, where every home is a palace that could house a village (this is how we know the previous neighborhood wasn’t so hot). We walked around, again doing lots of doubling back, hardly seeing anyone outside, although we did meet two nice Labrador retrievers who greeted us nicely (the place is full of “beware of the dog” and “no trespassing” signs, which if I were a burglar would just make me want to hit the joint even more…for a supposedly safe and refined environment it has rather too many signs of paranoia). We walked past lots of immaculate lawns that you just know no one ever sits on; lots of boats that probably only leave the harbor once a summer. Fairylands is beautiful, but everything about it says “misallocation of resources”…I expect Beverly Hills feels the same way.

Between Fairylands and Hamilton, in a slightly less opulent vein, we walked down Roxdene Lane and checked out the apartment building where we lived for a year and a half or so. It always looked great from the outside, although the interior was pretty dirty and under-maintained. I hope they’ve taken care of that in the meantime. We picked up another snack and headed back into the hotel, where we both napped for a while. We never intended this trip to be as active as some of our others, especially since Ally in particular needs to recuperate. She finished Emma Donoghue’s Room in about a day and a half and this afternoon started on the second Stieg Larsson book. I will simply never be bored as long as I have my laptop.

We ate that night at the Port o’ Call, one of several restaurants for which the name seems familiar, but not the place itself (maybe it’s been refurbished, or maybe we’re remembering the name from a different city altogether) – the food was definitely a cut above the previous night (but then, the bill came in 40% higher too). Hamilton was virtually deserted, which was a little eerie. I don’t know what newly-arrived tourists would make of it. Like the old-timers we’re increasingly becoming, we were back in the hotel by 9.30 (it was raining lightly on the walk back, for the first time today). There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, except that I was awake at 3.10. But like I said, as long as I have my laptop…anyway, fortunately I did eventually go back to sleep for a few more hours.

When I lived here, in the pre-internet days, one of my big Sunday rituals was heading into Hamilton around 4 pm in the afternoon, when the New York Times usually turned up (sometimes of course the plane wouldn’t make it and the journey would be for nothing). I’d still be reading it into Monday. It’s funny that today I’d finished the whole thing online by 4 am or so (they now post big chunks of the Sunday paper on Friday and Saturday, so it’s easy to get a head start). There’s your overwhelming symbol of how life is speeding up. Only in some ways though: the rest of Sunday in Bermuda remains distinctly slow-paced. We took a hotel ferry at 10 am to the sister Southampton Princess, which took half an hour or so. The Southampton Princess I think is more the kind of hotel where you turn up and basically spend your whole trip – it has a golf course and tennis courts and a private beach, multiple restaurants and facilities…it makes our hotel look like a trailer park. Anyway, we walked out of there to the nearest public beach, which was mostly deserted except for dog walkers (maybe we’re more attuned to it now because of being dog owners, but I don’t remember ever seeing as many dogs on the island as we did today). From there, over the next three hours or so, we walked back to Hamilton – 9.2 km per the road sign, but quite a bit more given all our digressions onto beaches and trails. It’s the kind of thing we never thought of doing when we lived here (although again, for big stretches of the year you couldn’t realistically contemplate even trying). We walked along several gorgeous beaches, often with no one else in sight, although often you come to the end of it and all the ways out are marked private – it’s another respect in which the island isn’t the best place for walking, and more generally doesn’t seem as inviting on closer examination as it holds itself out as being.

A good chunk of the walk was along the side of the South road, but traffic was relatively light today, and it was easy to treat it as a scenic trail. Our last beach stop of the walk was Elbow Beach, where we used to come once in a while when we lived here, although not this time of year I guess - we’ve never seen it that empty. From there we cut up through the overhanging Elbow Beach hotel (about half the beach is reserved for hotel guests, but it hardly seems to matter at present), back to the road, and then onto a stretch of the railway trails. Bermuda had a railway for a few decades, running most of the length of the island, but it quickly became an economic headache and was abandoned in the mid-40s; the routes it traveled along were eventually converted into walking and cycling trails. We walked a bit of it when we lived here, but again it’s another thing we didn’t as much appreciate then as much as we likely would now. Anyway, we didn’t cover that much of it today, but it’s still pleasant for the sense of a near-secret corridor sliding through the middle of things. From there we walked down into Hamilton and then back along the waterfront Front Street.

Hamilton still sticks to a classic view of resting on the seventh day. All the stores are closed (except a few grocery and liquor places), there’s virtually no one around, and as we discovered, there’s hardly even anywhere to have lunch. If I were coming in from the Southampton Princess for the day (as some seemed to be when the ferry arrived from there this morning) I would be severely disappointed. We did find a place eventually, but it was pretty low quality – if the menu didn’t specify that it was chicken with the Caesar salad, I might not have been able to guess. No matter. We got back to the hotel sometime after three, feeling quite pleased with ourselves. We even had a moderate amount of colour from the sun (although not so much that you could stretch to calling it a tan). Ally sat on the balcony reading her book and eventually dozed off; I wrote this, among doing other things. On the morning ferry we’d observed an unadventurous-looking couple, and I said to Ally I was willing to bet they’d be coming back at 5.30, having spent six hours merely sitting round the Southampton Princess (as soon as they turned up there, I saw them heading off in search of a snack). Can’t testify about how they spent the day of course, but I was right about them shuffling back off the afternoon boat (a big part of any successful vacation is secretly taking happy shots at other people).

We went out again in the evening, and of course Hamilton was no busier, but a few restaurants were open. We went to La Trattoria, another regular location in the old days (although I think a remodeling may have made the atmosphere a bit more generic); we split a pizza and a pasta. Then we returned to the hotel bar where we had a couple more drinks…actually I think we drank quite a bit this evening. I guess we can take it. Anyway, it helped make sure we slept through the night. Ally might actually have caught up on her (considerable) sleep deficit by now. By this point we’d firmly decided that we should return to Bermuda every seventeen years – despite our criticisms of various aspects (which I would categorize as constructive – the place needs to shake itself up for its own long-term good), it’s an overwhelmingly pleasant place to spend a few days, especially when you bring along the nostalgia factor. Of course, in seventeen years we may be incapable of doing anything except sitting around like that other couple.

On Monday morning we were planning to take the ferry to the Dockyards on the far-western tip of the island, but the woman told us there was some problem and it wasn’t running. So we returned to the hotel and again took the ferry to the Southampton Princess, from where we walked in the opposite direction from yesterday, along the railway trails for as far as we could. This turned into a three-hour walk, at the end of which we made it to Dockyards! I’m pretty sure not many people have ever done that (of course, most may genuinely not see the point). We really enjoyed it. For great stretches, the trails keep you away from cars and noise, and we only encountered a handful of people on the way. At various points they go along the water, or plunge you into the kind of woodland you don’t really associate with Bermuda. Eventually the trails ran out and we continued along the road- the further west you go, the more sparsely populated the island gets, and the traffic drops off accordingly. It’s a beautiful walk overall. Funnily enough, the worst housing we’ve seen on the entire island – and maybe these really do qualify as slums – is just before you get to Dockyards, as if they’d taken a vote to dump the less desirable residents out on the far edge of things (I think the buildings are old naval barracks, but they look pretty grim).

Dockyards itself is the kind of project you can find in just about every other major city now (such as Toronto’s Distillery District) – an attempt to create a go-to shopping/eating/artisanal zone with a dereliction-chic vibe. Such places always seem better in theory than in reality – they’re always a bit under-populated and frankly, dull. Dockyards was like that when we lived here and hasn’t changed since – it’s depressing to go into a craft centre with fifteen or twenty stores and be just about the only customer (especially since there’s nothing in there you’d seriously consider buying). There’s also a movie theatre, currently showing the latest Big Momma’s House installment…there’s your destination programming. Anyway, it had been much more about the journey than the destination, so after 45 minutes or so we caught the public ferry (back in business now) to Hamilton, which only took twenty minutes. We picked up some lunch and carried it back to the hotel, and from there eased into our afternoon down-period during which, once again, Ally reads a bit and has a nap, and I move like a crazy person between six or seven different forms of diversion. Urban Dog, where Ozu is staying, has a webcam, so we checked him out. He seemed to be spending his afternoon lying in the middle of the play area, not engaging that much with the other dogs (we checked again the following morning and it was much the same). There’s a dog, we agreed, who won’t mind coming home.

On our last night we ate at the Hogpenny Inn, which sells itself as having Bermuda’s best comfort food. It may be true – I had lobster mac and cheese and Ally had shepherd’s pie. They were both pretty good, but you wouldn’t think they’d move a lot of that stuff at the height of summer. This is another establishment that’s been here forever, but I couldn’t swear to whether I’ve ever been in there before. That place kept us going for a few hours; we walked back, and that was pretty much it for the trip. The great thing is that this Bermuda experience really felt like ours, in a way it never quite did even when we lived here. Back then, we both think, lack of experience and perspective had us doing a lot things just because that’s what people did, or because it’s the groove we’d fallen into. If we were doing it now, we’d be much more confident in treading our own path – we wouldn’t put up with the apartment we had, we’d do more off-the-beaten-track exploring, and so on. Of course, technological changes help a lot in making your life your own. But it’s academic – we’re not going to be living here ever again. However, as I said, we may return in seventeen years. Hope we’re still capable of walking more than a few steps…

We only had time on Tuesday morning for an hour’s walk, eating breakfast by the water and taking in a few more Hamilton streets. The check-in/security process took about ten minutes, and the flight (even emptier than on the way in, but then I guess it makes more sense to come to Bermuda than to leave it) took off a few minutes early. I watched the 1950’s Fellini film Il Bidone. Sounds like the kind of thing I do in my normal life…except in my normal life I usually have my dog with me. And as I write these last lines, there he is!