Docking at Bermuda’s historic Dockyards
By Marc Atchison
SOMERSET, BERMUDA — A “mosquito” is annoying our cab driver as we make our way along the picturesque coastal South Road leading to the historic Royal Navy Dockyards.
“I just want to swat them,” grumbles Jerry the cabbie as he tries to manoeuvre around the slow-moving motor scooter (a.k.a. mosquito) ahead.
“Just listen to them – the buzzing sound they make is just like a mosquito; and you know what we do to mosquitos.”
Jerry steps on the gas and quickly passes the nervous tourist driving the tiny scooter. There are many ways to get to the Royal Navy Dockyards — the former British military garrison that juts out into the Atlantic at the northern tip of this fish hook-shaped island —from our Fairmont Southampton Hotel base. We could have taken the local pink bus or a national ferry to reach a place that has become one of Bermuda’s most popular tourist attractions, primarily because the Dockyards is where the mega-cruise ships anchor.
But a taxi’s the quickest way and the chatty cabbies, as we’ve discovered on previous visits, are a fountain of information, providing passengers with lots of local tales and tips.
Jerry, a slender man with a chiselled face who speaks with a lovely Bermudian accent, is excited to find out we hail from Canada and tells us that Nova Scotia fishermen helped develop St. David’s Island where he’s from. St. David’s is in the northeast part of Bermuda near St. George, the country’s treasured World Heritage Site and oldest city.
“The Nova Scotians, whose descendants still dominate St. David’s, were the ones who invented the shark oil barometer, which we still rely on today to help predict the weather,” says Jerry about the device mariners have relied on for centuries to detect storms at sea and local weather patterns. “No Bermudian house would be without one.”
The South Road takes us past pink-sand beaches, tranquil bays filled with stones carved into animal shapes by the pounding surf, lovely resorts like the Reefs — it clings to a jagged cliff looking out on a breathtaking seascape — pretty cottages painted pastel shades and national landmarks like Gibbs’ Hill Lighthouse, a cast iron structure built in 1846 which can be seen from almost everywhere on the island. At Barnes Corner, where South Road ends, the cabbie navigates onto Middle Road and apologizes for turning up the volume on his car radio but “there’s a big motor boat race going on today (early August) and a friend of mine has entered. I just want to see how he’s doing.”
Jerry suggests when we reach the Dockyards we find the Commissioner’s House and go to the second floor. “From there you’ll have a great vantage point from which to view the race.”
When we pass the entrance of prestigious Port Royal Golf Course, Jerry tells us he’s a member of the club where an important PGA Tour event is held each October. Cabbies in Bermuda obviously make a lot of money because entry into the exclusive golf club does not come cheap.
As we slowly make our way along winding Middle Road, we tell the driver we ate lunch the day before in Hamilton at a historic pub called Hog Penny – the fish chowder and onion rings there are the best in Bermuda.
“Ah, I know the Hog Penny well,” says Jerry, who goes on to say the pub’s name is taken from one of the country’s earliest coins.
“The coin was named the Hog Penny because when Bermuda was first discovered by shipwrecked settlers, they found the place was overrun with wild pigs (who were left behind by the Spanish decades earlier when they dropped by for a short visit). “In fact, Bermuda was once known as Devil Island because when the pigs squealed in the bush, settlers thought it was the devil hollering at them.”
We can hear the roar of the high-powered racing boats when we cross the fabled Somerset Bridge – the smallest drawbridge in the world – and then Jerry points out Scaur Hill Fort, which dates back to 1860 and from which you get jaw-dropping views of the Great Sound and the Royal Naval Dockyards in the distance.
Just before entering charming Somerset Village, where we see locals huddled at outdoor bars listening to radio play-by-play of the boat race, Jerry points out Heydon Trust Chapel and says it was built in 1616, making it one of the earliest structures in the New World.
As we pass the Royal Naval Cemetery, which dates back to the 1700s, he tells us the historic Dockyards is not far off.
“I’ll leave you off in front of the National Museum and from there you can walk around and see everything,” says the cabbie.
The narrow streets of the Dockyards, which remained in British hands until the 1990s, are filled with passengers and crew off the two cruise ships tied up at the deep-water port and every pub and restaurant is filled to capacity.
The National Museum and its exhibitions give us a good insight into what life was like when this island was in British hands and the old structures that once held arms and supplies for the troops stationed here have been converted into chic art galleries, restaurants and gift shops.
The Dockyards Glassworks, which also houses the Bermuda Rum Cake Company, is filled to capacity with tourists buying souvenirs to take back to the ships. And over at Dolphin Quest (always a controversial facility), an attendant tells us the performing dolphins have access to the open sea and aren’t being penned up as they are at some other places.
We finally make our way to the top of the Commissioner’s House, from where Jerry suggested we would see the speed boats best. From there we watch the high-powered vessels make their run back to Hamilton and the finish line and then decide it’s time to hail a cab.
Both Air Canada and WestJet offer direct daily flights to Bermuda from Toronto. Hog Penny Pub is located in downtown Hamilton.
For information on the Fairmont Southampton and its sister property the Hamilton Princess, go to www.fairmont.com
Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveler with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. As the former travel editor of the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, and now editor-in-chief and senior writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and travelife.ca, Marc has been to over 100 countries in the world. Japan is one of his favourite destinations and he’s been there on numerous occasions. http://www.travelife.ca/