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Paradise, Upgraded: Bermuda Makes a Comeback

SmarterTravel

My cab driver, Larry, is an ebullient man. He knows everything about Bermuda, and as we pull over for the fifth time to hail a fellow driver, I suspect he knows everyone as well. Larry has seen the island change before his eyes, witnessed its ebb and flow, the impact of hurricanes and financial crises and cruise ships. (He also dispenses sensible life advice.)

As we drive along a coastal road that hugs steep cliffs leading to the sea, we get stuck in rush hour, a bottleneck of mopeds and compact cars waiting at opposing stop signs. School kids in long maroon socks and shorts stroll past at a decidedly teenage pace. A warm breeze blows through the passenger window. As we sit and wait and wait, Larry tells me that Bermuda has an unofficial motto.

“What is it?” I ask.

He laughs. “‘Everything happens—eventually.'”

While insiders have been saying that Bermuda is on the brink of a travel revival for years, plenty of signs point to that time being now. 

Bermuda has long been known as a destination of balmy weather and ritzy resorts, a playground for Northeastern urbanites looking for pink sand and perfect golf conditions. Many sunseekers visited; many businesspeople stayed. But the global recession left few destinations unharmed, including this paradise, so near to the U.S. that you could practically play telephone, whose economic sector is closely intertwined with the States’. 

The recession hit Bermuda hard. By 2010, hotel rates had dropped by about 50 percent and the millions that tourists once spent on travel seemed to evaporate, as jetsetters stayed home and business travelers’ expense accounts dried up amid economic uncertainty.

But the tides seem to be turning. Resort improvements, cruise expansions, and a better sense of just who is visiting and just what they want are contributing. Bermuda never left, but it’s back all the same.

Two Grandes Dames Get an Upgrade

Among the many improvements Bermuda has on the horizon are two notable upgrades to its Fairmonts, long the anchors of the island’s resort scene. The bubblegum-pink Fairmont Hamilton Princess enters the second phase of a multimillion-dollar upgrade that has already seen new suite and room refurbs, a brand-new infinity pool, and a luxury marina. Next year will see the opening of a Marcus Samuelsson restaurant (the first celeb-chef-helmed eatery on the island); this is big news for travelers who expressly seek out destination gastronomy, a niche at which Bermuda hasn’t yet excelled but seems ready to conquer 

The second Fairmont property on the island, the South Shore’s Fairmont Southampton, recently underwent renovations that include new amenities for both business and leisure travelers, including better Wi-Fi access and serious room upgrades (a big deal on an island where many visitors are there for both business and pleasure).

As an industry insider tells me, the big news isn’t that Fairmont is undergoing these renovations (after all, most resorts eventually need a refresh). It’s that these upgrades are happening now. It’s a sign that now is a safe time for reinvestment and that more is on the horizon.

Going Independent

(Photo: Elbow Beach Resort)

It’s not just Fairmont’s upgrades that are making a difference, of course. It’s the sense that Bermuda is rediscovering its own independent identity in a travel market flooded by same-same experiences. 

In many ways, the boutique resort Elbow Beach is an excellent case study of both Bermuda’s past and future, a neat précis of what it once was and what it can be. A lemon-yellow building perched on a gently convex stretch of sand surrounded by pastel-painted cottages, Elbow Beach is one of Bermuda’s premier stays. It’s been open since the 1900s, and when Mandarin Oriental (a brand known for its high-priced Asian-inflected modernism) acquired Elbow Beach in 2000, the resort seemed poised for the same kind of luxury experience you can find throughout the Caribbean.

But Mandarin’s brand of formal, high-class finesse didn’t entirely translate to an island where luxury is as easygoing as it is un-self-conscious. Elbow Beach, though, seems to understand it: After spinning off as an independent resort earlier this year, the property seeks to recapture its uniquely Bermudian spirit and perfect location. While keeping Mandarin’s signature spa elements and its already-existing open-air dining complex, the resort recently debuted new meeting spaces with panoramic views of Elbow Beach right outside, hoping to draw the eyes of business travelers and wedding planners.

It’s one of the most stunning stretches of sand many have ever seen, so why not harness it? The beach was one of the highlights of my Bermuda adventure, its natural beauty unmatched, I think, by other island resorts. A shipwreck just off the coast (swimmable if you’re strong) is a hidden delight. And both on and off the sand, service was friendly and familiar. I felt like a returning guest even though it was my first trip. Everything is quietly elegant, beautifully manicured. 

And, biggest of all, plans are being discussed to reopen the main building’s guest rooms, which have been closed since 2009, as part of a multiphase redevelopment project. The main building, with its marble-bedecked lobby, is an icon. To resurrect it now would be a huge step forward for this enduring hotel.

Know Your Culture

For the first time, Elbow Beach will stay open through the winter as well. It’s a brilliant move: Winter (Bermuda’s off-season) is a great time for cultural discovery. One of the things I love about Bermuda is how much there is to do, beyond flopping on a beach for an afternoon. It may be a postage-stamp-sized island, but there’s a surprising amount of arts and culture, from crafts studios, museums, and jewelers, to a cozy, independent bookshop. There are also plenty of cultural events that take place in the off-season, all leading up to Bermuda Day in May, when a half-marathon and a parade of Gombey dancers kick off the high season.

It’s good timing: Something that we’ve seen (and that trend-savvy Skift also reported on this year) is that travelers are looking for highly personalized, authentic, experience-filled getaways. Bermuda, then, with its rich colonial history and UNESCO World Heritage sites, is the perfect place. By positioning itself as a year-round getaway, Bermuda differentiates itself from the Caribbean that travelers so often confuse it with. Travelers can go in the off-season for brilliant weather for golf or biking the historical Railway Trail. And with lower off-season room rates, they get a good deal while truly getting to know Bermuda beyond its beaches.

Bermuda’s natural marvels, gin-clear sea, sugar sand, and fluffy-topped palms aren’t going anywhere. But its resort offerings are on the rise, and its cultural artifacts are getting discovered anew by travelers who want getaways that stick to the memory long after they leave.

Everything does happen—eventually.

See below for some favorite photos I took in Bermuda.

Top, from left: The typical pastel-colored architecture of Bermuda; a sunset on Elbow Beach; the Bermuda Bookstore

Middle, from left: Elbow Beach; a statue at Newstead Belmont Hills resort; standup paddleboarding at picturesque Tobacco Bay

Bottom, from left: The town crier in St. George’s; the new marina at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess; Crystal Caves

(Photos: Dara Continenza)

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