Monday, September 10, 2007

Bermuda - September 2007

With the low pressure area which would eventually develop into tropical storm Gabrielle lurking nearby, Cherie and I started our Bermuda vacation on September 5. Ultimately, the storm moved off towards North Carolina and was no threat to Bermuda, but did cause our first day to be a bit drizzly. No worries, however, because all we really wanted to do on our first day was pretty much nothing at all.

Last year, on our first trip to Bermuda, we stayed at Coco Reef Resort, on the south shore of the island. While it was nice to stay literally steps away from Bermuda's famous pink sand beaches, the hotel experience for us wasn't the best way to stay. Hotels on Bermuda are expensive, and really all we need is a comfortable place to sleep, because during the day we're out and about - not sitting around the hotel room. I don't even think we used the pool at Coco Reef last year, as it was always full of people... including one obese fellow who always seemed to be floating around like a bloated corpse.

But I digress.

This year, we tried something different. We decided to go the bed & breakfast route. We booked our lodging at the Granaway guest house, and we're very happy we did. This place has all the charms that you would expect from a 273 year-old house. Actually, because the few guest rooms in the main house were booked up, we ended up staying in the cottage, which served as the slave quarters back in the day. Again, with a full kitchen, this was a bit overkill for us (we're on vacation, after all) but the added privacy was nice. Next time around, we would probably choose to save a few more bucks and stay in one of the rooms in the main house.

Courtyard behind the Granaway's main guest house

Inside of the Granaway Cottage

The private garden next to the cottage

Each morning breakfast is prepared by the hosts, Michael & Carol, along with their helper, Fransisco, who also resides on-site. They give you the choice of eating with the rest of the guests outside when the weather is nice, or having your breakfast served privately. If the weather doesn't cooperate, the Granaway's beautiful dining room inside the main house is put to use. Fortunately, we had all but one of our breakfasts outside, where we got to meet some of the other guests.

After breakfast on our 2nd day, we called Oleander's to rent a pair of scooters, or "cycles" as they are referred to on the island. They have a location nearby, and within a few minutes they picked us up in a van to take us back to get the cycles. Bermuda's narrow and windy roads aren't really well suited for heavy automobile traffic, so as a visiting tourist, you simply cannot rent a car - in fact, foreign driver's licenses are not recognized at all on the island. There are 3 options: hire a taxi to take you everywhere (expensive), rely on the bus/ferry services (cheap, but you have to live by their schedule), or you rent cycles. As long as you are at least 16, all you need is a credit card to rent a cycle, and once you do, the island is your oyster - you can go where you want, when you want, for however long you want. Perfect! And for those that are unsure of your two-wheeled skills, keep in mind that the only bikes available to rent are 50 cc, and they will provide an area to practice in, if you need it.

Even though the engines are all the same size, the "premium" bikes we rented from Oleander's this year had *much* more pep than the bikes we rented from their competitor last year. Those bikes had us feeling like road hazards, with traffic stacking up behind us, but the bikes we got this year had no such problems. The posted speed limit on the island is 35 KPH (about 22 MPH), but these bikes has no problem pushing 50-60 KPH. These bikes allowed us to keep up with traffic with NO problem, however, we still got passed every so often as the Bermudian residents are allowed to own cycles up to 150 cc, and they are fearless riders on those twisty roads.

Posing with our trusty cycles

Video: Cruising down Harbour Road (sorry, no sound!)

So, with our cycles secured, we were ready to roll - and over the next few days, we saw the island top to bottom and end to end. From snorkeling at Tobacco Bay (east end) to buying rum cakes at the Royal Naval Dockyard (west end), and as much as we could manage in between. One of the more interesting stops was at Crystal Cave.

Crystal Cave

The cave was pretty cool, and the water gave it an interesting appearance. As it was explained to us, the water provides a magnifying effect due to it being primarily salt water, covered with a thin layer of fresh water that was continuously dripping from the stalactites. Because of this effect, things like rocks or ancient stalagmites that look like they are just below the surface, are actually 20 or 30 feet down. At its deepest point, the pool is close to 60 feet deep, and crystal clear.

Our main preoccupations on this trip had to be eating and swimming, however. With our breakfasts taken care of, we still had to deal with lunch and dinner. A couple lunch stops at the famous Swizzle Inn, or "Swizzle Inn and Swagger Out", as the staff's t-shirts say. A few dinners in Hamilton, with the star attractions there being the Barracuda Grill (pan roasted hogfish, with vanilla-roasted baby fennel and carrot spaetzle... yum!) and the new Yashi sushi bar, which is inside the Coconut Rock restaurant. However, September 1 marks the first day of spiny lobster season in Bermuda, so we had to get our fill while we could. Last year, we had good experiences at the Lobster Pot in Hamilton, but this year they seem to have a problem with over-broiling the poor bugs. Fortunately, we found another place that more than made up for it. On Sunday, we stumbled across the Black Horse Tavern, way out in St. David's for lunch. Wow... what a lunch it was! The best fish chowder (a staple at just about every meal, every restaurant), stellar conch fritters, and the catch of the day. While we were eating lunch, we kept seeing all these huge broiled lobsters being served, and they looked good. Based on the quality of our lunch, and the looks of the lobsters that others were eating, we decided to come back for dinner as well (it was our last night on the island, so now or never).

Now, part of me is reluctant to post about the Black Horse - or at least reveal it's name. This no-frills tavern is mainly a hangout for locals, and they keep it packed for one very important reason - the food is friggin' amazing! The lobsters we had for dinner could not have been cooked better - perfectly plump and tender, including the knuckles... and even in that spine thing sticking out of their heads (spiny lobsters, after all). I'm afraid of this place getting too much publicity, because I don't want it to change. I don't want it to be flooded by the hoards that are coming in on the cruise ships - you know the ones... you can usually spot them by their matching neon-colored t-shirts that typically have some sort of catchy slogan on them, like "I'm not as think as you drunk I am" or some nonsense. No, I liked the fact that we were the only tourists in the joint that night. The place is special, and shouldn't be spoiled. However, the fact that this place is out "in the country", the only way tourists will get there for dinner would probably be by taxi ($$$) or cycle. I think that the place is far enough off the beaten path, that hoards will avoid it for the time being. I hope. The locals seem to give it more than enough business, so I don't think they'll miss the "boat people".

OK... enough about food. Swimming. Bermuda is famous for its pink sand beaches. Yes, they are pink, but what they don't advertise so much is how *soft* this sand is. Really, it feels like baby powder. It's hard to believe that we have parrot fish to thank for it (more on that later).

Cherie at Horseshoe Bay

Sergeant Major fish while snorkeling at Church Bay

The beaches on the south shore are beautiful, wide expanses of pink sand with some hard-to-reach tucked-away coves mixed in for good measure. However, the surf on the south shore can be a bit rough at times, and one of the most famous and picturesque beaches - Horseshoe Bay - tends to get overrun by the aforementioned "boat people" when the cruise ships are docked, so aside from some good snorkeling at Church Bay, most of our time was spent in the northeast section of the island, at Achilles Bay and Tobacco Bay.

Cherie at Tobacco Bay

Tobacco Bay was amazing! We never stopped there before, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because the on-beach bar (and music), or the all of the families that come with their kids to take advantage of the bay, which for most of the bay is only waist-deep. It just seemed kind of "loud & touristy". However, the best part is just beyond the rocks at the mouth of the bay. Swim out past that area, and there is a large section of reef to explore. The amount of fish out here was amazing... no sooner did I pass the rocks at the mouth of the bay when I was enveloped in a huge school of small fish. Thanks to the underwater housing I recently got for my camera, I even managed to get some decent video.

Video: Snorkeling at Tobacco Bay

We saw a pretty good variety of fish here, many of which I've never seen snorkeling in other sections of the island. At one point, I saw a barracuda slowly cruise by. Unfortunately, didn't think to get a photo until he moved out of range... oops! One of the strangest things we saw was a school of cuttlefish, all about 6" long. It was weird... they were all lined up, and looking right at us. I tried to get some video of them, but they were careful not to let me get too close, so it was a bit hard. You can check that video out here. There was a small porcupine puffer fish... he was really tricky to get a picture of as well.

Bluestriped Grunt at Tobacco Bay

Parrot Fish at Tobacco Bay

Now, back to those Parrot Fish and the pink sand. We saw a lot of these guys while snorkeling all around Bermuda. Even when you can't see them, you can tell when they are nearby because you can hear them. "MUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH MUNCH" These guys live on algae, and the algae they like grows on coral and rock. So, they eat the coral and rock. You can hear them scraping the coral with their "beak". They munch on the coral, digest the algae, and what they can't digest, well... I'll just come out and say it - they poop pink sand. We saw it - the magic of nature... a 3 foot parrot fish pooping pink sand right in front of us. I've read that a single large parrot fish can produce a ton of sand per year. Think about that next time your strolling on a coral sand beach.

Anyway, our vacation was great, and there's a good chance we'll make this a regular yearly trip. Michael, our host at the Granaway, suggested that if we really like snorkeling, that next time we should charter a trip out to the off-shore reefs, as that's where the real action is. We did a SCUBA "resort dive" on our honeymoon in Mexico, and were thinking about getting our dive certifications, but Michael said that SCUBA is overkill for the Bermuda reefs - much of the good stuff is easily accessible with simple snorkel gear. Sounds good to us! Can't wait to go back...

By the way, additional photos from our trip can be found here: