In Bermuda, the road to paradise is full of hazards

Elizabeth Chang

THE WASHINGTON POST – Every paradise on Earth has a dirty little secret – mosquitoes, perhaps, or overcrowding or jellyfish. Even the Garden of Eden had a snake.

On a recent trip to Bermuda, a tiny territory rich in natural beauty, historic locales and multihued charm, my husband and I ran smack into its hidden flaw: Its roads are unsettlingly dangerous. According to a 2011 government health report, Bermuda’s traffic fatality rate was 28 per 100,000. The United States (US) rate was 10.

Though often referred to as an island, fishhook-shaped Bermuda is actually an archipelago of 138 islands measuring about 22 miles long and one mile wide; the eight largest islands are connected by bridges and a causeway. There are three main roads, all of which, we would learn, are narrow, winding and invariably shoulder-less – if not rimmed with vegetation or walls.

That, along with speeding, is the reason that, in 2014, Bermuda had one of the highest traffic mortality rates among the 42 countries and partner nations in the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation. In 2018, 1,740 people were transported to the hospital with road injuries, according to the Bermuda Hospitals Board; there were 12 deaths.

Newly instituted sobriety stops helped reduce the number of traffic deaths in Bermuda to seven in 2019, though the number of hospital visits through October (the latest month available) was slightly up over the previous year.

You’ll see a scooter or two in front of most houses in Bermuda. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Of course, tourists can hardly avoid the roads. Most visitors arrive by cruise ship, as we did, and most cruise ships tie up at the Royal Naval Dockyard, a historical site and tourist attraction at the western tip of the island, far from the best beaches and any town. Because there is already too much traffic on the island, there are no rental cars; even households are limited to one automobile apiece, which means there are many motorcycles zooming around. To get anywhere, tourists must rely on scooters; public transit (buses and ferries); pricey taxis; or, the most recent option, electric cars. We would wind up testing all of these alternatives in a visit that revolved around transportation much more than we had expected.

For decades, I’d had the idyllic dream that if we ever got to Bermuda, we’d tour it by scooter, breezing by pastel cottages to iconic pink sand beaches, wind whipping our hair, stopping for anything interesting we saw along the way. But then I read a strong warning about scooters in our guidebook, which noted that “on average, there is one death every month” on Bermuda’s roads. And at a cruise ship presentation about Bermuda, the speaker, who had been delightfully frank about the island’s shortcomings – the food is too expensive; the souvenirs are made elsewhere – refused to discuss scooters. At all. “I’m not going to get into that,” he said.

Still, dreams die hard. Darryl, my husband, had owned a motorcycle in his admittedly long-ago youth, and some fellow middle-aged cruise passengers had rented scooters before and were planning to do so again.

So, after docking in early September, we examined a two-seat vehicle, took a few turns around the practice track, and set off for Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, about 8.5 miles away. Rather than blowing in the breeze, our hair was covered by mandatory helmets, which, I soon realised, are about the only concession to scooter safety on the island.

Much as I wanted to gaze at the colourful homes and the sparkling water I could glimpse through the trees – ooh, there’s a little beach – I was loathe to turn my head.

The two-lane road was tight and curvy; the oncoming traffic seemed frighteningly close; and I could feel the vehicles behind us breathing down our necks like lions toying with their prey. The 35kph speed limit apparently was an inside joke (it’s closer to 80kph – 50mph – in practice), and, for some reason, every driver was honking at us. And I haven’t even mentioned that we had to drive on the wrong side of the road. Looking over Darryl’s shoulder, I kept a weather eye on the yellow line, occasionally shouting “Left, left, left!” And then it began to rain. We missed the 117-foot-tall lighthouse entirely on the first pass.

Gibbs Hill, built in 1844 by convicts overseen by the British Royal Engineers, is the oldest cast-iron lighthouse in the world and boasts a huge Fresnel lens with a 1,000-watt bulb; the light can be seen 40 miles away by sea.

Once our legs stopped shaking, we climbed the 185 steps to the top and appreciatively took in the view: lush greenery; white roofs topping homes painted in bright, jelly-bean hues; and a sea that displayed so many shades of blue – inky blue, deep blue, aqua blue – that I ran out of adjectives. Far off in the misty distance, we could see our docked ship.

The ride back was less eventful; the rain-slicked roads had dried. But the traffic was just as unnerving, and our backs were beginning to ache. It wasn’t relaxing, especially for Darryl, and it certainly didn’t seem safe.

We took a farewell photo with the scooter, broke out the bus and ferry schedules and tried to recalibrate our romantic expectations, a bit embarrassed and bewildered that the other middle-aged scooter riders were willing to go out again.

When I checked the State Department’s database of US Citizen Deaths Overseas on our return, I found out that 13 Americans had died in motorcycle accidents in Bermuda between January of 2003 and June of 2019.

The next day, rather than zipping off to famed Horseshoe Bay Beach on a scooter, we trundled up to it in a standing-room-only bus. “Air-conditioned!” Darryl said as we boarded, “This is the way to go!” And if you don’t mind some extra walking, adhering to a schedule and making lots of stops, it is; Bermuda’s buses are affordable and run every half-hour or so.

During the roughly 35-minute trip we chatted with our fellow passengers, including a Harley owner from Texas who insisted he’d never ridden a scooter in Bermuda because it’s so dangerous. This cheered Darryl even more.

Horseshoe Bay Beach is inarguably stunning, with aqua waters advancing and retreating on an arc of sugar-soft blush-coloured sand bookended by rocky cliffs.

The sand gets its unusual pigmentation from tiny, single-cell organisms that grow on the undersides of nearby coral ledges. When the foraminifera die, their red shells wash onto the shore and mix with the white sand, giving it a pink tinge.

While we didn’t consider the sand especially pink, it was the softest and finest we’d ever felt. We staked out some empty beachfront away from the sizable crowd and swam a little, but we were mostly content to gaze, mesmerised, at the crystalline waves framed by limestone bluffs.

It was only toward the end of our visit that we got curious about the visitors who kept disappearing behind the cliffs at the edge of the beach.

Following them, we found a series of charming rock-sheltered coves. In the first one, which I later learned is called Baby Beach for its gentle waves, we saw, appropriately, a Bermuda longtail nesting in the hollow of a rock, looking serenely back at us with bright, satisfied eyes. I could have stayed there all day, like that bird.

But there were other beaches to check out. We took a taxi from Horseshoe to Elbow Beach, regaling our friendly cabbie with our scooter horror story. He insisted that the drivers hadn’t been honking at us but had been tooting hello to people they knew; it turns out that Bermudians use their horns with the friendly abandon of a politician waving from a parade float. Elbow Beach, a long expanse of pink sand facing still more cerulean waters, was much less crowded than Horseshoe Bay but not as picturesque; it’s the bridesmaid to Horseshoe’s bride. After a short sojourn, we climbed back up to the road and waited in the sun for another bus.

Ferries – high-speed, tourist-crammed catamarans with indoor and rooftop seating – are the fastest way to get to the capital of Hamilton or the historic town of St George’s from the Dockyard. The trips take about 20 and 40 minutes respectively; taxi rides would be twice as long, buses even longer.

The fare is the same as for the bus system and much cheaper than going by taxi, which would be approximately USD50 one way to Hamilton and USD75 one way to St George’s.

We were grateful, therefore, that we could hop a ferry to Hamilton for the last Harbor Night of the summer. The main street of the city, which is a kaleidoscopic jumble of vibrantly painted homes and buildings, was closed to traffic to accommodate food and craft stands. But the highlight to us was the thrilling performance of the Gombey dancers, who don riotously colourful, elaborately tasseled costumes, painted masks and tall, feathered headdresses, and act out stories to the insistent beat of bass and snare drums, punctuated by shrill whistles. The folk tradition, which borrows from African, Native American, Caribbean and British cultures, dates to the 18th Century, before slavery was outlawed in Bermuda, and requires both artistry and athleticism. We were also delighted to find a stand selling malasadas – Portuguese doughnuts – which are a beloved treat in Darryl’s home state of Hawaii, too.

The next day, we boarded another ferry to Saint George’s, which is at the opposite end of the island from the Dockyard. Bermuda’s first settlement, established by the English in 1612, has narrow cobblestone streets bearing whimsical names – Featherbed Alley, Aunt Peggy’s Lane – and staid British-colonial-style stone buildings, many enlivened by island colours. We took a walking tour and visited the Bermudian Heritage Museum, where we chatted with its charming docent, and the perfumery (perfume being one of the few truly made-in-Bermuda souvenirs). Then we made the 1.5-mile round-trip trudge to Tobacco Bay Beach, a clear turquoise lagoon protected by a ring of limestone rock formations, with a tiny, packed pink-sand beach overlooked by a music-blasting bar/concession stand. We were too hot and tired to deal with the crowds, noise and the party vibe, and were ready to head back long before the ferry was scheduled to return.

By our final day on the island, we still hadn’t tasted one of its famous fish sandwiches or made it to several sites on our Bermuda bucket list – and our ship was leaving at 3pm.

So we rented an electric car. The Renault Twizys, which have been on Bermuda’s roads only since 2017, are open-air vehicles a bit reminiscent of Little Tykes Cozy Coupes.

Though they drive like golf carts and aren’t especially powerful, the Twizys’ carlike controls and four wheels make them much safer to operate.

“Since operations commenced, we’ve had a handful of minor collisions in which there have been no significant injuries,” said Somers Carr, who manages the Hamilton location of Current Vehicles. The biggest drawback is the narrow tandem seating, which can be excruciating for a tall or older back passenger.

Tootling around in the embarrassingly cute little car, though, was both relaxing and fun. We found the appropriately named Sea Glass Beach tucked behind some derelict apartment buildings and beheld layers upon layers of sea glass that tinkled like wind chimes as the waves washed in and out. From there, we drove to next-door Black Bay Beach, a trio of small tide-dependent coves, for a bit more ocean-gazing.

Our final stop was at Woodys, a local dive bar that sits across from picturesque Boaz Island Bay, so we could finally try a fried fish sandwich: wahoo with all the fixings – cheese, coleslaw, tartar sauce and hot sauce – on raisin bread. It was so huge we split it, eating on the porch of the bright blue bungalow with a pleasant mixture of tourists and locals and small hungry birds, enjoying the food and the people-watching. At last, we were experiencing Bermuda the way I had imagined. But it was time to leave.

As we reluctantly rose from the table, we had a game plan for if we ever return – arrive by air, stay longer, book accommodations in a more central location and feel no regret about putting around in a goofy electric car rather than zipping along atop a red scooter. Because while we were out and about chatting with people that last day, we learned the details of a fatal crash the previous afternoon. It involved a 49-year-old American woman from another cruise ship who was operating a scooter. We would later read that she was an experienced motorcyclist. But on Bermuda’s roads, that wasn’t enough.