Caribbean / Bermuda

 

Beautiful Bermuda’s storied past
St. George gains World Heritage status
By Toby Saltzman

When UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization, designated Bermuda’s historic town of St. George as a World Heritage site, it officially recognized the pristine preservation of the island’s first capital.

St. George, first settled in 1609, is the oldest continuously inhabited town of English origin in the Western Hemisphere. Untouched by modern development, the town and its surrounding buildings, monuments and structures illustrate four centuries of the residents’ lifestyles. The forts of St. George demonstrate the complete range of British coastal fortifications and artillery from 1612 to 1956.

UNESCO awards World Heritage status to "cultural properties of outstanding universal value" in attempt to protect them from potential damage. Now St. George shares this prestigious appellation with some 630 sites around the world, including the Great Wall of China and India’s Taj Mahal.

Responding to the UNESCO announcement last November, Bermuda’s Premier Jennifer Smith said, "The designation will do much to promote interest in Bermuda’s history, architecture and heritage throughout the world."

Indeed, while St. George is a treasure trove of architectural details, Bermuda is known more as an elegant holiday playground.

In reality, Bermuda is at it seems: almost too good to be true. There’s no visible poverty. Locals are welcoming and polite. Wild bougainvillea, hibiscus, oleander and morning glory perfume the air. Houses and buildings are picture-perfect, with sherbet facades and white limestone roofs.

The beaches are gorgeous, from intimate coves to long swaths of pink sand. The surrounding reefs teem with brilliant sea creatures. Temperatures range from 20C to 29C. Mark Twain summed it up when he wrote, "You go to heaven if you want. I’d rather stay here in Bermuda."

Situated about 1,000 km off the coast of North Carolina, this elegant British Dependent Territory is actually a narrow chain of some 180 isles, most of them uninhabited, with St. George straddling a rocky spur of land fringed by treacherous reefs at the eastern point of the main island.

If the heavy stone fortifications overlooking the reefs suggest a history mired in battles, truth is, Bermuda was ever prepared, but never at war.

You might say Bermuda owes its peaceful fate to a string of misadventures caused by perilous reefs. After being discovered in the early 1500s by a Spanish mariner named Juan Bermudez, Bermuda became a navigational mark for sailors crossing the Atlantic to the New World.

A century later, when a group of British settlers en route to America straggled ashore after their vessel, the Sea Venture, crashed on the reefs, they found nothing but birds, wild hogs and skinks (a type of lizard). In 1612, 50 settlers returned on another ship and declared St. George (named after the patron saint of England) the capital of the British Colony of Bermuda.

Fearing Spanish invasions, the first Governor, Richard Moore, ordered stone fortifications built at Point St. Catherine and Gate’s Bay. He soon realized that forts weren’t needed, because the point was well buffered by perilous reefs.

Over the next 50 years, various governors replaced the batteries with a circular fort and installed five large rifled muzzle-loading guns, each weighing 18 tonnes. More forts were erected in the 1700s to protect Bermuda’s new Royal Dockyards and counter possible threats from the French and the newly independent United States of America.

By the time World War I was in full swing, Bermuda had built more forts, installed powerful breech guns, and the island was dubbed "Gibraltar of the West." During World War II the Americans armed Bermuda to keep the Atlantic Sea lanes open.

Since Bermuda never suffered the ravages of war, and the capital was moved to Hamilton in 1815, the old town of St. George and the fortifications remain virtually intact. You can easily explore St. George on foot.

The streets and alleys of St. George span out from King's Square where the Town Hall holds court over a picturesque port. Most days at noon, a town crier urges visitors to try the original wooden stocks, pillory and ducking stool where justice was done to pirates and thieves.

Lining the square, the old Globe Hotel, circa 1700, which was used as an office of the Confederacy, now houses the Bermuda National Trust Museum. Its major exhibit, "Rogues & Runners" paints an interesting picture of Bermuda during the American Civil War.

Strolling around St. George you will see interesting architectural details ranging from quaint roofs and verandahs to neo-classic embellishments. The 18-century Tucker House is a hive of antiques, silver and family portraits. The simple exterior of Somers Garden belies a lavish interior. The prized little cottage known as the Old Rectory, circa 1699, is Bermuda’s oldest house. Behind the Town Hall sits the State House, circa 1620. One of Bermuda’s oldest stone buildings, this original government house is now rented to the Masonic Lodge for "the lordly sum of one pepper-corn per annum."

If anything illustrates the absolute authenticity of St. George’s original architecture (and the mindset of the people who maintained it) it is the simple structure of St. Peter’s Church. Established in 1612, the oldest, continuously used Anglican Church in the Western Hemisphere was originally built of native cedar posts. The present-day structure, rebuilt in 1713, was almost abandoned in the 1870s when its congregation planned a move to a new massive gothic church on a hilly crest behind the town. When arguments ensued, the members abandoned construction and stayed put, but left the ruins of the Unfinished Church as testimony to the consequences of parish infighting.

Before leaving St. George centre, stop at the water’s edge for a cool drink at the White Horse Tavern.

Then cross the bridge to Ordnance Island (where villains were hanged) to see the replica of the original Deliverance, which was built in 1610 by the shipwrecked survivors who eventually sailed to Jamestown, Virginia.

Later on, make your way to Fort St. Catherine. You will find it peaceful as you ramble through the tunnels, see cannons peaking through the ramparts, and view military exhibits and replicas of Crown jewels.

Mind you, beware of George, the resident ghost.

Guidepost

Located 2.5 hours by air from Toronto, the 35-km stretch of Bermuda’s islands is surrounded by a vast, 518-km coral reef plateau. Sailing in the protected waters between the isles is fairly safe.

Since Bermuda does not allow rental cars, tourists can takes taxis, buses, cross from one part of island to another by ferry, or scoot around the island on motorcycles. (Beware: Bermudans drive on "the British side" of the road!) Along the way, stop if you see a moongate – one of those semi-circular gates dotting the island. According to Bermudan legend, lovers who pass through a moongate will be forever blessed with happiness.

Bermuda’s harbourfront capital has a decidedly British air, complete with a "Bobby" directing traffic from a "birdcage." Local maps denote architecturally significant buildings: City Hall, Sessions House, Secretariat, Bermuda Historical Society, and the landmark shops on Front St. (With Bermuda and US dollars at par, stylish British Isles’ items are a fair buy.)

Play thrilling, 18-hole championship golf at Port Royal. Or play the Fairmont Southampton Princess 18-hole par-three, a delightful executive course. (Book tee times ahead. Call: 1-800-Bermuda.)

Lurking 24 metres underground, Bermuda’s caves are a spelunker's dream with vast caverns of stalagmites and stalactites.

The Underwater Exploration Institute’s fascinating exhibits include a 1900s diving suit and shrunken human heads showing the gruesome effects of deepwater pressure. You can ride the world's first simulated "deepwater submersible" down to the 3,800-metre base of the Bermuda Sea Mount.

At Dolphin Quest, swim face-to-face with live bottlenose dolphins. Visit www.dolphinquest.org.

For free guided tours, check the current "This week in Bermuda" guides, available at most shops, for times and meeting places of "walkabouts" for St. George, Hamilton and nature walks from the Royal Naval Dockyard. (Or call: 236-6483)

For more information call a travel agent or 1-800- 237-6832 or visit www.bermudatourism.com

Be sure to visit The Best of Bermuda on travelterrific for great travel ideas.

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