Disaster is in the air, swirling like a tempest, and I am about to enter the storm, or so I'm told. I am about to tour Bermuda on a motor scooter. The forecast: probable scrapes and scratches, with the likelihood of a sprain and a chance of broken bones.
Before I leave home, I mention my assignment to a few friends.
"I'm sorry," says one.
"Brave soul," says another.
February 20, 1995
One wiseacre, a betting man, takes out his wallet and places a wager: "Five to 1, scraped knees; 10 to 1, knees and elbows; 20 to 1, hard cast." Now the pressure is on. If I return in anything less than a body cast, it will be a major achievement. As a former soccer, basketball and Softball player, I have broken all my fingers (but not my thumbs), fractured my nose twice, torn the anterior cruciate ligament and some cartilage in my right knee and ruptured a disk in my neck. My body is marked with small scars from my right heel (my foot got caught in the spokes of a bike—it's a long story) to my forehead (a collision with a piano—don't ask) and back down to my left shin (a trip over second base while coaching a Little League team—embarrassing, I know).
Considering my medical history, the consensus recommendation is, "Ditch the scooter and take a cab."
Just what is it about Bermuda, a tiny archipelago 600 miles off the coast of North Carolina, that evokes such an admonition? For starters, Christopher Columbus sailed past the uncharted islands on his voyage to the New World in 1492, and in his log he wrote of "a great flame of fire" (a shooting star, most likely), not to mention the strange movement of the needle on his compass.
Spanish explorer Juan de Bermudez is credited with discovering the islands around 1503, but, perhaps frightened, he decided not to land there. Later in the 16th century visiting conquistadores warned that evil spirits and wild hogs inhabited Bermuda, which at the time was also known as "The Devills Islands."
Bermuda's first settlers arrived by accident in 1609 when the British vessel Sea Venture, which was on its way to Jamestown, Va., was caught in a tempest and crashed on a craggy reef. One passenger described the islands in his diary as an area "so terrible to all that ever touched on them—such tempests, thunders, and other fearful objects are seen and heard about those islands that they are called The Devills Islands, feared and avoided by all sea travellers above any place in the world."
A few years later, after having read about the shipwreck, William Shakespeare wrote of the "still-vexed Bermoothes" in The Tempest, and the island, a "fearful country," served in part as the setting for the play.
Now, I understand, the fearful objects running about Bermuda like so many wild hogs are motor scooters.
Only a Shakespearean fool would ride a scooter on a tiny island that is teeming with tourists who are likewise riding such conveyances for the first time; a tiny island that is overrun by Americans who are not accustomed to motoring on the left side of the road; a tiny island that is full of narrow, winding roads lined by stone walls and dotted with treacherous traffic circles...a tiny island, only 21 miles long, where accidents are bound to happen.
All torment, trouble, wonder, and amazement Inhabits here.
—The Tempest (Act V, Scene 1)
TORMENT AND TROUBLE
It is a typical taxi-driver-to-tourist conversation, meandering from "Where you from?" to "First time on the island?" to "On business?" as the minivan snakes along the narrow roads of Bermuda during the 20-minute drive from the airport to the Elbow Beach Hotel. As soon as I tell the cabbie about my assignment, he abruptly changes the subject, dropping talk of Bermuda's pastel houses, its tranquil aquamarine waters, its British roots and the warmth of its people. Now he is spinning bone-chilling tales about traffic accidents, the sort of stories that the tow-truck drivers who service the Autobahn must tell, each account—"Then the bike slid under the taxi, and the axle..."—more ghastly than the last. Who gave Stephen King license to drive Christine around Bermuda, I want to know?
"Please be careful, luv," the driver pleads, addressing my reflection in his rearview mirror, a visage suddenly a shade paler. As the minivan approaches my hotel, the cabbie points out a bend in the road and tells a cautionary tale. Soon after dropping off two honeymooners at the hotel recently, he saw the couple tangled in a wreck on the side of the road.
"She was a beautiful girl, about your age," he says, shaking his head. "It's a shame she lost all her teeth."
I can ignore torment from friends, but hearing horror stories from the Bermuda locals is unnerving, to say the least. "Are you planning to wear those sandals?" asks Dolores Thomas, who runs the Elbow Beach Cycle Livery and is known as Mrs. T. "One man wearing sandals last week accelerated straight into a truck, and his toe went one way and the rest of his foot another. Oooh, I had a face ache for a week."
Mrs. T puts the scooter-rental contract in front of me. "Read and sign, thank you," she says. Upon close inspection, I learn, "This document...excludes all liability on the part of the hirer for any loss or damage that the rider may suffer cither as a consequence of any action or any act or omission of the hirer, blah, blah, blah...."
Legal jargon aside, the terms I agree to are thus: If I end up a hood ornament on one of the public buses, I pay the bill. If I am given a cycle with faulty brakes and I accidentally run over, say, a toy poodle, I pay the bill. If my instructor tells me, "You don't need a helmet. This ain't no livery for the lily-livered," and I return home with a pavement-induced lobotomy, I pay the bill.
But I do have third-party insurance, explains Mrs. T What third party, I ask, since my tour of Bermuda will be a party for one. She says the third party would be any person I injure. In other words, all of Bermuda is protected from me.
Mrs. T also hands me a brochure entitled Road Rash...Don't take this souvenir home with you! It warns, "Road rash occurs when you fall off your moped and an unprotected part of your body is scraped by the road (or a wall).... Serious road rash can ruin your vacation." Motorists travel on the left in Bermuda, which is why road rash is a popular souvenir among American tourists.
My instructor, Miguel Swan, is waiting at the practice area with my scooter, a zippy new Honda City Express with a shiny coat of royal-blue paint. The difference between a moped and a scooter is like the difference between an economy car and full-sized coupe. A scooter has comfy footrests instead of pedals and a luxurious seat seemingly long enough to accommodate a family of four. With a 50-cc engine, a scooter has more power than a moped. However, compared with a hog, a scooter is a mere pork chop. Scooters reach a speed of 30 to 35 mph, at best.
The practice area is actually one of the hotel's parking lots, complete with trees and parked cars. What is left of a hedge lines one side of the lot. Pointing to cavities in the shrubbery, Miguel says, "That one over there is Tracy. That one over there is James. Over there is Bill. I name each hole after people who have gone into the hedge.
"Oooh, and honeymooners," he adds, shaking his head, "they're the worst."
Miguel, who is wearing a University of North Carolina cap and a mechanic's jumpsuit, reels off stories about starry-eyed couples that bear out this assessment. "Men try to show off in front of their ladies," says Miguel. "I had a policeman from California who said he knew how to operate one of these bikes. Going around the curve in the practice lot, he smacked into a new sports car and landed on top of the car's roof!"
The many mishaps of my past flash before my eyes as I ride the scooter around the parking lot, mindful of the sports car parked to my right, aware of the hedge ahead. The brakes squeal as I go around the bend, carefully avoiding induction into the shrub wall of fame. As soon as my performance meets Miguel's approval, I am free to explore.
My maiden journey is to the beaches of the south shore: Coral Beach, Astwood Park, Jobson Cove and Horseshoe Bay. Waiting to make my first right turn, I nearly give myself whiplash—look right, look left, look right, left, right, left—before I dart into traffic. My white crash helmet muffles the sound of my screeching brakes, the hornet's buzz of the motor and the beep-beep greeting that Bermudians extend to one another on the road. Even though everyone wearing a white helmet looks like Newt Gingrich, no one ventures onto these winding roads without the required headgear.
I pass limestone cottages painted robin's-egg blue, cotton-candy pink, canary yellow and jelly-bean green—apparently the Easter Bunny owns the only paint brush in town. Since I can't fully appreciate the otherworldly blue of the ocean as I nervously steal glances into my side-view mirror, I park and walk down to the beach.
Mark Twain, who was a frequent visitor to these shores, wrote that Bermuda was the "right country for a jaded man to loaf in." On this late afternoon there are still a few loafers on the beach at Horseshoe Bay. Most stare off into the sinking sun; others walk along the beach, sinking their feet into the preposterously pink sand.
Just before stretching out on the sand myself, I remember what Vince Cann, a well-known Bermudian guide, told me earlier in the day. He said that the sand's color had something to do with, uh, parrot fish waste. But I dismiss that theory and sprawl across the pink blanket, satisfying myself with the more conventional explanation: To make pink sand, take one part crushed seashell, one part ground coral reef. Add white sand. Mix well. Enjoy.
At dusk the watercolors of an impressionist's palette fill the sky's canvas as the single beam of my headlight guides me back to the hotel. Once I park and take off my helmet, the sounds of the night rush in. There is a piercing whistle, the same pitch as the brakes of my scooter, coming from a nearby bush on my right. As I walk toward the bush, the whistling stops, and then I hear the sound to my left. When I shuffle in that direction, the whistling stops and I hear the sound behind me.
The soloist is soon accompanied by an entire choir. I jerk the handlebars of my scooter toward the thick brush, and like a constable who has spotted two honeymooners parked on the side of the road, I shine my bright headlight on the brush...and find nothing.
I later learn that these shy crooners are whistling frogs, nocturnal creatures the size of a thumbnail. In tribute to these lilliputians of the lily pads, I christen my scooter Whistling Dixie.
If I'm going to contract road rash, it will be on a 10-minute trip to Hamilton, the capital of the archipelago. Unfortunately, stone walls line most of Bermuda's roads. They are sometimes camouflaged by morning glory, nasturtium or thistle, but beneath the flora is unforgiving stone. On two blind curves, I come perilously close to being etched in granite, a veritable Mount Rashmore, if you will.
Another threat to my well-being is the "roundabout." The Bermuda Triangle has nothing on the treacherous Bermuda Circle. From afar, these traffic circles seem innocent enough, festooned in the center with beds of yellow and orange perennials—but looks are deceiving.
"Give way to traffic already on the roundabout, coming from your right," my Road Rash brochure instructs. "Ensure that you do not become a road accident statistic." (Five tourists have died in the last four years in moped and scooter accidents, and more than 2,000 visitors have reported injuries during that time. The brochure doesn't tell me this; a call placed to the Bermuda Road Safety Council does.)
To ensure that I do not become a statistic, I look right and give enormous way on the first roundabout. At the second circle I come to, I go around and around as if on a carousel, orbiting the perennials once, then twice. Finally when there are no cars in my general vicinity, I go for the brass ring. I veer to my left and enter downtown Hamilton, unscathed.
Hamilton is a place where businessmen, government leaders, and tourists with ample cash to spend all converge. At lunchtime knobby-kneed men walk briskly along the store-lined streets, wearing sport jackets, ties and Bermuda shorts with socks pulled high, almost to the knee. In most other parts of the world, only the fashion-impaired would wear shorts with black socks, but since temperatures in Bermuda range from 75° to 90° from May to October, fashion takes a backseat to common sense. Bermuda shorts have been part of the national wardrobe for nearly 100 years, ever since members of the British military stationed in Bermuda first snipped their trousers at the knees to beat the heat.
While Bermuda, a self-governing British colony, shares England's system of government and allegiance to the crown and a few of the mother country's penchants (pints and pub food, afternoon tea and cricket, for instance), Bermuda has plenty of its own, unique customs. A traditional Bermudian breakfast consists of codfish, bananas and potatoes. On Good Friday, young and old spend the day flying kites. One peculiar practice entails placing oil from a shark's liver in a bottle outdoors to predict the weather. ("When the shark-liver oil is clear, it will be a clear day," explained Cann, he of the parrot-fish-waste-pink-sand theory. "When it is cloudy, stormy weather is expected.")
Before leaving Hamilton, I pass a woman who is barely visible behind the Trimingham's shopping bag on her lap. She is slumped in a wheelchair and her leg is in a cast—perhaps the victim of a scooter accident? Interpreting this chance encounter as an omen, I take extra care when approaching the roundabouts.
WONDER AND AMAZEMENT
My wanderlust has led me to Dennis's Hideaway, a popular seafood restaurant for authentic Bermudian food, or so I'm told. I wonder if it's possible to be a hideaway and a hot spot at the same time. "In all my years of driving, a tourist has never asked me to go to Dennis's," a taxi driver tells me when I ask directions to the restaurant, which is located on St. David's Island, at the eastern end of the archipelago.
When I poke my head into the small pink shack that is Dennis's Hideaway, I discover that I am the only customer. And they are expecting me. I had made reservations. A very large man in an undershirt and tan shorts, the band of his boxers sticking out, greets me at the door. "I know, it's like meeting two of me," Dennis says. "Welcome."
Plastic floral tablecloths cover the wooden picnic tables. Dennis hands me a menu that boasts of "Lobester [sic] dinners" and introduces me to his son Graham, who is the head cook. I search the menu for something familiar. Normally, I do not eat types of seafood that wouldn't be found at, say, a Red Lobester restaurant.
"You'll have the works?" Dennis says.
Graham puts a plastic plate with a piece of toast cut into four triangles in front of me. On top of each triangle is something lumpy and yellow. "Here's Jaws," Graham says, without cracking a smile. "It's our specialty. Shark hash."
"What's in it?"
"Never mind," he says.
Planes, boats and people disappear in the Bermuda Triangle, but a Bermuda Toast Triangle vanishing into thin air? I should be so lucky.
Plates and bowls of conch fritters, mussel stew, conch stew, fish chowder—and these are just the appetizers—are brought to me. Dennis and Graham sit at an adjacent table and study my reaction to every dish. Since I do not want to offend my gracious hosts, I do my best to sample all that is put before me, though it is difficult to eat everything that swims in the Atlantic in one sitting.
Throughout dinner—a feast of fried fish, conch steak, shark steak, shrimp and scallops—Dennis Lamb, who is of Mohawk descent, tells stories from his 69 years on St. David's. "This is unlike every other place in Bermuda. Every place else is concrete and filled with cars," he says. Dennis has never driven a car or ridden a moped. When he has to leave St. David's, he takes a bus.
To Dennis's eternal regret, cars and mopeds were first allowed in Bermuda for public use when the Motor Car Act of 1946 was passed. This law restricted the size of cars, set a speed limit of 20 mph and limited each household to one car, which explains why there is no such thing as a two-car garage in Bermuda.
When the Motor Car Act was passed, proponents of the bill claimed there would never be more than 500 cars on the island. By 1960 there were 5,000. At last count there were close to 20,000 cars, and even more scooters and mopeds.
However, the 500,000 tourists who visit Bermuda each year cannot rent cars. If Avis or Hertz were allowed to set up shop, the islands would resemble the Mall of America's parking lot.
The outer reaches of St. David's, where Dennis's is located, is special because its pace has remained virtually unaffected by the arrival of the internal combustion engine. "This is my town," Dennis says proudly. "This is Bermuda."
Cars became necessary when World War II brought U.S. military bases to Bermuda, and when the Bermuda Railway became too expensive to run and fell into disrepair. The route of the Rattle and Shake, as the railroad was known, is now a deserted trail that is perfect for sightseeing. Scooters are permitted on the western end of the trail, which is where Whistling Dixie and I were headed next.
The sweet scent of oleander and the inflections of the open road are lost on anyone exploring the island in a hermetically sealed vehicle. Traveling by car certainly has its advantages—seat belts and air bags, for starters—but if fresh air and a heightened state of consciousness are what you're after, then a scooter is the vehicle for you.
Heading north on the railway trail, I pass a very old man with a very long beard, buzzing along on a red moped in the opposite direction. The bill of his fisherman's cap pokes out from his helmet and a pipe hangs from the corner of his mouth. As I continue down the road, I ride into the lingering aroma of his tobacco.
The west end of the island is a rural area full of sleepy villages, small farms and fishermen's coves. Except for the Royal Naval Dockyard, which was home to a small part of the British Royal Navy for 130 years and is now a tourist attraction with shops, restaurants and a museum, not much has changed over the years. Not even a brief brush with Hollywood altered the west end's quaintness. According to my brochure, "Somerset Village looks much the same as it did in 1962, when it was featured in That Touch of Mink starring Cary Grant and Doris Day."
On my return trip to Elbow Beach, I ride over Somerset Bridge, reputedly the smallest drawbridge in the world, with a 22-inch opening, just wide enough for the mast of a sailboat. As I'm crossing, a big pink bus speeds over the bridge planks, bouncing Whistling Dixie like a basketball on a hardwood floor. Though a bit rattled and shaken, I am still unscathed.
My next venture is to the Crystal Caves, which were discovered in 1908 by two boys who were searching down a hole for a lost cricket ball. Instead they found a crystal cathedral of stalactites and stalagmites, and a sparkling blue lake, nearly 100 feet underground. All that Alice, of Wonderland fame, found when she chased a rabbit down a hole were a few crackpots at a tea party and a madcap Queen of Hearts who had a penchant for croquet.
"The boys never did find the cricket ball," Colin, a tour guide, tells a group of visitors. He points out the odd shapes that stalactites and stalagmites have taken over the course of centuries. "Jesus Christ is on the left," he says. "A French poodle sitting up is on your right. There's a totem pole. Looks like organ pipes there. Tombstones of a cemetery. See the reflection in the pool? Looks like the Manhattan skyline."
Perhaps there are more curious things to see on Bermuda than the first tennis court ever built in the Western Hemisphere, but being a fan of such things, I have saved this trip for last.
Supposedly, the tennis court is at a house called Clermont, somewhere along Harbour Road on the main island. It was on this court in 1874 that Mary Outerbridge, a young woman from New York, learned to play the game while vacationing here. (Lawn tennis was invented in 1860 in England and later was brought to Bermuda.) As the story goes, Outerbridge returned to the U.S. with rackets, nets and balls and had the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club construct a court on its grounds. Thus, Outerbridge helped to introduce tennis to the U.S.
As I ride along Harbour Road, I assume that I will run smack into a giant billboard that reads BIRTHPLACE OF TENNIS IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE. But I am deluded by my American sensibilities; this is not Graceland, I remind myself.
Bermuda is an island of understatement. Though the country is invaded by a horde of visitors, primarily American, on a daily basis, it is largely untouched by the tackiness of tourism. As a litmus test of sorts, I combed the island all week for a shirt that read MY AUNT WENT TO BERMUDA AND ALL SHE BROUGHT HOME WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT. I didn't find one. (The kitschiest gift I purchased was a Sounds of the Night cassette tape, featuring a band of four whistling frogs-John, Paul, George and Eddy.)
Anyway, after several trips up and down Harbour Road, I find no billboard, no sign of Clermont and no one who even knows the Clermont address. After nearly colliding with another scooter while making an illegal U-turn—however, I am still unscathed!—I pull to the side of the road, park my scooter and start searching for clues on foot.
Like a Mormon on a mission, I go from door to door until at last I discover a small sign, the size of a moped license plate, lodged in a hedge, CLERMONT, it reads. Behind the hedge is a majestic house, painted the color of a clay court, and behind the house—at the very site of the first tennis court in the Western Hemisphere, at the exact spot where the godmother of American tennis hit her first forehand—there is a...croquet lawn?
I half expect the Queen of Hearts and Alice, with her flamingo mallet, to appear and challenge me to a game of croquet. Instead, I encounter two little girls, Zoe and Anna, who brighten an otherwise underwhelming final adventure. The two girls decide to decorate Whistling Dixie with flowers, and they secure the stems around the handlebars.
"Well, isn't it prit-tay?" says Zoe, quite pleased with her floral arrangement.
Quite, I tell her.
I leave a trail of petals in my wake as I head back to the cycle livery and say goodbye to Mrs. T, Miguel and my trusty machine. I remove the only flower that weathered the ride, a yellow morning glory that was wedged between wires below the headlight. As dusk settles in, the whistling frogs give me a proper send-off, a sweet serenade.
"Anything to declare?" the customs officer asks at the Bermuda airport.
I take a quick inventory: There has been much torment, little trouble, much to wonder, and much to my amazement, I have broken no bones and all my incisors are intact. I have weathered this supposed tempest.
The officer inspects my customs form and awaits my answer.
I delicately place my morning glory on the counter. "Just this."
St. David's Island