St. George’s and Hamilton are about 10 miles and 200 years apart. The latter wasn’t even incorporated as a town until 1792; and by the time Hamilton became capital in 1815, St. George’s had already celebrated its bicentennial.
The settlement of Bermuda began in what is now the town of St. George when the Sea Venture — the flagship of an English fleet carrying supplies to Jamestown, Virginia—was wrecked on Bermuda’s treacherous reefs in 1609. Four hundred years later, no visit to the island would be complete without a stop in this picturesque and remarkably preserved example of an early New World outpost.
Although St. George’s is a living community—not a living-history museum—it retains the patina of authenticity. In fact, in 2000 it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That designation puts it on a par with spots like the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal in India. But don’t expect awe-inspiring edifices here. On the contrary, St. George’s chief charm lies in tiny walled cottages, simple colonial churches, and labyrinthine alleys that beg to be explored.
Also over in the east of the island, you will find the parishes of Smith’s and Hamilton. This is probably the quietest corner of the island, so it’s a great spot to enjoy tranquil nature trails. However, tucked away in Hamilton Parish you’ll find two of the island’s biggest attractions; the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo and Crystal Caves. The east is also home to some of Bermuda’s finest golf courses.
POINTS OF INTEREST
This 17th-century building owned by the National Trust was previously home to several of Bermuda’s governors — and at least one ghost. Mistress Christian Stevenson, who was condemned as a witch in 1653, proclaimed her innocence at this spot, and now seems reluctant to leave it. Other National Trust properties also qualify as “favorite haunts.” For instance, the Old Rectory on Broad Alley is said to have a spirit who plays the spinet in the wee hours of the morning.
Housed in an 1860 customs warehouse next to the Penno’s Wharf Cruise Ship Terminal, the center has recently completed its multimillion-dollar renovation. You can now view an introductory film (A Stroll through St. George’s) and visit the ground-floor Orientation Exhibits Gallery, which showcases several hundred years of civic history. In an effort to make the past palatable—even to very young guests—this gallery has engaging models, ranging from a miniaturized version of St. George’s (circa 1620) to a full-scale mock-up of the deck of the Sea Venture. It also contains a costume corner where kids can dress up in period outfits. Developed under the auspices of the St. George’s Foundation, the World Heritage Centre also has an education center, retail galleries, and regular talks, tours, and historical reenactments.
In a place famous for manicured lawns and well-tended gardens, St. David’s Island feels comparatively wild. However, the real highlight is—quite literally—St. David’s Lighthouse. Built in 1879 of Bermuda stone and occupying the tallest point on the East End, this red-and-white striped lighthouse rises 208 feet above the sea, providing jaw-dropping views of St. George’s, Castle Harbour, and the reef-rimmed south shore. This is also a great place to spot humpback whales passing through Bermuda’s waters in April and May.
Built around 1699 by part-time privateer George Dew, this charming limestone cottage is mainly associated with a later resident, Alexander Richardson (the rector of St. Peter’s Church), who lived here between 1763 and 1805. In addition to handsome gardens, the house with its cedar beams, multiple chimneys, and “welcoming arms” entrance is a lovely example of traditional Bermudian architecture. It is currently a private residence.
A curious ritual takes place every April in King’s Square as one peppercorn, regally placed upon a velvet pillow, is presented to the mayor of St. George’s amid much pomp and circumstance. The paltry peppercorn is the rent paid annually for the Old State House by the Masonic Lodge St. George No. 200 of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. This fraternal organization has occupied the building since Bermuda’s Parliament—the third oldest in the world after Iceland’s and England’s—vacated it in 1815 when the capital moved to Hamilton. The Old State House was erected in 1620 in what Governor Nathaniel Butler believed was the Italian style, so it’s one of the few structures in Bermuda to feature a flat roof. Builders used a mixture of turtle oil and lime as mortar, setting the style for future Bermudian buildings.
Furnished to resemble its former incarnation as a private home, this typical Bermudian building reveals what life was like in the early 1700s. Along with period furnishings, such as a 1620 statehouse table, it has assorted documents and artifacts pertaining to the colonial days. But it’s the re-created kitchen—complete with palmetto baskets and calabash dipping gourds—that really takes the cake. Downstairs the printery features a working replica of a Gutenberg-style press, as well as early editions of island newspapers. The beautiful cottage gardens behind the museum are also worth a visit.
St. George’s administrative offices are housed in a putty-color two-story structure that dates back to 1808. Inside the cedar-paneled hall—where the civic government still meets—you can see portraits of past mayors. Better yet, you can get some “face time” with the current one. Midday on Wednesday, November through March, the mayor greets visitors and gives a brief talk.
In 1903—long before environmental issues earned top-of-mind awareness—scientists began studying marine life at this mid-Atlantic facility formerly known as the Bermuda Biological Station for Research. Now researchers from around the world come here to work on projects dealing with hot topics like global warming, marine ecology, and acid rain. You can learn all about them on a free 90-minute tour that starts at 10 am, the first Wednesday of the month in the reception building. Tours cover the grounds and laboratory. You might also see the station’s 168-foot research vessel, R/V HSBC Atlantic Explorer if it happens to be docked that day.
Bermuda’s limestone caves have been attracting attention since the island was first settled. As far back as 1623, Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) commented on these “vary strange, darke, and cumbersome” caverns. Nevertheless, it came as a surprise when two boys, attempting to retrieve a lost ball, discovered Crystal Cave in 1907. The hole through which the boys descended is still visible. But, thankfully, you can now view their find without having to make such a dramatic entrance. Inside, tour guides will lead you across a pontoon bridge that spans a 55-foot-deep subterranean lake. Look up to see stalactites dripping from the ceiling or down through the perfectly clear water to see stalagmites rising from the cave floor. Amateur spelunkers can also journey through geologic time at Crystal’s smaller sister cave, Fantasy. After being closed to the public for decades, it reopened in 2001. Set aside 30 minutes to see one cave; 75 minutes if you plan to take in both.
In a town where age is relative, King’s Square is comparatively new. The square was only created in the 19th century after a marshy part of the harbor was filled in. Today it still looks rather inauspicious, more a patch of pavement than a leafy common, yet the square is St. George’s undisputed center. Locals frequently congregate here for civic celebrations. Visitors, meanwhile, come to see the replica stocks and pillory. Formerly used to punish petty crimes, these grisly gizmos—together with a replica ducking stool—are now popular props for photo ops. Reenactments of historical incidents, overseen by a town crier in full colonial costume, are staged in the square April through November, Monday to Thursday and Saturday at noon, and December through March on Wednesday and Saturday at noon.
After sailing to Jamestown and back in 1610, Sir George Somers—the British admiral charged with developing the Bermudian colony—fell ill and died. According to local lore, he instructed his nephew Matthew Somers to bury his heart in Bermuda, where it belonged. Matthew sailed for England soon afterward, sneaking the body aboard in a cedar chest so as not to attract attention from superstitious sailors, and eventually buried it near Somers’ birthplace in Dorset. Although it can’t be proven that Matthew actually carried out his uncle’s wishes, it’s generally believed that Admiral Somers’ heart was indeed left behind in a modest tomb at the southwest corner of the park. When the tomb was opened many years later, only a few bones, a pebble, and some bottle fragments were found. Nonetheless, ceremonies were held at the empty grave in 1920, when the Prince of Wales christened this pleasant, tree-shrouded park Somers Garden.
Tucker House is owned and lovingly maintained as a museum by the Bermuda National Trust. It was built in the 1750s for a merchant who stored his wares in the cellar (a space that now holds an archaeological exhibit). But it’s been associated with the Tucker family ever since Henry Tucker, president of the Governor’s Council and a key participant in the Bermuda Gunpowder Plot, purchased it in 1775. His descendants lived here until 1809, and much of the fine silver and heirloom furniture—which dates primarily from the mid-18th and early-19th centuries—was donated by them. As a result, the house is essentially a tribute to this well-connected clan whose members included a Bermudian governor, a U.S. treasurer, a Confederate navy captain, and an Episcopal bishop.
The kitchen, however, is dedicated to another notable—Joseph Haine Rainey—who is thought to have operated a barber’s shop in it during the Civil War. (Barber’s Alley, around the corner, is also named in his honor.) As a freed slave from South Carolina, Rainey fled to Bermuda at the outbreak of the war. Afterward, he returned to the United States and, in 1870, became the first black man to be elected to the House of Representatives. A short flight of stairs leads down to the kitchen, originally a separate building, and to an enclosed kitchen garden.
Work began on this intended replacement for St Peter’s Church in 1874. But, just as it neared completion, construction was halted by storm damage and disagreements within the church community. Hence the massive Gothic Revival pile sat—unfinished and crumbling—until the Bermuda National Trust stepped in to stabilize the structure in 1992. With soaring stone walls, a grassy floor, and only the sky for a roof, it’s the sort of atmospheric ruin that poets and painters so admire.
The BAMZ, established in 1926, has always been a pleasant diversion. But following an ambitious decade-long expansion program, it rates as one of Bermuda’s premier attractions. In the aquarium, the big draw is the North Rock Exhibit, a 140,000-gallon tank that gives you a diver’s-eye view of the area’s living coral reefs and the colorful marine life it sustains. The museum section has multimedia and interactive displays focusing on native habitats and the impact humans have had on them. The island-theme zoo, meanwhile, displays more than 300 birds, reptiles, and mammals. Don’t miss the “Islands of Australasia” exhibit with its lemurs, wallabies, and tree kangaroos, or “Islands of the Caribbean,” a huge walk-through enclosure that gets you within arm’s length of ibises and golden lion tamarins. Other popular areas include an outdoor seal pool, tidal touch tank, and cool kid-friendly Discovery Room. Take a break at the AZU Beastro on the grounds of the zoo. The food is great but it also has one of the best views.
The history, trials, and accomplishments of black Bermudians are highlighted in this converted 1840s warehouse. Photographs of early black residents including slaves, freedom fighters, and professionals line the walls, and the works of black artisans are proudly exhibited. Look, in particular, for the display about the Enterprise, a slave ship that was blown off course to Bermuda while sailing from Virginia to South Carolina in 1835. Since slavery had already been abolished on the island, the 78 slaves on board were technically free—and the Local Friendly Societies (grassroots organizations devoted to liberating and supporting slaves) worked to keep it that way. Society members obtained an injunction to bring the slaves’ case into court and escorted the “human cargo” to their hearing in Hamilton, where many spoke in their own defense. All except one woman and her four children accepted the offer of freedom. Today countless Bermudians trace their ancestry back to those who arrived on the Enterprise. Appropriately enough, the museum building was once home to one of the Friendly Societies.
Erected as a governor’s mansion around 1700, this building became a hotbed of activity during the American Civil War. From here, Confederate Major Norman Walker coordinated the surreptitious flow of guns, ammunition, and war supplies from England, through Union blockades, into American ports. It saw service as the Globe Hotel during the mid-19th century and became a National Trust property in 1951. A short video, Bermuda, Centre of the Atlantic, recounts the history of Bermuda, and a memorabilia-filled exhibit entitled “Rogues & Runners: Bermuda and the American Civil War” describes St. George’s when it was a port for Confederate blockade runners.
Ordnance Island, directly across from King’s Square, is dominated by a splendid bronze statue of Sir George Somers, commander of the Sea Venture. Somers looks surprised that he made it safely to shore—and you may be surprised that he ever chose to set sail again when you spy the nearby Deliverance. It’s a full-scale replica of one of two ships—the other was the Patience—built under Somers’s supervision to carry survivors from the 1609 wreck onward to Jamestown. But considering her size (just 57 feet from bow to stern) Deliverance hardly seems ocean-worthy by modern standards.
Because parts of this whitewashed stone church date back to 1620, it holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating Anglican church in the Western Hemisphere. It was not, however, the first house of worship to stand on this site. It replaced a 1612 structure made of wooden posts and palmetto leaves that was destroyed in a storm. The present church was extended in 1713 (the oldest part is the area around the triple-tier pulpit), with the tower and wings being added in the 19th century. Befitting its age, St. Peter’s has many treasures. The red cedar altar, carved in 1615 under the supervision of Richard Moore (a shipwright and the colony’s first governor) is the oldest piece of woodwork in Bermuda. The late 18th-century bishop’s throne is believed to have been salvaged from a shipwreck, and the baptismal font brought to the island by early settlers, is an estimated 900 years old. There’s also a fine collection of communion silver from the 1600s in the vestry. Nevertheless, it’s the building itself that leaves the most lasting impression. With rough-hewn pillars, exposed cedar beams, and candlelit chandeliers, the church is stunning in its simplicity. After viewing the interior, walk into the churchyard to see where prominent Bermudians, including Governor Sir Richard Sharples who was assassinated in 1973, are buried. A separate graveyard for slaves and free blacks (to the west of the church, behind the wall) is a poignant reminder of Bermuda’s segregated past.
This restored hilltop fort is arguably the most formidable-looking one on the island. Surrounded by a dry moat and accessed by a drawbridge, it has enough tunnels, towers, redoubts, and ramparts to satisfy even the most avid military historian—or adrenaline-fueled child. The original fort was built around 1614 by Bermuda’s first governor, Richard Moore, but it was remodeled and enlarged at least five times. In fact, work continued on it until late in the 19th century. On-site an intriguing collection of antique weapons complement the impressive architecture. Standing out among the pistols and muskets is an 18-ton muzzle-loading cannon, which was capable of firing 400-pound shells a full half-mile.
This Bermuda National Trust park has 64 acres for roaming, though you’re asked to keep to the well-marked walkways that loop through the woods and along the spectacular shoreline. More than 30 species of waterfowl—including herons, egrets, and white-eyed vireos—winter here between November and May, making the reserve a top spot for birders. Get your timing right and you may be able to spy migrating whales as well. History buffs may be more interested in climbing the high bluff to Portuguese Rock. Early settlers found this rock crudely carved with the date 1543 along with other markings that are believed to be the initials “RP” (for Rex Portugaline, King of Portugal) and a cross representing the Portuguese Order of Christ. The theory goes that a Portuguese ship was wrecked on the island and that her sailors marked the occasion before departing on a newly built ship. The rock was removed to prevent further damage by erosion and a bronze cast of the original stands in its place. A plaster-of-Paris version is also on display at the Museum of the Bermuda Historical Society in Hamilton.
Even if you think you’ve had your fill of old houses, Verdmont deserves a look. The National Trust property, which opened as a museum in 1956, is notable for its Georgian architecture. Yet what really sets this place apart is its pristine condition. Though used as a residence until the mid-20th century, virtually no structural changes were made to Verdmont since it was erected around 1710. Former owners never even added electricity or plumbing (so the “powder room” was strictly used for powdering wigs). The house is also known for its enviable collection of antiques. Some pieces—such as the early-19th-century piano—were imported from England. However, most are 18th-century cedar, crafted by Bermudian cabinetmakers. Among the most interesting artifacts are the pint-size furnishings and period toys that fill Verdmont’s upstairs nursery. A china coffee service said to have been a gift from Napoléon to U.S. President James Madison, is also on display. The president never received it, though, since the ship bearing it across the Atlantic was seized by a privateer and brought to Bermuda. Verdmont also has its share of resident ghosts: among them, an adolescent girl who died of typhoid there in 1844.