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Dockyard and Western Parishes

Bermuda is denser than you might imagine. But in contrast to Hamilton and St. George’s, the island’s West End seems positively pastoral. Many of the top sites here are natural ones: namely the wildlife reserves, wooded areas, and beautiful waterways of Sandys Parish. The notable exception is Bermuda’s single largest tourist attraction—the Royal Naval Dockyard.

Its story begins in the aftermath of the American Revolution when Britain suddenly found itself with neither an anchorage nor a major ship-repair yard in the western Atlantic. Around 1809, just as Napoléon was surfacing as a serious threat and the empire’s ships were becoming increasingly vulnerable to pirate attacks, Britain decided to construct a stronghold in Bermuda. Dubbed the “Gibraltar of the West,” the Dockyard operated as a shipyard for nearly 150 years. The facility was closed in 1951, although the Royal Navy maintained a small presence here until 1976 and held title to the land until 1995.

The Bermudian government and development groups began to plan for civilian use of the Dockyard in 1980. Since then, $21 million in public funds and $42 million in private money has been spent to make the area blossom. Now trees and shrubs grow where there used to be vast stretches of concrete. Private yachts calmly float where naval vessels once anchored, and cruise ships dock at the terminal. Historic structures—like the Clocktower and Cooperage buildings—house restaurants, galleries, shops, even a movie theater. A strip of beach has been turned into a snorkel park. And at the center of it all are the National Museum of Bermuda and Dolphin Quest: two popular facilities that share a fortified 6-acre site. Dockyard will also witness most of the action as it is currently being developed as the site for the 2017 America’s Cup village.

Outside of the Dockyard, Sandys and Southampton are just a short bus ride away. You’ll notice that Sandys (pronounced Sands) is made up of several islands, all connected by bridges, including the smallest drawbridge in the world. It’s in this parish that you’ll also find Somerset Village, which is a popular spot for swimming and fishing. Southampton is the place to head if you want to soak up some rays; don’t miss Horseshoe Bay.

POINTS OF INTEREST

SOMERSET BRIDGE

The West End is connected to the rest of Bermuda by Somerset Bridge, and once you have crossed over it you’re no longer, according to local lingo, “up the country.” More than marking a boundary, Somerset Bridge is something of an attraction in its own right because it’s reputed to be the world’s smallest drawbridge. It opens a mere 18 inches, just wide enough to accommodate the mast of a passing sailboat.

SNORKEL PARK BEACH

Evidence of the Dockyard’s naval legacy can be viewed at this protected inlet, accessed through a stone tunnel adjacent to the National Museum of Bermuda. Beneath the water’s surface lie cast-iron cannons dating from 1550 to 1800, plus an antique anchor and gun-carriage wheel. The true attractions, however, are colorful fish (you might see more than 50 varieties) and other sea creatures including anemones, sea cucumbers, and assorted species of coral. Thanks to amenities like floating rest stations, snorkeling and scuba diving couldn’t be easier. Everything is available to rent, including kayaks, pedalos, Jet Skis, and underwater scooters. This is a family beach by day, catering mainly to cruise ship passengers, and a nightclub by night with beach parties and island barbecues.

FORT SCAUR

The British chose the highest hill in Somerset for the site of this fort, built in the late 1860s and early 1870s to defend the flank of the Dockyard from possible American attacks. British troops were garrisoned here until World War I; and American forces were, ironically, stationed at the fort during World War II. Today its stone walls are surrounded by 22 acres of pretty gardens, and the view of the Great Sound and Ely’s Harbour from the parapet is unsurpassed. Be sure to check out the early-Bermuda Weather Stone, which is billed as a “perfect weather indicator.” A sign posted nearby solemnly explains all.

SOMERSET VILLAGE

Its position on Mangrove Bay once made it a popular hideout for pirates. But judging by Somerset Village’s bucolic appearance, you’d never guess that now. The shady past has been erased by shady trees, quiet streets, and charming cottages. As far as actual attractions go, this quaint one-road retreat has only a few eateries and shops—most of them offshoots of Hamilton stores. However, it provides easy access to Springfield and the Gilbert Nature Reserve, a 5-acre woodland with paths that connect to some of the most scenic portions of Bermuda’s Railway Trail.

BERMUDA ARTS CENTRE AT DOCKYARD

Sleek and modern, with well-designed displays of local art, this gallery is in one of the stone buildings of the former Royal Naval Dockyard. The walls are adorned with paintings and photographs, and glass display cases contain exquisitely crafted ceramics, jewelry, and wood sculpture. Exhibits change every month. Several artists’ studios inside the gallery are open to the public. Much of the work on show is for sale; there’s also a small shop selling prints and a variety of art-related gifts.

HEYDON TRUST PROPERTY

A reminder of what the island was like in its early days, this blissfully peaceful 44-acre preserve remains an unspoiled open space, except for a few flower gardens. Pathways with well-positioned park benches wind through it, affording some wonderful water views. If you continue along the main path, you’ll reach rustic Heydon Chapel. Built in the early 1600s, it’s Bermuda’s smallest church. Although there are no longer any services held at the Chapel, weddings can be arranged by prior appointment. The Chapel is open Monday through Saturday from 8 to 4.

GIBBS HILL LIGHTHOUSE

This cast-iron lighthouse soars above Southampton Parish. Designed in London and opened in 1846, the tower stands 117 feet high and 362 feet above the sea. The light was originally produced by a concentrated burner of four large, circular wicks. Today the beam from the 1,000-watt bulb can be seen by ships 40 miles out to sea and by planes 120 miles away at 10,000 feet. The haul up the 185 spiral stairs is an arduous one—particularly if you dislike heights or tight spaces. But en route to the top you can stop to catch your breath on eight landings, where photographs and drawings of the lighthouse help divert attention from your aching appendages. Once on the balcony, you’ll be rewarded by panoramic island views.

BERMUDA CRAFT MARKET

The island’s largest permanent craft outlet is in the Dockyard’s old Cooperage building, which dates from 1831. Dozens of artists show their work here, and this is the place to go to find that unusual gift, from Bermuda-cedar hair clips to Bermuda chutney and jam. Hand-painted glassware, sterling-silver jewelry, and sand sculptures are also among the pretty offerings.