The charms of a cruise to Bermuda are not lost on those who prefer big-ship voyages, but alas, neither the mouth of Hamilton Harbour nor the dock facilities in town can accommodate those larger vessels. Which means, increasingly, that cruise ships once based at Hamilton, Bermuda's capital city (or even at the picturesque St. George's) now must go to King's Wharf (also known as the Royal Navy Dockyard). But by no means does that mean one must bypass Hamilton; it's an easy ferry ride from the Dockyards.
In any event, you really shouldn't miss a visit to Hamilton. It's also the place that attracts the most visitors because it has plenty of sightseeing attractions -- including Bermuda's newest, the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute. Most attractions are easy to see on foot. As you stroll through this beautiful port town, you'll love the charming pastel-colored two-story buildings along Front Street (take a break inside the Par-La-Ville Gardens on Queen Street).
Amid the eye-candy viewing atop spots such as the Anglican Cathedral and Point Pleasant -- and the must-see "bird cage" near Queen Street where Bermuda-shorts-wearing constables direct the traffic -- is all the history that made this colorful and somewhat bustling town what it is today. Founded in 1790, Hamilton became the capitol of Bermuda in 1815 because of its central location on the island, which the Colonists believed offered more room to expand. The port city was named after Henry Hamilton, a British Lieutenant Governor and the island's governor (1788 - 1794), whose ancestry traced all the way back to Mary Queen of Scots. Maybe that explains why the passionate loyalty to England is way more than just fish and chips and cricket games.
Among Hamilton's other highlights? Golfing is a big deal, for sure, and beaches are conveniently close by. You'll be tempted to buy gorgeous porcelain and cashmere till the cows come home, and the nightlife's not bad either -- but remember, we're comparing it to the rest of Bermuda, not Vegas or Miami. That being said, at 6 p.m. on Wednesdays (when most of the cruise ships that call at Bermuda are docked at one or another of the island's ports), Hamilton's Front Street becomes party central; the street's closed off to traffic and suddenly the sidewalks are lined with food concession stands, live music and plenty of dancing. Boogie 'til 3 a.m. any night at After Hours, The Deep or Splash.
If you are on cruise ship that is less than 700 feet long, you'll dock in downtown Hamilton, at Passenger Terminal 1, 5 or 6. If, however, you're on a larger ship, you'll be docking at King's Wharf, (also known as The Royal Navy Dockyard) since Hamilton Harbour cannot accommodate post-Panamax vessels. In that instance, you can take a ferry to downtown Hamilton from the King's Wharf Terminal.
Ships are merely steps from Front Street shopping, the Ferry Landing, restaurants by the dozen and enough sightseeing stops to fill an entire day. Everything you want is really close at hand.
If you're a first-time visitor, get a good map before setting out, and don't be shy about asking for directions. The Department of Tourism publishes a free pocket map (Bermuda Handy Reference Map) which is typically distributed to hotels and is available at all Visitor Information Centres. It provides an excellent overview, highlighting major attractions, golf courses and public beaches -- along with a detailed street plan of Hamilton.
A good first stop on your first day is at the Visitor's Information Centre on Front Street (open Monday - Saturday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.) for bus tokens, tickets and transportation passes. If you're on a larger ship arriving at the Dockyard, a Visitor's Information Centre is located at the Clocktower Parade. Also available here is the Heritage Pass ($25 per person) that gets you access to six cultural attractions within a seven-day period: the Bermuda National Gallery, Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo, Bermuda Maritime Museum, Bermuda National Trust, Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute and all forts; or, if you have only one day to spend, $10 can get you into the Tucker House Museum, Bermuda National Trust and the Verdmont Museum.
Bermudians drive on the left -- and car rentals are verboten -- which means visitors must rely on mopeds, bikes, taxis, ferries and the cotton-candy pink bus system.
Sure, those scooters are cute and you will be tempted to rent one, but we suggest thinking twice if you're a newbie. The roads are narrow and winding, and you'll find yourself spending a good deal of time getting out of the way of speeding locals who don't care whether they pass on the left or right -- to say nothing of that cumbersome left-side driving detail.
You don't need a driver's license, but you do need a helmet and insurance (the rental company includes both in the rental fee). You also must be over the age of 16. Ask about multi-day prices (about $60 for two days, $81 for three) -- otherwise plan on $38 for a one-day rental (built-for-twos will run $55 - $65). Rentals are available at Wheel Cycles on Front Street
Conventional bikes (livery cycles or "peddle bikes" to the locals) are rentable for about $20 a day at just a few shops throughout the island -- but since Bermuda is known for its steep hills, it might prove to be a bit of a challenge. One fun option is to ride all or part of the flat 18-mile Bermuda Railway Trail, which runs the length of the island. Oleander Cycles' location in Southampton is the closest, although they are likely to try to sell you a standard bicycle; ask them if they have electric bikes that you can rent for the day.
Pink buses travel along all major roadways, making stops every 15 minutes except Sundays and holidays when it's every hour, or...well...not. That's the good news. The bad news is they'll eat into the time you have on the island. You'll need exact change in coins (or tokens) for the fare box (from Hamilton to King's Wharf, for example, is $4.50; ages 5-16, $2; under five, free). Transportation Passes for one or three days are also available for unlimited use for all zones for $12 and $28, respectively. .
Time-saving ferries criss-cross the Great Sound between Hamilton and King's Wharf for $4 (kids pay $1), but cash is no longer accepted. Tokens are available at the Hamilton Ferry Terminal, the Visitors Information Centre (Front Street and the Clocktower at King's Wharf) and the Central Terminal (Washington Street). Take mopeds and bikes onboard most routes for an additional $4. Schedules are posted at the landing.
Taxis are plentiful but pricey; if you want to use one for sightseeing, we suggest taking ones that have blue flags on their hoods. That means the driver is government qualified. Fares increase by 25 percent between midnight and 6 a.m., and on Sundays and holidays. There are more than a handful of taxi stands along Front Street and another on Church Street near the Central Terminal.
Surrey rides are fun, and you'll find plenty near Front Street's docks in Hamilton. A half-hour jaunt will run you $30. There's not much wiggle room when it comes to negotiating a lower fare.
Legal tender is the Bermuda dollar, which is divided into 100 cents. One Bermuda dollar is currently equal to one U.S. dollar. U.S. currency is normally accepted in shops, restaurants and hotels -- but currency from Britain, Canada and other foreign countries is not. Exchanging money is easy, whether it's at an ATM or a bank. There are plenty of ATMs throughout Hamilton, including locations inside Trimingham's and the Visitors Service Bureau. For more currency exchange information, visit www.oanda.com.
Note: Bank of Bermuda's ATMs can only take four-digit PINs.
English is understood and spoken everywhere.
You'll find plenty of traditional dishes like fish chowder laced with black rum and hot peppers, hashed shark, and conch anything in Hamilton. And definitely order anything made with their fabulous Bermuda onions.
Harley's at the Fairmount Hamilton Princess (Tuesday - Sunday noon - 2:30 p.m. Fairmont Hamilton Princess, Pitt Bay Rd) is a gem. We love their Caesar salad with lobster and the creamy spinach with the crispy crunchy Bermuda onions.
At Fresco's (daily noon-2:30 p.m. Chancery Lane), you'll think the ship just tied up in Morocco. Award-winning, these folks also run Aqua at the Ariel Sands. Take a chair or a cushion - and dig in. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run about $60.
La Coquille (daily noon - 2:30 p.m. 40 Crow Lane) is Paris-worthy. Don't skip the pan-fried foie gras and caramelized pears. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run about $30.
At the Lobster Pot (Daily 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. Bermudiana Rd.), the fish chowder is so good, tourists haul quartfuls back home. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run about $35.
Port O'Call (Monday-Friday noon - 2:30 p.m. Front St.): Go fish. Brilliantly prepared and worth pursuing. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run about $28.
Hog Penny (Monday - Saturday 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m. Burnaby Hill St.) is the pub of choice for conch chowder or bangers and mash. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run about $25.
Waterloo House (open daily, noon - 2:30 p.m., 100 Pitts Bay Rd, Hamilton) offers waterfront dining. If you can't make lunch, go for cocktails at sunset. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run about $28.
Monte Carlo (Monday-Friday noon - 2:30 p.m. 3 Victoria St.) is a great spot for people watching and bouillabaisse. Oh--- the white chocolate cr?me brulee. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run about $30.
At Barracuda Grill (open daily 5:30 p.m. - 10 p.m. Burnaby Hill) start with the oysters Rockefeller and have their perfectly grilled rack of lamb that is accompanied by a wild mushroom risotto. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run about $100. Hamilton.
The Newport Room (dinner only, daily, 6:30 p.m. - 10 p.m., jacket required, Fairmont Southampton, Shore Rd) is formal and fabulous. Hope that the duck breast with a cinnamon and fig sauce is on the menu the day you show up. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run about $55.
At Aqua (daily from 6:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. Ariel Sands, Devonshire), try the pan-fried scallops. They're divine. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run about $110.
More than three centuries old, the Waterlot Inn (dinner only daily 6:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m., jackets required, Fairmont Southhampton Princess), the gravlox is dressed up with a pineapple-ginger salsa. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run about $55.
Bermuda offers its best deals on U.K. imports, such as nice cashmere sweaters and Harris tweeds. You're shopping duty-free, so that means prices run at least 20 percent less than in the U.S. You might get closer to a 40 percent range at some places, but trust us -- prices aren't as good as they once were. Other souvenirs? You can pick up some ginger beer (it's an acquired taste) and Gosling's rum to make a Dark 'n' Stormy back home, but with the new rules on carrying liquids, you're going to have to figure out a way to keep it in your checked luggage if you are flying from your disembarkation port. Oh, yeah, don't forget the Bermuda shorts.
Dark 'n' Stormy, a concoction of Bermuda's own Gosling Black Seal Rum and ginger beer.