I’m a sucker for tradition, graciousness in large quantities, dressing appropriately for this-could-be-a-movie moments, for scenery that makes my mouth water. All are reasons I’ve fostered a love of the rituals of cruising … and why I’ve also visited Bermuda on a regular basis for more than three decades.
While Bermuda is but a two-hour flight from New York, arriving by sea is the way I like it best. Easing into a Bermuda State of Mind from the frenzied New York one – as opposed to culture shock of getting off the plane and having Paradise hit you, however gently, over the head – is a delicious prospect … as is avoiding the horror of any airport these days.
My husband David and I had booked a last-minute deal for a Penthouse Suite (above) on the Norwegian Dawn (let’s hear it for last-minute cruise deals in this increasingly competitive arena; our suite cost basically one-third of the normal tariff), sailing from the Passenger Ship Terminal a short taxi ride from home. Two days going, three days there, two days returning – with a butler, private terrace, suite-passengers-only breakfast and lunch venues and additional perks – an ideal summer getaway.
In the last year Norwegian Cruise Lines has made a solid effort to distance itself from being lumped in the Carnival-raucous category of cruise, with added attention to the premium passenger experience. Case in point: our embarkation at the terminal was the swiftest, most efficient boarding I’ve ever experienced. Taken in hand by a concierge escort curbside, we were checked in, our specialty restaurants booked, spa appointments confirmed, and we found ourselves having lunch at the ship’s steakhouse… all within 15 minutes of arrival.
Our suite had a large bedroom, seating area with couch and two chairs, a dining table seating four, a desk and abundant and ingenious storage/closet possibilities. The terrace, overlooking the wake, had two comfortable full-sized chaise longues and quickly became our favorite hangout. The décor was all Fauve-inspired colors and whimisical naif paintings; cheerful but not too garish.
NCL has made much of its “Freestyle Cruising” concept, where passengers can eat where and when they choose at an assortment of restaurants/buffets large and small. The Dawn has 14 restaurants, five of which are indeed free; the other specialty restaurants – Le Bistro, Bamboo (Asian), Salsa (southwestern), Cagney’s (steak), Impressions (Italian) among them – can be reserved for an extra charge of from $10 to $25 per person. Throughout the cruise we took advantage of these more intimate, if costly, venues, for the simple calm they provided. (The 2900-passenger Dawn was full up, with lots of families, wedding parties and reunion groups aboard.)
The ship buzzed with the usual activities, live music at every turn, events ranging from towel-folding demonstrations and Bingo to poolside belly-flop contests and barbecues, but we preferred calmer pursuits. Our suite came with breakfast and lunch access to the intimate Cagney’s steakhouse every day – along with a dedicated concierge to book shore excursions, ship activities and spa appointments. There would be no fighting for food at the large Garden Café buffet complex; simply a quiet oasis with our own efficient and enthusiastic staff, who became like family from Day One. The two-day sail to Bermuda was filled with sunning on our terrace, taking the waters at the ship’s expansive spa (replete with hydrotherapy pools, a lap pool and restful lounges), watching movies on our flat-screen tv, reading, and general relaxation.
Our first glimpse of Bermuda at dawn the third morning was much as it should be, as the original British settlers had seen it in 1609. I’d always wanted to shout “Land ho!” and did; though technically, it’s “lands-ho,” for Bermuda’s 22 square miles is not one island, but 361 of them. As the Dawn made her way to the King’s Wharf dock, the water turned from deep blue to countless shades of aqua and turquoise. Glimpses onshore of signature white-roofed pastel houses, lush gardens and winding narrow lanes – I was home.
Bermuda, being the world’s oldest British colony, is the best place to experience a singular sense of British-ness without jet lag or stuffiness … and with infinitely better weather. Its emergence as a booming offshore banking capital notwithstanding, the country has stubbornly kept its spirit of place. There are no high rises –no building by law can be taller than Hamilton’s Anglican Cathedral — no casinos, no chain restaurants (Parliament has consistently voted them down as aesthetically tatty). All these things I love, along with the island’s 22 mph speed limit, eternal devotion to wearing shorts just so, and the sacrament-like observance of afternoon tea.
The ship had dozens of shore excursions, but we decided to freestyle on our own. Bermuda’s official motto is “Quo Fata Ferunt,” which loosely means “whither the fates do carry us,” which we did. First was a ferry ride to Hamilton, which remains a pastel Victorian town, albeit while some of the beloved local emporiums like Trimingham’s have given way to bank headquarters. A stroll along the waterfront, some purchases at the gracious time-warp Irish Linen Shop, and lunch at local hangout The Lobster Pot (fish chowder with local sherry peppers sauce a must) rounded out the day.
One night we booked a candlelight dinner on the terrace of the Seahorse Grill at the century-old Elbow Beach Resort on the South Shore. In the past the best that could be said about Bermuda food was that it was mediocre but there was plenty of it, but in recent years a flock of talented chefs have moved in, lured by the thriving off-shore banking economy, and creating some world-class cuisine. The Seahorse Grill’s chef Tomasz Tabor is one of these, making his mark with seasonal sophisticated dishes incorporating everything from fresh foie gras to George’s Bank scallops with charred leek oil and green apple – all washed down with wines from the hotel’s impressive and well-edited list as the island’s tree frogs chirped a serenade.
Another highlight was a day spent at The Reefs, one of Bermuda’s most celebrated “cottage colonies.” With 65 luxe rooms and suites and its own private pink-sand beach on the South Shore, it has been a perennial favorite of mine and a hostelry that keeps upping the luxury ante. La Serena spa, revamped menus courtesy of Chef Phippe Haddad at the helm of The Reefs’ three gourmet restaurants, and a private residence Reefs Club were all new from my last visit, yet the resort’s gracious spirit of place happily remains intact. We sunned, dipped in the ocean and pool, strolled the sand,had a romantic lunch at Coconuts (above) on the beach, and generally indulged in an only-in-Bermuda experience.
Three days zipped by and, on Friday night we literally sailed away into the sunset, Bermuda’s pastel la
ndscape disappearing with the sun. Yet the magic of the island — William Shakespeare had set “The Tempest, ” my favorite of his plays, here, although he had never been there – remained with us. We had a tranqil evening’s dinner and another day and night ahead to simply relax. The last night we dined at Cagney’s, surrounded by our amiable breakfast/lunch staff, caught the ship’s tribute to Bollywood (surprisingly good) and, afterwards, a polished “crew and staff” show, showcasing the talents of the multinational housekeeping to engineering.
At dawn Sunday, a week after our departure, the Dawn glided under the Verazzano Narrows Bridge into New York Harbor. “You go to heaven – I’ll stay in Bermuda,” wrote Mark Twain, who fell under the island’s spell quite a few years before I had. David and I knew Twain was right, that we’d return sooner rather than later. And, as Twain had, we’d get there the best way: by sea.
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MARY ALICE KELLOGG, a New York-based writer and editor, is a
recipient of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award for Consumer Reporting. A
contributor to many national publications, including Travel + Leisure, Conde
Nast Traveler, Bon Appetit and GQ, she has reported from 120 countries and five
of the seven seas to date… and counting.