Cuba is one of my favorite countries in the world. I love it so much that I’ve made eight separate visits to the island and began leading group tours there. From the powdery white sand beaches and turquoise waters to the spectacular salsa dancing and mojitos for sale on every corner-what’s not to love? Cubans are some of the most kind-hearted, generous people on the planet, eager to open their homes and hearts to tourists from every corner of the world. Having traveled solo across Cuba as a woman, I have so many memories of men and women, young and old, reaching out to enrich and help me in my journey. I also have far too many memories of otherwise harmless men cat calling me day in and day out with the same pick-up lines.
I strongly encourage women to visit Cuba, either alone or in a group. Below are my tips on what to expect and how to avoid or handle uncomfortable situations.
Personal Safety and Common Scams
In terms of physical safety, Cuba is an ideal destination for female travelers. Most streets can be walked alone at night, violent crime is rare, and Cubans are friendly and quick to offer helpful advice and directions to befuddled-looking ladies (and gents!).
In terms of cat calling, however, be prepared for the extra attention. Whether it’s daytime or nighttime, and regardless of the length of your skirt, get ready for an onslaught of “Where you from,” “You so beautiful,” and “You need a boyfriend?” The incessant comments are tiresome, especially when persistent jineteros (street hustlers known for swindling tourists) insist on accompanying you along your route.
Many female travelers find themselves being wooed by a smooth Cuban papi who starts off buying roses on the Malecón (waterfront esplanade), then begins to ask for internet cards and money deposits on his phone (only so he can communicate with you more, of course). One of the most common complaints that solo female travelers have about their visit to Cuba, is believing they’ve made a friend (or met the love of their life!), who then shifts all conversations to money requests, often claiming it’s needed to help a sick grandmother or to buy a present for a daughter’s birthday.
How to Handle Hustlers
Assess your safety. Again, Cuba is a very safe country but if you’re walking on a desolate street at night, or your harasser is in a group and they seem like they may cause trouble, or if you feel your physical safety may be at risk for any reason, the best response might be not engaging at all. Walk away as quickly as possible and look for help.
Walk with confidence. Hustlers and creeps prey on women who look weak or lost—in any country!
Ignore the man and keep walking. Even the smallest response—be it friendly or nasty-often encourages more persistence.
When cat callers are persistent, hit them with “No me moleste,” pronounced ‘no may mol-ES-tay’ (don’t bother me), or “Ya!” (Enough, already!). Speak firmly so they know you are serious.
If a hustler is being pushy about showing you around or helping you find a casa, taxi, restaurant, or anything else, tell him that you’ve already paid for your casa and taxi and all the meals are included in your rent. If he then says he just wants to show you around “as a friend,” tell him that you’ve already paid for sightseeing tours and your entire trip is full of activities. Many guys will stop if they feel they have no opportunity to make money off you. If he keeps being pushy, say “No, gracias, adios!” and walk away or use the stronger language in tip 4.
Look for a police officer. Cuba takes crime and harassment very seriously, so much so that just a few years ago, Cuban men were not allowed to accompany foreign women on the street and men were often stopped and given a background check before they were allowed to proceed. Hustlers and creeps do NOT want to have problems with the police, so even if you don’t see a police officer, you can say “Voy a buscar policia” (I’m going to look for the police). The repercussions for Cubans harassing tourists can be severe so only report someone who you believe is seriously harassing you or is dangerous. As annoying as “hola linda” may be, you probably don’t want to send someone to jail for it.
Join group walking or bike tours when you don’t want to be pestered.
Due to the US embargo, Cuba has been cut off from much of the world for over half a century. As a result, so-called “everyday items” are difficult to impossible to come by. Stock up on tampons, sanitary pads, and personal care items before you arrive, as all are scarce in Cuba. The DivaCup, one of my favorite travel products, takes up a lot less space and is more eco-friendly than pads or tampons. If you’d like to consider donating your leftover toiletries, they can easily be left at your accommodation, but which are even more needed by women who don’t have ready access to tourist dollars and gifts.
In order to maintain a woman’s dignity and not come off as a “tourist savior,” I often approach a woman on the street with a bag and say, “I’m leaving Cuba tomorrow and would like to leave these items behind. Could you use them?” Without looking in the bag, my donations have been graciously accepted every single time.
Just about any item you can imagine needing on the trip, including batteries, pain relievers, ear plugs, and good quality headphones will be hard to find in Cuba. Popping into the Duty-Free shop or a local drugstore is not an option so pack absolutely everything you anticipate needing during your trip. Need help packing? Check out my guide for how to pack for Cuba, which also includes highly sought-after donations that won’t take up much space in your luggage.
As you would in any other country, take precautions with your handbag and carry only as much cash as you need. Cuba is a very safe country, but petty theft is common in busy tourist areas.
Learn some simple Spanish phrases to feel more independent and carry a phrase book or install a language app on your phone for back-up!
If you’re heading home late by yourself—particularly if you’ve enjoyed one mojito too many—hire a taxi instead of walking. Always carry with you the business card of where you are staying to show a driver to ensure you find your way home.
The protagonist of my mystery series, Carol Sabala, usually dashes to her murder mystery adventures in Santa Cruz, California—a town often known for its surf culture, oceanfront Boardwalk, and attempts to push back against the mainstream and “Keep Santa Cruz Weird.” Locals who read my books are treated to mentions of familiar sights and stops, while those who have never stepped foot in this part of California can get a feel of the place I call home. Life in Santa Cruz is a cornerstone of much of my writing, but so has been my experiences traveling.
After spending a month in Cuba in 2010, I knew I had to use this colorful country as a backdrop. I sent Carol to the island in my seventh book, Black Beans & Venom. Fellow crime writer Allen Eskens said: “Set in the vibrant and gritty back streets of Cuba, this cat-and-mouse hunt for a missing woman is full of intrigue, suspense and authenticity.”
Intrigue and suspense are what get a mystery writer’s brain humming. Authenticity can be more elusive. My trip to Cuba was worlds apart from previous experiences I’ve had visiting Latin American countries. Cuba is electric and memorable, and if you have the chance to visit, you’ll find that you don’t have to explore back streets to encounter the gritty.
If you want a Starbucks on the corner and memory-foam mattresses, Cuba is not for you. The long-standing embargo has created many shortages, compensated for by great resourcefulness.
Cuba beckoned my husband and me—a non-stop flight to Cancun and then an hour hop to Havana. Fairly simple travel to be in one of only two places in the world without Coca-Cola. Our trip, unencumbered by a sanctioned tour, was illegal.
We purchased our flight tickets via a Canadian travel agency. Americans can enter Cuba with a special visa instead of the normal passport stamp. Reentry to the United States is the sticking point. It is against the law to lie to a Customs Official about one’s travel. Fortunately, when we returned—my husband camouflaged with his new Cancun cap—no one asked where we’d been. My private detective heroine adopts this same ploy.
The two of us stayed in casas particulares, private homes that rent out rooms and provide a breakfast of bread, coffee, eggs, juice, and the fruit grown in Cuba—guavas, pineapple, mangoes, watermelon, and small, firm bananas. While the menu doesn’t vary much, the quality does! We were served everything from rotten bananas and instant coffee with powdered milk to sweet fruit and strong Cuban coffee.
Propaganda billboards line the main highways. One announces that Cubans eat Cuban pork. Fish with cristianos and moros—white rice (imported from Vietnam) and black beans provided our standard fare. Steak is practically none existent, and with chicken, expect only dark meat. White meat is reserved for higher-ups. You have two choices for beer—light or dark. Rum, however, is abundant!
Tourists don’t use the same money as Cubans. The two economies segregate visitors from the locals. For example, Cubans can ride on the air-conditioned busses available to tourists—if they can afford them. But they’ll most likely be traveling on hot, crowded buses, or trying to hitch a ride from someone who owns a car. People with cars are, by law, required to pick up hitchhikers.
Although Americans have been restricted in their travel, people from all over the world flock to Cuba. Like me, some are drawn to the Hemingway memorabilia—“his room,” in Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana; the Floridita bar, a Hemingway haunt, also in Havana; and the perfectly preserved Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s home in San Francisco de Paula.
We visited Cuba in December to catch the International Jazz Festival, procuring tickets for ten dollars on each night of the performances. While we loved listening to the world-famous pianist Chucho Valdez, we encountered some of our favorite rhythms on the streets.
The clave beats we associate with Cuban music are derived from the drumming of Santería celebrations. The Santería influence abounds in Cuban life. In 1992 Cuba revised its Constitution removing references to the country as Marxist-Leninist, opening the door for a resurgence of religious worship. Santería has grown in popularity since that time. One can see initiates dressed in white strolling the cobblestoned streets of Havana or Trinidad.
In Trinidad, we visited a Santería church where altar objects reflected the complicated mix of Catholicism with beliefs imported from Africa with the slaves.
In Black Beans & Venom, the missing woman, seeking a cure for her cancer, visits a babalao, or babalawo—a Santería high priest. For this scene, I relied on a friend’s first-hand experience, right down to the sacrificed goat and pigeon on the altar.
According to Eskens, Black Beans & Venom delivers “readers completely and believably to another world,” so if you can’t make a trip to Cuba, or to California, you can explore both places in my Carol Sabala series!
Most of us at Moon have an ever-growing list of places we want to visit, a common side effect of working on a book–or even just seeing the cover options. The following list reflects a few of the destinations that inspired our wanderlust in the last year. There are trip-of-a-lifetime-type destinations and there are smaller destinations, but all of them triggered that classic reverie, imagining what it would be like to be there, and the pull of awaiting adventure.
The quiet, secluded island feels like a beach town that has only hesitantly embraced its identity as a beach town…. Twenty-five miles of wide, multi-use trails run parallel to the main roads, and the flat terrain is optimal for biking.”
–From Moon Sarasota & Naples by Jason Ferguson
A lot of the city’s charm lies in the interesting excursions…. Choose a day trip to Volcán Masaya, Mombacho, or the Laguna de Apoyo…. The annual Poetry Festival (February 14-20, 2016) is a knockout.”
–From Moon Nicaragua by Elizabeth Perkins
The largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands is the richest in history, culture, and landscapes…. Nowhere is St. Croix’s diversity more evident than in its music, food, and arts.”
–From Moon U.S. & British Virgin Islands by Susanna Henighan Potter
Cuba is a mother lode for anyone who loves classic American autos, fine cigars, quality rums, and Las Vegas-style cabaret revues…. The tail fins of ’57 Eldorados still glint beneath the floodlit mango trees of nightclubs.”
–From Moon Cuba by Christopher P. Baker
Bourbon Trail, Kentucky
Sample small towns and small sips of Kentucky’s spirit along this idyllic route. To make the most of your meandering along the trail, check out our five day itinerary.
Travel along the famed Bourbon Trail and you’ll get to taste more than the nation’s only native liquor…. This is small-town America, …where neighbors are never strangers and where the best cooking is home cooking.”
–From Moon Kentucky by Theresa Dowell Blackinton
Hudson River Valley, New York
Catch a northbound train from New York’s Grand Central Station for a weekend of antiques and historic estates. There are plenty of day trips to the Valley for those short on time but big on travel.
A handful of majestic estates line the Hudson River…. Kykuit, the sprawling hilltop estate of the Rockefeller family, is a must-see…. If you want to browse antiques shops, …stay on the train until it arrives at Cold Spring Station.
–From Moon Hudson Valley & the Catskills by Nikki Goth Itoi
Just an hour from Tulum are the terrific jungle-cloaked ruins of Cobá…. The view from the top is impressive—a flat green forest spreading almost uninterrupted in every direction.”
–From Moon Cancún & Cozumel by Gary Chandler & Liza Prado
Steep, narrow streets characterize [Quito’s centro historico], and cars barely fit in lanes designed for horse and foot traffic.”
–From Moon Ecuador &the Galápagos Islands by Ben Westwood
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Stare out at the garden of sandstone spires and see first-hand what a hoodoo is. Take three days to experience best of Zion and Bryce, or craft your own weekend escape.
Bryce Canyon isn’t a canyon at all, but rather the largest of a series of massive amphitheaters cut into the Pink Cliffs…. A short walk down either the Queen’s Garden Trail or the Navajo Loop Trail from Sunset Point will bring you close to Bryce’s hoodoos.”
–From Moon Zion & Bryce by W. C. McRae & Judy Jewell
L. M. Montgomery portrayed rural Cavendish as an idyllic ‘neverland’ called Avonlea, imbued with innocence and harmony. The most pastoral and historic places are preserved as part of Prince Edward Island National Park.”
–From Moon Atlantic Canada by Andrew Hempstead
Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies
Take an epic drive from one of Canada’s most dynamic cities to the glaciers and ice fields of Banff and Jasper National Parks. Roadtrip to Vancouver and make sure the car’s packed for camping in Banff. If you’d like to take in more of the city or Vancouver Island, here’s when and where to go.
Vancouver [is] a splendid conglomeration of old and new architectural marvels, parks and gardens, and sheltered beaches.”
–From Moon British Columbia by Andrew Hempstead
The 230-kilometer (143-mile) Icefields Parkway, between Lake Louise and Jasper, is one of the most scenic, exciting, and inspiring mountain roads ever built.”
–From Moon Canadian Rockies by Andrew Hempstead
As evening falls, …amber streetlights illuminate the sandstone domes of 18th-century churches, while clanging iron bells herald the end of another day…. Mariachis tune their instruments and sidewalks hum with diners, gallery-goers, and revelers. This is Mexico mágico, the mythic place of corridos (ballads) alive and thriving on the high plains.”
–From Moon San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato and the Bajío by Julie Doherty Meade
Savor authentic Basque cuisine in this up-and-coming capital city, which also hosts a summer Shakespeare festival in a riverside amphitheater. Before you travel, discover all Idaho has to offer.
Once you arrive in Boise, take in a summer play under the stars at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival after touring the Basque Block… a thriving ethnic enclave with restaurants, bars, and a museum.
–From Moon Idaho by James P. Kelly
Follow the St. Lawrence River north out of Québec City for relaxingly beautiful scenery, quaint towns, and perhaps a beluga whale sighting. Once winter hits, skiing Le Massif de Charlevoix is an incredible experience–despite modernization, the mountain maintains its unique, untouched beauty.
Charlevoix’s landscape is distinct in its variety. At times pastoral and hilly, the region’s high cliffs and breathtaking fjords are adorned with tundra, while nearby, steep sand dunes rise unexpectedly along the coastline.”
–From Moon Montréal & Québec City by Sacha Jackson
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
Kayak around Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to view these colorful cliffs at your own pace. Start planning your visit early to make the most of the experience.
The remarkable colors, cliffs, and rock formations of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore stretch out like an artistic masterpiece being unveiled.”
–From Moon Michigan’s Upper Peninsula by Paul Vachon
The mist lifted to reveal the spellbinding sight of perfect stonework backed by the towering mountain of Huayna Picchu…. Machu Picchu is the culmination of a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage.”
–From Moon Machu Picchu by Ben Westwood
North Carolina’s High Country is no joke. The mountains are steep, and the road grows aggressively curvy, making for unworldly views as you round corners with nothing but space and the Blue Ridge Mountains in front of you.”
–From Moon Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip by Jason Frye
You can spend your entire week admiring altars and tapestries, and enjoying the party in Oaxaca City. Or you can head out into the valleys and hills, and celebrate…in a dozen different towns and villages. Every single one will have its own way of honoring their dead.”
–From Moon Oaxaca by Justin Henderson
The cool, lush Russian River Valley has forests, rivers, small farms, and some of the best pinot noir and chardonnay in California…. The warmer Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley are home to big red wines from small family-owned wineries.”
–From Moon Napa & Sonoma by Elizabeth Linhart Veneman
São Paolo and Iguaçu Falls, Brazil
Head to Brazil’s economic and cultural center for urban sophistication then combine it with a side trip to Iguaçu Falls to stare into the Devil’s Throat. A stroll to take in the sights along São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista is an excellent daytime activity, as is shopping for the latest Brazil fashions between browsing antique galleries.
“Teeming with noise, activity, and a certain degree of urban chaos, …São Paolo offers a wealth of artistic, gastronomic, nightlife, and shopping options.”
“Iguaçu is not just one big cascade but a series of 275 falls that rush over a 3-kilometer-wide (2-mi) precipice. The sound is deafening, and the sight absolutely unforgettable.”
–From Moon Brazil by Michael Sommers
People come here to make their dreams come true…. You don’t have to be here more than a day or two to encounter truly talented musicians singing on the curb on Broadway.”
–From Moon Nashville by Margaret Littman
An archipelago arranged as a fishhook, Bermuda comprises a total of more than 100 islands encircled by a collar of coral. Wary Spanish mariners of the 16th century dubbed them Las Islas de Demonios (Islands of Devils), while the English preferred the more benign moniker “The Summer Islands.”
[pullquote align=right]Though tiny, Bermuda’s landmass holds an astonishingly diverse range of natural habitats—from marshland to sand dunes and cedar woodland—that support an equally varied ecology.[/pullquote]Today, eight of the largest islands—St. George’s Island, St. David’s Island, Bermuda Island, Somerset Island, Watford Island, Boaz Island, Ireland Island South, and Ireland Island North—are connected by bridges and a causeway to form a single entity, which locals simply call “The Island.” Within the many picturesque harbors, bays, and sounds are scatterings of smaller islands and islets, some public, others privately owned, many just rocky uninhabited outcrops lacking structures or vegetation.
The main island is relatively small at 21 square miles (22 miles end to end, and never more than two miles wide), with the hook’s western third curling around to the northwest. But due to its varied and hilly—though not mountainous—terrain, Bermuda from the ground is rather deceptive, leading one to believe that, just around the next corner, there might be more than the sum of its compressed vital statistics. An aerial view is more revealing: As you descend for a landing at the East End airport, sweeping from violet deep-ocean across reef-dotted aquamarine shallows, the island appears almost fragile in its entirety—an oceanic oddity whose geographic isolation has shaped a distinct survival.
Bermuda’s unique, seemingly contradictory characteristics have long intrigued scientists. A subtropical island about 650 miles from the nearest mainland (Cape Hatteras, North Carolina), it bears little resemblance to its Caribbean cousins in climate, biota, or geology. Instead, Bermuda is bathed by the balmy Gulf Stream, which exerts a moderating influence on its climate, just as the easterly trade winds do down south. Yet, unlike the tropical Indies, Bermuda’s winters are damp and storm-wracked. There is no typical wet or dry season; indeed, the island’s weather habits are so capricious that a thunderstorm can let loose on one parish while sparing all the others.
Geologically, the island’s core is soft, white limestone, despite violent volcanic origins. There are no rivers, lakes, or streams. The topography is neither towering nor dangerously low (Town Hill in Smith’s Parish is the highest point of land at 259 feet above sea level). And though tiny, Bermuda’s landmass holds an astonishingly diverse range of natural habitats—from marshland to sand dunes and cedar woodland—that support an equally varied ecology.
Visitors, of course, are tantalized by such offerings. Bermuda’s geologic permutations have left a place characterized by mostly welcoming temperatures; by floral eye candy found throughout the island’s undulating length; by soft, rosy-hued beaches and turquoise swimming holes; by saltwater sounds that provide perfect natural harbors; by pastel homes hewn from the very rock they sit on; and by a necklace of biodiverse coral reefs—the most northerly in the world.
Except for the ferocity of its storms, including seasonal hurricanes, Bermuda’s environment is indeed charmed. Immune to natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, mudslides, or floods, devoid even of dangerous plants or animals, its appearance conjures a manicured country garden rather than a mid-Atlantic atoll.
While many Bermuda residents spend weekends and downtime testing their limits against the island’s physical challenges, visitor activities were often somewhat, well, sedate. That’s all changed in the last few years with the arrival of numerous vendors offering outsiders a feel of the “real”—read extreme—Bermuda.
Sign on for epic adventures that demonstrate Bermuda truly does have it all, from cliff jumping to kayak trips and offshore snorkeling. Book and pay in advance via vendors directly, or through the Island Tour Centre.
Get airborne with Coconut Rockets/Bermuda Flyboard (441/504-7197). Attached via boots and bindings to a pressurized flyboard, the “pilot” is propelled by the water jet pack up to 35 feet above the ocean surface. Experience stuntman-style antics in and over the water.
If you balk at riding the killer wakes of his awesome speedboat, John Martin will simply tell you he’s already taught his five-year-old twins to do it. His company, AXIS Adrenaline Projects (441/537-1114), picks up islandwide and will zoom you past eye-popping scenery to Castle Harbour or other turquoise expanses where you can get your balance and learn mastery of such extreme arts from a true maestro.
Hawaii Ironman and multisport athlete Kent Richardson is the real deal when it comes to conquering the outdoors. At Bermuda Waterski & Wakeboard Centre (441/234-3354 or 441/335-1012), he’ll test your mettle with thrills like jumping off Diving Board Island or full-throttle waterskiing along the North Shore. If you’re up for tamer stuff, just say so—he’s happy to show off Bermuda with slower-paced snorkeling or sightseeing too.
The wow factor of North Rock’s barrier reef has even bona fide Bermudians catching their breath. If you have a spare afternoon, book a truly unforgettable trip to the landmark beacon nine miles off the North Shore. Outfitters like ÜberVida (441/236-2222) or the Bermuda Zoological Society (441/293-2727) run four-hour snorkel trips to the spectacular underwater world that’s like diving into a scene from Finding Nemo.
Bermuda’s cultural ambassadors are the gombeys, a name meaning “drums” given to African-inspired dance troupes adorned in elaborate outfits featuring feathers, beads, and sequins. Like tribal break-dancers in kaleidoscopic costumes, gombeys have long been adored by their Bermudian fans, but only in recent decades have they been officially recognized and even flown overseas by the government to represent the island at international events.
[pullquote align=right]Gombeys derive from a grassroots tradition that borrows elements from Native American, British military, and Caribbean influences.[/pullquote]Gombeys derive from a grassroots tradition that borrows elements from Native American, British military, and Caribbean influences. Distinct family troupes evolved in the parishes over the centuries, and even today, gombey troupes consist of relatives and friends of specific families, and many include youngsters as young as two or three.
Their dance may appear to the uninitiated to be a free-for-all, but it is actually a structured art form with a beginning, middle, and end that dramatizes a popular Bible story or legend, such as that of David and Goliath. Gombey troupes used to appear mostly on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas), attracting crowds as they walked through parish neighborhoods, but they now perform at many cultural festivals through the year, including the Wednesday Harbour Nights in Hamilton. Tradition holds that spectators toss coins of appreciation on the ground, which are later gathered by a designated gombey.
The iconic dance is coupled with ornate costumes, which are works of art in themselves. Peacock feathers, beads, and sequins are painstakingly used to construct each outfit, with a mask attached to a tall, feathered headdress, and gloves, scarf, and boots. Accessories include drums, ornamental bows and arrows, braids, and tomahawks. Typically the troupe’s captain uses a whip or whistle to orchestrate dance routines and storylines, keeping the other members in line.
Bermuda gombeys have performed at major events such as the Edinburgh Tattoo, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC, and on the island with visiting Native American groups who hold strong familial ties with Bermuda’s St. David’s Island community.
Bermuda’s largest and most-visited attraction, the National Museum of Bermuda (The Keep, 15 Maritime Ln. at the northern point of the Royal Naval Dockyard, tel. 441/234-1333, fax 441/234-1735, 9:30am-5pm daily, last admission 4pm, closed Christmas Day, $12 adults, children under 16 free) combines a spectacular property with historic buildings and fascinating exhibits, artifacts, and cultural heritage displays. Dolphin Quest is also based inside the property, allowing viewing of the dolphins even if you don’t participate in its programs, which require advance reservations.
[pullquote align=right]From the top-floor wraparound veranda, the sweeping panorama of the entire Dockyard is revealed, as well as the glistening turquoise seascapes of both the North and South Shores.[/pullquote]The museum’s property was expanded from 10 to 15 acres and renamed in 2009 when the Bermuda government approved the transfer of the historic Casemate Barracks (a prison during the 1960-80s) and adjacent buildings and fortifications at Dockyard’s entrance to the formerly named Bermuda Maritime Museum. The move essentially restored the site to its 19th-century military footprint encompassing all the fortifications of the Dockyard and historic buildings within, including the dramatic Northwest Rampart, linking the Keep fortress with the Casemate area. Although the Casemate Barracks is closed for restoration over the next several years, the museum will eventually put exhibits in the newly acquired buildings and open the entire site to the public.
Until then, the museum remains headquartered in the Keep, a stronghold built within the fortified Dockyard to protect the entire Dockyard against attack by land or sea (though it never had to). The citadel has seven bastions and ramparts, reinforced by casemated gun emplacements with lines of sight sweeping the Great Sound and North and South Shores.
In the museum’s lower grounds, the cavernous Queen’s Exhibition Hall, where 4,860 kegs of gunpowder were once stored, has been updated with “Shipwreck Island,” a compelling showcase of early shipwrecks, including artifacts from the Sea Venture, Spanish gold, and rare 17th-century ship rigging. The exhibit also explores life aboard ships, and underwater archaeology. Across the lawn is the Boatloft, where traditional Bermuda fitted dinghies are on display, along with other island craft. The famous pilot gig Victory, fully rigged, and the century-old racing yacht Dainty are prize maritime treasures. There are also exhibits on fishing and turtling in this building, distinguished by its clock tower. Children like to climb on the regal statue of Neptune, Greek god of the sea, out in the Keep Yard.
Kids will also love the Museum Playground, opened in 2014 behind the QEH, where a 21-foot lighthouse and slide—ensnared by a 70-foot green moray eel—will inspire loads of pint-sized adventures. An interactive playhouse with exhibits on local history is planned for 2015.
Leading to the upper grounds from the ticket office is an intriguing exhibit created inside the atmospheric High Cave Magazine. “Prisoners in Paradise” details the story of Dockyard’s convict prisoners and Bermuda’s Boer War prisoners, groups who left their legacies in the form of beautiful carved woodwork and stone artifacts.
The crown jewel of the museum, however, is Commissioner’s House on the upper grounds, the grand home of the Dockyard’s civilian commissioner. It’s a building unlike any other in Bermuda, and one that—even if you’re not interested in its exhibits—offers a spectacular vantage point. From the top-floor wraparound veranda, the sweeping panorama of the entire Dockyard is revealed, as well as the glistening turquoise seascapes of both the North and South Shores. The world’s first cast-iron building, its girders, red brick, and flagstones were shipped from England in the 1820s, while its three-foot-thick walls consist of hard limestone quarried from the Dockyard. Restored in a mammoth 20-year campaign, the building reopened in 2000 as a museum. Three floors of exhibits fill Commissioner’s House, from rooms of rare Bermuda maps to those showcasing notes and coins, including historic Hogge money—the island’s first currency. Other rooms on the first floor are dedicated to exhibits detailing topics of cultural and social importance: the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in Bermuda; the Newport Bermuda Race; and the stories of Portuguese and West Indian immigrants. The second floor’s dining rooms pay tribute to the various military in Bermuda, with both the British Navy and U.S. Navy highlighted with photographs and artifacts. Take a look also at the stunning 36-seat dining table in the Commissioner’s Room, once a wartime mess hall, which now houses a collection of contemporary maritime art on loan from the Bank of Bermuda Foundation.
Downstairs on the ground floor, a dozen interlocking rooms contain the exhibit Bermuda’s Defence Heritage, detailing the story of local defense, from the forts and cannons of the 17th century to Bermudian vets of World War II. Military uniforms, medals, and munitions vividly depict the role tiny Bermuda played on the world stage. A documentary film here includes interviews with local veterans. There’s also the story of women at war: the island’s female military members who served overseas and the famous “censorettes”—young Englishwomen headquartered at the Hamilton Princess Hotel who were trained to sift through incoming mail and telecommunications, checking for coded messages being sent to Germany.
And don’t miss a towering mural in Pillared Hall (containing the rear interior staircase), where Bermudian artist Graham Foster spent three and a half years recreating Bermuda’s history in 1,000 square feet of floor-to-ceiling detail. The artwork was officially opened by the Queen in 2009. Accessible from the first floor or ground floor, the hall is located in the northwest corner of the museum, an artistic spectacle that has won rave reviews for Foster’s prodigious talent and spawned a 2011 coffee-table book.
A major player in the island’s heritage protection scene, the National Museum is also home to a conservation center, where artifacts found on local shipwrecks or terrestrial sites are preserved. The museum coordinates with historians, archaeologists, and teams from abroad to organize joint field trips and dives throughout the year. Books published by the museum press are sold in island bookstores.
Museum visitors can explore the historic windblown ramparts and gun placements around the Keep’s perimeter, where Bermuda’s only flock of sheep graze—natural lawnmowers for the property. Museum admission also allows you to view the dolphins of Dolphin Quest (15 Maritime Ln., tel. 441/234-4464, fax 441/234-4992, 9:30am-4:30pm), located at the Keep Pond on the lower grounds.
If there’s one thing most everyone knows about Bermuda—even if they’ve never set foot on the island—it’s that the archipelago lies in the maw of a spooky phenomenon dubbed the “Bermuda Triangle”. Bermudians who live or travel overseas get peppered with questions about the popular myth, and it is a favorite topic of discussion among tourists, but locals tend to dismiss it with humor and skepticism. Despite the Triangle’s perennial appearance in books and science-fiction TV series, scientists agree it is nothing more than an enduring legend fueled by deadly coincidence.
[pullquote align=right]Surprisingly, Bermuda has never made much of the legend, even as a potential tourist attraction.[/pullquote]Conspiracy theorists have devoted seas of ink to explaining why ships and aircraft have sunk, caught fire, or vanished without a trace within an area of Atlantic Ocean spanning Bermuda; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Miami, Florida. Some believe these were the victims of paranormal occurrences, blaming malevolent sea creatures, time warps, UFOs, aliens, and the lost city of Atlantis. Others speculate that natural sources such as fog fields, magnetic anomalies, or methane bubbles popping up from the sea floor might have caused planes’ instruments to malfunction or vessels to sink.
Empirical data suggests a far simpler explanation—that such “mysteries” aren’t really mysterious at all. Given the fact that many Triangle incidents took place during raging storms or in the 1940s and 1950s before the advent of high-tech navigation equipment such as global positioning satellites (GPS), basic human error or the whims of Mother Nature could easily account for the disasters. In fact, Lloyd’s of London accident records have shown that the Triangle’s geographic area is no more dangerous than any other part of the ocean—a conclusion confirmed by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Yet the world’s fascination with the Triangle continues, particularly with the story of Flight 19, the unsolved disappearance of five Avenger torpedo bombers on December 5, 1945. The Triangle’s best-known tale describes how the aircraft left Fort Lauderdale’s Naval Air Station on a routine practice mission with 13 student pilots, accompanied by their commander, Lt. Charles Taylor. The flight plan called for a test bombing run followed by a triangular course east and north, a distance of 120 miles. But about 90 minutes after leaving the base, the squadron found itself in trouble. Taylor sent a radio transmission reporting that his compasses were malfunctioning, and it soon became clear he was hopelessly disoriented. As night fell and a storm approached, communications faded and finally stopped, presumably when the planes ran out of fuel and plunged into the sea.
One of two Martin Mariner search planes that went to look for the missing squadron also disappeared; there were reports of an explosion after it took off, and airplane debris was spotted nearby. Nothing was seen of Flight 19, however. The Navy, pressured by Taylor’s family, cited “causes or reasons unknown” for the disaster, rather than pilot error. In subsequent decades, the story of Flight 19 became the focus of Triangle speculation, which heightened after Charles Berlitz’s sensational bestseller of 1974, The Bermuda Triangle. Flight 19’s planes and pilots even enjoyed a reappearance in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
One of the most lauded books on the Triangle attempts to lay such fantasies to rest. The Bermuda Triangle—Solved was written by Arizona librarian Larry Kusche, who in 1975 decided to investigate claims put forward by the plethora of articles and books on the Triangle’s unsolved mysteries. Digging into contemporary accounts and other primary sources, he discovered factual material other writers had overlooked or ignored, much of it pointing to entirely rational explanations for unusual events. His book catalogs his findings, offering in-depth detail about some of the myth’s highlights and ultimately refuting many outlandish claims.
Surprisingly, Bermuda has never made much of the legend, even as a potential tourist attraction. Eponymous cocktails took the name, and several island companies pay tribute to the folklore with Triangle monikers, including retail stores, a printing house, and a scuba outlet. Bermuda Department of Tourism officials seem to have qualms about marketing the Triangle to the world at large, despite calls from some in the industry for Triangle-themed travel ads, a museum, or boat tours.
Bermuda is a place “to hide and hush,” wrote American painter Marsden Hartley after a 1917 visit—a sentiment that would have found favor with other art-world luminaries, including Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charles Demuth, who all found the island a calm and creative inspiration.
[pullquote align=”right”]Scores of artists made their way to Bermuda in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, finding respite from “real world” challenges in the island’s sea, sun, tropical colors, unusual light, flora and fauna, and human personalities.[/pullquote]Scores of artists made their way to Bermuda in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, finding respite from “real world” challenges in the island’s sea, sun, tropical colors, unusual light, flora and fauna, and human personalities. In the process, many found fresh energy to paint and draw, reviving stalled careers or launching new artistic avenues that would win them further celebrity back in their home environments.
O’Keeffe recovered from a nervous breakdown during her 1933-1934 sojourns in Somerset, where she eschewed her typical explosive colors for charcoal sketches of banana flowers and banyan trees. Fauvist E. Ambrose Webster (1869-1935) was struck by the island’s palette of purples, blues, and oranges, which he used to capture evocative landscapes as well as bold portraits of native Bermudians. And Homer, one of the most influential American painters of the 20th century, enjoyed exploring the coastline by horse and buggy, by foot, and by ferry when he visited Bermuda in 1899 and 1900, recording his sightseeing in 21 known watercolors of the island, which he proclaimed “as good an example as I have ever done.”
Today the works of Bermuda by these and other internationally renowned artists from North America and Europe are being brought back to the island, thanks to the efforts of the Masterworks Foundation. The nonprofit group opened a dedicated $9 million museum—the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art—in Paget’s Bermuda Botanical Gardens in 2008 to showcase the collection. Masterworks has gathered nearly 1,000 artworks, photos, and artifacts, among them: two O’Keeffe charcoals; two of Homer’s seascapes, Inland Water and Bermuda (The S.S. Trinidad); an Andrew Wyeth street scene of St. George’s (Royal Palms); Ross Sterling Turner’s impressionist views of gardens and neighborhood cottages; and photographer Karl Struss’s three-dimensional color record of a postwar island in the 1950s. These and other works are featured Masterworks at 25, a 2012 coffee-table book celebrating the group’s 25th anniversary.
The Birdsey Studio
Bermuda travelers who met Alfred Birdsey (1912-1996) would not easily forget him. The unassuming but prolific painter welcomed thousands of visitors over the years to his Paget studio, where he often treated them to tea and a chat, no matter whether any art changed hands.
Renowned outside of Bermuda, his Impressionistic, even Asian-influenced, brushstrokes of island landscapes, yachts, harbors, and backstreets revolutionized the way Bermuda was captured in art and caught the imagination of collectors world-wide.
Today his daughter, Jo Birdsey-Linberg, carries on the family tradition at The Birdsey Studio (Rosecote, 5 Stowe Hill, Paget Parish, tel. 441/236-6658, firstname.lastname@example.org, 10:30am-1pm Mon.-Fri., appointments recommended). Like her father, she breaks artistic conventions—and makes guests feel entirely at home. Birdsey-Linberg’s breezy watercolor landscapes and whimsical animal portraits—popular children’s gifts—range in price from $80 to $450; oils are priced $400 and up. The studio also sells note cards of Alfred Birdsey’s work, which Birdsey-Linberg is in the process of memorializing in a book.
Park your scooter in front of the house and follow the path on the left to the back garden, where the studio is located amid roses, lilies, cacti, and paw-paw trees. Birdsey-Linberg, a Latin scholar, musician, and mother, can be found here most weekday mornings, with her “assistant managers”—two miniature dachshunds, Mango and Pickle.
Though the summer is generally prime festival season, don’t expect things to slow to a crawl in the latter part of the year. Outdoor sports and competitions continue on year-round, as do many of Bermuda’s heritage events.
Harbour Nights: Evening street festivals in the City of Hamilton (7pm-10pm Wed.), St. George’s Market Nights (7pm-10pm Tues.), and Heritage Nights in Dockyard (6:30pm-9pm Thurs.) run through the month (www.cityhall.bm).
Canada Day: Canadians gather at Long Bay, Southampton, on July 1 for barbecues, games, and music to mark Canada’s birthday.
Bermuda Big Game Classic: A three-day, big-fish team event in mid-July offers cash and prizes, including a top prize to the largest blue marlin catch.
Harbour Nights: Evening street festivals in the City of Hamilton (7pm-10pm Wed.), St. George’s Market Nights (7pm-10pm Tues.), and Heritage Nights in Dockyard (6:30pm-9pm Thurs.) run through the month (www.cityhall.bm).
Beachfest is an all-day beach party organized by the Chewstick Foundation to celebrate Emancipation Day on the last Thursday of July—the start of the island’s biggest public holiday, Cup Match. It’s an all-day party on Bermuda’s most popular beach, Horseshoe Bay, Southampton.
Cup Match (Emancipation Day and Somers Day): This two-day holiday honoring both the abolition of local slavery and Bermuda’s founder, Sir George Somers, stages a historic showdown between St. George’s and Somerset Cricket Clubs, complete with islandwide campouts, boating, and parties galore.
Bermuda Sand Sculpture Competition: Grownups and kids can get creative and win prizes at this daylong creative contest of hand-crafted architecture at Horseshoe Bay in Southampton, organized by the Bermuda government (tel. 441/295-4597 or 441/295-0855, 10am-4pm). Prizes for locals and visitors.
Harbour Nights: Evening street festivals in the City of Hamilton (7pm-10pm Wed.), St. George’s Market Nights (7pm-10pm Tues.), and Heritage Nights in Dockyard (6:30pm-9pm Thurs.) run through the month (www.bermudachamber.bm).
Labor Day March and Celebration: Participants including gombeys and majorettes march to Bernard Park in Hamilton for a daylong festival honoring Bermuda’s labor movement and organized by the Bermuda Industrial Union (tel. 441/292-0044).
TEDxBermuda: Promoting “ideas worth spreading,” an annual slate of international and local speakers follow the world-popular TEDTalks format that celebrates cutting-edge concepts in technology, entertainment, and design. Launched in 2011, the independently organized event is held at the Fairmont Southampton and attracts an audience of about 1,000 for the five-hour Saturday afternoon mindfest.
Argo Group Gold Cup: This international event brings the world’s top yacht match-racing competitors to vie in a showdown of spinnakers for the sport’s oldest trophy, the King Edward VII Gold Cup, in Hamilton Harbour and the Great Sound.
Queen of Bermuda Triathlon: Launched in 2014, this event attracts local and visiting women, from elites to novices, to compete as individuals or teams in a sprint triathlon comprising an 800-meter swim, 20K ride, and 5K run along the scenic South Shore, as well as a duathlon (1-mile run, 20K bike, 5K run).
World Rugby Classic: International former top rugby players compete in 11 matches in this highly popular weeklong event held at the Bermuda National Sports Centre in Devonshire (tel. 441/295-6574).
Remembrance Day Parade and Ceremony: The Bermuda Regiment and Band Company join war veterans in a solemn march down Front Street in the City of Hamilton on November 11, a public holiday.
Bermuda Goodwill Golf Tournament: The island’s top four golf clubs team up to host this event, which brings golfers from the United States, Canada, and the U.K., with teams made up of one professional and three amateurs.
Bermuda National Trust Christmas Walkabout: This festive evening street festival takes place the first Friday in December in the Town of St. George. Crowds flock to mingle with friends, sip hot cider, and listen to strolling carolers.
Christmas Boat Parade: Head to Hamilton Harbour to see beautiful illuminated boats of all sorts vie for prizes as they loop the waterfront.
New Year’s Eve Festival: Revelers ring in the new year at King’s Square, St. George’s, where live music and a street-festival atmosphere climax with fireworks and the dropping of a giant disco ball-style onion.