If you want an entire tropical island to yourself at this time of year, skip the Caribbean. Try Bermuda instead.
Balmy but not oppressively humid, cultured but not pretentious, quaint without being antiquated, Bermuda is practically abandoned between Thanksgiving and Easter and, for all intents and purposes, visitor-free during the two weeks leading up to Christmas.
It makes this the perfect time to spend a long weekend on the former British colony, which is located 568 miles east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and a relatively painless hour-and-a-half flight from Washington.
The weddings for which Bermuda is legendary are unheard of during winter. Big hotels like the Wyndham Bermuda Resort and Spa are nearly empty, making you feel as if you’re staying at a bed and breakfast. Smaller inns such as Cambridge Beaches in remote Somerset are all but vacant.
At this nadir of the off-season, when temperatures average a comfortable 70-something degrees, many locals throw lavish Christmas parties for themselves, take long lunch breaks to go holiday shopping in Hamilton and gather around the docks for the annual boat parade.
The pace seems slower than usual during this end-of-year lull, but the natives are as polite as ever - even if there’s really no one to be polite to except each other.
When I checked into Cambridge Beaches last Wednesday, the front-desk clerk couldn’t stop apologizing that the kitchen wouldn’t be open for dinner because of the staff’s holiday soiree. “I’ve taken the liberty of making reservations at a restaurant in town,” she said. “Or … if, you’d like, you could join us at our party tonight.”
She looked slightly stunned when I accepted the invitation. I think the hotel’s president, Michael Winfield, was taken aback, too, when I actually showed up at the get-together. “I’ve got to warn you that our parties can sometimes get a little raucous,” he cautioned.
But after ordering a Dark and Stormy - a Bermudan favorite consisting of dark rum and ginger beer - I slipped into an easy conversation with a couple of employees, who were impeccably dressed and well-mannered. Winfield didn’t have anything to worry about.
It goes without saying that Cambridge Beaches’ cottages are every bit as pretty as cliffs and white sand surrounding them. The trademark white staircase roofs, the coral-pink facades, the antique furniture, all exude the sophistication that this island is known for. But it’s the people that make the place what it is, and that keep some guests coming back twice or three times a year regardless of the steep prices.
At the Wyndham Bermuda Resort and Spa, where I stayed, I discovered that Cambridge wasn’t an isolated incident of island hospitality. With no plans on Friday evening, I lingered in the dining room after tea, watching the sun disappear into the cinnamon-colored clouds and marveling at how the water on the Wyndham's enclosed beach gradually went from teal to dark blue to black as daylight faded.
I struck up a conversation with one of the hotel managers, who invited me to drop by an office holiday party in the hotel ballroom that evening. Again, I didn’t expect the reception I got. The president of the company welcomed me and my companion as if we were one of his own employees. Was it a setup? No, turns out he really didn’t know we were coming.
The next day we met up with the hotel’s managing director, Dennis Tucker, Bermuda’s spa guru Michael Ternet, and a few of their friends, to watch the boat parade in Hamilton. A string of jet skis, dinghies and yachts, all decorated with lights and bows, floated past us while we cheered them on with carols rendered slightly off-key by the Spinnaker we were sipping. The event culminated in a burst of fireworks that almost matched the pastel colors of the shops along Front Street. Amid the spectacle I felt compelled to ask if all the hospitality I had encountered was sincere - or show. “As a matter of fact,” answered Tucker, “we really are like this. Even during the season.”
The institutional politeness appears to be infective. None of the therapists I met at Ternet’s spas, where guests escape during the rare rained-out day for facials, body wraps and massages, was originally from Bermuda. But that didn’t stop them from acting as if they’d lived on the island their entire life, issuing the mandatory “good morning” or “hello” to anyone they encountered.
When you travel somewhere on vacation, you run into rudeness sooner or later. Maybe a disgruntled cab driver or a mean store clerk that grows impatient when trying to separate you from your money. It could be a conspiracy, or it could just be the time of year that I visited the island, but I couldn’t find anyone like that on Bermuda.
Guess I’ll just have to come back - and keep looking.