Winter is relative. In Canadian cities, it's 10 below and people grin and bear it. But when it's 17 degrees in Bermuda, a middle-aged woman shivers in her cashmere cardigan and jaywalks, saying, "It's just too cold to wait for the light."
That's about as much lawbreaking as most visitors will see in this subtropical paradise, a lacy network of coral limestone webbed together around a vast coral reef in the silver Sargasso Sea.
For its size, a total of 33 square kilometres, Bermuda is surprisingly rich in restaurants, from casual cafés to sushi bars to serious gourmandise, and has an amazingly eclectic supermarket, Miles, that stocks Scottish smoked salmon, lobster fish cakes and homemade pasta sauce. The only thing the island doesn't have is fast-food chains. On my first day strolling through Hamilton, the capital, I couldn't believe that there were no golden arches. The country has instituted a ban on fast-food joints; a single Kentucky Fried Chicken slipped under the wire, but is so shorn of garish promotion that it's easy to miss it.
On the other hand, dozens of upscale restaurants are open for lunch, many serving excellent wine. The reason is simple: Bermuda not only offers restaurant owners a tax break, but the citizenry pay no income tax. It is quite usual, says Danny Lim, executive chef of Little Venice, a Hamilton trattoria, for honchos from the hundreds of big international companies that have made Bermuda their (almost) tax-free HQ to spend a happy afternoon eating and drinking.
Joe Gibbons, a food writer for the local Royal Gazette, names Jean-Claude Garzia the island's best chef. I find Garzia in his new Lemon Tree café on Queen Street. "Meilleur Ouvrier de France" is embroidered on his white jacket; In 1999, he was voted top chef in the annual French competition. After a stint at the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec, he came to Bermuda, where he worked at a leading resort before opening the Lemon Tree. He prepares from his catering menu a huge slice of duck pie with a warm beurre blanc, and later a foamy mango mousse on a circle of chocolate cake surrounded by strawberries decorated with chocolate vests.
I never thought I'd willingly eat salt cod, but Ed Smith, the Irish patron/chef at Ascots, serves two little salt cod cakes deep-fried with a gentle curry sauce and the most amazing onion rings pickled in white wine and vinegar, a sensational spin on one of the typical Bermudian dishes. Other traditional dishes include mussel pie, a delicacy, and Bermuda's cod breakfast, a mélange of salt cod, potato, avocado and peppers.
The sweetly powerful local rum drink, the swizzle, is best consumed at Bermuda's oldest pub, the Swizzle Inn in Bailey's Bay, which like everything on the island is only minutes away from anywhere else. The island's pink buses charge fearlessly from place to place, alongside six-metre-high hibiscus hedges that guard the privacy of pastel-washed bungalows and manor houses with names such as Chaparral's Promise Edgewood and Gosford Park. They also pass by the governor's house, acres of manicured grounds where in 1973 one of Bermuda's most violent incidents occurred when the governor, his aide and his Great Dane were assassinated by an anti-monarchist.
The tourist's most popular food request, of course, is "where can I find fresh fish?" But Bermuda is fished out, Gibbons says gravely. I climb to the fort at the tip of the island and survey the infinite-seeming Atlantic. I see only a lone deep-sea fishing boat returning to port with perhaps a rare Nassau grouper or a single tuna, but more likely with wahoo. This meaty steak tastes of nothing, despite the delicate way it is presented at La Coquille by veteran French chef, Serge Botelli. How I wish I had ordered tuna tartare or the scallops. Once scallops were local, but now they are flown in, like most of Bermuda's food, from the U.S. northeast. La Coquille, too, has a Canadian connection: The chef from Toque, the esteemed Montreal restaurant, was here recently to cook in the restaurant.
Winter is the season in Bermuda for the spiny lobster, a clawless beast that I ate at the North Rock Brewing Company, Bermuda's own microbrewery. Chef Phil Kleinschmidt broils it with a shrimp and bread dressing; the taste is sweet. He also produces the most delicate apple tatin, a toothsome morsel of pastry with caramelized apple.
Other great fish spots include Spring Gardens, a Barbadian joint tucked away on one of Hamilton's lanes and serving great fried fish with homemade mayonnaise, and the Whaler Inn at the Fairmont Southampton, the biggest of the resort hotels, where Canadian executive chef David Garcelon has instituted a catch-of-the-day menu. I start with Bermuda chowder, the national soup spiked with sherry peppers, a fiery local sauce. The grouper is fresh today, perfectly grilled Cajun style with a little cone of corn risotto and fresh haricot verts. Whaler Inn can be reached by ferry. Ferries chug to and fro in the harbour, making stops at the smallest communities. This one, run by the Fairmont group, shuttles between the resort and the Fairmont Hamilton Princess, a pink palace on the harbour. It is named in memory of Princess Louise, who in 1883 fled to Bermuda from the cold of Ottawa with her even colder husband, the Governor-General the Marquess of Lorne. Yes, Bermuda has many Canadian links -- with the exception of the weather.
If you go
GETTING THERE Air Canada flies daily from Toronto to Bermuda.
WHERE TO EAT The Lemon Tree: A stylish café with patio on Par-la-Ville park. Phone: (441) 292-0235. Ascot's: Chef Ed Smith has a wild culinary imagination, and he delivers the goods in this restaurant located in the Royal Palms Hotel at 2 Rosemont Ave., Pembroke. Phone: (441) 295-9644.
Barracuda Grill: American Ian G. Friedman offers a clubby atmosphere in downtown Hamilton just off Front above popular Hog Penny pub, 5 Burnaby Hill. Phone: (441) 292-1609.
La Coquille: Located at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute on East Broadway, Pembroke, this eatery has a lovely view over the harbour. $65 buys you a surprise five course meal chosen by chef Serge Botelli. Phone: (441) 292-6122.
North Rock Brewing Co.: This genial pub at Collector's Hill and South Road in Smith's Parish is the place to eat lobster. Phone: (441) 236-6633.
Whaler Inn: This casual restaurant over looking Horseshoe Bay Beach at the Fairmont Southampton Princess is a great place to sample traditional Bermudian fare. Phone: (441) 238-8000.
Yashi: This little sushi place, tucked in behind Coconut Rock video bar at 20 Reid St., Hamilton, has fresh fish and trendy, crunchy sushi dishes.
House of India: Authentic curries at 57 North St., Hamilton. Phone: (441) 295-6450.
Tuscany: Eclectic Italian cuisine with a fantastic view of the harbour at Bermuda House Lane, 95 Front St., Hamilton. Phone: (441) 292-4507.
Lobster Pot: A place to sample true Bermudian flavours at 6 Bermudiana Road, Hamilton. Phone: (441) 292-6898.
Monty's: A great place to eat a Bermuda cod breakfast, located at 75 Pitts Bay Rd., Hamilton. Phone: (441) 295-5759.