I’ve been meaning to write about the Bermuda Railway Trail for a while. It’s been percolating in my mind for some time, but I had a persistent reluctance to start on it. Now it’s been written, I know the reason for my hesitation. There was much to say, several thoughts and attitudes to convey, a variety of facts and history to be articulated. It just seemed like an awkward mixture. And as may be discernible if you choose to read on, it was certainly awkward and time consuming to write. Frankly, I’m not entirely satisfied with the results but since I’ve spent so much time on it and I haven’t posted for a while, I’m just going to put it out there. Who knows? There may be one or two little nuggets of interest for a few of you, and if not there are some pretty pictures to look at.
Anyway, here it is. Take it or leave it. And if your choice is to leave it, I completely understand.
Early in the last century, Bermuda had no transportation system to speak of. Most visitors to the island were wealthy Americans wishing to escape the bustle of north-eastern U.S. cities. Bermuda’s attractions were its climate, its beauty and its tranquility. As tourism increased, transportation on the island became a pressing problem. It was felt the introduction of the automobile would ruin the island’s tranquility. After years of deliberation it was decided that the best solution was to introduce a train service.
A single railway line 22 miles in length was constructed, running from St. George’s on the eastern end of the island all the way to Somerset in the west. From the start the railway was beset by problems. There were construction cost overruns as well as poor design and shoddy workmanship. The train service ran from 1931 until 1948 when it was forced to close because it just wasn’t financially sustainable. Paradoxically, while the 2nd World War years were its busiest, with many U.S. and British servicemen being stationed on the island, those years contributed to its demise. With greater numbers using the service, more maintenance was required, but the operators did not have the money to pay for it. Motor vehicle restrictions were relaxed to accommodate the military, setting a precedent that led to automobiles being made available to the general population in 1948 when the railway was finally shut down. Since Bermuda is surprisingly densely populated and most roads are quite narrow, restrictions on automobile use still exist. Only permanent residents can own a car, and just one car is permitted per household. Car rentals are not available for visitors. To get around, the tourist can only rent a moped or scooter, hire a taxi, use the extensive bus service, or walk.
The railway, which was built to replace walking as a means of getting from one place to another, has now been transformed into a way of making walking from one place to another easier and more pleasurable. In 2001, the rail bed was reopened for hiking. The Bermuda Railway Trail is now promoted as one of the island’s top tourist attractions.
My wife and I were completely enchanted by Bermuda on our first visit in 1981, many years before the trail’s existence. When we eventually came back in 2015 and learned that a new hiking trail had opened up, I was thrilled not only to have returned to this beautiful island, but also at having the prospect of a new walking venture to experience. No matter where we travel I always seek out places ideal for a good long walk, and now here in Bermuda I discovered something new, a trail stretching for a full 22 miles. Just perfect!
Well, not exactly perfect. For one thing it’s not a continuous trail. Some sections come abruptly to a halt, forcing you to make a detour onto the road. Others end where there once was a bridge across water, now requiring a bus journey to loop around to the next section of the trail. Some areas are better maintained than others. Quite often as you pass close to a residential area the trail is strewn with litter. Many information plaques along the way, while still legible, have become rather shabby, and some stretches are not as scenic as might be hoped for. Despite the flaws, it’s not to be missed by anyone who enjoys walking.
The stretch between St. George’s and Ferry Point Park is particularly appealing, with its beautiful views out to the Atlantic Ocean to the north and Mullet Bay to the south. Along the way you skirt Lovers Lake Nature Reserve surrounded by mangroves. Farther on, the trail terminates at the former Ferry Point Bridge, the remains of which are crumbling concrete supports projecting from the water. The St George’s/Ferry Point section was a glorious introduction to the Railway Trail for us in 2015. We now had high expectations for the remainder of the trail yet to be explored.
On returning in 2016 we set out to walk two consecutive sections at the western end of the island, from Khyber Pass (a popular road name in Bermuda) to Church Road, and then from Church Road to Evans Bay. We took the bus from Hamilton to just west of the Belmont Hills Golf Club and accessed the trail by way of Tribe Road No. 3, a narrow path through a mini-jungle.
Picking up the trail we began our walk west. It was pleasant enough walking but not nearly as scenic as the section we completed last year. There were a few notable points along the way though – the old quarry, which for many years produced building material for the island, and then one of the few remaining stations on the trail, Riddell’s Bay Station, still very well preserved.
Farther along the way an opening appeared giving us a view of the sprawling Fairmont Southampton Princess Hotel perched high on a hill. Here we made a detour, walking up the steep drive to explore the hotel and its surroundings. Inside, it has retained its elegance and grandeur, but the exterior has a rather faded 70s appearance. We stopped here for lunch, eating our own sandwiches on the extensive lawn at the rear of the building, making ourselves completely at home.
Returning to the trail, we continued on to the next section beginning at Church Road, but this last phase was quite nondescript and, from what we could see, there appeared to be little improvement on the stretch ahead. So we decided to deviate from the plan, something I rarely do, being strictly a follow-the-directions kind of guy whether I’m hiking or using a recipe when cooking. Instead of continuing straight ahead, we turned onto Church Road leading to the south shore where many of the most attractive and popular beaches on Bermuda are found.
We were both glad we took this unplanned route. Where Church Road meets South Road we discovered St Anne’s, a charming little church, standing immaculately white in the sunshine.
Diagonally across South Road which, as you would expect, runs along the south coast, was the aptly named Church Bay Park, a lovely setting with a gorgeous, secluded little beach. We lingered in the park for a while, but with the day drawing to a close, we opted to continue east along South Road in search of a stop for a bus to take us back to Hamilton.
Along the way, we passed the swanky Reefs Resort in which we poked around for a time pretending to be paid up members of the rich and famous.
Just beyond the resort we came to the bus stop beside which was the Henry VIII restaurant and a small convenience/liquor store. Across the road laid out below us was an extensive developed area with some well-maintained beaches. Roads were arranged to a definite plan, but curiously there was a complete absence of buildings. Something about the layout looked familiar to me, and from nowhere the name Sonesta Beach Hotel came into my mind. Just then a man came out of the convenience store, and I asked him what exactly was this area which had caught my attention. He told me it was the former site of none other than the Sonesta Beach Hotel, now used as an exclusive beach club for residents of the distant Hamilton Princess Hotel. Suddenly it came back to me that we’d visited this area back in 1981, when the hotel had looked to me like a relocated Mars space colony, as you can see in this picture of the hotel before it was demolished 2006.
Anyway, I experienced a wee frisson (hoping that’s not too pretentious a word – the “wee” is an attempt to deflate it somewhat) at the fact I’d recalled the name of something I hadn’t thought of in many, many years. As I age, something like that has become an increasingly rare occurrence, and provides a feeling of deep satisfaction. Small-mercy gratitude!
And on that uplifting personal note, not a minute too soon, I bring my meandering, in every sense of that word, to a close. Time to board the bus…