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Elbow Beach Bermuda:  Redux and Anew

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

A friend, fed up with her job, described the environment as a “Brave New World,” and we knew just what she meant. Ever since Aldous Huxley’s novel was published in 1925, its title has stepped out becoming an ironic label for a future dominated by technology and peopled by spiritless automatons.

But in their original usage, the same three words appearing in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” have a very different meaning.

“O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!  O brave new world
That has such people on it!”

says the young heroine Miranda, referring to the remote island where she, her wizard father, et al have been stranded after their ship was wrecked in a storm. It is believed the Bard based the setting for what would be his final play on the North Atlantic island named Bermúdez for its Spanish discoverer, but not settled until a century later when a group of Englishmen, en-route to Jamestown, Virginia, suffered a similar fate.

We are reminded of this as our plane lands. We’d been to Bermuda years before, but at this moment, it seems like we never left. The ride from the airport along roads that wind up and down, the low stone walls containing them, the view of the sparkling sea from every rise, the tumbling bougainvillea along the way – bright and blooming even in January, the sense of order and cleanliness -- all of it was so pleasing, so familiar. And then, a bend in the road, up a drive past  several islands of palms, and there on the summit a castle of yellow and white stone looking out over the trees to a panorama of sky and sea. Once again, Elbow Beach. 

It is the oldest hotel on the island, having celebrated its centennial in 2008. We pass through the porte-cochere into the entrance hall and think how its elegance and grace have remained intact. The marble floors are shining like mirrors. The front desk, the concierge’s desk, the bell station are just where they used to be. So are the glass French doors, wrapping around the façade, opening to a length of terrace looking down the hillside to the sea.

We exit through one, walk down a bit, and enter through another. This would be the Grand Bar and beyond would be the equally grand dining room. A brief memory-picture of guests in evening dress flits across our minds. Only the Grand Bar is the Library now, paneled in rich wood with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. There’s an antique billiards table, deep leather sofas and rattan chairs set into conversation areas, and posters from the Grand Epoch era advertising cigars and Gosling black seal, the classic Bermuda rum, displayed across a wall. There’s also an Internet station.

“In 2010, we did a large repositioning,” says Sophie Dier, the tall and attractive director of communications for the Elbow Beach, who doubles as a dancing teacher with a specialty in salsa.  “At the same time, we began a $5.5million refurbishment of the entire property. All the roads and pathways were re-paved. New lounges, new beach chairs, interior renovation, the works. Everything was fresh. At the same time, we closed the big restaurant in the main building and decided not to sell the guestrooms there for the time being. All our accommodations now are in cottages.  They’re more intimate, more private.”

We were walking with Sophie down the hillside to the beach, having exited the main building onto the expansive pool complex where, happily, the glamorous free-form pool set into a stone-paved terrace was a perfect match to our memory. As we descended along wide stone stairways and turning roads punctuated by whimsical bronze statues of children (the work of sculptor Desmond Fountain whose gallery we had passed in the main building moments before), we could see the pretty limestone cottages painted in soft pastel colors with  roofs of four white stone triangles meeting at a peak. They were set into recesses or amidst a grove of trees, arranged in groups of six to eight, with names like Poinsetta, Alamanda, Poinciana, Jasmine, Oleander -- a nod to the flamboyant blossoms one sees throughout the beautifully landscaped property. Bird of Paradise captured our imagination in particular. One of three storybook-like cottages that stand on their own private plot, Bird of Paradise has a fireplace in the living room and a steep stairway at the rear which travels down the dunes to the hotel’s half mile-long beach. “It’s a favorite for honeymooners,” Sophie notes. “We’ve even had small weddings here.

Director of Communications: Sophie Dier

“All the cottages were upgraded in 2010 with new, contemporary-style furniture, marble floors, art work, and accessories that reflect the sea theme” she continues. “They all have docking stations in the rooms, espresso machines, separate shower and tub in the renovated bathrooms, and an entertainment system that features 200 television stations. But who wants to watch television when they’re in Bermuda?”

Indeed. Our cottage was the last in the Sea Grape cluster that stretched across a bluff above the beach. It had a large living room replete with sleeping couch and an adjacent equally-sized bedroom, both opening to a smartly furnished patio. At night, we would leave the drapes undrawn and the blinds open, ready and willing to be awakened the next morning by the rising sun. We would walk out onto the patio, ascend a little grassy hill, and there before us would be the pink sands of Paget Parish and the Atlantic beyond. The wonders of Bermuda.

Transport around the property is swift and comfortable. A call to the front desk results in a van’s arrival within minutes and a ride to the pool, spa, tennis courts, putting green, main building or beachfront area.  But whenever possible, we chose to walk, even up the steeper roads and especially to the beach area which is the center of the resort with restaurants, bar and, of course, the beach itself.

It was a short stroll from our cottage door along a path that paralleled the shore, a perspective we remembered very well. The horizon was marked by a perfect arc, so wide it seemed to embrace the entire earth. The sky was an ever-changing canvas. At night, it was lit by brilliant stars and a sliver of a new moon throughout our stay. During the day, it was a dynamic scene of long lines of white puffy clouds stretched against a background of a blue deeper than the sea and the sudden appearance of dark clouds rolling on stage only to be cut through by slashes of sunlight that spilled  through the trees. In all our travels, nowhere is the sky so commanding a presence as in Bermuda. It casts a spell.

As does the Spa. In 2000, the Elbow Beach became a Mandarin Oriental property, Sophie had told us, joining the international family of 42 high-end properties whose motto is “East meets West,” and it is in the spa that an Asian ambience is most keenly felt. Accessed from the pool terrace, the Zen-like space has bamboo floors, slatted wooden screens, fragrant candles, large clay urns on pebbled surfaces, vases with long-stemmed blossoms, and in the background, serene music that puts one in a state of utter relaxation.

We found it difficult to choose among the spa’s twenty odd treatments based on Chinese, Ayurvedic, Thai and European traditions, and so we purchased time instead -- two-hours and fifty-minutes which, in consultation with our therapists, we filled with rituals that seemed right for us. After the diminutive Phunpaka Sornkaew, from Thailand, and the effervescent Leah Furbert, from the Philippines, welcomed us with cups of aromatic tea and helped us plan our treatments, they ushered us into a couples’ suite. There our Elbow Beach spa-time began with a relaxing foot bath, a traditional Eastern act of welcome and respect, followed by a personalized full body massage with Mandarin Oriental’s essential oils and, for one of us, a customized holistic facial.  

Spa Pros: Phunpaka Sornkaew from Thailand (left)
and Leah Furbert, from the Philippines

While there may be fewer dining than spa-treatments options at Elbow Beach, the four outlets provide enough variety in cuisine and ambience to keep one happy and sated for many a day without ever leaving the resort. Blue Point, steps away from the spa and Kids’ Club, serves fresh salads, sandwiches, gourmet pizza, and ice cream-treats poolside which comes with a spectacular ocean view from the heights of the property. The other restaurants are down at the shore.

“Mickey’s Beach Bistro and Bar is an incredible place; it’s unique,” said Executive Chef Guido Brambilla. “The tables are right on the sand. It’s the only restaurant so close to the sea and  and brings a Mediterranean feel to the setting.

“We serve a lot of fish,” the Milan-born head of F&B for the resort continued. “We try to get our fish from local licensed fishermen. The sea is often choppy, so we have to import fish as well -- the clams, oysters, mussels and scallops are from New England. But we have excellent local fish: tuna, rock fish, grouper, even lobster. Also beautiful yellow fin for sushi,” he said, an ever popular option at Sea Breeze, the aptly-named dining terrace which features novel sushi rolls, sashimi, and tapas.

At Lido, the resort’s fine-dining restaurant, twice named Bermuda’s most romantic dining spot, there is a wall of windows overlooking the sea. At the time of our visit, the beach was narrow, and sitting at a window-front table when the tide came in, we could believe we were on a ship miles from land. It was a powerful image, but still not powerful enough to detract our attention from such delicacies as roasted octopus with sun-dried tomato pesto, escargot in manicotti, clams with garlic and tomatoes, and fish chowder with tomatoes.

 “The Italian influence,” Guido laughed. “There is also an interesting influence of Portuguese cuisine here which I imagine must come from the Azores. Our bacalhau (codfish) is a popular dish. And we have a mix of Caribbean, English and American. But even if there are no Italian words on the menu, the style is predominantly Italian.”

He went on, “At the same time, I am proud of our American cheese board. I was in the Gramercy Tavern in New York and had an incredible tasting of American cheeses, all sorts that I didn’t know were produced in the States. They’re similar to the Italian and French. Since then, I’ve been getting cheese from the States: excellent goat cheese from Vermont, an incredible Coupole. Great cow cheese, one similar to Morbier, another to Fontina.”

 Executive Chef Greg Brambillo

Guido took degrees in law and business management before deciding what he really wanted was to be a chef. At that point, he began what would become a virtual circling of the globe, working in such far-away locales as Thailand and the Maldives before landing in Bermuda and the Elbow Beach. “I’ve been here for two years,” he said, then paused before adding with a quiet smile: “I spend too much time in the kitchen. But it is my love.”

“You look at the hotel and it’s amazing. An amazing history, rich in culture, iconic,” said Edward Shapard, the brand new general manager of Elbow Beach when he joined us for dinner at Lido. “This is not only one of the oldest hotels in Bermuda, it is the most Bermudian, blending the charms of its history, age, and traditions with modernity. Whatever we do must respect the heritage.” 

We were intrigued about the direction life was taking the youthful and garrulous Tennessee-born hotel exec who was sporting a bow-tie, something we thought might become a trademark.

“We had just returned to Hong Kong from our vacation in Ireland,” Edward told us. “The phone rang. It was Richard Baker, executive vice president of Mandarin Oriental in the Americas and  Bermuda. I stepped outside onto the terrace where it was a bit quieter. We talked for a minute. Then he said ‘How would you like to go to Bermuda?’ I thought for a moment and then said, ‘It’s the last place I thought I’d be going.’

“It had been such a big move to Hong Kong two years ago. I had been working at Mandarin Oriental in New York and loved it. My thought at the time was where do you go from New York? But I got to love Hong Kong as well. The cultural experience was outstanding. My children were speaking Chinese. Could it be time to leave Asia already?

“‘Can I have the weekend to think about it?’ I asked and then spent the weekend with my wife Michele talking it over. We talked about it as a career opportunity naturally. But also how it would impact on the children, whether Michele would work -- she’s an elementary school teacher. We checked out the school situation in Bermuda, examined the professional perspective, the lifestyle  It seemed positive, exciting. Sunday evening I sent Richard an e-mail saying ‘I’d be delighted.’

The youthful and garrulous General Manager Edward Shapard

“It was tricky to get everything organized,” Edward admitted. “It took five months from the time I got the call until we got here, and in that time we met with the owner and others involved. On the way here, we spent two days in New York. The kids were with us; we wanted them to know we would be getting closer to the United States. If we’d gone to the U.K. first and then on to Bermuda, it would seem even further away.”

He went on: “When we moved to Hong Kong, I got there first; Michele waited with the children until school was over. This time, we decided we would all come over together. Especially in a resort, you do things with the family representing you.”

With such representation, Edward is in a good position. The children Collin, 11, and Mackenzie, 7, are, in a word, perfect. Doobie, the dog, had arrived the night before. They were working on getting the cat over.

As for Michele, a lovely redhead, she is warm and gracious, destined, we thought, to be a perfect Elbow Beach hostess with an insightful turn of mind. “If Bermuda is the oyster, the Elbow Beach is the pearl,” she had said to Edward at one point, adding  “It will be your job to cultivate the pearl.”

Clearly Edward is a family man, and his sense of family seems to embrace the entire resort. “Family encapsulates the style of service at our cottage complex,” he had told us. “The staff has been incredibly welcoming. I’m anxious to cultivate one-to-one relationships with them.”

A good person to start with is Shirley Hunt who began working at the resort in 1956 when he was 21 years old. “My first job was an electrician,” Shirley told us when we met him in the Library late one afternoon. “But when I heard there was an opening here, I came over. Back then, there were still switchboard operators handling the phone calls.’

Shirley started as bellman but before long had worked up to bell captain, a position he continues to hold. “I never had mishaps. I worked hard but it was decent working for that era,” he said.

Left to right: Mackenzie,Colin, and Michele
with Doobie, who’d just arrived

“Things are different now,” he added. “It used to be more restricted; it’s freer now, much more opportunity there for you if you want it. Now and then I’ve been to other hotels to see what was going on. But this is the best. There’s something that I like here.”

One of the people he likes is Webster Reginald Mills. It seems everyone likes Webster. If a contest were to be held for the most convivial man on the premises, he would undoubtedly win. Webster was the first person we met when we arrived at  Elbow Beach.  He drove us to our cottage, showed us around. He’s a bellman of the first order, but somehow whenever we called for a van, Webster would be there behind the wheel.

He came to the job through Shirley. “I knew Shirley well; we played cricket together,” Webster said. “He treats you with respect. He’ll get at you if you did something wrong, but he is so kind.”

 Shirley Hunt, Bell Captain for many a year

Everyone’s favorite: Webster Reginald Mills

Webster shows us written testimonials from guests in a little book. “I keep these,” he says. “There aren’t enough nice words in the Webster dictionary to describe Webster,” we say.

We add a note, saying we hope to see him again when we return one day. For we do hope to return. Our little visit had been a time trip in the two directions time moves. Looking back, there were the losses: the sense of freedom and adventure we once felt driving little scooters all over Bermuda, discouraged this time around as traffic on the roads has substantially increased; getting dressed for the big event dinner had been in the dining room of the main building room that once served the entire hotel  now being used for storage space; shopping at Trimmingham’s, the store in Hamilton where we bought Scottish-clan outfits for our then very young children, that is no more. But looking forward, the Elbow Beach promises an ever more glorious future.

“Unlike other islands, Bermuda is not a resort compound,” Sophie had told us. “One can feel free to travel around. But Elbow Beach has everything close at hand. We are right in the middle of the island, close to Hamilton, close to the best golf courses, and with a great private beach where every guest can always be assured of a lounger and umbrella. You wouldn’t want to leave.”

Monica Massey, Robin Massey, and Andy Hopkins. It was Andy
who told us about a special connection to Bermuda

Leaving Lido after dinner our last night at Elbow Beach, we strike up a conversation with Monica Massey, head of human resources, her son Robin Massey, and her husband, Andy Hopkins. Andy, who is English, tells us his brother lives in the town of Lyme Regis in West Dorset. We see a connection beyond a shared love of the works of Thomas Hardy, a Dorset native --  we too live in a town named Lyme, albeit New Hampshire. But Lyme Regis has a connection to Bermuda, Namby says. It is the home of Admiral Sir George Somers, who founded the Somers Isles, better known as Bermuda, after being shipwrecked in the 1600’s. “There is a lot of history,” Monica notes. 

The next morning there’s a lot of excitement at breakfast. Whales have been sighted, a good number of them. If one is a calf, it had to have been born in middle of the ocean, probably in the shallow waters of Bermuda. A frequent occurrence in the past, this hadn’t recurred for a long time. These waters, people are saying, is the only place in the world where there is a mid-ocean migratory route for humpbacks.

Later, we walk along the shore, a rather narrow stretch at this time of the year. “We get a lot of erosion during the winter months, but in the summer, the beach extends quite far,” Sophie had told us.  “You could walk out ten feet in the ocean and be up to your neck.” Still it is a beautiful sunny day; the water is glittering as it reflects countless drops of sunlight. The erosion is just a temporary, seasonal thing.

We go up onto the terrace of Sea Breeze for a last good view of the coral reef. It’s like a plateau. At the edge, the water seems to boil up, then it falls into a cavity before rushing to the shore.  “Fish feed on the coral, spread it around,” Sophie said. “It breaks up large waves, keeps the sharks away. That’s why Bermuda is such a safe place for swimming. A protected place.”

We think about it, this island, all alone, out in the middle of the ocean, far from any other land. So neat and clean, so orderly and beautiful. Prevailing against hurricanes, maintaining a civilized, mannerly culture, surviving and thriving. Sophie calls it “the little island that could.”

Truly, a brave new world – in the Shakespearean sense. 

Elbow Beach, Bermuda
60 South Shore Road
Paget PG04

Phone: 441 239 9363

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

#  #  #

About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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