Royal Naval Dockyard - Why It's a Must Visit in Bermuda


Royal Naval Dockyard – Why It’s A Must Visit In Bermuda

Our first full day in Bermuda looks very promising. From the balcony of our room at the Southampton Princess I can tell it is going to be a hot one. This is the only day that we don’t have a golf game scheduled so the plan is to take the free ferry from the Waterlot Inn to Hamilton and explore Bermuda’s capitol. I call the front desk to ask what time the first ferry leaves and the response is, “Why do you want to go to Hamilton today, it’s closed?” and so it apparently is on Sundays. Ex Nova Scotia premier John Hamm would approve, I don’t. The lady on the other end of the phone suggests taking the bus to the Royal Naval Dockyard which opens at 10:00. Great idea.

The concierge gives us a map and I buy tokens that are good for the bus and any public ferry services. Total cost to get there and back will be $10.00 as opposed to over $80.00 by cab. That will pay for our admission and buy a nice lunch.

It’s a short walk down a steep hill to Middle Road where we pick up the #8 bus that runs between Hamilton and the very western tip of the island at the Royal Naval Dockyard. We sit up front and the bus driver very obligingly gives us in effect a guided tour of the places we pass along the way. Not many people get on and off, but those that do are mostly black and they all seem to know the driver and each other and most give us a friendly nod as they pass by. Its a very interesting twenty minute ride crossing over some very narrow bridges including the world’s reputedly smallest drawbridge connecting Somerest island to Bermuda proper. I use the word reputedly because the one at Sandford just outside of Yarmouth looks smaller plus it’s a real drawbridge. This one does not open – you just pull out a plank that creates enough space for the mast of a small boat to pass through. Here’s a photo from the internet showing how that works.

Somerest draw bridge
Somerest draw bridge

By the time we get to the end of the line there is only us and one other passenger and the area is deserted. There is no admission fee to the Royal Naval Dockyard proper, but there is to the museum which doesn’t open for another half hour so we head out to the explore the cruise ship wharves.

Traveling by cruise ship is definitely not my thing and being in the same area as thousands of cruise ship passengers even less so, unless like a few years ago in Key West I sat at an outside table, drink in hand and watched as hundreds of embarking passengers lined up like shuffling zombies as they dutifully waited a full hour to get back on board. I could not help but being reminded of scenes of concentration camp victims lining up to be crammed into the trains that would take them to their fate. Poor bastards.

Anyway, there are no cruise ships here today and we walk to both ends of the wharf from where there are great views of the Royal Naval Dockyard dockyard

Photo of Royal Naval Dockyard
Royal Naval Dockyard

and in particular the distinctive clocktower.

Clocktower, Royal Naval Dockyard

Although there are no cruise ships tied up this morning there are a number of huge tugs including this one with about the best name you could give to a tug. I’m sure Theodore could not help but be drawn to this guy.

Powerful Tug at Royal Naval Dockyard

There was even time for a few artsy shots like these.

Contrasting Structures, Royal Naval Dockyard
Contrasting Structures
Rusting Post, Royal Naval Dockyard
Rusting Post

The Royal Naval Dockyard in Bermuda is a must visit if any of the following apply to you – history buff, old fort enthusiast, ordnance man, student of architecture, shipwreck aficionado or just plain like going to new and interesting places. If you want to get an understanding of how a tiny island nation like England managed to amass and maintain the world’s largest empire for centuries, then this is a good place to start. While everyone knows that England did it by control of the seas, the Royal Naval Dockyard complex brings home just how big an enterprise it is to actually accomplish that. Ships are in constant need of repairs, victualing and thousands of ordinary things like barrels, nails, rope and ballast. This is one of the places that Britain did it from and I am glad that it has been preserved, because many others around the world have not been, including the older parts of Halifax dockyard in my home city that were removed in WWII.

It is an immense complex and much of it is still in disrepair, but that does not detract from our visit one bit, because what has been restored and is now open is more than sufficient to satisfy a visitor for many hours. Essentially the Royal Naval Dockyard is divided into two parts – the fortified keep which houses the National Museum of Bermuda and the rest of the buildings that have been turned into commercial enterprises aimed squarely at the tourism market and in particular cruise ship visitors, who are blessedly not here this morning.

By now it is 10:00 and the museum is open. The National Museum of Bermuda is the result of a rebranding of the Bermuda Maritime Museum to include a wider variety of exhibits and more fully explain Bermuda’s history, although the maritime aspect is still dominant. We cross the dry moat to the entrance and exchange the $12.00 senior’s admission fee for a map of the complex. Regular admission is $15.00.

Entrance to Bermuda National Museum at Royal Naval Dockyard
Entrance to Bermuda National Museum

The museum is located totally inside the keep of the Royal Naval Dockyard and is completely surrounded by what were once heavily fortified defensive walls and bastions. Cannons, mortars and howitzers are still in evidence everywhere.  The museum map indicates eleven distinct areas or buildings to visit, but a number are not yet open.  After crossing through into a central courtyard there is a great view of the Commissioner’s House above. This would be the equivalent of Admiralty House, one of the few historic buildings still extant in the Halifax Dockyard.

Commissioner's House
Commissioner’s House

Below it is this statue of King Neptune which invites a picture.

With King Neptune
With King Neptune

Queen’s Exhibition Hall is a huge building with brick barrel vaulted ceilings that are impressive just as works of architecture, but the exhibits in this building under the title Shipwreck Island explain the history of Bermuda from a place originally shunned because of its treacherous reefs to a place of refuge for colonists and others. There are hundreds of items on display that have been salvaged from the shipwrecks of Bermuda.

Queen's Exhibition Hall
Queen’s Exhibition Hall

Behind the Exibition hall are the Shifting House, which looks like three houses to me and 1852 Ordnance House, both of which are not open yet, but worthy of a picture.

Shifting House and Ordnance House
Shifting House and Ordnance House

If you see the guy sitting on the left he is watching a little girl ‘swimming with dolphins’ at Dolphin Quest which is a private operation inside the Royal Naval Dockyard that offers the chance for people, little girls mostly from what I could see, to get up close and personal with bottle-nosed dolphins a.k.a. Flipper. It seems a bit anomalous to have such an outfit inside an historical museum and frankly it looked demeaning to the dolphins.

Another large ordnance building houses a number of exhibits including many types of boats used in Bermudian waters over the years. Some are beautiful works of craftsmanship like this Spirit of Bermuda and I’m not thinking of Gosling’s. 

Two Spirits of Bermuda
Two Spirits of Bermuda

Also in this building is the ultra dull exhibit – History of Electricity in Bermuda – I think we spent 30 seconds there.

In Point Pleasant Park you can find one of the anchors from the Canadian aircraft carrier H.M.S. Bonaventure. It is really big, but this one might be even bigger.

Anchored Alison
Anchored Alison

After visiting the lower part of the keep we ascend to the upper level via stairs though an ancient rusted gate to the ramparts where there are great views of the entrance to the Royal Naval Dockyard and Great Sound. A couple of cannons are in really good shape and I ask Alison to take my picture sitting astride one. The result is a shot that Priapus would be envious of.

My Bermuda Cannon
My Bermuda Cannon

Trying for something a little more family friendly I go for the Dumb and Dumber approach.

Is it Dumb or Dumber?
Is it Dumb or Dumber?

The interior of the Commissioner’s House is interesting, but even more so the various exhibit rooms which are housed on three different levels. The most interesting ones to me are the Slave Trade in Bermuda, the history of the Bermuda yacht race, the connection between Bermuda and the West Indies (did you know Bermudians were the first to settle the Bahamas?), the history of tourism in Bermuda and the Hall of History mural which is two stories high and contains a remarkable depiction of Bermuda’s history. It’s kind of like a Where’s Waldo with hundreds of distinct images and scenes that blend together. Here’s the view of the Royal Naval Dockyard from the verandah at the Commissioner’s House.

Royal Naval Dockyard from Commissioner's House
Royal Naval Dockyard from Commissioner’s House Verandah

The last place we visit is the High Cave which is basically a collapsed sinkhole and the exhibit within the nearby magazine, Prisoners in Paradise which depicts the history of POWs on Bermuda starting with the Boers. Most people don’t know that concentration camps were not invented by the Nazis, but rather the British during the Boer War. While I did know that, I had no clue that Boer POWs were sent to Bermuda as were prisoners in both world wars. I also did not know that 27,000 Boer women and children died in those South African concentration camps – a sobering thought on the darker side of the British Empire. On the other hand when the Boers did eventually take control of the South African government they were not exactly paragons of equality or good government and came up with their own version of mistreatment – apartheid.

Leaving the keep portion of the Royal Naval Dockyard you pass through the Cooperage which houses a craft market into the Victualling Yard, a large square with the old victual houses on either side. Both have not been restored, but they are decent looking ruins and apparently will be restored in time. From here to and including the clocktower the rest of the buildings have been given over to commercial enterprises that are aimed squarely at the cruise ship market. Although some of the goods on offer are decent, prices are high and it doesn’t do anything for me. However, if that’s what it took to preserve the beautiful clocktower building, so be it.

By now its time for lunch and we decide to try the Pastry Shop which sits just outside the Victualling Yard. Alison has a Thai shrimp salad on a croissant which she says is better than any she had in Paris last year. My tuna melt panini is pretty good as well. While we are waiting for our food a cock fight breaks out just behind the restaurant wall and a beleaguered hen, apparently the reason for the fight, flops up on top of one of the umbrellas over the table. While humans can ban cock fighting they can’t stop the cocks from engaging in it of their own free will. Here is one of the participants.

Bermuda Cockfighter
Bermuda Cockfighter

What happens next is one of those embarrassing moments of stupidity on my part that would make you think I had never been outside a cabbage patch, but in the interests of full disclosure and journalistic integrity must be related. The original plan was to catch the ferry from the dockyard to Hamilton and then the ferry from the Hamilton Princess to the Waterlot Inn which would put us right back to where we caught the bus. That way we get two trips across Great Sound for the price of one bus ticket. The only problem is that I don’t bother to look at the map of the dockyard which clearly shows the point from whence the ferry comes and goes every half hour. I’m a man and so can’t ask for directions. Therefore we head out walking along the waterfront – no way we can miss the ferry terminal right? After walking for about a mile though the industrial part of the island, well away by now from the Royal Naval Dockyard and finally over the little bridge that connects the two parts of Ireland Island I have to concede that we missed it, so we hop on the bus instead. Sitting on the bus I get out the dockyard map and discover that the ferry left not 50 yards from the Pastry Shop. In other words, by the time I started looking for it we were already passed it. Doh!

Back at the hotel I am pleasantly surprised to find that the Vikings game is on TV and even more pleasantly surprised when they beat the Jets in overtime.

Join us tomorrow as we golf at Turtle Hill, walk on beautiful Horseshoe Bay beach and drop into Hamilton for a quick visit.