Bermuda's Maritime Museum: a change of pace from beach and golf

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Nestled between the huge stone ramparts of the now defunct Royal Naval Dockyard here is the Bermuda Maritime Museum -- a place where local nautical history is being given the old spit and polish.

The museum offers a nice change of pace from the beaches and golf courses which attract so many visitors to Bermuda initially. But being situated on the extreme tip of this fishhook-shaped group of islands, it does take a bit of travel time to reach.

Established in 1975 to help preserve relics of Bermuda's seagoing past, the museum has grown rapidly. Today there are four exhibition halls open, including the Treasure House with displays from the numerous wrecks salvaged on nearby reefs.

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The museum is located inside the fortress- like Keepyard, and therefore takes up only a portion of the original naval base. Much of the dockyard is still in a state of overgrown disrepair, having been neglected since Her Majesty's forces pulled out in the early 1950s. But the Keepyard has been carefully renovated to supply room for the growing museum.

The spruced-up exhibition halls contain everything from British naval uniforms and drawings of 19th-century shipyard scenes to a giant whale vertebra and an unfitted Bermuda dinghy. The whale bone is part of a display which includes a huge black whale "trypot" -- a cauldron used to process whale blubber. Most displays have explanatory notes to help the visitor on a self-guided tour.

The vaulted brick ceiling of the Queen's Exhibition Hall is sure to catch a visitor's eye. The crisp-patterned bricks look almost new, even though the ceiling has never been cleaned or restored. This shows the fine materials and craftsmanship which went into building the dockyard.

On another side of the Keepyard, the Boat Loft holds a fine collection of rare wooden boats. One of these, the gig Rambler, is the only boat of its kind still in existence. The long narrow-hulled gigs were once used to take pilots out to incoming ships.

Also in the loft is the Victory, one of the first fitted dinghies built in Bermuda. This boat can be viewed from both levels of the loft, since an opening between the floors is needed to accommodate the fully rigged boat.

Some restoration work on Bermuda-built boats has been done by the museum. One loft display shows how traditional boat builders made use of the once plentiful indigenous cedar trees in their work. A skillful shipwright would use the natural curves of the wood to make ship timbers of exceptional strength.

A visit isn't complete without a stroll around the grounds of the museum. In the midst of the Keepyard is a huge figurehead of King Neptune from the steam-assisted battleship irresistible. This statue is an appropriate focal point for the main courtyard.

A pathway leading onto the enclosing rampart is open to the adventurous. From a vantage above the Keepyard, the visitor can try to envision the days when this naval base was a keystone to British defenses in the western Atlantic.

One idea for a visitor based in Hamilton (who wants to save the expense of a taxi) would be to travel to the museum by bus. After enjoying the museum for a few hours, the visitor can ride a bus from the dockyard to the Watford Bridge in Somerset. A commuter ferry sails from there for Hamilton on a regular schedule. This combination takes in different scenery both ways.

The museum is a nonprofit organization, and charges an admission fee of $2 for adults an d 50 cents for children less than 12 years old.

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