At the close of the nineteenth century, a small but intriguing guest house earned itself a reputation for its unique combination of beautiful accommodations, superb cuisine and menagerie of exotic animals.
Belterre, as it was named by its French owners Monsieur and Madame Dowle, was a beautiful place, and the fortuitous discovery of a photo taken in 1899 led to its rediscovery. In the photo, a small but picturesque cottage on a hilltop overlooking the Great Sound can be seen, along with a bicycle resting against a limestone garden wall, and beautiful blooming roses. On the back was a simple inscription: Belle Terre.
The earliest record of Belterre came in the form of an article first published in the Baltimore Sun and reprinted in the Royal Gazette on May 1, 1900. The article was entitled “BERMUDA IN SPRING – Island of the Atlantic, as seen by a Baltimore Girl.” The author, known only as “J.P.E.” offered a glowing review of the property. She wrote that while out “hunting” with her Kodak, she and her companion encountered some people they met earlier in on their trip. After hearing about their friends’ wonderful visit to Belterre, J.P.E. and her companion decided to visit the property, too. And so, they crossed Hamilton Harbour on the Paget ferry. After disembarking at the wharf in Paget, they walked west along the shoreline and eventually arrived at the entrance to Belterre.
If they expected to arrive quietly, they found themselves surprised when they were greeted loudly by the property’s resident sentinels: a pair of monkeys purportedly imported from the West Indies. The monkeys wore harnesses and were roped to a tree. This arrangement allowed them to satisfy their climbing instinct while limiting their radius for the safety of visitors. Enjoying a stroll around the property, J.P.E. took pictures of ferns and flowers. She described cute little “bungalows of bamboo and cedar” framed by palm, cedar, roses, and countless colourful blooms. Although her visit did not include a meal or an overnight stay, her description of the place adds considerably to our understanding of Belterre’s reputation. Sadly, none of her photographs is known to exist.
A year after J.P.E.’s visit, Belterre was described in Bermuda Souvenir Guide and Business Directory by J. W. Dalton. Dalton described Belterre as “a popular resort for tourists.” Remarking on the hotel’s beauty, Dalton noted that “the grounds are beautifully laid out, and there is a zoological garden in which is found a large collection of animals and birds from all parts of the world.” In an article in the Royal Gazette, published on August 2, 1902, entitled “Beauties of Bermuda In and Out of Season,” Dr J.B. Mattison describes Belterre’s petite tea houses and furnished cottages, a conservatory, aquarium, aviary, miniature zoo and even a small glass house occupied by a crocodile. It was clear from Mattison’s description of the property that by that time, Belterre had grown into a full-service resort that afforded world-class cuisine, ambience and service.
Dr Mattison credits Madame Dowle with Belterre’s “lavish hospitality,” proclaiming that Belterre was on par with the finest hotels in the world for its hospitality and cuisine. According to him, at night with the lamps aglow, Belterre took on a surreal appearance not unlike a magical “fairyland.” Amenities for visitors ranged from a simple afternoon tea with fresh strawberries and cream served in a private tea house to full luncheons, dinners and suppers of the finest French cuisine. Every activity and amenity, including fishing and boating, sea and freshwater baths, showers (which must have been a godsend for those bicycling the islands) and furnished bungalows for overnight stays, were available.
End of an Era
On January 17, 1905, the Royal Gazette reported that Madame Dowle had passed away at the age of 62. Though it’s clear that her husband intended to continue to run the business in her absence, her death signaled the beginning of the end for beautiful Belterre. Later that year, the Gazette reported on another tragedy at Belterre. This time, one of the monkeys attacked Monsieur Dowle, wounding him on the cheek and arm. Dowle’s screams alerted his son and a worker who came to his rescue and the “fight” ended when the monkey was dispatched after a blow to the head with an axe. By January 12, 1907, the name of the property had been changed to Belle Terre and any reference to French cuisine had been dropped. Both were unmistakable signs of new ownership. What became of Monsieur Dowle remains unclear. Today, all that remains of Belterre are some archival newspaper references and advertisements, perhaps a watercolour painting or two, and this solitary photograph from 1899. These sparse bits can hardly do justice to Belterre’s legacy but, perhaps, by gathering what little remains into one place, a greater appreciation of Belterre can be preserved.