Sun, sand and sea -- and a decidedly British air Bermuda PARADISE FOUND

March 20, 1994|By Suzanne Murphy-Larronde | Suzanne Murphy-Larronde,Special to The Sun

Its fabled pink beaches, crystal waters and balmy temperatures have made it one of the world's most popular resort destinations, yet for all its renown, most people know precious little about Bermuda.

Often mistakenly identified with the Caribbean Basin, this small cluster of 150 limestone islands and inlets is, in fact, the northernmost coral reef formation in the Atlantic Ocean.

Built on the summit of an extinct volcano, its foundation took form more than 70 million years ago. Today, a chain of seven islands connected by a series of bridges and causeways comprises Bermuda proper, about 22 square miles of real estate that measures 15 miles in length and 2 1/2 miles wide at the widest point.

A British Crown colony since 1684, Bermuda has its own part-time army, the 400-member Bermuda Regiment, and the world's third-oldest parliamentary government, composed of a crown-appointed governor charged with foreign policy matters, plus a popularly elected prime minister, House of Assembly and Senate, which together manage internal affairs. Its mixed population of 58,500 achieved full integration in the late 1950s.

With no unemployment, illiteracy or national debt, and one of the world's highest standards of living. Bermuda is, by almost anyone's definition, extremely prosperous, deriving the greater part of its revenues from tourist dollars and the 6,000 tax-exempt companies it headquarters as the "Switzerland of the Atlantic." Its major resources are sun, sand, sea and stability, according to the island's prime minister, John W. D. Swan. "We're a people with a purpose," he says.

With more than 350 years of British history under Bermuda's belt, it's little wonder that this tradition-filled spot exudes a certain buttoned-down feeling in addition to the usual trappings of a tropical paradise. It's the kind of blending best expressed in the classic coat and tie/Bermuda short attire of island businessmen or in the strong but sensuous lines of its indigenous pastel architecture.

Like the gardens and parks of its meticulously manicured homes and public spaces, Bermuda cultivates its image as a quality destination, a quiet, safe and soothing haven far from the noise and confusion of civilization. And while it is no longer the slow-paced, rural enclave it was even a half-century ago, Bermudans still work hard at protecting and improving the island's spectacular natural setting along with its special brand of hospitality.

Strict regulations, for example, have all but banned new high-rises and kept neon signs and other outdoor advertising off the streets, while an ambitious beautification program will see power and electric lines go underground within the next few years. The job is already completed in Hamilton, Bermuda's busy commercial, political and tourism hub.

The island draws more than half a million visitors yearly. But more impressive, perhaps, is the whopping 48 percent return rate among vacationers who say they come back because of Bermuda's people, its natural beauty, weather and relaxing ambience. The majority of visitors hail from the United States' Eastern seaboard and Canada, but increasing numbers are being lured from Western states as well.

Columbus' first homeward voyage from the Caribbean carried him north on the Gulf Stream, not far from the isolated archipelago, but not until 1503 were the islands officially discovered by Spaniard Juan de Bermudez. For several centuries, the Bermuda route, with its favorable winds and friendly currents, remained the safest for European-bound vessels, although more than one ship fell prey to the island's treacherous reefs.

The wreck of the Sea Venture, an English vessel bound for Jamestown Colony in 1609, resulted in Bermuda's eventual colonization and served, to boot, as the inspiration for Shakespeare's play "The Tempest." Ship survivors spent nine months on the island before beating a retreat through the coral reefs on two hastily constructed ships. Members of that party later returned with other settlers to found the first colony.

American Indians, Africans and Irish political prisoners were brought to Bermuda in 1616, beginning two centuries of legalized slavery. Eventually, many entered the shipbuilding and carpentry trades, and some were sent to sea as part of Bermuda's merchant fleet.

Centuries later, Hamilton harbor is the scene of a thriving tourism trade as well as commercial activity. April through October, luxury cruise ships from several lines visit the port on forays out of New York and Florida. Not far from their moorings lies the Front Street shopping district, the city's main thoroughfare.

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