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TRAVELING in style : LOST AT SEA : 'One of the biggest problems we have is that not everyone really knows where we are.' But once you're there, Bermuda offers memorable holidays.

March 19, 1989|PETER GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles writer.

For once the promotion of a travel destination isn't simply an exercise in hyperbole. On the tranquil, sun-kissed British archipelago called Bermuda, extravagant descriptions are justified. The sands are powdery pink, the water is turquoise and the gardens are brilliantly manicured. And yes, Mark Twain really did write: "Americans on their way to heaven call at Bermuda and think they've arrived."

Trips to heaven notwithstanding, the first thing one should know about Bermuda is that speed is not of the essence. About the only fast things in Britain's Atlantic colony are the few jets that arrive at and depart from the airport in Hamilton.

Everything else runs at the appropriate unhurried pace: relaxed. In Bermuda the quality of life is not measured by income or social status as much as it is by how much you can enjoy yourself without the often-regimented distractions found at resort destinations.

If you're looking for frenetic discos or a singles scene, you've come to the wrong place. If your search encompasses a passion for a place where the locals like visitors and where you can quickly become a part of the feeling of community, history and a measurable amount of style, Bermuda is an excellent choice.

That is, of course, if you know where Bermuda is. "One of the biggest problems we have," says the Hon. John W. Swan, Bermuda's premier, "is that not everyone really knows where we are. People often think we're in the Caribbean. Wrong. We're out in the Atlantic Ocean by ourselves, almost as if we shouldn't be there, a product of a volcanic condition surrounded by coral. In a way, I'm glad that not everyone knows where we are."

Bermuda is 600 miles off North Carolina in the Western Atlantic, a tolerable two-hour flight from several East Coast U.S. airports. And Bermuda is not an appendage of the Bahamas (another common geographical mistake made by tourists). It's closer to New York than to Nassau. Often thought of as one island, Bermuda is actually almost 150, 20 of which are inhabited. The seven largest are connected by bridges and causeways and boast a decidedly British heritage: places with such names as Devonshire, Southampton and St. George. The capital of Hamilton, in Pembroke Parish, is quite small and tranquil, even during rush hour.

"Bermuda's ideal," one visitor says, "because your adjustment to it happens so quickly."

It did for Adm. Sir George Somers and his crew of 150. His trip to Bermuda, like that of so many other early visitors, was accidental. In 1609 Somers and company were shipwrecked there while en route to Jamestown, Va. They soon discovered that the ship's loss was their gain. They stayed and claimed the area for Britain.

Since then Bermuda has become a model of British civility. There's cricket and soccer and afternoon tea. Today the self-governing colony boasts eight golf courses and more than 100 tennis courts. There's reef and deep-sea fishing. Refreshingly, the strongest tie to the United States is the U. S. dollar, which remains on a par with the Bermudan dollar. And to make matters better, there is no sales tax.

That's good news for U. S. travelers. In Hamilton, Front Street is also good news. It is a mild--not wild--conglomeration of perfume, clothing and souvenir shops, offering much lower prices on many designer goods than the same items cost in the United States.

Most perfumes are priced 30% to 40% cheaper than in the United States. Then there are the sweaters. For reasons no one has bothered to explain, beautiful 100%-wool and 100%-cotton sweaters are sold for as little as $12. (Which brings up the subject of extra luggage. I bought so many gift sweaters that I had to buy an extra bag. Even the designer duffel was $65 less than it sold for in the United States.)

Perhaps the best things about Front Street are the second-floor English pubs--their terraces, in the early afternoon, great places to sit and have lunch and people-watch; or in the late afternoon to drink and people-watch, as you help the owners and the locals maintain the fine traditions of Bermudan happy hours.

It's easy to discern that little if anything has changed in Bermuda over the centuries. (One concession to technology: Satellite TV dishes abound, so relax if you really can't miss "Wheel of Fortune" or your favorite U.S. sports team). But you won't see neon signs. All forms of outdoor advertising are discouraged.

For years Bermuda enjoyed limited air service. Most visitors reached it by cruise ships. Today several airlines offer frequent service (Pan Am, Eastern, Delta, American and British Airways). And the cruise ship business has soared; in 1987, Bermuda welcomed nine cruise lines with a record 190 separate cruise-ship arrivals.

Although Bermuda has long been a favorite destination among older vacationers, the demographics have changed dramatically. Now 50% of the 500,000 people who visit each year are younger than 40.

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