Little Bermuda Is Big on Charm

You don't have to go to the ends of the Earth to find somewhere without a Starbucks, a McDonald's or a megamall. Just head 600 miles east of South Carolina to Bermuda, where residents exist quite happily without fast-food chains, save one KFC.

Perhaps it has something to do with the pink beaches, pastel-colored houses or the incredibly clear blue water. But somehow, in this day of globalization and homogenization, this island has managed to retain a charm and authenticity all its own.

It doesn't take long after your plane has landed to realize Bermuda is a special place. Although situated in the Atlantic, Bermuda offers a beach experience as good as -- if not better than -- its southern neighbors in the Caribbean, with swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving all top-notch. And the shape of the island ensures you're never far from the coast.

From historic St. George's (Bermuda's original capital) to wildflowers to mopeds, the 22-square-mile island oozes charm. And the houses in every color of the rainbow are also a big part of what makes Bermuda so special, says Hilary Gordon, who recently moved to the island after visiting many times.

"I love the easygoing pace of life, the weather, of course, and the pastel-colored houses," says Gordon.

'House-Proud and Garden-Proud'

"The wonderful thing is that you can pretty well say that while no two Bermudians are alike, they're quite house-proud and garden-proud," says Colin Campbell, executive officer and senior architect of OBM International, an architecture company founded in Bermuda in 1936. "People really like to keep the old spit-and-polish going."

Of course, when it comes to maintaining their property, it doesn't hurt that Bermudians enjoy a high standard of living, with a per capita income nearly equal to that of the United States.

Instead of modern structures, Bermudians' taste runs more toward the island's traditional architecture, which Campbell describes as "Georgian Light," and the signature whitewashed pyramid-like Bermuda roofs, which employ a drainage system that allows houses to store rainwater in individual tanks.

"Bermudians tend to carry a flame for old houses," says Campbell, adding that they like to "feel the history" of a house.

Those who don't are faced with plenty of regulations for building both private and commercial structures. For example, illuminated signs are forbidden, which has discouraged fast-food restaurants from coming to the island.

"The charm of Bermuda is challenged all the time, but good sense rather than raging avarice saves the day," he added.

Strict housing laws have kept Bermuda for the Bermudians. Non-Bermudians may only purchase homes or condos from non-Bermudians, and they can't buy undeveloped land.

But while laws can help maintain charm, they can't legislate it. That's where Bermuda's natural gifts and proud spirit come in.

"Bermuda's charm comes from its size and relative remoteness," says Jesse Haldeman, who relocated to Bermuda from New York two-and-a-half years ago. "With only 65,000 people and 600 miles away from land, it really is a small town."

Close, Yet Far Away

"I tell my friends from the East Coast that Bermuda is the farthest you can get away from the U.S. in an hour-and-a-half," says Haldeman, referring to the unique atmosphere and short plane ride.

Only a 90-minute flight from New York and other East Coast cities, this British Overseas Territory is user friendly for Americans. The Bermuda dollar has a fixed rate pegged to the American dollar. American cell phones work here, as do electrical appliances.

Bermudians do drive on the left side of the road, but tourists can't rent cars anyway. They are, however, allowed to rent mopeds or motorized scooters.

Haldeman says he takes all his visitors on a tour of the island via scooter.

"This gives them the best overview of the island and allows them to travel like a true Bermudian," he says.

Tourism Down from 1980s

In the 1980s, Bermuda was the place to go for honeymooners, as well as for the East Coast country club set. And while beautiful Bermuda still impresses visitors so much that 59 percent of them are repeaters, the island's popularity has declined.

In 1980, tourism peaked with 610,000 visitors arriving by plane. Last year, only about a quarter as many did, with an equal number arriving as part of their cruise ship itinerary, according to Bermuda's Department of Tourism.

Tourism has increased slightly this year, with total arrivals for the second quarter of 2005 showing a 5.5 percent increase over the same period in 2004.

"Bermuda has always had an exclusive positioning within the Caribbean," says Chekitan S. Dev, an associate professor at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, who consults for hotels in the islands, including Bermuda. "It's always been regarded as a destination that's more exclusive, safe and clean. And for all those reasons it's always attracted the higher-paying leisure traveler."

"What has happened over the last 15 to 20 years is that the other islands have become much more assertive in attracting people," Dev adds. Also, American travel trends have changed.

"People are now looking for more relaxing getaways, and Bermuda's reputation for being formal works against it," Dev says. "Also, there's been a tremendous increase in family travel, and Bermuda is not perceived as being family friendly, but more about romance and couples."

Compared to the other islands, Bermuda has a much shorter season due to its semitropical location. The beach season is from April through the beginning of November, although golfers do visit during the cooler season to take advantage of the eight world-class golf courses.

Center of International Business

International business has replaced tourism as Bermuda's No. 1 industry. A favorable corporate tax environment has attracted many prestigious insurance and reinsurance agencies and investment management firms. With more than 10,000 international companies and partnerships registered in Bermuda, the island has turned into a major financial center.

Yet Hamilton, the capital, is so attractive, you'd never realize the level of business going on. Cruise ships dock right in Hamilton's harbor. Of course, the tourists may spot the corporate set -- especially some of the men who choose to wear the traditional knee-length Bermuda shorts with the customary knee-high socks.

With all of its amenities -- boating, fishing, Jet-Skiing -- Bermuda doesn't have to try too hard to lure talent to its businesses. In fact, work permits are very hard to come by.

"For me, it is a perfect blend of high quality, small-island living and a sophisticated business environment," says Haldeman, who works as an underwriter for a global insurance firm.

Gordon, who works in marketing for a Bermuda telecommunications company, agrees that Bermuda offers an ideal situation.

"It's like paradise, but with a competitive work environment," she says.