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A great cruise, without flying anywhere first, is my idea of travel nirvana. If you live near New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Baltimore, British-flavored Bermuda fits the bill.

It takes just a day and a half at sea to sail there, as Bermuda sits pretty out in the Atlantic roughly parallel to South Carolina, and unlike typical 7-night cruises to the Caribbean or Bahamas, generally ships stay docked at the islands for three full days before heading back home. (Though a few visit just for one day if they're in transit to or from the Caribbean, for example.)

To the casual visitor, Bermuda is a pleasant paradox of sorts, mixing sane and proper, with a healthy dose of fun (at least to those of us who think the combination of Bermuda shorts, sport jackets and knee high socks is amusing). But what really matters to the cruise passenger is that Bermuda is an orderly, beautiful, easy place to visit.

When the ships are in town, the two main port towns of Hamilton and St. George's (which are just 10 or so miles a part) are bustling indeed, but still a calm and controlled atmosphere reigns as visitors fan out across the island. There are many powdery soft beaches easily accessible by taxi or motor scooter, and Bermuda has more golf courses per square mile than any other place in the world. For shoppers, Front and Queen streets in Hamilton offer dozens of shops and department stores, most specializing in English items, while the interest of history buffs is piqued by the nearly 300-year-old St. Peter's Church, museums, and other sites within walking distance of the pier in St. George's. There are also impressive exhibits at the Maritime Museum, which is built into the ruins of Bermuda's oldest fort at the Royal Naval Dockyard, the island's third, and least used, port at the west end.

Cruise ships have been sailing to Bermuda for over a century, making it one of the earliest cruise destinations. And today, still a popular one. Though, to protect its hotel trade and to keep the island from getting overrun by too many tourists, the government of Bermuda limits the number of ships that can visit the island on a regular basis during its season, late April through October, when the temperatures hover between 75° and 85°F and extended rainfall is rare. Currently, no more than five ships are permitted on weekdays (and no more than 8,500 passengers on any one day), though the overall number of cruise ship visits has been increasingly over the last few years. So has the size of ships. In the old days, 50,000 tonners were about as big as the Island chain got. Now, super megas like the 142,000-ton Explorer of the Seas are regulars.

Here are the ships that will make at least 10 visits to Bermuda in 2006 (another 18 ships will make occasional visits to the island).

  • Zenith (Celebrity; tel. 800/437-3111; www.celebritycruises.com): out of Cape Liberty, NJ
  • Empress of the Seas (Royal Caribbean; tel. 800/327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com) out of Philadelphia
  • Explorer of the Seas (Royal Caribbean, see above): out of Cape Liberty, NJ
  • Grandeur of the Seas (Royal Caribbean, see above): out of Baltimore
  • Norwegian Crown (Norwegian Cruise Line, tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) out of New York and Philadelphia
  • Norwegian Dawn (NCL, see above) out of New York
  • Norwegian Majesty (NCL, see above) out of Boston and Charleston
  • Norwegian Spirit (NCL, see above) out of New York
  • Crown Princess (Princess Cruises, tel. 800/774-6237; www.princess.com): out of New York

While you could hang out on the ship all day by the pool, it'd be a crime not to go ashore. The beaches are great. They're powdery soft and some even pinkish (from crushed shells, corals, and other sealife), they're easily accessible by taxi or motor scooter from Hamilton and St. George's, and most (including Horseshoe Bay) are free. Horseshoe Bay in Southampton Parish is our top pick. Though you certainly won't have it to yourself since it's so popular with lots of other tourists, the horseshoe-shaped beach has scenic rocky cliffs at its edges and a vast soft plane of sand in the middle. It's perfect for little kids too since the sand is so silky smooth, it won't irritate delicate skin. Other beach options include Elbow Beach in Paget Parish, Astwood Cove (Warwick Parish), Chaplin Bay (Warwick and Southampton parishes), Warwick Long Bay (Warwick Parish), and Tobacco Bay Beach (St. George's Parish), where the water is very calm and the beach is tiny. The more adventurous can hop on a scooter and beach-hop among the many unnamed slivers of silky sand tucked into the jagged coastline.

If you're itching to see more than Hamilton, and beaches aren't your bag, another great option is hopping on a local ferry (terminal is next to the cruise docks). For just a few bucks, either ride just for the view of Bermuda's colorful harbors and coastline, or head to the Royal Naval Dockyard on the island's far west end, where you can tour the historic fortress ruins and excellent museums.

If you're more comfortable going the route of the organized tours offered by the ships, here are some typical options:

Guided Walking Tour of St. George's ($52, 2 hrs): Learn about Bermuda's history, including its churches, art galleries, libraries, and private gardens.

Railway Trail Cruise & Bike Tour ($72, 3 hrs): Take a scenic coastal cruise to the rural West End where you'll hop on 21-speed bikes. Pedal along the path where the original Bermuda Railway once ran on narrow gauge tracks. The tracks are gone, but a great trail remains behind, and this excursion is a great opportunity to get views of the ocean, and the island's lush gardens and bird life. The flat route covers about 5 to 8 miles.

Snorkeling Trip ($60, 3 hrs): From Hamilton, board a boat and motor out to a snorkeling spot near the West End as the captain talks to passengers about Bermuda history and customs. After an hour or so of snorkeling, the real fun begins: music, dancing, and open bar!

Coral Reef Glass-Bottomed Boat Cruise ($38, 1 to 2 hrs): See the coral reefs and colorful fish living in Bermuda's waters, then view one of Bermuda's famous shipwrecks and sip a rum swizzle (or two) from the boat's bar.

Golf Excursion ($55¿$225, half-day): Excursions typically include tee times for 18 holes at challenging courses such as Mid Ocean Golf Club, among the best in world; Riddells Bay Golf & Country Club, a veritable golfing institution built in 1922; Port Royal Golf Course; and St. George's Golf Club, designed by Robert Trent Jones. A taxi to and from the courses may be extra and club rental is about $30 extra, but carts are generally included. The golf excursions are often sold directly through an onboard golf pro who organizes lessons on the ship too.

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