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Lying 920km (570 miles) east-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, Bermuda is actually a group of some 300 islands, islets, and coral rocks clustered in a fishhook-shaped chain about 35km (22 miles) long and 3km (2 miles) wide at its broadest point. The archipelago, formally known as "The Bermudas," forms a landmass of about 54 sq. km (21 sq. miles).

Only 20 or so of the islands are inhabited. The largest one, called the "mainland," is Great Bermuda; about 23km (14 miles) long, it's linked to nearby major islands by a series of bridges and causeways. Bermuda's capital, the City of Hamilton, is on Great Bermuda.

The other main inhabited islands include Somerset, Watford, Boaz, and Ireland in the west, and St. George's and St. David's in the east. This chain of major islands encloses the archipelago's major bodies of water, which include Castle Harbour, St. George's Harbour, Harrington Sound, and Great Sound. Most of the other smaller islands, or islets, lie within these bodies of water.

Bermuda is far north of the Tropic of Cancer, which cuts through the Bahamian archipelago. Bermuda's archipelago is based on the upper parts of an extinct volcano, which may date from 100 million years ago. Through the millennia, wind and water brought limestone deposits and formed these islands far from any continental landmass. Today, the closest continental landmass is the coast of the Carolinas. Bermuda is about 1,250km (775 miles) southeast of New York City, some 1,660km (1,030 miles) northeast of Miami, and nearly 5,555km (3,445 miles) from London. It has a balmy climate year-round, with sunshine prevailing almost every day. The chief source of Bermuda's mild weather is the Gulf Stream, a broad belt of warm water formed by equatorial currents. The stream's northern reaches separate the Bermuda islands from North America and, with the prevailing northeast winds, temper the wintry blasts that sweep across the Atlantic from west and north. The islands of Bermuda are divided, for administrative purposes, into parishes.

More Than Onions: The Island's Flora

Bermuda's temperate climate, abundant sunshine, fertile soil, and adequate moisture account for the exceptionally verdant gardens that you'll find on the archipelago. Some of the best gardens, such as the Botanical Gardens in Paget Parish, are open to the public. Bermudian gardeners pride themselves on their mixtures of temperate-zone and subtropical plants, both of which thrive on the island, despite the salty air.

Bermuda is blessed with copious and varied flora. Examples include the indigenous sea grape, which flourishes along the island's sandy coasts (it prefers sand and saltwater to more arable soil), and the cassava plant, whose roots resemble the tubers of sweet potatoes. When ground into flour and soaked to remove a mild poison, the cassava root is the main ingredient for Bermuda's traditional Christmas pies. Also growing wild and abundant are prickly pears, aromatic fennel, yucca, and the Spanish bayonet, a spiked-leaf plant that bears a single white flower in season.

Bermuda's only native palm, the palmetto, proved particularly useful to the early settlers. Its leaves were used to thatch roofs, and when crushed and fermented, the palm fronds produced a strong alcoholic drink called bibby, whose effects the early Puritans condemned. Palmetto leaves were also fashioned into women's hats during a brief period in the 1600s, when they represented the height of fashion in London.

The banana, one of Bermuda's most dependable sources of fresh fruit, was introduced to the island in the early 1600s. It is believed that Bermudian bananas were the first to be brought back to London from the New World. They created an immediate sensation, leading to the cultivation of bananas in many other British colonies.

The plant that contributed most to Bermuda's renown was the Bermuda onion (Allium cepa). Imported from England in 1616, it was grown from seeds brought from the Spanish and Portuguese islands of Tenerife and Madeira. The Bermuda onion became so famous along the East Coast of the United States that Bermudians themselves became known as "Onions." During the 1930s, Bermuda's flourishing export trade in onions declined due to high tariffs, increased competition from similar species grown in Texas and elsewhere, and the limited arable land on the island.

Today, you'll see oleander, hibiscus, royal poinciana, poinsettia, bougainvillea, and dozens of other flowering shrubs and vines decorating Bermuda's gently rolling land. Of the island's dozen or so species of morning glory, three are indigenous; they tend to grow rampant and overwhelm everything else in a garden.

Close Encounters with the Local Fauna

Amphibians -- Because of the almost total lack of natural freshwater ponds and lakes, Bermuda's amphibians have adapted to seawater or slightly brackish water. Amphibians include tree frogs (Eleutherodactylus johnstonei and Eleutherodactylus gossei), whose nighttime chirping newcomers sometimes mistake for the song of birds. Small and camouflaged by the leafy matter of the forest floor, the frogs appear between April and November.

More visible are Bermuda's giant toads, or road toads (Bufo marinus), which sometimes reach the size of an adult human's palm. Imported from Guyana in the 1870s in hopes of controlling the island's cockroach population, giant toads search out the nighttime warmth of the asphalt roads -- and are often crushed by cars in the process. They are especially prevalent after a soaking rain. The road toads are not venomous and, contrary to legend, do not cause warts.

Island reptiles include colonies of harmless lizards, often seen sunning themselves on rocks until approaching humans or predators scare them away. The best-known species is the Bermuda rock lizard (Eumeces longirostris), also known as a skink. It's said to have been the only nonmarine, nonflying vertebrate on Bermuda before the arrival of European colonists. Imported reptiles include the Somerset lizard (Anolis roquet), whose black eye patches give it the look of a bashful bandit, and the Jamaican anole (Anolis grahami), a kind of chameleon.

Bird Life -- Partly because of its ample food sources, Bermuda has a large bird population; many species nest on the island during their annual migrations. Most of the birds arrive during the cooler winter months, usually between Christmas and Easter. Birders have recorded almost 40 different species of eastern warblers, which peacefully coexist with martins, doves, egrets, South American terns, herons, fork-tailed flycatchers, and even some species from as far away as the Arctic Circle.

Two of the most visible imported species are the cardinal, introduced during the 1700s, and the kiskadee. Imported from Trinidad in 1957 to control lizards and flies, the kiskadee has instead wreaked havoc on the island's commercial fruit crops.

The once-prevalent eastern bluebird has been greatly reduced in number since its preferred habitat, cedar trees, was depleted by blight. Another bird native to Bermuda is the gray-and-white petrel, known locally as a cahow, which burrows for most of the year in the sands of the isolated eastern islands. During the rest of the year, the cahow feeds at sea, floating for hours in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. One of the most elusive birds in the world -- it was once thought to be extinct -- the petrel is now protected by the Bermudian government.

Also native to Bermuda is the cliff-dwelling tropic bird, which you can identify by the elongated plumage of its white tail. The bird resembles a swallow and is the island's harbinger of spring, appearing annually in March.

Although the gardens and golf courses of many of the island's hotels attract dozens of birds, some of the finest bird-watching sites are maintained by the Bermuda Audubon Society (www.audubon.bm) or the National Trust. Isolated sites known for sheltering thousands of native and migrating birds include Paget Marsh, just south of the City of Hamilton; the Idwal Hughes Nature Reserve in Hamilton Parish; and Spittal Pond in Smith's Parish.

Sea Life -- In the deep waters off the shores of Bermuda are some of the finest game fish in the world: blackfin tuna, marlin, swordfish, wahoo, dolphin, sailfish, and barracuda. Also prevalent are bonefish and pompano, both of which prefer sun-flooded shallow waters closer to shore. Any beachcomber is likely to come across hundreds of oval-shaped chitons (Chiton tuberculatus), a mollusk that adheres tenaciously to rocks in tidal flats; locally, it is known as "suck-rock."

Beware of the Portuguese man-of-war (Physalia physalis), a floating colony of jellyfish whose stinging tentacles sometimes reach 15m (50 ft.) in length. Give this dangerous and venomous marine creature a wide berth: Severe stings may require hospitalization. Avoid the creature when it washes up on Bermuda beaches, usually between March and July -- the man-of-war can sting even when it appears to be dead.

The most prevalent marine animal in Bermuda is responsible for the formation of the island's greatest tourist attraction -- its kilometers of pale pink sand. Much of the sand consists of broken shells, pieces of coral, and the calcium carbonate remains of other marine invertebrates. The pinkest pieces are shards of crushed shell from a single-celled animal called foraminifer. Its vivid pink skeleton is pierced with holes, through which the animal extends its rootlike feet (pseudopodia), which cling to the underside of the island's reefs during the animal's brief life, before its skeleton is washed ashore.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.