Bermuda is one of the first places I ever took a cruise to and it's still one of my favorites. The place has everything going for it. From beautiful beaches framed by dramatic rock formations to good roads and friendly locals, Bermuda's a top cruise destination in my book. The icing on the cake: many of us don't' have to fly to get to the ship. Bermuda cruises are super convenient to folks living along the east coast of the US, with weeklong Bermuda cruises leaving from New York, New Jersey, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Norfolk.

To the casual visitor, Bermuda is a pleasant paradox of sorts, mixing sane and proper (the place is super safe and orderly), with a healthy dose of fun (check out those goofy pastel Bermuda shorts paired with sport jackets and knee high socks). Settled by the British in 1609, the place is still a crown colony after nearly four centuries and retains a very British character.

There are three ports in Bermuda. Used to be that all ships called on either Hamilton or St. George's, back when ships were light weights and a 50,000 tonner was considered roomy. Today, the average ship is twice that size, or more -- a regular visitor is the 142,000-ton Explorer of the Seas. King's Wharf in the West End of Bermuda is the only port that can handle the biggies. The good news is that at all three ports you can walk right off the ship and start sightseeing.

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You can easily explore Bermuda on your own, from beach hopping to shopping and walking tours. For more active, adventure-y pursuits, besides the cruise lines' typical bus tours and glass-bottom boat rides, they also sell some more interesting stuff. Top picks include guided bike rides along the path where the original Bermuda Railway once ran on narrow-gauge tracks throughout the island; it's a perfect way to check out the landscape, foliage and birdlife. Snorkeling trips are fun -- on the way back, the music is turned on and the booze starts flowing. For golfers, it's a no-brainer: to play on one of the island's many impressive 18-hole courses. The cruise lines offer packages to many of them.

Worthwhile sights that aren't within walking distance of any or the ports include the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo (www.bamz.org), about halfway between Hamilton and St. George's. It's open daily; adults are $10 and kids 6 to 12 are $5. Halfway between King's Wharf and Hamilton is Gibbs Hill Lighthouse (on Lighthouse Rd, Southampton; halfway between King's Wharf and Hamilton). It's the oldest cast-iron lighthouse in the world and if you scale the 185 steps, the views from the top are great.

When it comes to beaches, Bermuda scores big points. Many are powdery soft and they're easily accessible by taxi or motor scooter from all three ports. Horseshoe Bay, in Southampton Parish, is popular for good reason. The U-shaped beach has scenic rocky cliffs at its edges and a vast super silky plane of sand in the middle that's ideal for little children. Other good beach options include Warwick Long Bay (Warwick Parish), Tobacco Bay Beach (St. George's Parish), where the water is very calm and the beach is tiny, and bustling Elbow Beach (in Paget Parish).

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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 beaches aren't your bag, another great pursuit is hopping on a local ferry (there are terminals in Hamilton and King's Wharf adjacent to the cruise docks). For just a few bucks, ride just for the view of Bermuda's colorful harbors and coastline.

St. George's

The second English town established in the New World, after Jamestown in Virginia, this little pocket of quaint history is worth a visit, even if your ship is docked way over at King's Wharf on the West End. King's Square, also called Market Square or the King's Parade, is the center of life here, and it's just steps from where the cruise ships dock.

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To do your own little walking tour, grab a map form the tourism office in King's Square and check out Ordnance Island, a tiny piece of land that juts into the harbor just in front of the dock, where a replica of Deliverance -- the vessel that carried the shipwrecked Sea Venture passengers on to Virginia -- stands. Don't miss a quick stop at St. Peter's Church, on Duke of York Street, believed to be the oldest Anglican place of worship in the Western Hemisphere; some headstones in the cemetery date back 300 years, and the present church was built in 1713. The oldest stone building in Bermuda, the Old State House, built about 1620, sits at the top of King Street and was once the home of the Bermuda Parliament. At the intersection of Featherbed Alley and Duke of Kent Street is St. George's Historical Society Museum, which houses a collection of Bermudian historic artifacts and cedar furniture. A mile or so from King's Square in St. George's (many walk it, some hop in taxis), overlooking the beach where the shipwrecked crew of the Sea Venture came ashore in 1609, is Fort St. Catherine, which you'll want to see. Completed in 1614, and reconstructed several times after, it was named for the patron saint of wheelwrights and carpenters. The fortress houses a museum, with several worthwhile exhibits. Admission costs $5 for adults and $2 for kids.

King's Wharf

Located at the extreme north west of Bermuda on Ireland Island in Sandys Parish, one of Bermuda's six main islands, King's Wharf has become Bermuda's main cruise port. It's the only one of the country's three ports with the facilities to handle today's mega ships (such as Royal Caribbean's 3,114-passenger Voyager-class vessels). Like Hamilton and St. George's, there's plenty to do just steps from the docks. The main attraction is the Royal Naval Dockyard fortress, which was built by the British in the early 1800s as protection from potential attacks by America.

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The sprawling, 6-acre fort complex was originally constructed by convict labor and it was used by the British Navy until 1951 as a strategic dockyard. Today, it's a major tourist attraction whose centerpiece is the Bermuda Maritime Museum (www.bmm.bm), the most important and extensive museum on the island. Exhibits are housed in six large halls within the complex, and the displays all relate to Bermuda's long connection with the sea, from Spanish exploration to 20th-century ocean liners. You can have a look at maps, ship models, and such artifacts as gold bars, pottery, jewelry, and silver coins recovered from 16th- and 17th-century shipwrecks such as the Sea Venture. It's open daily and costs $10 for adults and $5 for kids. The complex also includes an art gallery, crafts market, restaurants and shops.

Hamilton

The capital of Bermuda since 1815, when it replaced St. George's, today Hamilton is the economic hub of the island. You'll find the island's department stores here and lots of business people trotting around in their pink linen shorts, blazers and stockings. A walking tour is a good way to explore the town (maps are available at the cruise terminal there), from the 200-year-old post office to the exhibits in the Bermuda Historical Society Museum. Though there are a number of English-style pubs dotting the side streets of Hamilton, my favorite lunch spot has always been the outdoor caf? at the Waterloo House hotel on Pitts Bay Road (a 10-minute walk from Hamilton's cruise terminal). Called the Poinciana Terrace, lunch is served on the outdoor patio overlooking the colorful and idyllic harbor. Many snazzy-looking businesspeople dine here, so you won't feel comfortable in a t-shirt and flip-flops. If it's on the menu, the fish chowder, laced with rum and sherry peppers, is a local favorite and a great choice. Expect to spend about $25 to $30 per person.

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Also within walking distance of the docks is the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute (www.buei.bm). There are two floors of interactive exhibits about the ocean, plus the highlight: a capsule that simulates an 11,800-foot dive below the ocean's surface (it accommodates 21 people at a time). It's open daily and admission is $10.50 for adults and $5.50 for kids 7 to 16.

Ships Going There in 2008

This season, six ships are making regular calls to Bermuda on 5- to 7-night cruises. A number of other ships are calling on Bermuda once or twice over the season.

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  • Norwegian Majesty (www.ncl.com), from Baltimore, Charleston and Philadelphia, is docked in St. George's from Monday to Thursday. 24 trips this season.
  • Norwegian Dream, out of Boston, is docked in St. George's from Tuesday to Friday. 22 trips this season.
  • Norwegian Dawn out of New York, is docked at King's Wharf from Wednesdays to Fridays. 23 trips this season.
  • Grandeur of the Seas (www.royalcaribbean.com) out of Baltimore and Norfolk; docked at King's Wharf Tuesday and Wednesday. 15 trips this season.
  • Explorer of the Seas out of Cape Liberty, New Jersey; docked at King's Wharf one or two days per cruise. 21 trips this season.
  • Caribbean Princess (www.princess.com) out of New York, is docked at King's Wharf for 1 day on either Friday, Saturday or Sunday. 8 trips this season.

Fast Facts

  • The Bermuda cruise season is late April through October, when the temperatures hover between 75°F and 85°F and extended rainfall is rare.
  • Most itineraries are 7 nights long and spend 2 or 3 days docked in Bermuda (remember, the ship's casino and shops are closed while docked).
  • Bermuda cruises depart from a handful of ports along the east coast, including New York, New Jersey, Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia mostly.
  • It takes a day and a half at sea to sail there, as Bermuda sits out in the Atlantic roughly parallel to South Carolina.
  • There are no rental cars available on Bermuda (thank god).
  • Don't expect shopping bargains, you won't find any. Souvenirs are plentiful, but for the better stuff, it's mostly English (and some Irish) goodies such as porcelain, crystal, wool clothing, cashmere sweaters, and linens from shops and small department stores in Hamilton.
  • The pink sand you hear about is a bit of a stretch; its pinkish on a good day (guess I need eyeglasses, because it's look whitish to me). The rosy tint comes from crushed shells, corals, and other sea life.
  • The 21-square-mile nation of Bermuda is actually an island chain comprised of six main interconnected islands and just over 100 smaller ones, some not much more than an exposed rock.
  • It'll take you about an hour to drive from one end of Bermuda, at King's Wharf, to the other end, St. George's. Hamilton is roughly in the middle.
  • Taxis are plentiful at all three ports; they're metered and start at a pricey $5.75, going up $2 for each additional mile. Roads are well maintained, but narrow and winding.
  • Scooters (called peddle bikes by the locals) are a fun way to get around. Rentals are $50 to $55 per day from a handful of outfitters, including Oleander (tel. 441/234-2764; www.oleandercycles.bm) at 26 York Street near the docks in St. George's (there are locations near the piers in Hamilton and King's Wharf as well).
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