ST. GEORGE, Bermuda - Sitting on the terrace of the White Horse Tavern, we were in no rush to do anything more than enjoy our lunch, gaze at the turquoise water of St. George’s Harbor, and feel the steady breezes.
My wife and I knew we had made the right choice for our first cruise - not only in picking Bermuda as a destination, but also in avoiding the “if it’s 12:10 we must be moving on’’ pace of some cruises we had heard about.
There are cruises for all tastes.
Some are all about the ship, where passengers spend most of their waking hours in casinos, restaurants, bars, stores, assorted game rooms, and a variety of athletic facilities.
Other cruises are about the ship and stopping, but not for long. You know, a day in one port and a second in another and yet a third in still another (and maybe at a private island owned by the ship’s line), with more on-board recreation in between.
But my wife, Carol Vernon, and I wanted a hybrid cruise, one that would allow us to appreciate the charms of life at sea for a while, then to step off and explore a place without having to worry about catching a launch back to the ship by sundown or keeping to a schedule.
After researching a bit, we found the Norwegian Dawn’s cruise from New York to Bermuda. It was perfect.
We left on a Sunday evening in late April. By dawn Wednesday, we were docked at Heritage Wharf in Bermuda. We had until late Friday afternoon, and miraculously returned faster to New York, gliding by the Statue of Liberty Sunday morning.
So we had a lot of time on Bermuda. And we had “the Dawn,’’ as the crew and regular visitors called it, a 965-foot-long vessel that carries 2,200 passengers and a crew of nearly 1,100. It made for two very different vacation experiences in a single week.
As cruising newcomers, we didn’t know much, but we knew we wanted an outside cabin with a window. That was an excellent decision; the ever-changing sea, with those long, rolling waves you only see in the open ocean, was a show in itself.
Our cabin was large enough to sleep in, but with the bed dominating the room, you couldn’t sit there for long. This is by design: After all, there’s a ship full of revenue-generating activities elsewhere. But it was quite thrilling, really, to go to bed next to a huge picture window with the ocean racing by your head, then awaken to sun and blue water - or to fog and whitecaps.
And with patches behind our ears to ward off nausea, we enjoyed some noticeable rolling seas and never missed a meal.
Indeed, we seemed to add meals - a hazard of cruising.
The Dawn’s Garden Café is a sprawling buffet open from dawn to night, offering . . . well, if you can imagine it, the buffet probably has it. For a nominal extra charge of $10 or $20 per person, the ship offers restaurants where you can order a la carte endlessly. The Dawn has Italian, French, Tex-Mex, sushi, and a steakhouse. We particularly liked the Venetian Restaurant, down on Deck 6 at the Dawn’s stern, where, in a lavishly decorated room with a massive window, you can dine and watch the ship leave its miles-long wake behind.
There are numerous shipboard bars and grills, a movie theater, a spa and salon, a basketball-volleyball court, the Dawn Club Casino, a library, and Wi-Fi.
Perhaps the most curious activity on the Dawn is the art auction. We’re talking expensive stuff by well-known artists. And people were buying. Who knew?
Entertainment on board is professional quality. The huge Stardust Theater hosted comedians, including members of Chicago’s Second City troupe, musicians, dancers, a variety show, and a charming last-night closing production that included the top brass of the ship, right up to Captain Paul von Knorring.
The captain was a daily presence, announcing each morning in his deep Scandinavian accent what our weather was, the location and speed of the Dawn, sea conditions, and other useful information.
Perhaps the best advice von Knorring offered was to avoid renting motor scooters in Bermuda. “Many people have been seriously injured,’’ he told us.
(We were in Bermuda only a few hours, riding a sensible bus, when we saw a fellow on a scooter smacked by a car in an intersection. Amazingly, he limped to his feet, retrieved his scraped bike, and went on his way, hopefully to a doctor.)
The Dawn hummed along so quietly - or rather, we got so used to its sounds - that we were stunned - and delighted - to awaken with Bermuda outside our window on Wednesday morning.
Bermuda is the just-right-sized destination for those who want some land mixed with their sea. It’s a hooked mass of rolling terrain about 22 miles long and, at its widest point, just 2 miles across. In all, you have about 21 square miles to check out.
Bermuda, a self-governing territory of the United Kingdom, is a collection of some 300 islands. But the important ones are linked by causeways and bridges. The Somerset Draw Bridge in the West End is supposedly the world’s smallest draw bridge: just 22 inches of space when it is open.
One of Bermuda’s quirks is its prohibition against nonresidents renting cars. And we knew the motor bikes were out. So, we snagged a pass that got us both on the extensive bus network and on the ferries. We rode with Bermudians and their children on the bus. For quicker runs back to the ship, we took scenic ferries.
The capital, Hamilton, is the center of island action, especially at night. The much-photographed waterfront, with its multicolor buildings, is good for shopping, eating, or just strolling about.
We were disappointed not to see the iconic police officer in Bermuda shorts in his “birdcage’’ directing traffic, perhaps because the traffic was light.
Bermuda’s allegiance to the cruise industry extends to allowing massive ships to dock at the waterfront, which not only detracts from the area’s charm, but makes it hard to see the harbor.
Another attraction is the Gosling Brothers Ltd. store at Front and Queen streets, where Gosling Black Seal Bermuda Dark Rum is sold and can be delivered to your ship.
For the feel of the older Bermuda, St. George on the East End, with its narrow lanes and picturesque harbor, is out of the island hubbub. Settled in 1612, St. George is the former capital. The territory’s oldest stone building, the Old State House (1620), stands just two blocks from King’s Square in the center of town.
Of a much later vintage, but a curiosity, is the so-called “unfinished church,’’ a shell of a cathedral on a hill above town. Begun in 1874, it was abandoned for lack of money and divisions among Bermuda’s Anglicans.
We particularly enjoyed popping in at Lili Bermuda, a perfumery located in Stewart Hall. The huge bottles fermenting to create fragrances - including men’s cologne - are all filled and cared for by hand.
Of course, Bermuda has beaches, and buses will stop at many of them, including famous Elbow Beach and Horseshoe Bay. We spent part of a day with a friend who drove us to less accessible spots, where we walked down to nearly deserted pink sand.
Limestone caves run under much of Bermuda. Going back toward Hamilton, Crystal Caves offers a truly inside look at the island, with stalactites and stalagmites framing an underground lake. Some hotels and resorts also have caves guests may visit for free.
We left the Royal Naval Dockyard area, at the tip of the West End where our ship was docked. Some of the attractions definitely are geared to the cruising set, but there is a wealth of history here, as well as a tiny beach and the Dockyard Brewing Co.’s fine beers at the Frog & Onion Pub.
My one complaint with the Dawn: The beer on tap, good old Bass, was either old or the lines needed cleaning: It tasted like cleaning fluid. When I mentioned this to a couple of barkeeps, I was met with what I assume is a studied insouciance that can be acquired only after many years at sea.
The crew otherwise was solicitous in the extreme, which became more amazing when you realized that they made the same cruise every week, month after month.
“You work a lot, but it’s a great life,’’ one crew member told me.
Norwegian Cruise Lines
Norwegian is offering six- and seven-day cruises to Bermuda out of Boston and New York.
Seven days, round trip between Boston and King’s Wharf, Bermuda, April through October. Inside cabin $479, oceanview $539, balcony $759, suite $959.
Seven days, round trip between New York and King’s Wharf, April through October. $499, $549, $779, and $899.
Six days, round trip between New York and King’s Wharf, April dates only. $479, $499, $729, and $749.
Seven days, round trip between New York and King’s Wharf, May 2013 through the first week of October 2013. $749, $899, $1,149, $1,349.