Bermuda cruise

THERE was no sun, but there was Massimo. For seven mostly cloudy days on the Atlantic's 17th New York-to-Bermuda run of the season, the dark-haired waiter with a silver No. 11 button in his lapel and a smile that flashes from ear to ear has been spilling the light of his Mediterranean personality with prodigal abandon.

One moment rattling off instructions in Italian to his busboy John, the next moment exchanging pleasantries in English with passengers, he orbits around his four tables in the orchid dining room with the grace of a dancer and the happy compassion of a born nurturer.

Plenty of food (much of it very good), fresh towels twice a day, the constantly replenished basket of fruit in the stateroom, the discreetly turned-down bed - this luxurious sense of being pampered by a small army of Massimos on a sleek, white year-old ship in the middle of an ocean ought to provide pleasure enough, even if this Sun-Way Cruise has run short of sun.

What more does a vacationer fleeing city and job need during the 41 hours it takes to get to Hamilton Harbour, besides maybe a deck chair and a good book?

Alas, there is a law of the sea as old as the great liners: Never trust a passenger to entertain himself. Cruise lines take seriously their responsibility to see that passengers have fun. The effect is one of constant motion. Roaming through lounges, wandering around decks, many travelers never quite settle down to the book they planned to read or even the needlework they wanted to finish - and certainly not the thoughts they intended to think.

There's nothing very relaxing about the marathon of activities: morning exercises with Joan; group dance classes with the Szonys; arts and crafts with a social director. Bingo, horse racing, and even a video-game room - to the obvious delight of children and the chagrin of parents - can give the feeling of a floating casino.

Sometimes the idea that a passenger might want to be left alone appears to be understood. With no newspapers and no nightly TV news - only a one-page typed summary of world news, slipped under cabin doors late in the afternoon - a seafaring passenger feels gloriously removed from the headlines and deadlines of everyday life.

Even the smallest activity - like reading the navigational forecast - takes on a delightful significance.

The art of the cruise ship is to save up your money and your energy for Bermuda.

Cruise passengers represent a significant part of Bermuda's all-important tourist industry - the island's economic mainstay. Last year 23 percent of Bermuda's half-million tourists arrived by ship. Many of these cruise passengers are first-time visitors, destined to return again. ''People go down on cruise ships, and they don't see enough,'' says a Department of Tourism staff member based in the United States. ''They often go back for their second visit by air.''

Yet to approach Bermuda by sea is to experience its full charm at a proper tempo, pulling into Hamilton Harbour with the commotion of New York a distant 705 miles away.

Bermuda remains one of the most hassle-free of destinations. No language problem. No need, even, to exchange currency. The Bermuda dollar is pegged to the US dollar, and most shopkeepers gladly accept American money.

Hamilton, the capital city, is a storybook village or a movie set. Front Street rates as one of the most colorful main streets anywhere, with its Easter-egg assortment of pastel pink, blue, and yellow buildings.

All this charm and quiet elegance bear a hefty price tag. Bermuda has become an expensive place. Tourists disembark from ships and land in the arms of friendly merchants, conveniently located across the street.

Unless shopping is a top priority, leave the stores to other tourists for now and head for the Visitors Service Bureau, a pink building a block to the left of Number One Dock Passenger Terminal. Friendly aides will help you get your bearings, offer brochures on local attractions, and direct you to beaches and transportation.

If weather permits, consider heading for one of the island's justly famous beaches. Even confirmed non-beach-goers will respond to the small miracle of clear water, flawless sand, and no high-rises or commercial development to spoil the serenity. (Florida should take a lesson here.)

The true charm of Hamilton becomes apparent at the end of the business day, when stores close and tourists return to their hotels and ships for dinner. It's a perfect time to window shop along Front Street, stroll past the manicured grounds of the Bermudiana Hotel, and listen to the wonderfully exotic concert offered by a chorus of unseen tree toads, grasshoppers, and crickets.

Early evening is also an ideal time to ride a horse-drawn carriage through the town's residential areas ($7.50 and up for 30 minutes). The pastel houses with white limestone roofs that double as rainwater collectors seem to take on a special charm as the sun begins to set. The shuttered windows, arched doorways, and serene little gardens and parks are the stuff an island idyll is made of. Lush foliage arches over the streets, dispensing the familiar fragrances of bougainvillea and hibiscus, as well as the pungent odor of Bermuda cedar, making a modest comeback after decades of blight.

Having paid a substantial sum for the cruise, seafaring tourists may feel locked into eating on the ship, rather than sampling local cuisine. But, equipped with a map and com-fortable shoes, consider spending a day on the eastern tip of the island. For $1.50, a No. 10 or 11 bus will take you to St. George, the first capital of Bermuda.

Here, in 1609, a shipwreck dumped 150 Jamestown-bound colonists on the coral reefs. Using salvage from the wreck and cedar found on the island, the castaways built two new ships and continued their voyage the following year. Their enthusiastic reports about the island later brought 50 settlers from Jamestown, and Bermuda's colonization began.

A replica of one of the colonists' ships, the Deliverance, stands on Ordnance Island, connected to St. George's by a short causeway. Other pleasant stops include St. Peter's Church, the oldest Anglican church site in the Western Hemisphere; the Carriage Museum; and Tucker House, a Trust House museum displaying Bermuda antiques, silver, and portraits. And everywhere whimsical street names (Silk Alley, Old Maids Lane, Featherbed Alley) hint at colorful episodes from the town's past.

No rental cars are permitted on the island, and even residents are allowed only one car per household. But a word about the ubiquitous mopeds: Don't be too blithe about renting one. Roads are narrow, winding, hilly. Then you must remember: Drive on the left. Unless you're adventurous or already familiar with these vehicles, consider relying on taxis or the pink-and-blue buses (75 cents for the first three zones, $1.50 beyond; tokens or exact change required). The buses are well marked. The drivers are courteous. The conversations of locals are worth eavesdropping on.

Taxis can get expensive, but drivers are excellent sources of island history and information. ''What about Devil's Hole?'' our 12-year-old daughter asked one straw-hatted driver. ''It's the only gyp in Bermuda,'' he replied cheerfully. ''Go to the aquarium instead.'' We did. Although small and simple by American aquarium standards, it's a pleasant stop, especially for children, and a good introduction to the marine life inhabiting coral reefs around the island.

There's no arguing with the convenience of a cruise ship's prime Front Street location. Stores and transportation are barely a block away. If sightseeing and shopping top your list of interests, a cruise may just fill the bill. But if relaxation is important - if beaches, tennis, and golf are primary ingredients to your vacation - it may be better to fly and settle into one of the many hotels, cottage colonies, or guest houses scattered around the island. Those 31/ 2 days ashore fly by too fast.

''This is sailing day,'' says a slightly harried but good-natured clerk in Trimingham's department store. ''Everybody waits until the last minute to do their shopping.''

The crowds thin as shoppers return to their ships, and, clutching their pink Pringle's bags and green-and-white Smith's bags, they clamber up the gangway for the last time.

Why does the return trip always seem shorter? Despite the rain - despite the sense of too little time and not enough just plain relaxing - our little contingent is sorry the week is over. We have become sufficiently attached to the ship in this time to feel just a bit dispossessed.

Within hours another thousand passengers will board. Several will settle into ''our'' cabin and rent ''our'' little-used deck chairs. A foursome will be seated at ''our'' table. There will be another round of introductions, and for the 18th consecutive week Massimo will circle four tables, spreading sunshine as he serves ''his'' passengers. He will wish them a hearty ''buon appetito.'' We can only wish them ''bon voyage.'' Make that a sunny bon voyage.

Practical details:

The Bermuda cruise season runs from mid-April to October. Current economy-season rates on the Home Lines Atlantic range from $855 to $1,725 a person, double occupancy. Figure at least an additional $50 a person (minimum) for shipboard gratuities, plus airfare to the port of departure. Also allow for shore excursions, transportation, and evening entertainment on the island.

Don't overpack. Closets and drawers in cabins are adequate, but shipboard life is simple and there's no need to be burdened with too many suitcases. (If you'll need skirt hangers, take your own.)

Daytime attire on the Atlantic is decidedly casual: slacks, shorts, swimwear. Dinner dress on two evenings is designated ''formal.'' Probably ''dressy'' would be a less-confusing term. On a recent Bermuda cruise, short dresses far outnumbered long ones, and only a few men appeared in tuxedos.

Take an umbrella. Travel posters show only blue skies, but Bermuda, befitting its semitropical location, gets more than 50 inches of rain a year. Fortunately, many showers are sudden and short.

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