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Bermuda off-season: a bit cool for swimming, but ideal for sailing, strolling

These are quiet times in Bermuda. The cruise ships that double-park in Hamilton Harbor during the high season have turned their noses southward to the Caribbean, the shopkeepers on Front Street are happy for conversation with or without a sale, and the pink-sand beaches are as empty as the planes flying in and out of this genteel little mid-Atlantic outpost. In other words, things couldn't be better.

Bermuda is the victim of a number of misconceptions, and one is that the off-season, from the end of November to the return of the tourists in mid-March, is an inclement, untimely period to visit. True, there are blowy days in January and February, but sunny upper-60 days are also common, and tennis, golf, jogging , or merely strolling the waterfront are far more inviting than in the sapping heat of midsummer. Besides, the rates at hotels and guest houses come down by 20 to 25 percent, and the Shetland sweaters in Trimingham's and Archie Brown and Son's are handsomely discounted.

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The answer to how a curving little strip of coral only 600 miles east of Cape Hatteras, N.C. could keep its sunny smile through the winter is that roving midocean river, the Gulf Stream. In early December, when I expected brisk weather, the daytime temperatures were in the mid-70s, the old-guard businessmen were going to work in bermudas and knee socks, and the hibiscus and morning glories bloomed along the narrow hedge-lined lanes.

If solitude was what you wanted, the place to be was Salt Kettle, a cluster of bays and coves in the parish of Paget, only a short ride across Hamilton Harbor by ferry. At Glencoe, a small but distinguished hotel on Salt Kettle Bay, only several of the 35 rooms were occupied, and the conversation at dinner between two Connecticut couples dwelled on how to cope with rush-hour traffic out of Hartford in the evening. The Glencoe's snug low-beamed lounge and shaded waterside terrace are evidently much livelier in season, particularly during the Newport-Bermuda and Cape Cod-Bermuda yachting races, when the hotel is bustling with sailing fans.

Even in the slack months, the Glencoe can whip up a gale of boating activity. Its owner, Reggie Cooper, was captain of the Bermuda yachting team at the 1964 and '68 Olympics. He keeps five 14-foot Sunfish sailboats for guests to use free of charge the way some hotels provide bicycles. Also, the Glencoe dock is the base for the island's biggest and best wind-surfing operation, run by 28 -year-old Hugh Watlington, who claims he will have you up on the rainbow-colored craft and sailing after a 90-minute, $30 lesson.

Reggie and Hugh, the old and the young salt, sat on Glencoe's sunlit terrace the other morning, marveling at the phenomenon of the lazy Bermuda sportsman.

''Bermuda has the best sailing in the world,'' Mr. Cooper said. ''The conditions are excellent, the Great Sound is sheltered on all sides but the northeast, and there isn't a day in the year you can't race a boat - it's never dead-flat calm. Yet we have so few people who sail. The expertise is there, but the standard of living is so high and the people are so spoiled by the good life , they won't get out of bed.''

Mr. Watlington, who brought wind-surfing to Bermuda five years ago, chimed in: ''We have 300 wind-surfers on the island now, but on Sundays, when we race in Hamilton Harbor, we're lucky to get 20 or 30 out.''

True to their word, the Great Sound was practically empty when I went out on a chartered cruise with Salt Kettle Boat Rentals, an all-purpose marine outfit just down the bay from Glencoe. It was a weekday, and I suppose would-be sailors were sitting behind desks in their business bermudas. The only other craft on the 4-by-5-mile sound was the Somerset ferry, which chugged right past us, easily eclipsing our 4 to 6 knots.

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There were 10 of us aboard the Maid of Paget, a 41-foot yawl with shiny teak decks that was built in Hong Kong. Paul Doughty, the 30-year-old skipper, is also a sculptor and student of Bermuda history. He deemed it too cool to pull in to a cove for a swimming and snorkeling break, so instead he regaled us with Bermudiana. He said that Bermuda, once an agrarian society that produced the famous Bermuda onions for export, had 2,500 acres of arable land in 1900; today it has 800 acres, and the local crops one sees planted so neatly beside the road - carrots, potatoes, cabbage, lettuce, juicy navel oranges, and onions - are entirely for local consumption.

Housing has eaten up the extra land, and though a strict building code has limited construction to the traditional stone houses with pastel colors and sloping, stepped roofs, painted chalk-white, a few exceptions have raised their heads. The skipper pointed out the Mizzentop condominiums, an angular cluster of white buildings draped over a hillside in Warwick. ''Two of the men who do the show '60 Minutes' share one of those condos,'' he said.

Doughty also showed us a rambling pink mansion on the Warwick coast that was once home to Noel Coward and, at another time, to Eugene O'Neill. Like all Bermuda houses, big and small, it has a name, not an address. ''It's called Spithead House,'' said the skipper. ''It was built in the 1700s by a man named Hezekiah Frith who took on the British when they tried to starve us out and prevent us from trading with the Colonies.''

Though I didn't rent a moped this trip (there are no rental cars on Bermuda) I got around nicely by ferry, taxi, and jogging feet. There is a ferry landing a few minutes walk from Glencoe in Salt Kettle, and early in the morning the little bermuda-clad, necktie-wearing schoolboys were mirror images of the commuting businessmen, except the youngsters carried rucksacks while the men lugged briefcases. For joggers, caution is advised on the narrow, winding lanes barely wide enough for one car. But the sea views are gorgeous, the yellow birds and flowering hedges are most colorful, and the air in this desirably slow season is altogether uplifting. Practical information:

If you want to stay in Paget at something more economical than Glencoe (whose winter rates are about $100 double) the friendly little Salt Kettle House just across the road charges only $42. And up the road on Cobb's Hill, the Pretty Penny's cottages rent for $45 double, or $51 including breakfast.

An attractive winter weekend for joggers is Jan. 29-30, when a 10-kilometer race on Saturday and a marathon on Sunday will be held. For more information, try the Bermuda Department of Tourism, 630 5th Avenue, N.Y., N.Y. 10011; Suite 1010, 44 School Street, Boston, Mass. 02108; Suite 1150, Marina Towers Building, 300 North State Street, Chicago, Ill. 60610; Suite 2008, 235 Peachtree Street NE , Atlanta, Ga. 30303; Suite 510, 1075 Bay Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 2 B1.

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