Cruising with Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) from Boston to the pink sands and turquoise seas of lovely Bermuda is a popular vacation choice. You can drive right to the ship (for out-of-towners the cruise is also an excellent add-on to a Boston visit) and fares for one-week sailings, offered May to September, are priced from only $499 if you snag a sale fare.

Cruising with Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) from Boston to the pink sands and turquoise seas of lovely Bermuda is a popular vacation choice. You can drive right to the ship (for out-of-towners the cruise is also an excellent add-on to a Boston visit) and fares for one-week sailings, offered May to September, are priced from only $499 if you snag a sale fare. Until this year, the only downside was the Norwegian Majesty, the vessel on the seasonal route since 1994 (first as the Royal Majesty), was getting a bit, ahem, ragged.

Problem solved. NCL this year has given Boston the gift of the Norwegian Spirit, nearly twice as big as its predecessor and so much better.

The Spirit is not a new ship. The 75,338-ton, 2,000-passenger vessel was built 10 years ago - middle-aged by cruise ship standards.

But the ship recently underwent a multimillion dollar renovation and its 13 passenger decks are downright sparkling. You won't find a rock-climbing wall or bowling or some of the other whiz-bang features bigger and newer ships offer. But enjoyment doesn't always have to come in an ultra modern package - and this lively, friendly ship serves up a very enjoyable vacation experience.

The ship was originally built for the Asian market and still boasts a pleasing, Asian-inspired decor including artifacts on display. Staircases have wood and iron railings, the atrium has glass elevators and waterfalls, and there's a real wide wooden promenade that wraps around the entire ship - something you rarely see these days. The overall effect is more elegant than you might expect from the mainstream NCL line. Excellent service by the crew enhances the experience.

The ship works well for what NCL calls Freestyle Cruising, meaning passengers can do what they want, when they want.

There are, to be clear, a lot of people onboard - from little kids to 20-somethings to great-grandparents (and most age groups in between), the crowd not only youngish by cruise ship standards but very Boston-oriented (Revere jokes delivered by comedians went over well).

On the first cruise of the season earlier this month, everyone seemed to be outside vying for open deck space on a sunny day. The main pool, where tent-like awnings provide shade for those who want it, had an amusement park-like atmosphere with live bands performing on a stage and poolside games. Squeals of delight could be heard in the equally bustling aft water park area, complete with water slides, sprays and kiddie pool, a magnet for the family crowd.

The ship has outdoor lounging areas on multiple tiers, but if you want a quiet place to read a book, you'll want to splurge on a cabin with a balcony and grab your own private bit of outdoor space - or head to one of the few traditional wooden deck chairs on the promenade.

Bermuda is in the North Atlantic, some 600 nautical miles from Boston, and the route allows plenty of time to explore both the ship and the island, with three nights in Bermuda and three full days at sea.

Personally, I love sea days when you have nowhere you have to be. The Spirit acknowledged this plus in its daily newsletter - printed across the bottom was "OK, we know this looks like a schedule (gasp!), but remember you're free to (do) whatever!"

Passengers took the advice and while some sat in the sun, others worked out in the gym, in the ship's indoor swim-against-the-current pool, on the basketball court or the jogging track - while others gave their pocketbooks a workout at the ship's shops, with frequent sales of jewelry, perfume and logo wear also held in the atrium. Others indulged at the ship's oversized Maharajah's Casino - with 14 tables and dozens, if not hundreds, of slots - or participated in frequent bingo tournaments and art auctions. Some indulged in treatments at the Roman-themed spa (massages from $129) or took NCL U seminars in things like pairing beer with food ($15). To be clear, NCL U is not a particularly intellectual activities program, though a seminar on the History of Magic with a Master Magician drew a big crowd. Young cruisers were well occupied in the Kids Cruise program for age 2 and up. Teens hung out in their own club high on top of the ship (and at the opposite end then the little kids' playrooms).

The Freestyle Cruising philosophy includes an acknowledgement that many people don't like set times for dinner and not everyone wants to get dressed up at night. There are eight restaurants on the Spirit, and cruisers can dine when they want and with whom they want. All are casual except for the pretty Windows (one of two main dining rooms) where every night is dress-up night. Several of the restaurants, including the sushi bar, Cagney's Steakhouse and Le Bistro (serving French Mediterranean cuisine), have an extra service fee of $10 to $25, and reservations are recommended. For me, the $15 for all-you-can-eat sushi is one of the best bargains going. Another popular choice is the Teppanyaki, where the chefs prepare a stir fry meal before your eyes, flipping knives in the air in the process ($25). A special Jazz Brunch was a nice indulgence, eggs benedict served with live Big Band accompaniment ($15).

You can also eat for free, 24 hours a day, and not feel at all deprived in terms of quality or quantity. In the main dining rooms there are even dishes designed with Cooking Light magazine for those watching calories. The Raffles buffet offered impressive variety - at lunch everything from deli to Indian vegetarian, and at breakfast you can choose buffet items like thick French toast or have waffles or eggs made to order.

Raffles is also the place for the extravagant Chocoholics Buffet one night - more sweets than you can imagine (it's like a scene out of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory").

Freestyle also brings an impressive array of entertainment - with live music happening all over the ship at night - a piano player at the champagne bar, a guitarist/singer at Henry's Pub, a dance band in the Galaxy of the Stars lounge - walking around you could always find an act. Show productions including one featuring Broadway tunes were performed by four singers and eight dancers and fun to watch in the gorgeously renovated Stardust Theater, with plush red velvet seats. Members of the Chicago-based improvisational comedy troupe Second City (the same troupe that brought the world the likes of Tina Fey, John Belushi and Mike Meyers) perform several times and even offer a really fun and complimentary NCL U class in improvising.

Some of the entertainment is clearly adult-oriented like the late-night Le Cabaret Glamour Party, a not-to-be-missed re-creation of a European cabaret complete with drag act and male Chippendale-ish dancers who don't quite do a Full Monty but do bare their chiseled chests. A show by the international crew that included Indian and Filipino dance routines was another crowd pleaser, as were performances by a guest a cappella group, Cat's Pajamas.

Many passengers I encountered onboard had earlier cruised on the Norwegian Majesty. And all declared the Norwegian Spirit, on its first outing from Boston to Bermuda, a real winner.

If you go

ARRIVING THERE: The Norwegian Spirit docks at the Royal Naval Dockyard, a historic former base now boasting art galleries and crafts makers, restaurants, shops and museums. From there, you can book a shore excursion to visit beaches, swim with dolphins, go scuba diving, or a variety of other options. But you can also easily explore on your own. Cabs take passengers to popular Horseshoe Bay beach in Somerset for about $25. Ferries and public buses make it easy to get to Bermuda's capital of Hamilton or historic city of St. George. Fares for both are $4 each way, with multi-day passes offering a discount - buy transportation tokens or passes at the ship pier.

ONBOARD ACCOMMODATIONS: Cabins are on the small side, as are the balconies. There are suites available for those who want extra space (suite guests also enjoy concierge service and breakfast and lunch at Cagney's). Cabins are equipped with coffeemakers, a nice touch. But bring your own toiletries unless you like peppermint soap from a dispenser. Those worried about seasickness should be prepared with medication (consult with your doctor), as seas can be rough, though they can also be very calm (we experienced both on the early May cruise).

CRUISING THERE: The Norwegian Spirit departs Fridays from the Black Falcon Cruise Terminal in Boston's Seaport area (close to Logan International Airport). For reservations, visit www.ncl.com.