It's no secret that Bermuda is expensive. According to the island's tourism department, rooms on the 21-square-mile confection of pink-sand beaches and British accents cost an average of $250 a night, while a dinner out regularly tops $40 per person. Visitors blow $112 each day on everything from Sunday brunches and souvenirs to snorkeling expeditions and moped rentals.

That doesn't mean you have to.

On a recent four-night visit, my third to this archipelago about 650 miles east of the Carolinas, I wanted to see if it's possible to do Bermuda on a budget. Credit the recent introduction of nonstop service by USA 3000 -- a discount carrier now ferrying travelers from BWI to the island for as little as $79 each way -- for putting that crazy thought in my head.

The flights were fast (under two hours), comfortable, amenity-packed (sandwiches coming and going, a movie on the return) and only slightly delayed in both directions.

But the savings didn't stop once I deplaned. I spent $100 a night on lodging and less than $35 a day for food -- that's for three meals, including lunch out every afternoon. I opted for the beach, day hikes and a do-it-yourself island tour over costly attraction-hopping, though I did fork over $2.50 to climb a lighthouse. And while a moped -- the preferred mode of locomotion among natives and visitors, who are prohibited from renting cars -- can easily run $30 or more per day, I bought a $28 bus pass that covered most of my stay.

All told, I paid just under $900 for four days, including air, lodging, transfers, ground transportation, activities and all meals. That's well below what four nights in an average-price room would have run, though resorts usually include a meal or two in the nightly tab. (See Details below.)

Bottom line: If you need linen tablecloths, turn-down service and chardonnay from a bottle you didn't open yourself, you can pick up the phone and call Ariel Sands, the Reefs or any of the island's other highfalutin resorts. Or you can shop for groceries with the locals, amble through islanders' back yards and commute with schoolchildren for a pittance.

I've done it both ways. For me at least, the choice is simple.

With only 65,000 residents, Bermuda never seems more crowded than when you're padding around a resort knocking into other guests (or mingling with cruisers in Hamilton, but that's another kind of hell). Eat on-site and you'll pay a fortune, plus there's often a dress code at dinner. Who wants to get gussied up at the beach?

A lot of people, actually -- just not me. Fortunately, the island is home to dozens of rental cottages or apartments with kitchens; they're available in all price ranges, from bare-bones studios nestled behind someone's home to luxe multi-bedroom bungalows overlooking the Atlantic. I bunked at the Clairfont Apartments, a pretty-in-peach, eight-unit hideaway in a South Shore neighborhood. Its manager, Corrine Simons, greeted me with an apology.

"I'm sorry if if the island is not as beautiful as you may have expected," she said. "But [Hurricane Fabian, which slammed Bermuda last fall] did give us wider beaches."

In fact, other than some structural damage at the airport, I hadn't noticed a palm out of place. Tourism officials confirm that with the exception of some lingering repairs at a few resorts and the airport, Bermuda is in good shape.

So is Clairfont, despite the low cost. My $100 studio had a large bedroom/dining room combo and a kitchenette, bathroom with a tub/shower and balcony with two chairs. Okay, the kitchen was stocked with ancient appliances, and hot water was in cruelly short supply at shower time. Still, housekeeper Betty Hall, who's been on the job 31 years (that's not a typo), kept the suite spotless, and the air-conditioning and TV appeared to be new.

I loved the place, despite the theft. Yes, theft. I'd inadvertently -- nay, stupidly -- left my studio door unlocked one night and awoke to find my backpack missing. Hall discovered it ransacked outside another apartment, though nothing was missing but my dignity. Evidently the fiend wanted cash. Bermuda may look make-believe, but when your innkeeper warns you to lock your doors, I suggest you follow her directive. (Island crime, never high to begin with, is actually on the decrease.)

Reality check aside, Clairfont was a penny-pincher's dream. Warwick Long Bay, with a beach so beautiful I won't even try to describe it (not that I could do it justice), was down a sandy cliff at the end of the street. Simons gave me a stack of towels and the use of the communal beach chair -- in effect, marching orders to plop my butt on the sand and snooze.

More useful, though not nearly as pleasant, was the bus stop a couple of hundred yards from my door. The island's little pink buses go everywhere and are easy to use, once you master the pole system -- stops marked by pink-tipped poles are for buses heading toward Hamilton, blue-tipped away from the capital.

Though I'd bought a three-day pass, I did the math later and realized I would have saved even more if I'd paid for my rides a la carte ($2.50 to $4.50 a leg, depending on how far you're going and whether you use tokens or exact change). Another lesson learned: Plot out where you want to go and how you plan on getting there before you buy a pass.

I took the bus each day to the nearby Modern Mart, a grocery store with food so expensive I almost felt guilty digesting it -- $5 for a bag of rolls, $2 for a skimpy green pepper, $7 for a half-gallon of ice cream. Expecting as much, I'd stowed provisions from home in my bags -- crackers, tea, tomato sauce, pasta, etc. (I'd rather spend my money on rum swizzles.) The meals I cobbled together in the Clairfont kitchen -- fajitas, a shrimp boil, spaghetti -- were relaxing, hearty and didn't require a jacket and tie.

Strangely enough, though mayonnaise on the island goes for $4 a jar, it was easy to find decent wine for under $10 a bottle.

If you need a break from the beach, you can duck into Hamilton or check out any number of gardens, arboretums, museums and costly attractions like Crystal Caves.

Or you can save your money and traipse along the Bermuda Railway Trail, a hiking/biking path that slices across the island. From 1931 to 1948, a train rumbled along the route; in the 1980s, the tracks were dismantled and the trail was born. No motor vehicles are allowed and, with deep ruts and other obstacles commonplace, I'm not so sure I'd even try to bike it.

But walking it isn't a problem, which is how my 30-minute sprint to the Gibbs Hill Lighthouse (less than a mile from Clairfont) turned into a two-hour, four-mile marathon to Somerset Bridge, the world's smallest drawbridge. Along the way, islanders tended their gardens as I skirted their yards, young Bermudans played outside bungalows the color of freshly dyed Easter eggs and sailboats skipped along on crystalline bays.

Occasionally, the trail would dip along a busy road, where the screaming yeeeeeeeeeeee of the island's ubiquitous mopeds would drag me back to reality. Then it was off into the woods, or through the garden, or along the causeway. At the drawbridge I hopped a bus -- at a stop that was literally a pole in the wall; one false move and I would have been de-toed by traffic -- for the return to Gibbs Hill and a sweltering ascent up 185 steps.

Another day, I conducted a circle tour of the island. For $30 an hour, cab drivers will do the same thing for you, stopping at overlooks, historic sights and anything else you care to see. That's not necessary when you have a transit pass, bottled water and a fistful of free guides and maps.

After a half-dozen bus rides, a stop at the tourist-trappy Royal Naval Dockyards, a ferry ride along the island's beautiful northern coast, lunch at the fabled Swizzle Inn (where the national drink was invented), a quick swing through Hamilton for souvenirs and a $1.50 tour of the Bermuda Perfumery, my head was swimming. But my heart belonged to old St. George.

The pretty little harbor town, a World Heritage Site dating from 1609, has a lot going for it, including beautiful St. Peter's Church (rebuilt in 1712), some nice shops and the classic White Horse Pub. But it was the Dunking of the Wench, a waterside reenactment of a colonial custom, that was generating all the buzz while I was there.

About 150 people were encamped around the "dunking bench" -- a lever with a seat on one end and handles on the other -- when I foolishly made my way to the front. The tricorn-bedecked Town Crier came over and told me he needed my help. He picked four other assistants as well -- all of them septuagenarians (or older) from a cruise ship that had just docked.

When the wailing wench made her appearance (minutes earlier I'd seen her smoking a cigarette and talking on a cell phone), she was ordered to sit on the bench. Her crime: gossiping and public drunkenness. Dunking ensued.

Unfortunately, my co-dunkers were either uninterested or incapable of getting her out of the drink. For 10 sweat-soaked minutes and about a half-dozen dunks, I threw my entire body onto the lever to get the poor woman above sea level as my compatriots dawdled.

At least it was free.

Free Bermuda -- or almost. Penny-pinchers can be entertained by the Town Crier in St. George or climb Gibbs Hill Lighthouse for a couple of bucks.You don't have to spend big bucks to enjoy Bermuda. A studio with kitchen at Clairfont Apartments, above, is $100 a night. And the beach is always free.