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TRAVELING in style : ISLAND SHOPPING : A Caribbean connoisseur explores the pleasures and panache of St. Kitts, Bequia, St. Vincent, Dominica, St. Lucia, and other kinder, gentler offbeat retreats

<i> Hesse is a Northern California freelance writer and ex- travel editor of the San Francisco Examiner. </i>

After months at sea in 1493, Christopher Columbus spotted Mount Misery and likened it to his patron, St. Christopher, bearing the Christ Child upon his shoulders. The first settlers, the Brits, soon turned Christopher to Kitts. St. Kitts and neighboring Nevis became a two-island nation within the British Commonwealth.

On arrival by sea or by air (Golden Rock Airport is a mile from Basseterre, the capital), do not stop at the sugar factory; do not collect batiks at Romney Manor. Go directly to The Golden Lemon at Dieppe Bay for tea (or pina coladas) under the breadfruit tree, your very own canopied four-poster bed, and the savoir-faire of far niente in style.

The Golden Lemon combines 18th-Century great-house atmosphere with 20th-Century chic, as overseen by Arthur Leaman, a former decorating editor of House & Garden magazine. Nothing about its 18 guest rooms, however, is fussy or slick; instead there is tasteful comfort and respect for detail. Flop like a seal onto the black sand beach, bite into a tasty spiny-lobster quiche, stow your worries in an antique armoire, murmur lagniappe to yourself as you loll under a waving palm.

Sooner or later, curses, the connoisseur’s conscience turns to thoughts of learning something. On St. Kitts, that’s well and easily done by detouring to the west around the top of the island and sliding southward through Sandy Point Town to Brimstone Hill Fortress.

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Brimstone is an outcrop of five bastions capped by Fort George (also known as the Citadel) atop a hill, 800 feet high, that affords a wide-angle view of six islands (Nevis, Montserrat, Saba, Statia, St. Martin, St. Barts).

The British made St. Kitts their first settlement in the West Indies in 1623 and were pursued (as usual) by the French in 1625. Then ensued the 100 Years War in miniature, leading to (as a restoration bulletin has it) “bloodshed, strife, misunderstandings, fighting and follies of a long-gone age.”

One day, take the 40-minute ferry ride to Charlestown on neighboring Nevis to visit the Alexander Hamilton House where that patriot was born (illegitimately) in 1757; Montpelier House, where the young widow Fanny Nisbet married Capt. Horatio Nelson in 1787; and Eden Brown Estate, where a bridegroom and his best man were mortally wounded on a long-ago wedding eve. Their ghosts, like everything and everybody on Nevis, rest quietly; the only real happening on the island is sunset.

DOMINICA: This is the tropics primordial, the feathery palms and the sea grapes. This was the home of the cannibalistic Caribs, wild warriors whose few descendants live on in six isolated village reserves, weaving baskets and turning out harmless trinkets for a few curious visitors. Do they remember the glory days of the 18th Century when from their dense forest hide-outs they terrorized the French and British and drove (with their poisoned arrows) even mighty Columbus away? Who knows?

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Something about Dominica (pronounce it Dough-me-NEE-kah) makes you turn about to see who or what walks is walking behind you, particularly as you amble along the ancient trace that leads to Emerald Pool in Morne Trois Pitons National Park. Things are growing on things: anthuriums on the arms of trees; ferns on the bodies of fallen giants decaying back into the earth from which they arose; strangling liana on any likely host.

If you are wide awake and lucky, you may spy the rare sisserou or imperial parrot ( Amazona imperialis ) and its friend, the jacquot or red-necked parrot ( Amazone arausiaca ) , both of which live only on little Dominica; and if the gods really smile, you may hear the notes of the solitaire bird, whose song is said to suggest the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Alas, the gods were looking the other way when I was there.

No homes of movie stars yet stud the intense green heights of Dominica; no hotels tower taller than mahogany trees. The cricket pitch at Portsmouth seems a wild anachronism.

One afternoon I sat on the manicured (for a wonder) greensward of the Layou Valley Inn (above the valley in the foothills of the Morne Trois Pitons) and sipped dark rum while beautiful young men and women (as gorgeously gaudy in dress as those of Guadeloupe) strummed and danced and sang in a moving melange of English and Creole and (I pretended) Carib.

ST. LUCIA: Admittedly, this papaya-shaped landfall (pronounce it Saint-LOO-shah) has its Uprising Disco, its Super Freaks Grocery Shop, its rattletrap buses named Say Hello and Sugar Daddy. Still, those are only rather endearing intrusions that rest lightly upon a natural magnificence of soaring and fuzzy green peaks, steaming and stinking sulfur pits, chattering bamboo forests, outbreaks of tropical plants as brilliant and clashing as colors inside a kaleidoscope, and the calm cove of Marigot Bay where the sands might have been patted into perfect shape by some enterprising child.

When H. N. Coleridge wandered here in the 19th Century, he sought to civilize the whole in language, seeing the clouds as “silken veils,” observing the pointed Pitons to be “like the famous spires of Coventry,” and watching as “the wind and the sun will cause the whole to be drawn upwards majestically like the curtain of a gorgeous theater.”

Well, maybe; certainly someone has always tried to civilize this lush escape. It has endured 14 changes of occupation between the English and the French, but it boasts of being one of the few islands in this sea not discovered by Columbus; it was first mentioned by Ferdinand of Spain, who thought it might make a good base for warring against the Caribs. Today it maintains a tourist board that talks of “major infrastructure improvements” and “climate of tourism” and “shopping facilities.”

Nuts to that. I’d rather remember the road that swoops over banana-treed hills, offering views of the old fishing village of Anse La Raye far below, where fishermen work on nets and canoes drawn up on the eye-blinding beach; the downward plunge from Moule-a-Chique, where the blue-green Caribbean meets the windblown Atlantic.

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St. Lucia is as difficult to pin down as a hummingbird. Just when you fear its essence is becoming Denros rum mixed with the Splash disco (formerly Lucifer’s), it counters with solitude, simplicity and river-washed clothing bleaching in the sun near the village of Canaries.

Oh, yes: Take a jump up, Demon Rum Dinner at Rain, in the unpicturesque, concrete capital of Castries.

BEQUIA: Here is where I sought to pronounce the place and so inquired of the first local I spotted, “Is it BECK-wee with the sound of e , or BECK-way with the sound of a ?”

B-E-C-K-w-a-y ,” she spelled. “Pronounced BECK-wee .”

Bequia is a dot among the Grenadines, some 100 island upthrusts floating south of St. Vincent, an independent island of British inheritance that the dots consider “the mainland.”

Curious signs along back roads (and there is scarcely anything else) call themselves to your attention on Bequia: “All animals must be tied by Monday or they will be shot,” and the considerably less ferocious, “Chicken on sale Sundays to friends.”

Although Bequia is proud to be the largest Grenadine, it spreads out over a mere 7 square miles and can be reached only by yacht or regular boat service from St. Vincent. Flowering almond trees and net-mending fishermen welcome arrivals to once-pirate-ridden Admiralty Bay and to the main jetty right off the beach that is really the main thoroughfare of Port Elizabeth, the capital.

Bequia sheltered the Arawak Indians until the rapacious Caribs drove them away. Here, as elsewhere, French fought British fought Caribs for 200 years, until in 1783 the Treaty of Versailles made Bequia resolutely British.

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On a day when nothing but a picnic seems plausible, you can provisions yourself at the New Jersey Bar and Grocery and set off down the beach, or rent a car and/or driver for strands farther out: Friendship Bay or Princess Margaret. On the other hand, you might prefer to amble along to Lower Bay beach and the Reef restaurant, where with shoes off you can munch on soused conch or lobster, or (if you insist) a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

One of the world’s last whaling stations operates on Bequia, where the great beasts still are captured occasionally, and then by hand-held harpoons. (IS THIS CQ? WHALES IN CARIBBEAN?) (When I visited, however, not long ago, the last, grizzled harpooner looked as though he might soon go the way of Captain Ahab.)

The smartest hideaway on this secluded isle is secluded even from Port Elizabeth: Friendship Bay Resort. The bungalow village of Bequia Beach Club caters in the main to underwater explorers who have come to dive among rainbows of fishes or to coral-encrusted, sunken wrecks. I quite like the Frangipani, a small and informal place just a beach walk from town, but do insist upon reservations in the new stone and hardwood rooms with full baths and sun decks.

Bequia soothes your spine, calms your tensions and indeed may sap you of the strength to leave. A jumpy, compulsive friend was reduced within one day to drawling, “I guess I’ll just go down to the beach and lean against that tree.”

ST. VINCENT: This island gets a little cute at times (what is one to make of Noah’s Arkade, for example?), and, compared to laid-back Bequia, it assumes an almost metropolitan busyness. Over there, freighters load bananas; here merchants hawk every edible from breadfruit to yams.

Buses with names such as Vaya Con Dios and The Upsetter racket along mountainous roads; steel bands thump and bounce; competitive visitors can try their hand (and coconut bat) on the cricket pitch or ride horseback, play squash at the Prospect Racquet Club, hike the nature trails at Buccament Valley, whack at a tennis ball on dozens of courts, dive and fish and swim and sail and windsurf and play roulette at the Emerald Valley casino. Best night life means darts at the Dolphin pub.

Even architecture gets into the action: St. Mary’s is such a collision of Gothic, Moorish and Romanesque styles that it looks noisy. I call it St. Mary’s of the Eccentricities.

A meeting with St. Vincent should begin by getting yourself booked into a cottage on private Young Island, 200 yards and a pleasant swim or brief ferry ride from the “mainland.” Young is dedicated to the principle of pleasures taken in tranquility. There is a nearly poetic prettiness to it all--the flower-rimmed paths, the outdoor showers secluded in ferns, the thatched Coconut Bar floating in waist-high water, the colorful rooms that seduce you to sleep the afternoon away, the shaded hammocks on the sand, the torchlight cocktails.

Then, just when you feel it’s time to get up off your beach, the sights of St. Vincent await. The oldest Botanical Gardens in the Western Hemisphere present a trove of tropical flowers, shrubs and trees, including the descendant of a breadfruit plant brought to the island by Capt. William Bligh (he of the Bounty) in 1793. On garden grounds, the Archeological Museum shelters a superb collection of stone tools, pottery and artifacts from early Carib dwellings.

Fort Charlotte dominates a ridge 600 feet above the sea. Stop briefly to inspect the paintings of the history of the Black Caribs, offspring of the men of a sunken slave ship who managed to swim to shore and intermingle with the Indians (1675).

The energetic may wish to scale La Soufrire, a mighty volcano that last erupted in 1979. The rest of us will drive up through banana and coconut plantations and be glad we did.

In aforementioned Mesopotamia (nobody but map makers calls it Marriaqua) Valley, bananas, nutmeg, cocoa, coconuts, breadfruit, eddoes , tannias , dasheene and other mysterious crops grow with an almost primitive fecundity, while rivers and streams pour out of the ridges and plunge over the rocks of Yambou Gorge and run into the sea. The word Eden comes--unbidden--to mind, though one is surely too sophisticated to say so.

From Mesopotamia, climb to Montreal, of all places, a name on the map where you may be alone together with mineral springs, a restaurant, and a refreshing pool.

ET CETERAS: A few other bests in my book are:

Dining at La Vie en Rose in Marigot, St. Martin.

Villa Nova, a great house where Anthony Eden once dwelt, and the graveyard of St. John’s Church with its tomb of one Ferdinand Paleologus, last descendant of the Emperor Constantine, on Barbados.

Yachting to and spending the day at Pigeon Point on Tobago.

Eighteenth-Century Leyritz Plantation (now a handsome hotel near Bass-Pointe), the museum complex of La Pagerie where Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie (Napoleon’s Josephine) was born, and St. Pierre, the West Indies’ Pompeii, on Martinique.

Dining on crabes farcis and anything else at La Canne a Sucre, Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe.

Snorkeling and scuba diving in the Cayman Islands; inviting one’s soul (?) at the Caneel Bay Resort on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Cruising up the Orinoco in Venezuela, but that’s another story . . .

General information on areas described is available from the Barbados Board of Tourism, 3440 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1215, Los Angeles 90010, telephone (213) 380-2198; Caribbean Tourism Assn., 20 E. 46th St., 4th Floor, New York 10017-2452, telephone (212) 682-0435; French West Indies (Guadeloupe and dependencies of La Desirade, Marie, Galante, Iles des Saintes, Martinique, French St. Martin, St. Barthelemy), French National Tourist Office, 9401 Wilshire Blvd., No. 840, Beverly Hills 90212, telephone (213) 271-6665.

Also, St. Kitts/Nevis Tourism Office, 414 E. 75th St., New York 10021, telephone (212) 535-1234; St. Lucia Tourist Board, 820 Second Ave., 9th Floor, New York 10017, telephone (212) 867-2950; St. Vincent and the Grenadines Tourist Board (Bequia, Mustique, Canouan, Union, Palm, Petit St. Vincent), 801 Second Ave., 21st Floor, New York 10017, telephone (212) 687-49881; Trinidad and Tobago Tourist Board, 118-35 Queens Blvd., Forest Hills, N.Y. 11375, telephone (718) 575-3909.

Hotel rates, addresses are as follows (CP, breakfast included; EP, no meals; MAP, breakfast-dinner included; AP, all meals. All double rates, all in U.S. dollars.

Bequia: Bequia Beach Club, Friendship Bay Beach, Bequia, St. Vincent, West Indies, telephone (809) 458-3248; $63 year round per person, MAP. Frangipani Hotel, Bequia, St. Vincent, West Indies, telephone (809) 458-3255; $40-$80, EP. Friendship Bay Hotel, Friendship Bay, Bequia, St. Vincent, West Indies, telephone (809) 458-4804; $100-$150, summer, MAP, and $150-$200, MAP, winter.

Dominica: Layou Valley Inn, Roseau, Dominica, West Indies, telephone (809) 44-96203; $45, EP; $55, CP; $88, MAP; all year.

Martinique: Leyritz Plantation, Basse-Pointe, French West Indies, telephone (596) 75-5392, also (800) 223-9815; $112-$168, EP.

St. Kitts: Golden Lemon, Dieppe Bay, St. Kitts, West Indies, telephone (809) 465-7260; rates include breakfast, tea, dinner, laundry, from $275 in main inn, $365-385 in suites with living room, private pool. U.S. representative, Caribbean Inns Ltd., P.O. Box 7411, Hilton Head Island, S.C. 29938, telephone (800) 633-7411 and (803) 785-7411.

St. Lucia: Le Sport, Castries, St. Lucia, West Indies, telephone (809) 452-8551; rates are all-inclusive (even sports, drinks, spa treatments, transfers) and no tipping is permitted. Per person, double occupancy is $160-$190 (April 22-Oct. 13), $165-$195 (Oct 14-Dec. 22).

Off St. Vincent: Young Island, P.O. Box 211, St. Vincent, West Indies, telephone (809) 458-4826; rates $210-$320 double in summer, both MAP; several package plans available; U.S. representative, Ralph Locke, P.O. Box 800, Waccabuc, N.Y. 10597, telephone (800) 223-1108.


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