TRAVEL: A few short hops to paradise

Many of the Caribbean islands are linked by boat or plane. James Henderson on how to make the most of your stay
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AMONG the unexpected pleasures of the Carib-bean are the contrasting characters of islands standing just a few miles apart: some are low-lying, with white sand beaches set in startling blue seas, others are rainforested mountains that soar majestically from a coastline of secluded coves. Some are ideal for an action-packed vacation, others comatose and perfect for a quiet escape.

A holiday package (with flight and hotel) is the easiest and cheapest way to get to the Caribbean islands. Bargain breaks are available from Airtours (0706 260000) and Thomson Holidays (081-200 8733). For top-of- the-range stays try Caribbean Connection (bookings on 0244 341131) and Caribtours (071-581 3517).

In addition to seats with scheduled carriers (BA and BWIA), independent travellers can book seats-only tickets with a charter company (Caledonian, for example). Specialist Caribbean booking agents include the Reunion Club (071-344 0101) and BWIA's Sunjet Reunion Club (071-930 1335). Finding a room is no problem, especially if the sky's the limit. Cheap accommodation, too, is available on arrival on most islands - but if you want to reassure yourself before you go, contact Transatlantic Wings (071-602 4021) or the Caribbean Centre (081-940 3399). They will arrange your first two nights' accommodation.

Antigua is the main gateway from Britain to the north-eastern Caribbean (loosely called the Leeward Islands) and hopper flights radiate north and south from here. The islands are mostly small, with populations below 75,000 - just 1,200 in Saba. Tourism is the main source of income; some islands have become overrun, with hotels filling almost all available beach space. Only in a few will you see traces of the real West Indian life found in the Greater Antilles and further south in the Windward Islands.

Antigua still has a strong independent traveller tradition, particularly around the English Harbour where the sailing fraternity gathers. Prices are much the same as in Britain.

More than anything, it is the feel of an island that will remain with you. Some have the inter-national air of a champagne playground: St Barts (or to give it its full name, Saint Barthlemy) is a chic, exclusive and very French retreat, where the "body beautiful" saunter along the beaches in nuances of bathing suits and linger in the excellent restaurants by night. The British Virgin Islands, where the air is more more rum than champagne, are famed yachting territory, boasting the finest beach bars in the area as well as some exclusive (and a few less exclusive) hotels. Don't miss Jost van Dyke, the perfect slumber-struck island with the Caribbean's wildest New Year Eve's party.

Another island with superb beaches and an exclusive image is Anguilla, which retains a distinct West Indian feel, and has cheaper places to stay as well as havens of super-luxury.

Two tiny islands with a gentle charm, and a pace of life now nearly forgotten, are Mont-serrat (tall and overwhelmingly green but with few beaches) and Nevis (where a glorious sense of the past is combined with magnificent scenery). With its sister island, St Kitts, Nevis has the finest plantation- house hotels in the Caribbean. For unfeasible neatness and a Dutch Caribbean twist, try Saba - also renowned for its scuba diving (no beaches).

It is worth considering the islands to the south of Antigua, too: the large and developed island of Guadeloupe gives an excellent exposure to the French West Indies, where familiar influences from France (fashion, food, philosophy) are given an exotic African twist. Next in line is Dominica, perhaps the best example of a volcanic island. It is still a raw and untamed jungle, with stunning flora and mountains higher than anything in Britain, all in an area measuring just 30 miles by 15.

Travelling between the islands is part of the fun. A number of them are linked by ferry: Guadeloupe and its offshore isles (and Dominica and Martin- ique by hydrofoil); St Kitts and Nevis; St Martin and Anguilla; St Barts and Saba; and the Virgin Islands, which are networked with ferry routes. Information can be gleaned in advance from some of the island tourist boards, but the best way is to look in tourist literature once you are on-island.

The main yachting centres in the north-eastern Caribbean are the Virgin Islands, St Martin, Antigua and Guadeloupe, but you can island-hop along the Leeward chain, picking up a boat in one place and dropping it off elsewhere. Sailing packages with flight and yacht are available through The Moorings (0843 227140) and Sunsail (0705 219847). For crewed yachts contact Yacht Connections (0344 24987).

But it's more likely that you'll island-hop by air, and this has its own pleasures. Islanders and Twin Otters are very small planes, much like boxes with wings - but the views are magnificent. They're fun to ride, too, particularly if you enjoy a "sporting" airstrip. The pilot pauses at the beginning of the runway and revs the engines until they produce the right pitch (the dashboard and cabin start shaking around him). As he puts the props in drive, you roar off down the runway. The lift generated on take-off is alarming; people pay for rides, like at the funfair.

A number of small airlines operate in the area; it's best to contact them when you get there. Leeward Islands Air Transport (LIAT) has the largest number of services. Its Caribbean Explorer island-hopper ticket costs US$199 (£133), three stops in 21 days, price per leg US$60 (£40) weekdays, $70 (£47) at weekends; its Super Caribbean Explorer, with unlimited stops in one direction over one calendar month, costs US$367 (£245). All Caribbean airports have small planes for charter, and often have helicopters. Details of LIAT routes and timings can be obtained through Transatlantic Wings (071-602 4021)

8 James Henderson is the author of `The Caribbean and the Bahamas', Cadogan Guides, £9.99