Travel Special: CASTAWAY ISLANDS

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To get to Polynesia's Aitutaki, you first have to find your way to Rarotonga, the dreamy, unsophisticated little island in a Fifties timewarp, from which the Maoris set sail for New Zealand in fragile canoes in 1350. Seven hundred years later, tourists can set sail for Aitutaki across a wondrous lagoon in seemingly equally fragile craft, and be abandoned without supplies.

Once on uninhabited Aitutaki, local Polynesians give real-life Crusoes lessons in self-sufficiency; catching fish on a simple line, plucking clams from the sea bed, and limes, bananas and coconuts from the island's trees and plants, all to be barbecued for a feast that far exceeds any three-star Michelin offering.

Two hundred miles off India's Malabar Coast in the Arabian Sea, the Lakshadweep Archipelago is a necklace of 36 coral atolls, reefs and lagoons, reached by a 50-minute flight from Kerala's Cochin. Bangaram is the only island open to visitors, and then never more than 60 at any one time, who stay in the palm-thatched bungalows. The only other signs of civilisation are the couple of windmills for the islands' power supply, and a diving school.

The first thing you notice when your seaplane lands on Ari Beach in the Maldives is the number of holidaymakers who appear to be imitating storks, hopping about on one foot in turn. They're the late arrivals who, true to the island's laid back "no shoes" policy, have kicked off their sandals, but are not yet used to the burning sand.

There are over 1,000 little atolls in the Maldives, just under 200 uninhabited, nearly every one of them with the common ingredients of dazzling white sand, coconut palms and turquoise lagoons surrounded by a coral reef. You can walk round most of them in less than an hour, with a ratio of one hotel per island - varying from sophisticated five-star luxury with ice-cold air conditioning, swimming pools and landscaped gardens, to the simple "no news, no shoes" islands, usually the furthest from Male, the main island and capital.

You won't get much more laid back than Ari Beach, about a mile long and 300 yards wide, most of which is a huge sandy spit that shifts with the tide. Guests live in bungalows with Maldivian thatched roofs and showers open to the sky, eat at the open-air restaurant and drink at the sand- floor bar. They can take part in watersports, sailing or diving if they can raise the energy (there's an excellent PADI diving school), or go night fishing and snorkelling off the reef. From time to time, locals from the neighbouring islands give displays of folk dancing.

Only well-heeled Crusoes should head for Petit St Vincent, known as PSV in the Caribbean, a deserted 113-acre dot until 25 years ago, when would- be round-the-world sailor Haze Richardson got washed up there with only the crabs and birds for company, fell in love with the island - and built a hotel where rich castaways could find luxury and seclusion.

There's certainly no hardship or anything remotely primitive about the 27 cottages hidden among the trees, with their king-sized beds, and all mod cons, plus free watersports and floodlit courts. Should you decide to spend an hour walking round the island, you can always flop into a conveniently placed hammock, and a man will deliver your Pina Colada or Veuve Clicquot, while you recover from your exertions.

Haze's dreams of seclusion haven't been lost - this is still the ultimate hideaway. Each cottage has its own flagpole, and you raise your flag for the service you require; yellow means "room service", red "leave us alone".

Throughout history, Tunisia's Kerkenah Islands have been a base for castaways; unfaithful Muslim wives were exiled there, as were Carthagian General Hannibal and the late President Habib Bourgiba.

Holidaymakers arrive, attracted by the image of a desert island in the Mediterranean, and that's pretty much what they get - wind-blown palms, acres of sand, a sea so shallow that you have to wade out over 100 yards to swim.

Some can't take it and set off for Tunis or Sfax, the nearest towns on the mainland. There are a few hotels, including one called Grand, (which it isn't), with tennis courts, windsurfing and a kids' club. You can hire bikes and ride to a crumbling Turkish fort and Roman remains, or potter round the "capital" Remla, which has a bank, a doctor, a decent restaurant, a carpet shop and a bus service. Fishing with the locals is a highlight - but from May to October only; desert islands lose their charm under grey skies and chilly winds.

To return to Polynesia... Robinson Crusoe's ultimate dream would probably have been to be washed up on Bora Bora, considered the most beautiful of all the Polynesian islands. A botanical garden where nature, ever profligate in the tropics, seems to have gone mad, overrun with exotic species of orchids and pineapple, mangoes and bamboo - even the dusty shacks seem to be roofed with bougainvillea.

Hunger is unknown, since every backyard has a breadfruit tree, a coconut palm and banana plant, and one can literally fish for one's supper.

The original flower children, the Polynesians, bedeck themselves with garlands, even the plumpest matrons and jolliest men wear a hibiscus behind their ear "for love". In your hotel bedrooms you find blossoms on your pillow, round your lamps and in the soap dish - though bedroom is an inadequate description of hotel hideaways in Bora Bora, where thatched huts are built on stilts over the lagoon so that you go to sleep to the boom of surf pounding on the reef, and on waking slide into the warm lagoon three steps from your balcony.

There are few distractions; the principal entertainment being church on Sunday, and the Big Noise night club on Saturday night, very much in that order, plus Bloody Mary's bar - she doesn't bother with a menu, but "fish of the day" has been good enough for 20th-century lotus-eaters such as Charlton Heston, Ringo Starr and Prince Rainier. Only a few temple stones remain of the original Marae culture experienced by Captain Cook when garlanded and bare-breasted girls besieged his sailors.

The hotels show considerable ingenuity in keeping their guests amused in the castaway image - you can hire your own outrigger canoe and paddle about the reef, take a picnic to an uninhabited atoll, learn to make flower "leis" or have a go at cooking local curries.

Bora Bora has no airport - you fly in on a light aircraft from Tahiti, land on a nearby small island, completing your journey by launch or ferry. It's a bit of a complicated, long-winded journey that is unlikely to attract tourist hordes. Hopefully, they'll all stay in Tahiti.

Aitutaki: Return flights to Rarotonga from pounds 805 STA. Stopover in the Cook Islands pounds 39 a night with Travel 2 (0171 272 3090).

Lakshadweep: Inspirations (01293 822244) offers a week in Lakshadweep combined with a week in Goa or Kerala from pounds 1,351 half board.

Ari Beach: Maldives. Kuoni (01306 743000) offers half-board, seven-night holidays from pounds 599 (including flights), extra nights pounds 22.

Petit St Vincent: Caribbean. Elegant Resorts (01244 897999) offers a week from pounds 1,930, two weeks from pounds 3,220, (inc. flights and full board).

Kerkenah: Panorama Holidays (01273 206531) offers a week's half board from pounds 220.

Bora Bora: Flights to Tahiti from approx pounds 805 (STA). Transfers and stopovers in Bora Bora from pounds l99 through Travel 2 (0171 272 3090).

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