Travel Special: UNSPOILED ISLANDS
Sunday 12 January 1997
Just across the straits from Mexico, Ambergris, at 35 miles long and the largest island, has been tipped to be another Cancun, Mexico's glossy, computer-designed resort, without an ounce of atmosphere. Clearly the news hasn't reached San Pedro yet, the island's capital, where the prime beach-front locations are still occupied by the little wooden jail and clapboard Catholic church, and where its three sandy streets are lined by 20 bars and diving shops. Tourists stay in little hotels straggling along the beach, dive, fish, snorkel and dive again off the huge reef. Hemingway would still approve.
Cruise passengers stampede to immaculate shopping malls and duty-free shops in the glossy American Virgin Islands. But it's only the yachties heading for the bar on a Saturday night that form any sort of crowd in the British Virgins, so low key that it seems that the clocks have stopped somewhere in the 1950's.
Virgin Gorda is the favourite getaway, with eight square miles of rolling hills and any number of beaches that aficionados are afraid to claim among the best in the world. A few lazy but sybaritic hotels host visitors in luxurious solitude - Little Dix, with cottages at the water's edge clustered round a crescent beach is one, Bitter End is perfect for sailing and watersport enthusiasts another, as well as Biras Creek, accessible only by boat.
The diving and sailing around the Virgin Islands is some of the best in the Caribbean, rivalled only by the Grenadines where quietly unpretentious little Bequia, much more picturesque than its lofty neighbour Mustique, is, alas, just waiting to be discovered. Its village is a tiny Caribbean Roots-style community with boats, villas, bookshops and a plantation hotel, nothing too big or commercial, but there are ominous rumours of major hotel development.
The flower people discovered Lamu, Kenya's Indian Ocean island, and budget travellers have been drifting there ever since. But despite its seven- mile, white sandy beach and fascinating sleepy old stone town, it has so far escaped the westernisation and tourist development that's crowding the mainland's coastal strip.
An old Arab Portuguese colony, Lamu Town was a thriving port between the 15th and 18th centuries, known as Lamu's Golden Age, when fine streets and mansions were built and embellished by Omani rulers from the profits of a thriving slave trade. When the British ended the trade as recently as in 1907, many of the former slaves remained on the island creating a Swahili speaking Arab-African culture, undoubtedly endangered today by the overflow of tourists from Malindi and Mambasa. Peponi's Hotel, a 30-year-old institution on the beach at Shela Village, is where visitors get to catch up on the news, friends and gossip. Dhow sailing, fishing, snorkelling, eating in excellent seafood restaurants and generally being indolent, are Lamu's major holiday pastimes - it is still, however, as relaxed an island as any to be indolent in.
Once there were two Canary Islands, Tenerife and Gran Canaria, that seemed to fit in half of northern Europe's population between November and March. Lanzarote and Fuer-teventura soon joined the package collection, and the season now runs from January right through to December.
Now the last three are gradually making their debuts in the holiday brochures; spectacular and beautiful little La Palma, the green Canary Island with a huge volcanic crater, and even more remote Hierro, where 17th-century Arab scientists decided that all maps should begin or end at 0 degrees longitude.
Then, there's gentle Gomera, from where Columbus set sail for the New World in September 1542. Visitors to San Sebastian, its somnolent capital, can see the church where he prayed for fair winds, the well where he took on water for the voyage, and the house where he dallied with the widow of the Governor.
At 12 miles by eight, La Gomera wouldn't be an easy island to develop with its barren rocks, lush valleys and dormant volcano, as well as a lack of good sandy beaches - much the same kind of landscape as that of Tenerife next door, in fact, and look what they did to that!
As every year, new airports and charter flights bring package holidaymakers into yet another Greek island, it goes without saying that the most exclusive are the most inaccessible, only reached by tortuous ferry routes. To get to Lipsoi can take rather longer than travelling to Lombok; a combination of flights to Kos or Rhodes, ferry to Kalymnos, and an even smaller version to Leros - finally by the occasional ferry or caique or hitching a ride with day-trippers who arrive by beach boats fron Patmos or Leros.
At first acquaintance, most visitors wonder why they bothered. But by the time they've walked an hour, or trucked to the beaches - Plati Gialos, the official nudist beach of Monodendri, or Katsadia Beach, sat around in the tavernas in the friendly squares at Chora, they've usually started making plans to book a room in one of the budget tavernas or staked out a plot for themselves on the campsite.
Among other as yet underpackaged Greek islands are the following: Amorgos and Astipalaia, Khalki and Folegandros, Karpathos and Kasos, Kythera and Kastellorizon, Samothrace, Serifos and Sikinos.
Ambergris: Different tours and adventures start from approximately pounds 1,400 at Reef and Rainforest Tours (01803 866965). Return flights are available from pounds 449 - contact STA travel centre (0171 361 6262).
Virgin Gorda: Seven-night packages based at Little Dix from pounds 1,285 through Elegant Resorts (01244 897999).
Bequia: Seven-night packages based at The Plantation House from pounds 1,030. Contact Cari-bbean Connections (01244 341131).
Lamu: From pounds 345 return to Nairobi, then onwards by boat (STA).
Canaries: Charter flights to Tenerife from pounds 145 - pounds 199 Avro (0181 715 1900), then by ferry.
Lipsoi: Campus Travel (0171 730 3402) organises cheap charters to many Greek islands from approx pounds 130 return.
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