TRAVEL You just hop on an island and go

The Caribbean isn't all luxury hotels or package tours. You can have far more fun, and spend less, if you make your own way. With this airy boast Helen Fielding sets off for Jamaica, the Grenadines and the Bay Islands
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"YOU CAN stay in marvellous places in the Caribbean on an absolute shoestring if you do it under your own steam." My friend reminded me of this airy boast on the first night of a Jamaican holiday I had lured her into. We were trying to get to sleep in, effectively, a tardis inside a disco. This was a wooden hut set behind a beach bar which had started to hot up at about 2am. The combination of bright light penetrating the fluttering curtain and the ceiling fan was creating a convincing strobe effect to go with the beat. The "hotel" cost $45 (about £29) a night which, as my friend pointed out, represented not so much a shoestring as a noose.

The occasional tardis-disco disaster is a tiny price to pay for the joys of travelling the Caribbean freely, like a bird, instead of being cooped up in a package-tour hotel like, er, a caged bird. In the morning we simply left the tardis and found somewhere nice. You can book a package at £200 a night and get unlucky. You can find that the beach is lashed with surf, thick with weed or isn't there. The food and fellow guests may make you want to die - and you're stuck with them.

On our inauspiciously begun trip, we had a month in Jamaica, chose the hotels we liked best, flew from one end of the island to the other, had all manner of fun and adventures and ate out for every meal for £1,800, all expenses and flights from the UK included.

A budget of £1,800 is hardly a shoestring unless you're Joan Collins. Depending where you go, and how you travel, you could spend a great deal less. But cheapness is not the only point. The popular perception of a Caribbean holiday is a beach and a posh hotel. But the Caribbean is a place you can explore like anywhere else, and there is much fun to be had.

Liat, the local airline, offers a range of air passes, allowing you to island-hop at feasible expense: 30 days of unlimited flights between 25 Caribbean destinations costs $367 (£236). You can visit between three and six islands for $60 (£38) per return trip, or up to three islands for $199 (£128) all in. You should be able to get out there on a bucket- shop fare for less than £400.

The key item of kit is a top-class guide book. The best is Trade & Travel Publications' Caribbean Islands Handbook, which gives more or less all the practical information you need. The Cadogan Guide provides useful cross reference. It's best to travel in low season - April to mid-December - when bookings are down and bargains up. Another vital ingredient is a very light bag. One should never, ever, attempt to island-hop carrying heated rollers.

The hell-hut where we began our holiday was on Long Bay, Negril: a sensational five-mile beach on Jamaica's west coast. Negril was colonised by hippies in the Sixties and has never lost its casual, beach-bar ambience. At one end of the bay are cliffs and deep aquamarine pools. At the other end, round the headland is an almost untouched cusp of empty beach, sparkling sea and woodland: Bloody Bay. Negril is fun; there are round-the-clock flir-tation, bonfires in the evening, live reggae bands, sociability before the spectacular sunsets and - the down side - annoying Rastas who imply racism and an insular exploitative stance if you refuse to buy or get married.

On our first morning, we left our bags in the hell-hut and explored the length of the beach. There was every kind of accommodation - from basic huts for a tenner to all-inclusive palaces at £200 a night. The beaches are all public in Jamaica, so no one can stop you noseying through. At Hedonism II, an all-inclusive water-skiing volley-balling enclave with people sunbathing nude, security guards picked us up on walkie-talkies, making sure we didn't try to get free drinks. We could hear them tracking us. "Two girls, one blonde one dark, heading for the windsurfers." "Roger. Got 'em. Got 'em." We couldn't get out of there quick enough.

Some places were much more to our taste. The Mahogany Inn, on a quiet, hassle-free part of the beach, was a wooden structure of great charm with a huge round, high-ceilinged first-floor restaurant where they offered us a modern air-conditioned room for $80 (£52). Across the quiet road from Bloody Bay, set in woodland, were the tranquil Negril Cabins: rooms built on stilts, with polished wooden floors, white, natural fabrics and lovely balconies.

In the end we plumped for Merril's Inn, back on the jolliest part of Long Bay where there were bars, and restaurants in shacks and stalls selling jerk chicken (barbecued in an oil drum and served with spicy sauce for around 50p). The room cost us $70 (£45) a night: large, quiet, air-conditioned, with a balcony all round and a nice bathroom. After a delicious week of swimming, sunsets and sundowners we grew restless, booked a flight from the local airstrip and flew to the other end of the island.

Port Antonio nestles in the east of Jamaica, beneath the Blue Mountains, where it rains a lot. There are no Sandals, Couples or Hedonism IIs in the vicinity, but small hotels in a glamorous 1950s tradition, some thriving and exclusive, others faded. The region has a positive embarrassment of beauty spots and ex-movie locations: the Rio Grande; Navy Island, once owned by Errol Flynn; Frenchman's Cave beach, where Lord of the Flies was filmed; the Blue Hole, setting for The Blue Lagoon; the Reich Falls, an astonishingly Disneyesque series of green pools and thin layers of water running over rock, where you realise, as you swim, that you are Bambi.

Port Antonio is a gentle town of gingerbread-style houses with wrought iron balconies and swizzle-stick pillars. Like everywhere in Jamaica, there was hostility to white tourists, but here it was a friendly sort of hostility. A $20 (£13) taxi ride from the airport (to which there was no alternative) took us to the De Montevin Lodge. Entering the inn was surreal when you thought of the bikinis and sun umbrellas in Negril. Dark and Victorian, with brown tile-patterned floors, it was filled with items from one's grandmother's house: beaded curtains, glass display cabinets with china ornaments, and pictures of a bizarrely young Royal Family, beaming on lawns. Just $45 secured us a large triple room with wooden floors, chintzy fabrics and a balcony plucked from a Somerset Maugham novel. I think we were the only people staying there. On the first night, though, there was a small election riot at the bottom of the hill so we stayed in, to find the dining room packed for a dinner of home-baked bread, fresh fish and pumpkin pie.

For a couple of days we wandered around Port Antonio, taking the little ferry out to Navy Island and swimming in its hotel pool, climbing the hill behind the town to the Bonnie View hotel - a wooden, white-painted plantation house with a restaurant offering panoramic views and superlative banana bread.

On the third day we took a taxi to the Blue Hole, a limestone sink hole in an extraordinary shade of blue, where warm sea water mingling with icy currents provides a distinctly exotic swimming experience.

We had heard about a cheap beach hotel nearby called Dragon Bay. We asked some naughty Rastas who were bothering us if they knew of it, and they offered to row us there on a raft for (I can't believe we agreed to this) $40 (£25). The journey took precisely six minutes. The Dragon Bay wasn't like the Caribbean; it was like being in Cornwall or Portmeirion, only hot: a wooded valley with a cluster of elegant white villas and pavilions, and landscaped lawns sweeping down to a pool and a beach. It seemed inconceivable that we could afford to stay. But when the villas are not full, individual rooms are let on spec for $45.

We collected our bags from Port Antonio, and saw no reason whatsoever to move again apart from outings: to raft down the Rio Grande, lunch on grilled lobster at Frenchman's Cove, or swim in the Reich Falls After a week, though, it began to rain without cease, with great grey clouds rolling down from the mountains.

The sun was shining at Ocho Rios, we heard, so we fixed up a ride and headed off. The journey took us two-and-half hours. We got out of the car, looked at the unbroken line of hotels along the coastline, the resentful- looking youths hanging around outside and the concrete town behind and decided that, even in the rain, we'd rather be at the Dragon Bay. We got straight in the car and headed back.

Grenada, St Vincent and the crystalline waters of the Grenadines offer perfect island-hopping. The height of exclusivity in Mustique, the casual simplicity of Bequia, the undeveloped charm of St Vincent and the vibrancy of Grenada are all within half an hour's flight of each other.

Grenada has the prettiest capital in the Caribbean, St George's, with a harbour ringed with lush volcanic hills and clusters of red-roofed buildings. I spent my first night there in a bed on casters, which shot to the other side of the room every time I turned over and had nylon sheets that kept slithering off.

In the morning I flagged down one of the mini-buses that ply the route between the town and the gorgeous Grand Anse beach for around 20p a trip. I deposited my bag in the Grenada Renaissance Hotel, which was rather out of my range, and went room-hunting, a pleasant task interspersed with a little dip between each viewing. Initially, it didn't look hopeful. I couldn't find a room on the beach for less than $75 (£48). But eventually I secured a whole apartment for $40: a big living room with dark wooden floor, a fridge, flowery sofas and adjoining bedroom and shower.

Unfortunately, however, I had rather mis-understood the set-up. The rooms were above a beach restaurant, surrounded by jungle. I thought it was a hotel. At 10pm the lights went out downstairs and everyone went away except me. I put the flowery furniture against the door and didn't go to sleep in case anyone climbed in through the windows. The next day it turned out that a watchman had been downstairs defending the fort all night, so I decided to lighten up and stay on.

With only a small corner of Grenada developed for tourists, local life retains the upper hand. On Friday nights a boat called the Rum Runner sets sail from St George's for a party laden with a mix of locals and tourists. For a fiver you get fried chicken, a rum punch, a moonlit cruise and some of the dirtiest dancing, or rather grinding, you've ever seen in your life. "I'm afraid I simply cannot dance in this way; you see I'm British," I kept saying. But then I thought, "Sod it": one doesn't want to be a cultural isolationist, does one?

Research for future, post-lottery-win trips is always vital. If you have the money, begin your hopping with a few relaxing days in a suite with its own private pool in Grenada's nicest hotel, the Calabash, which is elegant yet relaxed. Its rooms are built in a horseshoe around spacious lawns, and breakfast is brought to you on your own balcony.

I took my treat of the trip, though, on Young Island, an idiosyncratic and magical hotel offering luxurious informality on its own miniature Grenadine, a lush little hummock 200 yards off the coast of St Vincent.

Here, cottages have their own secluded gardens, double hammocks and open- air showers (a double starts at $275 (£177), half-board). A beauteous lagoon winds its way through tropical gardens. Meals are taken in cabanas, some containing just one table, surrounded by jungle, giving out on to a moonlit beach. It's a deeply romantic place. I read a book over supper. It was most interesting.

This is currently the only luxury hotel on St Vincent, an undeveloped, agricultural island that is heavily dependent on the fragile banana trade. I spent the next couple of nights in the little capital, Kingstown, staying in the charming Cobblestone Inn, which is converted from a warehouse. From the rooftop restaurant I watched the port turn into a frenzy of activity for the weekly arrival of the banana boat, with a long queue of lorries and trucks unloading all through the night.

You can fly to all of the Grenadines from St Vincent but several daily ferries will take you to the nearest one, Bequia, for a couple of quid. Bequia is one of the best places to stay cheaply in the Caribbean. The ferry docks at Port Elizabeth, set in a bay lined with pretty old wooden buildings converted into guest houses and restaurants.

There is not much of a beach here, but a walkway leads over the hill to two beautiful ones, the second sporting a couple of restaurants and a range of cheap (from $20), simple rooms. Water taxis ply between here and Port Elizabeth until late in the evening. I could happily have stayed a month, but I only had an afternoon. The next day I had to fly back to Grenada, and then home: which was very sad.

A trip to these extraordinary islands combines well with Central America: Mexico, perhaps, or Guatemala. We flew in from Belize, believing ourselves to be heading for the Honduran capital, but discovering on arrival that the plane had come to La Ceiba instead. No matter, there was a flight to our chosen island, Utila, in the morning. We were put up in a hotel, where we were entertained by a very drunk man playing passionate songs to a guitar. When we boarded our tiny plane he was driving it.

Utila, one of three main Bay Islands, is as you imagine America's old Deep South. There is one dirt street, lined with clapperboard houses in pastel shades. There is a bar called the Bucket of Blood. There is the smell of cinnamon and baking in the street. There are shops where flour and rice are weighed out of wooden vats while dough is kneaded on the counter.

We were recommended to Miss Trudy's guest house, which stands on stilts over the sea. It was bucketing down, and Miss Trudy took us into her kitchen and made corn fritters. It is said that the people of Utila are descended from pirates. Miss Trudy, who had never been further than La Ceiba and was, I think, in her sixties, had curly ginger hair and an Irish accent.

Our room had wooden walls painted soft green and blue. We slept to the gentle slap of the water beneath us. It cost £2.50 a night. Dinner in a restaurant nearby was 50p. We paid a Canadian called Rik $100 (£65) to teach us scuba-diving from scratch. There were so few visitors, he gave us his undivided attention, taking us through rocky corridors, over underwater precipices and untouched coral. He said it was the best diving he'd seen anywhere in the world.

One night we decided to camp out on one of the uninhabited nearby cays. Five of us paid a fisherman to take us there in his boat and come back the following morning. The weather seemed fine when he left. An hour later rain was lashing down and the palms were bent horizontal. We lit a fire and opened a flagon of rum. In the morning the sky was clear and the sun was hot. Our desert island, transformed, was ringed with white sand and a vodka-clear sea in which we swam off our hangovers until the boat arrived. Oh Bliss, oh joy. Who needs a big hotel called Hedonism? !