Travel: The complete guide to the Eastern Caribbean

If the Caribbean is the ultimate luxury travel destination, then the islands at the eastern end of the chain offer a glorious pick-and- mix of its attractions. Whether you're looking for the perfect white-sand beach, superb diving in crystal-clear waters, a steamy rainforest adventure or something for all the family, the Eastern Caribbean, from Anguilla down to Trinidad, is the ideal place to get away from it all. But where should you go? And how should you get about? Here, Rhiannon Batten tells you all you need to know, and offers a complete island-hoppers guide

WHERE SHOULD I START?

On the beach, of course. Coral connoisseurs should make for Anguilla which, along with St Martin, claims to have some of the best stretches of white sand in the Caribbean, notably at Shoal Bay East. Further south, the Grenadines are also a good bet. Fantastic beaches in this area include Salt Whistle Bay on Mayreau, Casuarina Beach on Palm Island and - if you've got a boat to explore them - the picture-perfect Tobago Cays. Elsewhere in the East Caribbean, most islands - including Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St Barts, St Lucia and Tobago - have a decent golden sand beach or two and, though not all may be particularly spectacular, they're usually easy to get to and have a beach bar and other useful facilities close by. Unfortunately, litter is becoming a big problem on some beaches - especially after heavy rains - but, if you just want to swim, most hotels have a pool where you can cool off in the water and keep dehydration at bay under the shade of a colourful cocktail umbrella.

WHAT IF I DON'T WANT TO LIE ON THE BEACH?

Each island is just that bit different from the others (see At A Glance); some are perfect for beach bums, others for divers, day-trippers, historians or sailors. So simply plan your itinerary around what you fancy doing and, when you've been there and done that, move on.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

With ease. Flights from the UK take about eight hours. British Airways (0345 222111) flies direct from London Gatwick to Antigua, St Lucia, Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad. Fares cost pounds 326 (including tax) in September and October but go up to pounds 950 in December. British West Indian Airways (0171- 745 1100) flies from London Heathrow to the same destinations except Grenada. Current fares cost pounds 320 including tax but these will go up to over pounds 500 in July and August and at Christmas.

Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747) is the other carrier to the East Caribbean and flies from London Gatwick to Barbados, St Lucia and Antigua for between pounds 320 and pounds 600, depending on the season. Book as soon as possible since availability is expected to be low over the millennium.

Charter flights are also available from Gatwick and Manchester, mostly catering for inclusive-tour customers of companies such as (First Choice, 0990 010203), Airtours (01706 260000) and Thomson (0990 502580). If you're on a budget, last-minute bucket-shop fares to fill up seats on these flights can be as little as pounds 150 return.

The best fares are generally available between May and October - excluding July and August - and, although this is the time of year when the air is humid and you're more likely to see rain (or, if you're very unlucky, a hurricane), there is still plenty of sunshine.

It's also a pleasant time to be in the Caribbean; it's less crowded than the November to April period, there are good deals on hotels and car hire and you get to see the "real" side of island life, when the locals reclaim their territory and celebrate with carnivals and street parties. Be warned, though, that hotels often close for repairs in September.

SO HOW DO I GET AROUND THE ISLANDS?

There are two basic choices; to fly or to go by boat. If you're flying, there are two main options. LIAT (which stands for Leeward Islands Air Transport or, unofficially, Leave At Any Time - usually early rather than late) flies to most of the islands on a set route (to travel from St Vincent to St Lucia, for example, you have to go via Barbados, adding 90 minutes to your journey time) and has a range of airpasses or will give a hefty discount on the total cost of a round-trip journey. BWIA (0171-745 1100) also does inter-island flights but travels to fewer islands. In addition, some islands have small airlines that do short-hop flights for less than pounds 30 one-way.

If you've got more time, sailing can be a fun way to get between the islands. There are several ferries each week between most of the larger islands and a passenger/ cargo boat, the Windward, that sails once a week between St Lucia and Venezuela, stopping off at Barbados, St Vincent and Trinidad in both directions along the way (call Windward Lines in Barbados for details: 00 1 246 431 0449).

If you're a seasoned sailor, the Caribbean is an ideal yachting destination. Not only are there excellent facilities for yachters and plenty of companies that deal in chartering boats (either with or without a crew), the real advantage is that you get to reach the parts the crowds can't - and, if you don't like it there, to move on straight away. If you share a boat with a group of friends it can also be an affordable way to see the area.

Two of the more well-known yacht charter companies operating in the East Caribbean are Swan Charters in Southampton (01703 454880) and Sunsail in Portsmouth (01705 222222). In November, prices range from about pounds 500 to pounds 1,500 per person for a one-week charter, depending on the size of boat and whether you include a cook and a skipper. Sunsail also does packages that include flights from the UK.

Once you're where you want to be, the islands are small enough to get around easily either on foot or by road. There are bus services on almost all the islands but these are often irregular and, if you want to avoid the expense of taxis, hiring a car is often a cheaper way to see the sights (although the English speaking islands often require you to buy a temporary local driver's licence for around pounds 10).

ISN'T THAT A BIT HECTIC?

If you like the idea of having a base but fancy seeing more than one island, cruising could be the answer. It certainly gets you around without having to do lots of planning, luggage-lugging or spend hours at airports and ferry terminals. Plus, meals are usually included so it can end up being an economical way to travel. Deciding which to book is really a case of which islands you want to visit and how much you want to pay. A typical one-week Thomson cruise in July would cost pounds 859 per person including flights, port charges, taxes, full board and tips. It would call at five or six islands (booked through Lunn Poly on 01203 223300). On top of this you would pay for drinks and shore excursions but a late deal booked through the same company for a similar trip could cost pounds 250 less. For more information on cruises, consult the Complete Guide to Cruising (Berlitz, pounds 14.95).

And, if the idea of cruising doesn't appeal, there are day-trips available on many islands. One of the most popular is from Bequia in the Grenadines to Mustique. A day sail on the catamaran, Passion, costs $65 (pounds 45) and includes a three-hour stop on Mustique, a stop for snorkelling and as many rum punches as you can swig (00 1 784 458 3884 to book). Alternatively, you could book a package holiday that includes several islands or a hotel and cruise combination, such as British Airways Holidays Tailor Made on 0870 608 2233 or British Airways Holidays Cruise and Stay on 0870 2424 245). A two-week Tailor Made package in July, taking in three islands would cost around pounds 1,000 per person including flights, transfers and room- only accommodation.

When planning an itinerary, remember that each time you leave an island by air you have to pay departure tax and that currencies vary throughout the region. Most islands accept US dollars but the French islands use French francs, the former British islands the East Caribbean dollar, the Dutch islands the Netherlands Antilles Guilder, Barbados the Barbados dollar and Trinidad & Tobago the Trinidad & Tobago dollar.

WHERE SHOULD I STAY?

Camping facilities are rare - and, in the heat, not particularly appealing - but villas can be rented through the relevant tourist office. Hotel accommodation is the norm and there are plenty of hotels to choose from, the majority with good facilities, a swimming pool and a restaurant.

Expect to pay between pounds 25 -60 for a double room, except in the summer months, when rates are often discounted by 10 per cent and hotel staff are sometimes willing to barter. In the busy winter months booking is advisable but, whenever you go, be prepared for additional tax and service rates to appear on your bill.

The Eastern Caribbean is really a place for indulgence though and, if you can afford to splurge, there are some spectacular hotels to snuggle down in. The best of the bunch include: The Frangipani Hotel, Bequia (pounds 20 - pounds 100 per room per night, 00 1 784 458 3255), the quintessential Caribbean hote, all white-painted wood, with fresh flowers every day and the juiciest mango tree on the island; The Cotton House, Mustique (pounds 370 - pounds 625 per room per night, 00 1 784 456 477) if you want to mingle with the stars (neighbours include Tommy Hilfiger and Mick Jagger) - and you've got the money to pay for it; Palm Island Resort, the Grenadines (pounds 520 - pounds 830 per room per night, all-inclusive, 00 1 561 994 5640) a private island that includes one of the world's best beaches, and which is due to re- open in November; K Club, Barbuda (pounds 600 - pounds 1500 per room per night, including meals, 00 1 268 4600 300), designed by Italian fashion designer Mariuccia `Krizia' Mandell; and Le Toiny, St Barts (pounds 350 to pounds 620 per room per night, 00 590 27 88 88), an architectural rum punch of Martinique plantation house and sleek French interiors.

WHAT ABOUT THE KIDS?

Although many hotels are strictly couples only, the cheap Caribbean package deals that are available now mean that many people travel to the region with children and it can be a great place to do so. The beaches are very user-friendly and facilities and infra-structure are good. In the big hotels, there are often special facilities and activities for children. If you're island-hopping it can be fun travelling on small planes and boats and there's often a chance for older children to learn to sail, windsurf, dive or any of the other activities available to parents.

IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE I SHOULD KNOW?

For more information on individual islands, the relevant UK Tourist Office can be very helpful in advising on both travel and accommodation. For the smaller islands, get in touch with the Caribbean Tourism Organisation at 42 Westminster Palace Gardens, Artillery Row, London SW1P 1RR (0171- 222 4335).

Useful guide books include the Lonely Planet guide to the Eastern Caribbean (pounds 11.99) and the Footprint Caribbean Islands Handbook (pounds 14.99).

Alternatively, you could get surfing on the Internet. For general information you could try www.cpscaribnet.com but many Caribbean tour, boat and hotel companies also have their own websites.

AT A GLANCE

Near the top of the chain, the small island of St Martin is half French, half Dutch and attracts crowds with beaches, restaurants and designer shops. Close by is St Barts, a French island that's popular with wealthy Europeans, that flock here in the winter seeking a sun-kissed Caribbean look to take back home with them. Heading south, Guadeloupe is also French and has an interesting Creole culture. It's an excellent place to combine days at the beach with day trips into the jungly interior or further afield to the numerous outlying islands.

Next in the chain is Dominica, a once-British territory sandwiched between two still-French islands. Thanks to the lack of good beaches and the crumpled rain forest interior that was largely unsuitable for plantations "Nature Island", as it calls itself, has developed into an eco destination. Visitors here tend to be specialist groups; hikers, botanists and birdwatchers come to explore the verdant, tropical interior; divers come for some of the best diving in the area; others come for whale-watching trips; and, if people are more your thing, the island's main town, Roseau, is a higgledy- piggledy pastel delight.

Just further south, Martinique is more French than France - the ideal place to enjoy a coffee and croissant or to make your way inland along the windy Route de la Trace - but try not to get angry with the French- style drivers sharing the road. Like its French counterpart, Guadeloupe, it's also a good place to try windsurfing.

Nearby, St Lucia is a good all-round destination that's popular with package tourists and yachters. It's not the greatest beauty in the Caribbean but has plenty to entertain, including various day and sunset boat trips, jeep tours, trips to the pitons (volcanic mountains) and sulphur springs in the south and the Friday night Jump Up (street party) at Gros Ilet.

To the east is Barbados, another all-round (but geographically flat) kind of place and the grandpa of East Caribbean tourism, where the parties swing and the watersports are worth a try. Back west, the chain continues south through St Vincent and the Grenadines. St Vincent is one of the less touristy islands with a seedy port and an interesting history but it is well-visited as a starting point for sailing trips to the more glamorous Grenadine islands.

The first of these is Bequia (pronounced Bek-way), the yachters' favourite, where beaches, bars and boatbuilders jostle their way around the main harbour and, on the other side of the island, rich foreigners live the ex-pat lifestyle in secluded, self-designed homes.

Next up is star-studded Mustique with its quaint gingerbread buildings, quiet streets (toes and golf carts are the main mode of transport) and the waterside Basil's Bar, celebrity hangout par excellence (where else could you share such a well-graced loo seat?).

Beyond Mustique are several more islands, perhaps the most idyllic of which are the snorkel- and dive-friendly Tobago Cays and, beyond Grenada and the monuments to its spice industry, you come finally to the end of the line at Trinidad and Tobago.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

On the beach, of course. Coral connoisseurs should make for Anguilla which, along with St Martin, claims to have some of the best stretches of white sand in the Caribbean, notably at Shoal Bay East. Further south, the Grenadines are also a good bet. Fantastic beaches in this area include Salt Whistle Bay on Mayreau, Casuarina Beach on Palm Island and - if you've got a boat to explore them - the picture-perfect Tobago Cays. Elsewhere in the East Caribbean, most islands - including Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St Barts, St Lucia and Tobago - have a decent golden sand beach or two and, though not all may be particularly spectacular, they're usually easy to get to and have a beach bar and other useful facilities close by. Unfortunately, litter is becoming a big problem on some beaches - especially after heavy rains - but, if you just want to swim, most hotels have a pool where you can cool off in the water and keep dehydration at bay under the shade of a colourful cocktail umbrella.

WHAT IF I DON'T WANT TO LIE ON THE BEACH?

Each island is just that bit different from the others (see At A Glance); some are perfect for beach bums, others for divers, day-trippers, historians or sailors. So simply plan your itinerary around what you fancy doing and, when you've been there and done that, move on.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

With ease. Flights from the UK take about eight hours. British Airways (0345 222111) flies direct from London Gatwick to Antigua, St Lucia, Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad. Fares cost pounds 326 (including tax) in September and October but go up to pounds 950 in December. British West Indian Airways (0171- 745 1100) flies from London Heathrow to the same destinations except Grenada. Current fares cost pounds 320 including tax but these will go up to over pounds 500 in July and August and at Christmas.

Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747) is the other carrier to the East Caribbean and flies from London Gatwick to Barbados, St Lucia and Antigua for between pounds 320 and pounds 600, depending on the season. Book as soon as possible since availability is expected to be low over the millennium.

Charter flights are also available from Gatwick and Manchester, mostly catering for inclusive-tour customers of companies such as (First Choice, 0990 010203), Airtours (01706 260000) and Thomson (0990 502580). If you're on a budget, last-minute bucket-shop fares to fill up seats on these flights can be as little as pounds 150 return.

The best fares are generally available between May and October - excluding July and August - and, although this is the time of year when the air is humid and you're more likely to see rain (or, if you're very unlucky, a hurricane), there is still plenty of sunshine.

It's also a pleasant time to be in the Caribbean; it's less crowded than the November to April period, there are good deals on hotels and car hire and you get to see the "real" side of island life, when the locals reclaim their territory and celebrate with carnivals and street parties. Be warned, though, that hotels often close for repairs in September.

SO HOW DO I GET AROUND THE ISLANDS?

There are two basic choices; to fly or to go by boat. If you're flying, there are two main options. LIAT (which stands for Leeward Islands Air Transport or, unofficially, Leave At Any Time - usually early rather than late) flies to most of the islands on a set route (to travel from St Vincent to St Lucia, for example, you have to go via Barbados, adding 90 minutes to your journey time) and has a range of airpasses or will give a hefty discount on the total cost of a round-trip journey. BWIA (0171-745 1100) also does inter-island flights but travels to fewer islands. In addition, some islands have small airlines that do short-hop flights for less than pounds 30 one-way.

If you've got more time, sailing can be a fun way to get between the islands. There are several ferries each week between most of the larger islands and a passenger/ cargo boat, the Windward, that sails once a week between St Lucia and Venezuela, stopping off at Barbados, St Vincent and Trinidad in both directions along the way (call Windward Lines in Barbados for details: 00 1 246 431 0449).

If you're a seasoned sailor, the Caribbean is an ideal yachting destination. Not only are there excellent facilities for yachters and plenty of companies that deal in chartering boats (either with or without a crew), the real advantage is that you get to reach the parts the crowds can't - and, if you don't like it there, to move on straight away. If you share a boat with a group of friends it can also be an affordable way to see the area.

Two of the more well-known yacht charter companies operating in the East Caribbean are Swan Charters in Southampton (01703 454880) and Sunsail in Portsmouth (01705 222222). In November, prices range from about pounds 500 to pounds 1,500 per person for a one-week charter, depending on the size of boat and whether you include a cook and a skipper. Sunsail also does packages that include flights from the UK.

Once you're where you want to be, the islands are small enough to get around easily either on foot or by road. There are bus services on almost all the islands but these are often irregular and, if you want to avoid the expense of taxis, hiring a car is often a cheaper way to see the sights (although the English speaking islands often require you to buy a temporary local driver's licence for around pounds 10).

ISN'T THAT A BIT HECTIC?

If you like the idea of having a base but fancy seeing more than one island, cruising could be the answer. It certainly gets you around without having to do lots of planning, luggage-lugging or spend hours at airports and ferry terminals. Plus, meals are usually included so it can end up being an economical way to travel. Deciding which to book is really a case of which islands you want to visit and how much you want to pay. A typical one-week Thomson cruise in July would cost pounds 859 per person including flights, port charges, taxes, full board and tips. It would call at five or six islands (booked through Lunn Poly on 01203 223300). On top of this you would pay for drinks and shore excursions but a late deal booked through the same company for a similar trip could cost pounds 250 less. For more information on cruises, consult the Complete Guide to Cruising (Berlitz, pounds 14.95).

And, if the idea of cruising doesn't appeal, there are day-trips available on many islands. One of the most popular is from Bequia in the Grenadines to Mustique. A day sail on the catamaran, Passion, costs $65 (pounds 45) and includes a three-hour stop on Mustique, a stop for snorkelling and as many rum punches as you can swig (00 1 784 458 3884 to book). Alternatively, you could book a package holiday that includes several islands or a hotel and cruise combination, such as British Airways Holidays Tailor Made on 0870 608 2233 or British Airways Holidays Cruise and Stay on 0870 2424 245). A two-week Tailor Made package in July, taking in three islands would cost around pounds 1,000 per person including flights, transfers and room- only accommodation.

When planning an itinerary, remember that each time you leave an island by air you have to pay departure tax and that currencies vary throughout the region. Most islands accept US dollars but the French islands use French francs, the former British islands the East Caribbean dollar, the Dutch islands the Netherlands Antilles Guilder, Barbados the Barbados dollar and Trinidad & Tobago the Trinidad & Tobago dollar.

WHERE SHOULD I STAY?

Camping facilities are rare - and, in the heat, not particularly appealing - but villas can be rented through the relevant tourist office. Hotel accommodation is the norm and there are plenty of hotels to choose from, the majority with good facilities, a swimming pool and a restaurant.

Expect to pay between pounds 25 -60 for a double room, except in the summer months, when rates are often discounted by 10 per cent and hotel staff are sometimes willing to barter. In the busy winter months booking is advisable but, whenever you go, be prepared for additional tax and service rates to appear on your bill.

The Eastern Caribbean is really a place for indulgence though and, if you can afford to splurge, there are some spectacular hotels to snuggle down in. The best of the bunch include: The Frangipani Hotel, Bequia (pounds 20 - pounds 100 per room per night, 00 1 784 458 3255), the quintessential Caribbean hote, all white-painted wood, with fresh flowers every day and the juiciest mango tree on the island; The Cotton House, Mustique (pounds 370 - pounds 625 per room per night, 00 1 784 456 477) if you want to mingle with the stars (neighbours include Tommy Hilfiger and Mick Jagger) - and you've got the money to pay for it; Palm Island Resort, the Grenadines (pounds 520 - pounds 830 per room per night, all-inclusive, 00 1 561 994 5640) a private island that includes one of the world's best beaches, and which is due to re- open in November; K Club, Barbuda (pounds 600 - pounds 1500 per room per night, including meals, 00 1 268 4600 300), designed by Italian fashion designer Mariuccia `Krizia' Mandell; and Le Toiny, St Barts (pounds 350 to pounds 620 per room per night, 00 590 27 88 88), an architectural rum punch of Martinique plantation house and sleek French interiors.

WHAT ABOUT THE KIDS?

Although many hotels are strictly couples only, the cheap Caribbean package deals that are available now mean that many people travel to the region with children and it can be a great place to do so. The beaches are very user-friendly and facilities and infra-structure are good. In the big hotels, there are often special facilities and activities for children. If you're island-hopping it can be fun travelling on small planes and boats and there's often a chance for older children to learn to sail, windsurf, dive or any of the other activities available to parents.

IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE I SHOULD KNOW?

For more information on individual islands, the relevant UK Tourist Office can be very helpful in advising on both travel and accommodation. For the smaller islands, get in touch with the Caribbean Tourism Organisation at 42 Westminster Palace Gardens, Artillery Row, London SW1P 1RR (0171- 222 4335).

Useful guide books include the Lonely Planet guide to the Eastern Caribbean (pounds 11.99) and the Footprint Caribbean Islands Handbook (pounds 14.99).

Alternatively, you could get surfing on the Internet. For general information you could try www.cpscaribnet.com but many Caribbean tour, boat and hotel companies also have their own websites.

AT A GLANCE

Near the top of the chain, the small island of St Martin is half French, half Dutch and attracts crowds with beaches, restaurants and designer shops. Close by is St Barts, a French island that's popular with wealthy Europeans, that flock here in the winter seeking a sun-kissed Caribbean look to take back home with them. Heading south, Guadeloupe is also French and has an interesting Creole culture. It's an excellent place to combine days at the beach with day trips into the jungly interior or further afield to the numerous outlying islands.

Next in the chain is Dominica, a once-British territory sandwiched between two still-French islands. Thanks to the lack of good beaches and the crumpled rain forest interior that was largely unsuitable for plantations "Nature Island", as it calls itself, has developed into an eco destination. Visitors here tend to be specialist groups; hikers, botanists and birdwatchers come to explore the verdant, tropical interior; divers come for some of the best diving in the area; others come for whale-watching trips; and, if people are more your thing, the island's main town, Roseau, is a higgledy- piggledy pastel delight.

Just further south, Martinique is more French than France - the ideal place to enjoy a coffee and croissant or to make your way inland along the windy Route de la Trace - but try not to get angry with the French- style drivers sharing the road. Like its French counterpart, Guadeloupe, it's also a good place to try windsurfing.

Nearby, St Lucia is a good all-round destination that's popular with package tourists and yachters. It's not the greatest beauty in the Caribbean but has plenty to entertain, including various day and sunset boat trips, jeep tours, trips to the pitons (volcanic mountains) and sulphur springs in the south and the Friday night Jump Up (street party) at Gros Ilet.

To the east is Barbados, another all-round (but geographically flat) kind of place and the grandpa of East Caribbean tourism, where the parties swing and the watersports are worth a try. Back west, the chain continues south through St Vincent and the Grenadines. St Vincent is one of the less touristy islands with a seedy port and an interesting history but it is well-visited as a starting point for sailing trips to the more glamorous Grenadine islands.

The first of these is Bequia (pronounced Bek-way), the yachters' favourite, where beaches, bars and boatbuilders jostle their way around the main harbour and, on the other side of the island, rich foreigners live the ex-pat lifestyle in secluded, self-designed homes.

Next up is star-studded Mustique with its quaint gingerbread buildings, quiet streets (toes and golf carts are the main mode of transport) and the waterside Basil's Bar, celebrity hangout par excellence (where else could you share such a well-graced loo seat?).

Beyond Mustique are several more islands, perhaps the most idyllic of which are the snorkel- and dive-friendly Tobago Cays and, beyond Grenada and the monuments to its spice industry, you come finally to the end of the line at Trinidad and Tobago.

JOURNEY TO THE SOURCE: IN SEARCH OF THE ORCHID

WITH THEIR extravagant, voluptuous petals and strange growing habits (they have a penchant for clambering up the sides of tree trunks), orchids have fascinated people for centuries.

Associated with love, wealth and, sometimes, more practically, with health (they are used in various herbal remedies) the hundreds of different orchid species that exist began a massive period of popularity in the 18th century when collecting orchids became a fashionable pastime of the rich. In fact so many orchids were collected in the 18th and 19th centuries that, sadly, many species are now endangered.

To supply the glamorous hotel lobbies and urban lounges that these days make the major demand for the elegant blooms, orchids are now grown from seed in orchid houses around the world.

However, thanks to its warm and sunny climate, the Caribbean is one of the world's main orchid-producing regions and if you're visiting one of the islands, it's generally not too difficult to track down an orchid flower draping itself around an unsuspecting bough.

A good place to start is on a stroll through the area's various Botanical Gardens. At Mamiku Gardens (see the Five Best Day Trips) on St Lucia, you'll find the flowers growing happily in the sunshine - or you can ask for a tour of the neighbouring Mamiku Estate, where orchids are grown for sale at Garden Gate Flowers (Bois D'Orange, PO Box 63, Castries, St Lucia, 001758- 452 9176 or e-mail: gardengate@candw.lc). The company is planning to sell orchids individually later this year but for the moment you can buy orchids as part of an eight-flower Tropical bouquet that includes lilies and gingers for $12 (pounds 7.50). Ideal, if you plan to get married in St. Lucia, or if you're about to hop on a plane home. Otherwise you can pay extra to get them sent over to the UK via Federal Express.

Either way, it's likely to be cheaper than the pounds 35 you'd pay at Wild At Heart (Turquoise Island, 222 Westbourne Grove, London W11, 0171-727 3095) if you waited until you got home to track down a single orchid bloom.

In fact, if you bought 12 Tropical bouquets from Garden Gate Flowers and sold them to your friends in the UK, you'd have enough profit to return to St Lucia on the current pounds 320 flight from London Heathrow with British West Indian Airways (0171-745 1100) and make a start on your island-hopping itinerary.

THE FIVE BEST DAYS OUT

WATCH CRICKET

On the English-speaking islands it is hard to avoid cricket, especially during the main season, between April and September. Barbados is the most cricket-obsessed island (it even has legendary cricketer Sir Frank Worrell printed on its currency) but you'll find a match on any island. On St Vincent there's a cricket pitch right by the runway so you can while away your waiting time watching the action from the viewing gallery.

VISIT A GARDEN

Possibly the only pleasant legacy of colonial times in the Caribbean, the area's botanical gardens are ideal for taking a break from the beach. The oldest in the West Indies was built in St Vincent in 1765 and its leafy walkways include a breadfruit tree descended from a sapling that Captain Bligh brought over from Tahiti. One of the youngest is Mamiku Gardens on St Lucia, which has a traditional Caribbean garden and a cheerful cafe.

GET HITCHED

If you hop on a plane to St Lucia, you're pretty likely to bump into a bride-and-groom-to-be in the check-in queue. Most couples book packages that combine a wedding with a honeymoon but if you feel the urge while you're there, there are plenty of suitable locations (including Mamiku Gardens - see above) and it's straightforward to arrange.

TAKE PART IN CARNIVAL

The Eastern Caribbean's major festival takes place on different islands at different times. The biggest - and some say best - is in February in Trinidad and starts two days before Ash Wednesday in a frenzy of flamboyant costumes, steel bands and revelling but, if you're quick, you can catch Carnival in St Vincent and the Grenadines from 25 June.

GO SWIMMING IN THE TITOU GORGE

If the tropical heat is getting you down, the best solution lies on Dominica. Get yourself up to the Titou Gorge, where you can sink into an ice-cold pool. Swim into the gorge to the small waterfall and float back looking up at sunlight catching on giant green leaves and folds of smooth grey rock, while your head slowly goes dizzy with cold.

EAT CREOLE FOOD

La Robe Creole (open Monday to Saturday from 6pm for dinner, 00 1 767 448 2896 for bookings) is a small restaurant in Roseau, Dominica, that specialises in fresh local food. Prices are around pounds 10 to pounds 15 for shrimp, fish or steak with side vegetables or ground provisions (root vegetables, usually including dasheen and sweet potato).

GO TO A JUMP UP

A jump up is a kind of evening street party involving dancing and drinking (usually rum). Two of the best regular jump ups in the Eastern Caribbean are: the massive Friday-night jump up at Gros Ilet, St Lucia and the more intimate Thursday night bash at the Frangipani Hotel, Bequia, which includes a fantastic local buffet dinner.

DRINK RUM

Unless you've overdone it at a jump up, you can't go to the Eastern Caribbean without trying the local tipple. The islands' links to sugar cane mean that rum is free-flowing and most islands produce their own brands. Hotels give you a "welcome" rum punch, and plantation tours are easy to arrange if not (politically) to swallow. If you want to go local, ask for a T punch.

GO SAILING AT SUNSET

If you can stand the accompanying honeymooners, sunset is the time to set sail. St Lucia has one of the largest numbers of boat tours so you should shop around for a good deal. Most trips last a couple of hours and include rum punches. Remember to look for the Green Flash, the brilliant light that's supposed to appear on the horizon just as the sun sets.

FIGHT THE INSECTS

Mosquitoes and flying ants can be a real niggle, especially during the summer months when the trade winds are less prevalent. If you're the type to get bitten, slap on the insect repellent, the long trousers and whatever else you need to prepare you for battle before you set out for the evening.

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