Run up the flag, I fancy a peeled grape

Petulant and rude, Colin Tennant's behaviour in the recent television documentary
The Man Who Bought Mustique threatened to cloud our cherished notions of paradise islands in the Caribbean.

Petulant and rude, Colin Tennant's behaviour in the recent television documentary The Man Who Bought Mustique threatened to cloud our cherished notions of paradise islands in the Caribbean.

If 30 years of sybaritic beach and boat activity round the world's most beautiful shores, and half-a-lifetime of long drinks with rock and real royalty, can make a man so disagreeable, then perhaps Eden is a dangerous place to stay.

It is true that the more inaccessible the island, the richer and more demanding the guests tend to be. But take heart, many of the rich have given up their days of exotic rum-laced fruit cocktails in favour of quiet, Himalayan Rejuvenation and Energy Therapy.

On Canouan, the next island to Mustique in the Grenadines, the Carenage Bay Beach and Golf Club is full of guests lining up for treatments from an Amazonian health diva who uses ancient recipes of clay and jungle plants and fruits in her treatments. What once went in the drinks now gets rubbed into the backsides. Caribtours (tel: 020-7581 3517; net: features the Carenage Bay on Canouan. Seven nights' room-only with return flights room costs from £1,403.

And still, undeniably, small islands unvisited by mass tourism are the stuff of the imagination - every smudge of sand with a palm tree lets us believe we are explorers in a ravishing new world.

Petit St Vincent, also in the Grenadines, is a good example. PSV, the smallest island in the group, is a private 113-acre retreat reached by dashing white motorboat from Union Island (that has air links to Barbados). The island is run by a US expat called Haze Richardson, whose staff whisk arriving guests to the 22 villas scattered discreetly across the beach and on the bluff overlooking the water.

Privacy is the valuable currency on this island. You can get close to someone in your double hammock - which comes as standard on your secluded deck - but you won't be interrupted by phone or badly timed visits from room service. When you want a drink, or a lobster salad, or a freshly peeled grape, you pad over to the bamboo flagpole in the garden and run up a yellow flag. Soon a butler in a Mini Moke will be at your service. If you want to be left alone, hoist the red flag.

The big treat from PSV however is a boat trip out to the Tobago Cays - four blips of uninhabited white sand in stripey seas of pale blue and turquoise. The Cays, which have been declared a wildlife reserve by the government, are protected by Horseshoe Reef, which is wonderful for snorkelling and diving and a great favourite with yachties. Caribbean Connection (tel: 01244 355300) organises holidays to PSV, a week's full-board costs from £2,240 including return flights.

Tobago itself deserves to be billed in with best small islands. Just a whisker away from its louder, more rumbustious neighbour, Trinidad, this is an island of guaranteed peace for 50 weeks of the year. At Mardi Gras it is a different story - then the mild islanders, whose local drink is a kind of ginger beer called Mauby, are dressin' up and jumpin' wild. Tobago, visitors soon realise, is a piece of South America broken free - the birdlife, claimed by so many islands, really is spectacular here. Okay, there may be glass-bottomed boat trips to view the reef from Pigeon Point and a new Hilton resort may be on its way. But spoiled? Emphatically not.

Caribbean Expressions (tel: 020-7431 2131) has holidays to Coco Reef resort near the famous Pigeon Point beach. A week's b&b, including return flights, costs from £900.

It was from a yacht that I first saw Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. The 40-footer was owned and skippered by a couple of hoteliers from the West Midlands. Tim and Margaret had tired of their tidy, well-appointed hotel, bought a boat, sailed it out from Florida and, as it were, taken their shoes off for ever.

Jost, named after a Dutch explorer, is a four-mile rugged volcanic spit studded with the ruins of sugar mills.

About 150 people live there permanently, mostly in Great Harbour and clustered around the Customs House and the Methodist Church. Travel to other parts of the island, and to the castaway-perfect Sandy Cay, is mostly by water taxi. In winter you can watch whales and dolphins from the top of the hill - a gentle hike of just over 100ft. Chilling-out is the main island pastime, with several idiosyncratic bars to choose from.

There's only one hotel on the island, the Sandcastle on White Bay, and that's really just a set of wood-framed cabanas on the beach. Other accommodation is in villas and studios dotted round the island. British Virgin Island Holidays (tel: 01279 656111) organises holidays to Sandcastle on JVD. Seven nights in a cottage, with return flights, costs from £825.

Jost van Dyke is a short cruise, and a world away, from Necker, Richard Branson's fantasy island. Surrounded by a complicated reef that is the world's most aesthetically appealing security system, Necker is approached only by experienced boatmen who make the crossing from Tortola airport - although some guests arrive by helicopter.Up to 24 people can gather as a house party with a member of staff per guest, champagne on tap, and plenty of water toys prepared for them (inside the reef) by attentive water boys.

Occasionally, individual couples are invited (1 to 8 September, 10 to 17 November this year). An astonishing $12,000 (£8,300) per couple buys a week on the island and freedom of the Great House (bamboo, big sofas, wooden vaulted ceiling) and what is, without doubt, one of the Caribbean's most amazing swimming pools, perched panoramically over the sea. But don't forget your Prada beachbag. Contact the sales office (tel: 0207 313 6109).

Some small Caribbean islands distinguish themselves as much below the water as above it. Little Cayman and Cayman Brac are the two smaller siblings to the much larger and busier Grand Cayman, just over an hour's flight from Miami. There are more than 40 professional dive operations through the islands, which are actually peaks of an undersea mountain called the Cayman Ridge.

Divers who want to avoid the crowds take a plane to Brac. Not only does Brac have very good "wall diving" (which can be quite scary since its means that shallow water of 30ft suddenly gives way to a 6,000ft dark-blue abyss) but it has the wreck of the MV Capt Keith Tibbetts. The large numbers of divers and deep sea fishermen give the place a sense of energy and purpose, too - with none of Mr Tennant's malice in wonderland. Harlequin (tel: 01708 850300) features the Brac Reef Beach Resort. A week, room-only, costs from £897, including return flights.

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