With its fine beaches, azure seas and party culture, Antigua is a yachting mecca, says Matt Warren

It is a no news day in Antigua. The scandal of a stolen pavement dominates the headlines of the island's Daily Observer newspaper, and as the morning sun cuts its course through a cyan sky, little looks set to change before tomorrow. A pinprick in a painted ocean, Antigua is the island where nothing happens and no one seems to care.

It is a no news day in Antigua. The scandal of a stolen pavement dominates the headlines of the island's Daily Observer newspaper, and as the morning sun cuts its course through a cyan sky, little looks set to change before tomorrow. A pinprick in a painted ocean, Antigua is the island where nothing happens and no one seems to care.

Talk aboard the yachts in English Harbour is of hurricane season, the one explosive piece of Caribbean news that no one chooses to ignore. The fanfare of the island's regatta is over, the champagne has been popped, sipped and spilled, and the canapés are now settling onto expanding end-of-season waistlines. With the big winds brewing somewhere over the guts of the Atlantic, the island's itinerant yachties are finally calling time on their hangovers and planning their escape.

But there's some sailing in the season yet. As we roll out of harbour in Twilight, with two bikini-clad blondes - a requirement for this sort of thing - on deck and a sticky daub of zinc cream across our noses, the breeze skirls up behind our bows and drags the horizon in to meet us.

Antigua, a halfway house on the drawn-out necklace of the Leeward and Windward Islands, is a playground for all those who crave salt in their hair and the wind in their face. There's a beach for every day of the year and a harbour for every fancy. Tiny yachts skit through knots of whitewashed gin palaces, and siren rivers of rum and blue curaçao lure their crews ashore come sundown.

But that comes later. We head out from English Harbour before cutting north along the coast. The seas turn inky and the breeze finds its poke. As the wind pushes us into a tight lean and we slice headlong through the galloping white horses, it is clear that we are in for a rough ride. Eggs break out of their packaging and spatter the galley as rum bottles chime and chink. Before long, Paddy the skipper, like everyone else, has one hand on deck and the other on a bucket, barking orders through clenched teeth and rolling eyes. The painted ocean, it seems, has gone all Pollock.

Three hours later though and we are dropping anchor off Green Island, an abandoned swoosh of sand and forest in a swathe of silent ocean. The water is clean as chlorine and the nausea has passed even before we blow the froth from the first beer. Within minutes of dropping a line overboard we have landed a brace of plump and toothy snapper.

"It's the chicken, they love it here," says the skipper, discussing the relative merits of fish bait. "You don't want the good free-range stuff though. Nope, these fish like the cheapest American muck you can get. If there was a KFC nearby they'd be going crazy."

A zebra boat docks 100 yards off our flanks. Flying a South African flag and sporting a black-and-white-stripe paint job, RUSH (a misleading acronym for Rest Until Something Happens) drifts into view like a piratical apparition, oozing ominous intent and the promise of rum-fuelled hedonism.

RUSH's skipper, Phil, is as wild as the waves out at sea and is travelling with his wife and young son. He has paid for four years of Caribbean sailing by making jewellery in a fully functional workshop at the front of his boat. By nightfall, after an active afternoon's windsurfing and a gut-busting evening of barbecued fish and icy daquiris, we are attempting high-speed beach landings in his powerful inflatable. As the campfire fades, we all collapse, soaking wet and sleepy, under an umbrella of equatorial stars. Giant hermit crabs scuttle in the sand nearby.

The pavement slabs are still missing the following day and news is of the weather. Squalls are scheduled for the afternoon and as the black, swirling towers stack up on the horizon, I leave the boat with my partner for a dose of Antigua's secondary speciality - luxury. It is just as well. As we sip rum cocktails that night on a soda-white private beach at Galley Bay, Twilight, abandoned to the elements with her skipper, vanishes into a wall of rain. Even in the Caribbean, landlubbing has its place.

The beautiful docks of Antigua's English Harbour may once have played host to a seemingly endless cascade of British naval galleons and crown-sponsored privateers, but time, like last orders at a yacht club happy hour, was finally called on the Empire's Caribbean exploits. Well, most of them anyway. Twenty five miles south-east of Antigua, the Union Jack still flutters over the minuscule, smoking dot of Montserrat - our next destination.

The flag is looking a little ashen today. In 1995, Montserrat's giant Soufriere Hills Volcano began to stir once again, and the following years brought hell to this island heaven. The peak burped thundering plumes of white-hot ash over the southern half of the island and digested its one-time capital, Plymouth. The volcano's temper is once again in remission, but Plymouth, still petrified in a slick of dust and rubble, has become the Caribbean Pompeii.

It must now be the quietest city on earth. Rooftops loom out of a sea of white ash, beer bottles sit on tables where they were abandoned mid-tipple and seven-year-old newspapers still flutter down empty streets. An exclusion zone around the former capital prevents residents from returning to their properties and so Plymouth, like a fly in amber, sits outside time, a monument and a tombstone. Even the ghosts, it seems, have moved on.

"This used to be one of the Caribbean's prettiest golf courses," says Janine, scuffing designer pumps through the ash. "The eighteenth hole was somewhere under that pile of rubble and you can still see the club house over there." Two hundred yards away, a battered rooftop rises out of an arcing drift of dust. Seabirds skirl overhead and a thin cloud of ash - the wake of an approaching car - drifts up to meet them, eddying in the breeze.

But, as the tourist office's slogan now reads, Montserrat is "Still Here, Still Nice". This is an understatement, and residents and tourists alike are returning in droves. The greens of Montserrat are from God's own palate and its rainforest throbs with life and health. On the back of the volcano is one of the Caribbean's most beautiful and unspoilt islands, a micro-nation where the governor tips you a wink as you pass and where staying in a hotel means dining at the family table.

Montserrat measures only 39.5 square miles, rather more than it did before the eruption, but never has it been so easy to get lost in a back yard. Trails cut through the thick forest and we soon lose our way among the canyons of swaying grass and knots of wild banana and mango groves. Giant butterflies bounce through the soggy air and lizards skit through the brush. On the distant horizon, the shadow of Antigua is vanishing into a squall. After an hour of patrolling dead ends, we rediscover the path but half wish we hadn't. There's nothing threatening about Montserrat's forest, it rather feels like home.

The trip back across the rolling waves - a menagerie of flying fish, dolphins and banks of spume - takes us into St.John's, Antigua's capital. The cruise ships, some containing more tourists than the town has residents, are stacked up along the dock and the duty-free stores are buzzing with lobster-red sunsoakers, cameras swinging and visors pulled down low against the searching midday sun.

We take to a jeep and set off across the island, this time by road. Antigua is a two-tier structure - its coastline is peppered with yachts, yacht clubs and villas, while its interior is markedly third world. Wooden shacks line the roadside, goats stray across the patchy grass verges and potholes swallow up the rusting carcasses of abandoned cars. Reggae still provides the soundtrack here and life moves at a slow, stuttered pace. Ironically, only the backfiring buses, burping caustic, low-octane fumes and daubed with unsettling slogans like "Death on Four Wheels" and "Danger Boy", ever shift into anything like top gear.

Twilight sails out of port that evening, headed for her hurricane season harbour in Trinidad. Meanwhile, we cram into Antigua's throbbing airport to cast back the pre-flight cocktails. There are a few damp eyes as the plane bounces over the beaches and out to sea, but despite the pavement thieves still being at large we can rest assured that Antigua will look much the same when we return next season.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies non-stop to Antigua from London Gatwick five days a week. A return flight costs from £527. Other operators include Virgin Atlantic (08705 747474; www.virgin-atlantic.com), which flies from Gatwick and BWIA West Indies Airways (0870 499 2942; www.bwia.co.uk) which flies twice a week from Heathrow. Alternatively you can fly via the US with American Airlines (08457 789789; www.americanairlines.co.uk) and Continental (0845 607 6760; www.continental.com). For discounted deals, contact Trailfinders (020-7938 3939; www.trailfinders.com).

Daily ferries link St Johns in Antigua with Montserrat. Returns cost $75 (£47).

WHERE TO STAY

Galley Bay offers all-inclusive packages with plenty of trimmings. Double rooms start at $600 (£375) per night full board.

The St James's Club offers mid-range comfort at a mid-range price. Double rooms start at $250 (£156) per night full board. For the latest rates or to make a reservation at either resort, contact Elite Island Resorts (0870 160 9645; www.eliteislandresorts.com).

WHEN TO GO

The hurricane season runs from June-September. Otherwise, Antigua has hot, dry weather year-round.

FURTHER INFORMATION

For more info on Antigua, contact the Antigua & Barbuda Tourist Office (020-7486 7073; www.antigua-barbuda.com).

For details of Antigua Sailing Week, held at the end of April/early May and the island's biggest event, visit www.sailingweek.com.

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