Next time you read that a place possesses 365 somethings, allow a whiff of scepticism to waft in with the breezy prose. York, I have been assured, has 365 pubs; and precisely 365 river irrigate the island of Dominica.

The implication is simple: that so numerous is the resource, you could visit a different one every day for a year (and, in leap years, still have 24 hours left over). My reservations are twofold. First, I never read of a destination bestowed with 364 or 367 of a particular asset, and suggest that a certain amount of rounding goes on. Second, the fact that an item occurs with the frequency of the number of days in the year is not automatically a Good Thing. Indeed, I have no wish ever to set foot again in some pubs in York. So learning that Antigua has 365 beaches provoked a degree of cynicism, particularly since sources disagree about whether or not the total is reached with the help of the island's smaller sibling, Barbuda.

I could have set out to count every single arc of shimmering silver. But this week the weather in the Caribbean has been so glorious (highs in the mid-80s, lows just 10 degrees less), that instead I accepted the notion that there are plenty of them - and went off to enumerate Antigua's other blessings.

Every country, however modest, needs a capital. St John's is a cheerfully dilapidated sort of place, spruced up just enough to look passable for the cruise ship visitors - a quarter-million last year. A more alluring statistic, though, is tucked just inside the door of the island's museum. Pride of place is given to the bat that Viv Richards used for his record- breaking century off 56 deliveries in a test match in 1986. Alongside it - and looking sorry for itself - is the cricket ball that took the punishment, so bruised as to resemble an over-ripe passion fruit.

Besides emphasising the long-term cricketing superiority of the West Indies, the museum makes the British visitor smile, and frown. The good cheer is thanks to the refreshingly straightforward nature of the stout old court house that has been converted into a place of learning about the island. The story of Antigua from the turmoil of its volcanic origins to that tempestuous Viv Richards innings is traced out in a series of approachable exhibits. You could scoot around in 10 breezy minutes - or stay all morning to soak up the whole sad story.

That is where the frown comes in. The dreadful crimes perpetrated by the Europeans against the original inhabitants, and later against the slaves imported from Africa, hit particularly hard in Antigua. The roots of Eastern Caribbean independence arose as a reaction to especially harsh treatment on the island's plantations. The planters, and the sugar, have long dissolved against a background of unfavourable trade. Today, the bittersweetness of upmarket tourism is the source of the island's energy. Colonialism can take many forms.

You emerge from the museum, blinking, into the high Caribbean noon, a little wiser and a lot more humble. Anyone without a skin as thick as sugar cane will immediately feel anxious about the reaction of local people to outsiders. Which makes the reality - that Antiguans are open, generous and welcoming hosts - all the more gratifying. The ties with Britain are sturdy, too. I hitched a ride with Charles, who was born on the island but had spent 33 years of his working life in Tottenham - as long as he could last without tasting the soothing, salty air that dances through the streets of St John's.

He told me the hurricane season this year passed without serious damage in Antigua, a relief after the assault by Hurricane Lus in 1995. From some of the reports at the time, you might have concluded that the island had been blown so far off course that it was currently lost in the Bermuda Triangle. But the damage was rapidly repaired in time for the main tourist season. Bermuda shorts are back in town.

So are the "retail opportunities" that multiply around any Caribbean port. Avoid Little Switzerland (a watch shop, not a series of Alp-like humps) and the King's Casino, in favour of ambling past the outsized Anglican cathedral that disproportionately dominates St John's. Keep going until you see the following message:

"Go to school. Study hard. Try to become a hero."

These stern words adorn a hoarding above the gentle frenzy of commerce that comprises the town market. Trade takes the form of heroic, staccato yells. They slice cleanly through the rumble of diesel (the site doubles as a bus station) and the thud of bass guitar riffs that boom out of passing cars - 1.8-litre ghetto-blasters.

Centre stage in this throng are the fruits coaxed patiently from the land. Antigua is smaller than the Isle of Wight, yet from some viewpoints the countryside goes on for ever. Forget that you are never more than seven miles from one of those 365 beaches, and plough across the heart of the island to touch the real texture of Antigua.

First, choose your weapon. This is how an Antiguan second-hand car dealer must feel as he takes buyers around the showroom. The people of Antigua are unfailingly polite - until they get behind the wheel of a vehicle. I had originally read the 40mph signs as signifying a maximum speed, but many drivers appear to regard this as either a bare minimum or an outright challenge.

The excitement goes up a notch as soon as there is some obstruction, when the drive-on-the-left rule is suspended. Skoda pick-ups (I promise you there is such a vehicle) clash with smoked-glass Japanese minibuses that barrel around the island, and any bystander unwise enough to be walking along the road must be prepared to jump into a ditch at a moment's notice.

You will probably think me foolish to confess that last Tuesday I rented a bicycle to take my two-wheeled place in this mobile circus. Indeed, in 40 miles of cycling I was forced off the road three times. But, if you remember, last Tuesday in Britain the blizzards were beginning to bite. In Antigua, my only complaint about the weather was that the sun was perhaps impossibly shiny and the sky a shade too improbably blue.

A bike bestows the freedom to take Antigua at its own pace. You get heckled plenty, in the cheeriest of manners, from villagers who think the sight of a honky on a bike is a hoot - or at least a change from the Jeep-swerving tourists.

I unwound through the island, past prairie landscapes speckled with cattle and framed by scraggy escarpments and that sharp ultramarine sky. A long- overturned car quietly rusted into this wilderness, as plants flexed their tentacles around the rotting steel hulk. The whole scene demanded a health warning at the foot of the foreground - because it looked as if the Marlboro Man was expected to trot along at any moment.

He didn't show. But if he had, the two women toasting corn cobs against the pastel-yellow backdrop of their none-up, two-down timber home would have been ready with elevenses. Antigua is one long snack-opportunity: corn here, coconut there, an occasional curried goat served in unnerving proximity to the live, unspiced version. My favourite roadside stop was the Your Home Town Luncheonette. If only it were.

After a while you begin to discern the concise construction of every Antiguan village. The sturdiest structure in each hamlet is the church, a stark import among the cluster of diminutive homes. These bungalows are mostly wood, with a lattice of shutters that makes each one as well ventilated as a Eurotunnel freight wagon. Children bicker gently (pausing to smirk and wave at the cyclist), while notices warn of the community rules: "Loiterers," threatened one sign, "will be persecuted." Fearing the Antiguan equivalent of a Fatwah, I pedalled on.

From tip to toe of this concise island takes 90 minutes. You know you are nearing the end when the scattering of trees on the horizon is augmented by the geometric precision of yacht masts.

English Harbour is still an accurate name for the ample bay that subdues Caribbean storms, and provides shelter for around 100 yachts. Within the sanctum of Nelson's Dockyard, you hear plenty of British voices among the boat-owners, supplemented by American and Australian accents. But you notice more the bold Georgian architecture that turns the ensemble into a most characterful marina.

Two centuries ago, Antigua had a parallel role to its position today: hub for the Caribbean. Nowadays aircraft home in on the island; but as the 18th century gave way to the 19th, this was the base for the British navy in the region.

Horatio Nelson was a frequent visitor, though on one occasion he became so ill before departure for Britain, he ordered a cask of rum to be placed on board to preserve his body should he die. An exhibition of naval paraphernalia includes old dockyard furniture scarred by ancient graffiti, and Nelson's telescope.

You can turn a blind eye to tourism by scrambling along to the end of the peninsula, across rocks strewn with pregnant-looking Turk's head cacti. The lazy arm of the sea wall flicks out into the Caribbean, while the shoulder merges with a gaunt cliff. The skewed strata of rich red rocks takes a pounding from the sea, and melts into a series of jagged crescents. I thought: I hope they're not regarded as beaches.

And then I counted my blessings.

Antigua survival guide

On call: this month, Antigua acquires a new dialling code. The old 001 809 country code is replaced by 001 268. This should be followed by the seven-digit number. Antigua is four hours behind the UK (noon in London is 8am in St John's).

Getting there: British Airways and BWIA operate non-stop flights from Gatwick and Heathrow respectively. Official fares cost around pounds 920 return; cheaper tickets are widely available for around pounds 500 return through discount agents such as the Caribbean Reunion Club (0171-344 0101). Some long-stay specials for as little as pounds 249 for seats in charter flights. Prices rise sharply over Christmas.

Getting in: British citizens need only a valid passport to be admitted for short visits.

Getting out: departure tax of EC$30 (pounds 7) is payable at the airport.

Package holidays: numerous tour operators, including Thomson, Kuoni and British Airways Holidays, offer inclusive packages in Antigua, using either scheduled flights, or charters on airlines such as Britannia and Caledonian Airways. From Thomson (0990 502399), a fortnight in February at the Club Antigua costs around pounds 1,250, including flights from Gatwick or Manchester.

Getting around: bus services are frequent on most routes, if scary. Simon Calder rented a mountain bike from Cycle Krazy in St John's (463 9253) for pounds 9 a day. The best, though dated, map is published by Ordnance Survey at pounds 6.

Staying healthy: besides the risk of road accidents, the most significant threat is from the intense sun in the middle of the day.

Cashing up: the currency in Antigua is the Eastern Caribbean dollar (EC$), shared with seven other nearby nations. The bank rate this week was: pounds 1 = EC$4.30 and US$1 = EC$2.75. The US dollar is readily acceptable everywhere - but at a disadvantageous rate compared with what you can get at a bank.

Seeing sights: the Museum of Antigua in St John's opens daily except Sunday; a donation of EC$5 is requested. Nelson's Dockyard is open daily, admission EC$6.50.

Mast see: the big event is Sailing Week, 27 April-3 May.

Further information: Antigua High Commission, 15 Thayer Street, London W1M 5LD (0171-486 7073).